Major Tom (A Thanksgiving Tale of Heroes)

Posted in Entertainment on November 21, 2012 by Mike

One mid-November day, on Farmer Magrill’s farm, Tom Turkey stood by himself behind the barn, nervous.  Thanksgiving Day was close, Tom knew, and he also knew that around Thanksgiving Day, everyone likes a turkey (though not in a way that was particularly pleasing to Tom Turkey). Tom was, if you’ll excuse the expression, hatching a plan to make sure he was around for Christmas (when the Magrills seemed to like goose, but that was Gully Goose’s problem).

“I’ve got to figure out a way to avoid being recognized!” said Tom to no one in particular, as all the other animals figured Tom needed his space around this time of year. But what could he do?  He was, after all, a turkey, and a dashing one at that (if he did think so himself), and it was a bit too late to go on a diet.

“Confound Farmer Magrill’s extra portions he gave me this past month!” Tom thought ruefully.  “I have no willpower!”

Just at that moment, inspiration struck like an axe to the neck (if you’ll excuse the expression).

“Power! That’s it!”, and Tom Turkey ran, as well as turkeys can run, to Mrs. Magrill’s clothesline across the yard. There, he pulled down with his beak a pair of little Johnny’s overalls and a red bonnet that Mrs. Magrill kept there for particularly sunny afternoons.  Tom Turkey dragged the items back to his spot behind the barn and began pecking and biting and scratching furiously at them.

“Tom Turkey, what are you doing?” called Henny Hen from across the yard. Not much escaped Henny Hen’s notice.

“Never you mind,” replied Tom Turkey, as he turned his attention, and his beak, to the bonnet. “Merely exercising!”

“Should have thought about that three weeks ago,” muttered Rory Rooster, as he ambled by, barely taking notice of Tom Turkey.  Rory Rooster knew no one liked rooster as much as they did turkey, or goose.

Tom Turkey ignored Rory, and, soon stepped back to admire his work.

There before him, albeit in rather rough condition, lay his plan to avoid recognition. Little Johnny’s overalls had been scratched into a body suit suitable for a broad-bodied turkey (as Tom preferred to refer to himself) with a large “H” scratched into the chest.  The bonnet, or at least what was left of it, now took the shape of a mask that would cover Tom’s head with small holes for his very small eyes.

“There!” thought Tom. “No one will recognize me in this costume, as my identity will be hidden by the mask, and the “H” will serve to announce me as a HERO, and everyone loves a hero!”

Tom Turkey crawled under the barn with his outfit in his beak, away from prying eyes. There he dressed himself in his hero outfit, tying the mask around his skinny neck (never you mind how!) and emerging to the world a new turkey: Major Tom!

Major Tom did indeed cut a dashing, if slightly portly, figure in his new getup. Of course, all the other animals recognized him immediately (he was the only turkey on the farm), and stared as he strutted across the yard.

“Good farm-folk!” Major Tom called out. “I am Major Tom, here to protect and serve you! I am your new hero!”

“I think you’ll be the one being served, shortly,” replied Rory Rooster.  Some of the meaner animals laughed.

Major Tom tried to ignore them, but sweat started running down the red wattle underneath his mask. His voice cracked a bit as he said, “Never fear, fellow-fowl! I—“

Major Tom was interrupted by a cackling commotion among the hens. Tom looked to where they had been – I say ‘had been’ because now the hens were rushing back to their coop in a flurry of feathers and dust—only to see a lean red fox attempting to chase down Henny Hen (who was rather plump and, resultantly, slower) along the fence.  Rory Rooster was atop the coop, cowering in roosterly fear.

Tom’s first instinct was to run. Foxes have sharp teeth and claws and don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving to eat a turkey, you see.  He turned and looked at his own coop, but something stopped him. Maybe it was the outfit, or maybe it was the Henny’s panicked cries, but from somewhere deep inside his gullet, courage came.

Tom turned back and ran with the speed of a very fast turkey toward the vile fox, puffing his chest out and spreading his wings to make himself appear very large, indeed. The fox, about to sink those very sharp teeth into the back of the unfortunate hen, turned at the sound of Major Tom’s “GOBBLE-GOBBLE-GOBBLE!” and yelped. Major Tom jumped at the vicious vulpine, the sharp spurs of his leathery feet aimed right at the fox’s snout.  The fox jumped away and, confused by a bird wearing human clothing, sprinted away over the fence and back into the nearby woods, never to be seen again.

“Hurrah! Hurrah!” The barnyard exploded in cheers (in all their various forms) for Major Tom. The horses stamped their hooves in approval, and the pigs oinked noisily.  The goats in the pen bleated and jumped, while the sheep ran around their paddock baa-baaing until they winded themselves (sheep have no stamina). The hens gathered around him, clucking in admiration. Henny placed her head upon Tom’s full chest and sighed, making Tom a bit uncomfortable.

He gazed around the yard, taking in the scene. He WAS a hero. Everyone loved him. “Let Thanksgiving come,” Tom thought. ”A well-loved hero has nothing to fear.”

 ***

Three days after Thanksgiving, Farmer Magrill came in from the field and sat down for lunch. Mrs. Magrill had prepared sandwiches with all the fixings.

As Farmer Magrill took a slice of the tender white meat from the plate in front of him, placing it on the roll and piling on lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and cheese, he smiled as he thought to himself, “I surely do love a hero.”

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

Presentation on bullying last night…

Posted in teaching with tags , , on June 24, 2012 by Mike

I’m sitting here in a t.u. dorm attending an ILPC workshop with the newspaper staff, my first official event as head adviser to the school’s paper.  Probably will have more to say on that at some point, but currently am thinking about a presentation made last night by Barbara Jane Paris on cyber-bullying.

Her presentation revolved around several kids who were bullied and took their lives after not finding any other way out of the crap they were dealing with daily.  She also included some of her own anecdotes as a principal here in Texas. Some of the vileness that these kids had thrown at them on a daily basis…it was hard to hear.  And the recurring theme kept coming back: if one kid had said something like “Hey, lay off, that’s not cool” or “Stop it”, just once, many of those kids might still be around. Graduated. Off to college or wherever and away from the shit that high school sometimes  is.

I tend not to reflect back on high school too much – I didn’t involve myself in it very much beyond the soccer team and a few AP classes.  I did take one semester of journalism which must have made enough of an impression to make me consider majoring in it (I didn’t), and I wrote for the creative writing magazine. I’ve always loved writing but apparently not enough to take the risk of actually devoting time to it.  A personal shortcoming that I kick myself for, but not yet to the point that I’m tired of the bruises.

I also faced a bit of bullying in high school.  And, of course, those memories tend to come back to me more often than the good stuff. Some crap in the cafeteria early on by two guys I didn’t know then but can still see their faces today. Then there was a time at a public pool where I got spit on by a kid trying to goad me into a fight.  I walked away – his friend stood right behind me and I thought I would get teamed up on. I regret walking away, though.

As I said above, it’s this kind of crap that stays with me, moreso than the better stuff. I now think back to participating in Powderpuff my senior year and a game of T.A.G. in the hallways (our rubber dart guns got confiscated pretty quickly), soccer road trips and graduation, but only now, when I’m deliberately thinking back to my high school days.  It’s the other stuff that comes back when I don’t want it to, the stuff that, even at 40, I’ve apparently not quite gotten over yet.  They’re scars.

And they’re the reason I can’t abide bullies.

So we’re building a pool…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 18, 2012 by Mike

…and up until this morning things were going rather well.  Because of the rain last week, our builder couldn’t get started until the middle of this week, but over the past few days it’s been a well-oiled machine.  They excavated the hole Wednesday, and Thursday and Friday were spent putting down the rebar and the various pipes in preparation for the cement (“gunite”), the most complicated of the processes.

And, I should also add, the noisiest.

Now, I have to go back a bit to before the construction began.  I’m a member of my HOA’s Architectural Review Committee, and our bylaws ask homeowners to submit plans for such projects like pools and fences and sheds for review/approval before construction begins.  I believe we were the first family to actually follow this guideline, as there have been at least two other pools spring up in our neighborhood without any prior by-your-leave. That sounds a bit snooty, and as a committee we’ve always been considerate to our homeowners’ requests, but still…we have guidelines for a reason, people.

I excused myself from the review committee for our plans, of course, while the other two guys on the committee (who I really like as people, I’m going to say right now, and consider them friends) reviewed the plans and made sure we were taking into account all the variances and such.  That took some time. Perhaps because the previous pool owners did not go through ANY steps before building, and we were determined to do this right (and hopefully establish some precedent for future pool construction in our neighborhood), we were asked to go around to all our neighbors (not just adjacent houses; nine households, total) and inform them of the upcoming construction and have them sign that they were informed.  Finally, the chair of our committee told me before he signed off on the plans, we would have to agree that there would be no gunite work on the weekends (our HOA guidelines don’t prohibit work on Saturdays, though, and the city allows work beginning at 7:00 A.M).

Now, we had submitted plans to them in mid-December, and their approval came in the middle of February.  But, okay, we could get rolling now that that was done.  We had every intention of abiding by that final request, and so, after the rain and our builders’ schedules lined up, we got started this past week.

Here’s where things went south.

The weather has so far been cooperating with our building schedule, but there are thunderstorms forecast for the first few days of next week.  We are also having a pool house built (scheduled to start next week), but that start date depends on the pool having the gunite process completed.  So…what to do?  If we didn’t go ahead with the gunite on Saturday, the schedule for EVERYTHING would be pushed back by at least a week.  Also, and more importantly to us, heavy rain could effect the pool excavation, leading to possible structural concerns due to erosion, affecting the rebar skeleton and so forth.  So we made the call to it get it done Saturday.

So you, reader, can decide for yourself if we made a reasonable decision, or are horrible neighbors.

The gunite people got started early – at 7:00 A.M they turned on the machines and damn, if it wasn’t loud.  Not continuous, mind you, but there was a loud buzzing signal that occurred regularly as the gunite was being sprayed into the pit.  My wife and I were conscious of this, and I was just praying that it wasn’t as loud to our neighbors.

It apparently was.

Laura decided to go for a run since she was up, and about 10 minutes later the head of our ARC, the one who asked us not to have gunite work done on weekends, rang my doorbell. I walked out to the porch and he immediately started yelling at me. Screaming at me, really, asking me what was going on, why they were working, insulting me and saying I had just made an enemy in him.  I’m not confrontational – I apologized time and again, attempting to explain why we made the decision, but he wasn’t interested in that.  And I could understand the aggravation, if not the screaming.  Then he told me his wife had just lost her mother this past Tuesday and had just gotten back last night. Yeah, I felt like shit. He stormed off, leaving me to wait for Laura and feeling pretty damned bad about, oh, everything.  Then, 10 minutes later, he and his wife came back and continued the berating.  I asked our pool guy if they could stop for a while – he had them stop for about an hour.  My neighbor and his wife left, leaving me alone once again.

It took so long for Laura to get back that I recognized she must have run into them after her run.  She had, and when she returned my neighbor was with her.

One of the MANY reasons I love my wife is her ability to stay calm/rational in tense situations.  One of the reasons she’s a doctor, I suppose. She had apparently been informed by another one of our neighbors about the confrontation at our house, and went to talk to Mr and Mrs. ARC (<–  not trying to be flippant here, just want to clarify pronouns).  She went through the reasons why we made our decision, and the fact that we had to make the gunite decision late made it impractical to let them know.  Told them that we were willing to put them up in a hotel for the day, if that would help, and basically smoothed enough feathers that Mr. ARC came back to apologize to me for his behavior.  He was very apologetic about it, telling me he knew we were good neighbors/not self-absorbed/trying to do the right thing, etc.  As I said before,  I consider him a friend, and I apologized in return (again) for the situation. It still didn’t keep me from being tense for the rest of the morning. And that was before I found out that our neighbor across the street called the police at about 8:45 about the noise. Yes, that actually happened. Our pool guy had a brief conversation with the officer who showed up.

So, basically, it was a perfect storm of events that led to this morning’s unpleasantness.  Yes, I think we were at fault for going ahead with the gunite process on a Saturday morning, but with the circumstances being what they were, there was some justification for doing it.  Also, not to make light of the decision, but, as my wife said about the request not to have gunite work on the weekends, it was  “more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” (We love the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie).

Above all, I’m very glad our relationship with Mr. and Mrs. ARC is still intact.  They are wonderful people.

The New Adolescent Threat…

Posted in Entertainment, teaching on February 12, 2012 by Mike

As a teacher I’ve been trained to be on the look-out for risky student behavior; as school administration and staff are legally considered in loco parentis (“crazy parents”) by the state, it is incumbent upon us to be aware of dangerous trends our students might be engaging in and, as Marv Albert might say, nip it in the butt. Or at least adopt them as our own hobbies to appear youthful and hip, “with it”cool, krunk,  relevant.

It is this training (a five minute talk given to us by one of our new young counselors right before we left for lunch) that allowed us as a staff to recognize several new fads among our student population and ensure we had proper policies in place to maintain safety and proper decorum.  Last year we recognized the Twilight series was inspiring a number of teens to decorate their skin with glitter, and, after an unfortunate incident in the cafeteria involving a wooden stake, we adopted new policies forbidding both glitter AND stakes. 2010 saw a spike in certain subsets of our male population joining local gangs, so each of our male teachers (90 out of 210 total teachers) was asked to volunteer as “sponsors” to our at-risk youth. I’m currently sponsoring Ramón, a clean-cut young man who actually has taken the time to introduce me to his “posse”.  Nice guys.  Hey, Ramón, if you’re reading this – LATIN KINGS SIEMPRE! ; D.

Unfortunately, we acted too late on guys wearing skinny jeans, but now there’s the latest fashion trend of low-cut, v-neck t-shirts being worn by the girls, and, in a 120 to 90 vote, the staff decided to include the shirts on the list of prohibited attire for next year.

But now I’ve noticed an even more disturbing trend among my students in my classroom, and in conversations with other teachers I’ve discovered it’s quite widespread. I call it “crotch-watching”: during class, often times during lecture, I will notice students at their desks,  staring down at their laps, utterly absorbed by what they’re looking at. One or both of their hands are also in their laps, but nothing untoward is occurring based on the fact that the students sitting around them do not react at all to this behavior. The students afflicted by this behavior just sit, chin at their chest, and stare. The posture can last anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes, and when I ask them what they’re doing, all they say is “nothing”, their hands immediately coming up from their laps.  Usually they won’t go back to their crotch-watching for the rest of the class after I’ve shown some concern, which is good, because I want my students to know I care (and Ramón is always telling me to keep an eye out for new blood prospectives).

I thought at first that these students might be having some self-esteem issues, as they are avoiding eye contact and personal interaction with their peers while they navel-gaze, but typically these crotch-watchers are the more extroverted students – they always seem to have a lot of friends and constantly know what each other is up to.  Just the other day, for instance, I had a student ask to go to the restroom and, as he left my room, I noticed that his girlfriend from the class right down the hall had been let out of class, too.  One of the assistant principals was patrolling the hallway so he made sure they didn’t waste any time getting back to their classrooms. Fortunate, because we were discussing carpe diem poetry that day, including Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Robert Herrick’s “To The Virgins, To Make Much of Time”. Fantastic poems – both present such strong messages to young people.

Anyway, I’m trying to figure out the next step to take to try and curb this alarming trend among our students.  Some teachers might argue it’s a lost cause; there are reports that this kind of behavior is now being seen in the middle schools, though of course not as commonly as it is here at the high school.  I also hear that “crotch-watching” is widespread on our local college campuses, though interestingly enough students who bring laptops to class are seemingly immune to this scourge – they’re obviously too busy taking notes on their machines of modern convenience.  But perhaps that’s the solution – maybe the district needs to assign laptops to students  so that they will have something to keep them preoccupied during class and not fall victim to the empty pursuit of crotch-watching.  We all know how teens love technology.

I’ll be sure to suggest this at the next faculty meeting.  Tonight, though, Ramón tells me we’re going to be playing tag, although he called it “tagging”.  He asked me to buy some spray paint, since he’s not 18 yet, to help mark “boundaries.”  Funny, though, I would’ve expected him to have outgrown that game at his age. Maybe it’s a cultural thing – but it’s another way I’m staying relevant to today’s teens.

Thought I lost Finncat today

Posted in Pets with tags , , , on January 17, 2012 by Mike

My awesome cat Finn has a bad habit of trying to dart out the door into the great wide world – not too sure what he expects he’ll find out there but it definitely won’t be ice cream.  Normally he’ll only make it out to the front yard and start sniffing around the zoysia, other times he’ll make it all the way to the wooded area of our lot and the next ten minutes will be spent trying to chase him back to the garage and cursing him. Some people, like Big Red Poet or my brothers, might suggest this is a sign that Finn is not happy in his current home, the former because he covets Finn and the latter because they’re mean, but I’m not going to dignify those kinds of thoughts with a reply/rebuttal, except for, “Screw you, Finn’s mine.”

This is the Finncat.

Anyway, today I was hanging out with the girls as none of us had school, thanks to the MLK holiday. Their grandfather came over to check on them and let them know their nanny Dorothy wanted to make pumpkin bread with them later in the day, then left for some errands.  My older daughter and I continued our game of Battleship (which she won), while my younger daughter begged to tag along with her Bubba, to no avail.

Thirty minutes later, I get up to see about getting lunch ready and that’s when I notice the door to the garage is open just enough to let a poofy cat scamper through.  Also, the garage door is up, so I immediately know Finn is GONE.  I spent the next ten minutes tracking around the woods snapping my fingers hoping Finn will be fooled into thinking it’s feeding time (that’s how I’ve conditioned my cats to know it’s time to eat, not that they really need a time…greedy bastards).  Nothing – I have no idea where he could be by this point.

I got back home and called Laura to tell her what had happened – she laughed and said served him right.  Actually, she didn’t say that, though that’s what I expected her to say because she hates Finn.  Really, though, she left work to come home and help look for him.

After hanging up with Laura, I went back out to look for Finny, but thinking it was a lost cause as he had never disappeared like this. Then I thought about the time Laura found the front leg of a cat next to the creek behind our house.  Then I thought about the night I saw a bobcat when I was out jogging. Then there were the reports of the packs of wolves roaming the streets (okay, I made that last one up). “Why couldn’t it have been Percy?” crossed my mind a few times as well – he’s newer and I wasn’t as attached to him yet.

Expendable.

As I’m walking out back in the woods again, I look up toward my back yard and, yep, there’s Finn, darting across the lawn back toward the front of the house .  Relief washes over me as I see my two girls attempt to corral him, but it immediately turns to dismay as they only succeed in chasing him under our neighbor’s fence. I shoo them back in the house (after taking the cat-food cannister from my older one) and call to Finn.  He peeks up from under the fence and mews at me a few times, probably thinking I’m going to scruff the shit out of him if he gets close enough.  His mouth is wide open as if he’s panting – this happens when cats get stressed out, I’m told (though I’m also told it might suggest a heart ailment, among other expensive problems).  I call to him a few times in my reassuring, “no, I’m not going to scruff the shit out of you” voice as he weighs his current freedom against his moral responsibility to me as my pet (hey, he is named Finn). Love wins out (I’ll tell myself it wasn’t a love of ice cream…)

Finn eventually trots over to me and lets me pick him up, and as I take him back in the house I hold him close, rubbing my nose and face in his thick brown fur, which is full of dirt and leaves from his adventure.  I don’t care.

Laura pulls up in the driveway and sees me with Finn, and promptly rolls her eyes.  She gets lunch and goes back to work. The girls fawn over Finn for a bit until Percy is noticed all alone, and Finn, seeing his opportunity, takes up residence on my bed.

I lay next to him for a bit.  He purrs as I scratch his ears.

Finn is back.

The Timeless Art of Lounging

Big Mike’s Top Ten Student Writing Pet Peeves – Part II

Posted in teaching with tags , , , on January 1, 2012 by Mike

I teach English, and therefore I am tasked with the responsibility of reading and grading  hundreds of student essays each year.  Along the way I’ve developed some pet peeves – a number of student peccadilloes that perhaps earlier in my career might have been just that – small and rather inconsequential – but now drive me absolutely nuts.

Here are my top 5:

5. “‘bias’ rather than ‘biased’; ‘prejudice’ rather than ‘prejudiced’; ‘use to’ rather than ‘used to'”

A couple errors from numbers 6 – 10 might occur more frequently, but this one irritates me more.  Too many students don’t seem to understand the idiomatic use of these words – they mistakenly use the noun rather than the adjective.  For example, “I might be prejudice against them” or “They are bias against the idea”.  Grates on you, doesn’t it?  Now imagine seeing it at least four times in every batch of papers you grade.

Some students say I am biased when I grade their papers, but it’s not so.  I show bias against those who don’t carefully edit their papers.

4. “Their vs. they’re vs. there”

Dammit, this is taught in the third grade, people! On occasion I’ve been tempted to bring my fourth grade daughter to class to demonstrate the proper use of the three homophones for my seniors.  That’d show ’em.

This error is high on my list because it’s not an error my students make out of ignorance – they KNOW the differences between the uses.  This error is reflective of their writing habits – waiting until the last minute to write their papers, and thus not having the time to proof-read for simple errors such as this one.  When I see this error repeated in a paper (anyone can have a typo) I know the paper was written in a half-assed manner (btw, it’s not manor) and the essay shouldn’t make any higher than a low C.  Unfair?  Petty? I’d argue that it’s a reflection of a student’s ethos, and if he or she is going to make this kind of mistake, why give him or her any benefit of the doubt on the rest of the paper?

3. “your vs. you’re”

This one ranks higher than “their/they’re/there” because there are only two of them this time – fewer to confuse, and therefore more irritating when someone interchanges them. Your is possessive: There are reasons your grades on your papers are so low.  You’re is a contraction for “you are”: You’re going to fail another paper if you don’t edit your papers more carefully.

Again, my students know this difference; the errors come from a lack of concern/lack of proof-reading.

2. “its vs. it’s”

It’s a hard and fast rule, people: its is possessive, meaning something belongs to the ‘it’ in question: “The cheetah cub cried for its mother but the momma-cheetah was hunting for dinner.” It’s is a contraction for “it is”: “It’s a certainty that this paper, with all of its careless errors, will receive a mid-D.”

I’m not so sure the students who make this error know the difference between the two.  And the hell with them if they’re still getting it wrong by the time they’re seniors, because if it didn’t take when they were elementary-level sponges, it’s not going to take now that they’re jaded, disillusioned teenagers.

And, for the love of God, there’s no such word as its’!

And, finally, my number one pet peeve.  I think English teachers all over the world will agree with me on this one:

1. “could/would/should/might of vs. have

I remember the first time I saw this error in a student paper.  It was my first semester as a English grad student and I was T.A.-ing for a senior level technical writing class, and grading their final papers. Some guy had written “should of” in this formal proposal and it floored me – I mean, it absolutely ASTOUNDED me that a senior in college could make such an egregious error.  I was naive –  I saw the error a half dozen more times that day, and on that day I wept for the English language and recognized how great a threat it faced in the form of student writing.

Let me illustrate this: this is a grammatical error that Mark Twain wouldn’t allow Huck Finn, an illiterate white trash southern boy, to make in a novel of over 300 pages.  Go ahead, check.

“Could/would/should/might of” makes no sense whatsoever as a grammatical construction.  It’s a transcription of our saying “might’ve” or “should’ve” which, of course, are contractions for might have and should have.

I suppose I could try to blame Cormac McCarthy and the legion of other authors who write in the vernacular, but my students don’t read McCarthy until I assign him (and, admittedly, they may not read him even then).  But I’ve seen their writing before then.

Now that my teeth are grinding nicely, I’m reminded that I’m currently on semester break and have no papers to grade, and it will be another month until I do.  Until then, perhaps you, my reader, can keep these common errors in mind when you write your emails and facebook posts, and together we can make the world a more pleasant place…at least for your former English teachers.

“Ignorant people think it’s the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain’t so; it’s the sickening grammar they use.” – Mark Twain

Big Mike’s Top 10 Student Writing Pet Peeves – Part I

Posted in teaching with tags , , , on December 14, 2011 by Mike

[this one’s for my brother, Matt – sorry it took so long to get to it]

OK, first the nickname – I’m 6’4”-ish and I teach high school students.  “Big Mike” is their nickname for me, not one I gave myself.  To be honest, they probably have other nicknames for me that they don’t use in class.

I teach English, and therefore I am tasked with the responsibility of reading and grading  hundreds of student essays each year. In fact, counting in-class essays and formal, process-driven essays, I grade around 1500 essays each school year.  I’ve been doing this for what is now my fourteenth year, so, if my out-of-practice math serves me correctly, I’ve scored at least 20,000 essays  in my career so far (and this is not counting the summer school courses I’ve taught at the local college).

Along the way I’ve developed some pet peeves – a number of student peccadilloes that perhaps earlier in my career might have been just that – small and rather inconsequential – but now drive me absolutely nuts.  I feel pretty safe in saying that most of these errors  are a result of a lack of attention to detail (i.e., laziness), as there’s NO WAY educated people who actually edit their papers should be making these kinds of errors.

For the purposes of this blog, I’m not going to dwell on broader errors such as “lack of organization”, “not developing ideas” or “weak thesis statements”, though those kinds of problems certainly exist.  Instead, these are my top ten indicators of student laziness/ignorance, ordered by how much they annoy the shit out of me (pardon my french).

10. “Possess/Posses”

Admittedly, this first one doesn’t happen too often, but when it does the resulting sentence is always nonsensical. See, the problem with the word “possess” for many of my students is that damnable fourth “s” – there are obviously too many “esses” in the word (and therefore subversive), so it’s on occasion left out.  Of course, this results in an entirely different word that spell-check wouldn’t catch:

"posses"

The same problem can occur with the word “assess”, but to more hilarity for me/embarrassment for the student.

9. “‘Scientist’ is not plural”

Another careless error, but I see it too regularly to think it’s just that.  Too many students seem to believe that words that end in “ist” are treated as plural, therefore I see sentences like, “Muslim terrorist try to impose their religion on the world” or “Some scientist believe that global warming is a myth.”  Now, not to be an elitist, but as a realist I have to be a pessimist about such students’ attempts to be essayists.  I don’t know, maybe they’re attempting to be satirists or maybe just nonconformists, but I suspect they’re just sadists.

And I’m a masochist who’s gonna need a psychotherapist.  Get the gist?

OK, enough of that.

8. “nowadays”

In the past few years, it seems, someone has been teaching my students that ‘nowadays’ is an acceptable substitute for “currently” or “today” or “now” or any other of  a dozen synonyms that don’t make them sound as if they have just stepped off the front porch of an antebellum Mississippi plantation. Jesus, they might as well start their essays with “Well,” and end by singing “zip-a-dee doo-dah”.

Academic writing is formal, not conversational.

7. “Attack of the egregious homophones”

I’m not talking about “too” and “to” – I don’t see that error too often, or at least not often enough to list it here (see what I did there?).  I’m talking about words that have NO BUSINESS getting mixed up.  “We take our right to free speech for granite.”  Dead serious – I’ve seen it. More than once.  “Accept” and “except” are commonly interchanged – “We just need to except the fact that __________ is here to stay.”  “Homosexuals should not be aloud to marry because that’s what my mom and dad believe.” Another one that grinds at me is “lead” (read (‘reed’) it as ‘led’) and “led”, which leads to all kinds of leaden writing. “Lead” (pronounced, er, ‘led’) is a metal. “Led” is the past tense of “lead” (pronounced “leed”).  See also: mislead/misled.

6. “Indefinite pronouns”

This one rankles me if only for the fact that I specifically tell my students to be cautious about this error, and they ignore me (BECAUSE THEY DON’T CARE ABOUT MY FEELINGS). Quick English lesson: pronouns are words substituted for the nouns that they represent.  For instance, in the sentence, “Daphne jumped out of the Mystery Machine, taking the box of Scooby-Snacks with her.”, “her” is the pronoun substitute for “Daphne.”

OK, now that I’ve insulted your intelligence, here’s the real problem.  There are a number of pronouns out there that seem to be plural but are really treated as singular.  You use them all the time, and, unless you’re a 67-year old retired English teacher, you’re not speaking grammatically correct English.

Example:

“Everyone needs to bring their book tomorrow” – most of us won’t bat an eye at that sentence, either reading it or hearing it spoken, but the truth is that that seemingly innocuous sentence is grammatically incorrect. ‘Everyone’ is one of those indefinite pronouns, and is treated as singular when substituting pronouns.  It should actually be written/said, “Everyone needs to bring his or her book tomorrow.”  But nobody says/writes that because that would sound pretentious.  Other indefinite pronouns include anybody, anyone, each, everybody, everything, neither, and nothing – all of them treated as singular.

This is one of those errors that, given a few more decades, will become grammatically acceptable, I suspect.  Because we’re lazy and don’t like rules.  But until then, I’ll still count off for it when it occurs in my students’ essays.

My top 5 will be posted within the next few days.  For now, it’s back to grading/stamping out ignorance.

So I’m on the last half mile of my run tonight…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on August 29, 2011 by Mike

…and I’m running up a street a couple blocks from my house when I see a purse on top of a car, apparently left there by accident. I don’t want to stop my run as I’m making pretty good time (for me) and I’m bare-chested and sweaty (ladies, don’t get excited – I’m married). So I decide to run back home and get a shirt on, drive back and be a hero to the nice lady who lives there.

I get back to the house and tell Laura what I saw – she thinks I should have got the house number so she could have called; the people might not open up this late at night. I assure her that they’ll answer the door – it’s not even 9:15, and I pull a shirt on and hop in my car to go save this lady a few moments of panic the next morning.

As I drive back up the street I spot the purse from a distance – it looks a bit “flatter” than I remembered it when I ran by not five minutes earlier. Then it starts stretching its legs and cranes its neck to look at me as I drive on by, round the corner, and head back home.

In my defense, it was dark and there were no street lights close by. Fat orange cats look like purses in the daylight, too.

A former student’s email…

Posted in teaching with tags , , on August 5, 2011 by Mike

This is why I teach.

Hi Mr. Williams,
You might not remember me. I was in your English III AP class in the 20**-20** school year. I was also on the Roar Staff. Anyway, I’m writing to you because it took me five years to understand a comment you wrote on an essay of mine, and it feels important. I’ll explain. The first paper you assigned that year required us to define a term. I chose equality, and my conclusion was a metaphor about how equality wasn’t that everyone had equal water in their glasses but instead that everyone had a glass with equal potential to contain water. You gave me a C (my lowest paper grade ever, even to this day), and wrote at the end “not everyone has equal access to the water.”
I thought you didn’t understand my point. I railed against that comment. You misinterpreted my metaphor. You had some sort of bias. You were just plain wrong. I didn’t understand at all.
Well, now I live in Houston’s Third Ward and take the city bus twice a day every day. I think I get it. Folks can have all the glasses in the world, but it won’t stop them from dying of thirst. My point is that I think I was raised to think poor people were entirely to blame for being poor. I appreciate that you represented a different perspective to me, and I’m embarrassed that it took me this long to figure it out. Thanks for being such a fantastic teacher.

Thank you, S–.

Captain America: The First Avenger – Thoughts (yeah, I loved it)

Posted in Comics, Entertainment, Review with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2011 by Mike

[note: no real spoilers here at all]

When I came out of the theater after seeing Thor I immediately posted to a couple sites that Marvel nailed the hero and had made a fantastic movie – it was fun, spirited, and really established a hero that I didn’t know how well would translate into the universe that the Iron Man and Hulk movies had been creating for the past few years.

Now Captain America: The First Avenger has been released, and in interest of full disclosure I have to admit that Cap’s my favorite superhero – always has been and always will.  But after walking out of the midnight showing, I didn’t post anything to facebook or other sites as I had done with Thor, nor could I really respond very well to what seemed to be a legion of  my former students when they asked what I thought of the movie.  Walking back to my car and driving home (at 2:30 A.M),  and even as I was trying to fall asleep, I was trying to evaluate what I had seen fairly, and not allow my fanboy attitude about Cap to unduly influence my reaction. I mean, anyone who knows me would expect me to declare it the best superhero movie of all time, but it’s not.

It is, however, a near-perfect Captain America film. And I loved it.

The thing about Captain America that needs to be understood above all is that the character’s origin is utterly dependent on the setting, and this makes Cap unique among superheroes.  Without the backdrop of WWII, there is no Captain America.  Without the evils of Nazism and Hitler, and the patriotic fervor of America and our desire to end Germany’s quest for world domination, Joe Simon does not sketch out the star-spangled hero punching Hitler in the mouth.

No better first issue cover picture exists in comics.

With every other superhero, the setting doesn’t matter.  Gotham is not inherent to Batman’s origin – the murder of his parents is the key. Krypton is obviously fictional – the importance of Superman’s origin is that his home planet has been destroyed, and any Midwest small town (“Smallville”) could serve Siegel and Shuster’s purposes in creating their uber-man. Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider in a lab. Bruce Banner was bombarded by gamma rays – it doesn’t matter where it happened, or when. And so on.

But where and when, particularly when, is essential to Captain America – he could only have his origins in 1940s America. And that’s what director Joe Johnston clearly understands about the character and it’s the 1940s setting that makes The First Avenger so unique among superhero movies. Sure, you could raise the point about X-Men: First Class being set during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, but that was an artificial backdrop used merely to fit it in to the timeline established by the first two X-Men films. The 1960s were not necessary to the origin of the animosity between Xavier and Magneto (sure, the Civil Rights comparison is there, but the mutant conceit works for any minority that faces prejudice).

And as a result of the setting, there’s a different tone to Captain America than in other superhero movies.  Steve Rogers ends up being a superhero because he loves America and what it stands for, and that’s a far different reason than any other hero – hell, he wears the American flag as a uniform.  It could have easily descended into camp or hokey patriotism, but there’s an earnestness to Evans’ portrayal of Cap (and the film) that keeps it from doing so.  Cap is  a tough character to portray, I imagine, but I bought into it easily.  Chris Evans is now Captain America.

***

I think it’s unfair of reviewers to call this merely a set-up for The Avengers movie next year. There’s a lot of story in this film, and Johnston and crew spent a lot of time developing the characters.  It’s a shame, though, that this film couldn’t get into the Rogers as a “man out of time” story line which would add for more emotional impact – this film only provides the briefest of glimpses of that idea.  As far as the origin story, it nails it. Perfect, really. There are no questions about who Steve Rogers is or what his motivations are, and I’d argue that The First Avenger excels Thor and the Hulk (equal to Iron Man, though) in explaining its main character.

***

Hydra ends up taking the place of Nazis in the movie, by and large, and I wish that we got to see more Nazi-killing. It doesn’t mean that Nazis aren’t present, but it’s made clear that Hydra’s goals go far beyond Nazism and that’s actually in line with the comics. Still, Hydra soldiers in this film are Nazis, so I suppose that will have to suffice. The advanced weaponry seen in the film remind viewers that this is a comic book movie, not history, and I couldn’t help but want to see a little more “realistic” warfare (as seen in the concept art for the movie):

***

Cap in action on the screen might as well have been ripped from the pages of the comics. He punches Hydra goons, they go flying. Remember, the Super Soldier serum transformed him into a physically perfect human specimen, capable of some pretty outstanding feats (the wiki says he can bench press 1200 pounds, i.e., if  he hits/throws a regular person, that person will go flying). I wonder if The Avengers and future Cap movies will allow him to keep his pistol.  I don’t think he needs it, though in wartime it would be expected.  And his use of his iconic shield was perfect – never to the point of eye-rolling, for me.

***

Bottom line, though, is that I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. As a friend and I were saying as we were waiting in line, this was one we were waiting all our lives for. Now that it’s here, it’s everything a Captain America film needed to be. I’ll be seeing it again soon.