Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Real Job

A phrase which I wish we could discard is "real job." A derisive and dismissive means of ending a conversation, it deserves to be thrown into the trash heap of unimaginative and mean terms polite company no longer uses. I've heard it used against me as a public school teacher. I've heard it used against free-lance musicians. I've heard it used against those who work in the not-for-profit sector. I've heard it used against the retired. I haven't heard it used against those who work in the private sector. Anyone who labors does something real, something with value (even those who labor without pay).

We're in an era of working hard. Those fortunate enough to have jobs are working many, many hours. Workweeks that exceed 40 hours are becoming the norm as firms make do with fewer employees, as the public sector sheds jobs, as not-for-profits trim and cut, and as business isn't as good for those who run their own businesses. People work hard because there are fewer hands to do the work, and because job insecurity menaces us to keep up the effort. It's symptomatic of an economy that is growing at an annualized snail's pace (fractions of a percent when measured in terms of real GDP) and in which unemployment remains high.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

I work daily with kids I trust and whose company I enjoy

It's true. I do.

I teach a pair of challenging courses, one at which I'm relatively new and one at which's I'm seen as an old sage. Ironically, the one I've been teaching for some time has not seen my best teaching.

That would be history. In a school year in which it feels like there is never enough time to get everything done, I've walked away from each week realizing that there was one thing on which I failed to keep up. Unfortunately, for many weeks, I felt like it was my teaching of history that was uninspired. I spent so much time preparing for Economics, a course at which I'm just becoming proficient, and so much time got consumed by department matters, that I often took for granted what I could get done with history. Now at the end of a long year, it seems as if those kids got the short end of the stick.

It's a two-way street, though. For many of them, the advanced nature of the class was a bucket of cold water. Many of them ended up having more to do than they bargained for. Many of them had a very hard time juggling their other course responsibilities with the responsibilities of this one. Perhaps many of them are thinking back on this course and wondering if, too, they let me down.

In a situation like that, I'm appreciative for something very basic that I instinctively do: show the students that I like them. It's so critical in this job for the teacher to show his students that he likes them. Even if he has to pretend (this is very much an acceptable lie). Students are perceptive. They know what a teacher thinks of them. And even if they sniff out a teacher who is pretending to like a class, at least they know the teacher's heart was in the right place.

Fortunately, I didn't have to pretend. I did like these kids who I struggled to teach and who struggled to meet my expectations. They know it. And here at the end of our experience, I can reasonably expect them to rise to the final challenges of this tough course: preparing for a final exam and a national exam. Preparing for challenging course that will characterize their senior year.


I knew I married right when I discovered my wife and I shared an affinity for good ice cream. Now I'm realizing we share it for donuts, too.

In the last year, we have visited three outstanding donut destinations in addition to a local favorite, Yum-Yum. In chronological order:

August visit to Federal Donuts
Federal Donuts - In South Philadelphia. They're gourmet, which is both good and bad. Flavors were extraordinary, but there weren't any normal, good donuts.

The Fractured Prune - In Ocean City, Maryland. A lot like Federal Donuts. Very good, but so unusual they're hard to compare.

Country Style Donuts in Richmond, Virginia. Closest I've found to Yum-Yum. Their chocolate isn't as good as Yum-Yum's chocolate cruller. However, Sherry believes their coconut is the finest coconut donut she's ever had. Their raised maple was almost a religious experience for me. Out of this world.
Puts Dunkin' to Shame. Compares to Yum-Yum.

With Uncle Tom near a holy site on Easter Eve. 

History for Free

I get down to Richmond, Virginia a few times a year. Often I try to stretch and find something monumentally historical to see, often at the cost of driving many miles or paying admission to see. Today, I stumbled on some free things to see and do in the city that were worthwhile.
Sam inside the courtyard of Linden Row Inn.

Linden Row is a neat hotel in downtown Richmond. My wife and I stayed here in 1999 en route to our honeymoon in Charleston. Crafting a hotel from a cluster of adjacent row homes is a brilliant idea. A somewhat bored desk attendant saw no harm in letting my son and I go around inside the building.

Sherry and the kids ascend the steps outside the Capitol. 
Washington statue (surrounded by other Founding Virginians).
We then trekked on over to the State Capitol, which was about eight blocks away. That's a gem of a building, and very accessible to the public. It was designed by Thomas Jefferson while he was serving as an ambassador in France. What a brilliant example of the Greek style characterizing the neoclassical architecture of the time period. The building represents the idealistic optimism of a growing nation that was simultaneously moving its state capitals inland (Richmond, Harrisburg, Albany) and cloaking those new houses of government in the symbolism of the ancient birthplaces of democratic and republican government. The staffers there were very welcoming, assuring us that we could join a tour but then hop off if the kids were getting itchy. The security guard let my daughter watch the x-ray monitor of the security screening as she put her stuffed dog through.

On another venture I'll get into the obscure John Marshall house. And in 2015 I mean to make my way back to Appomattox, hopefully tracing the trail Lee's beleaguered forces took to the place of their surrender. Today I enjoyed the simpler history right around the corner.

Sherry and Caroline with the architect of Independence. Notice Sam photobombing?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

And there it went

How does two months pass by without a single entry? It's called January and February. Ah, the life of a teacher. As we plunge into the coldest depths of winter we, along with accountants, can't find two spare minutes to rub together. I've been doing this for a decade and a half and I'm still surprised at the hectic pace of January and February.

But also it's fair to say January and February gave me little to write about, at least that is true in the realm of politics. Did anything of consequence happen since January 3 politically? The president's inauguration should count, it really should. But that was a ceremony set in motion by a victory in November. And then since the day of the inauguration occurred on a Sunday, it took place then, privately. But then it took place publicly on the next day. And did it even need to take place? It was a re-inauguration after all. And even if an inauguration doesn't occur, the transfer of power / new term begins at noon on the day of inauguration. Of course, the national anthem wasn't really sung at this . . . I digress.

Chris Cizilla summed up best why politics hasn't commanded my attention in the past two months. His Worst Week in Washington gave the whole town the award for this week. Politicians and journalists both. Well said. Fortunately my family members who live in the D.C. area live in Alexandria, so they can escape blame.

I think I've come to the conclusion that the Democrats and Republicans are both right. The Democrats are right that the Republicans are trying to protect their constituency from paying a greater burden of the nation's tax bill. Republicans are right that the Democrats are trying to protect their constituency from possibly losing any benefits, especially those funded with Enron-style accounting. They're both right. And all 536 of them are wrong because they can't concede on some smaller points to bring us to some sort of a compromise.

Teaching hasn't given me much to write on, either. It's been a bleak winter in this field. I see more and more evidence that no one is safe in this field from the power of the budget ax; now we are waiting to hear the news, for it's March and in the proscribed sequence by which we must publicly put forth a budget we have the month in which the district has to figure out where it's going to cut. One can't help but notice the tricks various districts come up with to make the numbers add up: eliminating courses or programs, reducing staff to part-time status, skimp on textbooks. Meanwhile, policymakers engage in proposed policymaking that is belittling. Note the proposal by Philadelphia's head of schools, or the insulting opener that Governor Corbett has offered to me and my colleagues. Sadly, regrettably, and as an antecedent to a great I-told-you-so in about 20 years, we (as a society) simply don't want to pay for education. We want it on the cheap. The first consequence is that good people leave the field of working with kids. The second consequence is that kids aren't enriched as much as they should be.

Well, this is depressing.

As I come out of the winter, it's important to keep in perspective what is truly important:

  • My kids are growing and impressing me with how they are maturing. 
  • My wife is brilliant. 
  • My family is more than I could ever ask for . . . and interesting . . . and growing. 
  • My home is warm (filled with gadgets, too). 
  • There is food in our pantry (though I can only eat 43 points of it per day . . . grumble (not my mind, my belly)).
  • My health is good.
  • I've been entrusted to something important from my church. 
  • I'm surrounded by good colleagues at work. 
  • I work daily with kids I trust and whose company I enjoy. 

Okay, I swear . . . I'll write on one of those bullets next.