Tag Archives: writing

422. Little Bitty White Hunters

When he got back to his apartment, Neil dug around in his still packed boxes to find the few books he had kept as personal treasures from his childhood. The formula books had not worn well; they held little that the adult Neil McCrae could find worthwhile. But there were others that had kept their value, and he spent the next four hours accompanying the young Hunt brothers as they continued the expedition their father had had to abandon, collecting zoo animals while floating downriver on their Amazon Adventure.

That is a quote from Symphony In a Minor Key. It was the opening paragraph of Symphony 13, over in Serial.

Neil McCrae and I have a lot in common — duh — but I also kept him as a separate person. He has more patience than I do, for example. Another thing I did was give him an English class, while I was teaching science. This lets him read to kids and read their papers, and that gives me — through him — the chance to tease out what is going on in their minds.

More than any other subject, literature is about involvement and about demonstrating that involvement by writing. But please! Sixth grade papers are awful. You’ll see when you have to read some of them with Neil. I’ll be over here with my bunsen burner; call me when you are through.

I’ve done my share of teaching reading and literature, which aren’t quite the same thing. Neil encounters a ton of difficulties, and solves them, more or less. I encountered all the same problems in my first fifteen years of teaching, and the same good, bad, and ugly solutions, before science largely pushed reading out of my curriculum.

Teaching reading is tough in a school where the children have widely ranging skill levels. Teaching literature is relatively easy, if you have good literature to teach. Accepted literature is not the same as good literature. I don’t have the guts to teach Where The Red Fern Grows. If you had that piece of pornography of violence foisted on you as a child, you’ll get the pun. On the other hand, I loved teaching Fog Magic.

Truthfully, most of the children’s literature I know, I read as a teacher. There were no bookstores which featured children’s books where I grew up, and besides, most of the children’s books I read when I was a teacher hadn’t been written yet when I was a child.

Like most children who are given the choice, I read books for children, books for young adults, and books for adults, indiscriminately. I still do. Just a couple of years ago I made it half way through my childhood set of Rick Brant books before I ran out of time and steam. Any time I see a Howard Pease juvenile, I snatch it up. His popularity has waned and they are getting scarce.

So Neil looks back at his childhood (which was my childhood — Neil was born full grown on the Ides of March) and remembers the books he read. Willard Price wrote the “___ Adventure” books starting with Amazon Adventure in 1949, and continuing for an additional thirteen books, ending in 1980. I only read the first four; by the time he wrote the rest, I had outgrown them. They all followed the pattern Neil later recounts, someone young went somewhere interesting and did something exciting, without adult supervision. That isn’t much, but that is all it takes.

In some cursory research today, I ran across an interesting phenomenon. I don’t want to make too much stew out of one oyster, but the critics in the day when the “___ Adventure” books were written, said that they were full of cruelty to non-Western people and animals. That is a problem in anything written before books were sanitized in the name of political correctness. If I were a cynic, I could say that this makes the eligible to join the rest of Western literature. Fortunately, I’m not a cynic, but I did note that comments written recently by men who grew up reading the “___ Adventure” books, then became adult writers of today, praised those books. Hmmm.

The truth is, when I wrote Symphony originally, I wasn’t thinking of Amazon Adventure at all. I was thinking of Zane Grey’s Ken Ward in the Jungle, but I didn’t have a copy, and had no way to get one to cross-check my memory. Amazon Adventure was in the local library, so it was the one to be immortalized.

Today things are different. I went to the other Amazon and ordered an eBook containing all three Ken Ward stories. Kindle is my new favorite word beginning with a K. It lets me romp through my out-of-print childhood at a buck a pop, without ever leaving the chair in front of my computer.

The world has changed, and my tastes have changed as well, so I don’t have much hope, but I’m going to give Ken Ward another try.


Symphony 22

Since physical punishment had been outlawed, Kiernan, like most school, had gone to a step system. First came verbal warnings, then more formal verbal warnings, and finally, if a student persisted in rule breaking, a detention. If a child got so many detentions, a letter went home to his parents. So many more detentions and the parents had to come in for a conference. So many more and he would be suspended. So many more and he would be suspended for a longer time. So many more and he was expelled from school for the remainder of the year.

It was a fairly effective system. Most students never got to step one, and very few were ever suspended. But every year there were a few who moved through the system to the bitter end, not caring, or pretending not to care.

Explaining the discipline system was easy. The hard part was teaching the children the rules.

One would think that a few general rules like, be kind, don’t take anything that isn’t yours, and do your own work, would be enough.  For children, it never is. Rules for eleven year olds have to be numerous and specific.

Can you chew gum? (On the playground, yes; in class, no.)

Can you go to the bathroom? (Go during the breaks unless you have an emergency. Then ask.)

Do you have to raise your hand to talk? (Yes.)

Can I get out of my seat? (To get a kleenex or a drink of water, get up quietly and don’t bother me with asking. If I am talking to the class, don’t get up. If you are working at your seats, you may get up for books or paper or to sharpen your pencil. But not to visit.)

And so forth.

The rules had to be taught over time. Within a week, the children would know most of them, but they would forget, and Neil would still be reminding them of some of the rules in June.

By the time Neil had added the names of the new students to his roll and talked about discipline and rules, the second hour was over. The children headed for recess and Neil headed for the teacher’s  lounge.

# # #

Twenty minutes later, they were together again. All of the eagerness had gone out of the students’ faces. The housekeeping chores had been no fun. He distributed the language, spelling, and reading textbooks and gave them some time to look them over. It gave him a chance to observe them. Within five minutes he had moved Duarte Zavala into an empty seat far away from Sean Kelly. Their dislike for one another was plain to see. No other deadly combinations were immediately apparent.

After ten minutes about a third of the class was still content to explore the books, another third had settled down to read, and the others had become restless. Neil did not want his non-readers to be embarrassed on the first day of school, so he had quietly noted the names of those who read by choice. When the class read a short story together, he only called on them. That made things go smoothly.

Then he distributed paper and told the class, “I want two things now. I want to see how well you write, and I want to begin to get to know you individually, so write a paragraph or two telling me who you are.”

Four hands went up. He chose one. “I don’t understand,” Dixie Margaret Trujillo said. more tomorrow

421. Gobbles Returns

Those who have been with me for a while know that I often give you a glimpse of the life going on outside my door. It’s time for a new installment, because Gobbles came back recently, and I had missed him.

Gobbles is a wild turkey. As I’ve mentioned before, there is a flock of about thirty wild turkeys who come through our acreage about every three days and usually spend an afternoon. A little over a month ago, one of them stayed behind. He was crippled. He carried his left leg bent so that it never touched the ground. When we became aware of him, we were careful not to approach to closely and scare him into leaving.

He took up residence, primarily in our fenced back yard. At first I tried to keep a gate open so he would not be trapped, but then I saw him fly and there was nothing wrong with his wings. After that, we left him alone, talked softly when we were near him, and enjoyed his company.

We wondered where he slept, concerned that he would be vulnerable. We needn’t have worried. After about a week, we happened to be looking the right direction at sundown and saw him fly up into the giant oak tree above our garden. It took him two tries, first to a lower limb and then to a limb near the top. And he had to land carefully with only one functioning leg. Once there, he was as safe as any in the flock he had had to leave.

After a couple of weeks, he started putting his left foot on the ground, but without weight. Then he began to hobble and eventually he hobbled fairly well. Every few days, the flock would come back and he would be with them for a few hours until they left and he had to stay behind.

Then he disappeared. Three or four days later, the flock was back in our yard and one of the turkeys was limping. That pattern still continues. Later, we saw a flock in a neighbor’s yard a mile away, and one of them was limping. No doubt, it was Gobbles.

I grew up on a farm. I know all about animals as food, and animals as economic units. When we raised a new crop of heifers for the dairy herd, typically one of them would fail to get pregnant. No calf means no milk, and that means no money from that heifer. She would end up in the freezer as steaks and hamburger. That’s life on the farm.

I also know the flip side. I don’t want to tell you how many abandoned kittens I have bottle fed to save them. Both relationships are legitimate. Gobbles was somewhere in between. I never touched him, never fed him, never got closer than twenty feet from him. He remained a wild creature, but he came to trust me slightly, and I came to enjoy having him around. I miss him, but I am glad he is out in the wild, back with his flock, doing what wild turkeys are supposed to do.

And if, in a few months, the flock no longer has a turkey among them who limps, there will be two possible interpretations. Either he will have healed so completely that he can no longer be distinguished, or the coyotes will have gotten him. If that happens, my head will say coyotes, and my heart will say healed.

Symphony 21

There was a diffuse groan at the mention of Ulrich’s name. It sounded genuine, so Neil pretended that he did not hear it. Then Brandy Runyon yelled, “Stop that,” and slapped the boy beside her.

Neil snapped, “Brandy!”

“Well, he’s bothering me!” Brandy’s face was red with anger and humiliation, and her eyes were wild.

Neil kept his face calm, but he was cursing fluently inside. This was something he had not had to face in high school. By that time the students with real learning disabilities had been weeded out. Until Brandy was moved out of his classroom, he had to use the same discipline on her that he did on everyone else, yet she probably would not respond as they did. It was a no-win situation for both of them. He said, “What is he doing?”

“He’s making fun of me!”

The boy, Pedro Velasquez, spread his hands and said, “I didn’t say nothing.”

Neil had no idea who was telling the truth, so he said firmly, “Pedro, if you were making fun of her, or anyone else in my classroom, I want you to stop it right now. I won’t put up with it. And Brandy, you will learn to keep control of yourself.”

Brandy muttered something unintelligible under her breath and Pedro gave a wry shrug. Neil let it go, and got another surprise. The class had ignored the whole incident. They had not waited to see what would come of it, as they had with Tony’s boundary testing. They were used to Brandy’s interruptions, and took them in stride.

They neither approved nor disapproved; they simply accepted Brandy for what she was, because she was one of them. It was a lesson in the difference between a large and a small school.

Neil had lost the thread of his thought, but Linda Muir brought it back to him with a question. “Do you mean that we all be together all day?”

“That’s right.”

“Then we will never get a chance to be in the same class with any of our friends.”

Neil smiled. “Don’t you have friends in this class?”

Linda twisted her hands together and squirmed in her seat. All of the students were getting restless. “Sure, I have friends in here,” she said, “but my very best friend is in the other section. I won’t see her all year!”

Neil tried to look sympathetic, because it was clearly a tragedy for Linda. He explained that they  would have recess, breaks, noon time, and after school together. That didn’t help. Linda said, “But that’s just not the same!”

Privately, Neil agreed, but he wasn’t about to criticize the school’s schedule in front of his class. He was saved by the bell for the end of the first period.

# # #

The children left the room like water poured out of a bucket. The echoes of the bell had not died before Neil found himself alone, and he was thankful to be alone. He could have used an hour to collect himself. Instead he had five minutes to rush to the bathroom and back.

Next came the distasteful task of explaining the school’s discipline system. Most of the students had lived under that system for years, but there are always new students, and children forget. Since physical punishment had been outlawed, Kiernan, like most school, had gone to a step system. more tomorrow

420. Created Equal, Not Likely

I made Neil McCrae an English teacher. This has quite a few advantages in that English teachers deal with emotions and hidden meanings. That works out well in writing about teaching.

Personally, I wouldn’t teach English for five times what they paid me. It is too hard. Any question you pose has fifty answers, and you have to read all of those awful student papers. I read my share one year when the English teacher, the History teacher, and I set up a cooperative teaching situation. Every student researched and wrote a paper on some nineteenth century scientific innovation.

In case you never thought about it, the nineteenth century is when science took over mankind. 1800 if far more different from 1900, than 1900 is from 2000. Look it up.

Our kids had to look it up. This was only ten years ago — we only did it one year — and for the first time our computer lab was fully connected to the internet. We gave them the time they needed to do the work in school, since many of our students were too poor to be connected at home. While they worked, we walked around to see that they weren’t playing the latest game or copying a student paper on their subject from half-way around the world.

When all was finished, all three teachers read the papers separately, with different criteria, and the papers got grades in all three classes. They got a grade for writing and grammar from the English teacher, a grade for how their innovation affected history from the History teacher, and a grade for scientific accuracy from me. That made for some odd moments.

On student, used to all As, bright, skillful, and cocky wrote a paper on a scientific innovation without doing any research. The paper was beautifully written, carefully printed, neatly bound, and grammatical, but she had faked it. I understand that; a good writer can fake his way out of a Federal prison, and it can become addictive.

All her scientific facts were dead wrong. The paper got an A in English, an A in History, and a D in Science, along with a half-page explanation of why, and a red circle around all her errors.

Does Middle School exist do teach you how to avoid getting caught in High School? Could be.

I taught everything my first year, and a little more science every year thereafter until I was finally down to just science. It’s surprising how many people don’t feel comfortable in science. The imposter syndrome is rampant. Personally, I loved it; it was my favorite subject from the first, and there were a lot of other teachers who were glad to let me do it.

The only other subject with more people who don’t want to teach it, is math. But even math has its advantages. “The answer to the problem is 9.72, Johnny. It doesn’t matter if you think it shouldn’t be. That’s what it is!”

Try saying that in a Civics class when you are discussing Republicans and Democrats.

PE teachers get a bad rap. I’m sure there are some lousy ones out there, but the ones in my school were excellent. Still, thirty years of playing Tate-ball (invented by our PE teacher Mr. Tate) seven hours a day can get to you. Adriana, my friend and the other PE teacher, enjoyed fifteen years of outdoor teaching, but all those early autumns and late springs in the blazing sun finally took their toll. She switched to science. There will be more on this Wednesday.

Symphony 20

Someone snickered, but Neil didn’t look up. He kept his eyes on Tanya until the pout evaporated and a worried look took its place. By that time the room had gotten completely quiet again.

Then he went on as if he had not been interrupted. “Mrs. Wyatt will be gone all year. She wanted to be with her baby during its first year, so I am not a substitute. I am your regular teacher.”

This time a hand went up. Neil glanced at the seating chart and said, “Yes, Anthony.”


“Tony. I’ll try to remember that. Remind me if I forget.”

Tony blinked, surprised at Neil’s politeness. He said, “You mean we won’t have Mrs. Wyatt at all this year? That means we won’t ever have her.”

“You are probably right.”

“What a gyp!”

This was more daring than most of them were willing to be and they all grew quiet to see how Neil would handle it. He looked at Tony in silence until he had his complete attention, then said, “I met Mrs. Wyatt earlier this week. She is a very nice lady, and you are going to miss out by not having her. If that is what you meant, fine. But if you meant it is a gyp to have me instead, then you had better learn to keep that kind of opinion to yourself or you will be in more trouble than you can handle.”

Anthony Caraveli, the file card had said, suspended five times in the fifth grade. No wonder.

Tony’s face clouded with resentment, and Neil knew that he had to pursue the matter further. He had to establish his relationship with Tony now, or he never would. He said, “Do you understand?”

“I understand, all right!” 

So it is to be a contest of wills, Neil thought. If I turn away weakly now, I am lost, and if I become bitchy and defensive, I am just as lost.

Neil held Tony’s eyes and kept his face still. Ten seconds passed like as many minutes, and ten more seconds felt like an hour. Finally, Tony looked away, and the tension went out of the class like a silent sigh. Neil said, “Good,” very softly, then with a lift of his voice, brought them back from the unpleasantness and and told them about their schedule for the year.

“This class is called Core. You will spend the first three periods of every day here with me. You will learn reading, language, writing, and spelling here. You will have regular five minute breaks when the bells ring, but you will come back here after the first one. The second break is a fifteen minute recess. You come back here after that, too.”

Neil went to the board and sketched a quick layout of the classrooms. “Fourth period you will go to P.E. right next door, or wherever Mr. Wright tells you to assemble. Lunch is after fourth period. Mr. Campbell tells me that you have to show a lunch ticket if you are going to the cafeteria on the other side of the fence. Otherwise, you will eat your lunches on the yard or in Mrs. Richardson’s room if it is raining.

“Fifth period you will go to science here with Mrs. Kelly. Sixth period you will go to history here with Ms. Clementi, and last period you will have math with Mr. Ulrich.”

There was a diffuse groan at the mention of Ulrich’s name. It sounded genuine, so Neil pretended that he did not hear it. more tomorrow

Symphony 19

Neil sat down at his desk and half a dozen of the children moved quickly to their places. Some of the others looked at the clock and saw that they had five more minutes. Two of the boys ran out the door, and a handful of others began to look for their assigned seats.

They were a mosaic. They were very pale and very brown and every color in between. Like a mosaic, each piece was complete in itself, but put together would form a greater pattern. Now the mosaic was still a heap of multicolored stones, but the pattern would emerge. Neil’s job was to find it, without damaging any of the individuals in the process.

The bell rang. Those who were still wandering took their seats, and the boys who had left came running back. They were very docile, unsure, and even a little scared. This was their first year across the fence, with the big kids, and for many of them Neil would be their first male teacher.

Neil had known they would be different from high school students, but until now he had had no idea how different. They were meek (that would surely change), they were eager (he prayed that would not change), and they were tiny. Neil was nearly six feet tall, but he was used to looking up at many of his students. Here was a little girl — his seating chart told him it was Tanya Michelson — who could not be much more than four feet tall. He couldn’t even guess her weight; he had no standard for comparison. Tiny! And she wasn’t the only one; half the boys and a third of the girls were nearly as small.

Three of the students were still standing. One of them said, “Where do I sit?”

“What’s your name?”

“Rafael Ortiz.”

Without looking, Neil knew he had not seen that name. He asked, “Are you a sixth grader?”

He was, and as he spoke two more students came in. There were a number of empty seats, so he had them sit anywhere while he took roll. Of the thirty-two students on his list, nine had not shown up. When he called Duarte Zavala, one of the new arrivals spoke up, and Neil shifted him to his assigned seat. Tim Galloway was home with the chicken pox, according to his neighbor, and would be back in about a week. Juan Rogers was in Mexico; they could expect him back in about a month. And nobody knew where Olivia Pinero was, except that she was out riding her bike last week so she hadn’t moved.

It was clear that the empty seats were nothing unusual to them, but Neil was amazed. He could count on one hand all the first-day absentees he had had in four years of teaching at his last school.

Neil put down his class list and said, “Let’s finish that later. Everyone has a seat for now. If  you aren’t in the right place, or you aren’t on my list, we’ll take care of it, but first I want to introduce myself. I am Mr. McCrae. I will be taking Mrs. Wyatt’s place this year while she is having her baby.”

“She already had it!” Tanya Michelson interrupted. “She had it last night.”

Neil smiled at her and said, “That’s good news, Tanya, but you need to raise your hand before you speak. Otherwise things will get unruly.”

Tanya pouted and added, “It weighed seven pounds, and it is a boy named Michael.” more Monday