The Reluctant Teacher/Academic (S)

Listen Up!

The seed for this story was planted some time ago, 2013 to be exact. At that time I was teaching High School English and assigned my 11th grade students to read The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (2007). It is an excellent book, which was subsequently made into a pretty good movie (2012) starring Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber, and Keifer Sutherland. One could say that it is a post 9/11 book, but this is only partly true. That event does work it’s way into the story, but it is, in the final analysis, not what the book is about. And on that note, this story isn’t about the book or 9/11!

My first attempt at teaching was not reluctant at all. I was an avid skier in my youth (still am!) and decided to turn that passion into a job as a ski instructor. While I understand that teaching a sport is not anywhere close to teaching in a classroom, there is one similarity: You need to be able to command the attention of a group of people and convince them that you know what you’re talking about. Granted, the stakes are different: A young mind’s edification versus not going over a cliff. Hmmm.

My introduction to academic teaching came much later and as a direct result of reinventing myself for the 5th time (at 34!) by going back to school and completing a B.A. (1989) with a major in English and a minor in Communications. After the requisite congratulations from family and friends subsided, all that was left was the inevitable question: “So, what now?” Indeed, what now? I made it a point to tell everyone, including myself, that I went back to school not to get a job, better or worse than the ones I had previously, but rather to get an education, to broaden my knowledge base, to become a better version of myself. You know, all that bullshit you tell yourself when you really don’t have a clue why you choose to do something, especially like quitting a job, selling a Volvo station wagon, buying my first motorcycle (cheaper on gas) taking on student debt, and graduating with an English degree!

The “what next” question was answered after some intense soul searching, or it may have been some intense drinking, I can’t seem to remember. The minor in Communications came at the tail end of finishing my B.A. and I was really enjoying the classes and had become “friends” with a couple of the professors in part because we were the same age! When one of them asked me the same question as my family and friends, and my response was a shoulder shrug, he said: “Why don’t you do a masters in Communications?” My first reaction (to myself) was no fucking way. Just what I need, more school and more debt. But after some . . .see above, and the same professor telling me that I was sure to be accepted (I had somehow managed to secure a pretty decent GPA), and that I would be able to supplement my income by becoming a T.A. (teaching assistant), the fancy term for indentured servitude, I started my M.A. program in the fall of 1989. And so began my career as a “reluctant teacher/academic.”

Why was it “reluctant” you might ask? Firstly, I never really thought of myself as the “academic” type,” whatever that may be. Secondly, I never thought of myself as a teacher (skiing notwithstanding), But if I am being honest the real reason is that I was an awful student, and all I could think of was a classroom full of “pain-in-the-asses” like myself. Why the hell would I want to subject myself to that? And what better way to answer that question than: “I need the money.” And so it began. I bolstered my courage with the fact that the students I would be teaching were older and less prone to the trappings of teenage hormonal swings, and for the most part I was right. I do, however, remember one incident with a student that still haunts me to this day. This came after my T.A. days and just after completing my M.A. I was now employed by the university as a Sessional Instructor or Adjunct Professor, two more academic terms for indentured servitude! It was the first class of the semester, and I was teaching a seminar course (a three hour class, once a week with approximately 24 students). The course was one that I had devised based on my thesis: “Cyberspace, The Next Frontier.” As I usually did for a first class, I had students put their names on tent cards and I split the class up into groups for discussion purposes. When the students were moving about to join their respective groups, I was approached by this young woman who told me that she did not like working in groups. I said that I appreciated this fact, but this is how the class is going to work for the entire semester, and that if she felt that uncomfortable with this arrangement it might be better for her to find a different class to take. She just looked at me and returned to the table where her group was getting acquainted. I really thought that that was the end of this problem.

The following week I was walking towards the classroom and I could here sort of hushed whispering, which I thought was a bit strange considering how vocal they all were in the first class, all but that woman of course. When I walked into the classroom this is what I saw: Four tables of students in their assigned groups, and one table with the woman in question surrounded by four rather large dolls all with their own named tent cards in front of them! To this day I do not know what kept me from bursting out in hysterical laughter, but I have a feeling it had something to do with the fact that all the other students were just sitting there waiting to see how I would react. I didn’t say a word. I just opened my notes and started my lecture, which I normally did for this type a class, the portion after the lecture and break devoted to class (group) discussion. When it was time for the break, all the students bolted out of the room, leaving myself, the woman and her dolls. I walked over to her table and said: “You have made your point, and now I will make mine; my class has a group discussion component and if that is not acceptable to you I suggest that you find a different class to take.” I then left the classroom. When I came back the students were all returning from break and we all watched as this woman packed up all her dolls and tent cards and left the room, never to be seen again. Teaching is not for the faint of heart!

My next foray into teaching came many years later after moving to the U.S. and reinventing myself yet again. Despite the above mentioned “incident” and some other minor hurdles all teachers experience, I enjoyed my 16 year tenure as an adjunct professor. I enjoyed the scholarship, the research, the academic life (to a point), but most of all I enjoyed the students. With this still fresh in my mind (having pushed to the background my thoughts of why I would want to subject myself to the likes of a student like myself), and wanting to do something different as a teacher, I applied for and was hired for a job as a high school English teacher. This particular school catered to kids that were not neurotypical, but because I was hired after the previous school year had ended, I did not have the opportunity to meet any of the students, so at that point the words “not neurotypical” were just that, words on a piece of paper.

My very first day of this new job I walked into my classroom and even though it was about 10 minutes away from start time, there was one student seated at one of the tables, leaning back on his chair, feet up on the table with a newspaper in front of his face. I walked to my desk, deposited my laptop and papers and sat down. The student ignored that I was in the room and continued to read his newspaper. I vaguely remember clearing my throat as a way of making my presence know, which appeared to have worked because after a short delay the paper slowly lowered and I was greeted with the following: “Just so you know, I don’t care about you, anything you have to say, or what you are going to teach.” And then the newspaper went right back up to cover his face. To say that I was taken aback, is probably an understatement of gigantic proportions, and in that brief moment before I actually responded, this is what I was thinking about saying: “Well, I don’t give a flying fuck what you care or don’t care about, get your fucking feet off my table, your ass out of that chair, and get the fuck out of my classroom.” What I did say: Nothing. Sometimes less is more, and perhaps now you can relate to my reluctance!

Los Angeles 2022

Excuse Me, Do You Know What time It Is?

Timex Navi XL
Patek Phillipe 5711 Nautilus

The other night I was running an errand in downtown Los Angeles and on my way home, just northeast of the downtown core of the city, I passed an area heavily populated with sidewalk tents of the homeless. Now, this is not new to me as I have been living in the area for the past 11 years, and my reaction to seeing this has not changed over time: These people need to be helped in so many ways, but that is not going to happen anytime soon for always the same reasons: Money and politics. And it’s not just Los Angeles, as the unfortunate aspect of this type of the urban landscape is repeated all across this country. So, why am I choosing to write about this now? Well, as they say, “timing is everything!”

On this particular evening, after getting home, I happened to start flipping through the latest Vanity Fair magazine (April 2022) and came across a story that looked intriguing: “In Search Of Lost Time,” with a wonderful photo of Paul Newman. It wasn’t until I looked closer that I realized that this was not about the actor per se, but about the watch he is wearing in the photo. The small print in the top right corner of the photo page informed me that the watch is a Rolex Cosmograph, with current prices of this model ranging between $14,000-$46,000. (Newman’s wife bought this particular one for him at Tiffany’s in 1969 for $300)! The print then proceeds to inform us that the watch sold at auction in 2017 for 17.8 million dollars! Let that sink in for a moment, because it gets worse.

In December of 2021, there was a watch auction held in midtown Manhattan. Hosted by Phillips and featuring the celebrity auctioneer, Aurel Bacs, the first lot up for bid was the Patek Phillipe 5711 Nautilus pictured above. The watch’s retail price is $52,635. The people attending this auction wouldn’t even blink an eye spending this much on a watch, but ask them for $48,000 to house and feed four homeless people for a year. . .well, who knows how their eyes might twitch. The bidding for this particular watch started at $20,000, less than half the original retail, and when the gavel hit the desk with Bacs yelling sold, the winning bid was $5,350,000! (Actual price after fees etc. $6.2 million, or just over 100 times the original retail). If you had to read that multiple times you’re not alone. If you use the figure I mentioned above ($12,000 per annum to house and feed one homeless person), then for that ridiculous winning bid you’ve just housed and fed 446 people for a year!

The Timex watch pictured above to the right (one of the more expensive ones of this brand) retails for $279.00, or 0.005% the cost of the Nautilus. While I am sure there is a vast difference between the two in terms of materials, inner workings, and aesthetics, ask two people wearing one or the other the time or the date and you will get the same answer!

One of the main reasons politicians cannot appear to get their heads around finding solutions to the growing problem of homelessness in this country is that it does not have the same voting appeal as building a shiny new bridge, shopping centre, or any other symbolic bauble that can be pointed to — “I did that, vote for me.” In much the same vein, a person with $6.2 million to spend on a watch — the shiny new bauble — will get more cachet from the watch than taking care of the needy.

While the following sentiment (s) have been around for quite some time, they are worth repeating here. “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” This quote is attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, although there are some that suggest he never did say this in so many words. Two others have weighed in on this sentiment: Pearl S. Buck, who wrote: “Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way it cares for its helpless members.” And the last words belong to Hubert Humphrey, who in a 1977 speech stated: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” It would appear, given the current homelessness crisis in American cities, that those in a position to affect change need to revisit these sentiments.

Los Angeles 2022

Pet Peeves

Really!

I am pretty sure that the title alone is enough to elicit an audible groan from many of you and a hurried search for pen and paper. You’re not alone! Everyone has pet peeves, some more than others. When I sat down to write this, I wondered whether or not as one ages the number of pet peeves one has increases. My first inclination was that it might be due to the inherent “crankiness” that tends to coincide with the golden years, but upon further reflection I merely chalked it up to the longer you’ve been around, the more stupid shit you’ve seen!

The phrase itself has a long history and is rather intriguing when you consider that the word “pet” usually refers to something you adore, cherish, and love, but couple it with the word “peeve” and those three words revert to, abhor, detest, and hate. The word itself derives from the much older word “peevish” (circa 15th C) and by the 20th century we had the word peeve as a verb and soon after that as a noun, with the first pairing of the two words around 1916 when Ford auto owners listed “cranking a cold motor” as a pet peeve.

It is very fitting that the first pet peeve is tied to an automobile, as there are many tied to cars and driving: Driving too slowly in the passing lane, not using turn signals, talking, or texting while driving, to name just a few. There are so many different kinds of pet peeves one could probably come up with categories for them! My aim here is to address two particular and very different pet peeves that make my skin crawl, but before I get to those here is a sampling of some of the ones I came up with when thinking about this topic – it is by no means an exhaustive list: Passwords, crushed chips in a new bag, not covering your mouth when you cough, people not knowing how to go through airport security, loud music on earbuds, substituting “no worries,” “no problem,” and “uh-huh” for thank-you, slurping on a straw when there is clearly nothing left in the glass, people who are always late, and getting gum on the bottom of your shoe. Has your blood reached the boiling point yet? Good, now you’re ready.

The first of my two is directly related to my former career as a teacher/professor and the aphorism attributed to Mark Twain (although there are many phrases attributed to him that are suspect): “Never use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent one will do.” Now I fully realize that there are those out there with elevated vocabularies that may balk at this notion, and I agree that in certain types of writing a well-placed bon mot or three is perfectly acceptable. Nor am I suggesting that one needs to use the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) method of writing, but there is a great deal of room for something in between superfluous, sumptuous, verbiage (big words!) and the simplistic. Although I am no longer teaching, I do a great deal of reading, and every once in awhile, I come across an author who seems to push the limits of the acceptable bon mot rule. One in particular, whose books I love for their biting sarcasm, humour, and poignancy, is guilty of littering his pages with these words. Just for fun, the last time I read one of his books I jotted down words that I felt could have easily been replaced with, well, fifty-cent ones. I recorded 34 of them in 20 chapters. Here is a sampling: Exgurgitating, ululant, mythogenesis, vituperative, somnambulants, risible, lugubrious, blancmange, zygomatic, pellucidly, pertinacity, perfervid, satyagraha, homunculus, perfidious, myrmidons, and rictus. If you had to look up any or all of these, I am sure you’re not alone!

The second concerns people who refuse to return their shopping carts to the designated cart return racks after loading their vehicles (cars). The worst are those who leave them in a way that means you have to move them to get into or move your car. Now, this happens all over this country and I’m sure in other parts of the world, and it is done by both men and women. In Los Angeles, where I now live, it looks like this. Many of the men I’ve witnessed doing the deed are usually between 35-45, buffed, wearing a Gold’s Gym t-shirt, and shorts. They are pushing their cart towards their Porsche and yelling into their cell phone completely oblivious to what is going on around them. The women, more often than not, are in leggings, tank top, and a terry cloth headband. They are pushing their carts across the parking lot with a small yappy dog under one arm, a yoga mat under the other and are yelling at their cell phones, otherwise known as multitasking. They have not eaten bread since they were pre teens, and they are throwing their bags of organic groceries into the back of a Land Rover. Of course, the irony here is that these “fit” people going to gyms and yoga classes can’t walk the extra fifty feet to return a cart! I have to stop now and meditate before my head explodes!

Los Angeles 2022

Musical Memories

Do you remember that song. . .

“If music be the food of love, play on,” says Duke Orsinio in his opening line of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And who can argue with that! Music is a very important part of my life, as I am sure it is for many people. While I do enjoy music as a background to whatever I happen to be doing, I also spend a great deal of time listening with nothing else going on, just the music. It should come as no surprise that music has the ability to unlock all kinds of memories from one’s past which, in part, explains the abundant amount of “oldies” stations devoted to playing the “hits” of yesteryear. Just about everyone has heard a song on the radio that triggers an instant memory of an event, especially from your teenage years. While I still appreciate, and on occasion seek out music from my past, I have widened my musical tastes over the years to include music from many different genres and eras.

Sometimes the memory invoked from hearing a song is much more personal and goes much deeper. For example, in 1992 I was driving on my way to work at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C. and, as I often did, I stopped to pick up a student hitchhiker. I was, of course, listening to music on my commute, and in the C.D. player at that moment was a new album (Logozo) by Angelique Kidjo. I had heard her for the first time a few weeks before and immediately rushed out to purchase the album. Kidjo hails from Benin, on Africa’s Atlantic Coast (adjacent to Nigeria), and although she sings in many different languages, including English and French, the particular song that was playing when I stopped was in an African language and a particular dialect from the town she was from. When the gentleman got into the front seat the speakers filled the car with Kidjo’s voice, he promptly began to cry! At first, I thought I had said something to offend him, but he quickly composed himself and asked me who was singing? I told him, and then he proceeded to tell me that he was an exchange student from Africa, and he hadn’t heard his own language and dialect spoken in quite some time, and since she was relatively new on the music scene at the time, he had not heard of her!

The song was barely over when we reached the point for him to get out of the car, but I asked him if he was in a rush (as I wasn’t) and when he said no, we sat in the car and listened to the entire C.D. When it was over, I popped it out of the player, put it into the case and gave it to him. I just felt like it was the right thing to do. That was 30 years ago, and I still listen to Ms. Kidjo on a regular basis. Better than that, I had the opportunity to see her live in Los Angeles when she performed at the Ace Hotel Theater in 2018. Musical memories, you can’t beat them!

Los Angeles 2022