Sunday, November 26, 2017

Holidays

What is it about this time of year that gets me now? Is it that everyone concerned (except my brother) is gone now? I think it must be. My dad, my mom, my sister, my grandparents...all gone. Everyone I spent holidays with as a kid, except my brother (who doesn't remember much of it), is dead.

That's a lonely thought. But the wonders and the joy and the smells of the holiday are hardwired into my brain. It's colorful Oz compared to the dreary black and white days of Kansas in the every day nightmare of my childhood. Spending time with the people who loved me most for a glorious week, as opposed to being beaten, belittled, and berated every day. There was nothing better. I know for a fact that if I had not had those respites to look forward to, I wouldn't have made it out alive. Even now, I weep with joy at the happy memories.

My grandma baking batch after batch of cookies. Ice cream with chocolate syrup and peanut butter as a treat every night. Endless coloring books and comics and silly putty and drawing paper and colored pencils. Sleeping on the hide-a-bed in the living room. Trips to Cadillac and Traverse City, visiting the best bookstores in northern Michigan, and knowing that I'll be able to choose something new to take back and read in peace without being tortured for reading "those damn comic books" again. An oversized treasury comic bought for the extravagant sum of $1.00, hearing my grandpa chuckle, saying, "A dollar for a funny book? Jesus Christ, Ma," but knowing that he didn't care.

Riding snowmobiles for endless hours and warming up by the woodstove and drinking hot chocolate. Egg nog that I helped make from the time I was able to reach the counter while stepping on a stool, with freshly ground nutmeg.  Chocolate milk with dinner; the decadence! Getting our action figures out and playing to our hearts' content while my dad and grandparents sat around the table drinking coffee.

I remember every gift no matter how small. My dad's tradition was to give us Lifesavers storybooks and McDonald's gift certificates. The reason behind the gift certificates is so terrible: My mother and stepfather wouldn't let us eat very much at McDonald's so in order to allow Jeff and me to order what we wanted, he gave us gift certificates. It didn't work out. They just used them to order the usual and kept them. Yes, I know, even my holiday stories have darkness to them. Welcome to my world. But don't think for a moment that the thought wasn't appreciated. It most certainly was. We knew we were loved, if only for a while.

As I put this last paragraph down, I'm already crying at the thought of leaving each year. And not just tears rolling down my cheeks. We're talking the ugly cry. My grandpa would slip us each a dollar and kiss us goodbye. He wasn't exactly an affectionate man, but there was no doubt of his love. One of his favorite things in the world were cordial cherries and I made sure he got a box of them from me every single year. I think it was his favorite gift. By the time we got to the back door of the mud room, we were begging to stay. "Don't make us go back. Please! We'll be good." And my grandma would hold us close, and whisper, "I know you would. You'll be back soon, I promise. I love you." And she would have to leave the room before we saw her cry as well. Then my dad would hug us. I knew he didn't want to let us go. And with hindsight, I can't imagine the guilt he must have felt for causing this disruption not just for us, but for his own parents who didn't get to see us except for twice a year. It was not ideal. But in my darkest hours lying in bed at night back with my mother, I know we were loved for a short time every Christmas. That's why I'll always celebrate regardless of religion. It wasn't about Jesus or God for me. I got beatings in the name of God.

It was about family. It was about home. It was about love. And it was about hope.



Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving is supposed to be about giving thanks to God. The problem is, I’m an atheist. The reasons why aren’t important at the moment. I still think it is  important to appreciate the people and things in our lives that make us who we are, and if we want to do it on a retailer-driven fourth Thursday of November, enacted by Congress in 1941, who am I to argue? First thing I'm thankful for? That I don't teach history. It's all shenanigans.

As anyone who knows me or has read my writing knows, I've had a troubled life, beginning with a seriously troubled childhood. That's okay. Since then, I've led a productive life, had a successful career, am married to the most wonderful woman in the world, and have a child who amazes me every single day with her talent, intelligence, and humor. We have a roof over our heads, cars to drive (usually more than one; not today, but still), and food on the table today. We're not buried under crushing debt (anymore) and we are able to provide our daughter with dance lessons, movies, dinners out once in a while, and the occasional trip to the theater. I'd call that a win on its own.

Yes, we've had a pretty horrific time since my mother died a year ago in August. We've had catastrophic financial disasters one after another that have wiped out any savings we had and then some. But is it the worst I've been through? HA! Let me put it this way, it won't stop me from retiring. I was always planning to work anyway. I just need to make the difference between my former salary and my pension. I'm pretty sure I can do that. Want to know what has seen me through the darkest of times these past few months besides my wife and daughter? You. There was a moment in April that was one of the greatest moments of my life. If I had to cast the Patronus charm right now, this



is the moment I would choose to draw from. The moment my Kickstarter reached its goal because I had the support of so many of you, I knew I could never retreat into the darkness again. I can't thank all of you enough, but this is certainly the day to do so. Without your support, my book would never have been financed. Even now, I'm looking for ways to capitalize on it and expand its reach in a tough market. But I wouldn't even be dreaming about it if not for all of you.

Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Separation

One of my friends is leaving the school system in which I have worked for the past 20 years. He’s not the first. He’s not even the 20th. But he’s the one I never would have predicted. It’s been a long road to travel these past few years, but it’s time this school system and I separated, too.

It started 10 years ago when we adopted Sera. There was no adoption leave language in place in the contract. But because of the way the international adoption rules for China worked, both Magi and I had to travel to China to receive our child. Only one of us could take any kind of leave to do so, even though we both had lots of sick leave time saved up. We only get three personal business days per year, and if we have any left at the end of the year, it’s converted into sick leave. We found out at the last minute that one of us (me) was going to have to take two weeks of unpaid leave to make this trip. As you might imagine, that’s a bit of a hardship when you’re already trying to pay for an expensive adoption. So we appealed to the superintendent.

Our superintendent back then was an amazing man. Some of my friends had worked with him for decades and told me so. I had no reason to doubt them, and they were quite correct. He found a way for me to bend the sick leave rules since it is often true that children show signs of illness immediately following an adoption. I would use my three personal days first, and then go to sick leave after that, to ostensibly attend to the sick child. He didn’t have to do this, but he did. And for that, we will be forever in his debt. We would have been loyal to the school system in perpetuity, had it not been for the actions of one of his underlings.

Magi was going to stay home with Sera for the rest of the school year using the Family Medical Leave Act, which allows a parent to use six weeks of accumulated leave to care for a new child. Since spring break was in the middle of this period, we didn’t count it, and she had just enough that she would not have to return to school for a week. But the personnel director at that time decided that spring break counted as one of the six weeks, and so she was only allowed to take five weeks of accumulated leave and would either have to return to school for one week or take a week off, unpaid. She took the week unpaid, putting a lot of the financial burden we thought we had escaped right back on us. We thought about going over her head, but the superintendent had already been kind to us. We didn’t want to push our luck. What did the school system gain by this? They didn’t have to pay out for five days of leave she had earned. And they lost our loyalty. We had personal loyalty to the superintendent, but professional loyalty to the school system was gone.

Someone I know and am very close to was up for a new job a few years ago. At first, she was the perfect applicant for the job. In fact, she was the only qualified applicant in the entire process. She had a teaching license and years of experience in the field to back her up. During her interview, she was asked questions that are illegal to ask in a job interview. Not just unethical, mind you, but illegal. She knew that because she used to interview people for jobs all the time and knew the law. She didn’t get the job, and it was re-posted without some of the requirements that she alone had had, like having a teaching license. The job description now also included the ability to lift and sustain 50-pound weights. Ironic, since she now has the job and has never had to lift anything that weighs close to 50 pounds. She fought this illegal and unethical practice with the union’s help and she got the job. The person who was preventing her from getting the job has now admitted he was wrong for doing so. She went on to become teacher of the year at her new school, too. So, you know, there’s that.

The writing was clearly on the wall when I won the Lilly Endowment Teacher Creativity Fellowship in 2014. Only 100 teachers statewide win this award (there are almost 60,000 teachers just in the public schools alone), at that time a $10,000 fellowship. And I was one of two from our school system to win it. Neither of us was recognized by the school system for this achievement. It was only when one of my friends wrote to the local newspaper about it that any attention was paid at all. I was interviewed by the newspaper and then on television. Only after that was there a single blurb on the school’s website about it. There is no evidence of it at all now. You can’t even find it by searching.

When I was transferred to another school against my will, that was the last straw. I’ve written enough about that elsewhere, and I’ve come to terms with it. But it was still wrong on every possible level. Lie after lie was told.

The point is that for 18 years I sacrificed for my school and my students, serving on and chairing committee after committee, initiating programs, managing after school programs, working Sundays to organize testing schedules and the like. Magi has given up countless hours in her position, doing unpaid and thankless (literally) work for her school. And now here we are, corporate cogs in the machine. I’m still having trouble with it. Schools aren’t supposed to work that way. They’re supposed to be like how the former superintendent did things. You make things work for your people because you want people to work harder for you. Unfortunately, it’s to the point now where it’s more like his personnel director treated us: as a way to save the system $500 in sub pay to make her advancement path clearer. I’m glad she never advanced a single level more.

When I watch these people celebrate the national-level success of a school on camera, while knowing full well their plans are to tear that school apart in the next three years…when I witness lies told directly to the school board…when I see other friends chewed up and spit out by the system they bled for…

It’s time to separate myself from it. I’ll do my time, shut my door and teach my kids, and start cutting ties, one by one. This makes me so ridiculously sad.

It’s not supposed to work this way. And it doesn’t.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

"Data"

I just re-read this article after four years, and it's not just still true but DOUBLY true. Every last word. Years later and we are STILL pumping money into testing systems and using the tests in ways that even their designers say are inappropriate. We are evaluating art teachers and music teachers by their students' language arts test scores. We have become slaves to "data" that has no validity whatsoever. We test using math questions that have seven answer choices and up to four of them may be correct. If you miss one, you get the whole question wrong. We test proficiency in adding integers by requiring students to know every possible way to express the question instead of simply asking if they can do it reliably in A mathematically valid way.

The absurdity of the entire system right now is painfully obvious to those with enough experience and knowledge to see it. I got dinged once on an evaluation because I didn't have language arts writing prompt "data" on my wall. Never mind that I wasn't told that it was a criterion used to evaluate me ahead of time. I'M A MATH TEACHER. I'm at risk of not being considered a highly effective math teacher because I don't have writing prompt "data" from the language arts department that most math teachers (I'm an exception) aren't even qualified to evaluate in the first place? The scoring rubric was so vague that nothing useful could come from it. And I DO know how to evaluate grammar and spelling. If you want me to evaluate their writing, I'll do it. And I'll do it correctly. But a checklist item to indicate whether they used the three vocabulary words you explicitly told them to use? THAT'S NOT WRITING DATA. It's compliance data, as is the use of exactly three paragraphs. I literally have to count the times they indented and check the box. And someone thinks that posting this information on the board with a score attributed to each student makes me a better math teacher.

This isn't data we're collecting, any more than literally counting beans in Kindergarten was accounting. It's not even as good as the empirical data I gather from walking around my classroom while students are working to check their understanding. There's no serious mathematical analysis going on. There are no standard deviations being measured. I would like to challenge everyone in every school administration, local, statewide, and national, to define an outlier or even interquartile range without looking it up. And if they can't do it, they should STOP TALKING ABOUT DATA. Because that's basic, and I mean BASIC statistics. It's an Algebra II standard here in Indiana. If you're not even up to using high school math, then stop using it to adversely affect the learning of my students and the livelihoods of my colleagues and me.

I've been told to watch what I say on Facebook. I do. I carefully consider my words and edit them numerous times to make sure I am not misrepresenting myself or the truth. But, okay, I'll post it here on my old blog instead. Data proves that it's not Facebook.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Gift

My mother died two weeks ago today. I hadn't spoken to her in nine years. When I heard that she was ill, I was surprised to learn that she had recently moved back to Michigan after years in Utah and Arizona. She has asked some of my relatives not to say anything to me about the move. I visited her on Friday the 12th, and she died as I pulled into the parking garage at the hospital on Saturday the 13th. That may sound quick, but I assure you that it wasn't. My experience with cancer to this point involves the victim writhing in pain for days until they die. My father died that way, and my mother's last days were no exception. I'm beginning to think that the cancer deaths I have read about from other survivors about their relatives dying peacefully in their sleep are complete fiction.

My mother and I were estranged for several reasons. First, she was an alcoholic and inflicted emotional pain without a second thought. If she felt wronged in any way, she would hit you where she knew she could do the most harm. She wielded the precision of a surgeon. I swore, in writing, when my wife and I adopted our daughter that my mother would have no contact with her. Second, she was a gambling addict. She once borrowed $500 from me and then filed bankruptcy, listing me as a creditor. How did I find this out? Via a letter from her lawyer. Third, for five years she allowed me, from ages 7 to 12, to be beaten by a man that she married without lifting a finger to protect me. He beat me, punched me, kicked me, and once pulled my fingernail off with a pair of pliers. And that's just the physical abuse. She at least did me the small favor of allowing me to go live with my father after my 12th birthday, because, in her words, "I thought he was going to kill you." I'm going to spare you the most gruesome details. Just understand that I (and my brother, too) went through things that no child should ever have to experience, and no child on my watch ever will again.

Although after I went to live with my father my life was relatively normal, the effects of abuse are long-lasting and if they're not dealt with, they will come back and bite you. I grew up cynical, sarcastic, unwilling and sometimes unable to trust people, especially when religion was involved. The oft-quoted, "Spare the rod, spoil the child" was one of my stepfather's favorite lines. Every day, I fight a war inside myself. So far, I've won most of the battles. The ones I have lost have been costly, especially in terms of friends and family I have alienated. I can't overemphasize how important my friends are to me. Those of you who've stuck with me have my most heartfelt thanks. You have no idea of the depth of my fondness for you.

Now, my mother's house is my responsibility. No one else wants to deal with it, and it falls to me to see that her heirs receive fair shares of whatever is left of her estate after her creditors have been paid. There won't be much, but I'll be darned if I'll just let the bank take everything. So far, I have gone through all of her papers, finding no will. I've sorted through photographs and every shred of paper that my late sister ever touched. My mother kept everything to do with her and her youngest son. There was nothing among my mother's things to do with my brother or me, her sons. We found a few scraps among my sister's things. That sounds about right. Yet here I am, doing my familial duty. Would that my mother had had that same sense of duty.

In the past few years, I have been at peace with my childhood. I have worked to become a positive force in my classroom. I wish I had been for more of my career, but honestly, I did the best I could. Being a father forced me to take a good, long look at my behavior and make a big adjustment. I wish I'd done it sooner. Am I a great teacher/person? God, no. But I do okay with the tools I have. Every day I reflect on the stupid and careless things I have said. I never let anything go. I hold onto every mistake so I don't make them again. I know I'm supposed to forgive myself. Trust me, I know how that's supposed to work, but that's not how I'm wired. I was conditioned from age seven to not make mistakes for fear of being beaten. It's a survival instinct developed over a long period of time. It's not going away. I just make do as best I can and for a while, I was doing okay.

All my thoughts of progress and well-being went out the window the day my mother died. Going through her house with the stench of cigarette smoke and cases of beer still on the dining room floor and finding gambling receipts and photos of the man who beat me just sent that feeling of accomplishment right out the window. For the past two weeks, I have dreamed every night of that time. I wake up in cold sweats, and actually have to remove my soaked t-shirt so I can go back to sleep for a little longer. I've been averaging six hours or less for a while now. And tomorrow, it's back to that house again after a week away. I have to take care of it until it's sold. We're going to have an estate sale next weekend to clear out the garage sale crap that she filled it with. Whatever doesn't sell goes to Goodwill or the dump. We have the important papers and family photos. I hope to hell the place sells fast so I can put this behind me again and get back to what's important. That's an equally frustrating part of this. I haven't been able to focus on my comics work while this has been going on. I'm hoping I can learn to compartmentalize it so I can keep making progress at least.

My brother and I have had a running joke for a while that the abuse we suffered is "the gift that keeps on giving." I could have done without this final gift.



Thursday, January 21, 2016

Batman v. Superman

Oh, the feels. That's what the kids say these days, isn't it, when they're talking about powerful emotions? Because that's what the Batman v. Superman trailers have been bringing out of me.

There are many, many reasons why Batman and Superman are important to me. I've written about it numerous times here on this very blog. They were childhood heroes who served as role models for me when I had none in the real world. They were like surrogate fathers. Maybe that's a bad thing, or maybe it's good. Even though I don't care for this phrase too much, it is what it is. I understand there's room for more than one interpretation of iconic characters. But seeing them on the screen this way never fails to make me mourn for the way they used to be. And seeing fan reaction so overwhelmingly bloodthirsty and hungry for violence between two beloved characters makes me feel very old.

I've written a number of times about how comics kept my hopes alive during the period in which I was abused, but I don't think I've committed to writing how they helped me come out of it. I went to live with my father during the Christmas break immediately following my 12th birthday. My mother gave me the choice of who I wanted to live with because she (and these are her words) thought that my stepfather was eventually going to kill me. It took 0.02 seconds to make that decision and looking back, I probably hurt her feelings with the speed at which I blurted out, "I want to live with Dad."

A few weeks later, my stuff was packed into a few boxes (we lived in a trailer; I didn't own much) and we were driving to the lower peninsula to move me in. My dad had said that he was living in a bi-level house with his new wife and her two daughters. We had the address and we looked up and down the country road that it indicated, and found no house. Eventually, we stopped for directions at a cement block basement with no house above it, protruding from a hill. It had lights on. Turned out that this was it! My mother looked around, and was mortified. There were few windows, no carpeting, but a few area rugs scattered around. None of the rooms had doors except the bathroom, but all had simple curtains drawn across the partitions. She was angry at my dad for lying, but turned to me and whispered, "Are you sure you want to live here?" I nodded quickly, hoping she wouldn't change her mind. In my head I was thinking, Are you kidding? I'd live in a rabbit hole if it meant not getting beaten every day. And so, life began again. I was away from my little brother and sister for the first time since they were born, but I was looking forward to a new life without being hit.

It took some time getting used to a whole new family. My new stepmother was interesting. She was generally pretty nice to me. She had four kids. Two daughters who lived with her, ages 17 and 16, and two sons who lived with their father, ages 14 and 13. So I went from being the oldest in the family to being the youngest. One of the first things I did as a symbol of my new freedom was buy comic books. If we behaved in church on Sunday (which I always did, being eager to please) we received 50 cents, which we could spend at the small general store in town. My stepsisters always bought cigarettes (I told you my stepmother was interesting) and I bought my first comic book ever with my own money. It was a tough choice that first time out, but it was a choice of simple economics. I bought Justice League of America #140. It was a 50-cent Giant, and it had all of my favorite characters in one book. It felt like I was getting away with something sneaky, but it was also liberating because my dad fully supported it. The story had Green Lantern being captured by and taken offworld to face charges that he had destroyed a whole planet.

Of course the Justice League came to his defense. That's what they do. During their investigation in the following issue, Superman and Batman are paired off with one of the Guardians of the Universe, and while they're in space, the Guardian questions the pairing. Batman simply responds by saying, "Superman and I have been friends for a long time. We're the world's finest team."

I have one page of original comic book art left from my collection. That's the one I still own. It symbolizes freedom to me; vindication; a return to the way things should have turned out for me. I survived my abusive situation in part because of Batman and Superman, and they've been with me ever since. Over the years, especially since the Crisis on Infinite Earths and subsequently the Man of Steel mini-series rebooted the relationship between the two heroes, and Frank Miller's Dark Knight put them at odds, they've fought over and over and over again. No matter how stupid or contrived the circumstance, whether mind-control or Kryptonite or (shudder) politics, I just never buy into it. They worked together without incident for decades, thrilling millions of kids like me. And now it looks like they'll clash because Lex Luthor tricks them into it.

When someone tells the new audience that "this isn't your father's Batman and Superman," they're damned right.




Thursday, June 25, 2015

Old Wounds #2 and #3


Yes, I am Russell Lissau's friend. But as Russell will be the first to tell you, I will tell a friend when I don't like something that they've done. I'm told it's a rare trait, and it might explain why I don't have that many close friends. That said, Old Wounds #2 and #3 are great!

I reviewed #1 here. This is a superhero story in setting, but it's more of a detective story, for which I am always a sucker. A former superhero's ex-wife is murdered by the same MO that put the former hero out of action years ago, and now he's the target.

In issues 2 and 3, Michael Lane goes on the search for his ex-wife's killer. Everyone around him seems to be a target and everyone who knows his secret has an attempt made on their lives. And at the end of issue #3, we think we know who the killer is. I say "we think we know," because I've been fooled before. There has been enough groundwork laid to still provide some doubt. It's effective, because now I have to persuade Russell to let me see #4 ahead of its release as well!

The execution of the story is excellent. Russell is a great writer, and we're kept guessing right along with the former Night Hunter, Michael Lane. But what I really noticed in reading these past two issues in quick succession was that the art style is changing. It was much cleaner in the first issue and as the story progressed, it started getting sketchier. This can happen when deadlines loom, but I've also seen it happen as the chaos in the story begins to leak into the art, as in David Mazzuchelli's art in Daredevil #227-233. I think the effect really works here, even if it was incidental.

There are a lot of comics out there to read that are flashier, but I am finding this story far more engaging than one of last week's books, the new JLA #1 with art by Bryan Hitch. It was flashy, but it was big and loud and dumb. Old Wounds is none of those things.

Old Wounds #3 is in stores now.