Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Thinking Back on the 'Zon

In 2002 I was a low-level manager at one of's distribution centers. The title imprinted in my fancy-pants business card was Area Manager, but all that meant was that A) I was in charge of lots of people, especially during the holidays, and B) I was salaried.

That "manager" bit is important because it allows me to retroactively rationalize being callous with so many people. Confession time, Dear Reader: we AM's used to sit around Lexington hangouts, laughing about the people we'd fired. Laughing. Some of that was because we didn't know how else to deal with the emotions. And in the late '90s and early '00s was definitely emotional: thrilling, exhausting, infuriating, exhilarating, and all tinged with a sense of "Holy crap, my stock options just tripled overnight." We'll save the discussion of P.E. ratios for later.

Mostly, however, we laughed because we were a tight group and absolutely no one – not the Operations Managers above us, not the team leads below us, not the HR lady in whose office we all had had at least one meltdown – knew what it was like, managing that many people in those circumstances for that company.

We received and were responsible for acting upon well over 75 emails a day. Depending on your department ("area"), you probably had an employee not meeting production requirements and therefore had a write up looming, and you definitely had a crisis somewhere that you didn't know about. So while you had people scattered throughout the 700,000 sq. ft. building doing God-knows-what-but-probably-not-what-they're-supposed-to-be, you also had meetings and always a deadline of some sort. It never stopped.

And so being an Area Manager was part cajoling, part data analysis, part grunt work, and part babysitting, and every now and then, an email from three weeks ago would result in you getting smoked by anyone from your OM up to some random MBA in Seattle (a little warehouse manager humor: Q: What does "MBA" stand for? A: "Manages By @&%"). If you somehow didn't adequately think through or respond to what was in your realm of the 'Zon utterly trivial but was a game-changer in someone else's realm, well, it wasn't pretty.

Education, thankfully, is not like that. Sure, sometimes I forget to disseminate an important piece of information to the department, or I'll space a meeting, or at my very worst, I'll forget that a student had provided a perfectly acceptable reason for not turning in an assignment on time, and that the lowered grade in the book is therefore entirely unfair and mean and definitely my fault.

No, education is about soul, and passion for content, and being honest, and being kind to someone because they are alive and fragile and just plain deserve it – everything that was crushed out of me by the competitive, insecure shade of myself that still, occasionally, growls in the corners. Mostly I've got it tamed.

This month marks the 10 year anniversary of my excursion to North Dakota as a temporary Training Manager; it was in some ways a tryout for the managerial big leagues. I'd bought the truck just a few weeks before, having acquired an upward trajectory career at Amazon, and Shep is still running like a champ to this day, thank you very much.

I don't miss the 'Zon a whole lot. The place almost drove me completely and thoroughly insane, but that's a story for another post. For now let's leave it at this: my hardest, most exhausting day as a teacher is still far more glorious and rewarding than Amazon ever was, stock options, managerial salary, business cards and all. So on days like today, when I'm absent from class and find out that not all of my students were angels and that some classes clearly read my instructions and some clearly did not, I like to think back to my door desk and break-away lanyard and business cell phone and remember how happy I am to be a teacher.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

And Now a Word About Seniors

The other night I was thinking about the cognitive abilities of my 9th graders, as compared to everyone else. Mostly I was trying to understand how best to teach expository writing in a way that actually matters to 14 year olds. Currently the debate in my little head is between selecting cool topics ("Boys are stupid because _____, _____, and ______") or just making transition sentences worth one million points each.

As this is my fourth year at LVHS, this graduating class was also my first group of 9th graders. I've grown up with this group; just as they've learned how to back up claims with textual evidence, I've learned that not having a lesson plan results in immediately unpleasant consequences. I plan better than I did that first year.

It's fascinating. Seniors, even the smartest of them, get weird this time of year. Friendships fray; great students start opting out of assignments for no good reason; parents report tension and moodiness far beyond their child's normal angsty levels. It's happened with every group of seniors I've ever known, whether from my first two years as Yearbook adviser, to last year's multiple sections of LA 12 and AP. Every year right around Halloween, seniors begin acting . . . oddly. It's not mutiny, exactly, although sometimes it feels like it, especially when they take cheap shots at me that they wouldn't have taken as recently as last year.

It's more like a manifestation of anxieties, and, the anxieties having multiple sources, the weirdness is omnidirectional – I may not be the specific target, but I am certainly in the path, as are parents, homework assignments, and friends.

So I don't take it personally. In fact, I take it as a good sign: they're seeing beyond high school and are confronting the reality of "after." They realize that the big time looms; their scholastic career so far has been the equivalent of playing Chopsticks on a Fisher Price toy piano, and those heading to college are about to give a command performance on a Steinway concert grand. Some of them have worked hard in tough classes in order to mitigate that shock, and I like to think AP English is at the very least giving them some insight into college writing.

Still, I see behaviors that are contrary to success and wonder if it's because the senior is still essentially a high school kid, or if it's because he or she is letting the aforementioned weirdness surface.


I don't remember too much about my senior year, 20 years ago, which is disconcerting somehow. I'm not concerned about the lack of memories, exactly – we had a screwy schedule at Natrona County because of asbestos problems at Kelly Walsh; I drove my beloved '79 VW Sirocco; I took chemistry in Mr. Stofflet's basement classroom – so the memories exist.

I'm concerned because I don't know how high school prepared me for success. I simply don't understand what transpired between graduation in 1990, and 1994, when I was writing for The Onion at the University of Illinois, or even what transpired between 1994 and 1997, when I began working for But all of that is for another post.


So I don't know what to tell my seniors; how to provide guidance and assurance; how to convince them that being afraid of the "after" is normal. This has come up in AP a few times now, and students admit to feeling the excitement, dread, elation, hate, sorrow, joy, and freedom just beginning to gestate. But I don't know what to say.

Sure, I stand at the podium and pontificate or hold intense one-on-ones with students (and that second one happens way more often than students would likely care to admit to each other), but ultimately those conversations strike me as informed prognostication, like reading road conditions before a trip: tell me I'm okay. Tell me I'm going to be okay.

It's late and I'm exhausted from the Pinedale trip. I'm not through with this topic, though, not even close. For now I'll settle for knowing that seniors hide emotions because they don't know what else to do with them, especially within the context of making rather important decisions.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

So. Tired.

Kathryn and I are sailing into the busiest time of lives (so far). October is often hectic at the high school, but November is crunch-time in college: UW's classes end during the second week of December, and that means writing end-of-term papers and projects in November. I have my 20 page paper and Plan B paper proposal (replete with annotated bibliography) to write, and Kathryn has a marketing plan to create for her marketing strategy and analysis class.

I suppose one could put off assignments due the second week of December until the first week of December, but that would be silly and unlike either of us.

And so our weekend nights look a lot less like our undergrad days and more like our lives 30 years from now. On Saturday night we were both asleep in front of the TV by 10:30. Woooo.

Monday, November 2, 2009

"Ah was runnaying!"

So I get a call from Rothfuss on Saturday morning, right in the middle of a homemade tomato sauce experiment. Coincidentally, the recipe came from his wife, who's something of a culinary alchemist and has been feeding me in person and in absentia for over 15 years.

Anyway, Chris was in the Phoenix airport for some reason that escapes me just now, and we briefly talked about Phoenix and the last time we were both there, which is another post for another time. Out of the blue, Chris said that he wanted to run a marathon.

"You mean, like a half marathon?" I asked. I knew where this was going and my knees were suddenly on their knees, begging me not to do it.
"No," he said, "like a full 26.2 miles. I want to run a marathon before I'm 40, and apparently the first step in running a marathon is telling people that you're running a marathon. You in?"

And of course I said yes, because for one thing, I've wanted to do something physically challenging for a long time, just to prove that I'm capable of doing it. But beyond mere self-interest I wanted to do it because I can't think of anything cooler than running a marathon with my best friend. Well, playing Hendrix's interpretation of "Born Under a Bad Sign" on my Strat through a Marshall 100w stack with Rothfuss on drums might be cooler, but only just.

Running a marathon next year means training now, and in truth, I have so far only committed to running the Lander Half Marathon. Kathryn, game soul that she is, is on board too. We begin tomorrow evening, adding .5 miles every week until we get to 13 miles.