Smoke. How I love watching it curl into the night air. Gray against the blackness of the dim night. Stars peeking out from behind the somber clouds, their faint light further obscured by the emanating ember of my fingertips, by the plumes I exhale upon vodka-tainted breath.
Ah, if only the kids knew what I was really like outside the classroom.
It has been a spell, certainly, dear reader(s), and I can run through my numerous excuses as to why I haven’t put finger to keyboard in some time. Certainly, my personal journal is stained in all manner of mad scribbles (courtesy of a sexy, new fountain pen), but I find myself lacking – wanting – when it comes time to pen things for my poor, beleaguered blog.
Inspiration; when did she desert me?
Teaching, I suppose, has consumed my day-to-day Life, as I find myself in a constant battle to keep ahead of grading (like the Germans in world wars, I consistently lose) and I oft struggle to present new information in an interesting, and engaging, manner. Wearing a bathrobe to work helps, but woe to the new teacher forced into a dull curriculum that focuses on teaching-for-the-test and not on critical thinking.
Here’s where I make a typical excuse about how I’m pressed for time due to being a tired teacher with no recourse from grading an e’er growing mound of papers and spending all my free hours volunteering about the school. How difficult it is, then, to be a poor, beleaguered teacher beset on all side by obligations.
My favorite teachers were those men and women who treated their students like humans. Not as little sponges ready to absorb information and be able to recite it at some future date, but those educators who put themselves on our level so that we might better be able to understand and perform to their exacting standards. Those teachers who worked us like dogs, but treated us as people. Those instructors who were so knowledgeable and passionate about the subject you couldn’t help but become infected by their enthusiasm. Those beacons of Hope in the endless sea that is public education; those foundations for achieving greatness; those brilliant souls who worked tirelessly, never complained, and pushed you ever onward on the path to self-enlightenment.
I attended New Mexico Military Institute for my high school years, skipping out on my hometown, not out of malice or for discipline reasons, but for a jumpstart to something different. Here, I thought, I can achieve greatness.
I certainly didn’t achieve greatness (though I did attain a certain level of infamy in the English department for my brazen shenanigans), but I was put on the straight and narrow by a number of my instructors.
Christ, how come sometimes it is so easy to write drivel that people might actually read, but when it comes time to pen something worth thinking about – pondering in a Socratic manner – I freeze up and nothing comes stumbling forth? I feel like one of my students, looking up at me with those forlorn, hopeless eyes that seem to say in a silent scream, “Why are you doing this to me? I can’t write.”
Fuck all; you think I can?
This is Where I Lose My Shit
I have some brilliant writers. Little fuckers who are going places with their written word. Youths who have captured that emotion so eloquently and powerfully that they’ve no choice but to succeed and excel. Sure, it is easy to dismiss much of what teenagers have to say as little more than angst, or hormones, or impotent rage, but a select few have transcended this stereotype for the better.
I mean, fuck, I read the things these kids share with me and I wonder how come I’m not capturing raw emotion like that. To be 15 or 16 and to write about the things going on in their lives – in their heads – so powerfully, with such gusto, how can I not be impressed? I cannot name names, obviously, but if any of you little bastards are reading this, you know who you are.
And you know I mean that with the utmost respect. From writer to writer.
And as I always tell them: don’t stop writing.
Oh, how easy is it to give in and call it a day. This is shit. Probably yes, but the important thing is you’ve written it. Not everything you pen will be golden – that’s part of the writing process – but the fact my young charges are out there trying to find their voice in the tempest that is high school, puberty, hormones, and problems at home, well, fuck, they are doing mighty fine enough.
Today I dressed up as Charles Bukowski. Basically I wore a bathrobe and had a small tumbler filled with Coke (I am told, under no circumstances, that I’m not actually allowed to drink on campus; so much for my margarita machine for the teacher’s lounge idea). We are working on poetry projects, and to model a good presentation (and wear a bathrobe to work), I showcased So You Want to be a Writer by that grumpy curmudgeon Bukowski. Frankly, I thought it went very well. One must have fun at work, right; otherwise, what’s the damned point?
My slideshow presentation ended with Bukowski’s mantra emblazoned upon the board for all to see. In huge, bold, obnoxious letters, it stated: Don’t try.
God. Damn. You’d think I shot someone in front of those kids with their stunned looks as they read those words.
Don’t try. Don’t try? A teacher is telling us to “don’t try?!” Indeed I am, my charges, for someone has to elucidate you with alternative opinions.
Let’s be real for a moment regarding public education. Foremost, I love my job. Little bastards keep me motivated and ready to kick ass every single day. Sure, some days are more taxing than others, but I reckon that is true for any job. But dealing with 150+ kids day in and day out, well, someone has to shake the foundation of lies they’ve been sacrificed upon.
Kids are taught from a very young age that a high score is the equivalent of excellence. An A+, a 100%, these are the things kids of all ages are taught – indoctrinated – to achieve because high scores equates to higher self-worth. If I achieve high scores on everything I do, so their understanding goes, then everything in Life will be easier and within my grasp.
Kids – especially teenagers – are not little automatons we can constantly shuffle toward the meat grinder that is standardized testing. Kids are not mindless beings who must be forced to learn by rote memorization and recalling such things weeks down the road. How many of you fuckers can remember who conquered the Incan Empire? And what was the last Incan emperor’s name?
Don’t Google it; just answer the goddamned question.
Why in the thousand seas of fucks of Hell are we having kindergartners writing paragraphs – fucking paragraphs – when they should be picking their noses and complaining about cooties whilst running about like wild Indians on the playground? Why can’t young men wear ball caps in class? Why can’t young ladies wear their summer hoochie shorts to class? Why did starting a chess club raise such a rumpus? Why are we singing the virtues of football and cheerleading over innovation and true excellence? Why, and this is the most important bit, why can’t we let our kids express themselves without fear of reprisals?
Yes, I admit, childhood is a product of the 19th century, but when did we decide to create little worker bees instead of human beings? What good does it serve when every child is taught to express themselves the same way, that an essay only has five paragraphs, that art is only what has been done before and must be copied, that school ultimately doesn’t matter because you’re going to college anyway and there you’ll really learn?
What, in the flying fuck of a shit tempest, are we doing to ourselves? We, as Americans, wonder why the Vikings continuously beat the shit out of us every year in international testing, but we fail to see the glaring answer looking us in our fat, capitalist faces: they innovate. They allow children to be children. They allow youths to find themselves within the confines of the classroom.
And we, comrades, are bound by an overarching administration – an oligarchy – that controls what we teach and how we teach it. Not just in my county, not just in my state, but at a federal level too. All 10th graders must be able to identify a seminal document and write a comprehensive, critical review of the piece. Bor. Ing. Sure, I will teach a seminal document – because history is important – but expecting kids, especially the slow ones, to suddenly be at a certain level because we have a high and mighty pacing guide is absurd and unrealistic.
When did we start treating kids as numbers in a system, as benchmarks, as thresholds, as fucking statistics, and stop treating them as people?
I love my job. I love working with those bright, shining stars – those kids who will one day have their names in history books – and I love working with those kids who will amount to little else. You have to take the good and the bad; tis part of the job.
But lately, Christ, lately it feels like a lot of bad is being cast upon my charges. They are expected to be groomed for standardized testing, to be able to do things they’ve little interest in, to be neat, cookie cutter clones of one another, where originality is frowned upon and self-expression is akin to murder.
Hogwash, I say, for I shall endeavor to ensure my charges – my budding authors, poets, journalists, doodlers, workmen, CEOs, and more – are allowed to be themselves. Sure, the path of knowledge is long and arduous, but many of them are showing promise beyond their means. Maybe they suck shit at essay writing, but they’ll bring your heart to a standstill as you read one of their creative pieces. Maybe they never turn anything in on time, but when you catch them one-on-one discussing poetry, you’ll find yourself surprised at their keen insight and deeper understanding. They could be serial killer quiet in class but their poetry – at 15-years-old – will impress you.
Those kids are our future, and we are doing them a disservice by expecting clones. Don’t try, kids. You’re better than that. You’re better than this system that doesn’t have your best interests at mind. You’re better than a system with its head so far up its proverbial ass, it can see through murky eyes.
Fuck the system. You do you, kids. Now finished your goddamned poetry projects and let’s raise hell.
As a new teacher, I promised myself I wouldn’t return to my classroom throughout the bulk of summer, only entering those magnificent halls once August rolled around. This promise was made to preserve what little sanity I have left, and, as any teacher will attest, it’s simply bad juju for the nerves to visit school during the off-season. Who the hell wants to work during vacation, right?
August First being a holiday, and the second being designated Wine Recovery Day, it wasn’t until the third I finally ventured to those quiet grounds consecrated in the name of furthering erudition. I set about the laborious task of cleaning off the walls (to make room for future pupils’ artwork) and rifling through stacks of papers (who left those about?) to get the classroom back in working order. The likes of Marx, Plato, and Socrates watched in complete silence as I set about my task, never once complaining that my weird fascination with Finnish metal was maybe a bit too loud.
In the middle of my favorite part of a particular piece, the solemnity of my room was invaded by the likes of the head custodian, who proceeded to lecture me for transgressions months old. How was I supposed to know marking on the floor with semi-permanent marker was verboeten? Nobody tells me nu’fink, guv.
After her lovely list of DON’T’S and DEFINITELY DON’T’S, she left me to my 12 Labors. As I set about returning to my task, my principal entered with a sad smile: clearly someone had died.
Well, no, not really.
But she was visibly upset as she relayed the news: I had been transferred to the 10th grade and placed in charge of every. single. honors. class.
She had me sit as she explained the full scoop. No longer was I Mr. Bruelhart, Crusher of 9th Grade Dreams and Draconian Disciplinarian with a Penchant for Fun; no. Now I was Mr. Bruelhart, Upended First Year Teacher with 12 Days to Rewrite My Summer’s Work for a 10th Grade Audience.
The title is a bit long, I’ll admit, but orders are orders and the title stays.
I have oft joked that schooling is an awful lot like the military: your superiors are fighting to prevent being outflanked and outgunned by their superiors, boots on the ground catch all the flak, no one of any rank has any idea what is going on outside their immediate vicinity, departments don’t communicate with other departments, logistics is a nightmare, orders are consistently countermanded (at least thrice), and the uniform regulations are constantly changing because fuck you that’s why.
In that moment as she relayed my transfer/promotion/maybe we can make him quit by playing musical teachers/reassignment, I was one part confused, one part upset, and one part elated.
Confused, because, hell, why me? I’ve only been doing this gig for a single semester. How can these people trust me to teach Honors English? For you out-of-state types, Honors is the Advanced Placement equivalent without all the fluff and nifty upper level guidelines. Thankfully I attended two Advanced Placement workshops this summer – time to put that book learnin’ to use!
Upset, because I found out about this rather significant plot development less than two weeks before school starts. Surely someone in the know could have contacted me about the transfer when orders came down from higher. And unlike a normal job, I cannot barter for more pay or privileges when a transfer is possible – not in the teacher world! Now I have to take all of my summer’s labors and tweak them for upper level, (theoretically) motivated kids who are far past the realms of Romeo and Juliet. Pain in the bottom, to be sure, but nothing that will kill me. The grinding of the teeth ended hours ago, I assure you.
Elated, because, Hell. Yeah. I get to teach Honors! And 10th grade! Imagine the look on those kids’ faces as they receive their schedules, thinking they are rid of me for good as I wallow in Freshman English, only to see ENGLISH II: BRUELHART. Ha! Fate, you magnificent bitch; this is comedic gold. What’s more, Honors is supposed to be a more strenuous and difficult classroom environment – no more telegraphing or pulling punches. These kids gon’ learn today. And Julius Caesar. I get to teach Julius Caesar! Strength and honor, comrades.
There are many times throughout our lives where we are presented with a vast change that dictates the ebb and flow of things to come. Going from 9th to 10th grade with only a semester’s experience isn’t exactly ideal, but it isn’t the worst thing to have suddenly arrived from out of the blue. On the contrary, this seems minor, all things considered. A change, most certainly, and one that shall be met head on with gusto.
That’s the least we can do, no? Rather than whimper as a beaten hound, or find a craven way out, we must keep moving forward. This isn’t the time for complaining; no, far from it. This is the time to seize the day and make something better through adversity.
Ultreia, then, is apt. We keep moving forward. 9th, 10th, whatever. This setback is going to be the catalyst of progress and change – and how I relish chaos.
There’s a notch in the fence where a board has given way; a three-inch indention in the warped wood; the perfect amount of space to put a beer. Allows one to take a drag from a cigarette whilst simultaneously running one’s fingers through their hair, taking in the beauty of suburbia – that singular moment to contemplate and concern.
Yes, even suburbia can be beautiful, if one merely takes the time to admire.
The euphoria of finishing a book from cover to cover as lazy, gray smoke lists playfully about in the calm air; a feeling with few compatriots.
You can hear the laughter of neighborhood children as they chase one another up and down the block, giving Life to their still undaunted imaginations. Innocence before the misery of Real Life comes crashing through like a maddened bull against a Spanish matador, horns raised, red flashing, cheering crowds, and the abject danger of Man versus Beast as a single misstep can spell either victory or crushing defeat.
An apt metaphor for Life.
The beer teeters precariously in a sudden breeze, the old wood shaking ever so gently at the nudging of Zephyr. But it doesn’t fall – of course not. The beer – the stimulus – that can never fall.
Tobacco and paper burn together as they are inhaled inward. In a few moments, the delightful toxins are expelled in a plume of smoke and sigh of satisfaction. A swig of swill washes the acrid taste down.
You can look through the glass door and see the piles. Stacks of them, haphazardly arranged as if Ajax and Hector were tossing their Trojan boulders about, hopelessly aiming to slay one another with but a well-placed stone, always missing their mark and adding to the battlefield Chaos.
Monuments of knowledge and history and philosophy and warfare and womanizing and politics and chivalry and poetry and madness and tales and myths and legends. Thrown about the room as if Katrina had worked her mischievous way to the bowels of Paper Town, New Mexico, her mighty gales picking up each stack and depositing them about the place without reason. What use had Nature – Knowledge – for Reason?
In a structured Life of Order and Balance, the piles were anything but. They represented the face one cannot show the world: this is me.
These, philosophically gesturing to the askew piles, are me.
Where the heretical mix with the orthodox and the deviant with the pristine. Where the drunkard laughs along with the teetotaler, while the Muses sing songs of poverty and richness to the tune of iambic pentameter and spontaneous prose. Where the traveler on the road is met by Logic and Reason but quickly accosted by Imagination and Stream of Consciousness. This unstructured Chaos, this ode to madness, these, these! These very piles – this is me.
Books, of course.
Piles of them.
Books still in boxes. Books in bookcases, in bookshelves, on the coffee table, on the kitchen table, on the writing desk, on the painting desk, on the record player, the laptop, the sofa, the nightstand, the bed, the kitchen counters. Books in piles thrown about the place in absolutely every room, growing here and there by the day, an escape, an outlet, to worlds far more intriguing than the one of laughing suburban children.
Tomes filled with dangerous thoughts and ideas, of sexual deviancy and extreme piety. Books on obscure characters – lost to Time – with even more obscure authors. Books from the modern era and books from before. Spines broken and unglued (the work of many a sleepless night) with pages scribbled upon in minute handwriting. Here and there a few pages – hundreds? A dozen? – missing completely, but others supplemented by indexes of numerous pages.
Now that you’ve read this, they whisper, read that.
It is like hosting a massive party with every person you have ever met. Not everyone at this party will be similar, indeed, even tolerable of one another, but here they are. Gathered under one roof for one mighty bacchanalia of insight and introspection. Every famous and obscure author sending their second to represent them in this dusty hole of a town where the host is just as damningly confusing as his guest list.
Dark now; when in blazes did it become dark?
He reaches for the beer tucked away in the safety of the rotten wood, but it crashes to the ground before he can place his grip.
The contents splash about the yard – overgrown – and the laughter of children has now given way to the still of the night. How long can one be lost in their imagination? Ballast; where is the ballast?
He turns, looking through the glass door. A ha! He chuckles to himself. That’s where you’ve been hiding, my love.
The euphoria of knowledge becomes the best high, the thrill of turning the page the most alluring conquest. The desire for understanding becoming the stimulus.
People. Work. Taxes. Phones. Electronics. All meaningless. All paper. All blinding him to the crests of the mountains he’s built for himself to climb.
Seeker, he hears – a chilling whisper upon the silent wind. When did you stop Seeking?
He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his dress shirt, grimly admiring the red stains mixed with spittle as it quickly soaked into the fabric, darkening the soft color with a crude, rusty tinge.
There, his lifeforce, coagulating with cotton fibres; himself oblivious to the hustle around him as he quietly took in his precarious situation, ignoring the masses as they jockeyed around the tight corridors, focusing intensely upon the wonderful colors he himself had expectorated from the numerous unidentified sores within his squalid mouth.
Crouched over the dribbling water fountain, he brought himself to drink. With a gentle nudge upon the aged and well-worn plastic button, fresh, cool water came springing forth from the soulless steel, and he dipped low to take a mouthful.
Slowly swishing it about, he quickly identified the coppery aftertaste of a fresh wound. The longer the water remained, the more he could feel his mouth fill with tendrils of blood, the life-giving liquid encouraging the other to flow freely without recourse.
It was a unique taste – one he secretly enjoyed – but one he recognized as something out of the ordinary. This wasn’t normal for him, to be spitting up blood without cause, and a part of his mind feared the absolute worst. Was this how it begins, he thought. The end?
But the more sensible side of his mind urged caution, to not jump to conclusions, and to merely accept that he was ill. That’s all. Sick.
He spat out blood.
He watched as the wine-colored water splashed across the sterilized fountain; a fetid mixture of saliva, water, and burnished blood happily pooling across the fountainhead, a macabre rainbow he himself gave to Creation.
With delicate care, as if knowing he was watching with utmost amazement, the mixture slowly ebbed toward the drain, dawdling as it went along its course – its ultimate demise – to disappear forever down the unhallowed drains of yet another sterile fixture. The only thing living within the dull, polished steel of Man was the very elixir he himself had spat out, an ironic situation not lost upon him.
Pushing once more upon the machine, a stream of water sprang forth; he did not move to meet it.
The unmolested water splashed against his sanguine pool – scattering droplets of scarlet and pink and red and rust across his trousers and sleeves – adding fresh stains to his already dirtied attire. What didn’t collide with his unflinching form spread across the once-pristine machine or fell to the dull tile beneath his feet, another life lost in the misery of a constant shuffle, a dedicated rat race, and he, a bloodied sentinel paying no heed to those around him, merely watching with a mixture of abject curiosity, a tinge of horror, and a zealous fascination to see this latest ordeal through.
The more he pressed upon the lackluster polystyrene, the more ferocious became the constant jet of water, attempting to eradicate him completely from its polished-steel surface, as if the machine itself was crying foul at being used as a crude spittoon. It hummed as it pumped still more water through its spigot, desperately wanting to rid itself of his stains.
Slowly, the charnel mixture began to clear as the machine continued its cleansing operation. Where once a massive, red spatter was splayed across the drainage system – a bloody Picasso – it gave way to the clearness of the swirling water. Before long, the last droplets of blood were washed away from the surface.
He released the button and the process instantly ceased.
Standing straight, his hands still perched upon the fountain, he drew a long sigh.
This isn’t normal, he thought to himself (for the corridors were still crowded with proles, lest they think him mad). What is happening to me?
For several moments he stood there, frozen in pose, reflecting upon what had just transpired.
And there, at the back of his mouth, he tasted the sweet copper once more, feeling the vessels give way to another bout of blooded introspection. He quickly squeezed his mouth tight and sucked the mixture from its barrows, before stooping over the machine – feeling the bulge of his cigarettes as he did so – and releasing a parting shot.
He spat out blood.
He was dying – but he found it dangerously beautiful.