A needed evening off …

March 20, 2016

After the hell of the last few weeks, I really needed an evening off.  Not a day off.  Saturday morning and early afternoon I was at school helping to run a badminton tournament.  But I reserved the evening for myself.

Good friends Roman and Ed met me downtown at Catch Thirty-Five.  I had never been there, but the food and atmosphere are amazing.  It was pricy, but I have spent most of the past year in save mode, so I thought an evening’s entertainment was worth a small splurge.

After wards, it was around the corner on to State Street to the Chicago Theater.

I had never been inside this Chicago landmark, and about 30 seconds after entering, I was kicking myself.  This is a true theater!  Not exceptionally large, but full of that Roaring 20’s opulence.  I can’t believe that in the 1980s there was thought given to tearing the place down.  I will need to find new excuses to see some shows here.

What the three of us went to see was a fulfillment of our geekly duties.  It is 2016, and this is the 50th anniversary year of Star Trek.  There are several conventions planned around the world, but I have no plans to travel to those, so this was the next best thing – Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage.  This is a live orchestra touring to play the music from the television series and films.  It has been far too long since I attended a live music performance (and that was a very cool a capella performance in Seattle man years back).  This was really geeky, but I figure for all I have followed the show and series, I should do something as part of the 50th anniversary, and this seemed pretty enjoyable.

The performance was really great, and it was good to spend time with good friends. We were sitting in mezzanine boxes that put us at eye level with the large screen.  Each of the central larger boxes had maybe ten seats, and then a table that sat maybe 4-5 more people.  Michael Dorn (who played Worf) narrated the video part of the show.  There were sections dedicated to each series where they chose one or two highlights and played the live music to that scene. One highlight from the original series was the Kirk v. Spock battle to the death from the episode “Amok Time” which is the most parodied piece of music from the series.  Other sections were more thematic (Klingons, leadership, the Borg, challenges, perseverance, etc).  The finale was the original orchestration to the original Star Trek theme which is not performed very often.  When Alexander Courage was commissioned to write the theme he was told not to use electronic instruments (like Forbidden Planet, which was largely theremin), and made it sound heroic and exotic.  Courage interpreted “exotic” to be “Latin/Caribbean”, and when you hear the original version, parts of it sound like something that might have been played at Desi Arnaz’s Tropicana Club (Star Trek was produced at DesiLu studios early on because Lucille Ball saw something in the series a lot of people missed early on … so maybe there was a connection, though I doubt it).  The theme was a hit, but when it was orchestrated for television, most of the Latin flavor was lost to be replaced with a chorus.  I had only heard this recorded once, so it was a nice treat to hear that live.

All in all, it was a good night.  I have four days left before Spring Break, then I am off to prepare a 30 minute lesson for second graders on space based on some questions they have submitted.  I also need to start working on my schoolwide fundraiser project, and a quiz based fundraiser for Ed’s son’s school.



The worst show on Earth …

March 15, 2016

Everyone loves a circus … and U.S. politics in 2016 are giving one heck of an entertaining show.  The Republicans are producing a version of Armageddon, trying to convince everyone that the world is ending (not because of any climate catastrophe, of course), but that the era of the WASEPs running the show may be ending, and what a disaster that will be for civilization.  They have trotted out an A-list cast who are entertaining in their own way.  Hillary Clinton stars in The Revenant … as a figure returned from the dead seeking a return to glory.  Then there is The Bernie Sanders Show … about a passionate man who has some very passionate followers who somehow is still managing to scare the hell out of a large number of Americans because of that nasty ol’ “socialism” that he is talking about.

Illinois has its own sideshow going on, and it is very much a lot of scary clowns in sad face makeup.  After the grossly incompetent governorships of Rod Blagojevich and his lieutenant Pat Quinn, the state had little choice but to elect anyone else … and they elected noted Scott Walker acolyte Bruce Rauner.  Bruce has been in office a little over a year and very little has been done.  He’s tried, but most of his executive orders were illegal or unconstitutional, and his subordinates refused to carry them out, and those that were carried out where shot down quickly by the courts.  As far as we know, Bruce is sitting in that decaying governor’s mansion in Springfield, holding his breath until the state legislature gives in to his Scott Walker/Bobby Jindal plans of slashing union rights and pushing for a charter school on every corner.

Rauner was not running in any race today, but there was a bit of a referendum on the governor today.  While the Illinois House and Senate are overwhelmingly Democratic, their ability to automatically override vetoes is tenuous.  In the House, one Democrat (Ken Dunkin) was swayed over to Rauner’s side, and has been refusing to override vetoes, thus making Springfield look like the U.S. Congress of two years ago (with the roles somewhat reversed).  The governor refuses to file a budget until the General Assembly gives in on his stripping union members of rights, and the General Assembly passes bills, they get vetoed, and the veto can’t be overridden.

Over time, Rauner has seen his position grow more and more tenuous.  Bobby Jindal got rode out of Louisiana on a rail after decimating the economy down there, Scott Walker appears very vulnerable in Wisconsin, and Rick Snyder will be very lucky if he isn’t impeached or recalled over the Flint water crisis in Michigan.  Today, a minor primary challenge for a House seat in Illinois’ General Assembly became a referendum on the governor.

A few weeks ago, President Obama made an unprecedented stop in Springfield to address the General Assembly over the mounting crisis in the state.  At one point, Ken Dunkin stood to applaud the President, to wit, President Obama told him to sit down, and that they would talk later.  I’m not sure if they ever talked, but Obama sent a clear message, not only endorsing Dunkin’s opponent, but actually recording radio ads for her.  Rauner and his supporters spent a lot of money trying to support Dunkin, and to support people running against the current Illinois Speaker of the House.

This evening, the dust settled, and Governor Rauner must be feeling very, very alone.  Not only did the Speaker survive, but his ally Ken Dunkin was crushed.  Much like the state he is presiding over: a lot of money and time wasted, and nothing to show.

Another race that got significantly less attention was in the race for Cook County State’s Attorney.  Anita Alvarez was the incumbent, and she had a history of going after kids with a vengeance … she had wracked up a huge number of convictions against school aged kids, and seemed very unwilling to give kids second chances for relatively minor offenses.  Thus, it may have come as a shock when the Chicago Teachers’ Union, for the first time ever, endorsed a candidate in this race, and chose against her.  It seems odd … you would think that in a world of stereotypes that teachers would want troublemakers as far out of the classroom as possible.  But maybe there is something to teachers really wanting to help kids.  Alvarez went down hard.  Somewhere, there was a loud thud in the mayor’s home … if someone can mount a popular candidacy against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel in a few years, his days, too, may be numbered.

The days of our governor chirping about a mandate that no one else saw must be very far away now … he was elected based on the “we have no choice” philosophy, and now it must finally be sinking in that there is no outside help coming to rescue him, and that the people have told him that the make up of the General Assembly is not going to change much, except for the removal of his allies.  The time has come for the governor to come to the negotiating table and negotiate.  Illinois does not generally tolerate extremism, and the dog and pony show that the Congress ran by refusing to negotiate wore thin almost immediately.  The governor needs to start creating some change by negotiation, lest he end up simply wasting four years as the state’s financial future turns more bleak.

And then it happened …

March 2, 2016

This has been a rough year at school, but my one saving grace has been my upper level classes.  These kids have been great kids to work with.  Problems have been very minimal.  The only major problem I’ve had has been attendance, which is at a historic low over the past two months.  As we go hurtling through change which does not always come with a lot of good reasoning behind it, and you see a lot of changes that are hurting kids, you start to feel bad.  I am pretty sure that after many years, my depression has returned.

Then last Friday arrived.  After that, I knew my depression was back.

As part of SOP, when students are not quick about making up tests (and I have had a lot of kids not making things up quickly because of long term illnesses, long weekends out of state, practice, etc, the last two months have seen an abnormally long time for me to return tests.  There isn’t much I can do about it.  In the past, you gave kids “Zeroes”. This isn’t allowed anymore.  I would have put in zeroes, but a lot of kids would have been in inordinate trouble as colleges asked for four week grade reports.  I waited, and some kids started getting anxious about their tests coming back.  I tried to explain to them the problem.

On Friday, I was called in to my boss’ office.  She had been visited by 8 students the day before. One complaint was the tests.  The other was that I had created a sexist environment in the class in which boys were favored, and that young ladies were put down and made to feel stupid.

I started feeling faint.  I started sweating badly, and was at a complete loss for words.  This had been one of my best classes ever, and this accusation hit me like a ton of bricks from nowhere.  I was numb.  Over the weekend, I went as far as looking for job alternatives.  I didn’t feel angry … I was just not feeling anything.  I got next to no sleep.

My boss told me that she couldn’t believe this.  That was nice to hear, but at a moment when you feel that vulnerable you start to get very paranoid, and I could only hope that she was being honest with me.  I tried going back to think what I could have done or said.  Nothing.  I can be a bit sarcastic at times, but I cannot ever remember directing this toward a student.  I am very sensitive about this because in the past, I remember very keenly saying things that accidentally upset students and changing my tact accordingly.

I had a meeting with our assistant principal.  He also was very reassuring that he was not capable of believing this … even said that if his kids were in high school he would want them in my class … again, it was half -reassuring.  We all decided that I needed information, so I composed a brief survey.I had the kids type up the answers and print them out without any identifying marks.  I wasn’t in the room … I had my department chair sit in the class.

I read over the surveys.  About half of them were just puzzles … kids who didn’t understand what was going on.  Some included side compliments for running a great class.

The others were surreal and virulent.  Accusations of favoring the boys by answering their questions, but refusing to ever give a girl a straight answer … giving dirty looks at girls for having their cell phones out, but saying nothing to guys … telling one girl that her answer was absolutely wrong, but then praising her male lab partner for the same answer. Some young ladies said that they refused to ask questions because I always “called them out” and made them feel stupid.  One student said she would be advising future students to never take my class because I was so abusive to students.

Most of my colleagues have told me flat out that these girls are lying.  Quite a few teachers used some rather derogatory comments toward my students.  Even the principal told me that he thinks that there is something not right from the student side of this story.  The only one who hasn’t accused them of lying has been me.

One accusation said that I was sarcastic, and that sometimes she couldn’t tell if I was joking or not.  That’s a serious piece of critique that I need to follow up on.  The rest was so virulent that I must accept that these students are genuinely angry, and not simply making it up.  Yet, I know I have not done these things.  I feel completely over a barrel.  I can’t proclaim innocence, I can’t say they are wrong, and my career is kind of hanging in the balance … and I’m still not sure why.

I have heard stories of teachers who were falsely accused of things in the classroom, and who walked away.  Some because they didn’t have an administration to support them, and some because they had lost a lot of faith in humanity. I’m lucky that I have the former, and I am frightened to death that the latter is coming more and more into focus.  One colleague told me that this sounded exactly like the many stories of thin-skinned college protesters and their so-called “micro-aggressions” being magnified in scope and used as weapons.  I just couldn’t buy it.

This class had been one of the best classes I had ever had … genuinely nice kids who worked hard (The class average is over 84%, so that isn’t an issue).  I can’t in any way convey how much of a blindside this has been.  At no point did I ever pick up on anyone hinting that there was a problem.  I surveyed my other classes, and there was nothing there.  Yet, here is the problem.

My first duty is to try and offer a fix to this somehow, but I am still searching for the right approach … one that isn’t accusatory or condescending or that comes across as passive-aggressive.  In 22 years of teaching, this is almost as bad as when I had to deal with some colleagues trying to get a superior fired.  I just haven’t found a way to a solution.  Somehow I will find a way through this … but I am very afraid that the damage is going to be very difficult to undue.