Category Archives: Teachers

1000 Words: Why A Thousand?

I’d known from my earliest days that writing was my talent, that words were precious gems, that my pen and typewriter would become as indispensable as my arms and legs. Before I really attended school, I knew writing’d be my forte. I missed most of my kindergarten year with some weird chronic fever. I spent the vast majority of that time off thumbing through my family’s World Book Encyclopedia volumes. Slowly but surely, all those squiggles on the page became scrutable to me. I taught myself to read.

So it was almost predestined that words would become my life.

The World Book Encyclopedia.

Whatever that fever was, by first grade it was gone and so I spent my days from age five through 18 in classrooms. I’d much rather have been anyplace else. Any place. The Prussian-style schoolrooms of my youth were, hands down, the least likely places a person of my temperament, energy, concentration, and discipline (or lack thereof) could thrive in. Sitting still, paying attention, keeping quiet, “applying” myself, obeying, following instructions — I had little capacity for any of those talents and abilities. That is, if they are, indeed, talents and abilities.

All I wanted to do was run, jump, laugh, yell, joke, tease, ride my bike, and hit a ball. And read. I was a voracious reader. I knew that encyclopedia. I knew what the atomic bomb was, who Einstein was, what Ancient Rome was, that Woodrow Wilson was a president, that the keeping of critters on a farm was once know as “animal husbandry,” that Churchill was portly, and the Empire State Building was the tallest in the world. I knew this stuff long before any of my classmates did because I devoured that encyclopedia, as well as the daily newspaper. We got the Chicago Sun-Times Monday through Saturday and the Tribune and American on Sunday. I read them all, skipping the middle sections (the obituaries and business). I knew who Castro was and Willy Brandt and Nikita Khrushchev and Dean Rusk and Alan B. Shepard. I knew trouble was brewing in the Dominican Republic and that Charles de Gaulle was pretty much a jerk.

I Knew Who They Were.

Even my love of baseball was based on reading. I collected baseball cards and memorized every statistical line and all the colorful little stories on the back of them. It fascinated me that a fellow named Cookie Rojas, second baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies, actually wore glasses while playing big league baseball. How cool! I wore glasses, too. I learned Sandy Koufax was Jewish so I had to run to the J-volume of the encyclopedia to figure out what that meant. Houston built its Astros a domed stadium, so I had to do some digging to understand how such a huge edifice could stay standing.

And then, when I was 14 years old, the book Ball Four came out. It was an uncensored, straightforward look at the life of a big-leaguer. Ballplayers drank, chased women, had arguments with each other, felt they were underpaid, resented authority, divorced, remarried, gambled, went bankrupt, took “greenies” (amphetamines), and worried about what they’d do after their careers were over. The baseball establishment threw fits, saying it was all made up or that the author, pitcher Jim Bouton, had no right to write about such things. Me? I ate it all up. The more I read his book, the more I loved baseball.

Books have been my most treasured possessions all my adult life.

Now, here’s the irony. Because, as mentioned above, I wasn’t any teacher’s favorite student, I was constantly being punished. And the single most frequent punishment teachers threw at me was the dreaded 1000-word essay. I didn’t turn in my homework for the umpteenth time? Write a thousand words on why homework is important (now, nearly six decades later, I can complete that essay in two words: It isn’t.) A kid named Dennis Corso and I got into a fistfight during recess. He called me a dirty Jew. At the time I didn’t know what that meant but I could sense he wasn’t implying I was the coolest kid in class. So we blackened each other’s eye. The principal, who was a Jew, made us write a thousand words on a great Jewish person. I chose Benjamin Disraeli, British prime minister a couple of times in the 1800s. I knew of him from reading the encyclopedia, natch. I discovered that his old man had quit the faith when Benjamin was a kid. So, the first thing I ever really learned about Judaism was that people could become not-Jewish if they wanted.

Nevertheless, making me write a thousand words was as daunting as asking me to build a structure taller than the Empire State Building. If I recall correctly, I repeated a number of sentences several times to reach that magic number. I’m surprised the principal didn’t make me write a thousand words on why I shouldn’t cheat on 1000-word essays.

In any case, teachers and principals all did their best to make me hate writing. Writing, they taught me, was punitive and onerous. Writing is what bad kids had to do. It would be impossible to derive pleasure or satisfaction of any sort from the act of writing. And for a while I believed all those things. I learned to hate writing.

But by the time I was 21 or so, I realized writing was the thing I knew how to do best. And what was wrong with that? Hell, Jim Bouton‘s writing brought me huge pleasure. So did Wodehouse‘s and Bellow‘s and Lederman‘s and Allen‘s and Baldwin‘s and Lebowitz‘s and Royko‘s and…, well, the list can go on forever. Or at least a thousand words.

Now that I write for the sheer pleasure of it (and, throughout my adult life, for money) I want to throw a big finger back at all those who did their best to beat the love of writing out of me. Here’s my thousand words.

1000 Words: Heroes? Villains? Or Just People.

I learned this morning that May is Teacher Appreciation Month. This makes me think about the weird polarization that afflicts our holy land. Every single issue, every idea, every political stance, every societal question, every goddamned thing that exists, it seems, demands that we take an intransigent position and view everybody who takes a contrary position as a horrible human being.

Now, how does Teacher Appreciation Month play into this? I’ve been getting the sense that there are now two poles in this country regarding those who do two different jobs — teachers and the police.

Drive down any country road in South Central Indiana and you’ll see countless blue American flags signifying undying support for the police. Some homes even display a blue light outside their front doors at night for the same reason. Then, when you get into more populated areas, you’ll see red yard signs trumpeting the homeowner’s support for public education and school teachers.

You’ll never, ever, see the same home displaying both signs.

A hell of a lot of people see the police and teachers not as two indispensable professions that, together, help make society run, but as enemies of our side.

Dig this meme I recall seeing recently: It read, Raise your sons to be men before his teachers raise them to be women. This from a Facebook ad, the likes of which I’ve been swamped with of late. I have no idea why but every scroll down my preferred social medium brings me ads from something called MAGAmerica or some similar staunchly Republican, right wing, crypto-fascist, the-nation’s-going-to-hell-before-our-very-eyes outfit. I must have inadvertently clicked on the wrong site at some time in the last couple of weeks and now I suffer. Clearly, these people see teachers as commie rats who are dead set on de-masculating our boys, transforming our girls into dykes, opening our borders to terrorists and Muslims and Mexicans, in favor of providing monthly checks for idlers to sit at home and do drugs and have more welfare babies.

That’s what we do in this third decade of the 21st Century. We put people into one of two boxes: those who are good and those who are evil. Teachers today, for a large swath of the American populace, are evil.

And if you buy into that, guaranteed, you believe with your whole heart and soul that the police are always right and good and just. They are heroes valiantly standing between us and unspeakable terror. They protect us at risk of life and limb from commie rats, de-masculated boys, dykes, terrorists, Muslims, Mexicans, doped up constantly copulating idlers, and, of course, teachers.

There was a time, in the memory of our oldest citizens, when police officers were simply people who lived down the block, mowed their lawns, read the papers, paid their bills, and complained about their taxes. Just like everybody else. Now they’re superheroes, mythic figures fending off evil, titans battling archvillains.

Funny thing is, a lot of people see teachers in a similar archetypal light. Teachers are Christ-like, selfless, infinitely loving souls who’d sever their own arms and legs just to get your kid to pass her third grade math quiz.

The pressure’s on all of us to pick a side, to sanctify, to canonize, for chrissakes. We can’t just admire teachers for their good works; we must elevate them to divinities. Same with those who aggrandize cops. That way, the world’ll know where we stand and if the world doesn’t get it the first time, why then we’ll have to raise the stakes, to resort to hyperbole.

And, believe me, I know all about hyperbole; I’m the world’s foremost authority on it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I admire teachers. I respect them. Their work is vital. Their sacrifices commendable beyond words.

That’s the truth for the majority of teachers, to be sure, but not all of them. I went to school on occasion many decades ago so I know there are good, even superlative teachers but there are also lousy teachers, teachers who phone it in, teachers who hate kids, teachers who do the minimum for their paychecks, teachers who have no business being teachers.

Teachers are human beings. That means there are great ones, there are awful ones, and there are countless ones in between. In reality, teachers live down the block, mow their lawns, read the papers, pay their bills, and complain about their taxes. Just like everybody else. Okay, they get their news online now, not from the papers, but you get the point.

Another yard sign I see a lot when The Loved One and I take our weekly Sunday drives reads, A Hero Lives Here. Sometimes the sign is for a teacher and other times for a nurse. In either case, it’s all so unseemly. You’re not supposed to call yourself a hero; somebody else is supposed to bestow the honor upon you. But in today’s America, there are heroes and villains, not just plain people trying to do a good job, often succeeding, sometimes failing. We put people on pedestals — even if we have to climb up on them ourselves — and consign others to the fires of hell.

It’s one way or the other and if you don’t agree with me then you’re a horrible human being.