31 May 2010

Review: The Girl with ...., Steig Larrson

I like books, I really do. I like talking about them. But for some reason I never write about them unless they annoy the hell out of me. Which brings me to the International Bestselling Series, The Girl Who ... , by Stieg Larrson.

I'm tempted to simply repost my review of The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes. Larsson stays this side of the supernatural, but otherwise the two are interchangeable. Who knew that Sweden, boring white-bread Sweden, was home to a freak show usually found in Southern Gothic novels. A quick list must include:

A giant German hitman who has a genetic disorder that prevents him from feeling pain. (Sorry Arnold, you're past it.)

A 5' 4" Russian hitman, spy, defector, mobster with a GRU background who is the father of the heroine, the aforesaid giant, and a slew of other bastard freaks scattered across Europe. He's the bad guy. (If only Dennis Hopper could have hung on for another year.)

A beautiful, kinky, Asian, lesbian, kick-boxer. (Lucy Liu. Absolutely.)

A simple, honest professional boxing champ. (Some young muscle-head.)

And the protagonist: an elfin, 4' 11", less than 90 lb, world class hacker, billionaire (she steals the ill-gotten gains of the billain in book 1), with a photographic memory and an intuitive flair for math (she solves Fermat's Last Theorem while stalking an evil-doer.) She is tattooed and absurdly violent when provoked. She may have Asperger's Syndrome.

As for the plot:

The protagonist watches her father beat the crap out of her mother on a regular basis. She finally lashes out and tries to kill him. The Swedish Secret police sweep in to hush the thing up and she finds herself declared "incompetent" and institutionalized. There she is abused. Then her guardian abuses her. After that, whatever havoc she unleashes, the reader applauds. The abuse justifies her over the top vengeance.

Oh yeah, there's trafficing of sex slaves from Eastern Europe. Cover-ups by the Swedish Secret police. The decay of the Swedish Social Safety Net.

And, I have to repeat, she solves Fermat's Last Theorem, without the help of a computer, while on the way to extract justice vengeance. In Sweden, the first book was titled Men who Hate Women.

Throughout the book, the police and reporters, the peripheral, normal characters, keep saying things like, "Can you believe this?" No, they can't. And either can you.

The books have sold millions, so who am I to say they are adult action cartoons that will make billions as a series of summer films. The tiny heroine even gets a boob job between book 1 and 2 to aid casting.

Oddly enough, the freak show rips along at such a pace that you keep going even though you want to stop. You know it is free of nutrition, but you take yet another piece. Perhaps that's the secret to huge success in writing - appeal to the appetites and slather it on.

10 May 2010

What an Exhausting Day

Today I was trapped in my room and have no idea what happened elsewhere in the school. At least three teachers were out sick, or at least they weren't at work, and I taught the fifth grade. All of it. At the same time. Four were absent, so I had to jam 42 kids into my room that usually holds 25. The first hour and a half was spent eating breakfast, taking attendance and population counts, and dragging desk after desk from across the hall and squeezing them into my room.

I know all the kids, as I teach them in platoon, but to have them all at once was ridiculous. I tried to teach, but gave it up about 1:30 pm. Unfortunately, schools dismisses at 4:15. Oh, and then I had 26 5th and 6th graders in the Extended Day program until 6:45. I'm not supposed to have more than 15, and usually have 10 or less.

Wit, insight, sarcasm, biting something and caustic other are therefore beyond me tonight. At least I was still functioning enough to avoid an exclamation point in the title. Good for me! Damn.

08 May 2010

Make up your own damn title

About this time, one really, really wants the school year to end. The frustrations and discontent have piled so high they are difficult to see past. I'm so damn sick of the violence. Not just the fighting, but the casual, petty, everyday violence of insults, shoves, kicks, accusations, provocations, destroyed books and classrooms, and the constant shouting. If another kid shouts at me that I "better get that little boy" or "get that that bald-headed girl" I may just walk out. A few trips up and down the halls to drive the bile down.

These days I rarely teach. Instead I am a policeman without a policeman's tools or authority.

This morning, just after school opened, a teacher came and told me she overheard two boys say they's meet outside my room at 2:00 pm. She didn't know the boys, but they looked like middle schoolers. We agreed to meet at my at that time to be ready for whatever was planned. At lunch, I told the two nearest middle school teachers what was going on and they agreed to keep their kids in their rooms around two and to keep an eye on my doorway.

At 1:45, I heard yelling and running in the halls, I went out to see what was going on. There was a fight between two 8th graders at the far end of the hall. I heard the call for security and went back into my room. I knew that eventually the female security guard in her late fifties would get up the stairs and make her way to the fight.

At 1:55, their was a call for the security guard to go to one of the portable buildings next to the school. This time the trouble was in a third grade class. At 2:00, a security guard was called to a first grade room on the first floor. The room has seven children who can only be described as feral. I've never seen so many completely out-of-control kids in one room. By the way, we have one security guard.

Around 2:15, a middle-school boy wandered into my room. I was teaching away to the six or seven who were listening, and this kid I'd never seen before just wandered in and gestured to one of my more wayward students. My student stood up and started to walk out. I loudly told him to sit down, and turned to the middle school boy. I even more loudly told him to get out my room as I was teaching and he was in the way. I also explained in short, blunt sentences that in school, kids have rooms to be in, and don't just go wandering around visiting friends. I am considered unreasonable by most of the students.

The two boys fell to yelling at me that one had borrowed a back pack from the other and he needed it back and it was in his locker and he was going to get it for him and he needed it now and it was his book bag and dawg, I need my book bag, and so on and so on, the volume and pitch rising with their righteous indignation. I walked toward the intruder gave him three seconds notice that the door was about to swing closed through the space where he was standing, counted aloud to two and swung the door shut. It missed him, but not my much. Not very fast on his feet. My kid kept the complaining while I called his mother and handed him the phone. He received an obscenity laced Howler, so loud I could hear her side of the call.

Now, what about the rest of the class. Chaos reigned. The anger shot through the room and energized the sluggish group. Several side arguments were resumed, kids yelled at me to let him get the book bag, and my seven students who can do math, who want to do math, looked sad and frustrated.

I stood there, silently watching the scene. The chaos soared. I'd had enough. I gathered up my materials, disconnected my laptop, and packed up my things to leave. OK, I had an hour-and-a-half to go, but what was the point? Getting them back in order is like putting out brush fires. The chaos leaps about and flares up over and over again.

I sat down and watched the scene, fully intending to sit there until dismissal and then sending them on their way. I'd had enough.

But I kept seeing those seven kids who wanted to learn and, damn it, they were upset. They wanted to learn and they wanted the fools to go away. They wanted me to stop the other kids from making their lives miserable, and I knew I couldn't. I could try to keep order in class, but the halls, the bathrooms, the lunchroom, the school grounds were in the control of the fools and the junior thugs. And I couldn't even guarantee order in my classroom.

I sat there a while longer and they got up. I reached over and picked up a handful of paper. Walking to the back of room were I put these kids to protect them as mush as I could, I dropped a piece of paper in front of my magnificent seven. There's a small chalkboard on the side wall near the back table and desks. I then did something I never do. I turned my back on the chaos, the fart noises, the arguments, the smacking, the kicking, and I said, in a soft voice that only my seven could hear, "Page 413. Let's learn something." Seven books flipped open, pages whirled past, and seven faces smiled. I have never seen fifth graders attack simplifying fractions with such hunger and joy.

After about ten minutes, I noticed the noise level behind my had dropped. Some of the wild bunch called for paper so they could do the work. I ignored them. My time and attention were going to the seven who deserved it. In twenty minutes, all seven were simplifying fractions flawlessly. We quickly worked twenty-five problems and there were only two mistakes. Both times the mistakes were minor. The child understood the process, but made a calculation error. I showed them why their answer didn't work, and they quickly found their error and corrected it.

By now, the class was fairly quiet and with more kids asking for paper. They had journals under the desks and could write in those if the only remembered, so I ignored them and stayed with the seven. Some other kids were clearly following along.

When it was clear that the seven had the idea, I challenged them to contest. I would challenge them at simplifying. I'd write a numerator and they'd take turns picking a denominator. Then we'd work it out as fast we could and shout the answer. If I was first, I'd win. If one of them was first, they'd win.

Now, they knew that I'd be faster, but they love the challenge of beating me. And I have been known to show off, shoot from the hip, and make a mistake. When they won a round, they abused me joyously and grimaced and swore they'd never beat me again. Then I'd break the rules and give them 66/132. They stared, dumbfounded. One kid got it when I wrote 4/8 = 1/2 and 4+4=8 on the board. That, my friends, is called scaffolding, and bright kids can do wonders with it.

So, we got through to dismissal. I keep my brave seven back and told them that they'd done so well, they'd earned homework passes. I promised them that I'd do what I could to make sure they could learn everyday. As I sent them out into the wildness in the hall, I playfully smacked each one lightly on the head. Two swatted me on the back. We all laughed.

After dismissal, I watched three fights on the grounds from the stairwell window. I didn't do a thing about them. I saw one of my seven walking with a younger brother and sister. They had their heads down and were holding hands. Kids were running past them, jostling them as they ran toward the fights. My girl led her siblings away from the crowds, even though she was turning away from her home. She headed up another street, and was going to walk around the long block, avoiding the wild crowd, away from the fight, to find a safe way home. There was nothing I could do to help. Nothing out there anyway.

05 May 2010

Half-Day and some unexpected fun

Today was a half-day for the kids so we could have Parent-Teacher Conferences in the afternoon. As usual, about one-third to one-half of the kids were absent. Half-days are a relict of the days when Mom stayed home vacuuming in high heels and pearls while Dad worked in the office. Today we act as child care and when we are not available all day, families often have to arrange other care and simply keep the kids there all day.

It was a nice day which worked out well with our plans. The gym teacher arranged activities on a field next to our school and the teachers were assigned areas to manage. I worked with two middle school teachers at the soft ball field. We raced the 7th and 8th graders through a fast paced softball game that kept the kids moving so fast there was no time for problems. It was nice to have some positive interchanges with the middle school kids. The three of us are going to try and work out some kind of repeat of the game over the next few weeks.

Only two parents came by. Attendance is better when we stay after school, but not a lot better.

Fighting and Mixed Numbers

The day after the Police shootings, things settled down a bit. More kids showed up today, but our absenteeism is so high it's difficult to point to the shooting as the cause of Monday's absenteeism. Mondays and Fridays are tricky in poor areas. Many families share childcare arrangements between several houses. It's common for kids to spend every weekend across town. Often those kids go there on Friday and don't make it back by Monday. I have a student who has missed 48 days of school already and he didn't even enter my school until early November. He's seriously behind. I'm sure that surprises you.

I'm shaking things up to try and grasp the quickly fading attention of my students. As the temperature heats up all thought is replaced by hormone driven action and reaction. Recently four of my 5th grade girls have be fighting with two 3rd grade girls over a 5th grade boy. The boy is the biggest mess you can imagine and when I see one of my brightest girl drooling over him my latent paternalism surges to the surface. It's all I can do to keep from shaking her and screaming, "He can't read and he has no desire to. He's been suspended over a dozen times. The number would've been higher, but the principal's given up on him and refuses to have any more meetings with his mother. You are smart. You have a future. Please, please, don't throw it away on him."

But I don't. I can't. She wouldn't listen, the principal would get wind of it, the boy's mother would find out, Mr. Bobb would would probably hear of it, for Christ's sake, and I'd catch three kinds of Hell. (That's six less than they catch over at St. Aligheri's Roman Catholic School, but it still ain't fun.) So, the kid is on her own. Praise the Lord, and pass the birth control.

The only excitement to make the police blotter today was a fight around mid-afternoon. The classes were changing, which is a very orderly sounding way of saying that the middle school doors were sprung opened and for the next fifteen minutes about a hundred middle-school kids run screaming through the halls, in and out of bathrooms, up and down stairs, banging on doors, knocking people down, kicking on and slamming classroom doors, groping members of the opposite sex, eating, drinking, cursing, hiding, throwing things, ducking out of the way, and generally reenacting the Fall of Troy and the first night of the Bounty's arrival in Tahiti.

There is often a fight, but they usually get broken up quickly by kids, the fighters dragged away. It's very formal and a bit like nineteenth century dueling, but in baggy, sequined clothes and with lots of witty repartee like "Bitch" and "Gay" being bandied about. A few insults, a few punches, the seconds swoop in, and honor is upheld.

But then there are those kids who don't recognize the rules. On such kid is Jawan (not his real name). Jawan is crazy. He is a 6'2", 170-180 lb aggressive, erratic, 14 year-old, ball of fury. He tells teachers to fuck off. He calls one teacher "You Fucking White Bitch." He regularly suggests to another teacher sex acts he like her to perform on him. He sits in class and throws pencils and books at the teachers. He has smashed: 2 windows, 1 computer, 1 monitor, 1 glass door panel, 1 trophy case, too many students to count. He doesn't mess with the two Black male teachers because they have made it clear to him that will take him behind the building and beat the crap out of him if he tries anything. Last month he threw a clock into my room, smashing it against the far wall. I still don't know where he stole the clock.

Today Jawan was angry. I could tell because he was breathing. I don't know why he went after the kid, but there really doesn't have to be a reason with Jawan. I heard the security call and considered heading down the hall to help. The call was from one of the female teachers' rooms and our security guard is in her late fifties and not exactly an intimidating presence. But today, I felt I couldn't leave my room. My kids were on edge and the noise of the fight was stirring them up. If I left the room, if I even turned my back, I'd have kids running to the door and out into the hall. I stopping teaching, walked backwards to the door and quietly pulled it shut. I kept my eyes on the class the whole time, flicking my stare to the kids most likely to rush toward the excitement. They twitched, but my silence and and stare nailed them to their seats. Learn how to that in your summer training, TFA Wunderkinds.

I positioned myself so that I could see what was going on, but the students couldn't. So much of teaching is positioning and peripheral vision. I saw one of the middle school teachers standing back and letting it happened. Jawan's victim had turned on him and slammed Jawan into the lockers. There are times when fights don't need to be broken up quickly. Jawan careened off of the locker and got his legs tangled up with the other boy's. They fell in a heap and Jawan was on top.

Before Jawan could punch the kid in the head, the teacher and the security guard stepped in and dragged the boys apart. The other kid went limp and turned away. Jawan was furious. He had been beaten, all the kids knew it, and he would have killed the kid if the teacher hadn't grabbed him. He yelled and screamed obscenities, which stirred up the crowd to no end. At least four boys had torn off their shirts and were frantically waving them around above their heads. The din was overwhelming.

To my astonishment, the police showed up. Two serious cops closed on Jawan and grabbed him. He shoved one policeman and, before he knew what happened, he was handcuffed and being dragged none too gently to the police cruiser. I bet he bumped his head on the roof of the car as he was helped into the back. Those cops were a block away from were five cops were shot last night and one was killed. They were in no mood to be sworn at and shoved by some kid.

My kids stayed more calm than I expected them to. They did a good job. But let's say learning was slowed a bit. I find Mixed numbers interesting and you can make them dance around a bit with a little practice, but it was tricky getting my students' minds back on the need to make Improper Fractions into Proper, good little Mixed numbers. A fight always stirs the juices and closes the mind.

03 May 2010

From the War Zone

It's late and I've been going full out all day, but I wanted to post this. Style is out, I'm afraid. Clarity is my only goal.

Monday morning (May 3rd), about 3:30 a.m., Detroit Police raided an abandoned house near my school. Shots were fired from inside and five police were hit. One was killed and the other four wounded. I don't know how seriously the four are hurt. One man inside was shot.

During the morning, police had the street blocked off and were searching house to house. A helicopter hung over the school all morning. The noise was extremely wearing. Sirens keep going off. Fifteen police raided a nearby home, backed up by thirteen FBI. A police car pulled over someone right outside my room. I had to use the full teacher voice to stun the kids back to their seats. I was worried that shots might be exchanged and I didn't want my kids standing in the damn windows.

Seven kids were absent from one class and six from the other. That's only a bit more than normal for a Monday. The students seemed unconcerned, but one girl was in tears from a bad headache, and three boys had stomach aches. I talked to them about being careful, about what to do if the Police stopped them. I also told them that there are places where the night is not full of gunshots. There is only one way to get there and that's education. Forget sports, forget music, it ain't gonna happen. Well it might, but you might get struck lightening, too. If you want out, if you a better life, it'll take hard work and a lot of it. I told them that's why I worked them so hard. That's why I got angry with the crazy behavior. I want them to get out and I know what it takes. They listened, but who knows what they heard. All I can do be honest and hope.

Detroit police are fairly brutal bunch and they will rip through the neighborhood until they have everyone involved in this killing. They will not wait for the next person to drop their gun. They will shoot to kill. I hope they catch the bastards fast without collateral damage. This will be ugly. I hope none of my students' families will be caught in the crossfire.