Across the African plains, the wind whispers her name through the tall grass…
Across the African plains, the wind whispers her name through the tall grass…
As I listen the rain
Each new drop’s a fresh new pain
Memories blossom in my brain
As I listen to the rain
To new places you have gone
Laughing as you travel on
Never caring, dusk til dawn
It’s my heart you’ve walked upon
As I sit and watch the sky
Cry the tears I cannot cry
Clouds all hide the reasons why
As I sit and watch the sky
Others hold you in their arms
Never hearing the alarms
Muffled by your many charms
Unaware your poison harms
Solitude’s new denizen
Seems the sun won’t shine again
I was very happy then
Guess I’ll just remember when….
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
Clusters of Butterflies
Torrents of Bats
Clear Pretty Blue Skies
Swarming of Gnats
Warm Coffee Lids
Friends who’ve forgiven me
Friends who’ve betrayed
Friends who’ve abandoned me
Friends who have stayed
Women who swing their hips
Women who don’t
Women who’ll lay with me
Women who won’t
Besties and spouses
Living in tenements
Dreaming of houses
The Creak of Old Windmills
The Flower that Wilts
The Strength of my Youth fades
The Jousting Lance Tilts
The Windmills keep turning
I don’t quite know how
I fought them all Bravely
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
December 29th, 2014
Tilting at the Windmills of My Mind
All rights reserved
The state of education in the US is deplorable.
Now that we’ve stated the obvious, sensei, what’s the solution?
Stop looking for innovative ways to teach students that include the whole child. Teachers must hold parents accountable to see to their own child’s emotional needs, just as parents want to hold teachers accountable for the academics. I’m not saying teachers shouldn’t be involved in their students’ lives at all; by default, they already are, I’m saying there are aspects of the child’s life that are not the teacher’s responsibility, though it seems that increasingly, the circumstances of their students’ lives, regardless of income level, dictate they have to be.
We are now fostering feelings instead of dealing with academics, and consequently the children of today can’t read, write, spell or multiply; America is falling fast on the international front because we no longer treat our children like they have brains capable of being challenged.
Did you ever think you’d see the day America adopts teaching methods from other nations instead of being a leader?
It isn’t fair, and it isn’t right. The rich kids are arrogant and selfish, and the poor kids are angry and rebellious, and the teacher has to deal with those two extremes and the spectrum in the middle, teaching to multiple learning types, with special needs kids thrown into the mix.
Administrators must stop being cowed by the fear of potential lawsuits and state, clearly, their policies on bullying, dress codes, class behavior and school citizenship. If it doesn’t come from the TOP DOWN (no pun intended on the dress code), your teachers are adrift with no paddle when trying to enforce these things individually in their classrooms.
“But the culture has changed.” That’s because it was capitulated to and not challenged. I had a student once whose mother was in prison, and had told her daughter: “It’s okay for you to give teachers attitude if they give you attitude.” With her mother’s backing, she proceeded to do the first part, not taking into account the second part, because she had very loose interpretation of teachers “giving her attitude,” which was pretty much “be quiet, sit down, and do your work.” Instead, she was allowed to take class time away from students who were doing exactly that, as well as interrupting lessons with her nonsense.
And when her Mom got out she was all too happy to come in and challenge the school, on more than one occasion, until the district finally had enough and expelled her child, who I guess by now has followed in her mother’s footsteps and is doubtless in jail. I overheard another student tell one, “My dad hates teachers.” Obviously, since she was failing her own classes because of her father’s mindset, they both felt justified when he came in to rant.
Kids I had in sixth grade were getting locked up their first or second year of high school, though I delivered the message over and over again. Another time there was a kid with an alcoholic mom who me and another teacher were finally able to get to who graduated high school early.
And then there was the boy I met in sixth grade who was growing up in a family of nine, determined to be an A student, and well on his way to achieving it.
So what’s my point?
At some point, circumstances cannot be blamed. I wouldn’t say I grew up in poverty, but I didn’t have a lot. What I had was two parents who realized how important exposure to the world beyond the streets of the South Bronx was, and who tolerated no nonsense, even though they weren’t together. I had a mentor who looked out for me, and I had, for the most part, my love of reading to sustain me. At some point, I looked around the decaying neighborhood of my childhood and said, “There is nothing here I want to be a part of,” and so I hit the books.
With my decision came all the accompanying name-calling and bullying, but I was determined and stayed my course. When I left the neighborhood to move to a new one, I never looked back, and I never went back. Recently I pulled it up on Google Earth, and there is less there now than before. The large 5 story pre-war structures are mostly gone, replaced with a one-story project building, and the neighborhood I moved into (another part of the Bronx which was not yet labeled, “South”) which I left after I got married, now has security gates on the building where I lived.
You HAVE to give your children options. Clean your neighborhoods, re-prioritize, organize, meet to advance your child’s education, and not to blame others for dropping what is essentially your responsibility. Yeah, circumstances can be daunting, but they needn’t be overwhelming. You have the power to change things, but if you don’t, who will?
It bothers me that people can’t seem to see the contributions they make to their own imprisonment. My daughter once asked me who would I be if I didn’t have the parents I did. I was honest enough to say that I couldn’t answer that question, because I had those parents, but it didn’t seem like anything complicated they did, or spectacular, or used any kind of pop-culture strategy, they simply did what they were supposed to. I knew my report card was going to be reviewed, and I knew that I couldn’t announce to my family that I was being held back. I knew they would ask me what I had for homework, and I knew that they loved me enough to keep me in line.
As for getting out of the bubble I lived in, the subways and gypsy cabs were available to everyone. I don’t know why more people didn’t take advantage of it, seemingly content to hang out in the neighborhood for the most part. When I got old enough to ride them myself, I did, and went back to revisit those places my parents had taken me, to see them with older eyes and a different view, to walk streets where I was a stranger and sometimes unwelcome, but I needed the reinforcement to stay motivated.
I was fortunate too, that NY was a multicultural mecca, and that Manhattan was the convergence point for all of them. My route usually started at Columbus Circle and went up as far as 125th St to as far down as West 4th St, and sometimes into the South Street Seaport. I met people, and saw things, both good and bad. I observed, and I learned, and I listened.
I was comfortable in Irish bars and Times Square dives that sold cocaine (never got in a bar fight, or robbed, thank God; and no, I didn’t buy any coke. Patrons who did usually wound up with the dealer’s people ‘looking’ for them. Trouble a new father didn’t need, didn’t want, and stayed away from, thank you. In that regard, the South Bronx taught me well all by itself).
As a result, I was comfortable in the Bronx Zoo and the Museum of Natural History.
I went to the Apollo and Carnegie Hall and Broadway.
I went to baseball games and ballet performances.
It all shaped who I was, and informed me that there was a better way to live, and a better way to do things. I didn’t achieve a lot of it because I wasted a lot of time spinning my wheels in PA (see previous post), but the awareness of it kept me in pursuit, and as Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over til it’s over.”
Today, it all shapes my writing, probably to a larger extent than even I realize, since I’m finally, for the first time, doing it for me, rather than as an assignment, in my 50’s.
So let’s see what happens with this writing thing….
Teachers are NOT the enemy.
YOU are the vanguard of your child’s future.
You can hold the teachers accountable if they don’t do their part, but do yours.
It matters to your child the most when you do.
Since I’ve moved to Jersey, I’ve had trouble finding a quiet place to write. It’s difficult because if you can’t work at home, or just want to be outside in the fresh air, unfortunately, the world is a public place, and most people aren’t considerate of the fact that you need to concentrate in order to keep your train of thought.
These are people such as: smokers ( keep reading: not judging you, just that I’m outside for fresh air; I fully realize the irony of that statement living in NJ, but it’s a relative thing), car radios, chatter, *teenage girls (*see chatter on crack), running children…. you get the point.
There are days you have the ability to zone, and days that you don’t; these days I’m finding it increasingly difficult to zone.
We all know by now, even if we’re remotely serious about it, that writing is in fact a discipline, and as in any discipline, you need to be organized, to concentrate, to focus, to think, and to adapt, if necessary; that requires, to a large degree, two ingredients: the first is being alone, the second is being quiet.
That’s not comfortable for a lot of people, and I understand. Their car radios are on from the time they get in it to the time they get out, either with music or some other media like books or language learning. They come home and immediately turn on the tv, or come home and jump on all the social media they didn’t get to at work. I’ve never known anyone who said they’ve come home after a hard day and started a book, either reading or writing one (but I know you’re out there).
Then there are the coffee shop writers, whose ranks I’ve joined, and those who think coffee shop writers are showing off. Maybe some are, and maybe the whole movement even started out that way. But here’s the thing: How much you wanna bet that the cafe’ where J. K. Rowling wrote her first Potter novel is cashing in on that reputation?
How many little holes-in-the-wall places in Spain, France, and Italy claimed Hemingway? You get the point.
I felt self-conscious the first time I set up my laptop in a corner table at my local Borders; it wasn’t crowded, and no one gave me a knowing smirk of derision. Really, no one cared; it’s just that I was aware of the perception. Then some college girls came in and set up shop next to me, and I got distracted, and not much writing got done. If I had been more disciplined, Borders could’ve cashed in on my reputation and saved their business…Isn’t it pretty to think so?
So what’s my point? Finding somewhere quiet to write is essential, but it’s not always possible, so ….
Recognize that discipline doesn’t mean inflexibility; some days, I can work at home, other days, it’s my local coffee shop, and sometimes, it’s the library, and if the weather’s really nice, it’s outside in the park, because it’s the writing that’s the discipline, not the location.
And there are days you’re not going to be able to write X hours a day, even if you told yourself that’s what you would do, because there are days life will crash through the window, kick down the door, and grab you by the throat, and there are days you just won’t feel like it. Try to push it, and you’re just going to slog needlessly through a lot of mud.
Don’t do that to your writing, and more importantly, to yourself.
It’s okay. It evens out; the desire is there, and one or two off days is not going to quench it. When you get back to it the way it works for you for that day, you’ll be that much more productive. Go with the flow, just don’t float away.
Now go get that second cup of joe, and get back to work.
I called this blog Beyond Panic, which is not a cheerful name, and may not be something that on the surface people would want to read; I understand that, but such a title is not chosen at random, nor with the intent of discouraging people with a woe-is-me story. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Why am I beyond panic?
The story is long and messy, but not boring. Suffice it to say that Murphy’s Law as applied to my life in PA was Murphy’s Law squared, and sometimes cubed, but it taught me some things about myself that I would not have known otherwise: I’m tougher than I ever thought I could be. I can show emotions. When people change, and especially when they betray you, they grow cold to justify their actions. Blood does not equal family. Death is closer than we know, but so is happiness.
And more often than not, things even out with time, just by necessity if nothing else. The ups, you see, do in fact, follow the downs.
Now here in my mid-50’s, having lost everything and having to start over, I’ve never felt more free. Things are a hindrance, and when you have the wrong people added to the wrong things, you’re not just running in place, not getting anywhere, you are sprinting in oil: You fall, and slip backward, and slide forward, your arms are windmilling, and you’re out of control.
THAT is what my life in PA was like. I don’t know why; I tried everything I knew, worked jobs where everyone involved KNEW I was out of my calling, but I had mouths to feed. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the question I so often asked myself: “What are you doing here?”
Don’t get me wrong, PA was a pretty state: fresh air, open space, lots of festivals, good food, good beers, and for the most part, good people. (that’s another post). My children thrived, and grew big and strong, the way kids should grow. The first five years were wonderful: family vacations, learning to fish, summer camps, bike trips, pictures, picnics, swim lessons, music lessons, dance lessons, garage bands, and of course, sports (I was even a T-ball coach; that was an experience!) and then a crucial decision was made on a career choice my wife had to make; the stakes were high, and it was a gamble, and we lost, and then the downward spiral began, and for me, at least, it never stopped until I left. We never really fully recovered, at least not together.
I had to go back to work, but I had no idea what PA had in store. There was no internet then to job search; I knew no one who could really help, or would if they could, and we were getting dangerously close to losing all we had built, and then, one day, we did. I went into the temp service circus because it was the fastest way to find a job without applying. I tried my hardest.
It was years of wasted effort: dead-end jobs, minimum wage service jobs, lost music equipment, lost apartments, broken cars, ruined credit, and finally, never being able to get ahead anymore, which nailed the marriage coffin shut.
Getting ahead of myself:
So into the wringer I go, and… Wrong color (yes, they actually said that), overqualified (have a college degree: ‘you’re not going to stay.’ they were probably right), too slow (we need at least 300 of these an hour) incapable of learning (my trainer was flirting with the girls, and I tried to learn on my own, since they didn’t get me a new one when I asked) sleeping on the job (I was working two full time ones with an hour break in between; how I didn’t kill myself or someone else driving back and forth remains a mystery; I consider that divine interference), all of them stamped on my forehead before I was shown the door. With the first one, I never even got in.
I was not good at office politics either. I never seemed to genuflect fast enough. (That would fall under ‘too slow,’ in more ways than one). See, my resources were in my head, not my hands. I was not an electronics assembler, machine operator, fork lift driver, janitor, line worker, shipping packer, truck loader, messenger, call center salesman, etc.
I was a teacher. (say it with me: Those who can’t DO… Oh, yeah? Why don’t you teach a new poetry unit to this eighth grade class two weeks into May, buddy… can you DO that?)
Well, I’ll share with you what I learned when people hear about what you ‘was.’ ‘WAS’ is the echo of fading glory.
“Who cares? Why all this? Why didn’t you just become a teacher again?” In a word, favoritism, nepotism, sexism (a new male principal who wanted all female teachers), ageism (he wanted his fresh out of college) and politics, and in one instance, PTA involvement. Pick a word. Any word, and one or more of them will probably apply as well. In short, the reasons had nothing to do with being qualified. My reviews in NY had been good, and in my last year, it had been raised to exceptional.
Stay with me.
As the place developed, and the farmland disappeared, new people with young families began to move in, and none of them worked in PA. They kept their jobs in NY and NJ and put up with the hell of commuting because there was simply no money to be made in PA that would allow them to support their family.
I was circling the drain financially, spiritually, emotionally, maritally, and fill-in-the-ly, when this company threw me a lifeline, and I grabbed it, and began, for the umpteenth time, to pull myself back to shore. When the line was cut again in PA by the company we were contracted to, I looked around for another one to grab.
“Do you want to look at the severance package?” (I wasn’t on the job a year, and it was based on time with the company. I might’ve gotten a Happy Meal out of it).
“No, I don’t. I want to work.”
“We have something in New Jersey.”
“It’s kinda far.”
They told me.
“Go check it out for a couple of days, and if you want to take the severance we’ll go over it with you.” I went out the first day; the second day I took the job. I was so used to doing what was necessary, and I had lost so much that there was literally nothing holding me in PA anymore. I jettisoned stuff, got out of the lease, and came to Jersey.
So I left, and now I’m here, and now that i have the time, the discipline, and the equipment, I’m pursuing a lifelong dream: to become a published author, and have people spend time with my imagination, and see the images I see in their own way, and relate to my characters, fantasy though they may be, because every fantasy is anchored in some way to a reality.
I’d like them to find that reality in one of my works, as I’ve found some of mine in the works of others: like when the hero is on the verge of defeat, and can’t lift the sword one more time…, but he digs, and it’s slow and painful and everything in him wants to scream: yeah, I’ve been there. Our swords might be different, but that feeling…yeah, I know it now. Or when the woman he’s with says just the right thing at the right time, and he gets that charge…yeah, been there. Or better yet, when he can’t go on, and the giant’s in front of him, and the point of a blade pops out of the giant’s big gut, and he falls, and the hero’s girl is standing back there, looking like Halloween on a bad hair day? Man, are you kidding me? You better go to Jared…and if he’s not there, send out a search party.
Pretentious? Self-aggrandizing? Delusional? I don’t know. I hope one day you’ll read my work and see what you experience…
So, I’m beyond panic because I know this is a stop, not a destination. I no longer feel like I’m being blocked, but incubated. I feel like that Eagles tune where the line says: “So much has happened, that nothing has changed.” In many ways it’s true, but in one very real way it’s not: I’ve changed, and I have the crucible of PA to thank for it.
So much has happened, that nothing happens to me now that I cannot deal with, literally, on every level. If I can’t accomplish it, it’s because I’m the one who gave up, and if PA taught me anything, it was to NEVER give up.
I’ve told people the long, messy, not-boring story, and the usual response is: “Wow. You should write a book about your experiences there.” I don’t know. I’d like to leave it there in the dust, where it properly belongs; time is growing short, and I have other things I want to say.
But if I ever do, this would (will?) definitely be the title.
Hey, thanks for taking the time.