Sunday, October 5, 2014

How I am learning to play guitar

As a professional educator who is supposed to create "lifelong learners," I feel it's important for me to be one myself. In addition to learning Spanish, I am trying to learn to play guitar. I have really always wanted to play guitar but either I didn't have the means (ie. a guitar to play) or I didn't really know what to do.

Today, the Internet has a confusing multitude of sites and places for you to go. It's possible, I think, to learn today in ways that were impossible only a decade ago. It's another one of those moments where I think, "How did we live without this stuff?" There is almost too much information out there.

What I'm adding, I guess, is my experience in trying to learn and what I'm learning to do. You won't find instructional theory here, or chord charts. But, instead, I plan to journal my process.

I started about a month ago. My stepson got a guitar and my daughter got a flute in July. The daughter got some lessons, practiced a lot, and was able to join her middle school band! I was so jealous because she appears to have actual musical talent! I always wanted to have musical talent! Maybe I could do it she could. So, I picked up my stepson's guitar and started trying to learn based on the stuff I saw on the 'Net. I found for one. I also bought a Hal Leonard Essentials for Guitar  book that was similar to what my daughter had for flute.

After about a week, I decided to get my own guitar. This is where I made a mistake I hope others could avoid.

I bought a very inexpensive guitar.

I purchased an Epiphone DR-100 which is not a bad guitar. But, it's not a good guitar either. What I should have done instead was to read just a bit further and realize that getting a decent starter guitar was a better idea. I thought, "Well, what if I don't really like it? I don't want to buy an expensive guitar and then not play it."

Of course, buying an expensive guitar might be the reason I kept playing since I didn't want the money to go to waste. I didn't look at it that way.

Most importantly, I think it's important to have a guitar you really like and that is a quality instrument. For me, that is the Yamaha FG700s. Go look around the Internet and you will see it is universally praised as a great entry-level guitar that is good enough to last you years. And, some people say it sounds good enough to stand amongst the Martins, Taylors, and Guilds that cost much more. I can't say that for sure, but it makes me happy to think I have a guitar like that to play.

I can say it's a really nice guitar for $200. Every time I play it I catch myself thinking, "Wow, that's pretty!" It has a really nice sparkle and resonance in the tone that I very much admire. And, it keeps me wanting to play. I recently found some measurements online and checked. The factory setup is pretty good. The action is a little high but completely acceptable.

Okay, so that's my first piece of advice. Don't buy the least expensive guitar. Get a decent instrument. This Yamaha is the equal of any $400 - $600 guitar you can find. That I can can say pretty confidently. It's important, I think to get a solid top on your guitar, for sound quality. This one has a solid spruce top.

My second piece of advice is to make sure you have light gauge strings. It's easier on your fingers. My third piece of advice is practice a little bit, at least, every day. I shoot for about 30 minutes per day. Once per week my stepson and I go to a group guitar class through the city. It's inexpensive but worth it to have an actual teacher watching you and correcting your issues. There's also that aspect of having accountability to someone. I don't want to show up and not have practiced the things from last week and have the teacher realize I haven't been putting in the work.

So, that's what I've been doing. I've been practicing my chords like A, E, D, C, G, G7, A7, D7, E7, and the dreaded B7. Why dreaded? It's the only chord I've been working on that uses all four fingers! I have a lot of trouble getting all the fingers on the strings and not muting nearby strings. But, I have to say that when I first started with that chord, it just was a dull thud. I have definitely noticed that it is getting easier over time. Today, it still has a couple muted strings here and there, but I can usually get it to ring a bit better.

My friend Pat says it's about developing touch. I also know it's about muscle memory. Like so many things, to learn it is to repeat it. It takes hundreds, if not thousands, of repetitions, for the brain to internalize it and the muscles to memorize the movement.

I'm gonna go now and practice for a little bit. I plan to update as I go. Until then...

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Fifteen desks. A poem

by G. R. Poirier
Fifteen desks
of lack.
heads bowed, dipping
upanddown, now
stare, the searchlight glare.
Pen in mouth
cogitating mastication
mental anguish,
Afraid to try and fail.
Fifteen desks
of courage.
pencil scratching, sniffles
page flips, taptaptap.
I know, I can
write, think, be.
smile, nod
head bent, brow furrowed.
Erase, rewrite
my future, the past.
Fifteen desks
of questions.
a glance, a whisper
nod, smile again.
Tomorrow, next year, five years.
Bricks, stones, wheels, wires.
A look, deep breath
Will I? Will he? Will she?
And when? How long until then?
Breathe, sigh, sniffle, hand up.
Hand in. Now?
Fifteen desks
I can't fix.
tagged, scratched into the top.
Somebody made their mark, it lasts.
One leg too short, one seat too loose.
Colors don't match, that one green, this one blue.
Gum and godknows
whatelse stuck underneath.
too many of them are marred.
more every year.
Maybe one day they'll get the money
and fix the desks. Most likely we'll
just get new ones.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Song of Betrayal

Sing to me, Muse. Sing of betrayals and long simmering resentments. Sing of shock and surprise. Sing a song of truth and lies. O Muse! Did you sing of questions unasked and assumptions made? Sing now of the pain and the misunderstandings.

Just get over it, already. That's what he seemed to say. Granted, it wasn't said, but you know how actions speak louder than words, my Muse. Sweet words find no purchase the way what did and what you didn't do will. Will I ever learn? Will I ever understand? O Muse, I freely admit that I have been unpleasant and unlikeable from time to time. But, never false. In fact, Muse, you might say, and probably have said, that being too truthful has been a greater fault than being false for me.

Don't you have a plan? He had said that, in fact, though not at the time. And, you know, I wished it had been him. At the moment, in the moment, with the blood running hot and the news still ringing in my ears, with grief pouring down from on high, drowning me ice and screamed denials. With the awful realization finally come home to roost, a great black crow that cackled at my tears. And I wished it had been him. How different would it have been? What a different life! Better? I don't know. But, aye, different.

Today? It might as well have been him for all the difference it would make. He is the ghost of a memory. An idol know longer. That ship sailed. With nothing left to offer, no more to say, not a an ounce of pride needed, no more advice wanted, he packed up and went home.

Painful it must have been. How does it feel when you realize you don't know as much as you think you do? How does it feel to see that the student has surpassed the teacher? It can't have been easy. Oh, Muse, trust me, I know how that sounds, but don't get me wrong. I know so well that there tons I don't know, too. But, that, I think now, is a strength. All of us know so little. It is certainty that is the weakness sometimes. Inquiry, curiosity, gray thinking. Don't say yes, don't say no. Say maybe. Maybe. Say I don't know. I don't know. I'm not sure. There is power in those words that people ignore and may even not understand.

But, some things I do know. I know loyalty. I know truth. It's in your heart. The enemy of my friend is my enemy. Simple. But, maybe it's not that they didn't understand loyalty. Maybe, Muse, they understood but knew they were not loyal and accepted it. Maybe they had no desire to be loyal at all.

Can we blame them? The wood cannot blame the fire. The frog cannot blame the scorpion.

Orcas, lately

I've been reading about orcas lately.  Since I was very young, I've always been interested in marine biology and marine mammals.  As a kid, I loved going to Marineland and Sea World.

Blackfish is a documentary about killer whales in captivity.

Today, I won't do it.  I am even against going to regular zoos.  If an institution or park is holding a primate or other mammal that has demonstrated, scientifically, near human intelligence, I think we need to boycott those businesses.

Orcas, for example, have been scientifically observed exhibiting complex social and cultural behaviors. So have the other smaller dolphins.  (Orcas are not "whales" though they are cetaceans.  They are the largest of the dolphin species.)

I think that if an animal can be cognizant of its captivity, it should not be held captive.

Death at Sea World is a book that helps explains this.

Did you know that orcas, killer whales, have matriarchal societies?  They organize matrilineally, with sons and daughters actually spending their entire lives alongside of their mothers.  Males will leave the mother for days, or even weeks, to forage, or mate, but they always return to their mothers.

Knowing this, it makes me think maybe orcas are actually smarter than humans.

Just be honest [opinion]

I don't understand how some people can act like nothing happened.  Is it that they are crazy?  Or am I just too sensitive?  Am I just really bad at this whole "forgive and forget" thing?

I can think of several people, right now, who have been awful to me, horrible.  Straight up betrayals.  You know?  Come on, you know.  It's the kind of thing where they do something that causes you to completely re-evaluate the entire relationship you thought you had with them.  They throw you under the bus.

And, whatever, I can deal with that.  Sure, it hurts.  But, it's life.  People are not always nice, frequently selfish and I guess you gotta do what you gotta do.  It is such that I have realized that most people don't really care that much.  There was a time, I guess, that I thought that "friendship" or "family" meant more than it obviously does.  But, to many people, our definitions differ.

It is what it is.  I don't like it, but I accept it.

What I don't get and cannot accept is when these same people try to turn around and act as if it never happened.

I want to be clear.  I'm talking about people who have outright, in unequivocal ways, rejected me, been cruel to me, actively tried to hurt me in some cases.  I'm not referring to some kind of casual offense that may or may not have been intended.  I have spoken of these things with people to check and see if I'm being crazy.  I'm not.  These were people doing actually awful things that I had a right to be deeply offended by.

Got it?

Now, these people act friendly toward me, as if what happened doesn't count.

It doesn't work that way.  Not with me.  I keep it real.  If you burn me, that's it.  I'm very loyal to the people who are loyal to me.  But, once you have revealed to me that I matter very little to you, then I return that feeling.

And, I don't forget and I don't forgive.  As Steve Harvey has said, "I'm not that good a Christian, yet."

Now, were these people to say, "I am sorry about what happened and my part in it." And were these people to make up the damage they had done, amend their behavior, I would forgive them at that point. I can't say I would forget, though.

But, these people have never done that.

I guess that people get older, but that doesn't mean they mature.  I'm not saying I'm perfect, but I have gone to a lot of trouble and effort to be a better person.  And, if you know me, you know that over the last 20 years I have changed a great deal, often for the better.  The thing is, that also means I've gotten better at realizing how immature others are.  It's kind of like how when I got my college degrees I started noticing how uneducated others actually are.

Is this harsh?  Maybe.  But, it's real.  And, even if I'm not nice, at least I'm honest.  I won't lie to you and pretend to be your friend.  People know where they stand with me.  I don't go behind your back and assassinate your character.  If I don't like you, you know it.  I'd prefer this to what some others seem to think is acceptable.

So, don't wish me a happy Father's Day when in reality you have gone out of your way to see that my other days are not happy.

Monday, June 10, 2013

I'm just saying...

I have no illusions about my last couple of posts. They are my equivalent of angsty teenage poetry. But on the other hand they are honest.  I am often unwilling to have people read my writing out of fear mostly.  Then I thought, “What the heck. Might as well put it on the blog and let people read it.” It is what it is. Personally, I like the way I put some of the words together even of the emotional content is a bit overwrought.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Fictional Marriage - A story - © 2013 All Rights Reserved

Note: This is a bit different than my usual post. Once upon a time, I would write more fiction than anything else. Lately, ideas have been kicking around in my head. This one sat for a while and then it occurred to me that stories are useless if you never tell them. So, I'm telling it. If you enjoy it, great. If not, well it's my blog and nobody made you read it.

There are some adult themes and a bit of adult language. If that kind of thing bothers you, you ought not read it. Also, you ought to get off the Internet, as I have noticed a good deal of that sort of thing on the rest of the Internet as well.

Also, Chapter 2 will be along just as soon as I figure out what happens.

Chapter 1

He splashed water on his face from the spigot, then slid hisentire head beneath the rusting steel pipe, allowing the fluid to cascade overhis hair, his skull, his neck. Itwas cool and rinsed away any standing perspiration from the ride. He ran his fingers over his head,through his hair, an impromptu shower, good enough for now.

He turned off the faucet and let the water drip off his headand face. Tip tap. Tip tap. The droplets pattered against the dirt. Tip tap. They tickled as they ran down his check and jumped off hisnose. He breathed, sighed, andfelt better.

Not good, but better. Bike rides always seemed to make him feel better, if not good. Sometimes he could use them to get awayfrom his thoughts. Other times,the thoughts crowded about his ears, cawing at him, dark crows disturbed by agunshot. No, not a gunshot. Maybejust disturbed the sound of slamming door. A shout. A broken heart.

"This is why I hate being married to you," she had yelled.

He couldn't even remember why she was mad, why they were arguing this time. He couldn't remember what "this" had been that made her hate being married to him. He probably had been right about something. That always made her more angry, more irrational than ever.

"That's what you get for marrying crazy," his friend Jimmy had told him. True enough.

By then, it seemed she was always finding something to complain about. He didn't do enough with the kids. He didn't do enough around the house. He was playing too much video games.He was riding too much. She had also complained about him buying another bike. "Why do you need another bike," she had asked. She had more than 20 pairs of shoes,but didn't understand why someone needed more than one bike.

This bike was for off-road riding, colloquially known as a mountain bike. Fat tires with big, rubber knobs on the tread churned through the gravel and dirt. Dual shock absorbers, one on the front fork and another on the rear triangle soaked up bumps and kept the wheels in contact with the ground. The gears were in ratios suited for going up steep inclines with maximum transfer of power from leg to wheel. It was a machine born to be on dirt.And that's why he needed another bike. For another purpose.

He enjoyed mountain biking, generally, but today found it to be especially helpful, even therapeutic. The mind cannot wander as much on the dirt trail because a lapse of attention can quickly throw a rider to the ground. The road was usually smooth and you could go hundreds, even thousands of feet without paying much attention to the tarmac surface. But, a dirt trail had different ideas. It was full of ruts, cracks, rocks, soft gravel spots, and more. There were little rocks that made you lose traction and larger rocks that could throw you off the bike completely. Bikers called those "baby-heads" because they were about the size of, well, the heads of babies. And, if there was a good collection of them, say, where a hillside had spilled them, then it was a rock garden. A rock garden of babyheads sounds cute, but in reality, it is an obstacle to negotiate. Baby heads could start a yard sale, which was when a cyclist crashed and all his stuff came flying out of his backpack: multi-tool, pump, first aid kit, food, extra tube, etc. If you lost all your crap in a crash, it was a yard sale. And, worse, you could get hurt pretty bad in a crash. He even had bruised a rib once. Sounds like a petty injury but it'll ruin a couple weeks for you. You can't breathe, laugh, sleep or bend the wrong way without excruciating pain.

So, he could concentrate, had to concentrate, and not think too much, which was good.Because every time he started thinking...

“This is why I hate being married to you. I'm only staying with you because we have kids.”

When she had said it, it had been like a punch to the back of the head. He hadn't seen that coming and didn't realize how much it would hurt until it happened. She hated being married to him? Hated it? He had stopped mid-argument then. Few things left him speechless but that had done the trick. Hated being married to him? This didn't sound like one of those things you just accidentally say because you are mad. The second part is what did it. "I'm only staying with you because we have kids," had the sound of reasoning and rationalization behind it, as though she had told herself this many times before, as though she had contemplated leaving him but remembered she had kids with him. It wasn't something you just thought up on the spot. And she didn't think that quickly on her feet, anyway. She wasn't verbal like him. This was premeditated.

He would later confirm that she had, in fact, thought of it before she said it, many times and long before. Last weekend he had moved back into their old house. The mortgage hadn't been paid in months and they were doing a short sale. Turned out that she had declined to pay the mortgage for several months. He found out when he went over and asked for the statements. She made excuses about why she couldn't get the statements for him, but he knew where they were.

The house was still his, his name on the deed. But, he had stayed out, trying to be respectful. Now, though, he had a suspicion and went in the house. At the time, she had started freaking out, telling him to leave. Ariel and Alva were there, too. He walked over to the paperwork and started getting the statements together, looking for the latest ones.

She, meanwhile, dialed 9-1-1. No shit. She called the police. When they answered, she said, "My husband won't leave the house. He's moved out and we're separated. I asked him to leave and he won't.He's belligerent ." There was a pause. "He may have been drinking I'm not sure. And he has a knife."

Now, bear in mind, he'd been in the house about three minutes now. That's hardly belligerent. He just wanted his bank statements from the mortgage company. And he hadn't been drinking. In fact, he had not had a drink in fifteen years and she well knew that. Nor, was he armed, unless you think of a small Swiss Army knife as being armed. He often carried a small pocket knife. The worst you could do with it was give someone a poor manicure. And, she never saw it so she was only guessing that he was carrying this very small, very innocuous pocket knife. But, the way she said it made it sound like he was clenching a Bowie knife between his teeth.

Finding the papers, he turned and left, disgusted. This fucking woman, he thought. He got in the car and drove away. He wasn't going to stay there and deal with cops and allow her to tell more lies.

Sure enough, the mortgage was months over due.

She moved out and had left the house in disarray. He had to move back in for a month and clean up. There was trash throughout the house and she had left the mattress and box spring set in the master bedroom? Why? It had a large blood stain on it. He had been stunned by that for a second? Blood? Then, he realized the stain, about six inches in diameter, was on "her side" of the bed, about midway down, was just about where her pelvis would be if she were sleeping there. He figured out that she had probably gotten her period some night and bled on the bed. At least, that's what he he hoped had happened there. In any case, the mattress was trash as well. He sure as hell wasn't going to sleep on it and not very many people would, either. He couldn't even donate it to charity or something. Disgusting. But, that was her in a nutshell. Do something awful, leave it for others to deal with, but maintain the ability to deny it had ever happened. Who would believe she had bled on a mattress and then left it for her ex-husband to dispose of out of spite?

The garage had been piled with more debris and garbage she had left behind. Broken toys, a broken bookshelf, and other assorted pieces of a broken marriage. Most of the things in the garage belonged to him. He had worked on his bikes in there, stored his tools and camping equipment in there. No doubt, that's why she chose to pile the unwanted, worthless cast-offs there, to spite him once again.

Amid the detritus were boxes of books and papers. He sorted through them as he was cleaning to see if there was anything worth keeping. It was hard for him to throw away books. Digging beneath the accumulated trash, he found mostly textbooks, from college, it looked like, old psych and social studies typebooks. Then, he found a collection of scribbled notes that had been stuffed in the side of the box, crushed there. He opened a few and saw that they were mostly uninteresting. But, one was folded and quite lengthy.

He smoothed it out and read it. It appeared to be a kind of diary entry or, maybe a letter to God. It wasn't addressed to anyone. No "Dear So-and-so." There was a long complaint about their sex life. She wasn't being romanced enough. As usual, it wasn't up to her satisfaction. It actually said, "I like to be romanced. I love candles & music. Doesn't happen." Then, it goes on to complain that he hadn't been performing well.

He thought about it. True enough. He'd had difficultly some times. Neurotic. Worrying. Afraid. Afraid he wasnt enough. Afraid she would leave him. Afraid she didn't love him. And, it appears his fears had been true. He hadn't been enough. She did leave him. She didn't love him.

The note went on. It seemed they had fought because he didn't feel up to sex that night so she took it personal and he took that personal. And they argued over who was meanest and most insensitive. A classic pissing contest to see which person was worse than the other.

Yeah, that's a helluva relationship. Worth fighting for. Two people performing a death spiral into bitterness and misery.

Then, the note changed its tone:

It's always something in my life. Things never seem to be just okay in every way. Why is this? Is this because of choices I have made? Being a mom is the hardest thing I have ever done & continue to do. Watching Cathy and Alva w/all their seemingly problems -- Cathy withdrawn somewhat, no friends, sad a lot of the time, Alva always acting out, getting in trouble, having a bad attitude, hard on people in her life. Watching these girls go through these things can be so hard. And even with [redacted] in my life I feel like I am doing it alone. He doesn't care about these things. He doesn't understand the guilt that comes from having them. He makes things even harder at times. I always feel like I am protecting the girls from him or explaining his behavior to them to make them not feel so bad. And then there is Ariel who is probably the only reason I will not consider leaving this relationship.

He stopped reading. Ariel. Their daughter, born a couple years after they were married. Why doesn't she mention Buddy, their son? He read more:

Things have gotten increasingly more difficult in this marriage. But I refuse to be a single mom again because I don't like my life every second of every day. Some moments are really good. Sometimes I really love [redacted] & really love being married.I have grown to trust him & I know he loves me and Ariel very much. I think he is not capable of some feelings.

He had to laugh. Seriously? Which feelings, exactly, was he not capable of? This was such classic behavior from her. Build him up, tear him down. She loves me, she loves me not. He's great to be around and loves her, then he's not capable of some feelings.

And sometimes, especially in the last 6 mos to a year I would even say I hate being married. I have cried to the Lord to help me doing God's will, to help me stay in this marriage if it be His will.

Holy crap. It was now clear. The reason she didn't mention Buddy was because he hadn't been born yet when she wrote this note. He probably hadn't even been conceived! This note he had found that had her admitting that she hated being married to him, the exact words she had shouted at him, was probably four years old, or more. She hadn't loved him for years.

For years.Four years. It stunned him. She had tried to make this seem recent. But, for years she had been lying, faking it.

He scanned the rest of the note: "I think something is going on with him. He is in spiritual trouble and it's why he's going back to church. Something is not right. I hope he does not hurt us. I hope he does not hurt himself."

For real now? This woman did not make sense. In one pen stroke she says she prays to God for guidance to stay in the marriage and then takes the sign that he's going to church as an indicator of spiritual trouble? Then, further, she's afraid he will hurt her and the girls?

He knew she wasn't always in touch with reality but that was really goofy. He had exactly zero history of violence. He had been in two physical fights as a kid. Two. That's it. He had never raised a hand to anyone, nor threatened violence to anyone, in his adult life. But, she's afraid of him?

No sense at all. It made no sense. It was as if she didn't even know him.

During the lengthy marriage counseling sessions and even more lengthy discussions about the unraveling marriage, she had maintained that she had said she hated being married to him in the heat of the moment. In fact, when he brought it two weeks later, her response had been, "You're still mad about that?"

Yes, in fact, he was.

"I only said it the onetime!" she would later exclaim. Which begged the question: how many times should you be allowed to tell your spouse that you hate being married to them and are only staying with them because you have kids together? How many times should you be allowed to tell your spouse that you live in a loveless marriage of convenience while they are only fooling themselves believing that you love them?It was as if you get a mulligan on that comment, the first one doesn't count.

The day after that argument, he had ridden his bike up this same trail. The words she said counted. They had counted to him. And, as he rode his mountain bike up the trail, sweat clinging to his face and back, he had let out an involuntary sob. His marriage was over. He had known it right then, even a year and a half earlier. "This is why I hate..." Why I hate. I hate. Hate. It had ended the argument because he had been stunned into silence, not an easy feat. And, he had gotten up in the morning, prepped, and left for a bike ride, first pedaling up the road a few miles, then turning on to the dirt for an 11mile uphill climb to the top of the trail. He had hoped it would settle his thoughts.

But, it didn't. Even when he got up to the top and gazed out over the valley, trying to make sense of it, he still felt the sting of it. He couldn't believe it. It seemed so random. She hated being married to him? Why? He had a job, paid the bills, didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't do drugs, didn't hit people, and he was faithful. Why hate being married to him?

Because she doesn't love him. That's why. Maybe she had never loved him. Maybe he was only convenient.

No, that couldn't be it. Why not love him? She said she did. But, during another argument, she had told him firmly, "You can't takeeverything I say so literally!" So, maybe "I love you" was one of those things he shouldn't take literally? Maybe that was the problem all along, that he believed the things she said.

It didn't make sense to him, not then, anyway. Later, his hair and face dripping into the dirt, into the muddy puddle by the side of the trail, it made much more sense. He knew things and guessed others that hadn't been clear before. Actually, the best way to put it is that it didn't make sense then because he was trying to make sense of it when it never could. He had come to realize that his ex-wife saw the world in a fundamentally different way and that he could never reason with it.

The note he had found made that clear. It was like the pieces of the puzzle were coming together and her nonsense was making sense.

Over time, he reflected, putting his helmet back on, the picture drew into focus. She used to tell him that he was a great husband, a great father. Then, a week or two later, she would tell him he was a monster trying to "squash my spirit." He still wasn't sure what that meant, exactly. Maybe he wasn't perfect, but calling him a monster didn't seem fair or accurate.

This went on for years, alternately praising him and tearing him down. She criticized the way he dressed, or that he picked his nails too much. He wasn't allowed to parent the step-daughters, either. Not really. Everything he did or said was criticized as too harsh, too this, too that. He wanted to teach them manners at the dinner table but she told him not to because it made the meal an uncomfortable experience. Or, she told him that he was too negative toward the kids and he needed to be more positive. Or, he wasn't being active enough and needed to be more involved. Get involved, don't get involved. It was always something. He could never get it right.

Now, with the note in mind, he could see she thought she had to protect them from him. Why? What was so bad about him that needed protecting against?

In the end, he began to feel that there was little he could do right. If he did the laundry, then he didn't do the kitchen too. If he mowed the lawn, then he didn't vacuum the house. He started to feel crazy. Was he a wonderful guy or a bad guy? A good father or bad father? The best or the worst? He didn't know because she said both to him on different weeks.

He had become a teacher so he could support the familybetter, more consistently. But,teaching took a lot of time to do right. Somehow she had this idea that he would leave school at dismissal and behome by 3:00 p.m. But it didn'twork that way. It never did. Certainly there were some teachers wholeft when the students did, but he couldn't. He cared about his teaching and that took time. Grading, cleaning, planning,decorating.

He had liked teaching, more than he thought he would. But, it was hard work, work she hadn't seemed to understand. He was recognized for his hard work at school. But, not at home. At home he was accused of liking his students more than his daughters, which wasn't true. And, even if it was, at least in the classroom he was allowed to be in charge, to make decisions, and people respected what he did.At home, he felt alien, outnumbered.

He shook his head, clearing the cobwebs. Time to ride. The whole point of this ride, like so many others, was to not sit and think and think and think. He had moved out now.The last counseling session hadn't gone well and she said she wanted him out of the house. Amid all of the bullshit, the fighting, the building up and tearing down, the blame, and the contempt she had toward him, he had fallen in love with his friend.

A woman he knew from work, actually, another teacher. Luz was beautiful, smart, and kind. They were really only friends. He had, historically, always gotten along better with women. In fact, one of his two best friends in school from Sixth Grade through high school had been a girl. Luz was a great teacher and had good advice for lessons and activities. So, they talked and, admittedly, they were talking a lot. He knew he was in love with her now but it hadn't become apparent until the counselor had point blank asked him. His wife, or soon to be ex-wife, had not liked the relationship. But, as usual, her paranoia had blown it way out of proportion. She said it was an affair. Had they kissed? she wanted to know. No. Good lord, no. It was such a ridiculous, insulting question he had not even answered her. He was loyal and always had been a loyal person, maybe to a fault sometimes.

His parents had been married until his mother died. Same with his grandparents. You don't cheat. It doesn't happen. Well, not in his world. In her world? Clearly.

So, the topic came up in counseling.

"What is it with Luz?" the counselor asked.
"She's a friend," he answered.
"That's it?"
"That's it. She's a great teacher and I trust her advice. We have had to work together a lot and she helps me."
His wife jumped in, "And she's pretty. Isn't she?"
"Yes," he said, "She's very pretty."

His wife had swung those accusing eyes off of him and looked at the counselor as if to say, "I rest my case your honor." The moment hung in the air.

"Are you in love with Luz?"

His heart beat once, twice, time slowed, and--


It was almost a relief. The marriage had been over for so many months. Maybe a year, even. So many months of fighting, arguing, blaming. And she had told him to get out. Move out. So he had.

He adjusted his sunglasses and swung his leg over the bike, mounting again. No idea why this was bothering him so much again today. But, he couldn't shake it. He pedaled up the trail.A steep section here made his thighs burn and his breath came in gasps now. But, he pushed more. At least he wasn't crying anymore. He didn't feel like crying. The sun was higher now, hotter, and he could feel heat radiating upward off the rocks and from the shale on the hillsides. The dirt and rocks here were yellow. It wasn't like the crushed granite higher up and toward the west. And, that made it seem hotter for some reason.

He looked up and watched a red-tailed hawk drifting on the thermals. A feeling similar to, but not exactly like, peace came over him. Something about being out in nature, amid the dirt, the chaparral, and the skitterings in the bushes made him feel peaceful. If he could feel such a way today.

Along with moving out, he had filed separation papers. And she had gotten a fucking lawyer. Okay, so that's fucking crazy. A lawyer. To fight over what? They lived in California, a no-fault divorce state. Fifty-fifty was the law. The court didn't give a shit if your were nailing your secretary and gambling the family savings away. Fifty-fifty. But she had gotten a goddamn lawyer anyway.

It bothered him because he had wanted it to be clean and amicable. He wanted to be reasonable. Ha. As if that was possible with her. Yesterday he had gone over to the house to give her a check for the mortgage. He didn't want to lose the house. The market was looking bad, but still, to hang on to the house would be good.

In fact, he didn't want to fight at all. He was offering to pay her $1800 amonth to help support the kids and so they could keep the house. He had also said she could keep living in the house with the kids. And,he was thinking that an 80/20 split of time with the kids would be fair. He wanted as much stability as possible for them. He could visit them inthe evenings, have dinner with them, help them with homework, and then have them back home for bedtime. They'd actually been doing that for a couple weeks now and it seemed to work.

So, he walked up to the door, check in hand and gave it to her. Casually, she said:

"I hired a lawyer. You can talk to him from now on."

He stopped.

"You hired a lawyer? Why?"

"There are consequences for divorce. I'm going to get what I deserve."

Consequences. That's what she had said. She was going to punish him, get revenge for having the temerity toleave her, to not want to stay in a loveless marriage with someone who hated being married to him. Yeah, that was so fucking awful of him.What was she angry about?

At the time it had made zero sense. Today, riding his bike, he started thinking again. The fight was getting ugly. He didn't want all of this fighting. The lawyer had called him and threatened him with all kinds of stuff. Made it sound like it was all a done deal and he was going to have to pay thousands or else.

Here, now, he wanted to give in. Make it go away. Stop the fight and get on with his life. He'd gone out with Luz and she really seemed to like him. It was nice, actually, to spend time with someone who genuinely liked him. He wanted to just leave it all behind. Fuck that bitch. He was actually hearing that she was telling people he had been cheating on her and had been engaged in a torrid affair for months. So, there was that, too. Fuck her bullshit lies and fucking lawyer and fuck her consequences and fuck her all the way to hell and back.

He pedaled up and up, his breath coming in gasps at times, and the thoughts fell away. Just him, the bike, the trail, the impossibly blue sky, the hills, a rustling in the bushes, the wind.

He crested the rise and looked ahead at a long downhill. It twisted around a few times, he knew and then another climb to the phone tower at the top. He stood in the pedals and hung his ass over the back tire, letting gravity do the work now. His speed rose, 15mph, 20mph. He eased into the brakes on the corners, the discs whiningwith the effort. He looked aheadand saw a coyote. For a second, his mind stuttered. He never saw coyotes up here. Heard them at dusk, but this was mid-day.He watched it and it saw him and ran, around a corner, disappearing.

He was a little nervous. It was just not what he was used to. He knew a coyote was a kind of dog, and dogs like to chase bikes.He decided to just be alert.

He rounded the corner where the coyote had been and expected to see him ahead again. But, he wasn't there. He swiveled his head, looking for the animal. Had it gone into the brush or was it that fast?

His front tire must have hit a soft spot in the trail. Sand would instantly slow down a front tire. All weight shifts forward. He was airborne, over the handlebars, time slowing, then an impact as he slammed into the ground and slid forward, his bike flipping over behind him and landing on his leg.

When he came to a stop, he was still for a second, both stunned and trying to see if anything was majorly wrong. He was breathing and there wasn't any immediate severe pain.  He twisted a little and the pain began in his hip.  That hurt a lot, actually.  He turned to look and could see the bike was lying across his left leg.   He pulled his leg out and saw that the chain ring had gouged his right calf muscle.   It was only just beginning to hurt and he knew it would get worse.   Blood was welling out of the laceration.

He tried to stand and that hurt like a motherfucker.  His hip was screaming now.  All his weight must have landed there. He found a pretty bad abrasion on his left arm, too.  Awesome.  He brushed the dirt off his jersey and readjusted his backpack. He lifted his bike and his hip again flared with pain.   He looked at the bike and it seemed okay.  He tried to get back on and his hip was screaming. Now, he realized his groin muscle was hurt, too.  It was starting to ache and he got a sharp pain when he lifted his leg to get on.  So, he went the other way around so he didn't have to lift his left leg.

Now on the bike, he thought about it.   It didn't seem like a good idea to continue the ride. But, to get home, he had a 1/2 mile climb to the hill top and then 11 miles ofdownhill. Or, he could take the singletrack trail. It was a 3.5 mile trail wide enough for a single bike, not a fire road like he was on now. It was over grown in places and dangerous, technically. But, he knew that his injuries would only get worse as time went on.  Eleven miles downhill on the fire road wasn't a joke either.

But, first, he had to get up hill.  He tried to pedal and the pain brought a gasp to his lips.  Fuck, that was bad.  He gritted his teeth.  Cycling was about enduring the pain.  He turned the cranks, revolving them once, twice, three times, four, then it was too much.  His left leg was seriously hurt.  He stopped and wanted to cry in frustration.   He would have to walk.  No, worse.  He would have to push his bike up the hill.

Mountain bikers often have parts of their ride where they have to walk.   It's not unusual, so much so, that many companies make cycling shoes specifically for mountain biking with treads to tackle the rough terrain.  But, to be honest, walking in cycling shoes is never really easy. He had converted to"clipless" pedals a year ago.  His shoes had metal cleats on the bottom that clipped into a mechanism on the pedals. It feels counterintuitive to many people to have your feet attached to the pedals, but in reality, it's much safer.   Like ski bindings, the pedals have an adjustible release point. In fact, even when he crashed moments ago, his pedals released without him even thinking about it.

However, walking in the shoes was still difficult.  The soles were a little more stiff than regular shoes, to help transfer power from the legs to the pedals.  And, the metal cleats slipped across stones, even though they were recessed.  Anyway, lacking a good choice, he pushed his bike, walking along side of it, on, the left side.  He had long ago learned not to walk on the "drive side" where the chain was.   Inevitably, he would gouge his calf on his chainring.  So, he pushed, walking gingerly, feeling new aches in his shoulder and side.  The fall had been harder than he thought.

"For every hour that goes by, it's going to hurt worse," he said, talking aloud to himself. "We gotta just get to the top. Then we can coast."  Even as he said it, he looked at his watch, wiping the dust from the face, and saw the time was getting along toward sunset.   He hadn't planned on the crash, obviously. That, and walking, was adding time to his ride that he hadn't counted on.  He had about two hours until the sun was going to set.

"Two hours. I can do that. No problem." He was talking aloud as if to convince himself, to sooth his anxieties.

The gravel crunched under his feet and he was sweating under his helmet. Thirsty, he took a drink from his backpack's water reservoir.   He never wanted to run out of water so he had even brought a "reserve" bottle that he carried on his bike. Small birds flitted about the bushes, diving and swooping in fast ellipticals. They were hunting small insects. Ahead of him, a rabbit hopped out of the bushes, looked at him, and hopped again across the trail and out of sight.   Gnats began to hover in front of his face.  When he rode fast enough, the couldn't keep up, but, walking, huffing, up the hill, the little flies were an annoyance he didn't need.  His leg was very tender and he wanted to concentrate on not hurting himself more.

Slowly, steadily, he made his way up the hill.   He kept a look out, and an ear out, for any sign of the coyote. It made him nervous even though he couldn't remember ever hearing of a biker being attacked by a coyote.  Mountain lion, yes.  Coyote, no.  But, his paranoia was creeping now.  He was tired, frustrated, and starting to get hungry.

Finally, at the top, he stopped to rest.   It had taken him a long time to get up, slipping on the loose dirt, wincing every time he put too much weight on his left leg.  He leaned his bike against a boulder and sat on a smaller rock next to it.   He rifled through his backpack and got out an energy bar, unwrapped it, and ate.  He felt better.  And, interestingly, he realized, the crash and injury had actually kept him from thinking about his problems.  He smiled wryly at the thought, that focusing on his little emergency had given him a kind of mindfullness so that he only now remembered to obsess on the divorce.

However, instead, he began to think about the trip home.  He had sort of wanted to go down the singletrack.   He knew it was overgrown in places, but it was faster.   It was only about three miles long and then he would get to pavement. But, the other direction was wide-open fireroad. It had a few small uphills, but was mostly downhill. The drawback was that it was 11 miles before he would reach pavement. That would take almost an hour to get down because he would want to keep his speed lower, not risking crashing again.

Crashing.  That was a problem.  Another crash could result in new injuries or worsening any he already had.  He sighed.  He just wanted to get home already and put ice on his bruises. He looked at the sun. He had about an hour until the sun would dip below the horizon.  He had to get moving. The wind blew in fitful gusts, pushing his hair and jersey back and forth.

"Which way?" he asked aloud.   He knew the singletrack well enough.  Three miles was pretty enticing. He could be on pavement in a half hour.   "Lots of it is totally rideable. We could do it. Be home faster." He had decided.   He wanted to get the hell out of Dodge.  The fireroad down was on the northeast side of the mountain.  It would get darker sooner there.  This was the south side and had more sun exposure.  It was the smart choice, he thought. He squinted toward the valley as a gust of wind kicked up dust and blew it into his eyes.  The singletrack trail would have to do.

He picked up his bike and got back on it. He could ride as long as he didn't have to pedal too hard. Mostly he would have to stand on the pedals and let the bike float beneath him.  He thought he could do that.  He started moving now, picking a line amid the ruts, rocks and plants.  He held the brakes, too, keeping his speed low. His disc brakes made a squealing noise as he did.

Ahead, he could see the trail narrowing and disappearing in the bushes.  All around him was chaparral growth that was becoming increasingly more dense. Bushes were scratching at his legs.  Some had thorns.   He got a few small cuts but ignored them, pressing forward.

Ssssssssssss. A flat. "Fuck.  Seriously?" He did not need a flat now. And, of course, he now realized, it was the back tire. He brought the bike to a stop. He looked around, trying to decide where he would fix his tire. The brush was dense ahead and behind. He moved to the left of the trail and found a spot with tall grass amid the bushes, almost a clearing of sorts. He flipped his bike over and set about taking the tire off of his wheel. It wasn't necessarily a tough repair, but he was now tired, hot, and in pain. He grunted at the effort of pulling the tire bead off of the rim.

He stripped the tube out of the tire and ran his finger inside the tire to check for thorns, found it, removed it. Then, he rifled through his bag to find a repair kit with which to patch the hole. He found it, a small, plastic box that held pre-glued patches and sandpaper. He pulled out the patches, little round stickers made of stretchy rubber material with paper backing, holding the tube in one hand, the box in the other, and the tire dangling off his fingers. A gust of wind grabbed at him and his tenuous grasp on the patches allowed them to flap away out of his hand.


He put down everything else and stepped toward the papers that skittered under a bush. It was only a few feet away. He could--

Bzzzzzzzzzz!  An angry buzzing noise erupted from the ground and he froze.   Rattlesnake.  This wasn't that fake sound the TV uses.  This was the real thing. He looked down to see a big, gray, Western Diamondback looking up at him, coiled, under the bush he had steppednext to.  It had been five feetfrom all the time, lying quietly, hoping to remain undetected.   Only now, feeling threatened, had it revealed itself.  His shoe and ankle were about a foot away, maybe more.

He didn't move, waiting for the snake to calm down. The buzzing rattle began to stutter, slowing.  The snake was still poised however, watching him. He calculated in his head. He knew snakes could strike about half of their body length. This one looked to be about three feet long. There were branches there, too, which might keep the snake from hitting him, too. But, this was still far from a safe situation.

"Okay, little guy, okay," he said to the snake. He knew it was unlikely the snake was really being soothed by his voice, but he did it anyway. "I just want to get away from you.  I don't want to hurt you." It buzzed its tail at him, still obviously threatened.  Gnats flew about his face and he instinctively waved them away.   The snake reacted by pulling its head back and rattling anew. He froze again.  This snake was very agitated.

Breathing slowly, he began to tense his body to moveaway. Slow or fast? He couldn't decide. He was tired and impatient.  He just wanted to get his patches and fix his bike so he could get the hell out of there.

Fast or slow?  He inched back slightly and the snake hissed. Slower, he moved little again and the snake didn't react.  It even lowered its head and he relaxed himself, just a little. This snake didn't really want to bite him. It was pulling itself back, too.

He felt there was enough room now. He gathered his strength and jumped backwards, away from the snake. He heard the snake buzz its rattle again as he landed. His foot twisted awkwardly under him and pain lanced upward, through his body, and he stumbled. He flailed, back-pedaled.  His momentum was too great and he fell, smashing his head into a very large rock. His vision tunneled, his ears rang, and he fell into blackness.

Symphony No 13 in G major "The Heart Makes An Echo" - fiction © 2013 All Rights Reserved

First movement, Molto Adagio
Sing to me, Muse. Let the furies descend on me tonight, I’m ready for them. Sing to me in my dreams, sing to me of hearts on fire, sing to me you smiling liar. But look who’s calling the kettle black. I lied to myself as often as you lied to me.

I remember a time when it all seemed easy, when answers came to me like whispers from the mouth of God. But now it’s different, now thoughts dance away like dust caught in a sunbeam. I reach out, fumble, and come up empty every time. She was everything to me. Of course, I miss her, but then again, we all miss what we had become accustomed to; we miss it because it's gone, if not because it was dear. It's over and there’s nothing I can do about it now.

All that’s left for me is the awful realization. That’s what’s ailing me, if you must know, the awful realization that we all feel sometime. The awful realization that what’s done is done and the present is past. Now all I have are the consequences of my actions.That’s the hard part for me. The act in and of itself is easy, but the consequences of my actions are what fills me with dread. How do I cope? With the lies sung to me in the middle of the night by the ghost of a shadow. I have to believe it was the right thing to do. I have to believe it because it must be true. She didn't love me and she told me so.

The night is my trial by fire, when my fears crowd me and gibber in my ear like a crazed ape. They howl and buzz in my head, mocking me and my weakness. That’s when the awful realization hits me like a sucker punch. It’s when I turn to the side of the bed where she used to lay and it’s empty. That emptiness makes a sound that echoes in my heart. Only then, with the pain, do I realize that I’m still alive. Only then does it really occur to me that I am alone. Only then do I realize that this is all self-inflicted and that I am alone because I wanted to be without her.

It’s the being alone that really hurts. It’s living with myself that makes me feel this way. When she was around, I was distracted. I didn’t have to look at the hole in my gut, I didn’t have to see the blackness in my soul. It’s not much of a soul, I admit, but it’s mine. Being alone hurts, but being with her hurt more.

The heart makes an echo that once in awhile finds a place in another. When that other is gone, it is a tearing sound, like sackcloth and ashes. I hear it when I am alone. She once asked me if I believed in angels. I do now. Sometimes I can hear their wings fluttering in the dark, occasionally I see them like tiny blurs at the edge of my vision. At least, I think they are angels. I can hear them talking about me, God knows what they’re saying but I know it can’t be good.

I heard that dreams are the way that your subconscious speaks to you, but what does it mean when your dreams are all nightmares? I keep having this nightmare that doesn’t seem like a dream, it seems like it’s real. I can see her leaving, she’s walking through the door, and only I know there is a killer outside, waiting for her. I can’t move, I can’t call out. I can only listen to the lub-dub echo of my heart in my head. The strange thing is that I can’t tell if it’s the sound of my heart or hers. Then suddenly it stops and I awaken. How do I know that this isn’t all a dream and my nightmare reality? What difference does it make? She’s gone now and I have to accept the consequences of my actions.

Am I really insane? Or is that just a cop-out? I know the difference between right and wrong, but I choose not to care. Isn’t that a kind of insanity? Will that be enough of a defense when the reckoning day comes and I’m called on the carpet to answer for my transgressions?

The heart makes an echo that goes out into the world. It’s like echolocation for the soul, searching for her. The heart makes an echo, like seeing in the dark. Unfortunately, there’s a reason for the dark, it obscures the awful realization from our eyes so we don’t have to live with the consequences of our actions. If I could silence the echo of the heart, maybe then I could go blind.

2nd movement, Allegro andante, con brio.
Sing to me Muse. Sing in me and through me. Sing of victory and defeat, sing of ecstasy and of pain, of my joys and terror. Sing that my truth be told, my soul laid bare, and my story be born.

The heart makes an echo, like echolocation. It goes out into the world, looking for the other. It can see in the dark, which is good because the darkness hides the hurt and the pain and the loss. This is the world of the heart. It lives in the dark, sees in the dark, and when the echo is gone, it goes blind.

The heart makes an echo. It beats a finite song, a tune that cascades inside and goes outward from us. The heart makes an echo and seeks its counter, another heart making a complimentary sound. The echoes join and make the sweet song of the absence of loneliness. I can sing that song today. My heart found an echo. My echo was lost, but now it is found. Or was found.

Once, my heart found an echo that sounded the same. The truth seemed apparent but it was only an illusion. It didn't seem like it at that time but that's the thing about illusions. They look so real! It's only when you pass your hand through them, when you work up the nerve to test it, to see, if it's real, to see if it's true. You put your fingers in the nail holes and it disappears. You doubt no more because now you know the truth. It was all just a dream.

Or a nightmare. Sometimes dreams become nightmares and they turn with the suddenness of a car crash. All is well, the sun is shining, the music is on and then there is screaming and blood and glass and terror. The heart can be lied to. It can be sung sweet songs of deceit and half-truths. I love you, she said, but the song really meant she loved what I gave. She loved what I had.

When the echo was gone it left with a shriek, with a sigh, with a howl. It left and took half of everything, left me with nothing. But, it was gone and my heart could still sing. It sang and heard another echo.

This echo was true. This echo was undeniable. My heart tried to sing another song, but this is the one that rang out. And, in the darkness was light. In the clouds there was a sun. Where once my heart had thought it had clarity, it found it had been living in murk and obscurity. The song it had sung had not been echoed at all.

The other had only seemed to sing the song. But, this new song, that my heart heard, it was a song of hope, of love, and a song of such beauty. It was the kind of song I had always hoped to hear but only heard sung to other people. And now I knew the words! And she sang them to me. She sang them with me!

Our hearts made an echo and found each other. The song they sing is full of fire and succor. It is a song of grace and passion. It is a song with words that neither of us know and both of us know. She knows so many words that I have only begun to learn. And the words that I'm singing she has never heard before but she likes them and learns them. Our hearts sing together and nuzzle against one another.

In the dark, and in the cold, our hearts warm each other. We trace the secret scars left by the world, by the others. We trace the scars and they are diminished by the touch. The scars are angry and red. They are pink and fading. In the darkness, our hearts sing the song that makes the scars fade, but not go away. Never go away.

Her heart sings a song that I never thought I could sing. I never thought it would be sung with me. It is a song that at once fills me with the sweet light of happiness and the screaming black terror of loss. It is a song that I know can be silenced. I have heard the silence of this song. I have heard the echoes dying and it was the worst thing I ever heard. I know the words to the song of death, and pain, and loss. I will never forget that melody.

But, today, that song is just a dusty scroll in the corner, unsung. Its notes fade on the parchment. They fade, but never go away. I found out, I'm not really insane, at least, not any more so than anyone else. I wasn't insane, just hurt. What's crazy is how long I let her hurt me and didn't try to leave. What took me so long was my nobility and wanting to do the right thing. But, what is the right thing sometimes becomes the wrong thing. No conditional morality? Absolute morality is for fascists and the color blind.

You can live so long with the pain and the clouds that it all seems normal. Does the cavefish know it is blind? It does when it is brought into the dazzling sunlight. Now I know it was right. Now I know that it was, and is, worth all the pain. When you have known lack, then you can be truly grateful for bounty. I am grateful for every moment, every smile, every song she sings because I know what it used to be like. I know what it was like to be thrown away, to be lost, to be scowled at. and scorned. No one else knew the song the other sang. She didn't sing it for them. She only sings her public song, wears her public face, uses her public voice. But, today, this one sings the same song all the time.

I wonder, if people heard the other song, would they have agreed with me? I had wanted to keep the songs to myself. No point in sharing all of that. But, then, they said I was wrong. Well, in the end, I decided that they didn't have to live my life. They sang those songs because those were the lives they were living, not mine. They didn't know the songs the other sang. They never heard those words. They never heard that the other hated, wished to leave. And, she never told them.

This is the best song I have ever heard. O Muse! Sing of love and light, sing of the world being a better place because of this voice I hear in my heart every night. Sing of echoes that trip and gallop down brightly lit streets of neon promise and ringing with bells of laughter. Muse, your song is the song of the hills, and the wind, the song of her breathing in the middle of the night. It is the song of her footsteps walking in the same time as mine. Sing, Muse, sing of fire, and life! Sing of candles burning fierce against the darkness, against the night that turns to dawn. Sing of gold and glittering jewels that cannot purchase anything so dear as this. And, even when your song is done, the heart makes an echo that sings this song, fading, but never going away. Never going away.


Update about testing

My last post was a lengthy discourse on standardized testing and teaching.    I won't summarize it here.  It was the last one I wrote so read it if you're interested.

As a result of that writing and the workshop that inspired it, I decided to ignore what the presenter told us to do.  Instead, I decided to focus on teaching my kids to write and think better. I theorized that this would prepare them for the test and still be an education worth having.  I didn't have to teach to the test.

So, besides the normal curriculum, I had the kids write essays that were based on the kind they might find on the exam.  I made sure to read and grade them quickly because they needed the feedback ASAP in order for it to be truly effective.  I also focused on pointing out what they did right on the essay instead of the mistakes.  

In addition, I gave them articles each week to practices close reading and to write a reflection.  This was to give them better vocabulary and grammar.  (Think about it.  In learning to speak, no one gave us grammar drills or vocabulary tests. We learned to speak by listening and imitating.)

So, how did my students do? I had 85% pass the CAHSEE.  I'll take that.  I think if I had this philosophy from the beginning of the year, I might have passed better than 90%.  I will get a chance to find out. I'm going to teach Sophomores again this year, all five periods.  So, we'll see.  (I can't take all the credit as these kids had teachers prior to me.  But, I guarantee if my kids hadn't done well, I would have gotten the blame, too.)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Are You Not Entertained?! The Consequences of Standardized Test Prep

Are you not satisfied with the educational system?!

In the film, Gladiator, the character played by Russell Crowe, Maximus, is a Roman Soldier who is enslaved and made to be a gladiator. He is already a killing machine, a hardened soldier, and, angry at being forced to kill for sport, he proceeds to dispatch his opponents quickly, easily, and shouts at the crowd, "Are you not entertained?!" He knows they are not. This is not what they had in mind.

So, I feel like shouting something similar right now. I just sat through an hour long "workshop" to help me prepare my students for the California High School Exit Exam, otherwise known as the CAHSEE. This test is supposed to see if the kids have learned the minimum amount necessary to earn a high school diploma. If kids don't pass the test, no matter what grades they earn, they don't get a diploma. So, there are high stakes for the kids.

The adults have a stake in this, too. The pass rate is used by people, district officials, to judge the schools, primarily the administrators. And, the scores are published in newspapers, used by politicians, and part of how schools get funding. People use these scores to decide if the schools are doing a good job. And, more and more, districts are using them to evaluate teachers. The assumption is that if students are passing the test, they must be learning what we want them to learn. The further assumption with this test, and other standardized tests, is that the tests are a valid measure of student learning. In other words, the things that the students learn in school are being tested by the CAHSEE and these are the things we want them to learn.

Educators have been warning that an over reliance on standardized tests will lead to teachers teaching to the test and a narrowing of the curriculum. For years now, the prediction has been that if you put pressure on teachers to raise test scores, that will become the point of the school year, and that teachers will do what they need to do in order to ensure student, and, therefore, teacher success.

The warnings have come true. It has come to pass. The teachers are teaching to the test and the curriculum has been narrowed. Here is the absolute, undeniable truth. I am going to relate to you what happened in this workshop as proof that the canary has died, the warnings have come true, it is no longer a possibility, it is a reality.

The workshop began with us watching a clip of Nick Saban explaining that the reason he works so hard is because he likes to win, to be the best. So, that's the tone of the presentation. We are supposed to want to win. This is reinforced when the presenter* says he is competitive and always plays to win, and that when he was a classroom teacher, he used the student scores on the standardized tests, like the CAHSEE, to see if he was winning at work.

Does that sound like education to you? Is education a game to win? Do you want teachers worrying about winning? You might think you do. Let's look at what that means, in practice.

The presenter brought out charts to represent data that showed how students scored on the CAHSEE. We found that about 24% missed passing the test by 5 points or less. We saw that about 80% of the students in the district are passing the test and about the same or slightly more are passing at our school. That sounds pretty good, to me. An 80% pass rate sounds decent. Not great, certainly, but not reason to panic, either.

So, the presenter put up a chart that showed the breakdown of the types of questions that the test has. They were split up by standards. California uses standards as the teaching objectives, the skills that students are supposed to learn. So, for example, he told us that 25% of the test is Reading Comprehension. So, we should focus on activities that teach students Reading Comprehension. Why? Because that standard had the most "bang for the buck". His reasoning, as a certified math teacher, was that if students were learning reading comprehension, then they were learning Word Analysis and Response to Literature at the same time. Maybe, but maybe not. Word Analysis is more like a vocabulary exercise where you use knowledge of Greek and Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes, and so on, to figure out what words mean. But, Reading Comprehension is more about figuring out plot or tone or something like that. (Most of this is not very high on the cognitive scale, by the way. It is low, to mid-level thinking, mostly identifying things, recognizing them.)

And, honestly, respectfully, he was talking about teaching English about as well as I would talk about teaching math. That is to say, he was pretty much wrong.

So, my problem is, first, that we are making a lot of assumptions. Most of my fellow English teachers were muttering that focusing on Writing Applications, which comprises 20% of the score, is a better idea. What does that mean? That we would focus on teaching kids to write essays. Why? Well, when you're writing, you're reading. You are literally reading what you have written. When you write, you usually have to read something, like literature, and you need to comprehend it, to analyze it. Realistically, you are probably addressing five, or more, standards in that kind of activity.

It's much more of a bang for your buck activity. Read and write about what you read.

That was mentioned. His response was enthusiastic. Yes! Great! Have them write! And, he said, there are things you can do if the kids don't write well. He said you should make sure they indent paragraphs. You should have them write five paragraphs. You should have them make sure they have topic sentences for all of their paragraphs. This will, he said, help "masquerade their writing" [sic] so it looks as if they know how to write.

He actually said that. It will help mask the fact that they can't write well.

Are you not entertained?!

Basically, this district official was telling us ways to game the system, the best ways to increase test scores. We did not talk about student learning. We didn't talk about what was best for kids. See, that's a given in these areas. This is best for kids. We should use test scores to drive instruction. We should make curricular choices based on what standards will help students pass the test with the highest score. We should win!

Let that sink in. We, as teachers, are choosing the lessons based on what will increase student test scores. We are not asking if this will help kids prepare for college. We are not asking if this is what students need to be ready for life after high school. We are not asking if this will help them get a job and support themselves.

Not only are we teaching based on what standards will be on the test and which ones will raise test scores the easiest, but we are focusing on that. We are narrowing the curriculum so that we can make sure the kids are successful with that. Because, as we were told, success breeds more success. The presenter then recommended that we get the released test questions and spend 3 to 5 days on going over those questions. We should teach them to do better on those questions, help them practice to take the test.

Are you not satisfied with the educational system? Isn't this what you wanted? It must be. We all heard the warnings. Teachers have been saying this for years. We have been telling anyone who would listen, and most didn't, that this would happen. How could it not? How could you put so much pressure on teachers to raise scores and not expect them to focus on those things that would do the easiest and most effectively?

This is the state of the educational system today. This is what No Child Left Behind has given us. Why? Because the pass rate of Sophomores on the CAHSEE counts for 100% of the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) score that is a huge part of NCLB and determines things like if a school is considered failing or not. Of course you, as a principal, are going to focus on this. You're not stupid. Your job is riding on this! They publish these scores in the papers. And, increasingly, districts are trying to use these scores to see if teachers are good or not.

So, am I going to do it? Why wouldn't I? I want people to think I'm a good teacher! This is my job! This is how I pay my bills! It's how I support my family! Yes, I am going to want my kids to pass this test and get high scores. And, you must want me to, as well, because you will base my evaluation on this, you will publish my name in the paper with these scores, as they do in some places, like Los Angeles and New York.

I guess you are satisfied and entertained because I'm still a gladiator and the games don't look to be changing any time soon. The tests are not going away.

*I want to be clear that this is in no way critical of the presenter today. I am sure he was doing the best he could with the assignment he was given. In my opinion, we are all complicit in this problem. We, the teachers that go along with it, the administrators who push the agenda, the citizens who believe it.