Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Fresh Prince of West Thebes

Inspired by several sources, primarily conversations with colleagues about "putting yourself out there," and a desire to overcome my camera-shyness.

Monday, October 12, 2015

A grading selfie, from The Most Interesting High School English Professor In The World

I don't always grade composition essays with The Disney Channel blaring in the background, but when I do, it makes me touch my forehead like this...

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


The end of school has me thinking about how education should strive to teach humility as well as self-confidence.  I think these seemingly contrary qualities grow inside the individual, but it's hard for me to determine what role a school plays in their development.  I was discussing the word "humiliate" with some classes the other day, and the connotation our culture places on it.  No one wants to be humiliated... that would be so... humiliating!  A montage of slapstick scenarios are conjured in our minds, like getting de-pants-ed, etc.  I said that humiliation happens for me when I open the OED.  I feel small and humbled by the size and history of the language, and that it's (for me) a good feeling.  It's through seeking a form of humility, possibly humiliation, that I continue to open just about any book.  Must one have an intrinsic appreciation for humility as well as the confidence that the page will offer something to grow "self" in order to become a serious reader?      

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

TMNT and Me

Hey! Admittedly a work in progress... read the new version below as of 12.11.16.
I grow more ninja every day. Thanks for your love, Internet.

"Donny" by Wyatt, age 6
TMNT and Me
As an adopted child, my mother brought a common painted turtle in a bucket into my kindergarten classroom. As I remember, we were appropriately enthralled. Flash forward roughly thirty years later: as a parent myself, I decided to drive to my son’s school. It was his last day as a kindergartner at Marshallville Elementary School, and it was Marshallville Elementary School’s last day as a school. They were all set to tear it down that summer. I was home early from teaching at my own school, and, in a rush to make it to Marshallville Elementary before they closed their doors for good, I noticed a turtle stopped in the middle of the hot, black highway. He was a painted box turtle, and because of his red markings, the kids would name him Raphael. I decided to pick him up and take him into the closing school.
Time warp back to 1988. My family moved during the summer before I was to enter the fifth grade. Rather than moving twenty miles south that summer it seemed as if I had also entered a time-warp that matured children at astonishing speed. In short, all of my classmates had outgrown turtles! My new classmates were listening to bands like Great White and Young MC on their Walkman cassette players. Songs about hanging with chicks. The only chick I wanted to hang with was April O’Neil, which wasn’t saying much. That yellow jumpsuit? That hair? Besides, she liked Casey Jones. Judging by his long hair and sleeveless shirts, he was probably listening to Great White too.
The turtles were my solace during that transitional year. They represented everything I wanted to be: tough, resilient, and despite the fact that they were total outsiders, they had a great sense of humor. Everything just bounced off their shells. I was on the cusp of adolescence, and I didn’t just want to be a "Teenager." I wanted to be a "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle." They all hand jived, man, and said shit like “Awesome!” and “Bodacious!” in their identical surfer-dude voices. In those iterations the turtles were still relatively one-dimensional, but they seemed to me, the epitome of cool. Besides, the only dimension I was familiar with was Dimension X: home of Krang, the malevolent master brain.  
    The only folks that shared my opinion about the turtles were my next-door neighbors, Robert and Ryan. Robert was a grade behind me and drew turtles too. Even then he was an entrepreneur: keeping his originals and tracing copies for a dollar each. He is now partner in a successfull graphic design company called Commuter Industries in Sacramento, California. Back then Ryan seemed to appreciate the toughness of the turtles the way I did. He was a Mikey kind of guy, so we made nunchucks from the cardboard tubes on wire clothes hangers and practiced our ninja moves at dawn and dusk. At the time I couldn’t understand how such “Awesome!” behavior could add to my status as the weird new kid, but it did, and if playing with the Cheapskate during class didn’t seal the deal, constantly drawing turtles and turtle related pictures certainly did: I found myself in a new grade with no friends.           
    My teacher seemed to understand all of this somehow and began wearing a brightly colored ninja turtle wristwatch, which, in itself was awesome, and sent a straightforward message: "you are not alone."  
Don’t get me wrong, she was still capable of acts of great cruelty. 
As an avid, egocentric artist I naturally carved my name into my own desk.... an act of exquisite boldness and stupidity. My teacher, to her credit, made me walk down to the janitor’s closet, borrow a piece of sandpaper, and rub it out in front of the whole class. I thought this might disqualify me from further artistic opportunities.... incredibly, when the contest to see who could decorate the class door came around, I was chosen to draw the design. 
I chose ninja turtles, of course.
    I drew a large, turtle-themed mural complete with all four heroes and the Party Wagon, which proclaimed, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles want to be your friend.” 
It should have said, “I want to be your friend."   
    Flash forward to my first real friend, Paul: the kid that could speed read, spoke Elvish, and got A’s on everything. This boy was Krang, the master brain. We became friends after we nearly fought at the coat closet, stowing our things. He was into Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I aspired to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. We bonded through our socially doomed passions and became great allies. It seemed that the people I bonded with most deeply during childhood were those with whom I was able to share a passion. Perhaps not such a brilliant insight, but one that still defines the terms of my friendships, as I’ve found it is only through this kind of interaction that you glimpse the real amateur with whom you share a bond. To borrow from Michael Chabon’s essay “The Amateur Family,” being an amateur is all about not being afraid to disclose that which holds you in a vulnerable state of wonderment. It is only those that express a willingness to understand that wonderment, or to share their own variety, that I am ever able to truly call friend.  
Time warp back to 2013. Twenty-five years passed since I first learned and then forgot how to be an amateur. One day, on the ride home from his after-school program, my son Wyatt told me about his friend in kindergarten with whom he played ninja turtles at recess. “Do you play with anyone else?” I wondered. “No one else believes in them,” was his response, and in an instant I remembered being the original ninja turtle at my school. 
“They’re real, aren’t they dad?”
I answered the way I do all of my son’s questions that deal with wonder.
 “Of course it's real.
Raphael should have been my favorite turtle in those days when I was grappling with the relentless bully known as puberty and the shame of being an outsider, but Leonardo and Donatello were the turtles I looked up to. Leo was the one trying to make things better by coming up with a plan, or obsessively training to be the best. Deep down I wanted to be a leader, like Leo. And Donny was the smartest. Together they represented my ideal.
Most of my turtle lore came from the cartoon, the toy line, and the original movie. As a kid I got around to reading the original graphic novels, had checked them out from the library in fact, but I got caught up in petty grievances like, “but their bandannas are all red!” and “I wonder why are there so many Krang?” I absorbed the origin story, dodgy as it was, and came to hunger for the full page explosions of action. The turtles were grittier, which had to do with the style of Kevin Eastman’s illustrations: thick, black lines and heavy crosshatching. Lately I have truly enjoyed watching the Nickelodeon series with my sons, have begun obsessing over the excellent IDW comic line, and, through amateur bonds of brotherhood, have aspired to roles of leadership in my community. I still aspire to be the smartest... hahaha.
I spend a lot of time and money buying turtle toys and comics. Some are for my kids but, let’s be clear, most of them are for me. In the novel Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon writes that nostalgia is just a way to try and reclaim some part of your youth. Tragically, my neighbor and close friend Ryan committed suicide in his early twenties. I know that part of my affection for the turtles has to do with the fact that we can no longer swing nunchucks, and every time I buy an old toy we shared, I remind myself it won’t bring him back. Despite this, most of my Ebay watch list consists of retro ninja turtle gear.  
Now that I am an amateur father with two sons, the message of the turtles that speaks to me most clearly is that of the importance of family. I am in awe of the love, respect and obedience the turtles have for their “dad,” and how loyal they are to one another. In my most sentimental moments, the relationship the turtles have with Splinter reminds me of my own adopted parents, their unconditional love, and the fact that they taught me the best they knew how to survive in an imperfect world.  Now as a father, it is all I hope for my own sons: for them to see their father as a person worth obeying, to have the courage to stand up against evil, and to look out for one another no matter what dangers may lurk ahead. Some believe that cartoons and comics are at best a waste of time, or at worst, trash that rots your brain. Today Wyatt wore a policeman’s hat and a ninja turtle shirt out to dinner with the family. On the way home I overheard him telling Jonas that he would run down any bad guys that ever tried to hurt him, and that he would always be there for him. Always. He made sure to emphasize the word “always.” It makes my heart swell with pride to hear my little turtles profess such loyalty to one another, and if that’s trash, then I guess this amateur belongs in the sewer.
The kindergartners, once they had dubbed him Raphael, were very taken with the painted turtle as it reared up and attempted, unsuccessfully, to climb out of the white plastic bucket we used for a temporary home. Despite the thoughtful touches (a smooth grey rock, a bit of grass and a twig), he seemed to really dislike his new digs.  Wyatt and Jonas wanted to keep him as a pet. 
 “He belongs in the wild,” I explained.  “He’d be unhappy as our pet.” The boys were age-appropiately skeptical, but we tipped the bucket on its side and, sure enough, Raph moved with all of his touted agility and speed, like a shot really, out of the mouth of the bucket and into the water.  If you’d have blinked, you’d have missed it.  
“Maybe he’ll find a family,” my wife said.  
It was all we could hope, and as those familial possibilities grew in my children's minds, we watched the still water, and wondered.