Friday, April 22, 2011

My Greatest Professional Triumph is Anonymous

Perhaps it's a bit hyperbolic, but among an English teacher's dreams, the idea of having a student become a published author or poet ranks pretty high. Well, thanks to one of my creative writing students, I've now accomplished this dream.

Note the focus. She has an accomplishment. I talk about myself. This is intrinsic to the profession; her accomplishment is mine, even though I played a tiny role. A whole lot of other teachers taught this student to read and write, and clearly she has a great deal of innate talent, but when she becomes a published poet, I get to brag.

After hearing about her publication from a colleague (who deserves just as much or more credit, but this is about me here, right?) I asked the student if I could brag about her tonight. I hope she felt proud in that moment, because I'm certainly proud of her.

But she chose to have the poem published without her name! When you read the poem, you'll understand why. It's quite personal, and though it might not be her actual experience that she's expressing, it must hit close enough to home to make her hesitant to share her identity. Fine. I still get to claim my little piece of credit. I do wish she'd put her name on it though, because, separate from her emotional experience, it's a fine work of craftsmanship. When I link to it, you can see that she has skill which goes beyond the considerable power of the content.

My other reason for wanting her to get credit is that it messes with my own. Instead of being able to say, "I taught ---- --------, the one who had that powerful poem published a few years ago," I have to say, "I taught Anonymous."

On second thought, that's plenty poetic. So, thanks Anonymous. Thank you for the inspiration to me, as a teacher, and thanks for your courage in sharing your work, even if your name isn't attached. You'll be known (if only to the few readers of this poem, but they will remember you) by your work alone, and there's a special dignity to that which is rare in our world of people obsessed with taking credit. I'm glad you didn't learn that particular impulse from me. Your poem is wonderful.

So, without further ado, I give you Anonymous' "No Lollipop."

Now just try and tell me that didn't kick you in the gut. Yeah, she was one of my students.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Pity the Suffering Rich II: Olbermann Remix

I wrote a very long piece about self-defeating poor- and middle-class conservatives who vote against their own self interest because they buy into the illusion that they will one day be rich. Olbermann said it better and more succinctly:

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Noah as Mini-Me

I zipped home from a conference so I could be here for this: Noah played the role of "Mini-Me" for one of our students, Bjorn Olsen, in an annual fundraiser, the Mr. and Ms. Central Pageant. Noah was great. He's so comfortable on a stage in front of hundreds of people that it is particularly awe-inspiring to his introvert mother. She couldn't get over it, and we were both very proud.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Nightmare and Prayer

Today has been strange. As is so often the case, a strange day is a product of an even stranger night, but the particular quality of my current displacement and discomfort (psychic, geographic, and philosophical) is difficult to connect directly to the last night's nocturnal adventure. So let's ease into the weird by beginning from the present and moving backwards.

I'm sitting in the elegant but unusually dark lobby of a large hotel on the banks of the Willamette River, on an island in that river, in fact. Outside the rain that has been falling all day seems to have lost some of its passion and settled into a bored, blue-collar drizzle against the massive windows that surround the room. The large, oddly breast-shaped chandeliers are on but can't compete with the flat grayness that stretches all the way down each window to a fog on the surface of the river.

I'm waiting for my room to be ready. I'm here for the annual Representative Assembly of the state chapter of my union, the Oregon Education Association. I serve on a committee that was tasked to write a plan to educate the public about the importance of public school teachers in order to inoculate Oregon against the virulent anti-teacher fever that has been afflicting other states recently, and to prepare our own members should Oregon come down with the disease. I've never attended the RA before, nor have I participated in presenting a document of this kind on the floor of a large, formal assembly in this way, so I'm out of my element.

And I'm also not in my room because it's still not ready. I knew I would show up too early for the room. Most folks are coming in this evening because they have to teach a full day today, but our district had to cut days out of the school year because of budgetary concerns. I'm here early to stand up for teachers because schools are already embattled enough that my services as a teacher were not required today. That is the opposite of irony.

Because I knew there would be no school today, and because I hate to miss work for doctor's appointments, I scheduled my annual skin check at the dermatologist for this morning. I'm genetically predisposed to a particularly aggressive kind of skin cancer, so I go in annually to have an expert measure my moles to make sure they aren't growing or changing color. I strip down to my boxers and he takes pictures of my legs, back, and chest. Then he measures each mole in millimeters with a ruler, notes the sizes in my chart, and, assuming he doesn't feel the need to remove another with a miniature apple corer, sends me on my way. It's something I have to do just frequently enough that it never feels normal.

After the appointment I drove up here to the hotel. I was pretty sure I knew how to find it, but I wanted to try out the GPS function on my new phone. While I listened to a book on tape, a woman's urgent voice interrupted to tell me that she kept losing touch with the satellite. She didn't tell me that they patched up their relationship, but she continued giving me directions, so I assumed that her troubled marriage wouldn't prevent me from reaching my destination. Then I found myself on a bridge entering the state of Washington. It seemed entirely implausible that the Oregon Education Association would have its largest meeting if the year out-of-state, so I turned around. The woman on my phone must have felt terrible about letting her personal issues get in the way of doing her job, because once she started giving me directions again she hyper-focused in the neighborhood in Vancouver, Washington where I'd decided to turn around. When I was back in Oregon and in the parking lot of the hotel, she was still trying to tell me how to make the proper U-turn to find the freeway. I really hope she works things out with the satellite before I need her help again, because she's lost without him.

Too early to check in, I got some lunch at Taco Bell. Still too early, I went back to my car and took a nap in the driver’s seat. I am a very good napper. The ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime is my most impressive talent. Thanks to the assistance of the Taco Bell lunch, I had a strange dream that may become the seed of a small town murder mystery novel someday.

When I woke up I was completely disoriented. With my stocking cap pulled down over my eyes, my clues about my whereabouts consisted of my strange position in the reclined driver's seat, the heat of my winter coat and the comparative cold around my belly button where it had ridden up, and the plinking of large drops of water falling from the pine trees onto the roof of my car.

I reached back into my memory for some sense of my location, and this is what I found: I was not in the same place I was when I woke up from the nightmare last night, but I was equally unsure where I was.

I rarely have dreams. Or, to be more precise, I probably dream just as much as anyone else but rarely have dreams worthy of remembering, and almost never have dreams vivid enough to wake me up. Even the plot if today's cop drama is evaporating... Yes, there it goes, another genre I'll probably never try my hand at now. Last night's dream was, in every way I can think of, exceptional.

It wasn't a nightmare. Not at first, anyway. Upon waking one never knows how much of a dream was experienced and how much was exposition, but in the dream I understood that I was the director of a play on Broadway. I also knew it was a revival of something so well known, and which had been done so successfully before, that my attempt to bring it to the stage was probably doomed to failure. So instead of putting the play on again in exactly the way the audience would expect, I decided to present an interpretation depicting the dramatization of a production of the play. “Meta” is very “in” after all. So, not only was I the director, but I was an actor playing the director. Just as the play within the play was reaching its climax, the play about the production spiraled into a chaos of bodies crawling around in white, tattered robes flashing in strange lighting that made them look ghostly. I, as an actor playing the director, crouched on my knees watching the play my character was trying to direct, and these ghost figures pulled on my clothes, tugging me in every direction while I tried to shout, “Get away from me! Get away from me!” (I don’t think it’s the best line, but I guess I was not the writer.) Though I have a loud voice, I’d chosen to act like I was so scared I could hardly cry out. The words strained through my throat in a molasses moan.

But I wasn’t afraid. I was enjoying the fact that the audience was eating it up. Instead of another bored re-telling of a story they knew by heart, they were enthralled by the frightening image of a director trying to bring that story to them and being torn apart by the impossibility of the task. It was going really well.

Suddenly I couldn’t feel the hands of the other actors. I couldn’t hear their screams and wails. I couldn’t hear the music coming from the pit. The white lights, not quite a strobe because they flashed inconsistently, now disappeared entirely. In the total darkness I could only feel one hand on my shoulder, and instead of pulling at my clothes it was pushing me gently.

“Ben?” My wife’s voice, barely a whisper, slid through the darkness. “Ben, you were making noise like you were having a scary dream.”

I think I grunted.

“You sounded really scared.”

I knew that I hadn’t been. But now I was. I couldn’t remember what play I’d been responsible for putting on. Was this part of it? If so, I couldn’t remember what to do next. What was my line? What was my blocking? Where was the audience? Where was I?

Now I was terrified. I didn’t respond to my wife but looked around and ticked-off the clues that led me to slowly deduce I was in my bed, in my room, in my house. But that didn’t alleviate my fear. What had the play been? Was I still responsible for it?

I went to the bathroom, drank some water, and tromped down the stairs. There was not time for ninja-style tip-toeing. The screen of my laptop fills the living room with an ethereal light. I was in no mood for that. I flicked on the kitchen light before plopping down to write a description of my dream-turned-nightmare.

That was 3:13 am.

Now I’ve slept in my car and am ready for tonight’s events. But I can’t shake the feeling. The terror has stopped flowing, but, in its stillness, a fuzzy, slimy anxiety has grown along the bottom of my consciousness. Since last night’s performance, I’ve already played so many roles. Some were more genuine than others. I was the father and husband saying goodbye before a short trip. I was the careful driver on a rainy freeway. But some roles required more acting ability than I actually possess. I pretended to be the kind of person who isn’t bothered when a right-wing friend posts demonstrably erroneous jabs on his Facebook page, but succeeded only in stewing about my biting reply all day. I tried to act like the kind of patient who feels completely comfortable when nearly-naked in a doctor’s examination room but only barely managed to swallow my nervous jokes. I smiled and said it was no problem when the first reception desk clerk told me my room wasn’t ready, and that was the truth. I was hungry anyway. I told the second it was no problem even though it meant I’d be taking a nap in my car instead of a bed, then smiled and told the third I didn’t mind after I woke up. By then I was acting, although I would also have been acting if I’d decided to play the role of the guy who vents his frustration at the completely innocent desk clerk. My smiles only grew into overly-amiable shams as the afternoon wore on.

Tonight I’ll play a new role. I’ll stand with the other members of my committee in front of six hundred people and take credit or blame for the report we’ve written. It will be a bit of improv. Then I’ll go to a reception where I’ll pretend to be comfortable among those same six hundred strangers. Depending on the way they receive the report, my props may have higher alcohol contents.

And then I will go to bed in a hotel room. If I was discombobulated while waking from dreams first in my own room, then in my car, I can only assume I’ll be more confused staring at a ceiling I’ve never seen before, surrounded by soft wallpaper and under the gaze of what I predict will be either an inoffensive piece of neutered modern art or a near-sighted expressionist’s landscape of a farm.
But before I sleep, I’ll play one other role. I’ll be the macro-blogger who desperately wants to believe that someone reads ridiculously long posts on their computer screens. I’ll toss up this whole story. And then I’ll say a little digital prayer.

“Hello, you gods of high speed internet and Buddhas of dial-up. It’s me, Ben. If you’re there Yahweh or Quetzalcoatl or Vishnu or Cthulu, could you do me a favor? Please don’t wait until I am asleep to reach over and shake me awake. Be gentle, but let me know what play I’m in. Thanks.”

Central High's Worst Dressed Teacher Court Assembly

I'm so proud of my staff today. At Central High, we do an annual teacher court to spoof the courts for homecoming and prom. We found out we were going to be on Teacher Court on Tuesday and put this together in two days. Making it a "worst Dressed" competition was Roseanna Larson's idea, and it was brilliant. The kids loved watching us humiliate ourselves. And really, isn't that what teaching high school is all about? Adil Abounadi and Shane Hedrick were such good sports at the end that I expect we'll be hearing about this assembly for at least the next four years. Pretty great day at work.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Save the NWP!

Thousands of teachers who have benefited from the National Writing Project are now blogging on its behalf, and Tweeting about it at #blog4NWP. "In March President Barack Obama signed a bill eliminating direct federal funding for the National Writing Project, so NWP teachers are fighting to get its funding reinstated the best way they know how: with writing." I want to throw my hat into the ring and let everyone know how important the National Writing Project is, and how much of a return on investment it offers the U.S. taxpayer, so you can help us save this valuable program.

I’m a high school English teacher at Central High School in Independence, Oregon. I became aware of the NWP because a colleague from another district told me about the wonderful experience she’d had at the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University the year before. I applied and was given an opportunity to take part in this continuing education opportunity thanks to the grant offered through the NWP. Compared to other educational reform initiatives, the outlay for the American taxpayer was minimal. Essentially, it paid for some graduate credits through the University. It's the organization provided through the NWP that makes this so much more than a handful of discrete classes. Now let me tell you about the results of that investment.

Over the course of the summer institute, I was exposed to cutting edge research and experienced educators who had been putting best practices to work in their schools for years. Not only did I leave the program with a host of new lessons, but with a framework for completely revamping the way writing instruction occurs at my high school. Part of the application process for the program involves a guarantee by building administrators that they will set aside some time for institute participants to present what they’ve learned. We also have to make a commitment to share our new knowledge with our staffs, and have to come back in the fall and report on the success of those efforts. When I shared what I’d learned through the NWP, my colleagues got very excited. We have completely changed the way we provide writing instruction, not just in English classes, but across all departments. That means that 900 kids are benefiting this year from an investment that cost the taxpayer less a sixth of what they pay for a single student in a given year. And the benefits of this investment will continue to grow. Not only will those 900 kids be better writers, but because we’ve changed the way we teach that small government investment will affect thousands of kids.

Now, I know this is anecdotal, but if other participants receive even a fraction of the buy-in from their building staffs that I have received, the NWP will improve the educations of millions of American public school students, and, when compared to the impact of the program, the outlay is tiny. The NWP is a great example of the kind of responsible, effective governance everyone can agree on. Please help us protect this valuable program for the sake of our students.

(Here's another idea: Perhaps the Fed could give the NWP a massive loan (say, $26 Billion) at an interest rate of less than 1%. Then, they could allow the NWP to use that money to loan the federal government money at much higher interest rates. The resulting income would more than cover all the NWPs expenses. Does this sound like a crazy way to fund a government program? Well then, why did we offer that same deal to the Central Bank of Libya? I think it's safe to say the investment in the NWP will benefit the United States a lot more than a gift to Muammar Qaddafi.)

Please, learn more here and contact your representative. Share my alternative funding idea, if you think it would help.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

John Boehner Replies to My Letter

On March 6th I sent a letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell regarding a rally held in Yorba Linda, California. The rally was one of the most hateful things I've ever seen, and the hatred was directed at American citizens. The ostensible reason for the protest was that the fundraiser at an Islamic community center, which was raising money for local charities, featured a speaker who had voiced views the protesters disagreed with. Regardless of their initial reason, as the guests at the community center came in, the protesters screamed out religious slurs of all kinds at the men, women, and children. Three of the speakers at the rally were Republican elected officials. I asked Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader McConnell to take action to make it clear that the Republican Party is not the party of hatred and would not allow the members of Boehners caucus to stand for this kind of hate speech toward American Muslims. At the end of my post, I promised to post any reply I received from either Boehner or McConnell.

Well, I did receive a reply from Speaker Boehner today:

April 1, 2011

Mr. Benjamin Gorman
219 Grand St
Independence, OR 97351-2111

Dear Mr. Gorman:

Thank you for taking the time to contact me. It's good to hear from you.

Your ideas, comments, and questions help make possible my goal of leading a House of Representatives that listens and reflects the will of the American people. That's why I'd like to ask you to keep speaking out by:

* Visiting to sign up for email updates on issues that concern you;
* Offering your solutions and engaging other Americans on the challenges facing our country at;
* Joining the conversation on; and
* Connecting with my office on

I made a Pledge to America to focus on removing government barriers to private-sector job creation and economic growth - that includes cutting spending to help end the uncertainty facing job creators; repealing the job-crushing health care law and replacing it with common sense reforms that lower costs; reining in excessive regulations; and promoting an American Energy Initiative that increases energy production to create jobs and lower energy prices. I also pledged to lead an effort to reform Congress and rebuild the bonds of trust between the American people and their representatives in Washington. I hope you'll stay engaged and keep me updated on your thoughts as we work to keep this pledge.

Thank you again for contacting me and please stay in touch.


John Boehner
Speaker of the House

Okay, so let's assume this was a form letter and not an April Fool's joke. This man is being asked to defend his party from the charge that it knowingly includes elected officials who participate in hate rallies directed at Americans. His response is that he's working on private-sector job creation and repealing health care reform. This strikes me as both wholly unsatisfying and disturbingly nonchalant in the face of this situation. "Speaker Boehner, is your party the party of Islamophobic hatred?" "Um, here are some other things I'm working on right now." Unacceptable.

I'll take his advice and post links to this and my initial letter on his Facebook page and the website he recommends. Hopefully that will encourage him to respond to my concerns in a more serious, thoughtful way.

I tried to post this concern to both the Facebook page Speaker Boehner mentions, and the website where he directed me. His Facebook page does not allow wall-to-wall posts, and it didn't feel right to tack this on in a comment to one of his unrelated posts. Apparently when you join the conversation, that entails responding to his posts or being rude and hijacking them. The other site was even less friendly. If I didn't want to post an idea within four categories, none of which seemed appropriate, I could post it in "other". I tried, but it won't accept links and has a word structure wherein I would be throwing out an accusation for people to vote up or down, rather than asking for a response from the Speaker. I don't want to know whether those random, anonymous strangers think it's a good idea for Boehner to do something about hate-speech coming out of his caucus. I want him to do something about hate-speech coming out of his caucus! The fact that the mechanisms Boehner directed me to make it so difficult to get a real answer reinforces my view that the Republican Party, at least under Speaker Boehner's leadership, is willing to tolerate this kind of hatred of Americans and doesn't have the slightest intention of even listening to requests that they stand up for American Muslims.

Update II:
I asked for a reply via Twitter. We'll see.

Google is making fun of my idea!

Back in June of 2007, I posted an idea about touch-screen laptops here. I even sent the idea to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and asked them for $100,000 and a working prototype (a rockin' deal for them, in my opinion). No dice.

Of course, Google reads everything on the web, and someone there must have come across this paragraph:

"Oh, and since laptops can be fitted with cameras (many already have them internally) and a couple of manufacturers are already working with tabletop computers that identify the motions of hands using two cameras and parallax, why not do that on a laptop, so the person doesn't even have to touch the screen, just lift their hands off of the keyboard and manipulate the information by waving their hands like those cool ads with Jay Z? If no one is already working on this, I'm selling this idea for a cool $200,000. And a working model, of course."

Instead of paying me, for their annual April Fool's joke they made this awesome video. Turns out my idea does not make you look as cool as Jay-Z. It makes you look like a total dork. Fine, Google! I can take a hint!