Friday, May 11, 2007

Mother's Day (The Lunchbox)

I suppose I was nine or ten years old. And it seems silly now...

Connie Guenther, my MomGrowing up in Augusta, Ga., in the early days of desegregation I went to three or four different elementary schools. Every year or so the schools were rezoned to create more of a racial balance. Sometime it was close enough that I walked to school; sometimes I walked to and from a bus stop each day to get to school and back home.

I never was big on school lunch. I carried a metal lunch box to school with me. And everyday on the way home I would hunt for a gift for my mother to put in the lunchbox - a live lizard.

It was probably cruel (both to her and the lizard). I never remember anything that led me to believe that my mom liked lizards. (I'm pretty sure she didn't.) But lizards abounded in our part of Georgia and it became a routine. Sometimes it was a Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis) with a big neck fan. I liked the Five-lined Skink (Eumeces fasciatus) because its blue tail was pretty (I thought). Six-Lined Racerunner (Cnemidophorus sexlineatus) were common in the lunchbox. And there were always a few Ground Skinks (Scincella lateralis) around if I couldn't catch anything else.

A Five-lined SkinkIn retrospect the lizards may not have been a great idea. Mom had had open heart surgery in 1968, a year or two earlier. But I never really understood then that her health was fragile. She'd always be there. How could it be different?

I'd come in from school. "I'm home!"

She'd be in the kitchen. I'd take my lunchbox in and sit it on the counter. I'd sit down at the kitchen table. She'd look at me.

"There's not anything in your lunchbox today, is there?" she'd ask.

"No," I'd say. Then I'd giggle like a girl and sit there and wait.

Eventually she'd open the lunchbox. The scared, confused skink would jump out and run around the kitchen. Mom would let out some audible startle response. I'd laugh; then I'd save her by chasing down that day's reptile and taking it outside. Day after day...

Somehow she still loved me.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Silly Season - The Game of Professional Musical Chairs

Silly Season has started. And for the past decade, as I've watched this time of year when teaching positions in my county change hands I've compared it to a large game of musical chairs.

In West Virginia, county school districts "post" jobs and teachers "bid" on those jobs. Usually the postings are made available on the county school system's website. Often there is a phone line where you can call and listen to the postings being read. And the postings are faxed out to individual school where they are supposed to be, well, posted on a bulletin board for all staff to see.

This week in my county, eight pages of postings came out. Three pages list teaching jobs that are available for bid. Another couple of pages list coaching positions for next year. A job description or two is attached, I think. And there are paraprofessional job postings for secretarial, custodial, and aide positions.

Postings specify a level of certification the position requires. Employees who want an available position fill out a two-page bid sheet and send it to the central office. Bid sheets are correlated there by position and compared for certification and seniority. If seven teachers bid on a job and one doesn't have the minimum qualifications, the six qualified teachers have their bids compared for seniority and the most senior teacher gets the vacant position. If a teacher is interested in more than one position they can turn in several bid sheets and rank them in order of preference.

How is that musical chairs?

  1. A teacher we'll call Teacher One at a school we'll call School A is tired of teaching first graders and doesn't really get along with the principal there. He or She turns in bid sheets on a few jobs and gets one. Now their position is vacant.
  2. In a few weeks jobs are posted again. Teacher Two gets the first grade position at School A; Teacher One is at School B now and sits out this round; and now there is a vacancy at School C (where Teacher Two used to work).
  3. Jobs are posted again and it is now summer. Teacher Seven gets the job at School C. She bid on that job because it is a shorter drive from where she lives and her life has changed recently to make that more important to her after five years at School F. Her old job at School F is vacant now.
  4. Teacher One finds out that there is a job at School F. Who would have dreamed? School F is small and has very little turn over in staff. She submits a bid sheet and, because of her seniority, moves a second time during Silly Season. Now the job at School B is vacant again.
And it goes on and on. Teachers with a year or two of seniority bid on everything, eventually get jobs they don't really want, and bid on better jobs as those become available. Sometimes they get the better job.

Does the system work? That depends. If principals do their job and evaluate poor teachers out of the system, then the annual game of music chairs just serves to allow teachers the freedom to find teaching positions they enjoy more. If principals don't do their jobs in the area of teacher evaluations, the annual game of musical chairs allows a handful of poor quality teachers to move from position to position and start over with a clean professional slate at a new school.

The irony is that Teacher One may occasionally end up back at School A - teaching first grade again next year...

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Black Wednesday

Greg on a Wednesday...Tomorrow is Wednesday. I'll have to iron a black shirt. And a black pair of pants. And perhaps polish my black boots a little. Because on Wednesdays I wear black...

It's been that way for 132 weeks. On November 2, 2004 I worked as a poll worker for Tazewell County, Virginia, at the Springville polling place. I think I worked about 17 hours that day. I came home and went to bed. And when I got up the next morning it took me about seven or eight minutes to figure out the George Walker Bush was still president. I wore black to work that day. And for 130 of the 132 Wednesdays since the election I've worn black whenever I left the house.

The two exceptions? The day after Democrat Tim Kaine won the governor's race in Virginia I wore more festive colors to work. (Since I work in West Virginia, half my co-workers never fully understood why.) I also dressed quite colorfully on the Wednesday after the most recent midterm election - the one where Democrats won back Congress.

When is the next opportunity for a colorful Wednesday? At some point in 2008 I expect No Child Left Behind to face reauthorization. I'd like to see the Highly Qualified Teachers provision and the accountability provisions of the law revised considerably. I'd also like to see the name changed; NCLB is leaving children behind in droves.

If the law governing public education in America is revised substantially I may well dye my hair some strange shade and wear a green shirt and purple tie to work the next day...

Monday, May 7, 2007

Talking Back to the Village Idiot?

I occasionally write letters to the editor. Often my letters are in response to someone else's letter. Someone writes in and misrepresents some data, skews the truth on some issue or topic I hold dear. I feel compelled to correct their misinformation, to point out the inaccuracy. The problem I often encounter is that if I don't respond, those who read that first letter believe it. But if I do respond, some people think I'm as dense as the first person.

So the question becomes, how do you know when you're just talking back to the village idiot? (And is that really something you want to do?)

It's not always easy to decide...

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Temptations of a True Redneck?

Am I a redneck? Or a hillbilly? Or country boy? I have a small identity crisis, I suppose, when I consider the issue.

The creek in my yardI live in a rural portion of Central Appalachia. A small creek runs through my backyard. I have a willow and a few walnut trees and four acres of land with sourwood, oak, locust, crabapple, and a few other trees. In the nine years I've lived in this house I've seen raccoons, possums, stray dogs, squirrels, chipmunks, deer, groundhogs, house cats, bobcats, my goats, and the neighbor's cows in my yard. And that's just counting the mammals. The birds are even more amazing. We've had Eastern Bluebirds in a house on our fence three of the last five years. There are scores of finches, orioles and cardinals, indigo buntings, a variety of woodpeckers, a heron that wades up our creek, mourning doves, the ever-present sparrows and wrens, robins and blue jays, and a screech owl that spends the summers in the woods around us.

Standing by my fence...I suppose anyone could live here - hillbilly or not. So my residence (and visitors) by itself doesn't make me a redneck. When I take stock of my own personal attributes that might qualify me (or disqualify me) as a redneck/country boy the verdict seems mixed, inconclusive. I've eaten escargot (snails), octopus, caviar, ox tongue and sushi - and liked it all. That probably calls into doubt my credentials as a redneck. I own a gun; but I'm not an NRA member and I haven't actually shot my gun at anything recently. I can't fix my own truck, but I do have a truck.

The fact that I don't think Larry the Cable Guy is funny further undermines my redneck standing, I suspect.

Horses in a field of buttercups not far from my home...I'm not sure I want to be a redneck. While there is some semantic overlap between the three terms I'm considering ("redneck," "hillbilly," and "country boy") they are by no means synonymous. I think of "hillbilly" as almost an ethnic designation; a hillbilly is a member of the culture or society that inhabits one of the rural mountainous areas of the U.S. Being a redneck, on the other hand, seems like more of a class distinction to me and has more to do with behavior than with values or culture. Hillbillies (and country boys) grow their own tomatoes; rednecks throw them at player they don't like at ball games...

A kid I owned a few years ago, back when I had hairThe most recent decision that I've faced that made me question my hillbilly identity occurred a week or so ago on my drive to work. I drive about 20 miles to work. When I get in my vehicle of the mornings I'm in the Tennessee River Valley. I drive north on a two lane US highway that takes me up and over a ridge and as I start to descend I enter the Big Sandy section of the Ohio River Valley. Then:
  • I turn off on a state road
  • Drive around a few hairpins
  • Pass a few cows and horses
  • Cross a state line
  • Climb a mountain named after a coal mine
  • Drive by the mine (passing a few coal trucks on the way)
  • Go under the railroad trestle
  • Pass a little nine-hole golf course that seems incredibly out of place
  • Pass through a couple of unincorporated communities identified with green and white signs
  • And arrive at the small school where I teach

On this particular day I rounded a curve and saw something in the road at 8am - a wild turkey. It was dead, recently run over by someone else. I was tempted to stop. But I was on a schedule. And turning around on that small road is a pain. So I went on to work. But I thought about the turkey much of the day. And on the way home that turkey looked to be pretty much still in tact. So I gave in to the temptation and I stopped.

In my four wheel drive sport utility vehicle I carry a Leatherman tool that my little brother gave me for Christmas (or something) one year. I took it out and used the pliers to pull a couple of feathers. Turkey feathers have some value in my part of the country and I just couldn't see passing them up.

Does that make me a redneck (or a real hillbilly, at least)? Probably not in and of itself...