Blogging in E minor
Usually just a bunch of silly crap.

Aug
26

eclipse2017-1024x576I was beginning to think that my “umbral greed” may have cost me a spectacular experience.

My wife and I had traveled to southwest Illinois via 50 miles of road-less-traveled cornfield thoroughfares in an effort to gain about an extra minute of darkness during the Aug. 21, 2017 solar eclipse. We came to rest on a levee outside of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois, just 5 miles from the center-stripe of the 70-mile wide swath of totality, placing us in the “fat” part of the Moon’s shadow. I wanted an unobstructed panoramic view of the horizon, and our present location had provided this.

What remained in question was cloud cover. During the forty-minute wait leading up to the big event, about 30 were spent under the shadows of thick cumulus clouds that had made their way into the area. During occasional breaks, my wife and I were able to view the progress of the Moon across the face of the Sun by viewing images projected through 20170821_130645tiny holes in a colander upon a white banker-box lid.  But for the most part, we waited out the slow moving clouds for the next precious break. The ten or so carloads of folks with us on the levee did pretty much the same thing. Some had solar glasses and provided commentary from afar.

At 12:47 I saw a flock of hundreds of birds flying eastbound in formation. They passed our location before a small pack took an abrupt turn northwards towards us. The flock collapsed upon itself and turned several times, giving the appearance of a particulate orb expanding and contracting and flowing like an acid rock oil slide projection. Could this be an example of strange animal behavior preceding natural phenomenon? Or were the birds simply investigating the unusual human presence on otherwise vacant corn fields?

At about T minus 10 minutes, the sun peered out beside a thick, dark, slow-moving bank of clouds. I noted that the clouds were moving northbound, which was unusual. I then observed that sections were moving in different directions and different speeds at various elevations. The colander projections revealed the Sun in crescent phase. The ambient temperatures seemed to have cooled a bit. If the clouds were to move two degrees to the east, there would be no way the Sun would emerge from the other side in time for us to observe totality. At this point, it seemed we had a 50/50 chance of obstruction.

I then said a prayer: “God, I know we are not supposed to pray for things for ourselves. But can you give me a pass on this one?”

20170821_131620At about 13:16 CDT, less than two minutes prior to occultation, I noticed the Sun boxed in on three sides by clouds with clear skies to the south. I snapped a selfie, hoping to catch an image of the Moon with the camera. Nothing doing. Less than 90 seconds away and viewing quality was still in question. The game of minutes and degrees played on as I told my wife we might just be in for luck.

Suddenly, a swell of excitement propagated through the crowd like a slinky. “Look at the ground!” My wife shrieked. “. . . all the shadows on the ground!”

I was amazed by water-like, fast-moving shadows racing eastward over the bleached gravel at our feet. . . faint, slithering, and mysterious. They resembled the reflection of pool water upon the overhang of a house, but in a hurry to get somewhere.

I attempted to take video, only to be immediately distracted by swiftly darkening skies, the appearance of sunset, and increasing excitement around me. I turned my phone 180 degrees to capture the orange and purple horizon accented by puffy clouds. I raised my eyes upwards and noticed Venus to the west of the Sun, which, carefully observed in my screen, was the slimmest of crescents obscured by a very old moon. “There it is!” I shouted. “And there’s Venus!”

At 13:17:44 the new moon completely covered the Sun, exposing the star’s majestic corona in all its glory! “Take your glasses off!” shouted one of our neighbors to his children.

20170821_161740For two minutes and thirty-eight seconds my wife and I stood in strange darkness immersed in the cosmological enormity of the event. I attempted a few pictures, but recalling the advice of an eclipse chaser, I focused on my surroundings and experiencing the moment. I would have access to the work of better equipped photographers later. I snapped a selfie with my wife and abandoned the effort.

The sky had a whole unreal feel about it; the oh-so-familiar Sun and the Moon – relatively unchanged over my 50-year lifespan – were revealed in a whole new light, briefly transformed by the rare celestial crossing.

I looked hard for Mercury and Mars in the vicinity of the Moon/Sun metamorphism. They could not be found. An expert in an interview had stated they were probably too close in angular separation to the Sun to be seen. I looked for Jupiter to no avail, likely obscured by cloud cover in the east. The bugs in the nearby woods were abuzz with activity.

eclipseThe moment was brief, but not too short. The extra 58 seconds gained from the hour-long car ride proved so worth it. There was time to examine, to take mental notes, and to lose oneself.

“It’s weird how the clouds all disappeared” somebody observed. She was right! Mere minutes earlier, the sky was nearly covered in clouds. Now stage center was cloud-free at least 30 degrees in every direction.

“They did!” I affirmed, “the clouds just disappeared!”

“Omigod!”

Was this a miraculous answer to my pathetic prayer? Or was this a natural phenomenon caused by abrupt atmospheric cooling? Regardless, I was greatly moved by whatever it was.

60-03_diamond_ringI was treated to an additional 15-20 seconds of totality after my internal clock told me it was nearing completion. I watched closely until the first flash of raw sunlight peered behind the moon’s limb at about a one o’clock position. This, coupled with the fading corona, created the celebrated “diamond ring” illusion. I turned my unprotected eyes away.

The skies lit back up as if a by a slow-warming fluorescent bulb. Sunrise vanished quickly and the serpentine ground shadows rushed back the other way. Within about 45 seconds, it was over. We had experienced dusk and dawn all within a five-minute measure.

As bugs settled down, the humans continued to chirp on in excitement for a brief while, those with protective glasses watching the retreating moon pass over the Sun’s surface. I bounded around like an excited child, as impressed by the cloud-clearing miracle as much as anything else I had witnessed

I had been fascinated by space, particularly orbital dynamics, ever since I was a child. My fascination with astronomy was one thing that inspired me to become a teacher in the first place.

I remember the times dragging nieces and nephews out to cornfields in the middle of the night to gaze upon Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s rings, and various nebulae and galaxies that populated the heavens. I remember the disappointment produced by the dud comet Kohoutec, the optimism spawned by Hale-Bopp, and the explosive intensity of the more noteworthy meteor showers I’ve viewed throughout the years. There was a rare annular eclipse over St. Louis 23 years ago, which paled in comparison to this awe-inspiring event.

solar eclipse 2The experience was spiritual – personal, while at the same time universal – giving the American contingent of the human race a moment to pause, put our divisions aside, and have a humongous block party in our own end of the universe. Everyone will have his or her own story to tell.

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Jul
29

Organs from StarbucksIt was not until I arrived in Las Cruces, New Mexico that I had a true understanding of what hiking the Baylor Pass would entail.

          I had done some research during the week of preparation leading up to my somewhat spontaneous lark through the “Land of Enchantment.” All hobbies have their respective subcultures of enthusiasts posting a plethora of information over the Internet. Hiking is no exception. I had managed to pick out five hikes that seemed doable considering my relative inexperience as a hiker and the limitations of a compact economy car. Four wheeling was certainly out of the question.

White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument

          I had three days to work with. On the first, I traversed the dunes of the White Sands National Monument, following a staked out trail within the vast expanse of white, gypsum sand. As I worked my way from the parking area populated by casual picnickers huddled under shelters and children on saucer sleds skimming the dunes, I found myself in complete isolation within the sandy, sun-baked void. Distant mountains formed a 360-degree border along the horizon to the otherwise endless basin. For an hour, I felt like a wayward legionnaire lost on Luke Skywalker’s planet.

Canyon cabin          On the second morning, I hiked the Soledad Canyon, experiencing Chihuahua Desert flora up close and exotic rock formations from afar. A natural waterfall, off-the-beaten-path scenery, and remnants of a stone cabin were among the highlights. The surroundings made for a beautiful morning stroll.

Organ Mountains

Organ Mountains

         It made sense to save the most rigorous hike for last. The Organ Mountains dominate the skyline of Las Cruces to the east. Vertical striations give them a resemblance to a pipe organ, hence the name. Climbing Baylor Pass would entail a 1600-foot ascent between two notable features: the dual peaked Rabbit Ears formation and Baylor Peak. During my evenings, I would research the local attractions and hikes. Internet reviews noted that the scenery was awe-inspiring and the climb was achievable if one were in shape. People mentioned that they brought their children and pets along for the hike. Nevertheless, the heat, the sun, and the elevation were among the challenges.

Foothills          Starting early in the morning would minimize some of these concerns. A hat, sunglasses, sunblock, water, and a well packed knapsack would be among the necessary provisions. Being that my hometown elevation is in the area of 400 feet above sea level, altitude was a significant factor. I had been running and hiking in higher elevations during the three days previous, so I had been doing what I could to become acclimated. I was not overly concerned with this.

          After a light breakfast and a 20-minute drive out of Las Cruces, I arrived at the trailhead. I was greeted by this ominous sign:People have died              Snakes???? Although I had some experience handling snakes, the thought of encountering one in the wild was somewhat unsettling. I was okay with them if I knew they were benign, as long as somebody assured me they were not poisonous or would not hurt me. If only they were color-coded — like green for good, red for bad — it would give me some comfort. I supposed if I heard any rattling in the woods, it would be a pretty good signal to get the hell away.

          A family of four arrived at the lot moments later and took off ahead of me while I was purposefully lacing up my hiking boots and applying sunscreen. This provided me some comfort in that I would not be on the mountain alone.

Ribbon Snake

Ribbon Snake

          As fate would have it, the first thing I saw when I set foot on the trail was a snake. It was a ribbon snake, I would later determine, moving away from me in pursuit of a lizard. Its head was held about three inches off the ground like a periscope, its slender body propelling it quickly along the path with low-amplitude oscillations. I determined it was no threat to anybody other than the lizard and pressed forward.

Prickly Pears

Prickly Pears

          The “approach” to the mountain was nearly a mile long. I would stop on occasion to snap pictures or to enjoy the Chihuahuan desert flora. After passing a number of sticks, perhaps planted as a trail marker, the ascent up the mountain began.

          A short while later, I encountered the family I saw at the trailhead. They were in what I figured to be a dry creek bed, basically a rock-lined gully that would accommodate the downhill flow of water in the event of rain. They were confused about the markings on the last trail post. I found the place where the trail continued on the other side and walked up a bit. “The trail continues here,” I said.

             “Where does this go?” he asked.

          I was a bit surprised he didn’t know this. I had been working under the assumption they knew where they were going.”

          “It eventually takes you to a pass through the mountains,” I replied. “It’s about six and a half miles if you go to the top and come back down. It’s a 12 mile round trip if you go all the way over and return.”

            “Okay. Thanks!” The father replied.

           As I walked away, I could hear one of the boys making a case for pressing forward. I figured he would be overruled and, thus, I would be alone thereafter.

Mexican Fire-Barrel Cactus

Mexican Fire-Barrel Cactus

          I continued along the well-worn path upwards, becoming increasingly conscious of the effects of the thin air upon the oxygen supply in my bloodstream. I seemed rather winded for the amount of work I was doing. Afterall, I was in pretty good shape. I had been to the doctor ten days earlier. My blood pressure was about 117/73, and I had accomplished the resting “runner’s pulse” of 51 as the result of speed training with a local track club. I have just run a 10K the weekend prior to leaving town. Other than needing to lose a few pounds, I was in excellent shape. Nevertheless, I was laboring a bit in the higher elevations.

          I plopped down on a convenient trailside bench to catch my breath and drink a swig of water. One of the Internet reviews of this trail mentioned the occasional bench. I noticed that recovery came swiftly with a little rest and pressed on.

Flora             Again, I encountered the dry creek again. As I crossed, I had difficulty finding where the trail picked up, much like the family I encountered earlier. I walked up the ravine a few yards, then down, unable to find the trail. I saw what looked like a worn spot along the perimeter of a large bush. I walked about 20 feet then became convinced I was most certainly not on the trail. I returned and tried a different route, only to get poked by pointy plants and getting my shirt snagged on thorns. If the rest of the trail were like this, I would be out of my mind to continue, I thought. I would be lost in no time flat. Eventually I found myself back in the dry creek bed, about 20 feet upstream from where I had started. I walked, bounded, slid my way downhill until I found the place where I had entered. This whole process had taken up 15 minutes or more. I concluded, with great disappointment, that I should turn back. I was heartbroken.

          As I retraced my steps, I thought about what I could do. It was about 9:20. I had planned to be immersed in this project at least until noon. I figured I could still muddle about for a while and enjoy the scenery.

          Soon I found myself walking upwards to the left while seeing the bench where I had rested downwards to the right. What was this? I am back on the trail? I looked back to see that the trail had switched back before meeting the creek. I must have wondered off on a side route earlier. My spirits immediately lifted!

          I saw a women approaching from below near the bench. She was thin and tanned. She wore a turquoise tank top, blue bucket cap, and sunglasses, apparel consistent with hiking.

          “Excuse me,” I shouted. “Am I on the right path? I think I almost got lost back there in the creek.”

          “Yes, the trail is well marked.”

          I pressed on. In a few minutes, a saw how four rocks along the side of the trail indicated a left turn. There was also a path going towards a cliff. I decided to check it out. I saw the town of Organ, New Mexico below me and pulled out my phone to snap some pics.Organ View 2

          “That’s the wrong way,” I heard behind me. It was the woman in the bucket cap.

          “Yes, I figured as much. I was just going to stop and take some pictures. Are you going all the way up to the pass?”

           “Yes. Most of the trail is pretty well marked. You’ll see signs up here that say ‘trail.’ Keep following them. Sometimes you’ll be climbing over a lot of rocks and wonder if you’re going the right way, but keep going forward and you’ll pick up the trail. I’ll look over my shoulder now and then and make sure you’re not lost.”

           “Thanks!”

Baylor Pass Trail            She moved on. I returned to the main trail and followed. The course became rather rocky, just as she had mentioned. Every once in a while, I’d see her pop up briefly along the route above me. I pushed myself to keep within visual range of her; she was, more or less, my guide. But the woman was moving quickly. And she was not stopping to take pictures. I could literally hear my heart pounding as I worked harder, climbing higher and higher. Eventually I would have to stop and catch my breath, and I would take some pictures while I was idle. Recovery still came rapidly during breaks.

          About 2/3 the way up, I saw what appeared to be a fire pit with a sign indicating it was “Baylor Pass Primitive Camp.” There were other signs attached to the same post, but they seemed to be either weather worn or burnt. I pressed on.

Baylor Pass Lower            Suddenly I became aware of my stomach growling. Perhaps this would be a good time to get into my snack, I thought. I had heeded the advice of the hiking experts to always pack some food in case I ended up on the trail longer than anticipated. I had a package of beef jerky and a bag of grapes stashed in my backpack . . . so I thought. As I rummaged through my bag’s multitudinous pockets and zippers, it occurred to me that I had no memory of actually removing these items from the cooler in my car. A more thorough search revealed that I had no food whatsoever. Plenty of water, but no food. I briefly panicked, then remembered running marathons for four hours – a much more draining activity — without eating. This hike shouldn’t take much longer, I thought. I put my hunger pangs out of my mind and they were no longer an issue.

           I recalled the event that gave Baylor Pass its name. John Baylor was a Confederate Colonel who led 200 men over the Organ Mountains to mount a surprise attack on the union soldiers below. I imagined hundreds of men weighed down with artillery and provisions traveling the same route without the benefit of a well-worn trail. It seemed quite remarkable.

Rabbit Ears

Rabbit Ears

          The whole time I was traveling upwards, I was clueless as to my end destination. There was no obvious pass above me, just several high peaks. The dual peaked Rabbit Ears hovered above me to the right for most of the journey. It appeared as if the peak had fractured sometime in the remote pass forming the noteworthy landmark recognizable for miles around Las Cruces. Eventually I passed Rabbit Ears, it being among the organ-piped western peaks, only to find others in front of me. I hadn’t seen my guide for a while. “Ultimately, where are we going to end up?” I would ask if I saw her given the opportunity.

          As it approached the two-hour mark, I turned a corner and noticed what could be a plateau approaching ahead of me. Could be. It was still a ways ahead of me.

road-runner            Just as the woods became a thicker, I noticed a blueish roadrunner ahead of me. I had never seen one before, but judging by its anatomy, it just HAD to be a roadrunner. I thought of the obvious Wyle E. Coyote jokes. I envisioned him strapping himself to an ACME rocket and crashing into one of the peaks.

          The roadrunner skipped away just as I emerged from the woods. The sky seemed to have opened up above me. I walked up a small incline in the clearing to see the whole Other Side of the Mountain below me. I had made it!

Baylor Peak

Baylor Peak

          For a moment, I surveyed the great openness before me. What I figured to be Baylor Peak was to the left of me, towering a thousand feet above. As one’s eyes followed the peak downward, it appeared to abruptly and dangerously drop off at a great distance below me. Another peak was to the right above me, and the bare cuspid-shaped Sugarloaf Peak could be seen in the remote distance. Straight ahead in the valley below, the small town of White Sands lay before me. Unlike the town of Organ on the west side, which was spread out and lacking distinct boundaries, the streets of White Sands presented a tight formation in the middle of the desert floor.

Sugarloaf Peak

Sugarloaf Peak

           I noticed a barbwire fence a few yards downhill from me. As I approached, the woman in the bucket hat emerged. “Good luck!” she shouted with a wave. I waved back thanking her. She disappeared down the trail, presumably headed towards the eastern trailhead at Aguirre Springs. I wondered if she would hike the whole 12-mile roundtrip or if she arranged for somebody to pick her up on the other side.

Baylor Pass with White Sands, NM in the distance

Baylor Pass with White Sands in the distance

             There was an opening in the barbwire fence where one could gain access to the other side by navigating a small maze. I assumed this was to keep motorcycles and horses from crossing the pass. I snapped some pictures, drank some water, and took in an extended rest as I admired the scenery. The whole ascent took about two hours, ten minutes, including the 15-20 minutes I lost the trail. Pretty much right on target.

Selfie           Eventually, I decided to start the journey back. I climbed back to the passes crest and began my descent back in the direction I came. I almost forgot to take a selfie from the top. I snapped a pic giving a thumbs up with Organ, New Mexico in the background.

          I assumed that it would not take me as long or be as strenuous on the way back down. I was making a good easy pace, though I did notice my knees taking some abuse from semi-rocky trail below. Inflammation and tenderness was beginning to present itself in my left knee. Nevertheless, I descended at a good pace.

          My brother texted me to inform me he was going to the gym. “Are you still in Elk City?” he asked.

          Nowhere near. I texted back the selfie from the top and a picture of the Organ range. “No,” I responded, “I’m on top of this thing.”

           “That’s not Affton!” he replied.

          I became aware of the sky getting increasingly cloudy. There was a wet coolness in the air. Concerned that I might get poured on, I picked up the pace a bit. There was one cloud approaching that looked like a rain cloud. I concluded that any rain on the mountain would be hit or miss, but I would need to be wary of the creek if there were a downpour. After all it was “monsoon” season. Given I was hanging out in a city without storm sewers, the local conception of monsoon may be quite different from mine. Nevertheless, I continued downward with a rigorous pace.

Diamondback           Then I heard it: the unmistakable buzz of a rattlesnake. I caught a glimpse of the critter out of the corner of my eye, about 15 feet down the trail, while doing a reflexive about-face. I determined it to be less than fully mature due to its slender body. It was dark brown and black, probably a diamondback. Unlike the ribbon snake I encountered earlier, the rattler did not elongate its body when moving. Instead, it moved like a pile of rope in retreat. I suspected this was to keep itself coiled in case it needed to strike.

          The sound was bonier in timbre than what I have grown accustomed to on TV, which was, in all likelihood, the result of a Foley artist snapping castanets post-production. This was the first rattler I had encountered in my life. As fearsome as the experience was, I concluded that the rattling was a “courtesy” lacking in other snakes, like our home-grown cottonmouths, thereby rendering them less dangerous.

          So I now had a problem. I never saw the snake leave the trail and had no idea where it was. I still needed to get down from the mountain. I entertained the idea taking a detour and avoiding the area where the snake could likely be. I cut into the woods near a large, thick bush to my left and attempted to make a semicircular bypass. I immediately found myself looking over the edge of a cliff. The way around would required walking a narrow ledge while hugging some large rocks situated at 70-degree angle to the ledge. No way. Plus there were no guarantees that I would not encounter another snake. I thought about making a detour to the right of the trail, but this area was thick with thorns and pointy things.

          I concluded that I just needed to take my chances with Scylla the snake. I considered the contents of my backpack. Would anything help my cause? I pulled out a towel to use as a matador’s cape in the event the snake lunged out at me. I had several items that could be used as a tourniquet in the event I were bitten. Thankfully, I had cell service on the mountain! This was not the case at White Sands.

Organ view           I began bowling softball-sized rocks down the trail ahead of me in the hopes of dispersing lingering rattlers. I dangled the towel out beside me with my left hand, held a rock at the ready with my right, summoned my courage, and carefully ventured into the danger zone. I started shouting “Yah! Yah!” and make as much noise as possible, just to be certain I wouldn’t take any trailside serpents by surprise. This continued until I grew tired of it; nevertheless, I kept my towel out for the remainder of the hike in case the need arose. I would learn later that the reason some people walked with sticks was to provide advance warning to unseen snakes ahead with repetitious pounding of the ground. Other people would clap their hands as they walked for the very same reason.

Organ View 3           The remainder of the descent was relatively uneventful. I pretty much retraced my steps, passing all the landmarks in reverse order, occasionally stopping to take capture the remarkable scenery with my phone. I passed the sticks I saw when I transitioned from the foothills to the mountain. This meant I was still 1.1 miles from my car. I had long since grown accustomed to the altitude, especially now that I was descending. Exertion gave way to exhaustion, and my left knee was bothering me. I sluggishly pressed on, anticipating cold water and juicy grapes in the car. Perhaps I would stop at Whataburger (pronounced “Water Burger”) after I was finished. I would probably need to ice my knee back at the hotel.

          As I traversed the slight negative slope of the foothills, I expected to see my car any minute, perhaps around the next turn or behind the next bush. After seemingly forever, I caught sight of the lot, which still looked like MILES away. I could see my red car and one other vehicle, appearing as matchbox cars in the distance. “You gotta’ be kiddin’ me!” I uttered under my breath.

Shadow Selfie          Eventually, I made it back. It actually took longer to descend the mountain than to climb, likely due to fatigue. The journey’s wear and tear on my body was about equivalent to that of running a half marathon at a competitive pace. I looked back at the ominous yellow warning sign as I passed it again. Fortunately, the rattlesnakes left me alone. I didn’t starve. I didn’t die. And I would have quite a tale to tell when I returned.

Nov
23

“I rolled the heavy iron gate closed behind me, locked up the property, and drove off, utterly unaware of the world-reaching calamity that was brewing less than a quarter mile away. . . .”

A #Ferguson Story, Continued

I ignored the notifications from my cell phone that Sunday morning. After all, I would be answering a 5 am alarm Monda54071f65c2da1.preview-620y through Friday for the next ten months, so I dismissed the bells and whistles sounding from my phone and slept in. Prolly just spam from my bank, I thought.

          When I finally rolled over at 11 o’clock, I found two distressing emails. The first was from a coworker:

Did you hear about this? These apartments are right behind your center.

FERGUSON, Mo. — The fatal shooting of a black teenager by police sent hundreds of angry residents out of their apartments Saturday in a St. Louis suburb, igniting shouts of “kill the police” during a confrontation that lasted several hours. The shooting occurred around noon Saturday at the Canfield Green Apartment complex. Ferguson police confirmed it was one of their officers who opened fire. . . . Family members identified the shooting victim as 18-year-old Michael Brown. . . . .

          The other was from my boss:

We need to monitor the news today about the shooting near our center on West Florissant. If it is safe, we need to be there before 7 in the morning to assess the situation. If it is not safe, we need to be prepared to make other plans.

          OMG! What did I miss yesterday? I thought. After having put in a long six-day week preparing for the first day of school, I kicked back, went to a movie, and – evidently – insulated myself from all media. I had even left my laptop at work being that I had no intention of doing any work until I reported to the center Monday morning.

 582-1tQv5h.AuSt.55        I scoured the Internet for more information. It seems that I pulled out of work Saturday afternoon about 15 minutes before things started to get hairy. One article included a photo of irate protesters confronting a line of police officers at Red’s Barbecue, a landmark of sorts, just across the street. Another pic showed highway patrol cars lined bumper to bumper along the metal fence that surrounded our lot. I read about the incident from the sites of national news organizations. Some accounts estimated nearly 600 protesters showing up at the scene as Michael Brown’s body lay in the street for more than four hours in the very neighborhood where many of my students lived. It was surreal.

          Updates – any new information — were scarce throughout the day. I spoke to my boss and my teachers, who were already aware of the situation and had been texting each other throughout the day. I did my best to reassure them, even though the situation was in a precarious state of flux.

       I heard there was to be a candlelight vigil that evening and had considered going. After all, our school was a part of the community, and I always believed in becoming personally involved in things that were important to the people we serve. My wife intuitively sensed my deliberations, however, and made me promise not to go. Despite my confidence I could go into the neighborhood without fear of harm, she would be scared to death. Perhaps I should trust her misgivings, I thought.

         School was canceled at my site at the first sign of violence at 8:30 pm. A police cruiser had been overturned and there were reports of white people being beat up just for being white, a report that I never confirmed. A peaceful prayer vigil had given way to a violent outpouring of anger in the streets.

            I began calling my students as I watched live coverage of neighborhood businesses being looted and vandalized. Everything was familiar to me, being that I had spent the better part of the past year within the very same environs.

 QT looting           I watched in disbelief as the QuikTrip I frequented two doors down from my center was being ripped apart from the inside out. Masked marauders vaulted the counter, beat open the cash register, and tipped over the hot dog grills. One character could be seen entering the premises shooting off a pair of Roman candles, arms crossed in the air above him. Soon, others spilled in, opportunistically taking helping themselves to anything and everything, especially liquor and cigarettes.

          News crews captured zoom footage of Sam’s Meat Market being smashed and looted as if it were being filmed from our front gate. The Autozone down towards Chambers Rd. was being hit. The local media showed security cam shots of looters smashing Zisser Tire and Auto and running out with choice rims. The Taco Bell where I waited out a graduation-night downpour had its windows smashed as did the cell phone store where I used to make deliveries while I was in college. The Ferguson Market, the dollar storeZisser and several beauty supply stores were victimized as well. Liquor, braids, sports attire, and electronics were choice targets of the looters.

          Absent from all this live action was footage of my center. It was as if it was in a media blind spot, given it was somewhat dark and inconspicuous.

          I was really worried. Were people to know that the place was full of computers, they will probably break in and smash the place up. My laptop was sitting on my desk right by one of the plate glass windows. Personal belongings, such as furniture, appliances, and photographs, were at risk as well. Although the grounds were surrounded by an iron fence, the gates were easily surmountable, as I had learned from experience. We purposely kept the place in a nondescript condition hoping to avoid unnecessary attention. Perhaps this would play in our favor.

        As the night wore on, the looting spread to other neighborhoods. News crews would film police arresting looters, only to have more emerge from the darkness just as soon as the cruisers drove off with suspects. Meanwhile, back on West Florissant, the QuikTrip was immersed in flames.

To be continued.

Nov
22

police_lights_newThe roar of sirens was among the everyday distractions at our school, an alternative education facility housed in a commercial property along busy West Florissant Avenue.

          Our program had a long-standing practice of meeting with all students and their families when they enrolled with us. I had come in on a Saturday to accommodate parents who were unable to make it in during normal business hours in an effort to get more students started by Monday, the First Day of School.

          I was doing just this — meeting with a mother and her two sons — when I heard an army of emergency vehicles rushing down Canfield Drive, a residential side street along the northern edge of the property. These sirens were exceptionally loud and seemed many in number. “Something crazy’s going down,” I thought. I raised my voice to be heard above the clamor, carrying on with the meeting without missing a beat.

          I soon forgot all about the brief distraction. Again, sirens were not unusual along this busy thoroughfare in Ferguson, Missouri.ferguson-police-cars-crowd

          After my meetings, I tended to a few unfinished cleaning chores to ensure students would walk into a sparkling facility on Monday. Somebody had pummeled one of our wall-length, plate-glass windows with rocks Memorial Day weekend. Concerned students might get cut, I taped up the ever-spreading crack with duct tape. The landlord had assured me it would indeed be fixed; it was just hard finding replacement windows that large anymore, he said.  Bottles were routinely tossed over the iron fence surrounding our lot by anonymous, nocturnal passersby. I dutifully swept up the broken glass. Such was life along the West Florissant strip.
bounce house           As I took out the trash, I noticed nothing unusual other than a makeshift carnival going on in a parking lot down the street next to the Ferguson Market. The din of laughing children could be heard over loud, hip hop tunage. A generator hummed continuously, inflating a bounce house that had been precariously staked upon a steep incline. I found this strange, envisioning gravity pinning kids against the wall at the bottom as they attempted to bounce uphill in futility.

          People were out and about. The neighborhood seemed happy, carefree, and bustling on the last weekend of the summer break.

          I was really looking forward to the new school year. Three talented young teachers had been assigned to my team. They were eager to start their new jobs, embarking upon the important, challenging work before them. Already, they had made their mark on the place giving it a refreshing, cheerful look. Armed with construction paper, Sharpies, scissors, and tape, they adorned the cement block walls with inspirational quotes and positive messages. Students had good attitudes as well, for many of them were slated to graduate in the spring.

          Before I left for the weekend, I wrote “Welcome back, students!” in happy, hot pink letters on the top of Monday’s sign-in sheet in the entryway. I rolled the heavy iron gate closed behind me,Canfield crowds locked up the property, and drove off, oblivious of the world-reaching calamity that was brewing less than a quarter mile away. A crowd was gathering around the corpse of a fallen teen, gunned down by a police officer in the middle of the street two hours earlier.

To be continued . . . .

Jul
21

Special 20th Anniversary Repost

Iowa Faces Next Round Of FloodingThe thing most midwesterners would remember about the summer of 1993 is The Great Flood.  The Mississippi and Missouri rivers had lay waste their basins to extremes unseen for generations. St. Louis area tributaries such as the Meramec River, Kayser Creek and the River des Peres, had been only momentarily contained by gargantuan, precariously stacked walls of sandbags, threatening at any moment to spew calamity into the homes of thousands.

            It had been raining for months. There was water everywhere with no relief in sight!

            Displaced families in temporary roadside campgrounds,  huddled around haphazardly strewn, hastily salvaged belongings, were on public display as traffic passed. The impersonality of day-to-day life had been forcibly delayed by detours, curbside flotsam and jetsam, and pitiable scenes of human suffering.

            Despite the far-reaching regional impact caused by the great deluge, the Flood of ’93 merely serves as the backdrop to fonder personal memories.

 Flood Pigs           Immersed in struggles of my own, I was broke and trying to make a living working for a small, rather unstable delivery service, which caused me to encounter this historic drama in progress on a daily basis. Despite my irritation with the delays and my best attempts to tune out the calamity around me, it was impossible not to be personally affected by the suffering along the routes I traveled.

            Fortunately, comic relief in the form of my employer’s erratic behavior served as a welcomed distraction.

            Rumor had it that Darwin had a chemical imbalance in his brain. The terms bipolar disorder, persecution complex, and obsessive-compulsive disorder come to mind. He could be patient, nurturing and generous one day – distributing impromptu cash bonuses, buying lunch, or going out of his way to encourage a struggling employee – yet turn on people the very next, reacting in violent tantrums and exhibiting paranoid delusions of betrayal. Sadly, Darwin’s sister, Edna, who was also the secretary, was the undeserving target of much of this abuse.

            People start businesses for many reasons. It is likely that Darwin did so because he could not hold a regular job.

            Despite obvious concerns with my boss’s mental health, as well as his frequent difficulties making payroll, I felt some degree of loyalty to him. Darwin had hired me during a difficult time in my life and took me under his wing to teach me the courier business. As a result of his tutelage, I was beginning to make decent money. In all honesty, I was greatly entertained by the drama surrounding this shoddy, dysfunctional operation. Yet, I did my best not to become personally involved in it.

            One day Darwin informed me that he was hiring some girl to help with the dispatch duties so he could focus on sales.

            “Does she have experience as a dispatcher?” I asked.

            “No,” he replied.

            “Is she a driver ready for advancement?”

            Negative.

            “Does she know the area?”

            “No. She’s from Chicago. I met her at Denny’s. She seems like she’s a hard worker and she would pick up on things quickly.”

            This made  no sense whatsoever. Upon further investigation, I learned that our delusional, wheeler-dealer-wanna’-be proprietor, had offered a dispatch job to an attractive waitress one night when he took a few drivers out for dinner.

            Understandably, Edna was pissed to find out that after working long hours and doing anything and everything to help her brother’s business get off the ground, he was paying some Barbie-doll waitress more than her. News of the resulting fallout spread quickly. Edna quit and went to work for a competitor.

            It was apparent, listening to Felicia on the radio trying to dispatch, that she had no idea what she was doing. Darwin was obviously sitting next to her, like Cyrano in the bushes, telling her what to say.  Customers were beginning to complain to me about the new girl screwing up orders. They drew the same conclusion I had; Felicia must be a babe!

            I was the last of the drivers to meet the new girl. For about a week, Felicia and I kept missing each other. She would be out to lunch or gone for the day whenever I needed to swing by the office. The curiosity was killing me! Then one slow day, Darwin told me to come in to base and hang out for a while.

            I arrived and knocked on the office door. I was greeted by an attractive blonde. “Hi! I’m Driver 37,” I said, making purposeful eye contact.

            “I’m Felicia.”

            “It’s nice to finally meet you!”

            I studied her as we made our way to the dispatch table to join Darwin. Felicia was fair complected with long, straight, blonde hair extending most of the way down  her back. The straightness of her hair was contrasted by a huge flip, standing erect on her brow, originating from a part on one side of her head, suspended by hair spray, and landing gently upon the other as it returned from its airborne trajectory. She had deep-set green eyes and wore very little makeup.

            Attractive curves were evident despite attempts to hide in an oversized sweater. She wore black tights, clinging snuggly to her curvaceous buttocks, of which I studied every wiggle and flexion as it propelled her across the office a few steps ahead of me.

            My heart pumped rigorously in my chest. I was in love!

            My initial impression of Felicia was that she was more of a down-to-earth, snuggle-up-by-a-fire type rather than a raucous partier, which was fine by me. I had grown tired of that type of girls.

            Unfortunately, we scarcely had time to talk before I was sent to pick up a delivery. But I had accomplished all I needed to at the time. I had her attention, and she had mine.

            The next day, I pulled up to the office to find Felicia leaving. “Where are you going?” I asked.

            “Next door to get cigarettes,” she replied.

            “Get in. I’ll ride you over.

            “It’s just next door.”

            “That’s okay.” I insisted. “Get in.”

            So I drove her to the gas station, which was literally a stones throw away. She went inside, bought a pack of cigarettes, then got back into my Mazda GLC.

            I was then dispatched to a delivery via the radio. But rather than drop Felicia off, I headed straight to the pick up, tires squealing as I tore out of the gas station.

            “Where are you going?” Felicia shrieked.

            Despite her protestations, I was off to do my Priority Service delivery, laughing all the way. “I’ve got to go straight there!”

            “I’m going to get in trouble!”

             “No you won’t.” I snickered. “I’m kidnapping you. Tell Darwin there was nothing you could do to stop me.” I was hoping to impress her with my reckless, devil-may-care attitude, and it seemed to be working.

            She called Darwin on the radio, informing him of her abduction. He was acting pissed, but he was at most only mildly irritated. As soon as I finished the delivery, which was really a short hop, he made me return her to the office. We had a good laugh in the meantime.

            A few days later, I was stuck in rush hour traffic on the highway when I heard a conversation on the radio. At first, I had thought somebody was sitting on a microphone. Then I realized that the mic had been deliberately keyed up. It was Darwin.

             “So you’re saying you have a crush on 37?”

             Felicia replied, “I’m so sure!” Evidently, he was driving her home.

            “You like 37, don’t you?”

            “Yes!” She shrieked, blushing apparent despite lack of a visual. Then she realized that he had been broadcasting the conversation. “Darwin!” The transmission immediately crashed. And my heart pounded. And I suppressed the urge to gun my engine in glee, being that I was in gridlock traffic crawling at 10 mph.

            A few days later, Darwin arranged for Felicia to ride along with me one day to “meet the clients.” This surprised me, knowing that he had designs on her. It looked like a trap, but I was happy to oblige, nonetheless.  Anything to spend time with my newfound love!

            So, early one morning I picked up Felicia at her sister’s house. She was waiting on the steps to her porch in a yellow and blue driver’s uniform with a packed lunch beside her. An orange cat looked on from the front window.

            Felecia and I immediately hit it off. I was blown away to learn that she was from a huge family of 13 kids. Her teen years had been interrupted by her mother having a stroke and Felicia needing to grow up quickly to take care of her. Unfortunatley, Felicia’s mother had passed on a few years earlier, which had crushed her spirits significantly.

            One thing we had in common was that we were both starting over, of sorts. I had just dropped out of college and was living with my mother until I got back on my feet financially. She had left Chicago to escape an abusive relationship and was now living with her eldest sister.

            Throughout the day, we had made several trips through the flood plains, observing the roadside shanties, canoes, sandbagging, National Guardsman and the human drama that had become all-but routine. The sky was clear for a change, which was encouraging to all.

             It was a hot day, frequently broken up by periods of inactivity. Normally, standing by not making money was dull and irritating. This day I did not mind. Felecia and I played Frisbee for a while, and I set up my lawn chair for her. I explained that when things got really slow, I’d get out the chair, peel of my shirt and tan until dispatched. This explained why I was bronzed. Whenever she complained about the heat, I joked about tossing her into one of the residential pools we passed. She dared me, and I was tempted. It would be quite exhilarating to see her in a soaking wet t-shirt!

            As the day progressed, the sky began to cloud up once again. By the time I dropped off Felicia, we had been hit by a torrential downpour. I got her phone number before she sprinted into her sister’s place with her little lunch cooler held above her like an umbrella. The orange cat in the window seemed totally indifferent to the meteorological tragedy unfolding outside.

            Something was up. Sirens could be heard coming from all directions. The routes leading out of the city appeared to be at a dead stop. Repeatedly, police cruisers bypassed standstill traffic by jetting by in the oncoming lanes. I eventially learned that the giant sandbagged levee that contained the River des Peres had ruptured, flooding several neighborhoods. But I was unconcerned. I was, after all,  in love.

to be continued

Dec
26

NewtownSadly, the scourge of mass shootings has become a modern epidemic. Our emotions oscillate between extreme outrage and jaded cynicism with each successive occurrence. These tragedies dominate the conversations, social media postings and artistic output of many. Some of us clamor toward media outlets hungry for answers. Others attend vigils and pray. Many simply avoid thinking of the senselessness by seeking solace in light-hearted distractions.

The Newtown, Connecticut slayings are different, however. The victims were mere babies! The incomprehensible murders of first graders and their teachers have propelled the country into a maelstrom of grief, anger and outcry.

Newtown victims As one who has nurtured young students in classroom settings, the thought of opening fire on a room full of children seems unimaginable. How does a person get so twisted that he can look into the frightened eyes of innocent, freckled-faced, dimple-cheeked children and brutally snuff them out? We are united in our profound disgust. This one really hit home.

Familiar cries for gun control alternating with calls to arms permeate the din of our disbelief:

  • “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”
  • “The problem is always the shooter, but one cannot deny the obvious problem that such individuals have legal access to the firearms that turn their insanity into our grief.”
  • “I wish the teachers were packing! If all people were armed, this would stop!”
  • “If your first reaction to the shootings is ‘Oh shit! Obama and the liberals are going to try to take my guns,’ then your priorities as a human being SUCK!”
  • “The founding fathers guaranteed a right to bear arms for the same reason they added the 3rd amendment (Protecting citizens from forced quartering during peace time) to the bill of rights. Basic freedoms that we should all be afforded. You are allowed to bear arms to protect yourself and your family.”

Given, there are bigger problems than guns feeding the mass shooting epidemic. These include untreated mental health issues, the questionable moral fiber of contemporary America and an apparent lack of personal responsibility within our culture.

However, circumstances surrounding many of these shootings reignite the furor regarding the relative ease of access to high firepower by their psychotic perpetrators. The Aurora Joker-Douche who opened fire on a theater full of movie goers used semi-automatic weapons, tear gas and tactical body armor obtained through legitimate means via the Internet. The Newtown Sociopath raided his mother’s legally registered weapons stash before killing her and 26 others human beings.

We’re not talking about hunting rifles and six-shooters here. According to an OutdoorsNative review of the Buckmaster CAR15, the weapon useBushmaster-CAR15-223d to pump up to 11 bullets into each of the slaughtered first graders, this high-powered baby dicer can readily discharge 180 rounds in two minutes. The article goes on to read: “The Bushmaster rifle is legal in most states but unfortunately is illegal in a few states because of certain features (you know what states you are, wake up and give your citizens their rights!)”

Why are these killing machines so easily available? A federal ban on semi-automatic assault weapons expired in 2004 and never gained the political traction necessary for reinstatement . Thus, these rifles can be purchased at the local Walmart, on the Internet or at gun shows, sometimes without even so much as a background check.

According to The Inquisitr: “Although many licensed gun dealers are required to perform background checks on those looking to purchase firearms, people get can get around these regulations by picking up weapons at gun shows. A loophole allows unlicensed collectors to conduct private sales without performing such checks.”

One would figure, given the latest tragedies, that legislators would be in a rush to correct this unfortunate oversight. The President and others have assault weapons in their sights. Nevertheless, there has been much public resistance to such a proposed ban. Who in their right mind would be against such a ban, one may ask.

Sadly, the Gollum-esque fear by gun enthusiasts that their precious firearms will be rounded up has proven to be a substantial barrier to productive dialog that may save lives. The National Rifle Association opposes any gun legislation and has even lobbied against measures that rational thinking people would deem reasonable. The NRA believes that any gun restrictions create a slippery slope that would enable the eventual government gun grab that dominates their fears.

Dealer displays firearms for sale at a gun show in Kansas City Incomprehensibly, the Sandy Hook tragedy has been followed by a mad dash on gun stores by nutcases fearful of an imminent assault weapons ban. Gun nuts line the sidewalks outside of convention centers to get into gun shows hoping to take advantage of gun control loopholes. Sales of assault rifles like the one used in Newtown are selling like the last of the Twinkies, according to Reuters.

A similar rush to arms occurred following the re-election of Barack Obama. It remains to be seen if this boom in gun sales is the result of an expectedCold Dead Hands mod 2d grandfathering of soon-to-be prohibited weapons, or if these folks plan to have a shootout with the authorities who would be charged with the task of rounding up firearms. The defiant quote by the late NRA Chairman Charlton Heston comes to mind: “You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

Perhaps they are simply impressed with the Bushmaster’s raw killing potential, as evidenced in Connecticut.

After a week’s silence, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre released a statement of unwavering Wayne LaPierreopposition to any new gun control legislation. He further suggested, to the outrage of many, that all schools be protected by armed officers. This suggestion is not unreasonable, considering the recent increase in paranoid, semi-automatic weapons owners out there.

For much too long the NRA, considered by Congress to be the most powerful lobby in the country, has bullied lawmakers into obsequiousness. Common-sense gun control measures have fallen by the wayside as a result.

The NRA’s initial silence following the Newtown shootings had many wondering if a repentant NRA would emerge with a revised position. A few anti-gun control advocates have, in fact, done this in the wake of the slayings. Unfortunately, this was not the case. One can draw a variety of conclusions, including 1) the NRA is right, and should remain steadfast in its convictions, or 2) the NRA is unreachable, “tone deaf,” and incapable of learning from its mistakes.Sandy Hook

In the wake of the calamity rife with blame, the NRA is getting its share. Could the NRA, in some indirect way, be responsible for the 28 deaths in Newtown?

Fear and selfishness appear to be major motivating forces behind the NRA. The fear that the government (or Nazis, aliens, liberals or other perceived threats) will go house to house confiscating people’s hunting rifles and handguns is what transformed them from a service-minded sportsmen organization to one of the most irrational players on the political landscape. Sadly, gun enthusiasts put guns and gun-related pursuits above everything else — public safety, the General Welfare, even their own families — while asserting that anything other than gun anarchy is somehow unpatriotic . . . un-American.

Nevertheless, this post is not an anti-gun rant. It is not intended to blame gun owners for the actions of sick individuals. Obviously, many deep rooted problems contribute to this destructive mass murder phenomenon .

The intent is to caSandy Hook, Abuelaishll into question the counterproductive role staunch gun enthusiasts have played in the quest for solutions. Perhaps the NRA’s regrettable stance as related to these tragic events will prove to be the organization’s undoing.

To be continued

Jun
03

May 2011: As I planned our 4th graduation at work, I attended my 2nd.  This high school dropout had earned his Master’s Degree!

            And somehow, someway, I recalled my promise to my first students to attend their graduation. The 2nd graders with whom I did my student teaching would now be finishing their junior year in high school.

            I searched Facebook and their school’s newsletters and  managed to locate ten of them. Although three were now attending school in other districts, other states even, the others were still together attending South High. Surely there were more; I just couldn’t find them.

            Consistent with my own personal Facebook policy of not befriending colleagues, students or minors, I resisted the temptation to contact any of them. I simply set a notification in my email account to remind me of this on May 1 the following year. . . .

. . . . and May 1 arrived right on schedule, along with the email reminder I had programed a year earlier. I wrote South High’s principal, recounting the dialog from my last day of student teaching, asking for one ticket to attend. A few days later, South’s secretary called me and granted my request. I would be going to see my 2nd graders graduate from high school!

            As it turned out, the city’s graduation and South’s graduation fell on two consecutive days. Surely it would follow a long week of preparations. There would be the graduation rehearsal on Wednesday, which was more work than the ceremony itself. Thursday would be the Big Event, which would make for a long day and a late night. Friday morning would be a labor-intensive teacher work day, which would be followed by South High’s graduation.

            The redeeming feature of this was that I would be required to neither plan nor participate in anything Friday night. For the first time since I watched my own high school class graduate without me, I would be attending a commencement ceremony as a passive observer.

            Wednesday’s rehearsal had all the anticipated  drama that comes with bringing 100 teens from all the neighborhoods in the city to work as an orchestrated unit. A gown turned up missing. People were missing tickets. A few had issues with each other, and one girl was sent home for mouthing off to staff one too many times.

             Thursday came.  Other than a few minor problems, like the sound man showing up 10 minutes before the start, the city graduation went on without a hitch. My entire staff was present for the traditional dinner with the boss. I was the man of the hour after I told everybody they didn’t have to show up to work until 9 am the next morning.

            Unfortunately, Friday afternoon, I received word that one of our graduates had been killed overnight. Lamarr had taken a pass on the ceremony, stating that he didn’t want to spend money on new clothes. As it turns out, he was shot in the head while sitting in his own car. Two suspects were sighted running from the scene.

            This would be the second graduation marred by a student fatality during my tenure as supervisor. A few years earlier, two students died violently in the days leading up to the big date.

            “Tomorrow isn’t promised,” a student once told me as I pleaded with him to take his education more seriously. The student, Thomas, lived in a housing project with his mother, who was widowed after Thomas Sr. was shot at the neighborhood KFC.

            To the average middle-class, forty-something white guy, this would seem to be incentive to get an education and get the hell out. However, to a student who attended second rate schools his entire life, lived in third rate housing as long as he could remember, and scraping by with his fractured family in the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad, the connection between education and future prosperity may not be apparent. The reality of a college degree to an 18-year-old man reading at a 4th grade level may, in fact, be a naive educator’s pipe dream. Thomas was literally trying to survive on a daily basis while enjoying what he could out of what he figured to be a short life.

Our fallen alumni and former students are a testament to this:

Steven (Graduate, Class of 2003): Died in surgery while doctors attempted to remove an old bullet.

Iesha (former student): Killed in a car accident while drag racing along with a friend and two of their children.

Kenneth (prospective graduate): Shot and killed while standing on a corner with friends.

Jhmari (Graduate, Class of 2009): Killed by police days before graduation after drawing a firearm on them.

Derrell (former student): Beaten to death by two men in a basement.

Tasherra (former student): Killed by gunfire while riding in a car.

Nermin (Graduate, Class of 2011): Died of a neurological disorder.

Lamarr (Graduate, Class of 2012): Shot and killed the night of graduation.

Lamarr’s diploma would be presented to his mother posthumously by the center director, who attended the funeral. There is nothing more grievous than a funeral for a child.

To be continued

Jun
01

2002: During what proved to be a rather frustrating job search, I ended up being recruited by a privately owned alternative education program. The company contracted with several area districts to serve as a dropout prevention strategy – a matter close to my heart.

            After two interviews and a lot of soul searching, I accepted a job offer with this strange outfit and began working with at-risk secondary students in a seedy neighborhood – a far cry from the somewhat affluent suburban district where I did my student teaching.

            Once I got past the initial culture shock, I became skilled at working with the students we served. Some were years behind in cognitive development. Many were distracted by the typical pitfalls abundant in public urban high schools. Others simply hated school. For the most part, two-parent families were in short supply, and worse yet, the single parents were often too “distracted” themselves to provide a system of support to their struggling youngsters.

            Then there was this: “I don’t know what you expect me to do,” a parent of an underperforming 17-year-old proclaimed, “he too old for whoopins.”

            Yes, it was a different world, all right, but I learned to thrive in this environment. Five years later, I would be overseeing the operations in several districts. The best description of this role would be a cross between a regional manager, a principal and an errand boy. In this new capacity, I trained and evaluated staff, monitored instructional integrity, adjudicated major disciplinary issues, responded to client-districts’ needs, managed facilities, and planned graduation ceremonies.

            Graduations were always a lot of work, and I took on a large chunk of this so that those with direct responsibilities to students can focus on students. A non-certified staff member usually assumed some of the duties.

            We nearly canceled the first year’s ceremony because a nasty fight broke out amongst groups of rival girls during the rehearsal. The arrival of a parent with a crowbar only exacerbated an already ugly scene. As security intervened, one of the participants threatened to “spray this place” with gunfire, at which point staff pulled everybody back into the building.

            Fortunately, after banning five of our graduates from the premises, the show went on . . . under martial law it would seem . . . with the assistance of an zealous security presence.

            A former school board member once described our graduations as . . . grasping for a euphemism . . . “spirited.”  From the moment the graduates entered the auditorium until the time they left, the audience was persistently loud, rude and disruptive. If speakers got the slightest bit dull or long-winded, they would be drowned out by random epitaphs from the crowd, usually a shout out to a graduating loved one. In the past, guest would rush the stage in droves to take pictures, thereby interfering with graduates’ movements to and from the stage to get their diplomas. It was outright embarrassing to students and staff alike.

            Bear in mind, this was a culture for which screaming in church was acceptable. Further consider that for many of our students, the prospect of graduating from high school was nothing short of miraculous. As a result, our guests were filled with joyful abandon on this momentous occasion.

            We learned from our mistakes. Over the years, we succeeded in  developing a repertoire for redirecting this energy. We approached graduation like a rock concert.

            Rather than lengthy, cerebral oration, we bantered with the audience, giving them ample opportunity to participate loudly. Awards recipients were acknowledged en masse, and staff comments were kept brief. The practice of inviting keynote speakers was abandoned. The poor man or woman would go to great lengths to prepare, get dressed up, and travel to the ceremony, only to be greeted with random, rude outbursts. Instead, the featured speakers would be graduates, who were received better than community members.

            To counter the stage rushing phenomenon, I gave “blocking assignments” to staff prior to the ceremony. The first several rows were reserved for graduates, VIP’s and staff. During the diploma presentations, staff would sit in chairs shoulder-to-shoulder, blocking the aisles at designated pinch points. Looking out as I read graduates’ names, the human blockade remarkably contained the great onrush of anarchy that would otherwise ensue. This method was 100-percent successful, which very much pleased the security officers assigned to the event who would otherwise have to deal with this problem.

            We were pros. We handled the difficult crowd while providing a memorable sendoff for our students. More important, we helped students succeed who might otherwise fall through the cracks. We were masters of the graduation biz.

To be continued

May
31

Dec. 7, 2001: On the last day of my student teaching assignment, I said farewell to the 2nd grade class with which I was initiated into the profession. “I expect all of you to graduate from high school,” I told them.

            “Mr. C,” one of the boys asked, “are you coming to my graduation?”

            “I will if I can,” I replied.

            Brendan immediately began taunting Tara, a girl sitting beside him on the floor: “Mr. C is coming to my graduation!” not realizing, if all things remained unchanged, they would be participating in the very same ceremony.

             It may have appeared strange to my cooperating teacher that I was speaking of such a remotely distant event to a group of primary students. However, graduation was a topic dominating my thoughts those days.

            Nineteen years earlier to the very day, I had dropped out of high school. Following years of struggles, highlighted by unemployment, homelessness, crap jobs, shattered dreams and a fragmented collegiate career, I was now wrapping up my last day as an undergrad and looking forward to my very own graduation.

            This would be my first graduation. Nearly 20 years earlier, I watched from the bleachers as my cohorts – my friends, cousins and lifelong acquaintances – walked across the stage without me. Despite the obvious reservations, I chose to attend to support my class; nevertheless, it left me with the most agonizing Left Behind sensation imaginable. Then when I earned my Associate Degree, a clerk in the community college registrar’s office unceremoniously handed me my diploma, sans pomp or circumstance.

            So yes, I was keenly aware of the approach of my first ever graduation as I invoked my students, in an indirect manner, not to follow the same path as me. A month later, I did, in fact, participate in  my first commencement ceremony, received my Bachelor’s Degree, and began looking for my first teaching position in a less-than-favorable job market.

To be continued . . .

Jan
29

On My First Drug-Free Day, I went to an early haircut appointment.  I hoped to do something with the Hitler-esque comb over of thinning hair that had resulted from the aggressive antiviral drug regimen I had started 28 weeks earlier. As unfashionable a coif this was, I deemed it to be preferable to the Francis of Assisi look that would otherwise occur. I warned my stylist, who I’ve known to work quickly, to be easy on the head.

            As I drove away from the shop, I realized that the morning queasiness that had followed my daily 6 am dosing was absent. Same with the bitter, chemical taste I had grown accustomed to during the past six months. Already I was feeling better on My First Drug-Free Day!

            In addition to this day being a personal milestone, it happened to be our 17th wedding anniversary as well. My wife, Felicia, and I had big plans. It had been quite a while since we had done anything special, and this was certainly cause for celebration. We dropped our daughter off with grandma and headed downtown.

            At 2 pm, we attended a circus performed exclusively by child acrobats, contortionists and jugglers. I did not need to excuse myself to stuff my face with drugs.

            Afterward, we toured the avant-garde museum that hosted the show. I  was impressed with their Exhibit of Urban Ornamentation, which included a building gargoyle collection and a fancy door knob display. We crawled through the series of tunnels and tubes that snaked their way through the facility like some convoluted, Seussian plumbing system. Children laughed and played around us. The experience was entirely life-affirming.

            The Victrelis alarms that chimed from my phone every eight hours, every day for the past 24 weeks had been disabled – one-by-one – the day before. There would be no injections, no 10 pm meds, and no inexplicable tears for fallen Titans on my First Drug-Free Day. Instead, we dined well at one of our favorite restaurants and nibbled on fru-fru pastries at an upscale coffee shop. All was good.

            My second worst fear, as my treatment drew to a close, was that my recovery would be so gradual that I wouldn’t notice any difference. This certainly wasn’t the case. After four days post-meds, I posted on Facebook:  “Today I noticed a little spring in my step. I’m getting my power walk back! I pray I never forget how good it feels not to feel bad.”

            Soon began the Great Rebound. My workouts, which had been minimal attempts to defy atrophy, began to intensify. I had regained the ability to get a pump. Apparently, the drug-induced anemia had prevented this. I began running on the treadmill, starting with one mile and increasing by ¼ mile every workout thereafter. After a few times, this was no longer so burdensome.

            About 10 days later, I found myself experiencing my first adrenalin rush in months. While on meds, stress simply made me ill.

            Coincidentally, my first post-treatment follow-up visit to my doctor fell on the anniversary of my diagnosis, the day I had received a letter stating that I had tested positive for Hepatitis C. . . .

 
 

            I recall my absolute shock and sickness I had experienced as the result of this news. I knew nothing of this ailment, and the information I found was very ambiguous. The malady impacted people in different ways, ranging from a rather benign experience to severe liver disease. Moreover, the treatment affected people in varying degrees of nastiness, and the standard of care at the time was only about 50-percent successful.

            The entire year would be devoted to fighting the Hepatitis C Virus. This involved a fact-finding, self-educating phase. I joined a support group. I searched the Internet. Then I discovered a new generation of drugs was on the horizon, awaiting FDA approval.

            Following my diagnosis, I was hesitant to endure the grueling 48-week treatments – known for severe side effects – for a mere 50/50 success rate. All indicators, such as liver enzyme blood work, CT scans and my fitness level, led me to believe my liver had experienced no ill effects from the ailment. A biopsy, however, revealed that the virus was, in fact, at work in my body.  I was pushing 50, and I was concerned that the severity of this damage would increase exponentially as I aged.

            I chose to start treatment for this and other reasons. The new protease inhibitors promised higher success rates and shorter treatment durations. I had a good insurance plan (and these drugs were bleeping EXPENSIVE). And things seemed to line up just right in my professional life to allow this major undertaking.

            The drugs came. Boceprevir, which strangely took on a Hollywood pseudonym of Victrelis, was approved on Friday, May 13, 2011. I was the first on my block to sign on.

            So finally, after much anticipation and anxiety, I took my first injection of Pegasys (Pegylated Interferon α-2a) on July 2, 2011. I would do this every Saturday for the next 27 weeks. I also took two doses of Ribavirin daily, 600 mg in the morning and 400 mg in the afternoon. At the start of treatment week 5, I added Victrelis (Boceprevir), the newly approved miracle drug, to the cocktail, choking down four capsules every eight hours without fail.

            People’s experiences with these drugs differ remarkably. Some are affected with mild side effects all through treatment; others are overwhelmed by them and must either take leave of work or abandon the effort altogether. Some folks require “rescue drugs” to enable them to continue.

            On a nastiness scale of 1 to 10, I would rate the bulk of my experience at 4, though treatment weeks 15-19 would be more deserving of a 7. My major side effects were anemia, skin disorders and depression. Other troublesome maladies, in no particular order, included chills, fever, irritability, insomnia, forgetfulness, low frustration threshold, queasiness, dysguesia (bad taste in mouth) anal-rectal discomfort, bowel irregularity, scalp irritation, hair loss, frequent nose bleeds, and proneness to minor infections.

            Regretably, the experience took quite a toll on my family. My wife grew so tired of my mood swings that she started to work weekends to avoid my injection-day hangovers. I kept her up at night during my frequent bouts with restlessness and the occasional “I want to blow my brains out” pleas for help.  Nothing got done around the house, at least not by me.  Nevertheless, I would have never gotten through this thing without the support of my wife and daughter.

            Fortunately, the drugs worked and worked quickly. As the result of early negative lab results, I became eligible for the shortened treatment option of 28 weeks, as opposed to 48. I took my last dose of Boceprevir at 10 pm on Friday, Jan. 13, 2012. Coincidentally, I finished the Friday the 13th drug on Friday the 13th.

            So . . .

 
 

            . . . my first post-treatment follow-up visit to my doc occurred exactly one year after receiving the infamous letter. My doc congratulated me on my results and was happy I was feeling better. He explained the follow-up procedures to me and bid me well.

            Of course, I needed to see my nurse, Maureen, before I left. I wanted to show her how good I felt. She happened to walk out of her office as I approached and the recognition was immediate: “Well look at you with a bounce in your step!” she proclaimed. She had always said that she could tell a lot about a person’s state of health just from looking at them. I knew this was the case here. “It’s good to see you smiling and laughing again. There were times you were just miserable.”

            I owe a lot to Maureen’s support. She was the one who really made things happen in during my treatment. It was an interesting dynamic, really. I’d discuss things with Maureen, make a decision and she would get approval from the doctor. She was the handler – the troubleshooter. This arrangement worked out beautifully.

            A few days post-treatment, I happened upon an online HCV support group with membership from all over the world. The site has a theme equating our common cause of defeating the virus to slaying the dragon. Most folks’ are represented by medieval avatars, such as knights, warriors, lords, ladies, sorcerers and witches. Like my in-person support group, these folks are extremely well-informed. They are very supportive and, naturally, understand the disease and its treatments better than the unafflicted. People of different genotypes, at all stages of the progression, having experienced most treatment regimens with varying results are represented.

            I really wish I had found this site during treatment; nevertheless, my experience, strength and hope can be useful to others. After all, I had accumulated a lot of information during my year’s obsession with the dragon. I am among the first past the finish line on one of the new drugs, and I am convinced this is all behind me. The next logical step is to help others.