My Uncle Leroy – a story

Posted in Uncategorized on August 31, 2021 by Mike

My uncle, Leroy Hahn, passed away from Alzheimer’s last Saturday at the age of 86. He was a farmer his entire life and as his son Bobby said at Leroy’s funeral today, an intuitive mechanic who had an innate ability to solve the problems he faced as a working farmer (Bobby related a story about Leroy combining two tractor engines to get more power, resulting in a tractor with four large drive wheels and an elaborate setup involving two clutches that had to be engaged in the correct order).

When I was younger I found Uncle Leroy…intimidating (to be honest I still found him intimidating when I was 45). He was a huge man – I suppose a lifetime working the land will result in that, and I know my brothers and I marveled at the size and strength of his hands. My dad – eleven years younger than Leroy who as a boy worked for Leroy in the fields – related a story about Leroy that stuck with the three of us about Leroy’s strength, and I thought I’d retell it here.

It may be a bit apocryphal, and as Adam said the other day, I hope nobody tells me if it’s actually not true.

It seems Leroy was attempting to loosen a bolt and broke a wrench in half while doing so. The wrench having come from Sears, and thus holding a lifetime warranty, allowed Leroy to return it and get a replacement.

In talking to the Sears sales rep, the rep looked at the broken wrench and agreed it should be replaced, but added to Leroy, “Yeah, wrenches will often break like that when you use a cheater bar.”

Now, for those who don’t know the term, a “cheater bar” is a piece of pipe that would be placed over the handle of the wrench, which would then offer more “torque” in attempting to loosen a tight bolt or valve. Using these kinds of things would probably void the warranty of the wrench as well, but I think the rep just thought he’d call Leroy on it a bit.

Leroy told the rep he didn’t use a cheater bar. When the sales guy looked unconvinced, Leroy asked, “You have a vice here?” When the guy nodded, Leroy had him get another wrench and tighten it in the vice. That done, Leroy took the wrench in both hands and 1-2-3, jerked hard and – BAM – broke the wrench in two. With his bare hands.

“I didn’t use a cheater bar.” Leroy got his replacement wrench.

Of course, Leroy HAD been using a cheater bar when he broke the wrench, but I guess he felt he needed to prove a point.

Dad told us Leroy’s arms were sore for days afterward.


Leroy loved his family and God, and I saw this every time I was around him. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease, and to hear how it affected him this past year makes me understand his passing is a blessing. I know Leroy’s enjoying a long deserved rest now…

What else are fools good for?

Posted in Uncategorized on January 22, 2021 by Mike

There’s a scene in the 1996 film The Crucible (a very good rendition of Arthur Miller’s play starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder) where the girls who have been accusing various Salem residents of witchcraft faint together as a group when one of the accused reasonably (even obviously) questions in court how he could possibly be guilty of the crimes when he has to hobble around on two crutches, and has been known by the accuser’s family for years.

Upon seeing the girls lying on the floor, another resident, Martha Corey, a no-nonsense woman, guffaws while the other attendees gasp in shock. The town sheriff attempts to rebuke her: “How dare you mock them, Martha Corey!” to which she replies, “What else are fools good for?”

This scene came to mind recently when I posted an article by Kevin Williamson to my Facebook feed. It’s a biting article that takes to task Trump and all who deify him, pointing out just how ignominious Trump’s presidency has been. Trump is and always has been a cretin, and completely unqualified – intellectually, morally, emotionally – for the office. I’ve been upfront about my feelings about Trump since the day he announced his candidacy, and the past four years (culminating in an attempted coup by MAGA Trump supporters) have done nothing but prove me right.

Now that he’s gone, I’m seeing a lot of calls for unity, both at the national level and on social media. I get that, and I want to see this nation less divided, too. But unity is a pipe-dream as long as we’re willing to turn a blind eye to or placate those who choose to ignore reality. We have MILLIONS of people in this country, including elected representatives, who argued and still believe this election was rigged/stolen by the Democrats. I’m supposed to accept that their point of view is in some way valid? That I should pay any attention to them? What do they give in return? A promise not to engage in any more coups?

No, I’m with Martha Corey on this one. People who willfully choose to delude themselves and commit themselves to lies deserve to be mocked, need to be mocked. Trump’s unprecedented commitment to lying during his four years shouldn’t be forgotten, nor should his inflammation of the crowds who stormed the Capitol.

If January 6 should teach us anything, it’s that this country can no longer afford to ignore its fools.

Drafting a 6 word story

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on July 24, 2018 by Mike

The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference offered attendees a chance to have a little fun this past weekend (besides sitting in on some pretty great sessions on the craft) with a six word story contest. Based on the apocryphal Hemingway legend, the Mayborn asked for us to tweet our entries with the hashtag #maybornbabyshoes attached; the winner would receive free registration to next year’s Mayborn Conference.

My entry took second place. Here it is:

6 word entry

If you have a Twitter account, you can check out all the entries by searching for the #maybornbabyshoes tag. If you’re curious about which story won, comment and I’ll tell you, but for now I’ll let you decide which ones you like best.

Also thought some of you might be interested in seeing the process of how I created my story. Here’s a pic of the work:

drafting pic

I began with a throwaway “hold my beer” joke, but didn’t submit that one as I figured humor would be plentiful in this contest and thus cheap. I was correct. The first real step to my eventual entry was a thought about a leash hanging by a door, worn but stiff from lack of use. A bit morbid, sure, but I wanted to affect the judges in some way.

I moved away from the leash image fairly quickly as I thought an empty collar would strike a richer chord with readers, but was still looking at a home setting. BRP was sitting next to me and I pointed to the bracketed line in the middle of the page telling him I needed to get that idea down to the six word limit. He nodded and then went back to listening to the session. I was pretty much gauging his reaction to the line, attempting to confirm that the idea had merit.

The next couple lines narrowed it down to six words but I thought both could be explained by something other than the pet’s death, or more importantly a death that might not allow for the dignity I wanted to give to the animal. This led to the movement of the setting from the home to the veterinarian’s office. Also, I had named the pet to give the pet a personality. You might notice I never specified the pet as a dog or cat – I purposely left it open after doing away with the leash idea.

The last couple lines toward the bottom were attempts to avoid the passive tense (and the “only Finn’s collar…” line seemed overly dramatic and bit nonsensical). I wanted to have some image of action and that’s about the time I decided I’d get the vet involved, which also helped drive home, in my mind, the lifetime of memories the owner and pet had along with the relationship they had with their vet.

The two attempts on the lower right side of the page show me getting close to the finished product, but the second I felt could’ve been interpreted in a few ways. It was when I struck on the word “afterward” that really nailed it down for me – any pet owner who has given their companion a dignified death would understand what had just occurred.

So there it is – about 40 minutes of work for 6 words. Six words I felt told a pretty involved story that we as pet owners suffer through yet celebrate because we love and know love.

Also, writing is rewriting. Because your first draft is crap.



“O Captain! my Captain!…”

Posted in Comics, Entertainment with tags , , , , , , on May 26, 2016 by Mike

Yesterday, Marvel’s “Steve Rogers: Captain America” #1 arrived at shops.  This is an issue I had been eagerly looking forward to for months, ever since it was first announced, as by anyone’s definition I’m a Captain America super-fan and reading about an aged Steve Rogers who had lost the Super-Soldier serum (a 90+ year old who commands other superheroes?) and former-Falcon Sam Wilson as the new Captain America just was not working for me (I had the same opinion when Bucky took on the mantle a few years ago). It just wasn’t the same.

So I was thrilled to hear that the rejuvenated Steve Rogers was coming back, and when he was restored in the pages of “Captain America: Sam Wilson” #7 all was right in the Marvel Universe for me.

Cap is Back

No kidding!

But then yesterday came, and while at work I saw a headline posted on “Today’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: STEVE ROGERS #1 Features A Shocking Twist Marvel Knows You’ll Hate.”  So, yeah, out of curiosity I clicked on the article, thinking that there’s nothing that the writers could do to NOT make me get the issue.

And then I saw the panel:


If you haven’t heard about it by now, the powers-that-be at Marvel are running with a story line that establishes Cap as a double-agent for HYDRA, the organization that has its roots in Nazism and has been Cap’s main nemesis for…well, forever. And to clarify that this isn’t misdirection or some simple trick, the writer (Nick Spencer) spoke to Entertainment Weekly: “This is not a clone, not an impostor, not mind control, not someone else acting through Steve. This really is Steve Rogers, Captain America himself.”

Forget “a slap in the face” as Marvel Senior Vice President of Publishing Tom Brevoort suggested the reaction would be – the news broke my heart.

Cap, for me, has always been a representation of how truly noble and good a person can and should be.  I don’t look at him as a representation of the United States, but the ideals that represent the best of what humanity should be (but in reality often falls all too short of): liberty and equality for all; an indomitable spirit in the face of fascism and injustice. The image that introduced him to the world was him punching Hitler in the face, for God’s sake, conceived and created by two Jewish kids who recognized a need for America to DO SOMETHING in the face of evil.

And now Marvel is telling me he has his roots in HYDRA?

It’s insulting and stomach-turning.

Look, I understand how comics work – I’ve been reading them since 1983 – this first issue obviously doesn’t tell the entire story. But no matter how this story line plays out, no matter how it’s explained, to associate Cap with the organization that is the ANTITHESIS to what Cap has symbolized and fought against for 75 years is wrong-headed and a betrayal to Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and a betrayal to who Captain America is and always has been.

I said the news broke my heart. It did. I loved superheroes because of Captain America.

But after reading that article,  I went to my comic book shop that afternoon and ended my pull-lists. I left the store comic-less, something that hasn’t happened in 15 years, and I won’t be going back.

There’s no real reason for me anymore.







My attempt to annoy everyone regarding the Confederate flag controversy…

Posted in Uncategorized on June 26, 2015 by Mike

The sheer number of Facebook posts on my feed concerning the Confederate flag should probably dissuade me from adding to the clutter, but it’s been hard to squelch the thoughts turning around in my head so I’m going to go ahead and put some of them down.

Warning: opinions ahead.

Those defending the flag mention “heritage” and honoring those soldiers who fought bravely for the South in the Civil War, who acted on their principles and apparently never out of any actual desire to see the continued subjugation of the African race (“most Southerners didn’t even own slaves” – as if that’s a defense for not seeing anything wrong with the others who did). They also mention the fact that the flag wasn’t THE flag of the Confederacy – “it was only a battle flag” – and thus doesn’t REALLY signify the hatred, bigotry and intimidation that many in this country seem to think it does. I’m not really sure what argument is being made with this one, to be honest – the flag represented men who were fighting to support the South’s desire to maintain slavery (sure, and state’s rights), who were killing Northerners who, yes, were probably just as racist, but who were fighting for the morally defensible side.  Sorry, the side fighting against slavery trumps everything else.

Then I’ve seen supporters trot out pictures of the Klan carrying American flags, and asking why THAT flag isn’t subject to the same outrage. Or they point out any number of awful things committed by America under the American flag. A disingenuous argument at best, as the American flag has not been co-opted by outliers, whether they be racist organizations or just regional areas. The American flag is a national symbol – it is flown everywhere, from Maine to California and everywhere in between and represents to the majority of Americans the ideals of freedom and opportunity. The Confederate flag?  Not so much. Isolated to the Southeast, it has its roots in the “War of Northern Aggression” and enjoyed a resurgence in the South as a symbol of defiance against the Civil Rights movement. Anyone who claims that the Southern Cross doesn’t carry some pretty heavy racist baggage, then, is either misinformed at best or lying. And, really, if the best argument that can be mustered in defense of a flag is, “well, America’s done bad things, too” then it’s probably time to reconsider your stance a bit.

That being said, the current rush among retailers to ban the sale and manufacture of the flag is an empty gesture, at best. What does it accomplish? A store declaring “We’re against racism”? Pardon my french, but no shit, really? It’s the easiest thing in the world for these companies to do, and amounts to nothing more than a public relations ploy. How much will it effect Wal-Mart’s bottom-line, you think? Amazon’s? And yet that’s where our attention has been turned.

It’s a band-aid fix for something that requires major surgery.

That’s what frustrates me the most about this.  The racist killer Roof is seen in a picture holding a Confederate flag, and suddenly all the attention is placed on the damned piece of cloth. In the rush for the easy action, the simple action, the harder questions aren’t being asked, much less answered: what led Roof to hold these views? How did he decide that killing members of a church was the right course of action?  What needs to change in society that these views no longer have the ability to develop and grow?

Probably obvious, but the Confederate flag isn’t the answer to any of the above.

WB’s Suicide Squad…

Posted in Uncategorized on April 25, 2015 by Mike

…will be an unmitigated disaster. This is supposed to be The Joker:

Calling it now. 

Why we read Invisible Man…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on November 25, 2014 by Mike

12 year old boy shot by police while holding an air pistol

Unarmed man, father of 2 year old, shot by officer

Someone nudged me and I started. It was time for final words. But I had no words and I’d never been to a Brotherhood funeral and had no idea of a ritual. But they were waiting. I stood there alone; there was no microphone to support me, only the coffin before me upon the backs of its wobbly carpenter’s horses.

I looked down into their sun-swept faces, digging for the words, and feeling a futility about it all and an anger. For this they gathered by thousands. What were they waiting to hear? Why had they come? For what reason that was different from that which had made the red-cheeked boy thrill at Clifton’s falling to the earth? What did they want and what could they do? Why hadn’t they come when they could have stopped it all?

“What are you waiting for me to tell you?” I shouted suddenly, my voice strangely crisp on the windless air. “What good will it do? What if I say that this isn’t a funeral, that it’s a holiday celebration, that if you stick around the band will end up playing ‘Damit-the-Hell the Fun’s All Over’? Or do you expect to see some magic, the dead rise up and walk again? Go home, he’s as dead as he’ll ever die. That’s the end in the beginning and there’s no encore. There’ll be no miracles and there’s no one here to preach a
sermon. Go home, forget him. He’s inside this box, newly dead. Go home and don’t think about him. He’s dead and you’ve got all you can do to think about you.” I paused. They were whispering and looking upward.

“I’ve told you to go home,” I shouted, “but you keep standing there. Don’t you know it’s hot out here in the sun? So what if you wait for what little I can tell you? Can I say in twenty minutes what was building
twenty-one years and ended in twenty seconds? What are you waiting for, when all I can tell you is his name? And when I tell you, what will you know that you didn’t know already, except perhaps, his name?”

They were listening intently, and as though looking not at me, but at the pattern of my voice upon the air.

“All right, you do the listening in the sun and I’ll try to tell you in the sun. Then you go home and forget it. Forget it. His name was Clifton and they shot him down. His name was Clifton and he was tall and some folks thought him handsome. And though he didn’t believe it, I think he was. His name was Clifton and his face was black and his hair was thick with tight-rolled curls — or call them naps or kinks. He’s dead, uninterested, and, except to a few young girls, it doesn’t matter . . . Have you got it? Can you see him? Think of your brother or your cousin John. His lips were thick with an upward curve at the corners. He often smiled. He had good eyes and a pair of fast hands, and he had a heart. He thought about things and he felt deeply. I won’t call him noble because what’s such a word to do with one of us? His name was Clifton, Tod Clifton, and, like any man, he was born of woman to live awhile and fall and die. So that’s his tale to the minute. His name was Clifton and for a while he lived among us and aroused a few hopes in the young manhood of man, and we who knew him loved him and he died. So why are you waiting? You’ve heard it all. Why wait for more, when all I can do is repeat it?”

They stood; they listened. They gave no sign.

“Very well, so I’ll tell you. His name was Clifton and he was young and he was a leader and when he fell there was a hole in the heel of his sock and when he stretched forward he seemed not as tall as when he stood. So he died; and we who loved him are gathered here to mourn him. It’s as simple as that and as short as that. His name was Clifton and he was black and they shot him. Isn’t that enough to tell? Isn’t it all you need to know? Isn’t that enough to appease your thirst for drama and send you home tosleep it off? Go take a drink and forget it. Or read it in The Daily News. His name was Clifton and they shot him, and I was there to see him fall. So I know it as I know it.

“Here are the facts. He was standing and he fell. He fell and he kneeled. He kneeled and he bled. He bled and he died. He tell in a heap like any man and his blood spilled out like any blood; red as any blood, wet as any blood and reflecting the sky and the buildings and birds and trees, or your face if you’d looked into its dulling mirror — and it dried in the sun as blood dries. That’s all. They spilled his blood and he bled. They cut him down and he died; the blood flowed on the walk in a pool, gleamed a while, and, after awhile, became dull then dusty, then dried. That’s the story and that’s how it ended. It’s an old story and there’s been too much blood to excite you. Besides, it’s only important when it fills the veins of a living man. Aren’t you tired of such stories? Aren’t you sick of the blood? Then why listen, why don’t you go? It’s hot out here. There’s the odor of embalming fluid. The beer is cold in the taverns, the saxophones will be mellow at the Savoy; plenty good-laughing-lies will be told in the barber shops and beauty parlors; and there’ll be sermons in two hundred churches in the cool of the evening, and plenty of laughs at the movies. Go listen to ‘Amos and Andy’ and forget it. Here you have only the same old story. There’s not even a young wife up here in red to mourn him. There’s nothing here to pity, no one to break down and shout. Nothing to give you that good old frightened feeling. The story’s too short and too simple. His name was Clifton, Tod Clifton, he was unarmed and his death was as senseless as his life was futile. He had struggled for Brotherhood on a hundred street corners and he thought it would make him more human, but he died like any dog in a road.

“All right, all right,” I called out, feeling desperate. It wasn’t the way I wanted it to go, it wasn’t political. Brother Jack probably wouldn’t approve of it at all, but I had to keep going as I could go.

“Listen to me standing up on this so-called mountain!” I shouted. “Let me tell it as it truly was! His name was Tod Clifton and he was full of illusions. He thought he was a man when he was only Tod Clifton. He was shot for a simple mistake of judgment and he bled and his blood dried and shortly the crowd trampled out the stains. It was a normal mistake of which many are guilty: He thought he was a man and that men were not meant tobe pushed around. But it was hot downtown and he forgot his history, he forgot the time and the place. He lost his hold on reality. There was a cop and a waiting audience but he was Tod Clifton and cops are everywhere. The cop? What about him? He was a cop. A good citizen. But this cop had an itching finger and an eager ear for a word that rhymed with ‘trigger,’ and when Clifton fell he had found it. The Police Special spoke its lines and the rhyme was completed. Just look around you. Look at what he made, look inside you and feel his awful power. It was perfectly natural. The blood ran like blood in a comic-book killing, on a comic-book street in a comic-book town on a comic-book day in a comic-book world.

“Tod Clifton’s one with the ages. But what’s that to do with you in this heat under this veiled sun? Now he’s part of history, and he has received his true freedom. Didn’t they scribble his name on a standardized pad? His Race: colored! Religion: unknown, probably born Baptist. Place of birth: U.S. Some southern town. Next of kin: unknown. Address: unknown. Occupation: unemployed. Cause of death (be specific): resisting reality in the form of a .38 caliber revolver in the hands of the arresting officer, on Forty-second between the library and the subway in the heat of the afternoon, of gunshot wounds received from three bullets, fired at three paces, one bullet entering the right ventricle of the heart, and lodging there, the other severing the spinal ganglia traveling downward to lodge in the pelvis, the other breaking through the back and traveling God knows where.

“Such was the short bitter life of Brother Tod Clifton. Now he’s in this box with the bolts tightened down. He’s in the box and we’re in there with him, and when I’ve told you this you can go. It’s dark in this box and it’s crowded. It has a cracked ceiling and a clogged-up toilet in the hall. It has rats and roaches, and it’s far, far too expensive a dwelling. The air is bad and it’ll be cold this winter. Tod Clifton is crowded and he needs the room. ‘Tell them to get out of the box,’ that’s what he would say if you could hear him. ‘Tell them to get out of the box and go teach the cops to forget that rhyme. Tell them to teach them that when they call you nigger to make a rhyme with trigger it makes the gun backfire.’

“So there you have it. In a few hours Tod Clifton will be cold bones in the ground. And don’t be fooled, for these bones shall not rise again. You and I will still be in the box. I don’t know if Tod Clifton had a soul. I only know the ache that I feel in my heart, my sense of loss. I don’t know if you have a soul. I only know you are men of flesh and blood; and that blood will spill and flesh grow cold. I do not know if all cops are poets, but I know that all cops carry guns with triggers. And I know too how we are labeled.
So in the name of Brother Clifton beware of the triggers; go home, keep cool, stay safe away from the sun. Forget him. When he was alive he was our hope, but why worry over a hope that’s dead? So there’s only one thing left to tell and I’ve already told it. His name was Tod Clifton, he believed in Brotherhood, he aroused our hopes and he died.”

I don’t know all the facts about either of the shootings I posted links to at the top of this post. Reading those stories, I do question what made the officers so quick to shoot, though I understand there are a lot of factors at play. But I have a 12 year old daughter, the same age as Tamir. Would a responding officer have felt as threatened had she been in Tamir’s place?

As Ellison notes through his narrator, there is a deep, abiding sentiment among the black population that police often are too quick to use lethal force. This is just one of the sentiments fueling the protests/riots in Ferguson.

But to attribute the riots/protests to ONLY Brown’s shooting is a mistake. If this were an isolated incident, I don’t think we’d see such unrest. And I don’t mean to be an apologist for the violence and criminal behavior, nor do I think that anyone should be willing to excuse it.

But what we are seeing is a symptom of how the US has failed to truly and honestly address its racial past, and how far we as a nation still have to go.

“Grading Flu” and grading burn-out…

Posted in teaching on November 14, 2014 by Mike

I’m in my sixteenth year of teaching high school English.

I’m well beyond the national average length of a teaching career (11 years), and I attribute that mainly to the school I work at.  For the most part, Consol is supportive of its teachers, gives me a reasonable amount of latitude in how I approach my classes, and, most importantly, has some pretty great students – I get to teach them everyday.  Sure, the school has its fair share of knuckleheads (in the student population and elsewhere), and if I’m honest I could do without having to write up lesson plans each week (I’m not entirely convinced anyone looks at them), but I enjoy coming to work, by and large.

It’s the going back home that blows.

Now, before my wife starts filing the divorce papers, let me clarify – it’s not the home life I dread, it’s what is CONSTANTLY in my Bag of Holding that brings me down.

Papers. Quizzes. Projects. Homework. Newspaper stories. Annotated Bibliographies. Timed writings. Ad infinitum.

Right now I’ve got a set of Huck Finn exams (22 students), a set of timed writings (22 students), three classes’ worth of quizzes (58 students), three sets of annotated bibliographies (58 again), 15 news stories from my journalism class, along with some in-class work they did, and some other miscellaneous debris that, honestly, will probably be given a completion grade (which accomplishes nothing except grade inflation).

Later this week I’ll get 15 feature stories from my journalism class, and shortly after Thanksgiving break I’ll get my seniors’ research papers (58). At some point this six weeks I’ll also be asking my AP kids to write a formal rhetorical analysis (22 more papers), and we also want them to get a third timed writing in for a major grade.

Now, to be fair, the administration isn’t MAKING us assign these papers (though, certainly, the Texas TEKS requires various types of writing at each grade level), although there are two to three major grades required each six weeks. In an English class that really means writing.  Unless, of course, I want to give them some sort of exam, which is going to be short answer/essay, anyway, or some sort of creative project that ends up inflating grades and in the dumpster a week after it’s turned in. So I suppose there are other options for assessment.

Here’s the thing, though: students don’t become better writers UNLESS THEY WRITE.

And it’s not just the writing – it’s the feedback that’s needed.  If a teacher is merely assigning informal journal writing each week and checking it as a completion grade, his/her students’ writing won’t improve.  Same thing with formal papers – giving them a once-over, checking it for length and slapping a grade on it doesn’t count. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for informal writing and encouraging students to put pen to paper, but instruction in writing actually requires someone who knows what he/she is talking about to give feedback/correction/evaluation for it to actually improve (and here’s where I’d also grumble about students needing to actually read my damn comments).

But I’m TIRED.

I’m tired of a lot of things, actually, but I’m tired of reading essays that were written in two hours the night before the rough draft was due and then considered finished.  Yes, we edit in class, but peer editing is too often the blind leading the blind, or the uninterested reading the unconcerned’s.  I don’t have the time to edit all my students’ papers (I focus on those I identify as struggling), so I offer them examples of papers and editing sheets with guiding questions and hope that at some point in the semester they realize that if they read my comments on their earlier papers, their future essays will improve.

It happens, but not as often as I would hope.

But I’m mostly tired of having to take days off to complete my grading.  I’ve managed to avoid the “grading flu” this year so far, but I don’t think it’ll last.  The amount of work I’m bringing home just becomes insurmountable considering I have 1) a family at home I enjoy spending time with: kids who are involved in extracurriculars (piano lessons/recitals, soccer practice/games, choir concerts, confirmation classes, etc.) but who I also like being able to interact with when I pick them up; 2) a wife who works 9 or 10 hour days more often than not and doesn’t need to come home to a house that’s a wreck or having to figure out what’s for dinner every night because I’m grading; 3) a workout schedule I try hard to keep up with because I want and need to – I have diabetes, and regular exercise helps control my blood sugar; and 4) a desire to actually get away from the drudgery of grading and actually practice what I teach – I want to write more, but I feel guilty doing so because I know I have so many other things I can be doing. And I’m not alone: I know of no English teacher at my school who has NOT taken a personal/sick day to grade this year.  Isn’t there something wrong with the system where the district ends up having to pay a substitute to come in while the teacher stays home and grades – something the district is paying him/her for in the first place?

And then there’s the fact that whenever I take a day off to grade, I need to create lesson plans that will keep my students busy and productive that day, which often means more things to grade when I return.  You might say, “Just show a movie, that’s what my teachers did when they were gone”, but that’s not what I’ve been contracted to do.  There’s my damn INFP-idealism acting up again.

I don’t know about the practices of other teachers, whether math teachers or social studies teachers face this kind of regular demand on their time.  I don’t know how much of their time away from the school they have to spend grading assignments (I do know that Pratzilla once said he can get all his grading done during his conference period –  I don’t know if he still holds to that). But I am aware of the demands I have as an English teacher, and I do believe there’s a huge difference between grading a 3 to 5 page essay  (10 to 15 minutes/paper) and grading some other type of assessment. Particularly if you’re doing it right.

A couple years ago some members of the English department asked the administration to consider the time demands English teachers faced with their grading, and to their credit, our administrators responded with some changes to Consol’s grading policy.  My friend and colleague, BRP, however, has made the point, one I agree with, that decreasing the number of major grades required during the first/fourth six weeks didn’t really solve the problem.  The problem is time: we as English teachers assign work that takes time to grade – moreso than any other discipline, I’d argue.  Many of us are teaching 6 classes during the day (out of eight), some out of choice, others because we didn’t hire any new staff and we had unanticipated numbers of new students at the beginning of the year.  And unless we sacrifice some of the standards we’ve held our students to in the past, it means just as much grading.

Combine that with two five week six weeks to save the precious children from having to remember information over Christmas break, instead having our Fall finals in December, and time is at a premium.

What I’d honestly like to see is a recognition that, yes, English teachers, due to the nature of the work they assign, need to be granted a period a day to do nothing but grade.  Not a duty period or a conference period, but a period where we’re told “You will be allowed to be undisturbed for 50 minutes to grade the work you assigned.” Four hours each week.  I could get about a third of my senior essays completed during that time. If I’m just scoring timed writings I could get through a class in one period, easily. I’d even agree to check-ins from the administration – making sure I used my time wisely. I think the entire English department would agree to it.

And I bet it would serve as an effective inoculation against the grading flu.

Update: Reading Nerd Contest

Posted in Novels, teaching on September 17, 2014 by Mike

I’m thinking I’m in a bit of trouble.

Last May I had the brilliant idea [need sarcasm font] to enact a draft of “important” books with several other high school teachers. Read about it here.

Well, four months later and I’ve read exactly one and a third of my four choices. And really, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus barely counts because it’s the shortest of the four I selected and I read it FOUR MONTHS AGO.

I’ve been reading The God of Small Things off and on [emphasize the OFF] since then and I’m finding it easy to find things to do other than read it. That does not speak too well of me as an English teacher, I believe. And now that school’s started, I’m staring down multiple stacks of homework that need grading and lesson plans that need forming and miscellaneous other things needing to take priority, and this doesn’t even include my family and their demands, which take priority over the former.

I should have read the description of Roy’s novel first: it compares “favorably to the works of Faulkner and Dickens.” I never cared for Dickens, dammit!  C’mon, I’m an American lit guy!  (Yes, I’m conveniently ignoring the Faulkner reference there).

The even worse thing is that this book was gifted to me by one of my favorite students YEARS ago, and I still haven’t read the thing.  Don’t get me wrong, what I’ve read shows promise, but Roy has an ornate style that is not my typical fare.  Here’s a sample:

Edges, Borders, Boundaries, Brinks and Limits have appeared like a team of trolls on their separate horizons. Short creatures with long shadows, patrolling the Blurry End. Gentle half-moons have gathered under their eyes and they are as old as Ammu was when she died.

The writing is lush with similes, metaphors and other figurative language. At times I feel like I’m wading waist-deep in her prose, her intent at times breaking the surface, other times brushing against my legs and other times passing by me in the current unseen.  It’s definitely rich, rich prose, but at times I’m swallowed by it.

The other two works I drafted are sitting by my desk, unopened, as of yet.  It doesn’t really help that BRP has continually heaped praise on one of them (Tobias Wolff’s Old School); I’m eyeing that one constantly, tempted to put off Roy’s novel even longer. And now, here at my newspaper late night, I’ve discovered I don’t have my copy of God… in my bag.

I’m going to break into BRP’s room and grab a copy and resume reading.

It’s better than grading.

The passing of my grandmother…

Posted in Uncategorized on September 4, 2014 by Mike

…as related by my aunt, Vera Hahn:

Grandma, at the age of 98, had recently moved in to a senior living facility and by all accounts was enjoying it thoroughly. She played 42 and Bingo (I assume other residents had no chance during those 42 games, and Grandma apparently scored all kinds of snacks during Bingo) and roamed the hallways, commenting to visitors that she was one of the few not consigned to a scooter to make her way around the home. No real surprise there – Grandma was riding her stationary bike for a couple miles each morning and evening up until the day she died.

Saturday night Grandma apparently did not sleep well, and Sunday morning she decided not to go to church because she felt tired, and believing she was coming down with the flu, decided to nap. Trinity Shores (the home) called Vera that morning to let her know, and, after church, Vera went to check up on her.

Grandma complained about some indigestion and weakness, and Vera asked her if she wanted to be taken to the emergency room (if it was the flu, she needed to go). Grandma agreed, and, when Vera asked her if she wanted a wheelchair, Grandma refused, saying she could walk herself. So Vera waited (and waited) for Grandma to make it from the back of the complex to the front doors.

Arriving at the hospital, Grandma walked herself in but at some point the doctors told her she would have to be taken in a  wheelchair.  The tests began that afternoon, and they discovered a bladder infection (which could have been the culprit) but they also discovered that her blood pressure was very low.  This led to more tests, including a CT scan. Grandma patiently agreed to each test in turn.  While she waited they took her blood pressure again – it was even lower than before. The CT scan revealed a grade 5 aortic aneurysm, and the doctors decided another one with contrast was needed. The results were not good. In fact, the doctors explained that on the scale they used to evaluate the results, a “5” was considered critical. Grandma was at a “6” meaning that her aorta was leaking.

The doctor would later would tell Vera that the “indigestion” she had complained about had actually been a heart attack.

The only option the doctors had was to fly her to a hospital with a vascular surgeon, though because of her age it was difficult to find one willing to operate. Eventually the decision was made to fly her to St. Luke’s in Houston, and the call was made to a medivac helicopter from Victoria. While they waited, Grandma laid down and every so often asked about the helicopter. My cousin Bobby sat with her and gave her a countdown until its arrival.

But when the helicopter touched down there in Port Lavaca, a dove flew into the rotor. Policy stated that the helicopter had to be grounded until a mechanic could inspect it (even though the pilot told Bobby that everything was fine – policy was policy). So they had to wait for a second helicopter to arrive from Rosenberg.

Grandma would ask quietly from time to time about when the helicopter would arrive, but there wasn’t enough time. She passed away before the second one arrived, peacefully, with Vera, her oldest child, holding her hand.


My grandmother had a wonderfully full life, and left this world peacefully and without pain. Vera pointed out during Grandma’s funeral that the dove was God’s doing – that God was calling her home, thus keeping her from further discomfort and the uncertainty of the surgery. It might be easy for some to dismiss that as mere coincidence, as solely a rationalizing coping mechanism.  You who are reading this may and will believe what you wish.

I believe it to be true.

Grandma on motorcycle

Grandma, age 90, with her oldest grandson, Bobby.