APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
From T.S. Elliot’s “The Waste Land”
April conjures up Income Tax (I am a procrastinator here), Spring Break, signing a teaching contract for the coming year, mowing the yard….usually getting the rider back in to running condition. It also marks the start of warmer weather, longer bike rides, cruising with the top down, exploring new places.
This year’s April shower (code for new adventure) is my teaching assignment for next year is totally unknown. We have diminishing students, too many teachers, changing requirements….and most of what I currently teach is not necessarily where a teaching body will be needed. Since I have one of those old fashioned certifications that grandfathers me to teach anything, I have become the flexible square in the schedule nightmare. Being the oldest teacher somewhere near the top of the seniority ladder, I have become the hired gunfighter in the show Paladin: Have cert, will travel.
I was tabulating the number of different classes in my career. I think the official number is 39 to date. The list is long, including Film as Art, Shakespeare, Washington Humanities, War in America, Algebra, Architecture, Flash Animation, Yearbook, Photography, etc. The probability is next year I will probably break 40. I wonder how many teachers get to say that.
In Freshman English we are reading To Kill a Mockingbird and I am really enjoying a book I overlooked in my youth. When I see the buildings of the story and the childhood adventures I get transported back to the days I spent in Tacoma with my grandmother off McKinley Avenue. The times of light cars (Model A Fords, for example), unpaved streets, and no TV where kids played actual games and invented their own interactions with the neighbors across the street are things I find I miss. And there are those grade school discoveries that all seemed so enlightening at the time as we developed a sense of larger community.
Sitting in school today seems to underscore many of the truths Lee so skillfully develops in the complex portrayal of small town life in her South. The intolerance, the judging, the innocent discovery that the world of adults as well as kids is always not so nice seems as valid now as it was then.
I ponder, being now the age of my departed grandmother who was my guide, one would think we would have moved beyond being just neighbors. What is there about learning to live with the people around us that we just find so darn difficult? Is it merely the compression of time and space or is it more?
What do you think?
A month ago I was not aware of ocular viewers, then I saw one. Basically you take a 3D image and split it on your smart phone. The phone is placed inside a specially constructed viewer. And then you proceed to enter the picture. So I set about trying to build one. Our systems tech had done it. I had access to a 3D printer. What could be so difficult.
With Brandon's help I ordered two 50mm lenses from Amazon for about $10. I then crafted four basic parts: a phone holder, a lens holder (2), a body part to hold the lens holder which needs to be able to focus, and a retainer to keep the glass lens in place.
I used sketch up to first create the phone holder. Then I tried to construct the body. It became necessary to split the body into two parts so they could build successfully (orientation in the 3D printer is important for a proper build) and the printer was not large enough to do the body in one build. Then I worked on the lens holders to get the correct sizes. One requirement is that the lens has to be a certain distance (focal length) from the phone face and it needs to be able to slide.
After some trial and error I figured out that narrow black gorilla tape was my secret weapon. It let me tape parts together. It also let me wrap the lens holder to get a tight fit between the lens holder and the body sleeve that holds the lens assemblyl. Remarkable, it all assembled very well with the tape (which gives me the luxury to disassemble or adjust).
So far I have viewed a virtual reality roller coaster, a Paul McCartney concert and a mad go cart ride. My favorite to date is the roller coaster. A link to the website for information on commercially available viewers and the roller coaster is here:
As birthday 72 approaches I was presented with an opportunity to revisit construction. I did invest 25 years building houses as a licensed contractor and have continued to do major remodel work on our personal home after returning to the classroom, but as I started riding bicycle my construction projects have tended to fall off. Recently I decided to create a storage room for my woodworking tools in a covered porch area in our house. This is what I would classify as a simple home owner project involving some physical activity.
On the first day I was surprised that old skills taken for granted were not readily accessible. The sidewinder skill saw seemed inordinately heavy. My trusty 24 ounce framing hammer had doubled in weight. I felt as if I needed both hands now to handle the blows; swings that had formerly set nails in two hits had diminished their effect to four or five wimpy taps. Muscle loss was real.
Fortunately on the second day the hammer felt more comfortable and the skill saw had diminished in weight—but for a guy who has a lot of hammering left to do diminished performance was not a friendly message.
This week we celebrated mom's birthday.
Fifty years ago she was painting the outside of the house and told me it was probably for the last time. I asked her what she meant and she answered that she simply didn't expect to have a long life.
She still lives in that house, continues to battle the weeds and aggressively attacks the black berries with her weed sprayer strapped to her walker. This Christmas she baked cookies for her four grand kids and three great grand children. She continues to shop, attend church, does her own laundry and lives independently.
Happy birthday, mom!
So after nearly 40 years I have returned to instructing an English class. During my hiatus I have been running a business and, more recently, teaching technology. Education has been evolving during those 40 years in some amazing ways but I have viewed English as not having changed much. Nationally we struggle to transform students into a socialized, skilled, technology aware work force without spending much resource. We are doing this by identifying core skills and compressing the first 14 years of schooling into 12 years. It is a chore and we all struggle to find the true backbone of this evolving curriculum. Sometimes I joke that we have all these old guys and gals trying to prepare kids for a world that will be vastly changed from what we see today.
Today, our textbook is on line. The students are able to read and respond and I can look at their individual digital workbooks and make comments or assess. These students all maintain their own websites which I can access off my smartphone or computer 24/7. They write a weekly blog which is a window into their unique worlds and fresh perspective. They can write, import pictures, insert web links and publish their journals to the world of digital format. I, in turn, can link them to on line resources and open a world that in prior times was restricted access.
What I have primarily noticed is a change in my attitude toward English. Where I used to get bogged down with the correcting, I look forward to reading their blogs and grading their assessments. Each entry is akin to discovering a special stone or shell on the beach. They shine in unique ways and reflect amazing insight. Some sparkle, then dull as they dry. Others reveal many facets of complex perception. Ninth grade is a wonderful time of brain growth and developing thought patterns. It has also become a time for me to reflect and feel good about the future of these kids.
We don't choose the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but we so control our response. We can selectively choose to see the upside or we can choose negativity. Choosing to go positive has countless benefits that accrue automatically: better health, a positive day, improved relationships.
On Veteran's Day I took my younger brother to the eye specialist. He has been battling glaucoma and eye infections for several years. A year ago he had a cornea replaced. In August he had his weak eye removed due to losing the lens to repeated infection. Vision in that eye had degenerated to almost nil. Today he had scar tissue removed from his remaining good eye during an emergency procedure to reduce the pressure to a third of what it was just last week.
He constantly badgers the people who try to help him, complains about how long things take, rarely, if ever, says "thank you". I try to get him to a more positive place. He was almost there on Veteran's day when he was totally helpless. But today, even though he still can't see he was mostly rage and complaint. Facing the possibility of a darkening future can't be anything but terrifying...but it seems equally terrifying to see what little help anger brings.
Hopefully tomorrow will bring some light.
I have been using Craigslist to sell a mountain bike purchased from my brother. So far, buyers have not ventured across the Sound to inspect this pristine marvel of Univega engineering. While giving it a tune, my machinist son suggested that I look for a frame that fit me (the Univega is way too small) and maybe we could swap parts. So I began searching for a Specialized Hardrock.
The classic, old school hardrock, built around the turn of the century appeals to me. If I were directing a movie set on a college campus, my protagonist would ride that bike. If I were within six miles of school I would pedal it to class each day (weather permitting, of course). So, in checking the ads, one popped up in Gig Harbor described "in very good condition" so I bit.
Having a busy schedule I didn’t see the bike until dusk. And it wasn't in Gig Harbor, but about 15 miles away. Navigating by phone I found myself driving down a desolate road -- few houses, no pavement, and few utility improvements. The driveway with the black mailbox was finally located. The only light originated from Christmas lights illuminating an out building. The house – a darkened trailer – had a sinister flavor. After a brief knock a cheery elf of a man came to the door. He was falling over himself with excitement about the bicycle. We drug it into the drive; I took a few pedals. It was exactly what I wanted: old and abused, kind of crusty and very comfortable. I paid full price which wasn’t much. I wanted to get my newly adopted friend free of this seedy environment but I did not have a car that could haul the new purchase.
I mentioned I had a cousin, Robert, in the area who might be able to get the bike that night. The seller agreed and I took him to get pizza. Turns out he is a coder. We had a fascinating conversation about his work. He was developing a program to read rss feeds to count how many people die each day in the world. I asked him why and all he could think was…."nobody has ever done that. I want to be the first."
I found my cousin who followed me to the dark path and the bike. The stranger pushed it out of the dusky trailer and we loaded it. Robert judged the area as being sketchy and thought the seller would probably sell it four times if he had the chance, so it was probably good that we had it in our posession.
I won’t go over the defects that came to light the next day, or the uneasiness of my wife in knowing I had ventured off the grid. Suffice to say I felt like Robert and I were 17 again on a crazy youthful adventure.... and I found it satisfying, enervating and totally wonderful. Love my new friend whom I will get to know much more intimately as it goes though a substantial rebuild process.
We welcome the newest addition to our room: a 3-D printer.
So far it has printed mainly pre-constructed files including a cell phone case with operating gears on the back and various small objects.
The most impressive task was when a student tipped her monitor over and it fell on a keyboard, breaking its adjustable foot. I was able to draw a replacement foot in sketch up, export the file, convert it to a printer file and print the foot. Actual printing took about six minutes. And the best part is it snapped into the keyboard and has been used repeatedly for the past week.
Well, it had to happen....my first flat tire. It was at the apex of an eight mile ride, on the highway, with no help. As I was riding I thought the cell phone was playing a song with a hiss to it. Ultimately the hissing stopped and a mild thump brought me to a halt. From my trusty tool bag I removed a tube, plastic tire irons, and prepared to fix a flat. How hard could it be? Had I practiced.....well, no.
And just in case you want to see a double amputee do it, just click here.
John Alfred Riebli