In which it really isn’t

Every 8th grader in the corporation takes the PSAT right around this time each year, mostly as an indicator of high-school readiness; if a kid enrolls in a high school out of district one of the things they pull as they evaluate the kid is the PSAT score. Now, we let them know early and often that this isn’t precisely the best measuring tool for this purpose (and I don’t know who made the decision to start using this test, but I’d like to have a word with them) and that, particularly on the math portion of the test, there’s gonna be some stuff they don’t know.

Now, the thing is, we’ve only been using the PSAT for a couple of years, and last year, I didn’t administer it, since I was working from home at the time. So I haven’t actually seen what the math content on the PSAT looks like since I took the PSAT, sometime in the early fuckin’ nineties. And here’s the thing: advancing your skills in reading and writing doesn’t really work the same way as it does in math. A talented 8th grader can handle a reading or language test pitched at 9th graders, because reading is still the same thing, and there really aren’t any actually novel skills taught after, like, the middle of grade school or so. Math? Math doesn’t work like that. The PSAT is basically an Algebra 1 test, and if you’re not in Algebra 1, the notation alone is going to make the thing entirely incomprehensible. Like, my kids have never seen f(x) in any capacity, and that renders even something like f(x) = X + 6 when X is 10 somewhat incomprehensible. Some of them will figure out (or, probably more accurately, correctly guess) that they can just add 10 and 6 and get 16, but the majority of them are going to look at the function notation and just fall apart, and a whole lot of the questions used function notation some way or another. There were two math tests on the PSAT, one that was meant to be done without calculators and lasted twenty minutes, and another that allowed calculators (which weren’t going to do most of my kids a bit of good) and lasted 40. I glanced through an extra copy of the test booklet (true to expectations, attendance was miserable) and found maybe three questions on the first test I thought my kids might be able to do, and perhaps 50% of the questions on the second test were possible, or at least would be by the end of the year– second- or third-quarter material, for example.

I’m not writing this to complain about the test, mind you; it’s just not going to be as useful to evaluate where an 8th grader is mathematically than it will be to evaluate where they are as readers. I’m writing this because, as a math teacher, I spent the entire test ignoring pointed glares from at least three or four students– not because they were actually mad at me, but because they decided it was funny to blame me for the math on the test being hard and a couple of them just decided they were going to spend an hour staring at me– because it’s not like they actually thought I was responsible for the questions on the Goddamned thing. I just kept telling them not to panic and didn’t worry about it’ it’s nice, for once, to have them taking something that isn’t used to evaluate me or my school in any way. All the pressure to do well was on the people actually taking the test!

Crazy, innit?

A story I don’t know that isn’t mine to tell

Many years ago I had this young man in my classes, we’ll call him Johnny, which isn’t his name. Johnny was in an all-boys’ class, the only one I’ve ever taught, and a group that, in general, drove me insane, because temperamentally I am not very well suited to teaching large groups of boys. I had him in 6th grade. He was a pretty good kid, as it went, but he was prone to getting dragged into shit if shit was nearby to get dragged into. I have described this type of student to parents before as a “kindling kid”– he’s not going to do anything on his own, but if there’s fire, he’ll burn.

Anyway, I was describing his behavior to his mother at parent teacher conferences once, and she was reacting quite a bit more strongly than I really felt like she ought to have, and at one point she looked at him and hissed something at him that I actually had to have her repeat to make sure I’d heard it correctly.

Quarterbacks don’t act like this,” she’d said. And I was immediately of two minds; the first being of course they do, and the second being why are you laying that on your twelve-year-old right now? And let me get to the moral of the story before I tell the rest of it: parents, can we not set our kids up to peak in high school, please, and can we absolutely definitely not set them up so that if they aren’t the star QB they don’t feel like their lives are over before they’ve had a chance to start?

This is the part where I start making stuff up, by the way, because I really don’t have any evidence for any of what I’m about to say, but I’m going to say it anyway because it’s on my mind.

Anyway, this kid randomly popped into my head this weekend– I found a random little gift that he’d given me in the course of cleaning up, and it had his name on it, and this story came to mind. And I did a little bit of research. Johnny did play football in high school, but didn’t play quarterback, and frankly while he was on the team he doesn’t appear to have played much at all– I was able to look through the box scores of his senior year, because America’s obsession with high school football is genuinely creepy, and I couldn’t find any evidence that he’d contributed to the team in any meaningful way. I didn’t look at every game or anything like that, but it was pretty clear that, at the least, this kid wasn’t the star player.

And then I found a picture of him, from what would have been his sophomore year of college if he’d gone, posted by a local Painters and Allied Trades union. The tone of the caption is celebratory; they’re honoring their newest member. And I honestly can’t believe that they chose this picture to post, because the kid looks like his life is literally crumbling down around his eyes. Johnny grew up getting his head pumped full of stories about how he was going to be the star quarterback, and then he was going to go on to college and then probably the NFL and be a famous football player, and instead he’s 20 with no degree, no sports career, and joining the painter’s union.

This isn’t to say that I look down on these people; I don’t, and as a union member myself I consider the trades unions members to be brothers and sisters. I don’t look down on anybody who works for a living. But Johnny very clearly got raised to believe that there was one way his life was going to go, and it didn’t, and I know I’m reading a lot into it and I haven’t seen the kid in years but the look on his face in this picture is just fucking heartbreaking.

And maybe Labor Day isn’t the best day to post this, either. But fuck it, I’ve been thinking about him all weekend, and I hate it how quickly young kids are willing to cling to sports as what’s going to make them rich and famous when the truest thing I can say to any of them is no, it’s not. You’re not going to be in the NBA or the NFL or really anything else. You might play in high school, but I can count the number of college athletes I’ve taught over the years on one hand. This isn’t any more realistic as a life goal than “I’m going to win the lottery” is.

We’ve gotta stop doing this to our kids.

Fuck cancer

(A note, before I begin: there is going to be a nonzero number of you who know me in Real Life and also knew Becky. Her parents, who I know, and sister, who I really don’t, are on Facebook and have been monitoring her page. She followed Luther, but was not friends with his account. If her family sees this, they see it, but I would appreciate it if no one goes out of their way to bring it to their attention. I am, as will probably become clear pretty quickly, writing it for me, not for them, if that makes any sense. Thank you.)

Becky Arney died yesterday. She used to pull my hair in fifth grade, and now she’s gone.

She was two months younger than me, and had been fighting cancer for nine Goddamned years. She spent most of the last month of her life in the hospital until her family finally decided she’d had enough and brought her home.

Nine damn years. The cancer started off as a small-cell cervical cancer that, as far as I ever understood, had a five-year life expectancy just north of “you’re kidding, right?” and she managed nine years. I think it was actually liver failure that got her in the end; the cancer was in remission for a while but then popped up in a bunch of other organs and that was the essential body part that gave out first.

The biggest problem I’ve ever had in my life is being able to see my feet past my ample fucking gut and this badass bitch got handed a life where she had to beat the shit out of cancer on a daily basis for nine fucking years in her thirties and forties. And frankly she did not lead the sort of life prior to getting cancer that was going to lead to gold-plated health insurance, either. She worked in the arts. She worked in prop design. I can only imagine the extent of the medical bills.

She was my first real crush, in fifth grade. If you look at my fourth grade yearbook there’s one particular girl whose picture I drew a green box around, but I don’t remember anything about falling for her. My unrequited thing for Becky lasted two or three years, at least. It was a Thing for a While. She knew; I’m sure she did. There was one particular field trip in sixth grade to a museum in Chicago where she spent the whole day letting me take her picture next to dinosaur bones and then sat behind me and intermittently pulled my hair the whole way home. She knew. By high school we were friends; we drifted apart when I left for college and then reconnected via Facebook just after I moved home and got married.

The last time I saw her, I was with my wife and son at Bob Evans, of all the goddamn places, and she just happened to be there with her grandmother. It was the only time she ever met my son; my wife was a couple of years behind us in high school so they already knew each other. When I killed my personal Facebook account, she didn’t send Luther a friend request, but she continued to follow the page, and I got updates from my wife.

She lived with her grandmother after she got sick. Imagine that. Imagine being old enough to be a grandmother to someone in their forties and you eventually have to bury them. I can’t do it.

There is not going to be a funeral, which is good, because I am generally not good at funerals at the best of times and I think there’s a good chance that “absolutely everyone from high school is there!” will not qualify as The Best of Times. She was that person who had every single person from our graduating class she could find and a sizable number of the kids from within a couple of years of us on her friends list. The eventual “celebration of life” that her obituary alludes to will be a de facto high school reunion. I have already skipped three high school reunions. I don’t know that I can make myself go to this one. We’ll see.

I’m not old enough to have to be writing this shit yet. She wasn’t old enough that I should have been writing this about her. She should have been raising the kids she never got to have, or doing whatever else the hell she wanted to do if she didn’t want to have kids. I can only assume that a cancer diagnosis at 33 can tend to alter your plans.

I used to tell people that I wasn’t really scared of anything, other than blindness, which was my greatest fear for most of my life. But for the last few days, which have been spent mostly restraining the urge to ask my wife to check Facebook again to see if her family has posted any updates, I’ve gotten this cold sort of existential horror in my gut every time I’ve looked at my son. Because apparently I’ve reached the age where people my age start dying of fucking cancer and so that’s a thing I need to start worrying about. About leaving him behind, before either of us is ready. About, hell, something happening to him. Because she was young, but it ain’t like cancer is especially discriminating, now, is it? And it’s not like this has been unique to the last few days– she had had cancer for two years before my son was even born, and one thing every parent becomes familiar with very quickly after their first child is born is the notion of their own mortality.

(This is what I meant when I said I was writing this for me, by the way.)

I don’t know. I don’t have a cute or clever way to end this, so I’m just going to stop writing.

Fuck cancer.

Hit the ground burnin and woke up frostbit

Today was a Tuesday, in case you were wondering.  I don’t know what it is about Tuesdays.  But today was definitely a Tuesday.  I think I need a T-shirt or something.

At any rate, on the way home from work the following two songs flashed into my head.  I still have every syllable of both songs memorized.  I probably haven’t listened to the Kool Moe Dee song in the larger part of a decade.  It’s really weird how the music that you were listening to when you were in middle school and high school sticks with you forever.

Or maybe it’s not, I dunno.  It’s not like I’m not still listening to the same stuff.   🙂  At any rate, enjoy some old-school hiphop while I go to bed early and try to recharge enough to make it through Wednesday.

Shoulda written a post yesterday 

Today I have a lunch with relatives, a high school graduation, and what will certainly be a very busy work shift tonight.  So this may be all you get.