Category Archives: education

Directions to Be Worried About

The question came up on Twitter. “What things aren’t safe to write about in a Young Adult novel?”

I have personally never questioned myself about that before. The writer asking for input was writing something science-fiction-y about a telepath using telepathy to torture someone. He was apparently worried that a younger audience would be traumatized by that.

Really? Anyone who can ask that has never spent much time talking to young readers.

I base my answer on over thirty years of trying to get kids to read things of literary quality. My very first year of teaching a male student stood up when the literature books were passed out and announced, “I don’t do literature!”

“Really, Ernie? You are going to lay that challenge before me?”

We slogged through The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that year, using and reusing 20 paperback copies of the novel purchased with my own money. Ernie maybe didn’t like it. But he did literature.

And I went on a thirty-four year quest to find out what literature kids really would do and what literature kids really needed to do.

Aquaman saves Aqualad from a shark of evilness.

Here’s a tiny bit of wisdom from Mickey’s small brain and comparatively large experience; Kids are not traumatized by literature in any form. Kids are traumatized by life. They need literature to cope with trauma.

Kids want to read about things that they fear. A book like Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card has some graphic violence in it and a war against faceless aliens, but it does an excellent job of teaching how to empathize as well as fight against bullies, and it helps them grapple with the notion that the enemy is never clearly the thing that you thought it was to begin with.

Kids want to read the truth about subjects like love and sex. They are not looking for pornography in YA novels. They get that elsewhere and know a lot more about it than I do. They want to think about what is right and how you deal with things like teen pregnancy, abortion, matters of consent vs. rape and molestation. Judy Blume started being objectively honest with kids about topics like puberty and sex back in the 60’s with books like Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. and Iggie’s House.

If you are writing for young adults, middle grade and high school kids, even kids 5th Grade and below who are high-level readers, it is more important to worry about writing well and writing honestly than it is to worry about whether they can handle the topics and trauma that you wish to present. Write from the heart and write well.

I can honestly say I know these things I have said are true about young readers from having read to them, read with them, and even taught them to read. As an author, my opinion is worth diddly-squoot since I have hardly sold any books, and no kids I know have read them (except for two of my nieces, both of whom are pretty weird and nerdy just like me.)

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Filed under autobiography, commentary, education, empathy, good books, horror writing, humor, Paffooney, strange and wonderful ideas about life, writing, writing humor, writing teacher

I’d Like to Share Something Really Special…

I am spending Thanksgiving week at home in Texas by myself, except for the dog. The rest of my family is having a Thanksgiving meal together in Iowa (hopefully, if the weather doesn’t have other plans) or on a road trip to Central Florida, a trip I was supposed to also attend. I simply cannot travel to either place. My arthritis is too bad to sit for long car rides, and in the Trump economy, school teachers can’t afford air travel. So, I had to practice being selfless once again. They needed to do these things, and I had to talk them into doing these things without me. My misfortunes can’t be allowed to ruin my family’s grace and peace, not when I can still give gifts of myself by allowing them to go and do without worrying about me.

I can’t actually say that I learned to be selfless and encouraging from Fred Rogers. He was really only one of many such teachers, a list headed by my maternal grandfather. But in a way, he is responsible for giving me the tools I use to make things like that happen.

https://www.cinemovie.tv/Movie-Reviews/a-beautiful-day-in-the-neighborhood-movie-review

Yesterday I went to the movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” at the Music City Mall in Lewisville. I can drive those few miles. And I freely admit to crying through a good portion of the movie. It is not really a sad movie. It is not actually a biopic. It is based on a real article in Esquire magazine by journalist Tom Junod. It is a partially fictionalized story about how the innate goodness of a man like Fred Rogers has a profound impact on the journalist, and all of the rest of us as well, through that act of caring and loving and gentle being-just-the-way-you-are. There is no doubt about it, when Tom Hanks, channeling Fred Rogers in the restaurant scene, asks for one minute of silence to think of all those people who have had a hand in making you who you are, he looks directly into the audience, he looks directly at me individually, and the entire theater is dead silent as everyone is doing exactly what the movie character is asking you to do. It was a singular moment in cinema that I have never experienced before. It touched my soul.

I left that movie theater feeling amazingly fulfilled. Was it because it was an excellent movie? It definitely was excellent. Was it because of the wonderful way Tom Hanks brought Fred Rogers back to life even though he looks nothing like him? He definitely made that happen. Or was it because the movie invoked a true angel, a once-living hand of God now gone from this world? Because Fred Rogers was that for so many kids for more than 800 episodes.

I must confess, when I was a teenager, I didn’t think much of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood“, though I saw some of those first black-and-white episodes, back when King Friday and Daniel Striped-Tiger were new. If I had to watch kids’ shows on PBS, which I often did because of younger siblings and cousins, I much preferred the color and the Muppets in “Sesame Street”.

But when I had been a teacher for a few years, and had to search hard for ways to communicate and teach for use with South Texas middle-schoolers, I began to see the true genius of Fred Rogers. He never talked down to kids. He never lost patience, even when things went wrong. He was always trying to keep it simple, even when the point he was making was as metaphorical as talking about keeping a “garden in your mind”. He was understandable. He was welcoming and relentlessly nice. And it wasn’t a TV character. It was really him.

I can’t really say this was a movie that changed my life. But maybe it did. I cried silently during a large portion of it, not because of the sad parts in the movie, but because I recognized so much of myself in the journalist waking up to the need to be as real and honest and able to connect to other people as Fred Rogers always did.

So, my conclusion to this essay that may be a movie review, or possibly an homage to Fred Rogers, is really quite simple. Thank you, Mr. Rogers. I really like you, just the way you are.

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Filed under artists I admire, compassion, education, empathy, heroes, humor, inspiration, movie review, sharing from YouTube, strange and wonderful ideas about life, teaching

Art Day Art

These are ESL portraits, a quiet Chinese girl and a pencil-chewing Hispanic girl inspired these two, but they look nothing at all like this picture.

I have been doing most of these Saturday art posts from my WordPress library of images. I generally try to organize around a theme. Having exhausted myself at Vivian Field Middle School yesterday, school-ish pictures are my theme for the day.

I have a tendency to think in pictures, and these are all school thoughts of one kind or another.

Basketball practice when I was a high school freshman inspired this picture of Brent who was an athletic young friend of mine I went to practice with.
Being a school teacher is also being a story-teller. That is essentially what this picture is about.
If this much-used picture looks familiar, it is because this is what teaching looks like through my eyes. Reluctant Rabbit holding the big pencil is me in my teacher-self. The students are Amanda, Ruben, Fernando, and Flora.
Kids don’t literally go to school naked, but metaphorically they do. They have no secrets from a teacher who knows them well from talking to them and reading their classroom journals. Talking about themselves out loud or in writing is how little people make themselves into bigger people.
This classroom portrait is a picture made from my own classroom in Garland, Texas.
Some of the characters in my school-ish pictures are actually me and my own school-aged classmates and friends.

Some of my favorite students over the many years in the classroom were major nerds.

I liked them mostly because they were the same exact species as I was when I was a monkey-house-aged student.

Monkey-house is a synonym for Middle School.

Wally shared my obsession with Japanese anime and could draw them better than I could. He was a major nerd. And a totally enthusiastic learner whom other students treated like he was radioactive. I always had time for him when he needed to talk to someone. He was a teacher’s kid at a time when my own son was still little.

This is a class picture from AeroQuest, a novel series about a teacher in space. All of these kids were based on real-life students I had in class once upon a time. One of these kids, pictured as a blue alien, was actually Wally.
So, now I need to post this post as there are next things happening on my schedule. Like these silhouette students, I need to get there on time.

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Filed under artwork, autobiography, Cotulla, education, kids, nostalgia, Paffooney, pen and ink, strange and wonderful ideas about life, teaching

The Problem-Solving Life

Yesterday I temporarily solved my computer problem with the Russian hacker with the help of the technical support people of McAfee Anti-Virus software. My computer works again. But I have had loss of personal data, and I am not yet sure that they didn’t take control of my Google account. It seems like I can change my password safely, but having been broken into, I have to wonder if the Russians are able to read this as I type it. I know I sound like a crazy, paranoid old man. The technician thinks so too. But it is harder than ever to have faith in a system when so many bad actors seem to have more control over things than I do. I am the novelist. I should be able to control the plot and the dialogue and the happy endings in my own story. But I can type on my computer again and my machine is cured of the Russian computer flu.

One should have positive thoughts as often as possible, even if you can only find them in a warehouse of old memories, impressions, and poems.

The point I wanted to make today, now that I have my word-mulching machine back to word-mulching form, is that I have always been a solver of problems, both simple and complex. It goes with being a teacher hand in hand because being a school-type teacher-man means solving problems for the little people and teaching them to be problem solvers too.

The big problem with problem-solving, however, is that there is always one more problem to be solved… unless there are ten more. Life is a matter of problem-solving, and you cannot be happy until you learn both to solve problems, even hard ones, and be reconciled to the fact that there will always be problems you have to live with and cannot solve.

Among the ten more problems I am now faced with is the problem of not having enough money to cover all the bills as I and my children continue to do things that cost money, like getting sick, eating, living in Texas, wearing clothes, wearing extra cold-weather clothes, and getting hacked by Russians. I want desperately to get a part-time job I can do. I am thoroughly qualified to be a substitute teacher. But I can’t do that job because I am in poor health. One more bout of the flu picked up in the germ farms that are Texas public schools will end me. Besides, if my health were sound enough for the classroom, I would still be teaching. It was a job God made me for, and I love teaching.

I was earning extra money the hard way through driving for Uber, daily risking an onslaught of shady clients, thoroughly unpleasant back-seat drivers, and Texas killer grandmas driving Lincoln Town Cars through stop signs at every other corner. And then I got hit in the driver’s side door by a goof who was talking to his passenger instead of looking as he turned across traffic. He didn’t see me until he clobbered me with his car. There was no way at all I could have avoided that collision. It cost me money for a deductible even though he was totally at fault. It cost me six months of driving time. I have been able to drive for other purposes, but I have not been able to drive for Uber since the accident. My driving-for-money confidence is missing. I have looked for it everywhere. It isn’t in any of the closets in the house. I guess I will simply have to make some more and get out and drive again.

So, living a problem-solving life ain’t easy, but it is necessary. It will get figured out, through persistence if nothing else. Because we all have to. And I can already see ten more problems headed towards me down the thorny garden path that is my life.

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Filed under autobiography, commentary, education, feeling sorry for myself, humor, insight, Paffooney, poem

The Story So Far…

My life as a school teacher is definitely over. That part of my story is complete. I thought, as I found that driving for Uber to earn extra money was becoming too difficult to do, that maybe I could get healthy enough to be a substitute teacher again. Money-wise it makes sense. Three days of substituting in a single week would easily surpass my best days as an Uber driver. And they correctly figure withholding for tax purposes, something that neither my teacher pension nor my Uber account seem capable of doing. I face tax penalties again for 2018.

But my health never seems to stabilize since the car accident in August. Of course, that figures too since my diabetes has gotten worse, insulin has gotten more expensive, and my personal economy tanks monthly. So I have to let go of teacher daydreams. Those chapters are now closed. I must read on more slowly and carefully in the Book of Life.

The Wings of Imagination

The way forward is now through being a story-teller. Writing and drawing are things that I can do without leaving the house, sometimes without even getting out of bed. I know that becoming even more sedentary is basically a slow death sentence. But my arthritis, COPD, and diabetes have all worked hand-in-hand to reduce my mobility. They also make driving more dangerous. So, slowing down probably reduces the chances of sudden and destructive death. And I have never been more prolific in my writing.

Davalon the Telleron alien, Anneliese the gingerbread girl, and Francois Martin the Sad Clown Singer

I have published eight novels. They are, in order of publication, Catch a Falling Star, Magical Miss Morgan, Stardusters and Space Lizards, Snow Babies, Superchicken, The Bicycle-Wheel Genius,  Recipes for Gingerbread Children, and The Baby Werewolf. Number nine, Sing Sad Songs, is in the revision and editing stage and will be completed early in 2019. I have When the Captain Came Calling well under way, though the end is not yet in sight. And I recently began work on the rough draft of Fools and Their Toys. I am also working to finish my graphic novel, Hidden Kingdom.

These novels of mine will probably never generate meaningful money in my lifetime, but the creation of them feels like the fulfillment of my life’s arc. I spent four decades in education, and now I am investing my remaining life force in story-telling, using many of the students and fellow teachers in novels of surrealistic fantasy and humor, giving meaning to the memories of a life spent in service to higher ideals.

Player #3, the powerful Miss Perez

So, there you have it, the Story So Far. I will continue to work on it, polish it, perfect it, and continue not to worry if no one reads it or even cares. It is my story, the story I live to create, and that is all the meaning that matters.

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Filed under artwork, autobiography, drawing, education, feeling sorry for myself, humor, illness, novel plans, NOVEL WRITING, Paffooney

I Hope You Dance…

When you walk to the front of the classroom and take up the big pencil in front of a group of young teens and twelve-year-olds, there is a strong pressure to learn how to sing and dance. That, of course, is a metaphor. I was always too arthritic and clunky in my movements to literally dance. But I looked out over a sea of bored and malevolence-filled eyes, slack and sometimes drooling mouths attached to hormone-fueled and creatively evil minds. And I was being paid to put ideas in their heads. Specifically boring and difficult ideas that none of them really wanted in their own personal heads. So I felt the need to learn to dance, to teach in ways that were engaging like good dance tunes, and entertaining in ways that made them want to take action, to metaphorically get up and dance along with me.

I wanted them to enjoy learning the way I did.

But the music of the teacher is not always compatible with the dance style of the individual learner. The secret behind that is, there is absolutely no way to prompt them to dance along with you until you learn about the music already playing in their stupid little heads. (And you can’t, of course ever use the word “stupid” out loud, no matter how funny or true the word is,) You have to get to know a kid before you can teach them anything.

The discordant melodies and bizarre tunes you encounter when you talk to them is like dancing in a minefield blindfolded. Some don’t have enough to eat at home and have to survive off of the nutrition-less food they get in the school cafeteria’s free-and-reduced lunch program. Some of them have never heard a single positive thing from the adults at home, enduring only endless criticism, insults, and sometimes fists. Some of them fall in love you. Some due to hormones. Some due to the fact that you treat them like a real human being. Some because they just stupidly assume that everyone dances to the same tunes they hear in their own personal head.

Some of them automatically hate you because they know that if you hear their own secret music in their own self-loathing heads, you will never accept it. They hate you because you are a teacher and teachers always hate them. Some of them, deep down, are as loathsome as they think they are.

But, if you find the right music, you can get any of them, even all of them, to dance. It might be hard to find. It might be a nearly impossible task to learn to play that music once you find it. But it can be done.

And if you get them to dance to your music, to dance along with you, I can’t think of anything more rewarding, anything more life-fulfilling. Have you ever tried it for yourself? If you are not a teacher, how about with your own children or the children related to you? Everybody should learn to dance this dance I am talking about in metaphors. At least once in your life. It is addictive. You will want to dance more. So the next time the music starts and you get the chance… I hope you’ll dance!

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Filed under commentary, education, kids, metaphor, Paffooney, teaching

Being Excessively Creative

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It is an unusual position to be in as a kid in the school room to be the creative kid.  First and foremost because you will forever be known as the weirdo, the spaceman, the egghead.

How do I know that?  Because I was that kid.  And I grew up to teach that kid.  And now that I am retired as a teacher, I am still that kid.

If there was a problem to be solved, a picture to be drawn, a group assignment that required somebody to actually think, I was the kid that everybody wanted to be in their group or be their partner.  (That time that Reggie and I blew up the test tube of copper sulfate in Mr. Wilson’s chemistry lab doesn’t count because, although I am the one who dropped it, he’s the one who heated up my fingers with the blowtorch.  Honest, Mr. Wilson, it is true.) But if it was picking teams on the playground, I was the last loser to be called, even though I was pretty good at softball, pretty good at dodgeball, great at volleyball, and usually the leading scorer in soccer (of course we are talking an Iowa schoolyard in the 60’s where soccer was a sport from Mars.)  And as an adult, I enjoyed teaching the creative kids more than the rest because I actually understood them when they explained what they were doing and why, and I was even able to laugh at their knit-witty jokes (yes, I am including those jokes made of yarn with that pun).   Creative kids speak a language from another world.  If you are creative too, you already know that.  And if you aren’t creative… well, how foo-foo-metric for you.

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And another unfortunate side effect of the creative life is that you make stuff.  You don’t have to be seriously infected by bites from the cartoon bug or the art bug to be like that.  My daughter is making a suit of armor for herself from a flat sheet of aluminum that she is pounding out by hand, painting with spray paint and painter’s tape, and edging with felt.  After she’s done with it this Halloween, it will go on one of the piles of collections and models and dolls and stuffed toys and… Of course, sooner or later one of those piles is going to come to life and eat the house.  There is no place left to display stuff and store stuff and keep stuff that is far enough away from potential radioactive spider bites.  I have scars on my fingers from exactor knife accidents, oil paint, and acrylic paint and enamel permanently under my fingernails.  Shelves full of dolls rescued and restored from Goodwill toy bins, dolls collected from sale bins at Walmart, Toys-R-Us, and Kaybee, and action figures saved even from childhood in the 60’s are taking over the house and in an uproar, demanding to be played with rather than ignored.  (Didn’t know dolls can actually talk?  Haven’t you learned anything from John Lasseter?)

Anyway, it is tough to go through life being excessively creative.  I have art projects growing out of my ears.  And book publishers are calling me because my award-winning book is not generating sales in spite of two awards, 5-star reviews, and generally good quality, but the only solutions they have cost ME money I don’t have.  Oh, well, at least it isn’t boring to be me.

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Filed under angry rant, artwork, doll collecting, education, feeling sorry for myself, goofy thoughts, inspiration, Paffooney, strange and wonderful ideas about life