For My Students…

This is a quick and dirty version of basic information for those reading The Epics

Patrons are people who pay money to artists or storytellers or actors, so those people can make a living, travel safely, and have time to focus on their (not so paid) “art” rather than paying jobs. Without Patrons, in older times, artists and the like would spend most of their time working on farms, in forges, as slaves or servants, or other such things.

Today, Patrons do similar things when we support various writers, bloggers, podcasters, lesser known actors, or such on Patreon or YouTube or such websites. We fund people while they do things we appreciate, because most of the people doing that aren’t making enough money to support themselves or the people who help them off a regular paycheck (if they get a regular paycheck).

Leaders in general…As civilization was developing, people would gather together under the leadership of a charismatic warrior-leader. The leader would make sure people were kept safe, would make sure that arguments didn’t break up the group, and would make sure that everyone contributed to the group (tribe or clan). As civilization started to take hold these leaders would be known for giving out conquered land, slaves from wars, wives, and lots of pretty presents or goods (horses, cloth, clothing, etcetera). Eventually, those leaders became kings and queens or politicians…


Once upon a time…

I skipped my last posting day. No real reason other than the migraine I battled last week—a few days had me in tears. I get migraines a lot and most people don’t believe that they are actual migraines, but I’ve been getting them since I was twelve. They leveled up when I started teaching…teaching is simultaneously my favorite thing to do and a minefield I’m not always the best at wandering through. Every time I get burned out, I decide to stay in the profession because I really can’t think about what else I would do. In six years I’ll hit thirty years of teaching total, in eight I’ll have thirty years in at my current job—but in neither instance will I be ready to retire financially or emotionally.

For so many reason this year, most of them small, I have been toying with the idea of not putting in 40 years of classroom time (which is the first time I’ve had those thoughts in my 20+ years). I haven’t done well with all of this time away from my actual classroom. It has been good for forcing me to realize just how much my students mean to me—even the ones who shudder at my memory or loathe me daily. I can be grating on some nerves because I live happily in a world of metaphor, a higher level of chaos than most teachers, and I bring philosophy & history to the table as much as I can. My approach to literature has become one of alternative interpretations based on years of reading, discussing, rereading, teaching, and formatively assessing students’ understanding of various books. My understanding of books has changed over all these years.

Beowulf is a brilliant man who plays the personal myth, champion, and left hand games to a degree that wins his frienemy, Unferth, from jealous annoyance to solid ally.

Hester Prynne is a rockstar feminist who teaches her daughter strength and compassion. Roger Chillingworth has a true redemptive arc and is more a father to Pearl at the beginning of his life and through his death than her sperm donor ever was. Arthur Dimmesdale is the true villain of the book who spends years setting up his community so they will never believe his ultimate confession and he when does confess it’s without ever truly taking responsibility for his part in Hester’s struggles or taking responsibility for his biological daughter.

Brave New World and 1984 are brilliant yin and yang looks at control through pleasure and deprivation with a heavy emphasis on technology. Both writers are brilliant in seeing where technology is leading us even if the mechanics of their worlds aren’t really comparable to how our tech actually works. And, Ray Bradbury continues to be the voice in the wilderness even if the way technology has dumbed us down isn’t quite how he envisioned it.

Fairy tales still teach us the most important life lessons outside the faith or philosophy our parent lay down as our foundations. Fairy tale imagery has seeped into every corner of our popular culture, looking back and going forward. The journey into adulthood, meeting our special monsters, facing our shadows, embracing new ways of looking at the world & living in it…we owe a great debt to the grandfathers of The Fairy Tale—Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen. We owe a great debt to the keepers of folklore—The Grimms, Schönwerth, d’Aulnoy, Lang, and countless others—for bridging the gap between the illiterate and the literate.

That ridiculous green light that Nick puts so much meaning into in his attempts to understand Gatsby is as imaginary as Jay, Daisy, Tom, and Jordan. They were all curating their lives in a way any Facebook or instagram aficionado should aspire to today. And, those parties are genius for Jay’s true work moving guns & alcohol from Canada to New York—everyone’s is focused on spectacle and no one is looking at the docks or empty party supply trucks.

I love teaching these stories and I’m ready for The House of Cadmus via Antigone rather than Oedipus next year. The final chapter in a legacy cursed by the gods via a poisoned wedding gift that start with the founding of Thebes. It’s taken me years to appreciate Ismene’s quiet, desperate strength in the face of Antigone’s determination to not relive the mistakes of her father no matter the cost.

Our current situation is a global reminder for those of us who live small, safe lives that there is always a cost, even if it’s not one we are personally faced with every day. My cost is nearly daily spikes of pain in my brain; others deal with the long term payments of surviving cancer or the ups & downs of marriage or crippling debts. Teaching is a great, daily reminder to me of how much goes on in the lives of my students and colleagues no matter the face they put on when at the high school. The balance is seeing former students who have grown up and become so much more than I could imagine for them. I don’t know most of their struggles when they are in my classes or long after when I run onto them. I just get to be proud of them for persevering and finding some sort of happiness and success.

My students are also a reminder of what I learned from my own parents, my childhood, my years as an adult. I’m not who I once was as a teacher and I hope to continue to become better. I’m not who I once was as a person—success, failure, hope, pain, friends, and family have helped with that. Both of my parents taught me how to deal with the pain of different types of migraines; my life didn’t used to allow me to deal with that pain in any other way than to suck it up and get through it the best I can. I know I’m blessed or lucky most of the time. My teacup tempests are small; my life is small which brings its own pain and grace.

At least I have stories. My maternal grandfather was the first storyteller to open my mind, but there have been so many more storytellers over the years. I hope I open some of the minds in my care to the beauty of stories, the strangeness of truth, and the skills to look beyond the words. Gramps laid that part of my foundation even though I didn’t have too many years under his tutelage. Papa, his long-term replacement, taught me how important personal anecdotes are to understanding individuals. I am so lucky to have had multi-generational teachers and the time to look back at what my grandfathers, grandmothers, and parents taught me about people and the world.

Once upon a time Gramps would open his tobacco pouch, tamp down the tobacco in his pipe, light a match, and settle in to tell his stories.

Once upon a time Grandma would open up her door, accept a hug, and show us her fierce determination to live her life on her own terms.

Once upon a time Grams showed us the value of risk by opening up her heart and landing two great loves in one lifetime.

Once upon a time my parents battled the ups and down of marriage, poverty, chronic illness, and faith to show their children loyalty, shades of generosity, and the fruits of determination.

Once upon a time I entered my first classroom and found out how different reality is. My next trick will be surfing the changes Covid-19 has brought to my students, my colleagues, and teaching high school…

The American Dream?

I never really thought about the American Dream until I started teaching. I’m weird. I didn’t ever envision my future wedding, my future life, my future anything. I knew I wanted to teach and I knew that teaching wasn’t lucrative. Money didn’t matter as long as I had enough to pay my bills. Once I started teaching American Literature, I had to think about the American Dream—it seems to be this idea that everyone can reach for the stars as long as they are willing to work hard. It’s a pretty bullshit thing. Most people work hard their entire lives and barely have enough to get from paycheck to paycheck.

My American Dream was having enough money to pay my bills, a place to live alone, and a job that I enjoyed more than I dreaded it. I am blessed enough to have those things. My students will not really be so lucky. All my college expenses (1991-1995) were $35,000-$40,000; my parents kicked in $12,000-$15,000 (I hope I’m low-balling my parents’ contribution) over the four years I attended college and I worked 25-hours a week during the school year and full-time in the summers and on breaks. Between those things, I had enough to make it through college without any student loans. This is totally unrealistic for any students I teach who choose to attend even a small four-year state school—all the expenses for four years at my alma mater now are around $100,000 (and I am underestimating it). No one is going to be able to get enough FAFSA grants or scholarships to pay for that without some heavy loans. So, for my students the American Dream has to be different.

I don’t know what it is for them—maybe it’s simple like my version or maybe it’s just the hope that they can enjoy their lives while paying off outrageous student debt. Maybe it’s that they’ll find a job they mostly enjoy that gives them enough money to live on and have a little fun with. Maybe it’s getting married and only needing a combined sixty hours a week to keep all the bills pain and manage a little something something in savings.

Or, maybe the current American Dream is just getting through each day with enough money, enough to eat, enough to take care of those they love.


For most of the last ten years I’ve taught Beowulf. Back in 1990-1991 when Mr. Gordon was wowing us at TDHS with “The Strongest Man Who Ever Lived” I had a pretty traditional view on Beowulf and his tale. I thought it must be nice to be well-born, well-trained, and lucky. As I’ve been teaching it my thoughts on Beowulf have shifted. Blame fan fiction or fantasy stories or magical realism, but now that I know about the positions of Left Hand and Champion in addition to Right Hand, I have a very different take on Beowulf. Now that I’ve lived more and I’ve read more and I’ve had years of interesting discussions with seniors, I see how well Beowulf played the game.

Beowulf built a solid enough brand that his story was written down and has been taught generation after generation. Sure, it’s always a little awkward to read because it is translated verse and not all translators are equal. Earlier in my career I noticed a lot of the sexual overtones and undertones in the battles and interactions between characters. I mean, Beowulf jumps into Grendel’s Mother’s lake and tries to use his sword on her; Grendel’s mother then tries to knife Beowulf–thank Freud that I moved past that imagery in a year.

Strangely enough reading and teaching The Great Gatsby really moved me toward my current understanding of Beowulf. I will never love or like the character of Daisy Buchanan, but I have come to appreciate Jordan Baker. Jordan is a true socialite who plays her parts with specific goals in mind. I have no doubt she could be married if she had a mind to, but instead she’s raking in connections, money, and fame that will allow her to live a comfortable life when she decides to stop being a socialite. Jordan and Daisy are both playing specific parts for their peers and “friends”–the difference is that Daisy is a traditional sleeping beauty who reflects the most dominant male nearby whereas Jordan always has her own agenda.

I started (unsurprisingly) to make connections between Jordan Baker and the old-school PBs (Professional Beauties); I started to make connections between Jordan Baker and the Hilton sisters, Tinsley Mortimer, and the Jenner-Kardashian clans. Ever since fame became a commodity, people have played the part of “real people” to make money off of being famous for little to nothing. They can’t all be stupid, lucky, and good looking–there has to be more to them than what they allow the masses to see. As I taught more and more epic literature, I began to see some of the same patterns among the best known heroes of “ye ancient times.” I still think Agamemnon was an unforgivable, power hungry asshole and Achilles was a true idiot and brat, but Hector and Odysseus and Beowulf were something more.

Teaching The Book of Job from the Judeo-Christian Bible and taking a class that delved into the what Paul’s letters were really addressing in The New Testament reinforced the idea that we only see a small part of these heroes or c-level celebrities. Teaching high schoolers who each have rich internal lives and whose lives outside of school I know little to nothing about also helped reinforce my changing options about some of the old-school heroes of various epics.

Beowulf and Unferth both serve as their king’s Left Hand–they get the unknowable information, they do whatever they need to to protect king and kingdom, they play with other people’s ideas of who they are. Beowulf does this by being the acknowledged Champion of Hygelic which helps most people forget that Beowulf is smart enough to figure out from stories that Grendel can’t be killed by man-made weapons. Beowulf is charismatic enough to turn an enemy (Unferth) into a loyal ally. Beowulf sits at the kiddy table during the feast to celebrate him which is brilliant; those kids are being trained in the art of war and politics by their parents. Of course, they are going to try to outdo each other bragging to the Big Bad Hero Who Took Down Grendel.

Unferth goes from slandering Beowulf while in his cups (499-528) to soberly accepting that Beowulf is everything he claims to be (979-989) to proving his change of heart by exchanging Hrunting for Beowulf’s familial sword (1455-1472). That’ a big damn deal for a dude who killed his siblings so he wouldn’t have to share land or wealth after his father’s death. That’s a big deal for a guy who didn’t fight Grendel or Grendel’s Mother because his job protecting Hrothgar and Denmark was too important. Unferth lives in a society that takes pride in killing their enemies by any means, Finn versus Hengest (1070-1158), and thinks of Unferth as a righteous man (1164-1167). The Danes of Hrothgar’s era had a totally different moral compass from most of the peoples of their time, but Unferth can still see the value in how Beowulf plays the game of gathering information and acquiring allies. Being true to yourself doesn’t mean never changing–Unferth adapts as information becomes available and so does Beowulf.

I don’t much worry about Beowulf’s physical strength; I am impressed by his brain and that’s what I try to teach my students. I teach them to find textual support to agree or disagree with the traditional interpretations of Beowulf. I want them to see what’s going on between the lines. I want them to think about how many generations massaged the story before it was ever written down. I want my students to see the heavy-handed way the monk who first wrote it down made the story into propaganda. I want my students to question whether the Beowulf who fought The Dragon is the same Beowulf who fought Grendel and his mother–let’s be real, the connection seems pretty tacked during the final section.

It stretches even my ability to suspend belief for Beowulf to have refused Hygelec’s throne and to refuse to usurp Heardred’s throne only to take it after he’d hit forty, rule for fifty years, and then take on a dragon…I can’t be the only person who thinks there were at least two Beowulfs in Beowulf. I can’t wait to see how my understanding of the characters and the story will continue to change over the next ten years.

The Crucible

I have been teaching for twenty-two years which is awesome. I still feel like I’m faking being a good teacher even though I can see exactly how much I’ve grown from my early years. My rookie mistakes still make me cringe in embarrassment and hope that my former students actually learned something about thinking for themselves and communicating effectively. Those are still my goals for my students. I spent the last five or six years teaching mostly sophomores and seniors which has been blissful and painful and fun in turns. I got to indulge in my love of fairy tales with the sophomores and my love of science fiction utopia/dystopias with my seniors. Of course, I managed to slip in two of my favorite books: for sophomores The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon–and thank you Marla Charlton for introduction; for seniors I snatched The Scarlet Letter from the junior curriculum. I have not taught juniors in all that time unless they took an English elective.

I am teaching juniors again which means revisiting some of my favorite and least favorite literature. We start with The Crucible by Arthur Miller; the two women who taught American literature to juniors over the last six years did a remarkable job with having the students research The Red Scare and key figures from The Crucible before reading the play. They both clearly loved the work and that passion came through in their activities and discussions of the play.

I’ve gone about thing a little backwards. I decided to read the play first, then we will do a very short research on The Red Scare (four paragraphs with at least three sources in the bibliography) and a short profile on a randomly selected character as they existed in life rather than in literature. I don’t know if this is the best way to go about things; I don’t know if I should have followed the methods of the other teachers, but I’m going to find out. I think it will be interesting to have my students look into why women, young women, would fall under someone’s influence so deeply that they came to believe they had been attacked by people’s spirits or by agents of Satan. I think it will be interesting to tie those experiences together with how women–white and non-white–have been treated in American culture since it’s colonization.

I worry a little bit about whether or not I can do my ideas justice. I worry a little bit about what my students may find to be relevant and what they may wish to communicated, but I know the ups and downs of the journey will prove to be worthwhile. I also find myself reading The Crucible through different eyes this time around.

Canon Literature

Since I teach Senior English, I get to read dystopian novels in the the late winter and all spring. One of my colleagues used a genius assignment this semester: he had his students report cheating, skipping, or other unsavory behavior and he made them name names. The purpose was to pull students into the paranoid mindset of Winston Smith. I spend two days going over the idea of Big Brother versus Little Brother, because I think it’s important for my students to see the real world parallels in the things that we read. Some books lend themselves more easily to the application of ideas. One of the things I’ve noticed in the last two or three years is that my students have an intrinsically different understanding of technology and personal information than I do. They think nothing of taking someone’s picture with or without (or even against) their subject’s wishes and posting it online. They either don’t realize or care that their phones and other devices are passively monitoring everything they do.

My generation is more aware of these things happening and our response (at least based on facebook and instagram) is to heavily curate our lives for the audience of our peers. These kids will happily post pictures of themselves in bed on day three of the flu looking like crap. I’m not really sure what their meter for shame is most of the time. They are also in a generation that has learned how to monetize their online presence. I can’t begin to fathom how people make money off their blogs or Instagram feeds; the video entries I sometimes get. Other times, I’ll see a video of an old man doing weird things while shouting Lady Gaga choruses. I just don’t get it.

While my seniors get overloaded with various types of indoctrination (which could never happen to people here and now), they also look at the other small ways freedoms are limited or learning is inhibited. A few of them understand what I’m talking about; a few of them shut down weeks ago, because “they are so much smarter than this”; and a few of them will carry the seeds of what I’m teaching into the future with them. [I’m not sure which is worse: “I’m too smart for this, so I don’t have to pay attention, because you can’t teach me anything anyway” or “This doesn’t matter in my career as a __________, so I’m not going to do anything more than the bare minimum to get a D”.]

I want them to read The Scarlet Letter and understand that single parents have been around a long time and they have a tough road to follow. I want them to read Beowulf and think about what people are hiding behind their personas–and why they have those personas in the first place. I want them to read A Separate Peace and realize teenagers do stupid and damaging things all the time, but we can learn from our mistakes. I want them to read Brave New World and be horrified by erotic play and open indoctrination while they look for the hidden indoctrination around them. I want them to read Huck Finn and recognize that the people we marginalize have something to say and a lot to offer the world. I want them to figure out that every story is an opportunity to learn about human nature and the world around us; then, I want them to apply those lessons in their daily lives.

One of the two most disheartening things about my job is, that there’s a whole world between what I want and what happens. I do my best to teach my students how to be active readers, how to pull information out of various texts, and how to use that information. I can’t force them to learn.

I keep teaching these stories and searching for new articles that relate to the novels, I keep tweaking what and how I teach, in the hopes that I am making a positive difference for the majority of my students.

Ultimately, I want them to learn how to be true to themselves. Yes, I do this by showing them a variety of characters who are true and untrue to who they really are. I also show them characters who choose the darkest truth or the most evil version of themselves to be true to–they need to know how to control their darker selves in order to be true to themselves.

Something that came up today in class

Fairy Tales show us over and over again the dangers of ignoring our instincts or trusting the wrong people or giving up or giving in. We have to face a new world and in it the things we fear, the things we are, and the things we think we hope for. What we think we want is never what it seems.

Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose emphasize pushing forward even when stopping would be easier. If we want to survive, we have to keep moving forward. Like Joss Whedon wrote in Firefly: The Message, “When you can’t run, you crawl, and when you can’t crawl—when you can’t do that…You find someone to carry you” which alluded to Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have A Dream speech when he said, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Moving from sophomore year literature into the literature of senior year, these messages can also be found in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Really, this message can be found in everything we read by its direct address or the consequences of its absence.

So today got a little weird…

Somehow, this came out of our senior discussions prior to reading The Scarlet Letter (my favorite fairy tale).

The Colonials had to band together in communities for safety and short-term livability. Eighty-five percent of European colonists died in the first 75 years of colonization; a similar number of indigenous people died from European diseases and mistreatment during that same time. (Admittedly, my numbers may be a little off, but it’s what I remember from a Bill Bryson book).

In the same way that Arthur Miller couldn’t talk about The Red Scare and the dangers of Joseph McCarthy, Hawthorne couldn’t talk about “the other” in the context of slavery or the rampant hypocrisy within religion and politics.

Today, when we have Native Americans protesting on their sovereign land to stop the US government from laying a pipeline across their territory, when we have #BlackLivesMatter in response to ongoing racism, when we have students who hear racial slurs directed at them in high school hallways, we have to look at the history of our country and its treatment of immigrants, the descendants of slaves, women, and children to understand the anger and hurt some groups carry from generation to generation and the fears that spawns.

The Scarlet Letter is about how people are shoved into the “other” category by people who don’t really have any room to judge them.

Thinking Things Again

Untitled Actress from Dark Sparkler by Amber Tamblyn
Submission calls for an actress mid-to-late 20s. All ethnicities acceptable. Except Asian-American. Caucasian preferable. Must read teen on-screen. Thin but not gaunt. Lean. Quirky but not unattractive. No brown eyes. Not taller than 5’5”. Weight no more than 109. Actress should have great smile. Straight teeth a must. Must be flexible. Small bust a plus. Can do own stunts. Will waive rights to image, likeness, publicity, and final cut. Role calls for nudity.

Role calls for simulated sexual intercourse. Role calls for role play with lead male. No stand-in avail. Role pays scale.

Character is shy yet codependent, searching for love in all the wrong men. Character confides in others at her own risk. Character is fatigued and hollow, suffers from self-doubt, a sense of worthlessness. Character learns the hard way to believe in herself. No brown eyes. Character finally finds happiness when she meets Brad, a successful older businessman, 5’5”.

Log line: A woman fights to save her soul. Think a young Carole Lombard meets a younger Anna Nicole. Requires an actress that will leave an audience speechless, who’s found her creative voice.

Not a speaking role.

Like actresses, a few stand-out teachers get acknowledgement for excellence or atrociousness; however, we are replaceable in the eyes of most. We don’t do anything real. We choose careers that force us to a different social contract that most professionals. Young women (and young men) who choose acting have to look good: they spend hours at the gym, carefully monitor their food, and deal with all the people who look over their shoulders telling them how to live their lives better. Teachers may not spend hours at the gym, but we read, we learn, we plan, we assess, we adjust, we deal with all the bullshit from people who think our jobs aren’t worth their time. I get awfully sick of “those who can’t do teach”.

Let’s be real. In order to teach writing effectively I spent ten years working with the Oregon Writing Project. I write in my online journal, my notebooks, and occasionally my blog so that I can go through the same experiences as my students even if it’s on a different front. I can tell them how I get through writer’s block or why word vomit is such an important step in the writing process. I can tell them why I read my work out loud when I’m proofreading. I may not be Stephen King or a community college professor with several small press books, but I am still a writer. I am definitely a teacher. And while I could go out and do other things, this is what I love.

I just wish more people would listen. I’m sure the average actor or actress wish the same.

Thinking Things

Masks by Ezra Pound (1909)

These tales of old disguisings, are they not

Strange myths of souls that found themselves among

Unwonted folk that spake an hostile tongue,

Some soul from all the rest who’d not forgot

The star-span acres of a former lot

Where boundless mid the clouds his course he swung,

Or carnate with his elder brothers sung

Ere ballad-makers lisped of Camelot?
Old singers half-forgetful of their tunes,

Old painters color-blind come back once more,

Old poets skill-less in the wind-heart runes,

Old wizards lacking in their wonder-lore:
All they that with strange sadness in their eyes

Ponder in silence o’er earth’s queynt devyse?

I’m not sure what I love more about this poem: the archaic language meant to tease those who had change, the discussion of stories, or why we think story tellers are so strange. Pound’s rhythm is so steady and his rhyme scheme is soft enough that the reader has to really consider pronunciation to keep that rhythm and rhyme. As time passes we get lost in our memories, we rewrite our lives to make them fit our dreams better, and we lose something of ourselves in that process. Every poem is a code that can evoke fairy tales or romantic love or longing for the ideal. Not many people are familiar with this poem, but every time I read it I find myself thinking about it for the rest of the day.

I suppose this resonates with me right now, because spring represents so much change in my world. We are wrapping up the school year, trying to make sure kids have the skills they need, bemoan the skills we can’t teach them, and start thinking about what we can do better next year. Seniors are getting ready to launch and they usually aren’t ready. The last few years attendance has lost its importance in the whole scheme of education, so some students think that they don’t have to show up at work either. A culture of quitting before being proven incapable has grown up while we were boning up on NCLB, ESEA, CC, and whatever is now.

But I keep looking back. I’ve come so far. I’m getting older. I’ve forgotten important things and learned old lessons anew. I’ve looked inside and outside for inspiration, for how to do better, for how to be better and it all just makes me want to take a nap or lose myself in a novel which is not how a responsible adult behaves.