Monthly Archives: March 2018

Symphony 111

“This is not a trial.”

“Mr. Kemble, what is your profession?”

“I’m a walnut grower.”

“I suggest that if you are going to continue in public office, even so low a public office as this, that you obtain legal counsel. The purpose of this meeting is to determine my fitness to teach at your school. Right?”

Kemble was beginning to realize that he was way out of his depth. His face started to turn red, and he answered tersely, “Yes!”

“Then you are prepared to deprive me of my livelihood and my reputation, and you say that rules of evidence don’t apply here? Mr. Kemble, wake up!”

Neil leaned back and folded his arms.

Alan Burke picked up where he had left off, but it was clear that he had lost all momentum. He said, “This meeting was called in response to parents’ requests. I will not name the individuals at this time, but the petition they gave me is here. It specifies certain crimes that Mr. McCrae is supposed to have committed in Oregon before he came here.”

Neil held out his hand. Burke ground to a halt and shook his head. Neil said, “Must I read you the sixth amendment again? Weren’t you listening the first time?” His voice dripped with sarcasm. “I will confront my accusers; their papers, their allegations, and their persons. Now give it to me.”

Burke handed the petition to him. It had been typed to less than professional standards, and there were eight signatures.  Neil read it silently, then read it again aloud.

“We have been informed by a source in Oregon that Mr. McCrae, a teacher at our school, was forced to resign from his last position because of sexual misconduct. We demand that (1) he be immediately removed from his position as a teacher of our children, (2) that a thorough investigation be made of how he came to be hired in the first place, and (3) that those responsible for hiring him be disciplined in some appropriate fashion. 

Signed:  Toni Boyd, Janice Hagstrom, Larry Whitlock, Sr., Karen Whitlock, Ramlal Kumar, George Kruger, Dana Michelson, and Maria Alvarez.

Neil looked up at the crowd. He saw Rosa’s mother there, looking grim and betrayed. Her sadness almost unmanned him, but he could not afford to be soft now. He handed the petition back to Burke and said, “Please make a photocopy for me. My lawyer will want to see it if this matter goes much further.”

“I don’t know if we can do that.”

“You’ll wish you had.” Neil’s voice had grown grim and bitter.

Burke had been interrupted twice, and twice he had lost ground. He was rapidly losing his taste for this whole matter, so he passed the buck neatly to Toni Boyd. “Mrs. Boyd,” he said, “you were the one who brought us the petition, so would you like to speak?”

Toni rose with quiet dignity and Neil’s heart went out to her. She was only trying to protect her child. The Constitution and of rules of evidence had no place in her thinking. It probably did not matter very much to her if Neil was guilty or not; the mere suspicion of guilt was enough reason to remove her child from danger. If Neil were unfairly hurt, that simply would not weigh up against the safety of her son.

Neil felt for her, but he hardened his heart against those feelings. He had understood the parents in Oregon, and had bowed to their fears. Because he had, his back was to the wall now and he had no choice but to fight as fiercely for himself as she would fight for Lee. more Monday


473. School Boards

In Symphony over in Serial, starting today and running through Tuesday, Neil is going up against his school board and a lot of angry parents.

School boards have a tough job. I wouldn’t want it.

The school board in this section of Symphony doesn’t look too impressive, on the face of things, so in fairness I have to give some context. Kiernan School, is fictional, but I tried to make everything about it as accurate as I could. I wanted it to look like the school where I taught, but with some of its attributes made more extreme.

Kiernan School is about half the size of the school in which I taught. That makes it about six times larger than the elementary school I attended in Oklahoma, a million years ago. It is in a  K-8 district with no high school.

Put all that together and it spells no money, no resources, not enough teachers, very few support staff, and a place where everybody is underpaid — even more than teachers usually are.

Under those circumstances, one of two things is likely to happen. Either you get incompetent teachers who can’t get a job anywhere else, or you get teachers so dedicated that they stay anyway. I had the good fortune of being in the latter type of school.

More to the point, my students had that good fortune. I have seen a few lousy teachers show up, but they didn’t last. You have no idea how quickly good teachers can make a bad teacher feel unwelcome.

In a school as small as Kiernan — or mine — the school board members are unlikely to be lawyers or doctors. They usually do the best they can. They make a lot of unpopular decisions because they have few real choices. When you have scarce resources, the best you can do often isn’t very good.

One of the reasons I made Kiernan so small was that no school with more resources would have taken a chance on Neil when he applied for a job. He was the best they could get, so they grabbed him. They were ready to cut their losses for the same reasons.

These school board members aren’t professionals and they are short on everything they need, but they are doing their best to make their school survive. Neil is angry at them, and he fights them, but in the end he understands and sympathizes.

So do I.

Symphony 110

You might want to check out today’s post in A Writing Life, which puts the next four Serial posts into perspective.


“What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything, Elanor. That’s what I just said.”

“I mean, what did she say you did?”

“That is between me and your parents.”

Tony Caraveli piped up, “Did she say you raped her?”

All the students in the classroom seemed to hold their breaths. Neil asked, “Do you really know what that means?”

“Sure. I watch television.”

Half a dozen students laughed, and Neil felt sadness for them that they were so wise in the evils of the world. He said, “No, she did not accuse me of that. Now let’s drop it.”

They wanted to talk more, but Neil had had more than enough.

# # #

Anger can cripple; it can destroy fluency and leave an intelligent person sounding like a stuttering fool. It can wrap itself around a man’s heart and destroy him from within. It can kill the joy of life.

Anger, carried for long enough becomes a powerful force. Turned inward, it harms its bearer. Turned outward, it can destroy those around him.

But an anger fine tuned, honed and directed by a thinking mind, can give its wielder tremendous power.

On Tuesday, March seventh, Bill Campbell wandered into Carmen’s room looking for student folders that were “missing” and “happened” to mention that the school board was meeting that night. After school, she told Neil.

For a long time, he did not respond to the news. He simply sat on her couch, staring at his hands, and there was no sound in the room but their breathing.   

When he looked up, his eyes were aflame and the anger that fueled them ran clear to the bone.

# # #

Neil arrived at the school a little after seven p.m., parked in the shadows at the edge of the lot and walked quietly about until he found that the lights were on in Donna Clementi’s room. Carmen had come with him. They stood together outside the room just long enough to get the gist of the conversation going on within; then Neil shoved the door open and entered.

They should have used the cafeteria on the other side of the fence, because every seat was full and there were people standing up against the walls. The members of the school board were sitting behind Donna’s desk, with Bill Campbell sitting off to one side. All five were there, just as they had been the day they decided to hire Neil. Alan Burke, the chairman, sat in the middle.

Carmen moved off to one side, and Neil walked down the middle aisle. There were no chairs left, so he crossed and leaned against the wall beside the table, just to Elaine Sanders’s left. A whisper moved wavelike through the crowd as those who knew Neil on sight told their neighbors who he was.

Alan Burke was at a loss for words. He had been willing, in response to parents’ demands, to hold a secret meeting, but he did not quite have nerve enough to ask Neil to leave. Pete Kemble, the newest board member, had more nerve and less sense. He said, “This is a closed meeting.”

Neil let his eyes move over the parents and said softly, “It looks like an open meeting to me.”

“It is a meeting you aren’t invited to.”

“Oh,” Neil replied, still softly. His anger was so great, and under such strict control, that he felt light headed. “Forgive me, then, for being a teacher, but you seem to be in need of some basic instruction in American government.”

He reached into Donna’s bookcase and withdrew an encyclopedia, opened it, and read them the sixth amendment to the Constitution. He closed it again and said, “If I am to be accused of something, I intend to confront my accusers.” more tomorrow

Symphony 109

“Her daddy hid her away when she turned up pregnant.”

That caught Danvers by surprise. His eyebrows went up, so Neil added, “No, it’s not mine. Anyone who can count on his fingers will know that.”

Danvers left more subdued than he had come. Neil felt good for the first time since Toni Boyd had come in with her news. If they wanted a fight, he would give them one this time.

# # #

During the first two days after Toni received the phone call from her sister-in-law, things proceeded normally at school. Even Lee Boyd seemed unaware of what was going on. Toni had kept the news from him.

It was only the calm before the storm.

Russell Danvers came to see Neil on a Friday. The following Monday before school, Toni Boyd was back. This time she had a committee of concerned parents with her, and they went straight to Bill Campbell. Neil was not there for the meeting, but Campbell came to his room at the first break, ran out the student hangers-on, and told Neil what they had said. They wanted to know why a known child molester (rumors had distorted the facts that far) had been hired; they wanted him fired today and out of the school by noon. They were pretty sure they wanted Bill Campbell fired as well, and maybe the whole school board ought to resign.

Bill had handled them as well as he could, but even his smooth manner was not up to this situation.

“You have to understand their position . . .” Bill began, but Neil would not hear him.

“I’ve understood everyone’s position from the beginning and look what it’s gotten me. Understand my position: I am innocent! Nothing else matters.”

“I don’t think the school board will feel that way.”

“When are they going to meet.”

“As soon as they can all get free. Today or tomorrow. I’ll let you know.”

After that, it was not business as usual in the classroom any more. Tanya Michelson, Larry Whitlock, Bob Thorkelson, and Lauren Turner had all been absent that morning, but Neil had not made the connection until after his talk with Bill. All four student’s parents had been in Bill’s office. 

The students had seen the parents come in en masse and wanted to know what was going on. Neil told them nothing, but by noon rumors were flying around the school. Neil found it bitterly amusing that none of them named him. All the crimes of which he had been accused, and all the others that had come by distortion of the rumors, were being credited to Glen Ulrich. Glen was old, grouchy, didn’t really like kids, and his students thought he was unfair. He was, Carmen had told him, the last hold-over from another era before Bill Campbell and a newly elected school board had purged the district of a whole group of poor teachers.

Glen went home in a very bad mood — although really, it was hard to tell. He was normally in a very bad mood.

By the next morning the adult rumor mill had corrected the children’s false assumption, and everybody seemed to know that Neil was the one accused. This morning Casey Kruger, Raul Fuentes, and Rosa Alvarez were also absent. It was Rosa’s absence that cut Neil the deepest. Two students from his afternoon class had stayed home, and six more went home before his class started.

When Elanor Romero raised her hand in class and asked in large-eyed innocence what all the fuss was about, she was probably the only child at Kiernan who had not heard the story. Neil answered, “When I was teaching last year, one of my students accused me of doing something wrong. I hadn’t done what she said, but I had to go before the school board to prove it. Now some people have heard about it, and they don’t believe I was innocent.”

“What did you do?” more tomorrow

472. Teaching Space

I am writing this on February 10, three days after the first launch of Falcon Heavy. I’m impressed by the achievement, and amused by a mannequin in a Tesla floating through space. You would never have seen that during the days of Apollo.

For all the shift from government to private space flight, some things remain the same. All rockets have always been made by private companies, and the primary customer has always been the government. The degree of participation by private industry on the consumption side has changed considerably. Still, if it were not for the government contract to supply the International Space Station, it is unlikely that the original Falcon would have lived long enough to beget Falcon Heavy.

Falcon Heavy is a big deal, but not a total revolution. That doesn’t keep me from doing handsprings at its launch.

I know that teachers all over America are going to be using Falcon Heavy as motivation for their students to work hard and get ready to join the movement into space. Students who are in middle school today will be walking on Mars in thirty years. Any kid who isn’t fired up about that, doesn’t deserve to go.

Exciting tomorrow’s astronauts is the job of science fiction writers and science teachers, as well as those who are doing the actual work of exploration. I’ve been involved in two and a half of those enterprises.

For me it started with science fiction, first Tom Swift, Jr. and Rick Brant, then all the glorious writers of the thirties through the fifties when I finally got access to a real library. By the time I reached my teens about 1960, I was hooked.

That was about the time real astronauts first appeared. (And the time the words astronaut and cosmonaut appeared, so that we had to give up that wonderful word spaceman.) I also became aware of the X-planes, which had been making aerospace history since my birth year. It was an exciting time, culminating in a series of moon landings.

High school kids like me didn’t get to work at NASA, but I did research at the level available to me. Since my two science loves were space and ecology (starting before ecology became part of the public consciousness), I developed an “Ecosystem Operable in Weightlessness” as a junior and continued as a senior with “A Study of the Nutrient Uptake of Chlorella Algae”, both as science fair projects. That is the “and a half” from three paragraphs back. Those got me a summer job as a science intern and got me into college with a scholarship. I started in biology, switched to anthropology, got drafted, survived, went back to grad school then ended up being seduced by writing.

I wrote science fiction. I still do, but for twenty-seven years, a $ad lack of fund$ caused me to also teach middle school science.

Teaching math is teaching math, and teaching history is teaching history. Teaching science, however, is more than passing on skills and information; it is also firing up your students to become future scientists, or at least future citizens who understand and appreciate the role of science in our world. You really need to love your subject to do that, and I did.

It is also an easy subject to generate enthusiasm about. While others are teaching adverbs, food groups, the three branches of government, and quadratic equations, science teachers get to teach about explosions, dead animals rotting at the side of the road, poop, and the exploration of space. I pity my colleagues on a warm day in spring when every eye is out the window. I got to take my students out to throw baseballs into the air and analyze how the baseballs’ trajectories were the same ballistic path as a Redstone rocket with Alan Shepard aboard.

Middle school students are just the right age for this, and I loved teaching them. That probably tells you more about how my mind works that I should admit to.

The exploration of space, if you start about the time of Goddard and carry through Von Braun and his V-2s all the way to the moon, is the story of mankind in the twentieth century. You can’t teach it properly without including World War I and the rise of aircraft, the rise of the Soviet Union, World War II, the Cold War, the promise and danger of nuclear power, and the ugly political motivations behind the glorious achievements of Apollo.

History is a good starting point for firing up young scientists, but it has to be followed by a proper answer to the question, “All right, fine, but what will I get to do.” That part was tough. From the mid-eighties to the turn of the millennium was an era in which manned space exploration was undergoing a drought of imagination, will and accomplishment. Project after project failed to deliver, but those failures were not evident at the outset. Year after year I told my students, “This is your future.” And year after year, those futures faltered and died.

Maybe these non-starters don’t deserve to be remembered, but if you don’t know about the drought, you can’t appreciate the rain that follows. On March 26 and April 5 I’ll explore those projects which began with a flurry of excitement, then died quickly and quietly.

Symphony 108

Neil sighed and said, “I am the person you are asking about, but you don’t have your facts straight. I was not dismissed; I took a leave of absence for one year with the intention of returning. And I did not have sexual relations with my students, forced or otherwise. I was accused, but found innocent.”

“Then you won’t mind if I check for myself?”

“Mind? I certainly do; I mind the whole damned affair. I’ve been hounded for a year over something I didn’t do and I’m sick of it. But go ahead and check. You will anyway.”

“Yes,” she said primly, “I will.”

# # #

That night in bed with Carmen, he said, “I made a mistake in Oregon.”

“Tutoring that girl?”

“No. That was stupid, because I knew her reputation. The real mistake was taking Dr. Watkins advice and leaving for a year. I should have stayed to fight it out.”

“It would have been hard.”

“Yes. But now I have to make my stand here, and I have already compromised my position. No matter what I say, people will believe that I ran because I was guilty.”

Carmen could not dispute the truth. Instead she put her hands where he could not ignore them and made him forget everything for a while. Later, when he was sleeping, she held him in her arms and whispered, “No matter what happens, I am glad you came here. To me.”

# # #

The next afternoon, a stranger was waiting at his classroom door when the children left. Neil ushered him in, observing his expensive suit and silk tie. By the time he handed Neil his card, Neil had a pretty good idea who he was.

“Russell Danvers,” he said, and his card said attorney-at-law. He shook Neil’s hand politely before taking a seat, then added, “Mrs. Boyd works for me.”

“I rather thought she might,” Neil replied dryly.

“She told me all about your situation,” Danvers said.

“All? As a lawyer, you should know the value of accuracy. She told you what she knew, which is not much.”

“It is enough to tell me how to proceed in finding everything.” He put just a slight emphasis on the last word.

“Then I suggest you do so. When you know everything, you will know that I am innocent and there is no work for you to do here.” Neil did not try to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.  He was sick of being balanced and understanding. If it came to lawyers again, he was ready to be aggressive this time.

Danvers crossed his legs, carefully pulling at his pant leg to avoid a wrinkle. He said, “I can get a statement from young Ms. Hamilton to introduce to the school board here. They are not a court of law, but it would be enough to get you fired.”

“Do it.”

Danvers looked surprised. Neil outwaited him, until the lawyer finally asked, “Why are you so anxious?”

“Danvers, before you decide to take this on, step back once. Just for the sake of argument, be devil’s advocate to your own position. Consider just how I might feel if I were innocent.  Consider how I would feel about Alice Hamilton and her father.” 

He paused to let the words sink in. “If you bring a statement by her to the board, it will be in writing. I will have a right to a copy. Then I will take her to court for libel. So go ahead, get your statement if she is foolish enough to make one. But she has other things on her mind these days, and you may have a hard time finding her. Her daddy hid her away when she turned up pregnant.” more tomorrow

471. Sunshine Blogger Award (2)

JM Williams nominated AWL for the Sunshine Blogger Award, which he and I both consider a chance to give a shout out to bloggers we follow. I started on Monday, and ran long, so here is the rest of the story.

There are four rules to the SBA. I took care of two of them on Monday. The remaining are:

Answer the 11 questions sent by the person who nominated you.
Nominate 11 new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.

I only nominated four blogs, and only wrote three questions. Michael, Thomas, Joaquin and James, the questions are at the bottom, should you chose to accept. (There is no penalty if you don’t. This post will not self destruct.)

 JM Williams’ questions to me were:

1. When did you start writing?   In the early seventies I started by writing a few articles for magazines. I started writing fiction in 1975. not counting the answer to question five.

2. Which genre do you prefer to write? To read?  Fantasy for both.

3. Which genre do you actually write most often? It is about equal between fantasy and science fiction, with a few contemporary novels as well, but only SF seems to sell.

4. What is your favorite piece of work and why? By other writers, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. From my own work, a short story The Prince of Exile. Of everything I’ve written, that was the only story in which I had no idea where it came from, nor where it was going while I was writing it. On the inspiration-perspiration continuum, it was way to the left.

5. Where is the most interesting place you came up with a story idea? This is not so much a where as a how.

A couple of years before I started writing fiction, I was with my wife in the stacks of a library. I had finished for the night and she was still working, so I took down something to read. The only tolerable book in the area was Beowulf. I flipped it open to a random page and read, “All that lonely winter . . .”

A vision exploded in my head, of a young boy, at an open wind hole in a castle, looking out over a snowy scene. He was living with relatives who had taken him in after his father was killed. They expected him to grow up and avenge his father’s death, but he had no interest in revenge. He just wanted to be left alone.

I saw him and his situation with instant and absolute clarity.

The next day I wrote the first chapter of the novel the incident called out, then put it away. Four years later, it became my third novel, but it remained unfinished for decades. Now it has grown into a three book series, and if I ever find a publisher, I’ll announce it here.

6. If you could win any writing award, which would it be? The Nebula, of course. A Hugo wouldn’t be bad either. I can’t hope for a Nobel Prize since I can’t sing, play guitar, and blow harmonica at the same time.

7. Do you associate with other writers? Are they at the same level as you? My level  is totally weird. I have been published since 1978, but I went unpublished (and unknown) for a long time after, and now am published again. I work strictly alone. I loved meeting writers at Westercon this year, and I love meeting them on the internet, but there is a huge generational gap.

8. What’s one of your writing goals for 2018? I have two actually. I want to see my recently finished steampunk novel find a publisher, and finish the second steampunk novel I am working on now.

9. Are you a plodder or a plotter? 100% plod. I outline very little. When I was a teacher, I was always in trouble because I refused to write lesson plans. I carried everything in my head, and that scared the principal half to death.

10. Where do you currently live, where are you originally from, and have you ever lived in a foreign country? I live in the foothills of central California, on three acres with wild turkeys and bobcats. I grew up on a farm in Oklahoma. In between, I lived in cities and hated it. When I became a teacher, and finally had a dollar in my pocket and summers off, my wife and I spent six summers living in a tent and subsisting on bread and apples, four in Europe and two in Australia. You can go far on little, if you want to badly enough.

11. If you could travel anywhere in the Universe, where would it be and why?   If?  What do you mean if?  I travel everywhere in the Universe I want to. Why else would I be a writer?

#                #                #

Now the questions for my nominees. Three instead of eleven, and loosely organized at that.

1. List your favorite authors. Length of list is your choice. A reason for the choices would be nice as well.
2. List your favorite books (That’s not the same question, since it it quite possible to have a favorite book by someone with only one great book.) Again, reasons would be nice.
3. List your favorite genres (or sub-genres, if you that works better for you) and tell what you look for as a sign of quality in that particular genre.

#                #                #

I had a great time doing this exercise, but my nominees may not feel the same way. If they don’t respond, no problem. The reviewers in particular have a tightly formatted product that might not work well with the Sunshine Blogger Award.

The main idea is to send them some new customers.