Tuesday, September 29, 2015

An Open Letter to the School Board of Upland USD

I have been employed by Upland USD as a teacher of English for the past thirteen years. In this letter, I do not presume to speak for the other teachers in the district; my opinions are solely my own, though they may be shared.

Formerly I worked for the Jurupa Unified School District. I began my teaching career there, and I loved my job. I taught English, Journalism and Yearbook, and by the time I left I was making close to $90,000 a year. I took a $12,000 a year pay cut to come to teach in Upland. You may wonder why. (Certainly my friends and family members did.)

It would take far too much column space here to attempt to unravel all the turbulent events of the mid to late 1990's in that district. Suffice it to say, it all began over money. Teachers faced a situation similar to the impasse we have now in Upland. Attendance at school board meetings rose dramatically and tempers rose accordingly. Teachers rallied and carried signs, bought slogan-printed t-shirts, got the community involved. People took sides. Administrators who were sympathetic were transferred punitively, and that's when things really became an ugly mess of name-calling and shaming. (For all the gory details, look for stories archived in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and the Riverside Press Enterprise.)

Through all that mess, I continued to teach. I loved my students, and I loved my colleagues. I showed up for work every day ready to teach, to encourage, to support, and I waited for resolution, for the dust to settle. Sadly, it never did. Oh, eventually the district offered a salary increase that was acceptable and teachers ratified a contract. But the damage was done. Bitterness and resentment remained, permeating every classroom. It felt like a marriage that is irreparably damaged by anger and infidelity. And then the turnover of administrators began as the district hired principal after principal in a desperate attempt to find someone who could shore up sagging test scores (which had plunged right along with teacher morale). Nothing worked. The pervasive negative attitude coupled with a principal who felt no qualms in making profoundly hurtful and sexist statements caused me to look elsewhere for work.

I will never forget my first year working for Upland USD. I was welcomed repeatedly by everyone from administrators to the maintenance crew. New teachers were given constant support, and as I met my colleagues, I found people who still had that zeal to make a difference in the lives of the kids they taught. Everyone smiled. Not so now.

Do the teachers currently employed by Upland USD deserve a raise? Absolutely. I could go on and on about how hard we work and what we sacrifice; please don't think any of us have forgotten about buying our own copy paper and yes, buying our own toilet paper when we were asked to conserve a few brief years ago.

But there is now something at stake here that is greater than money, and that is virtue, specifically, the virtues of dignity and mutual respect. These were the virtues that were beaten down and destroyed by angry activists on both sides in Jurupa Valley. It took that district a decade to recover.

I did not come to Upland because of the salary schedule. I chose Upland because of the school district's reputation. Friends told me Upland was a district steeped in teacher support, professional regard and civility, and these are exactly the traits I found here. I would implore you not to allow these traits to be further eroded by the salary dispute. What we stand to lose in teacher morale and support for our students will be a very great sum to forfeit, I assure you, and, once lost, could take years to recover.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Wood Shop

I suppose this post could be the sequel to "If You Teach a Girl to Fish." The guy pictured above wearing safety glasses and using a circular saw is my buddy Doug, literally the aider of damsels in distress (because that day when I called him, his response was, "Any time I have the opportunity to aid a damsel in distress, I'll take it").

Four years ago I bought a beautiful, custom built drafting table on craigslist.com. I'd been looking for just the right drafting table for years, and when I saw this one, I fell in love. I drove to Apple Valley, plunked down $200, and carted it away in my truck. The following winter I wrote The Dogs Who Saved Me while sitting at that table every afternoon. Problem was, though, it was just a few inches too tall, so I could never quite get comfortable sitting on a stool or standing up.

Two weeks ago when I had a new floor put in the family room, I called Doug and asked if he would come over and help me move furniture back in place so I could function in my house again. This prompted his damsel in distress response, and he appeared an hour or so later, helping me not only with the furniture but the TV and computer as well.

The drafting table had been moved to the patio during the flooring job, and when Doug asked if I wanted to bring it in, I explained my issue with the height and asked him if he thought it would be feasible to just chop a few inches off the legs. This time his response was "Get a taller stool."

In the end, though, he went home and returned with a saw, a router, a fancy ruler and some other fascinating stuff, and went to work.

I will confess here how envious I was as I watched him. When I mentioned something about the "boy skills" he possessed, he referenced his experience with Wood Shop in junior high, and that hurt just a little. I had asked counselors in both junior high and high school to put me in wood shop or auto shop classes but was told those were "all boy" classes. Times are different now, of course, and girls are certainly not discouraged from taking vocational education classes at the high school where I teach, and I'm glad for that. I love wood, and the idea of having both the skill and tools to build something lasting is a very compelling one to me. Alas, I'm relegated now to standing on the sidelines and watching.  Hmm. Perhaps a wood working class might be placed on the agenda as an activity after retirement.

Less than an hour after Doug began, we were carrying the drafting table back to its spot by the window in the family room. We set it down, and I shook it. Absolutely amazingly stable. No wobble. Ahhhh, the perfect workspace.

When I'm writing, I often do so with a notebook open and also the internet open as well, especially if I'm working on a blog post. (In this post already, I've double-checked my accuracy on "circular saw" and "router," and I grabbed the link to the previous post.) The drafting table gives me lots of space for all that plus room to stick a lamp and a few pencils and a cup of tea. And a cat, on occasion. I have illustrated some of this in the photo below (sans cat). A removable sheet of glass covers the surface of the table, so I can place things under it—such as the outline of the children's book series I'm currently working on.

Having the table just right is a small thing in the larger scheme of my life. But... workspace to a writer is much like a classroom is to a teacher; you kinda need a place for all your books and pencils and stuff.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

Atticus Finch is not a real person. He is a character in a novel. While he may be multifaceted and dynamic as a character, he is that and only that—a character, comprised of the requisite parts given him by Harper Lee when she wrote the consummate American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird and also when she wrote the first draft of that novel, which is now known as Go Set a Watchman.

For in fact, that is exactly what Go Set a Watchman is—a first draft, the initial disorganized and somewhat plotless musings of a slightly younger Harper Lee than the one who wrote Mockingbird. Miss Lee's publisher, HarperCollins, has done the business of promoting Watchman as if it were an entirely separate novel—because that is what their identity is; they are a business. As much as we would like to think of publishing houses as being run by noble, educated persons who are nearly super-heroes in their defense of great literature, the truth is, HarperCollins is a business organized for the purpose of making money. Lots and lots of money.

And so it seems they have done with Watchman. (It is currently number one in literature/classics on Amazon.) But while they touted this book as 'a new novel by Harper Lee,' those good folks know exactly what this is; it is the first pages of a novel written by a young college student who thought she might like to write about the South, her hometown, and her father. In Watchman, she characterizes Atticus as having caved to the agenda of the racists of his town. In Mockingbird, he stands against such folk. Which Atticus best reflects Amasa Coleman Lee, Harper's real-life father? Who can say, and we will never know, as our beloved Miss Lee, always reticent to give interviews, is now beyond the point of discussing either novel.

When I wrote Tainted Legacy, a book about my great-grandmother, Bertha Gifford, who is now vilified as a serial killer, I wrote the original draft to fit the current True Crime genre. After long discussions with a publisher who read that original draft, however, I decided to rewrite the book as a memoir. Now it is a book that I am quite proud of, as it reflects a wider scope of Bertha's story (which is also my grandmother's story and my mother's and mine as well). In the same way, I believe Harper Lee had similar discussions about her first go at a novel, and she came away with some ideas about how she wanted to change her portrayal of this character, Atticus Finch, and the town of Maycomb... and herself. Thus she produced the much beloved work we know today as Mockingbird. If only she'd had the presence of mind to toss that first manuscript in the incinerator... as I have done with my first attempt.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Letter to Myself as a First Year Teacher

I posted this particular piece one year ago, but since so many of my friends will kick off the school year in new teaching positions. Best wishes to those who have the courage to stand boldly before their students and endeavor to guide with patience and love.

There is a video online of teachers reading letters they wrote to themselves as first year teachers. I found their words touching, amusing, inspirational and powerful. So I decided to try to write my own. It has taken me all summer long to finish, but here it is:

Dear thirty-five-year-old Kay,
On this first day, you're thinking you might be too old to begin teaching. I'm looking at you from this vantage point of sixty, and I'm laughing.
I also see that you are proud and thrilled to be teaching in this brand new classroom with white boards which you are thinking are so cool and high tech, but girl, just wait. Somebody out there is working on this thing called a Smart Board. You ain't seen nothin' yet.
You should know that your carefully crafted yet coded lecture on this first day of school about not allowing "hate speech" in your classroom will become far more bold as time goes on and far less necessary. The time will come—yes, within your lifetime—when your LGBT students will be safely out and no longer in need of your protection.
You do not know this yet, but the kids who are about to swagger through the door, looking at you sideways and pretending disinterest, are actually watching every move you make, hearing every word you utter and weighing it, making judgments from the first seconds in your room as to whether you are trustworthy and kind or someone to be feared. Yes, they will seem puffed up, but they are really just frightened little bear cubs, standing on their hind legs, trying to appear large and intimidating. Inside they fear being called out and embarrassed by you or their classmates. Your first duty always is to help them feel safe. But don't be afraid to look them in the eye; for good or for bad, there is power in every word you say to them.
This year, you will make friends with the school librarian who will later be the best teacher-bud you will ever have. Hold onto this friendship as if it were the holy grail. Donna will keep you sane through all the craziness, anger, laughter and tears that are heading your way like a speeding locomotive.
At the end of the school year, take a picture of each class and keep those photos in an album in your room. You'll want to pull them out and reminisce over them when your former students stop by. And they will stop by.
Warning: Next year you'll have a student named Tabitha J. You will ask Miss J. no less than fifty times in 180 days to "Please step outside" so you can reiterate a lecture you're sick of giving and she's sick of hearing about how to behave appropriately in a classroom. She will be the bane of your work time existence for the entire year. Just wait. Eight years later, on a quiet afternoon, the phone will ring, and it will be Miss J., calling to let you know she is now a college student working toward the goal of being a teacher "just like you" and to thank you for never giving up on her, thus beginning a legacy of naughty kids who will return, year after year, to thank you for caring about them as individuals despite their dismal grades in your class.
Your experience with Miss J. will also introduce you to one of the few aspects of your job you genuinely dislike, which is dealing with self-absorbed, unreasonable, ignorant parents. You should know now that throughout the whole of your career, you will be cussed out and threatened far more by parents than you will be by kids. When that happens, just let it go. Head for the gym or go for a run or walk the dogs, and as the sun goes down, let the conversation disappear into the wind.
Oh, and that advice your university professor gave you about never hugging the kids? Throw that out the window. When they need a hug, hug them. But be prepared; they will break your heart with stories of family tragedy. There will be a boy whose father shot his mother and then shot himself—in front of the boy. Don't worry about teaching him anything. Just love him. Seven years later you will hear your name called in a Petsmart parking lot and there he will be, this boy who battled all the demons a boy can face in high school, smiling and hugging you and telling you that he is in his third year of college now, looking forward to finishing his degree.
So don't worry. Your heart will be broken often and just as often it will be mended by the daily laughter and love that will fill your classroom from top to bottom, more so with every year that you teach. Because with every year, you will love them more. In fact, there will come a day—September 11, 2001, to be precise—when you will begin to tell all your students every day that you love them.
Be ready to learn. Because yes, going into this gig, you've already raised four kids of your own, and you've got heaps of fancy book smarts. But your students will teach you volumes every year in every subject from fairness to fashion, including which music you "should" listen to. And they'll be right.
Despite your best efforts, you're going to make mistakes, just as you did with your own kids. When you do, forgive yourself quickly. Self-evaluation is great. Self-criticism is toxic. Be a role model; apologize when necessary, then move on.
Don't forget what your mentor, Dr. Hubert, told you about teaching: Learn to pat yourself on the back, because administration will have no idea what a great job you're doing in your classroom. But don't worry; the kids know, and they will always make you feel appreciated.
Most important of all, never get swept up in the current tide of educational trend. Rather be guided in your teaching by the beacon of warmest light, which is the love in your heart.
Oh—remember what you're mama said, too: Stand up straight. And lose those girlie shoes with heels; you'll be walking miles every day just around your own classroom.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

If you teach a girl to fish....

In a recent phone conversation with my buddy Doug, I whined to him about all the projects I still want to tackle before school starts again, one of which being the repair of one of the “rainbirds” in my sprinkler system. His directions for fixing it went something like this:

     “Uhhhmmm, I think ya gotta yank that sucker outa the ground, then take it to Home Depot and tell ‘em ya need one just like it, then come back and slap the new sucker in.”

It may not be glaringly obvious from his articulate instruction, but Doug is an engineer. He teaches that subject plus photography at the same high school where I teach. What he was getting at, though, was that it wouldn’t make sense to try to repair the mechanism. Replacing the entire sprinkler head was required.

Sigh. This is a job I’ve never done before, and I’ve never watched anyone do it (which is how I learned to change a tire, replace a kitchen faucet and swap out a toilet, all of which I have done by myself). But with a return to work looming in the near future, I decided today to simply see how far I could get on the project before really screwing it up.

Before I began, I left water from the hose trickling around the sprinkler head while I ate breakfast so it would be a bit easier to dig out the sod and so the job would be a bit less dusty. Lord knows my poor lawn could use an extra drink of water.

Then I began. It took less than five minutes to dig down around the sprinkler. I thought I might have to dig a pretty deep hole in order to spin the thing around to unscrew it, but the blessed saint who installed the system had put an elbow joint there, so as I began to rotate the head, the joint pulled up to a ninety degree angle, and removing the broken part was easy peasy.

Not long after moving into this house, it was with great good fortune that I had found, in the side yard, three perfectly good sprinkler heads. I left them there for a rainy day. Wait—wrong metaphor. All that is to say, I skipped Doug’s middle step of heading off to Home Depot because I already had the replacement part (times 3).

I rinsed mud and debris off the connecting joint, screwed the new sprinkler head back on, secured Purrl in the house because she’d been outside helping me as she always does, and turned the system on to see if it worked.

I stood for a moment, savoring my monumental triumph. (I would have whooped and cheered loudly, but it would have set my neighbor’s dog into fits of barking, and they have a new baby, so I kept it to a whispered “Yes!!!

Positioning the sprinkler in the hole, pushing the soil back in and replacing the sod took about two minutes. To be honest, the entire project could have been accomplished in about ten minutes had I not stopped to take photos, thus documenting the process for Doug.

Who, by the way, was very proud of me—but never doubted that I could do it. And just let me say here how much I appreciate guy friends who teach me life skills instead of simply offering to do the job for me. Doug’s a nice guy. Had I asked him, he would have come over in a heartbeat and done it for me. He assumed I would want to do it myself unless I absolutely couldn’t. As a badass independent woman, I have to say I like that in a man.

Moral of the story: Teach a girl to fish, and ever after she’ll not only keep herself busy when you take her fishing, but you can sit back, have a beer, and let her go at it. Ok, maybe that moral doesn’t exactly apply to this story, but I do like to imagine the scenario. It’s kinda romantic.

Friday, July 31, 2015

What it's like teaching high school: Part 3

This post is long overdue. I meant to write about this in June, but there was, you know, pneumonia... and C. Diff... and hives... but then Missouri to help me forget all of that (and now it occurs to me I should probably write something about this year's trip to my favorite place in the Universe).

Then today I was prompted by an email in my work inbox from one of my freshmen. (Yes, it's summer break, and no, I'm not currently teaching.) Why was she emailing her last year's English teacher mid-summer? To ask me what "scent" I would like because she's making "a homemade sugar scrub" and wanted to make some for me, too. Yeah, so, these situations always make me chuckle at the folks who remark that it must be "so hard" teaching high school. Why yes, yes it is. I had to sit there and think for several minutes about how this sixty-one-year-old tomboy was going to respond to a fifteen-year-old who clearly has the superior education when it comes to cosmetics.

[Oh time out right here; I have to go wash the chocolate off my fingers. More about that in a sec.]

Anyway, what I intended to write back in June was just this: I often get thank you gifts at the end of the school year, tokens of appreciation from moms who are grateful I never snapped and killed their rowdy boys or sassy girls. Usually it's something like a Starbucks gift card (thank you!) or a bar of dark chocolate (because I beat it into my students' heads all year long that I love dark chocolate). I did get some nice dark chocolate truffles this year from one of my Honors freshmen (thus the need to go wash my hands because of course thinking about them made me have to eat one). What made the gift lovely, though, was the note the student attached:

Ms. Murphy, I bought these because I love you, not for bribery. ["not for bribery" was very carefully lined through but still readable--the gift was delivered before final exam grades were posted.] Anyways you're a great teacher who made my freshman year enjoyable. Have an awesome summer. I'll miss your sarcasm. Love, Thu N. [heart icon]

Please note the correct use of "you're" in this brief missive. Also the correct placement of commas after "Murphy" and "you." It makes my heart burst with pride. (When I asked my Honors classes at the end of the year what most stood out to them as something they had learned in my class, several immediately and enthusiastically responded, "Learning where the commas go!") In all seriousness, Thu was an absolute joy to have in class, and not because she's a hard working Honors kid (though she is that). She came in smiling every day, and her delighted laughter when someone said or did something goofy was infectious.

Erica, on the newspaper staff, gave me a thank you note as well. In it, she says, "Thank you for "another great year of Journalism." She'll be the editor-in-chief next year, with all the stress and responsibility that will come along with the title, so maybe she won't thank me next June. But she'll be damn great as EIC.

In all, I received five personal notes at the end of the year, and that is the point of this post. Teenagers aren't always sitting around with their heads bent over their phones, their thumbs flying as they send text after text. It is not all that unusual for them to exhibit behavior that is both gracious and humbling. Sometimes they actually sit down with a jelly pen and a piece of paper (or a sticky note) and express their heartfelt appreciation for someone whom they feel has helped them a little along the way.

These artifacts will be treasured, of course, in my folder kept solely to hold such mementos. I suspect I will look at them often in my retirement and smile again at the wonder of great kids.

Monday, July 27, 2015

I Am Cait

“The world changes in direct proportion to the number of people willing to be honest about their lives.”

This quote by novelist Armistead Maupin was the epigram (if a television show can boast such a literary device) displayed at the beginning of the premiere episode of “I Am Cait,” the new reality series featuring the life and trials of Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner. I must agree; if we were all honest with each other about our fears and our foibles, there would be a lot less hatred and a lot more compassion in our society. But we are taught to follow the norm or pay the price in isolation, so we do. (Because isolation, for some, can be crushing. Consider the example of Richard Cory.)

But occasionally someone happens along like Rosa Parks or Harvey Milk who happens to have extraordinary courage, a person who refuses to bend under society’s pressure and risks being broken by it in order to bring about change. Say what you will about Caitlyn Jenner (and certainly her critics have felt this is a no-holds-barred scenario), her willingness to sit in front of a camera and apply lipstick after having been one of the studliest creatures in Olympic history makes her one ballsy dame in my book.

Those nasty critics have said that her motivation for doing the reality series is fame and money. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Fame? You’re kidding me, right? Ahem, blogger-in-your-twenties, do some homework. This gal already has more than a modicum of notoriety. Money? I want to say the wealth is there, but what do I know? Transitional surgeries are expensive, that I do know. But considering the Jenner we’ve known and loved for years, the lover, the dreamer, the Olympian, I tend to believe her statement that she wants to do good in the world, to reach out to those who struggle in darkness, those who do not have the freedom yet to be who they are openly.

In watching the first episode last night, my greatest concern was for Esther, Caitlyn’s mother. Clearly she loves her child. If my son came to me and said, ‘Mom, all my life I’ve really been, in my heart, female,’ what would I say? How would I react? Pretty sure the same way I did when he came out to me when he was fifteen. ‘Ok. Whatev. I love you.’ But then, I have always been privileged to have had gay and trans friends, even before it was cool for straight people to have gay and trans friends. For sixty-five years, Esther has had a son named Bruce—and for forty of those years, he has been her famous son Bruce. Now he is asking that she change her pronouns, call him “Caitlyn.” It’s a tough transition. And change is always scary, even for the best and bravest of us.

Esther’s bottom line? ‘I love him… that’s not going to change.’ Yes, Mama Jenner, props to you. It brought to mind conversations I had with one of my dearest friends when her daughter emerged as transgender and decided to transition. “Cathy” would become “Lee,” and his mother was nothing less than excited for him and one hundred percent supportive. But Lee’s dad was a staunch conservative, and so I worried and fretted along with my friend over what his reaction would be—needlessly, it turned out. His bottom line was the same as Esther’s: ‘I love my child. That’s not going to change, no matter what.’ And his sentiment has been born out over the years; he and his son have a great relationship.

I have no doubt this will happen for Caitlyn and Esther, and I hope we see their mother-daughter relationship solidify as the series goes on. I doubt that I will watch every episode. As a somewhat ‘gender fluid’ individual myself, I am not interested in Caitlyn’s wardrobe choices or hair accessories or nail color or make-up. But I am definitely interested in her motivation, which I believe is a sincere one. As a high school teacher and a supporter of the LGBTQ community, I am thrilled that this series is out there. Trust me: Across the country, there are teenagers who have shut themselves away from others because of their grief at not being able to live outwardly as they truly perceive themselves inwardly. For them to see a big strong man transition into a big strong (but no less sexy) woman is a tremendous advancement in our society. So thank you, Caitlyn Jenner, for providing, once again, a healthy, positive role model.