Archive Page 2


sitting in the woods with a notebook

A while back, a writing instructor named Katherine Bomer told me, “Write about whatever you want.” So I did.


Among the tress in a dry-country Texas forest, many stand dead, but all have leaves. At the bases of dead trees, vines rise up from the earth like sentient ropes, life defying gravity, and cling to the crevices and fissures of dried bark as the creep toward the photosynthetic promised land. Armed against predation with an arsenal of spines, these vines stretch ever upward, spreading a few leaves wherever enough sunlight breaks through the canopy to allow them to feed. The vines, lying close to the trunk and bearing a nearly identical color, are invisible to all but those who actively search for them, and the leaves they spread throughout the dead trees–but for their incongruous shapes–give the impression that the trees themselves are alive and thriving. The transition from life to another is nearly seamless. Life rises upon the remains of past life, and the achievement of what has gone before serves as a scaffold for ongoing success.

In the tropical seas, tiny spineless corals have constructed edifices that rival humanity’s greatest architectural achievements. Untold generations of the minute beasts have spent their lives filtering sea water for food, dodging the attacks of predatory snails, and adding just a fraction of an inch to the reef. As each generation of corals dies, its descendants take root on the calcified legacy that is the reef and continue to build one of the richest and most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. Fish, crabs, sea plants, and lobsters live in the city built by millions of anonymous laborers. Life thrives upon the remains of past life.

Hermit crabs–small, slow-moving, thin-shelled invertebrates that lack any sort of formidable weaponry–seem unlikely candidates for survival in a sea populous with predators of all kinds. Mollusks, tiny pink gobs of living goo, seem even less so, except that they are blessed with the remarkable ability to generate bony shells of all shapes and sizes to protect their helpless bodies from predators. When these armorers of the sea do die–of disease, mishap, or age–hermit crabs, adopt their now-vacant shells as homes, and each shell serves to protect yet another tiny life that its creator could never have foreseen or understood. Life thrives upon the remains of past life.

Inasmuch as humans have discovered and developed a variety of ways to feed ourselves, develop communities, and shelter ourselves from the weather and predators, we do not seem to fit the trend of life rising upon the remains of past life; however, in the millennia since we discovered the advancements that have allowed us to lead lives almost completely separate from those of most nonhuman life forms, we have become creatures of ideas–and here, the parallel remains. The creeping vine ascends the dead tree in order to extend its leaves into sunlight; we use the ideas, values, and discoveries of those who went before us to build toward even greater achievements and epiphanies. An entire seafloor ecosystem thrives among the remains of generations of corals; we build communities based on the philosophies, theologies, and politics of our forebears. Hermit crabs take shelter in the shells of long-dead mollusks; we use the unfathomable multitude of ideas that is the unspoken inheritance of every human being as a defense against uncertainty and ignorance. As it turns out, humans, the most unnatural of all creatures, fit the pattern evident in the natural world we sought–and seek–to abandon. Life rises upon the remains of past life.


Commencement Address 2013

As you may or may not know, I was on the final ballot for selection as the faculty speaker at this year’s commencement ceremony. Between bouts of paralyzing fear and false bravado, I actually thought quite a bit about what I would say to the graduating class of 2013 if I was chosen to speak. As it turns out, another member of our staff was chosen instead. Nonetheless, I don’t want let those hours of contemplation and planning go to waste, and it turns out that I do think I have something interesting/amusing/important to say. Therefore, I’ve decided to post my never-to-be-delivered commencement address, or at least a draft of it, here.


(Welcome…hi…hello…parents…guardians…friends…graduates…the usual niceties…etc.)

I’d like to call your attention to the English language. It’s shocking; I know. In particular, I’d like to call your attention to a phrase that has become popular in the last few years. Anyone who has access to the internet, the opportunity to watch television, or a sarcastic friend has undoubtedly heard this phrase used with reckless abandon. As you all know, when your friend makes a mistake in his or her life, strays from the path of righteousness, and is threatened with untold terrible consequences, your job is to assume a supportive but slightly superior facial expression, look him or her square in the eyes, and say, “You’re doing it wrong.”

We say it all the time.  Your friend trips up the stairs? “You’re doing it wrong.”

Your buddy loses to a noob on Halo 4? “You’re doing it wrong.”

Your partner botches the chemistry lab? “You’re doing it wrong.”

Put that phrase in a bubble in the back of your mind and let it float around back there for a while. Let it echo a little. You’re doing it wrong, you’re doing it wrong, you’re doing it….

Now, let that bubble just drift for a while, but don’t lose it. Let’s talk about something else. I graduated in a class of 172 seniors from Sartell High School in Sartell, Minnesota. It wasn’t a particularly rigorous or competitive high school, and I graduated #61. That’s right; I was four students away from graduating in the top one-third of my class. I think my GPA was around 3.6. I earned high Bs and low As in high school because I was lucky enough to be an auditory learner and a good test-taker, but I was by no means a good student. I was not destined for a college career at Stanford. Frankly, I was doing it wrong.

Happily for me, that “good test taker” thing kicked in on ACT day, and I scored well enough to begin my academic career at St. Cloud State University in central Minnesota. You’ve probably never heard of SCSU unless you’re a big fan of college hockey, but it’s a medium-sized state school like hundreds of others around the country. Of course, when I got there, I had a vague idea that I might major in one of the natural sciences, but I didn’t really have any kind of clear plan. In fact, I didn’t have ANY plan. I was never one of those students who knew from a young age what he or she wanted to do in life, so I went to SCSU and just stated taking classes. I don’t even recall speaking to an academic advisor; I just signed up for whatever sounded good. I took biology, algebra (where I earned a C and never looked back), German, chemistry (another C), creative writing, and several other randomly selected courses. I did not make what you would call “meaningful progress toward a degree.” Once again, I was doing it wrong.

After one year at the SCSU, I apparently thought I’d learned all they had to offer. I packed up my belongings and moved, sight unseen, to a place called Palmdale, California. Because I’d already learned everything a four-year college could teach me, I promptly enrolled at Antelope Valley Junior College. I continued selecting my classes by throwing darts at the registration manual, but in the second semester that I attended AVC, I found myself in a course called “Studies in the Novel,” which was taught by Dr. Frye. Over the course of that semester, we read a selection of novels and talked about each one in historical and critical contexts. I was cruising along, earning my usual high Bs, when Dr. Frye told us that our final book for the semester would be Moby Dick. For the next several weeks, the man taught our class with a passion and fire that I’ve never experienced in another teacher. He knew Moby Dick forward and backward. He could quote long passages from memory. He LOVED that novel, and he wanted us to love it too. I’m game for almost anything, so I thought to myself, “Self, maybe I should see if I can love Moby Dick.” I was successful. I loved every minute we spent studying Melville’s masterpiece in class, and I even tried slightly higher than usual when I wrote my paper about it. I hadn’t found the will to be a diligent student yet, but at least I’d made a decision. I was going to major in English…because Dr. Frye was doing it RIGHT. As for me, I was still mostly doing it wrong.

In the next three years, I attended a variety of college and universities, including a couple more semesters at Antelope Valley College, a good long stint at California State University at San Bernardino, and a semester or two at San Bernardino Valley Junior College, where I mostly pursued volleyball. By the time the year 2000 rolled around, I found that I had manged to earn a four-year degree in just five and a half short years of study. By all accounts, the most accurate description of my college career was…”You’re doing it wrong.”

Between graduating from college and starting my actual career, I spent time as a furniture delivery man, a newspaper reporter, a retail clerk, and a delivery driver. I didn’t actually start my career until 2002, aged 25, two full years after graduating from college. I think you know the refrain by now. Anyone looking at my career path would have told me, “________  _______  ____  ___________.”

In addition to my adventures in the arenas of college and work, I’d like to talk briefly about my romantic past. I’m going to spare you the details, but believe me when I tell you that it was quite a rollercoaster from about 1995 until 2010. For fifteen years, I dated, broke up, followed girls to other towns and other states, and generally botched dating in almost any way you can imagine. To state the case as kindly as possible, I was doing it wrong.

From the time we’re very young, there’s a story we all imagine when we look into the futures of our lives. We intend to get good grades in high school, promptly be accepted into the prestigious university we most desire, graduate on time after four years of study, and proceed directly into the career field that we’re passionate about. Somewhere in there, probably during college, we intend to meet the person with whom we’ll spend the rest of our lives and settle into domestic bliss with him or her. That’s how you do it RIGHT, right?


I’m here to tell you that there is no one way to “do it right.” Any of you who were in my English class have certainly heard me say that in literary analysis, there are lots of ways to be right. The same is true in life. I earned mediocre grades in high school, entered college without a plan, have attended a total of six different colleges and universities in my life, took five and a half years to earn a bachelor’s degree, worked in various dead-end jobs for two years after graduation before starting my career, and didn’t get married until I was 34 years old. According to conventional wisdom, I did everything wrong.

Yet, look at my life. It’s fantastic. I’m not rich or famous, but things have turned out wonderfully. I work in a career that I absolutely love, I’ve had the good fortune to actually buy a small house, and I’ve been happily married to my beautiful wife for a little over a year. By all accounts, suddenly I’m doing it right.

Investing your time and energy into worrying about whether you’re living that one model life that everyone thinks is “normal” is a waste. By measuring yourself against someone else’s story, you limit your life to a series of little stones you have to jump on, one by one, to get across the constantly changing and flowing waters of your life. I fell off those stones a long time ago, ladies and gentlemen, and I’ve been happily paddling around in the river ever since.

So listen closely for a moment. Lean in.

You’re. Doing. It. Right.

The mere fact that you’re sitting here tonight wearing a maroon gown and a mortarboard is evidence. You’ve found your way to this arena because you’re smart, you’re athletic, you’re kind, you’re dedicated to your morals or your religion, because you’re a good friend, because you’re comfortable being yourself, because you’re artistic, because you decided at some point–come hell or high water–you WOULD walk across this stage no matter what.

That, in itself, is how you do it right. There is no one right answer, class of 2013. There are many, many ways to be right. Your life is spread out before you like an incredible, beautiful river. Don’t hop across the rocks. Jump in and paddle around a bit. I promise, the water is fine.


The Gander Mountain debacle, part 2

You may recall, dear reader, that I recently wrote about an extremely unsatisfactory trip to the College Station Gander Mountain store. I hoped to get my rifle refinished but was unsuccessful in finding competent customer service. For the full details of this god-awful experience, read my previous post.

After my last Gander Mountain trip, I took my rifle to a nearby gunsmith named Bill Wiseman and arranged to have the refinishing done in his shop instead. Yesterday, I went over to Wiseman’s shop to pick up my rifle, and I must say that I’m very pleased with the job his staff did. The rifle looks great, and they re-mounted the scope for me. Sadly, when they went to sight it in, they found that the scope adjustments don’t work. This isn’t a huge surprise; the scope has been on that rifle for at least 20 years, and it wasn’t a super high-end item in the first place. So…I found that my rifle was restored to its former glory but needed a new scope.

Aha! I still had that Gander Mountain gift card! Surely they could sell me a scope, right?


I went over to GM (just typing the whole name pisses me off at this point) after school today and began to look at scopes. The rest of this discussion will work a little better if you have a basic understanding of rifle scopes, so here comes a…

BONUS FEATURE! Let’s talk briefly about rifle scopes. Every scope is described by at least two measurements: magnification and objective lens size. The magnification, as you might expect, describes how many times the object you’re viewing is magnified. While older scopes were built at a locked magnification, most modern ones are adjustable. The objective lens size is measured in millimeters, and it describes the diameter of the lens closest to the front end of the rifle. This size is important mainly because a larger lens allows the scope to collect more light, which makes the images viewed through it crisper and brighter.

I went into GM looking for either a 2-7 or 3-9 adjustable magnification scope with a large objective lens. Most 2-7s are between 32 and 38 mm, and 3-9s vary from 40 to 50 mm, generally. It’s not as simple as just picking out a set of numbers, though. Several companies–some with better reputations for quality than others–manufacture scopes. Also, crosshairs vary from one scope to another, and I like some setups better than others. Finally, for whatever individual reason, I can simply see better through some scopes than others. All in all, I had some shopping to do. After spending about 20 or 25 minutes picking up a lot of different scopes, I had narrowed down my choices to a few favorites. At this point, I motioned to the employee to come help me.

First of all, I wanted to know why the Nikon Buckmaster 3-9×40 costs $169 in silver but $229 in matte black. He didn’t have an answer. This may not seem like a big deal, but realize that silver is not a sneaky color in the woods. Since my gift card would cover $169 but not $229, I decided the Buckmaster was at least temporarily off the list. Sure, I could pony up the difference in cash, but I won’t if I don’t have to, and the $60 black paint job pisses me off.

Next, I asked about a Bushnell. I’m not really familiar with the company’s products, and I’ve never used one of their scopes. Every shooter knows that some brands, like Leupold and Nikon, are totally trustworthy, but since even the best rifle is no good without a rock solid scope, any unknown brand should be scrutinized closely before investing. Surprise, surprise: the guy didn’t know anything about Bushnell scopes except to say, “I used some of their binoculars once. I didn’t really like them.” Thanks, pal. Without personal knowledge of Bushnell, and without any helpful professional opinion, I ruled out this scope too.

Until this point, I had been looking at 36 and 40 mm scopes. That’s all I’ve used in the past. Since things weren’t going well, though, I went back to the case and looked at other sizes. On the bottom shelf, lying directly behind a sign marked “Nikon Prostaff $169,” lay a 3-9×50. I asked to see it and found that it looked great. The crosshairs focused nicely, and the view was bright and crisp. All in all, I really liked this scope. My excitement was augmented by Nikon’s excellent reputation. I decided that this was the scope for me.

The clerk retrieved one from the back room, and he and I proceeded to another aisle so I could find a pair of lens covers, since I would have a few bucks left on my gift card after paying for the scope. When we got there, the guy said, “Let’s see here. We need a 50 mm cover for the front.” He then proceeded to take a 65.5 mm cover off the shelf and try to fit it onto the scope. Before I could even point out his mistake, he declared, “Well, that can’t be right. Let me see if this really is a 50 mm scope. I’ll scan the barcode to be sure.” He returned to the firearms counter, scanned the barcode, and said, “I’m sorry. This scope is $249. It’s not the one that goes with that sign. Did you still want to buy it?”


He opened the case and put it back behind the $169 sign.

At this point, I was nearly apoplectic. First of all, the scope was marked with a price that differed by $80 from the amount they intended to charge me, and when the mistake was discovered, the guy put the scope right back behind the sign. Secondly, we might not have even discovered the problem if he hadn’t been unable to discriminate between the number 50 and the number 65.5. I can’t do the conversion in my head, but I can see with the naked eye that the difference between 50 mm and 65mm is about half an inch.

Finally, after putting the scope back in the case behind the wrong sign (Did I mention that already? Yes? Sorry. It still blows my mind.), the guy says, “Well, maybe you’d still consider that Bushnell, huh?”

Which Bushnell? The one I already told you I wasn’t going to buy? No. I will not consider that one.

By this time, I’d been at gm (even the capital letters piss me off at this point) for over an hour, and I needed to head home and have dinner with the gang. I left scopeless.

I swear to god, gm, if I didn’t have a gift card, I’d never set foot in your store again. As it stands, I’ll probably just buy a scope off the company’s website. I’ll take my chances on the focus, crosshairs, etc. If I don’t like it, I’ll return it for credit and order another one. It’ll still be less trouble than shopping in the College Station gm store.

Once this gift card is spent, gm is dead to me.

Side note: On my way out the door, I checked the ammunition aisle to see how much a box of shells for my rifle is going to cost me. Guess what. They don’t stock shells in my caliber. Naturally.


Dear Gander Mountian…

Dear College Station Gander Mountain,

You’re a sporting goods store, aren’t you? The array of products in the store, the faux-log construction of the edifice, and the company’s slogan (We live outdoors) all suggest a sporting goods store to me. This expectation caused me considerable disappointment earlier today.

You see, Gander Mountain, I’ve got this Model 99 .300 Savage that my father gave me many years ago when I earned my Eagle Scout award. It’s not pretty, and the ballistics are pedestrian at best, but it is now and will continue to be my favorite rifle. My rifle was already quite a few years old when Dad gave it to me, and I’ve had it since 1992 myself. A combination of many years of use and the humid climate here in Texas have caused the barrel to lose some of its former sheen. My rifle needs to be re-blued.

After checking the phone book for local gunsmiths, I decided to come visit you, Gander Mountain, because you’re a nationwide chain of sporting goods stores (or so I thought), which ostensibly means that you’re capable of handling almost any gunsmithing task. Surely, an outdoor sportsman could have his sporting firearm needs attended to by one of the giants of the sporting goods industry.

When I arrived at the firearms counter today, though, I didn’t experience quite what I had in mind. First of all, I saw three employees behind the counter: a barrel-shaped young man, a blonde girl of about 23, and a middle-aged gladhand wearing a stars-and-stripes t-shirt under his employee vest. As I stood at the counter for ten minutes, I watched Barrel Guy laboriously plod back and forth between computers, the back room, and the desk, while Blonde Girl stared vapidly at her computer screen and made faces best suited for facebook profile photos, and Gladhand aggressively tried to sell a handgun to a 60-ish woman while her husband looked on.

As I said, I watched this amusing cross-section of society attempt to help other customers for about ten minutes before Gladhand came around the counter, approached me, and asked, “Hey, buddy. You need any help with that?” while gesturing to the hard case containing my rifle. In spite of my suspicions about the smattering of people behind the counter, I handed over my rifle. Gladhand took it behind the counter, set it down and said, “Give me just a minute. I’ve got to finish selling these people over here some ammunition. Then I’ll be right with you.” I stepped back a couple of feet from the counter and prepared myself to wait my turn.

I watched Blonde Girl make the duckface at her computer screen. I watched Barrel Guy try to find the right forms for someone who wanted to purchase a handgun. And when I turned back toward Gladhand, he was aggressively trying to sell another handgun to another housewife. Suddenly, I was pissed.

There I was, Gander Mountain, standing at your firearms counter–the firearms counter in a sporting goods store–because I had a sporting firearm that needed a bit of gunsmithing. It’s not just any gun, either; it’s my father’s .300 Savage. I’m about to trust you with one of my most prized possessions, and your people are too busy making faces, plodding, and trying to sell housewives the ability to kill their friends and neighbors to help me out with a little re-bluing problem.

I’d now been standing at the firearms counter for about 20 minutes: 10 minutes of standing patiently with my gun case in hand, and 10 minutes of watching the gun case sit on the floor behind the counter while the NRA poster-boy in the stars-and-stripes shirt regaled the second housewife with various platitudes related to the responsibilities of gun ownership (“Don’t put your finger on the trigger unless you wanna hear a boom.”).

The next time one of the employees made eye contact with me, I waved him over my way. It happened to be Barrel Guy. I asked him, “Can you hand me that?” and gestured to my gun case.

When he put it up on the counter, he asked me, “Were you gonna…uh…get something done to it?”

I was pleased to tell him, “I thought I was, but I don’t have all day.” I didn’t bother to go into the sporting goods store vs. paranoid housewife personal protection store conundrum.

I can’t take you seriously as a sporting goods store, Gander Mountain.  First, your firearms business seems to consist entirely of selling people handguns. Second, the staff at your firearms counter consists of a guy who seems like the high point of his day would be finding a can of Skol that he thought he’d misplaced, an aggressively vapid young woman whose primary purpose seems to be making sure the computer doesn’t run off, and a moonlighting used car salesman who won’t be able to sleep at night until every woman in College Station is equipped with a handgun. Third, as I discovered during my brief encounter with Gladhand, you don’t do your own gunsmithing anyway. You send out your work to a Gander Mountain in Houston. God knows if they do it themselves or farm it out to a real gunsmith.

As I write this, Gander Mountain, both of my rifles and my shotgun are nestled back in their hard cases in my house. None of them have been handed over to you for any kind of work. Since I was lucky enough to receive a gift card for your services for Christmas, I may try to drive down to your Houston location and see if I have any better luck there. After today’s experience, I’m not especially hopeful. It can’t be any worse, though. If I left my rifle at the College Station store, I’m afraid they’d try to convince me to trade it for a Glock-9…only to find out that they’re all out of Glock-9s because the staff has managed to peddle every last one to the soccer moms of College Station.

I don’t spend a ton of money on sporting goods, Gander Mountain, but I do spend a bit–more than most people, I’d guess. After today’s experience, you can damn well bet that I’ll be spending it somewhere else. I’ll encourage my friends to do the same.


Big Red Poet



A few days ago, I facilitated a discussion in my AP English IV class about the “power and necessity of storytelling.” As we prepare to discuss Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, we have to reach some common ground, or at least establish our somewhat differing opinions, on how and why storytelling matters. The truth is, TTTC–athough it’s known as one of the finest, if not the single finest, Vietnam war novel–isn’t really a novel about war. It’s about telling stories. The war is just a convenient subject around which O’Brien shapes his particular set of stories.

Yesterday, I attended a department-wide training session designed to help us understand the new ways in which we’ll need to use reading and writing in our classrooms, now that the state has revised the standardized high-stakes test our students take at the end of the school year. Somewhere along the way, our presenter said, “Reading is a social act.” I don’t remember what she said for the next fifteen minutes or so because I wrote down those words and spent a while thinking about what they mean.

These two experiences, occurring within just a day or two of one another, pushed me to think more deeply about a question for which I’ve never had a sufficient answer. Or rather, they forced me to think about it in a new way. The question is this: “Why did you decide to become an English teacher?” It’s also been phrased “Why did you major in English?” and “Why do you read so much?” I don’t think I ever realized that all of those questions really have the same exact answer.

Simply put, people NEED stories. We cling to them. Some of us literally live for them. They’re the binding agents for all kinds of social groups. For example, think of a popular television show. Any show will do. On Monday mornings around the water cooler, people get together and talk about what happened on their shows. For some, this means the next step in that one singer’s search for fame on American Idol. For others, it’s who fell in love with whom on Grey’s Anatomy. For still others, it’s another chapter in the New Orleans Saints’ painful realization that even talented players, without a coach, have a hell of a hard time winning football games. Whichever of these most closely describes you, realize something: you gather with people to talk about a story you all have in common.

Nobody I know seeks out social conversations about a textbook they’ve both read or a math problem they’ve both solved.

Stories bind us into groups, and the more important the stories are to us, the more meaningful the groups they create. The people who get together to talk about Grey’s Anatomy but don’t have much else in common are probably acquaintances and nothing more. Those who share a more important story, though, have a much closer bond…like Christians. Or Muslims. Or Jews.

Consider holy scripture. While I’m not knowledgeable enough about all the religions of the world to state this as an all-encompassing truth, I know enough about the Abrahamic religions to say that each of them is based on a story. Holy scripture, the words upon which many people base their lives and found their systems of morality, is made up of stories. For Christianity, the scripture with which most of us are most familiar, the story starts with the creation of the world, details the words of the religion’s most important prophets, describes the birth of the Messiah, follows his life, and ends with his sacrifice and its implications for people throughout the rest of time. I know that’s oversimplified, but we’re not here to split hairs. My point is that it’s a STORY, and it holds incredible power. I have never heard of any group of people who base their system of belief on mathematical equations or the periodic table of elements.

(I hear the grumbling. Don’t mistake “story” for “fiction.” By “story,” all I mean is “narrative.”)

Whereas the people who share only an inconsequential story (Grey’s Anatomy) are very likely no more than acquaintances, people who share a more important story (scripture) share a much deeper bond. They could discuss their faith, the implications of it, and its effect on their lives for many hours after the Grey’s Anatomy crowd has finished discussing who hopped in the sack with whom.

To reinforce the point about stories and the bonds they create, think about your most closely guarded stories–the ones that are most important to you because they describe the most visceral and defining moments of your life. Who are the people with whom you share these stories? I’d wager it’s not everyone who crosses your path. I know I’ve got a few stories that I have only ever told to fewer than half-a-dozen people, and those people are my closest friends. The importance of the story to me and my friends’ acknowledgement of that importance creates a bond between us that I don’t share with anyone who doesn’t know the story.

The converse of this idea is also true. Anybody who knows me well knows that I’m REALLY uncomfortable talking to people I don’t know. Sure, I’ve learned to fake it; adult life demands the ability to interact with almost anybody at a moment’s notice. If I’m honest, though, I have to admit that my least favorite place on earth to be is a party where I don’t know anyone. Although there are a few people who just LOVE to meet new people and quickly establish gregarious relationships with strangers, I’d venture to say that the vast majority of us are affected to some degree or another by this discomfort around strangers (I’m looking at you, FlashCap). What causes this? I’d venture to say we’re uncomfortable around strangers because strangers are the people with whom we share zero stories, as far as we know. Once we’re forced to interact, we quickly identify a story with which we’re both familiar, and then discussion can ensue. Otherwise, no dice.

Hey, I’m Chauncey. (in my head: silent terror) Good to meet you. (continued terror) Did you watch Monday Night Football last week? You did? (relief) That was amazing, right? Peyton Manning was unstoppable as a Colt, but his return to the NFL with the Broncos has been plagued by…..(And we’ve discovered a story we have in common. We can talk. The tension of the situation is considerably decreased.)

(I hear the grumbling again. “I’ve been reading for a long time, BRP, and you still haven’t told me how all this stuff answers the questions about teaching English, reading books, etc.” Stick with me.)

In the wake of my conversation about the power and necessity of storytelling and the presenter’s assertion that “reading [and by extension, stories in general] is a social activity,” I’ve pondered the power of stories in my own life. The truth is that I became an English major, chose a career as an English teacher, and make time in my life every day to read because I thrive on the power of stories.

I moved to California, a state where I knew literally not a soul except my girlfriend, when I was 19. There, I quickly decided upon English as a major. As an English major, my favorite activity in college was sitting in a classroom with a group of intelligent people who had all read the same story and discussing the points of the plot, the writer’s craft of creating meaning through literature, and the story’s implications outside the text itself. Each story (poem, novel, play) I read and discussed with my classmates connected us as individuals, and those connections eventually became a web of shared experience that I valued deeply. My fellow English majors became my PEOPLE.

Once I left college, I worked in a number of professions before I started teaching. I delivered furniture (no stories). I worked in retail (still no stories). I wrote for a newspaper (closer, but no cigar). Eventually, when I moved to College Station, where I again knew not a soul except my girlfriend, I began working as a substitute teacher until I could find a more stable gig…or so I thought. When I got into English classrooms in which students had read a story I knew, I was instantly transported back to my college experience and the ways in which literature helped me find and understand my place in the world.

Initially, I think I decided to be an English teacher so I could continue to form the kinds of bonds with other people that literature made possible for me. (I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but in retrospect–considering where I was in my life at that time–it makes sense.) Over the course of ten years, though, I’ve found that the personal benefit I reap from being a part of these discussions is only a part of my reason for teaching. It’s wonderful to be a part of that experience as a student, never knowing where class will lead me and anticipating deeper and broader connections to my fellow readers every time I walk through the door of the classroom, but there’s another kind of satisfaction in knowing that I’m helping other people find their way into the world of stories and everything stories can mean for them and do for them in their lives. Not all of my students crave stories and the web of connections those stories can create like I did as a young man…but a few of them do, and those are the students who keep me coming back day after day, week after week, and year after year.

In the first couple weeks of each school each year, a handful of students enter my room with a look of trepidation, introduce themselves to me, and tell me they’re new to the district. It’s my sincere hope that the stories we will share as a class and the web of connections the students form as they talk about and analyze the texts will show them a way to find their places in their new worlds the same way stories helped me understand who I was and my place in the world when I first arrived in California and Texas.

Stories gave me a gift–a way to see the world around me and connect to others who were interested in stories too. It has become both my goal and my reward to see that teenagers seek out and discover that same gift for themselves.


Little Boxes

I find the world a frustrating place, oftentimes. Malvina Reynolds understands why.

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there’s doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course
And drink their martinis dry,
And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
Where they are put in boxes
And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business
And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.


February 3, 2012

When in my dreams I gaze upon the sky
And feel the crushing weight of moon and stars,
I see the scornful blue of Venus’ eye,
Beside the gnashing mountain-teeth of Mars,
Have loosed themselves from their sequestered spheres
And hurtle earthward through the roaring night,
I spread my arms and—absent of all fear—
Gaze to the sky and laugh in my delight
That they might crash to earth and tear away
A hemisphere or shatter it and fling
The shards to distant galaxies. I pray
For your ascent to Queen and mine to King
Of a tiny fragment big enough for two,
Where nothing else exists but me and you.