Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Last Jedi

My thoughts on Star Wars The Last Jedi come from a very deep, personal place. I would appreciate not being called a hater, curmudgeon, etc. for expressing them. Spoilers ahead.

When I was 12 years old, Luke Skywalker was a hero to me. Star Wars was my favorite movie of all time. It still was until this past Friday. Luke came from the death of his family to follow Ben Kenobi on an adventure to find answers about his father and to become a Jedi Knight. He never strayed from the path of light, nor gave in to the cynicism of Han Solo. He believed in the Princess and the rebellion. He blew up the Death Star because that youthful optimism had even persuaded snarky Solo to return to the fray where he never wanted to be.

I wrote my own Star Wars adventures built around Luke and his X-Wing, travelling from place to place with Artoo, playing with a die-cast toy much like the one Luke had of his Skyhopper, to spark the imagination. When Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was released the following year as a stealth sequel, written just in case the studio wouldn’t give George Lucas the budget he required, Luke was the hero again with Leia and the droids at his side. There was no sign of Han Solo.

When I was 15, Luke trained to be a Jedi. Though he acted like a spoiled child at first, it was out of a sense of duty to his friends that he left his training early to go to their rescue, giving up everything he had worked so hard to attain and paying the price.

When I was 18, Luke rescued Han Solo, Leia, and Chewbacca from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt and returned to his master, only to find out that he knew everything he needed to know to become a Jedi and that he only needed to face Vader again to become one. At the end of the film and my childhood, Luke had redeemed his father, was at last a Jedi Knight, and the story possibilities were limitless.

I’m 53 now. I waited 35 years to see Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight. Just a few years ago, JJ Abrams spent an entire chapter of the saga with the characters desperately looking for Luke Skywalker. The dramatic ending where Rey offers him Luke his original lightsaber, the Jedi weapon that once belonged to his father…became a setup for a sight gag. In this film, Luke casually tosses the lightsaber over his shoulder and walks away. My reaction: What the actual f---?

I didn’t wait 35 years to see Luke Skywalker become a whiny hermit waiting to die on an effing island, turning his back on his sister, the cause she believed in, and the Force. I didn’t wait 35 years to see Luke Skywalker, hero of the rebellion, actually consider murdering his own nephew while he slept. I don’t know who Rian Johnson thinks Luke Skywalker was, but I sure as hell didn’t recognize him. Luke fought hard and risked everything to redeem Vader, but thought about murdering Ben Solo in his sleep? What? Pretty sure that’s not in the Jedi code.

I’ll say this: Mark Hamill played the heck out of that role. I’ve said this before: Mark Hamill is 10 times the actor Harrison Ford is. Harrison Ford is a movie star. He plays Harrison Ford in every movie he’s in. But Mark Hamill is an actor. It was a great performance. I just wish he’d been playing my Luke Skywalker instead of whoever that was on the screen.

Mark Hamill recently told someone on-camera that he wished that in that climactic scene at the end of The Force Awakens, that the lightsaber that Kylo Ren was trying to summon to his hand had flown right by him and into Luke’s hand instead of Rey’s. Can you imagine the cheers that would have gone up in the crowd when they realized that Han’s death had created a stir in the Force that both Luke and Leia had felt and that Luke had left his exile to come to her aid? The roar would have been deafening. THAT’S how you make a Star Wars movie. You give Luke his moment. You give people like me Luke’s moment. You don’t make him project himself across the galaxy using some heretofore unheard of Jedi power that a thousand generations of Jedi never exhibited and then have him die for no reason.

I know the idea was to pass the baton to the new generation of characters.  But I only got to see Luke receive it when I was a kid and then pass it off 35 years later without ever running with it. And that was a race I would have loved to have seen, even briefly.

I don't need to nitpick this movie. I can (trust me, I have more to say) but the only important point to me is that Luke Skywalker should have been more to this trilogy than a burned out whiny failure who finishes as a cheesy hologram who really died alone on a rock halfway across the galaxy. He deserved better and so do we.

Sunday, November 26, 2017


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 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


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


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.