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Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Myth of the Overworked Teacher

DISCLAIMER: Onlooker Slowdown has taught English, in grades 7-12, for the past 16 years, and has coached at least three sports during 12 of those years. Currently, he teaches five sections of 7th grade English and, this year, coaches volleyball, basketball and track and field.

With that out of the way, I would like to take a brickbat to Kristie Smith's February 24 editorial in the Dallas Morning News. Entitled "Teachers are overworked, underpaid and moonlighting," her mercifully short piece trots out the usual suspects when it comes to complaints about the teacher lifestyle: having to get a second job to make ends meet, serving dozens and dozens of students a day, working more than the eight hours a day that, in some sort of fantasyland, is all that someone on salary is supposed to work.

First, I'd like to take on the "underpaid" claim. Now, it is true that if you want to be the only source of income in your family, and you want to have children, then teaching is probably not the career path for you. Unless you make it up the ladder into administration, you just won't be able to do it. Much is made of the fact that teachers often start well into the $40,000+ range fresh out of school, but raises don't take many teachers in Texas much over the $60,000 - $65,000 range, during their career.

So, if you want to be a teacher, as a career, you should plan on having your spouse working as well, or on living a fairly basic lifestyle. That's what I've told my own children, because it's the truth.

But does that mean that you are underpaid? How much should a teacher be paid? As much as a lawyer?

We don't work 100-hour weeks right out of school, or ever. Ever talked to a first-year associate in a big-name law firm? Yes, it's difficult to deal with 25 (or 35, or 40) ninth-graders that first year out of college. Very difficult. But what about putting together pages and pages of research for litigation, pulling all-nighters to do it?

Oh, and that lawyer is an at-will client, right? Which means that he can get let go at any time. He probably won't, at least not until the first cullings, because the firm recruited him and has an investment in him. For teachers, once we make it through our probationary period, it is difficult to fire us. It's not as difficult in Texas as it is, say, in L.A. or New York City, where teachers who are on paid leave awaiting their terminations sit in rooms all day (courtesy L.A. Times), often for years at a time, because of the lengthy appeals process. So we have some protections not afforded other professions.

Which brings me to the claim of "overworked." I know people, particularly in the elementary grades, who average 50- and 60-hour workweeks during the school year. Maybe even 65. Most of what people think of as teaching involves the classroom process. However, it really does take a lot of time to turn an elementary classroom into a jungle. Or into a Dr. Seuss wonderland. And that decoration really does make a difference for the kids who come in there, because learning becomes a joy for them in classrooms like that.

It also takes a lot of time outside of school to grade papers, and plan lessons.

But guess what? Accountants, consultants, doctors, lawyers, business managers, and members of all of these other professions also work a lot outside the 9-to-5 day. And while they might get a week at Christmas, they don't get two. They don't get a week in March. And they don't get June, July, and August. Even if you figure in a couple of weeks for training, curriculum writing, and other activities, it's just not the same.

But there is one question, in particular, that I would like to answer for her. She asks, "Why do teachers stay in school under poor conditions and less pay?" Then she goes into the social work aspect of teaching. Has she seen what a social worker makes?

And since when do social workers get three months off in the summer?

Do social workers have enough time to get a second job? What's wrong with taking on some additional work when you have that much time off?

So, here are the trade-offs: relative job security (unless Governor Perry is re-elected), protections not afforded to at-will employees, and a lavish amount of vacation. You also get to make a difference in the lives of thousands of children, if you stick it out as a career.

In exchange, you get less money. A lot less money. But in our society, you are paid for what you can bring in. Dirk Nowitzki wouldn't make millions if he couldn't bring Mark Cuban even more millions. A surgeon doesn't make a lavish income if he can't perform, and if new clients don't come calling. An attorney doesn't rake in hundreds per billable hour if she can't find clients who are willing to pay for her services.

As long as teachers are viewed as part of an entitlement system, we will be paid accordingly. And that's how our culture views education. It's guaranteed, it's free to everyone. It's true that it's not doing a very good job for those who just rely on the public system. But educating children is not a 40-hour-a-week job. No job that is worth doing well is, in fact. But until teachers and their unions stop complaining about how much work they already do and bleating loudly about reforms, and school districts consider actual academic need instead of chasing down trends in writing budgets, and state budget writers consider the long-term effects of their work, things will not change. All three groups need to think about what education should really look like, and what the purpose of a teacher really is.

There are other parts of the world where education is considered more of a priority. In South Korea, for example, the government has to hire inspectors to go around and make sure that parents aren't having their kids tutored past the nationwide tutoring curfew of 10 P.M. (courtesy New York Times). Do you think those tutors might do pretty well on the hourly wage end? They're working well past 4:00, of course.

It's time for us to begin thinking about whether education should be the same seven-hour journey for 178 days for each student, all year long. It's easier for us to do it this way, and it's easier for parents for us to do it this way, but it doesn't appear to be the best way.

The last thing we as teachers needed, though, was another column by another teacher making the rest of us look like lazy, incompetent fools. Before anyone else in our profession does that, could you please type it out, sit down, and think about how ridiculous we will all look when you send it in?

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Younger Norman Bates?

Buried SecretsBuried Secrets by Brandi Salazar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my favorite episodes of "Criminal Minds" stars Frankie Muniz, who grew up as "Malcolm in the Middle." In this episode, though, he is a cartoonist who watched gang members rape and kill his fiancee, and subsequently had a violent break in his personality.

After his break, he goes around the city killing people -- including the gang members who killed his fiancee. The most poignant part of the show involves the killer calling his fiancee's cell phone, over and over again, only to hear it go to voice mail. His confusion as to her whereabouts shows how far he has fallen from reality. At the end of the story, the profilers from the BAU treat the killer with gentleness, even pity.

In "Buried Secrets," five years ago, James Clearwater and his family had moved away from the town where they lived, after the disappearance of Mercy Worthington. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the family moves back, and the pattern begins again.

Now that he is back, James notices that whenever his friend A.J. spends time with a girl, she turns up missing -- and eventually dead. A.J. is everything that James is not, but sort of wants to be -- he ditches school, dresses like a heavy metal fan, and has an easy time picking up girls.

Constantly at war with his father, beset by migraines and blackouts, bothered by ghosts at night, and harassed at school by those who remember the cloud of suspicion that hung over him five years ago, James starts down a doomed path almost at the start. Despite the fact that the beautiful Jennifer Morton sees great things in James, the truth is inevitable.

In stories such as this, the better authors will show you the tension between the good person that the villain wants to be, and the awful deeds that the villain commits. Salazar does a fine job of showing James unraveling, and his illusions becoming less and less real. It would have been better to see some development with the parents, particularly in a third-person work such as this. What turn out to be two fairly static characters could have been so much more dynamic, especially given the family secret that we learn about three-fourths of the way through. Even though I had a pretty good idea of the truth about James, though, the storytelling was compelling.


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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

An Onlooker Slowdown Interview: Back on My Feet's Jennifer Halabrin Kimble

Occasionally, Onlooker Slowdown will feature interviews with people who fulfill Benjamin Franklin's suggestion that one should always "write something worth reading, or do something worth writing about." For our first interview, we caught up with Back On My Feet's new Program Coordinator for the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter, Jennifer Halabrin Kimble. Back On My Feet is a program that introduces the homeless to running; nationwide, this has worked wonders with many of the now formerly homeless who found discipline and purpose in a pair of running shoes.

Prior to working for Back On My Feet, Jennifer taught school for 12 years and then, after falling in love with running, became certified as a running coach through the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) and as a Level Two Personal Trainer through the Cooper Institute. Formerly the Training Program Coordinator for Run On! Dallas, after volunteering for almost a year with Back On My Feet, she came on board with BOMF as Program Coordinator in December 2011.

Check out Back On My Feet on their website, or you'll find them at a booth and aid station at the DCFA Form Follows Fitness 5K on Saturday, February 25.

Who first inspired you to start running? 

      I started running in the beginner classes at Run On! as a way to lose weight after my second child was born.  At that time in my life, I was completely absorbed in all things baby. It was refreshing to be around people who were talking about things other than sleepless nights, diapers and teething symptoms.

As a runner, what race do you remember the most? 
      My first life changing race experience was my first marathon in Austin.  My coach Will Craven ran the race with our group, and we stayed together until mile 19 when he told us to go on.  I completely hit the wall at about mile 22, and at mile 24 who comes passing by?  Will of course!  He ran me in to the finish line where I was filled with such intense emotion that I bent over and blubbering and sobbing.  It took me 45 min to walk back to my hotel because I was so sore and tired.

Of all of your running accomplishments, which one brings you the most pride? 

      My hardest race so far has been the Big Horn 100 in Wyoming.  I really got behind on my nutrition and at mile 75 I felt so bad that I thought I was going to have to drop.  My pacer and friends fed me about 800 calories at that aid station which helped me to recover and finish the race. 

A close second is the first time I paced my friend Mike at Massanutten Mountain Trail 100.  That course is rocky and tough, and we got caught in a lightning storm striking so close to us that the hairs on my arms were standing up.  I did the last 45 miles of the race with him, and after that adventure I felt like I could truly conquer anything.

Share a story of someone you’ve trained that particularly inspires you. 

      I am inspired everyday by our Back on My Feet team members and the generosity of our volunteers.  Some of our residential team members have faced unfathomable challenges, yet they tell me daily how blessed they are.  Their strength and courage inspires me, and I feel loved unconditionally when I am with the team.

What motivated you to make the move from Run On! to Back On My Feet? 
      I loved working for Run On!  They truly have an amazing staff and coaches who work together to help runners achieve their goals.  Working for Back on My Feet allows me to use the skills that I have gained as a coach, teacher and manager; while helping our residential member to move forward toward self-sufficiency.  Quite frankly, while volunteering for BOMF, the team members stole my heart!

Efforts like Back on My Feet are spreading throughout the United States. What is it about running that resonates with the homeless people you serve?  

      Through running, our members develop confidence and self-esteem which resonates into other areas of their life.  At Back on My Feet we hug, we encourage and we promote accountability through positive reinforcement.  Through community and teamwork we establish a forum for success and personal growth.  We are all members who are equally invested in the success of each other and the team. 

What are DFW Back on my Feet’s most significant needs right now?

Homelessness in the United States is projected to increase by 5% in the next year, and it would be awesome if we could expand our efforts throughout DFW and the United States.
It costs about $100 to get a member started in the Back on My Feet program, and $1,800 to support a member in the 6-9 month program, so donations are always welcome.  You can also support BOMF by coming out to run with the teams, Getting your company involved, wearing back on my feet gear, volunteering for events and committees and being a BOMF fundRacer.  To learn more or to sign up, visit or email me at

Watching Your Bone Float Away

One of Aesop's fables involves a dog that is carrying a bone in his mouth (yes, all dogs are males in Onlooker Slowdown's world, even the female chocolate Lab that lives at his house).

The dog crosses a small creek on a log, but then looks down into the water. There he sees another dog with another bone in his mouth. That bone, to the first dog, looks bigger. So, naturally, as dogs will do, he opens his mouth to take this second bone away from this other dog. When he opens his mouth, though, he loses not only the bone in his own mouth, but also the second bone, which was really just a reflection. It disappears into the ripples.

One lesson of this story is not to be jealous, because what you envy may not even be real.

Another lesson, though, is that it doesn't make sense to complain about something you need, because you may end up losing it altogether.

Two recent news stories: one from the Carolina Journal. A preschooler took a lunch to school that had a turkey sandwich, a banana, a bag of chips, and some apple juice. An inspector was on hand to look into school lunches, and told the preschooler that her lunch did not meet nutritional guidelines. She was given a lunch from the school cafeteria (which contained fried chicken nuggets), and her mother was sent a bill at the end of the day for $1.25.

As you can imagine, Rush Limbaugh and every other conservative pundit in the nation got into a tizzy about this as soon as their production assistants were able to read the wire reports to them. Intruding into a preschooler's lunchbox? What area of our lives will government control next? Can't the government leave a preschooler alone? How is a team of agents inspecting lunches going to make the world a better place? On and on the rants went.

The second story is actually an editorial from the New York Times, about the conservative religious views of Rick Santorum. As a staunch Catholic, he stands firmly against the use of contraception and has very specific views about the proper place and purpose for sexual activity. He has made headlines recently for taking on President Obama's "theology," saying that many recent White House decisions have started to close the door on religious freedoms. Most galling to them was a recent decision to force insurers to pay for contraception, even if an employer who uses that insurer objects to contraception for religious reasons. According to columnist Maureen Dowd, Santorum "seems to have decided that electoral gold lies in the ruthless exploitation of social and cultural wedge issues. Unlike the Bushes, he has no middle man to pander to prejudices; he turns the knife himself."

So, for the Left, it's OK to inspect school lunches and send home a bill if something (which in this case turned out to be a carton of milk) is missing. One wonders what would have happened if the preschooler's mother had sent a carton of milk, only to have it spoil after a morning spent at room temperature.

And, for the Right, it's OK to inspect the personal lives of employees and make decisions about the types of health care that they can access, if the employer can claim a religious objection. Especially if that sort of health care would drive up the premiums that this particular employer has to pay.

At some point in our history, government stopped being a mechanism for things like maintaining roads and providing law and order, and it instead became a toy that whatever majority was in power would use to impose its agenda on the rest of us. If you look at all of the agencies and cabinet departments and offices and bureaus and rules and regulations that have been added since, say, 1913 (which just happens to be the year that the income tax became constitutional, thanks to the Sixteenth Amendment), and you look at the actual purpose of all of those additional mechanisms, you see billions and billions and billions in expenditures and in taxes. A lot of this money has gone to very important things, like enforcement of the Civil Rights Act and grants to private organizations who do great things to help the needy and the capture of Osama bin Laden. A lot of it has gone to amazing things, like putting a man on the moon and neutralizing the threat of the Soviet Union.

But if you want the government to solve your problems, as the Left and the Right both do, you can't object when the other side uses the government to solve its problems. If you're going to open your mouth to take away the other side's bone -- if you're going to actually do away with the parental functions which the government now performs for both sides of the political aisle -- then you lose everything. All of the nagging by that team of USDA agents (oh, and here's an interesting fact -- no one in the state government in North Carolina has been able to identify that lunch patrol officer), and all of the moralizing about things that, yes, do belong behind closed doors, until you ask the government to pay for the consequences of what you do behind those doors, will go on.

That is, until someone listens to Paul Ryan, and we start spending what we bring in, instead of trillions more, or the Chinese call all those debts in. If you want to read a cool novel about what that world might look like, by the way, with America finally crushed by its debt, check out Super Sad Love Story by the brilliant Gary Shteyngart. Onlooker Slowdown will be reviewing that soon.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Calvin and Hobbes...and Whitney Houston

There are two reasons to read the Sunday paper: the extended sports coverage and the funnies. (Yes, I've been told the funnies are really the comics, but I still call them the funnies). One of my favorite strips involved a discontented young boy named Calvin and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes, who would come to life, at least in Calvin's imagination, whenever no one else was in the room. In one series of strips, Calvin turns an old refrigerator box into a duplicator and pretends that he has made a bunch of copies of himself. Running this ruse on his teacher and his mother leads to wrath in just about every area of his life.

As they are sitting in time out, boy and tiger ruminate a bit:

Calvin Well, Hobbes, I guess we learned a valuable lesson from the duplicating mess.
Hobbes And that is?
Calvin And that is, um... it's that, well... OK, so we didn't learn any big lesson. Sue me.
Hobbes Live and don't learn, that's us.
(Source: The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes)

This is the central problem that all of us face, whether we are seven years old or seventy -- if we do not learn from our mistakes, and the mistakes of others, then things never get better.

I've read posts from a lot of really angry people in the last day or two, about the fanfare given to the passing of Whitney Houston. Most of these mad people talk about how she was a crackhead and a drug addict, and that she really just wasted her talents. Instead of lowering the flags to half-mast, as the state of New Jersey did, and having a nationally broadcast funeral, as several channels and many online news feeds provided for us, these people seem to think that Whitney should have been buried in a pine box in a lonely field, or perhaps dumped into the Indian Ocean, like Osama bin Laden.

For better or for worse, though, we are a culture of celebrity. Which is why, yesterday afternoon, my wife had a television tuned to Whitney Houston's funeral. I wasn't really paying any attention until I heard some of the eulogy, given by the Rev. Marvin Winans. Here's the whole thing -- parts of it are worth watching and thinking about.

Rev. Winans had a lot to say about grace and forgiveness, but he also said something that, while just true as his message about grace, should make us pay much better attention to the way we spend our time. He said:

"The lives we live are the gift we give to God."

Did Whitney Houston give the best gift to God that she could have? Probably not. But do you think that, when she was a nine-year-old girl dreaming about her future, that she looked forward to a life of Bobby Brown and narcotics? Probably not, either.

So, once those of you who are angry are done dancing on her grave, go and think about what you are spending your time on the planet preparing for your Maker to see. If your belief system doesn't include an afterlife, what kind of legacy are you building for those behind you to remember? For your children to aspire to?

This was a hard lesson for Onlooker Slowdown. Reading about one of the greatest vocal talents of our time dying far too soon and leaving far too much talent on the table definitely gave me pause. Moving forward from Rev. Winans' eulogy, it occurred to me that I will never look back and wish I'd watched more television. Or complained more about the everyday annoyances of being a responsible person. Or spent more time thinking about myself.

So, after you read this, get off the computer. Go call your mom. Go give your kid a noogie, and then run away in the opposite direction. Kiss the one you love the most. Then go pick up that talent that you can do so well, that you just can't find the time to spend time doing. And shoot your television. Whitney's voice came straight from God's own choir -- but each of us has a great thing that we were made to do, but each day that goes by is one less day that we can bring Him glory by doing it.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

When Words Are Not Enough: Prufrock Revisited

The Sense of an EndingThe Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells;
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent...

So begins T.S. Eliot's anti-epic "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and while the navel-gazing of those so addicted to the easy comforts of their own shortcomings has become much more entertaining in the years since the Jazz Age, its near omnipresence as a genre does not make Julian Barnes' "The Sense of an Ending" any less brutal in its verdict on the passively pompous, those who float from moment to moment in life, self-important in their somnambulation.

The story begins genially enough, seemingly a prep school memoir of Tony Webster, whose dominant memory of those days seems to be the appearance of Adrian, who was much more perceptive and prescient than Tony, Colin, and Alex -- the rest of his circle -- much to their chagrin.

Tony is much too busy telling us about his own lack of gratification to notice what is going on around him much of the time, even some fairly crucial happenings in his life. He does look up long enough to note Adrian's definition of history: "that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation." On Webster's end, of course, most of the fault is memory, which in his case is eroded by self-centeredness, if not outright self-pity.

Much of the early part of the book details Tony's failed relationship with Veronica; most of the failings have to do with the fact that they never have sex -- until after they break up. On a weekend visit to Veronica's family, her mother eerily warns Tony not to let Veronica "get away with too much." Without giving away too much, it can be said that this may be one of the most effective examples of irony in all of modern literature.

Not long after Tony and Veronica break up, Veronica and Adrian start dating. They write Tony a letter to break the news to him; the response that Tony pens is simply cruel. The fact that Tony can go so far into his memoir without mentioning the letter until Victoria gives it to him, years later, shows how he has glossed over his own sins.

Tony then goes to America and travels the country for a time, enjoying what he considers the most rewarding relationship of his life, a dalliance with an independent woman named Annie who gives Tony perhaps what he wants most of all -- someone who wants nothing from him. Upon his return, though, he finds that Adrian has committed suicide. Any sense of grief is hurriedly plastered over with smart remarks, though.

Decades later, when Tony is in his sixties, Veronica's mother dies, bequeathing Tony 500 British pounds and Adrian's diary. Unfortunately, Veronica has the diary and only sends Tony one page of it, claiming to have burned the rest. She agrees to meet Tony and shows him more and more of what her life has become, until he understands the fragment of the diary, Adrian's suicide, the true nature of Veronica's mother, and Veronica's own enduring anger.

Not, of course, until Veronica has told him that he still hasn't gotten it. Many times. Or, as Eliot's mysterious woman said, "That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all."

The danger of failing to reach your dreams is that it is extremely possible to turn that disappointment into a soft bitterness toward others. By insulating himself from all meaningful contact with the outside world, Tony has left himself safe, but also powerless. Ultimately, all he can say, when confronted with the full consequences of the letter he wrote on a whim, out of anger, he can only say, "There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest." His first impulse, even when broaching the topic of accountability, is to distance himself from the whole mess.

One can see Tony Webster saying this, sitting, as Prufrock did, "in the chambers of the sea by sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown till human voices wake us, and we drown."

Barnes' work is masterful in its lyrical turns of phrase, as he creates a protagonist who is too busy writing lyrically to notice that there is no one in his life left to read them.


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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Valentine's Day Thought

Kiss Briseis Painter Louvre G278
Who is she looking at? Isn't this a painting? Never mind...Happy Valentine's Day anyway.

On this Valentine's Day, Onlooker Slowdown would like to turn your attention, just for a minute, from the various love stories gone awry that dominate the media. Let's set aside Kris Humphries' 72 days inside Kardashian Hell.

Wait a minute, though. I just have to get this off my chest. What on earth is the 1976 Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon, the WORLD'S GREATEST FREAKING ATHLETE, doing wearing a pair of stud earrings, doing his best imitation of the receptionist from "The Bob Newhart Show"? At what point does (a) the U.S. Olympic Committee step in and say, "Um, Bruce, we're going to need that medal back. Clearly you didn't throw that javelin as far as they thought you did, and, yeah, that 1500-meter run finish was Photoshopped, and (b) the Kardashian matriarch trade him in for, say, Mark Phelps? When will it be time to move on to an Olympian of the past ten years?

OK, thank you for humoring me. As someone who spends a good deal of time defending the Olympics as a decent use of television watching time, I've been putting this off way too long.

As I was saying, let's set aside the tragic love stories associated with Gary Giordano and Seal, and put down the headlines about Josh Powell, and focus on a truly wonderful Valentine's Day story.

Thanks to ABC News, Onlooker Slowdown is able to bring you the story of Grayce and Clarence Dwyer. This couple from Madison, New Jersey, has been married for 71 years. They are both 100 years old.  No midlife decisions to buy a Bugati and date younger. Four kids, 17 grandkids, and 12 great-grandchildren.

What's their secret? As Grayce puts it, "Life was not meant to be easy, so you surround yourself with good people and always have a strong faith that will help you through the hard times."

Now, that sort of advice won't sell magazines, and that sort of life doesn't make for a thrilling movie, unless one partner ends up with a degenerative condition and the other takes care of him/her (see: The Notebook).

We are entertained by tension and titillated by failure. The next time we're standing in line at Kroger, we'll look at the headlines of failure, of scandal, of lives torn apart when relationships suffer. But get this -- both of them have recently had hip surgery, and both survived heavy anesthesia and significant physical therapy -- unusual at their age. As their daughter says, "We believe [their recovery] is a testament to the love they have for each other."

Full disclosure -- Onlooker Slowdown has been divorced once, and is now closing in on five years of Marriage #2. We still have 66 years to go to catch the Dwyers; when I turn 106, we'll only have 10 months to go to get to Year 71. But there's something fine and wondrous about a couple that stays together so long and is so closely attuned to one another.

It's a note of subtlety -- of gestures shared, sentences finished, needs anticipated. It's the hard work of a partnership built one day, one hour, one minute, one mistake, one instance of grace at a time.

Just for today, for St. Valentine's Day, let's forget about Keeping Up with the Kardashians, or reading about Jennifer Aniston's latest comment about Brangelina.

Also, don't think about what kind of show Keeping Up with the Dwyers would be. Instead, think about what an amazing achievement it would be.

Happy Valentine's Day...from Onlooker Slowdown.

Image credit: By English: Briseis Painter Français : Peintre de Briséis (Jastrow (2006)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Limits of Performance Art

The Postcard KillersThe Postcard Killers by James Patterson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What is art, anyway? It used to be the hasty drawings of people who lived in caves and wanted to leave some record of their experiences on the walls. Later, it took the form of paintings of religious scenes and portraits of and for wealthy patrons. However, in modern times, thanks to the advent of the camera, artists moved beyond accurate visual representation, progressing towards abstractions that represented ideas, movements, and experiences. During the last fifty years or so, the definition of art has grown even further, including performance art -- people carrying out actions, in various states of dress, that express their ideas.

Mac and Sylvia, the killers at work in Patterson and Marklund's thriller, send postcards to journalists in various cities in Europe, with the curious phrase: "To be or not to be in (that city's name)." A few days later, the journalists receive a picture of the couple that the killers have slain, and then mutilated -- in imitation of famous works of art. They are chased by the relentless NYPD detective Jacob Kanon (one hopes, a close literary relative of Kafka's Josef K.). His daughter and her fiance were among the first victims, murdered in Rome while on a trip which he had given them. His guilt propels him furiously around the Continent and, finally, to L.A., and then back to Sweden for the climactic confrontation (that takes place, actually, in the parking lot of the world's northernmost IKEA).

As all of Patterson's books tell you, he's been on the New York Times bestseller list more often than anyone else. His formula works -- it pulls you along, entertaining with the shock value of the killers' honeymooning feel. Their definition of "performance art" makes for an intriguing book. It would have been nice to know what Sylvia meant by "party time" about halfway through -- that's a thread that never quite gets tied off.


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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Awaiting the Axe

Cuts are coming....what would you let the education budget writers take?  
A lot of ink has gone to describing the budget crunch that the Texas Legislature faced last year as it planned the next biennium. Many state services faced major cuts, as the Legislature and Governor Perry opted not to use any of the "Rainy Day Fund" to make up some of the funding shortfall.

Public school funding dipped by 6 percent for the 2011-2012 school year and is expected to drop by 8 percent for 2012-2013, according to NPR. (Just in case you remember that NPR can trend liberal, conservative outlets such as the Dallas Morning News have reported the same numbers) While some districts were able to get by with cutting some fringe benefits and simply not filling some open positions, instead of cutting their work force, the Leander school district (an Austin suburb) had to lay off 50 classroom teachers as part of a $20 million cut. In poorer districts, parents are being asked to pay for bus transportation and athletics. In the Pasadena district, 180 teachers were cut for this year. People who had filled such support positions as bus drivers, school crossing guards and inclusion aides have been let go in large numbers.

So here's the question: what will be cut next? More teachers? More support staff?

Or will we actually take a hard look at the structure of our education model?

Linus Wright, superintendent of the Dallas ISD from 1978 to 1987, recently suggested a series of changes to the existing system. One idea involved having students graduate after 11th grade and, instead, fund a year of preschool before pre-kindergarten, letting kids enter at the age of 3.

No senior year, you say? Did you know that Texas students didn't have a 12th grade until 1941? Because of the lingering effects of the Great Depression, too many high school grads were wandering around without any jobs or anything to do, so the state added a year of education. It would be interesting to see what would have happened had the United States entered World War II with Great Britain, in 1940, and given those kids the opportunity to enlist -- would students still graduate at 17?

Cutting teachers means increased class sizes. Yes, there are plenty of teachers doing truly awful things that land them in jail -- and in the news headlines -- and there are plenty of lazy teachers who hide behind union protections and "due process" to hold onto their jobs much longer than they should. But the silent majority of teachers work hard, dedicated to the success of each student.

It may be time to consider opening several different educational pathways to success. The cookie cutter-approach of having every student follow the same basic set of experiences, including classroom instruction through kindergarten and all 12 grades, doesn't work for everyone, as the success of such online schools as Yorktown Education suggests. For those who want a public or charter model, there is a growing number of alternatives as well.

It's also time to start thinking about the unspoken sacred cow of the public education system -- athletics. (Full disclosure: in addition to teaching English, I coach volleyball, basketball and track and field). But are multimillion-dollar stadiums an effective use of taxpayer money? Gasoline is currently $3.49 a gallon -- at what price point will it no longer make sense for schools like Texas High School in Texarkana to travel all over Northeast Texas to play its district opponents?

Here's a thought -- what would happen if school districts leased their athletic facilities to private organizations to operate their team sports for them? Parents would pay a fee to enroll their children in the sport(s) of their choice, and the districts could make money from the leases. Teachers who coach now could sign on with the private organizations. Instead of paying coaching stipends to classroom teachers, districts could get a full academic day from each teacher, and coaches could then augment their income by coaching through these private organizations.

But what about losing free athletic participation? In many districts, there is a fee structure in place for athletes anyway. Instead of supporting athletics, schools could benefit from it. Teams would be associated with the organizations, instead of the schools.

But what about pep rallies? In Europe, sports are run through clubs -- not through schools. The students still find ways to build school spirit, even without cheerleaders.

It's time to start thinking about the way we structure education in the United States. Simply letting more teachers go and letting infrastructure decay for another year, hoping that the next two-year cycle brings rosier sales tax revenues, is irresponsible thinking. It's almost like...waiting until the next election cycle to deal with the coming Social Security calamity. Oh, wait.....

Image Credits: By b.gliwa (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, February 9, 2012

CSI for your Kindle...

Deadly ChoicesDeadly Choices by Jennie Spallone

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoy most of the crime investigation shows -- the CSI's (especially New York, although hearing David Caruso's witty one-liners keeps the other characters in the Miami version from making me through rocks at the television) and Law & Order (SVU when Munch is there, or Criminal Intent). The story arcs get fairly predictable as far as timing -- although the most predictable is on House, where you can count on the furrowed eyes and the epiphany at :48 past the hour -- and although you know when the twists are coming, you don't know what they will be.

Jennie Spallone's "Deadly Choices" was quite a bit like reading one of these shows. Beth Reilly, a medical librarian-turned-paramedic trainee, is in the ambulance with her partner, Angie, who developed a nasty coke habit in Vietnam but has successfully managed to cover it up and earn some medals for bravery as a paramedic. Angie snorts once too many times, though, and ends up running over a pregnant, homeless girl. Because she doesn't want to risk the damage of reporting an accident that happened while she was driving high, she wants to flee the scene.

Beth notices that the woman is about to give birth, though, and so she delivers the baby while Angie fumes in the ambulance. They take the baby with them, and Beth convinces her friend, Sue, to hide the baby amongst her other seven foster children. Sue agrees, even though all of us know that she shouldn't, because she could lose her foster parent license and send all seven of the others to terrible homes.

Beth's fire captain is the uber-prototypical sexist firehouse lug who hates having one woman in his house -- let alone two. If throwing used sanitary napkins at the women in his house doesn't make him evil enough, he has a stock of illegal porn in his desk and has a habit of snooping through his people's lockers. He finds Angie's diary, where she happened to record the accident, and uses it in a blackmail attempt on Beth. Fortunately for Beth, though, he dies after trying to attack her at her home, during this attempt.

The twists and turns of this book are surprisingly bracing. At times, it veers from "CSI" quality down the road of such shows as "Rizzoli & Isles," in which shadowy clues become ironclad evidence in a matter of seconds, and the character development relies more on stereotype rather than the detail that would make characters like Sue and Reverend Luke intriguing, rather than confusing.

On the whole, though, I enjoyed the brisk read, and it is a story that will definitely make you think about the choices that people make when they think they don't have any choices at all.

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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Next Week's Episode on "Criminal Minds"?

As a teacher, it is frustrating to read about professional colleagues of mine who use their position to bully or abuse others. Whether it's a teacher who just enjoys having authority over others, or to make them feel inferior, it's just wrong.

But when I read about sociopathic predators that do such awful things to children that the writers of Criminal Minds haven't even touched yet, things like the unspeakable acts that Mark Berndt and Martin Bernard are alleged to have done to their students at Los Angeles' Miramonte Elementary School, according to the L.A. Times, I wonder what has gone wrong with us as a species. The details are available on that link from the paper; be warned that they are extremely graphic and troubling.

And the parents at Miramonte are up in arms, as they should be. How did behavior like this go on IN THE CLASSROOM without anyone noticing? Their colleagues didn't notice that they were demented? Their supervisors didn't notice any red flags in their behavior? After all, it appears now that a teacher's aide at the school also sent love letters to a student. What on earth was going on?

How should a school district respond in a situation like this?

Well, the L.A. Unified School District is replacing the entire staff at Miramonte. Teachers, counselors, administrators. All replaced by "teachers and other workers on a rehiring list" (again, from the L.A. Times). We're talking about over 150 people. They'll still get their pay and benefits (as they should, since they haven't been implicated in anything), as will these new staff members who were waiting to be rehired.

How is replacing an entire staff going to improve the situation, though? Want to put administrators who should have noticed this on leave, pending the investigation? Fine by me. Want to hold them accountable for not noticing the sexual predators on their staff? Again, fine by me. Good administrators know their teachers, know their weaknesses, know their strengths.

But the first-grade teacher who got hired two years ago, who didn't really know these two men? Should she be sent home? Should she have this cloud hanging over her? Should her personnel file have this temporary leave in it?

Should all of the other children in the school, who have bonded with their own classroom teachers, who have built relationships of trust with them, now have to learn from people who got RIFed and were sitting at home waiting for another spot to open up? A whole school full of RIF castaways? How effective will that instruction be?

It is extremely important for the investigation of Mr. Berndt and Mr. Bernard, and any others at the school who were also carrying out monstrous acts of abuse, to be thorough and complete. If they are convicted, they should be locked away from society until they are carried out of prison in a box. Their victims deserve nothing less.

But what about the other students? What about their teachers? This decision answers no questions, brings no closure. Instead, it sends the more than 1,500 students of Miramonte Elementary School into a whirlwind of doubts, questions, and potentially worthless instruction -- a whirlwind that their parents may need months to help them escape.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Fans of the brisk thriller...give Mike Meyer's latest a look.


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The idea that governmental agencies are at work manipulating the minds of those who have done terrible deeds in their name has appeared often in thriller lit, starting perhaps most famously with "The Manchurian Candidate," although the idea of using chemical manipulation to shift from one persona to the other goes all the way back to Jekyll and Hyde, or perhaps even to "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

The notion remains an intriguing one, which is what made Mike Meyer's "Covert Dreams" a fun choice to review. The pacing of his story is quick, making the book a nice read for a long airplane ride or a rainy afternoon. The characters remain a bit less dynamic, even the central ones (B.J. and Steven), and the masterminds behind the plot don't seem all that interested in their work either. The story of B.J. and Dabbie is the most compelling, and Meyer's refusal to make this a typical Hollywood resolution (that's all I can say without spoiling things for you) reminds me of the twist at the end of "Arlington Road."

There's a lot to like here -- the plot moves swiftly, and I flipped furiously, wanting to know what happened. When Meyer adds the emotional and motivational depth that one finds in the best books by Ted Bell or Robert Ludlum, he will stand alongside them in the thriller genre.

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Friday, February 3, 2012

Samson at Sherlock's

During Josh Hamilton's first week as a Ranger, he crushed a mammoth home run against the Seattle Mariners to win the game for us. At that point in time, I hoped that he would be what we so sorely needed: a clutch hitter who would lead us out of the Arlington desert.

Guess what? He did. Along with some amazing pitching, fielding and hitting by others. I didn't know if I would ever see a Ranger World Series, and now I've seen two. In that roller coaster of a Game 6 against St. Louis, after Feliz had blown the save, Hamilton came to the plate, sports hernia and all, and blasted a drive into the right-center field seats. Later, he would tell us that God had spoken to him in the on-deck circle, saying that he would hit a home run.

Well, you know what happened next.

But this isn't about the World Series. It's about priorities. I've been so busy rooting for the Rangers that I forgot something about Josh Hamilton. It turns out that he's not there just to bash home runs for fans like me. He's not there to crash into outfield walls chasing down fly balls for us, and he's not there to score from second on a bunt for us.

Those amazing feats are his art, but they're not his purpose.

So what is his purpose? The same as yours and mine -- to bring glory to the One who made us.
Granted, much of the glory with Josh Hamilton comes from those hustle plays, those epic sprints after balls into the gap, those doubles into the corner and those gargantuan blasts into the night sky.

But sometimes it has to come from somewhere else. Those spaces in his life off the diamond.

And for whatever reason, on Monday night, he headed out for some drinks. When Ian Kinsler showed up to get him home, he said he was done for the night -- but then he went back out and drank some more. For those of us who find Christian stories of redemption to be nine parts treacle and no parts sincerity, this is just another story of hypocrisy. Here's how he explained the other night:

But for those of us who are willing to allow a bit of complexity in our stories of faith, let's look at the truth in what he had to say in his press conference: "I can not take a break from my recovery, my recovery is Christ, my recovery is an everyday process. When I take that one day off it leaves me open for a moment of weakness, it's always been that way." (courtesy of the Dallas Morning News) I don't think that St. Paul or St. Peter said it any better than that.

It's true, as many sportswriters say, that Josh left millions of guaranteed money on the table when he decided to drink. All of the doubts that so many people had about his long-term viability, thanks to the three years he lost to his drug addiction, will come to play in negotiations.

But this testimony that Josh gave, back in 2008, remains true:

And here's the truth: Josh Hamilton may drink again at some point. We don't know what it's like to be tested for drugs three times a week -- and to have to take those tests as long as we want to do what we love. We don't know what stresses are going on in his life. What is also true, though, is that he did what we all must do when we fall -- he immediately recognized what he did, and rather than fall into a spiral of narcotics, he came back to his circle of accountability and began a new clean streak.

So instead of starting a series of Josh Hamilton jokes, or calculating his lost millions, let's hope that today, and tomorrow, and the tomorrows after that, Josh will continue to be the inspiring father, husband, and (God willing) ballplayer that he was made to be. That he will rise up from this in the ways that are so much more important than his ability to crush a baseball.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Like Kinsey Millhone or Hercule Poirot? Try This Story by Earl Staggs

The Missing SniperThe Missing Sniper by Earl Staggs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I was younger, I devoured the mysteries of Agatha Christie. My favorites were the ones in which Miss Marple gently worked her way to the solution, lifting lie after lie out of the way. I also enjoyed, though, the way that Hercule Poirot saw so quickly through the puzzles around him, flying to a solution so quickly that those around him were bedazzled -- a literary descendant of Poe's Dupin.

If you enjoy Hercule Poirot, you'll enjoy Adam in this short story. The mystery is not difficult to figure out -- you'll likely identify the villain as soon as you meet him -- but the supremely confident Adam, with his constant need for coffee, will remind you of Poirot's constant attention to his mustaches. Adam's semi-emo condescension toward Dillon will remind you of the way Poirot treats Inspector Japp, his friend Hastings, and anyone else he deals with.

My personal taste is more toward the flawed detective -- James Lee Burke is a big favorite of mine right now. But in the tradition of the quasi-first-person mystery, that takes you through some gentle twists and turns to an outcome, "The Missing Sniper" is a fine addition.

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Quick Update -- Common Sense Prevails, Briefly

A quick update on a post from yesterday -- DISD teacher Joseph Drake, who was placed on paid leave for "alleged misconduct" right after emailing a trustee to complain about a school board decision, has been reinstated, according to the Dallas Morning News.

While Onlooker Slowdown would like to take the credit, it is much more likely that the press conference that Rene Honea, president of Alliance-AFT, called to petition DISD to stop bullying teachers did the trick.

Full disclosure -- I am a member of Alliance-AFT as well. It is worth the dues to have protection in case I am sued over something that happens at school, and to have assistance in the event that something like this happens.