On the last night of my son’s 14-day leave from the Marine Corps for the holidays, we took him out to eat and then saw a family movie together. It was the Pixar movie Coco. And what a perfect movie it was! First of all, it is about family. It is about the connections we have to those who’ve come before us. Grandparents and Great Grandparents and Great Great Grandparents… the greatness just keeps flowing back into the past. And this movie connected living family members to those who came before.
We spent a lot of our time over the holiday visit talking about the past and those who came before us. My kids didn’t really get much of a chance to know great grandparents in real life, and great great grandparents were long gone. My son only knows about Great Great Grandpa Raymond through my stories about Sunday afternoon baseball, listening to Harmon Killebrew and the Twins playing on the radio with Grandpa Raymond. Great Grandma Beyer got to hold Number One Son and Number Two Son, but only Number One was old enough to remember her at all, and that only in the vaguest possible ways. I try to keep them alive with family stories and anecdotes. Much in the same fashion the movie did, although the main character Miguel (ironically the Spanish version of Michael) actually visits the land of the dead. I haven’t personally gone quite that far.
The movie also expresses a deep genetic love of music, especially guitar music. My kids are all musical, and both of my sons play guitar. Number Two Son is particularly gifted in a Spanish-style ability to pick out complex tunes by ear and by sheet music. The movie’s music is without question the thing that makes it the best movie we have seen this year.
And the movie is filled to the brim with bright and appealing artwork, being an animated movie filled with Mexican art, even having a guest cameo appearance by the incomparable Frida Kahlo. This is easily the best movie she has been in since she died in 1954. The comedy of this whole extended skeleton dance of a movie is laugh-out-loud gorgeous. And artwork is also something I share a love for with my three children.
So I put him on an airplane in DFW today, and he is now back at his base. But I had him here for a precious little while and we capped it off with a precious little movie. Now, I have to admit, this post is not entirely a movie review. It is more about how my family made use of it and interacted with it. It is more of a family story that I needed to tell to keep the goodness of it alive and vibrant, painted in bright colors. But if you really want to know what I think of the movie, then I will shout at you, “YOU MUST SEE THIS MOVIE!!!” With three exclamation marks and everything. It is simply that good.
I finished the art project. Here is Dilsey Murphy as she looked in 1990 while wearing her dad’s old Carl Eller Minnesota Vikings jersey from the 70’s. I wasn’t sure I could finish it this quickly, but the colored pencils blaze with speed when you are coloring someone you love.
See Dick run?
See Jane run?
See Sally…? Wait a minute! Why don’t I remember Sally?
Did Dick forget to feed Spot and Spot was forced to kill and eat Sally?
No… I had Dick and Jane books in Kiddy-garter and they did have Sally in them. And Spot never killed anyone. But with all the running she did, Sally did not do anything memorable. If my teacher, Miss Ketchum, had told the Spot eats Sally story, I’m sure I would’ve remembered Sally better and learned to read faster.
But I actually did learn to read faster because there was a Cat in the Hat, and a Yertle the Turtle, and because Horton the elephant heard a Who, and a Grinch stole Christmas. Yes, humor is what always did it for me in the classroom. Dr. Seuss taught me to read. Miss Mennenga taught me to read out loud. And in seventh grade, Mr. Hickman taught me to appreciate really really terrible jokes. And those are the people who twisted my arm… er, actually my brain… enough to make me be a teacher who taught by making things funny. There were kids who really loved me, and principals who really hated me. But I had students come back to me years later and say… “I don’t remember anything at all from my classes in junior high except when you read The Outsiders out loud and did all those voices, and played the Greek myth game where we had to kill the giants with magic arrows, and the stupid jokes you told.” High praise indeed!
I think that teaching kids to laugh in the classroom was a big part of teaching them how to use the language and how to think critically. You find what’s funny in what you learn, and you have accidentally examined it carefully… and probably etched it on the stone part of your brain more memorably than any other way you could do it. And once it’s etched in stone, you’re not getting that out again any time soon.
Humor makes you look at things from another point of view, if for no other reason, then simply because you are trying to make somebody laugh. For instance, do you wonder like I do why the Cat in the Hat is trying to pluck the wig off of Yelling Yolanda who is perched on the back of yellow yawning yak? I bet you can’t look at those two pictures positioned like that and not see what I am talking about. Of course, I am not betting money on it. I am simply talking Iowegian… a totally different post.
But the point is, humor and learning go hand in hand. It takes intelligence to get the joke. Joking makes you smarter. And that is why the class clowns in the past… the good and funny ones… not the stupid and clueless ones… were always my favorite students.
Being a teacher at heart… I want to recommend that career…even though I know full well it is a super-hard crappy job of glorified baby-sitting that pays in literal peanuts and nobody in their right minds recommends it to smart young up-and-comers as a glamorous choice… and it is only getting worse under a new anti-education administration.
Being a teacher at heart… I can’t help remembering how it all started for me. The last thing in the world I imagined myself being when I was in high school was a teacher. I wanted to be a cartoonist or a comic book artist. I wanted to write best-selling science fiction novels and maybe direct a movie. You know, the kind of thing millionaires line up to bestow on college grads with a degree in English and a transcript filled with mostly A’s in my art classes.
But after my remedial master’s degree gave me a provisional teaching certificate, and my one and only interview for an illustrator’s job resulted in compliments on my portfolio and best wishes for my teaching career, I headed to Texas, one of only two states actually hiring teachers in 1981. (The other was Florida, which it turns out it was a very lucky thing my family had already moved to Texas to help me make that decision. Have you seen the education news coming out of Florida? I now know where Satan gets his mail.)
Turns out the only job available in 1981 was all the way South on Interstate 35 in Cotulla, Texas. I was there to teach English to 8th graders. Mostly Spanish-speaking 8th graders. And the previous year the 7th grade English teacher had run out of the classroom screaming after the little darlings exploded firecrackers under her chair and put scorpions in her coffee cup. I was given her classroom and the same students that forced her to re-think her career choice. El Loco Gongie, El Loco Martin, Talan, El Mouse, El Boy, El Goofy (whose one and only talent was to turn his whole head purple at will), La Chula Melinda, and the Lozano Twins were the nicknames I had to learn because practically everyone was named Jose Garcia… even the girls. Talan and El Mouse were the first ones to threaten my life. They picked up a fence post on the way to lunch (we had to walk four blocks to the elementary school to get lunch because the junior high building had no cafeteria). Talan said something threatening in Spanish that I didn’t understand and added the name “Gringo Loco” menacingly to whatever he said, and El Mouse pantomimed using the metal fence post as a sword to cut me in two. All this because I was trying to get them to keep up with the rest of the class on our little hike in the 100 degree heat. (I think I knew then why Satan moved to Florida.) Fortunately they must’ve decided that murdering me wasn’t worth the hours of detention they would have to spend, and dropped the post. Class was definitely disrupted when handsome El Boy and La Chula decided to break up, or rather, El Boy decided he like brown-eyed Alexandra better after she got blue-eyed contact lenses that made her eyes look yellow-green. Girl fights are harder to break up than boy fights because girls fight to the death over matters of the heart, and they really don’t care who dies once the fight is started.
Now you may think my account of my first horrible year as a teacher must be exaggerated and expanded with lies because you know I am a humorist and that I went on to teach for many more years. But I swear, only the names have been changed. The nicknames and the incidents all are real. (Yes, he really could contort his face in a way that turned his entire head purple. It was freaky and made the girls scream.) As I reached the spring of the year that year and had to decide whether or not to sign my contract for the next year, I really was planning to get out of teaching all together. But I was standing on the playground one day that spring glaring at the vatos locos to prevent fights from breaking out again when Ruben came up to stand beside me and talk to me. Ruben was one of the brightest and physically smallest of all my kids that year. But he had such a charm about him that the bullies left him alone (except for the time he got in trouble for forging El Boy’s mother’s signature on a failing report card). He said to me, “I want you to know, you are my favorite teacher. I learned a lot from you this year.” I had to bite my lower lip to keep from crying right there and then. It was the moment when I decided I had to be a teacher. They were not going to make me run away in defeat. I was going to work at it until I knew how to do it right. For Ruben. And for all the other boys and girls like Ruben who liked me as a teacher… and laughed at my jokes… even the really corny ones… and needed me. That made all the hard stuff worth it.
Being a teacher at heart… I recognize now that there was never anything else I was going to be. It was what God chose me to be. And my only regret about my choice is that I had to retire and can’t do it any more for health reasons. I still miss it.
I am not by nature an early riser. I have been far more of a night owl than a morning lark in my sixty years on this planet. And yet, as a school teacher and father and dog owner (which also means dog-walker and dog-poop-picker-upper), I have been forced to become an early riser. But I like to look at sunrises. We are never guaranteed waking up alive in the morning. One day soon I anticipate waking up quite dead. But in the meantime, I am still looking at sunrises and collecting them. Proof that I still ain’t dead.
And I am trying hard this winter to think and write about other things than Donald Trump. As bad as he is to have to deal with, life goes on… at least, until it doesn’t. And each day I am older and wiser than I was the day before… at least by a day’s worth, if not more. Good things still happen even if they don’t happen as often as they used to… or as much as the bad things still happen.
I am watching more than one kind of sunrise. This statue was molded and fired in a kiln at school by my daughter, a rising sunshine of art talent. In fact, all my kids can draw… I wonder where that comes from?
My daughter sometimes draws weird cartoon characters like this boy with a band-aid on his nose riding on a dinosaur/dragon/thing with a laser eye and a mechanical right leg. That is about as goofy as it gets. And I wonder, too, where the heck does that come from?
And you can stop shouting at the computer screen. I only pretend to be as thick as rock for comedic effect. In truth, only my head and my really old unwashed socks are that hard and dense and thought-resistant.
But I keep going while I can. There is still lots to do… novels to write… pictures to draw… dogs to walk and poop to pick up… being retired, even being forcibly retired for health reasons, is like a bag of Saturdays, with no real work responsibilities hanging over my head except for the ones I put there for myself.
And I keep on collecting sunrises, one after another… simply because I still can.
I needed to add this after posting a double-dark downer like my last political post. There is much to savor in life while we wait for the inevitable end. Here’s a YouTube diamond that you need to watch to feel better about everything. Some things even Donald Trump can’t take away from us.