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Working: Alternative School Teacher

Studs Terkel's Working presents these interesting thoughts on competition in the classroom, from Pat Zimmerman, who ran an alternative school in Chicago's working-class Uptown neighborhood.

I discourage competition in the classroom. The only one I accept is the student's competition with himself. He has to compete against where he is, against where he wants to be, and against where he has been. I think every kid understands that. They don't have to prove anything to me. Each kid has to prove to himself that he's worthwhile. There's no cheating here. There's no reason for it.

...Grades? I keep grades, but they aren't entered on anything. I simply keep them in mind as a trend...Kids like grades, 'cause they like to know where they are right now. Records? No. They have enough records. They have police records, social history records, welfare records. (Laughs.) I should have to keep records?

In every classroom, there should indeed be no reason for cheating. If you cheat, you're only doing so to create the appearance that you've learned something when you've actually learned nothing - cheating only gets you the credit for achievement, without achieving anything. Without gaining knowledge. If cheating is pervasive, the teacher isn't doing his job.

September 30, 2010 in Books, Studs Terkel: Working | Permalink | Comments (0)

"It gets better."

This is wonderful. Dan Savage, responding (third letter down) to a reader's comment about Billy Lucas, a gay teenager from Indiana who committed suicide after enduring relentless bullying from classmates.
"My heart breaks for the pain and torment you went through, Billy Lucas," a reader wrote after I posted about Billy Lucas to my blog. "I wish I could have told you that things get better."

I had the same reaction: I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.

But gay adults aren't allowed to talk to these kids. Schools and churches don't bring us in to talk to teenagers who are being bullied. Many of these kids have homophobic parents who believe that they can prevent their gay children from growing up to be gay—or from ever coming out—by depriving them of information, resources, and positive role models.

Why are we waiting for permission to talk to these kids? We have the ability to talk directly to them right now. We don't have to wait for permission to let them know that it gets better.

So here's what you can do, GBVWS: Make a video. Tell them it gets better.

I've launched a channel on YouTube—youtube.com/itgetsbetterproject—to host these videos. My normally camera-shy husband and I have already posted one. We both went to Christian schools and we were both bullied—he had it a lot worse than I did—and we are living proof that it gets better. We don't dwell too much on the past. Instead, we talk mostly about all the meaningful things in our lives now—our families, our friends (gay and straight), the places we've gone and things we've experienced—that we would've missed out on if we'd killed ourselves then.

"You gotta give 'em hope," Harvey Milk said.
Savage is soliciting video messages from other GLBT adults that offer similiar encouragement to youths. Truly an essential and worthwhile project.

September 23, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Working: Factory Owner

In Studs Terkel's Working, Dave Bender was the owner and operator of a midsize factory in the Midwest, which he started from nothing and grew through tireless work and relentless curiousity. Though he was the owner, he was most comfortable on the factory floor, and spent little time in his office.
They tell me it don't look nice for the workers for me to work on the machine. I couldn't care less if I swept the floors, which I do. Yesterday some napkins fell on the floor from the napkin feeding machine. I said to the welder, "Pick up the napkins." He says, "No, you pick it up." I said, "If you're tired, I'll pick it up." So I'm pickin' 'em up.

You're the boss of these people.

(Hurt) No, I just work here...I tell people I don't want to hear another word about who I am or what I am...I never tell people I'm the boss, I get red and flustered. I'm ashamed of it. When they find out - frankly speaking, people are parasites. They treat you like a dirty dog one way, and as soon as they find out who you are it's a different person. (Laughs) When they come through the front door - "I want you to meet our president, Mr. Bender" - they're really like peacocks. I'd rather receive a man from the back door as a man. From the front door, he's got all the table manners. Oh, all that phony air. He's never down to earth. That's why I don't like to say who I am.

A man comes in and I'm working like a worker, he tells me everything. He talks from the bottom of his heart. You can break bread with him, you can swear. Anything that comes out of your heart. The minute he finds out you're in charge, he looks up to you. Actually he hates you.

...I do so many wrong things. Why don't you tell me to go to hell for the things I do? I deliberately see how far I can push them. And they won't tell me to go to hell, because I'm Dave Bender, the president. They look up to me as a man of distinction, a guy with brains. Actually, I'm a stupid ass, as stupid as anybody that walks the street.
That kind of candor and humility is just so rare in an executive, and wonderfully refreshing. Clearly, Bender was the kind of boss that all of us would be incredibly lucky to have.

September 23, 2010 in Books, Studs Terkel: Working | Permalink | Comments (0)


As the train moves through McKinley Park, the sun finally pushes through the dense bank of clouds, casting slanted rays through the window and across the page...the street viaduct below is lined with parallel-parked cars...near Chinatown, where the adjacent Orange Line begins to elevate, a subtle motion on the ground draws the eye to three sleeping figures huddled under old blankets against the concrete of the El structure, the motionary one face-up and revealed to be a teenager...when the train reaches the lift brige over the river, the sun has disappeared again.

September 20, 2010 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Orwell comes alive

When I first subscribed to the RSS feed of The Orwell Prize (the daily posting of George Orwell's diary entries) I was very disappointed by the dry, pedestrian accounts of the weather and chicken-egg production output that I read there. Especially since it was compelling entries like this one that I had been eagerly anticipating instead.
Yesterday when having my hair cut in the City, asked the barber if he carried on during raids. He said he did. And even if he was shaving someone? I said. Oh, yes, he carried on just the same. And one day a bomb will drop near enough to make him jump, and he will slice half somebody’s face off.


Everyone I have talked to agrees that the empty furnished houses in the West End should be used for the homeless; but I suppose the rich swine still have enough pull to prevent this from happening...When you see how the wealthy are still behaving, in what is manifestly developing into a revolutionary war, you think of St. Petersburg in 1916.
And his dog, it turns out, was named Marx. Perfect.

September 17, 2010 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

Boy's gotta have it.


Drool. Oh, to have $33,751.00 just burning a hole in my pocket.

(Via Dinosaurs and Robots.)

September 17, 2010 in Personal, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

On The Clock contest - We have a winner!

The On The Clock giveaway contest has now ended. The winner is Rosa, who passed along this great lesson learned from her first job:
My first real job was as a housekeeper at a hotel, the summer after I graduated from college. The most important thing I learned was to always check my paystub. One day a co-worker and I were looking at our timecards, and adding up our hours for the week, and our supervisor walked by and snatched them out of our hands. She told us that we were not allowed to do that. After that, I wrote my hours down every day, and started comparing them with what I was actually paid for, and every check was short a few hours. After about the third time I complained, my checks were right, but each of my co-workers who checked theirs, also found "mistakes".
While all the entries were quite good, this one really stood out. Be cautious, or The Man will stick it to you. Something for all of us to remember.

September 17, 2010 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

How Samuel Pepys spent my birthday, in 1667

(Okay, so I guess "my birthday" should actually read "the date of my future birth." Whatever.)
Up, and at the office all the morning till almost noon, and then I rode from the office (which I have not done five times I think since I come thither) and to the Exchequer for some tallies for Tangier; and that being done, to the Dog taverne, and there I spent half a piece upon the clerks, and so away, and I to Mrs. Martin’s, but she not at home, but staid and drunk with her sister and landlady, and by that time it was time to go to a play, which I did at the Duke’s house, where “Tu Quoque” was the first time acted, with some alterations of Sir W. Davenant’s; but the play is a very silly play, methinks; for I, and others that sat by me, Mr. Povy and Mr. Progers, were weary of it; but it will please the citizens. My wife also was there, I having sent for her to meet me there, and W. Hewer. After the play we home, and there I to the office and despatched my business, and then home, and mightily pleased with my wife’s playing on the flageolet, she taking out any tune almost at first sight, and keeping time to it, which pleases me mightily. So to supper and to bed.
Nice day - he had drinks at two different locations, watched a play, and listened to his wife play the flageolet ("a woodwind musical instrument and a member of the fipple flute family"). But I'll still take my day over his.

September 13, 2010 in Books, History, Personal | Permalink | Comments (2)

Barbara Kingsolver

Kevin Nance has a great article (not online) in the current Poets & Writers in which he discusses the role of "first readers" - those trusted individuals who read a writer's early manuscript and give constructive criticism on how the story can be improved. The entire article is very worthwhile, but I particularly enjoyed the comments of Barbara Kingsolver, which I have excerpted below.

Clarity - just enough of it - is also high on Kingsolver's list of goals. "My greatest challenge is the tightrope walk between flagrant thematic exposition and baffling obscurity," she says. "I tend to err on the side of obscurity in early drafts - after all, it's perfectly obvious to me what I'm getting at - and then question my readers carefully about how much they understood. With each successive draft, I'll bring up the lights a little more until I've hit the right balance."


Of course, once a first reader has identified potential problems in the manuscript, a key issue is whether the writer is open to specific suggestions for solutions. Kingsolver isn't. "My only rule is this: Tell me what you don't like, but don't suggest how to fix it," she says. "I'm the story mechanic, that's my job. If readers want to unscrew the back panel of my story and start poking around, they may violate the integrity of the machine."


"I want pure honesty - a long, thoughtful list of things a reader disliked. That's not 'brutal', it's a gift. You know what's brutal? Having your blunders discussed in the New York Times Book Review. I beg my readers to do me the favor of pointing out my original mistakes while I can still fix them."

After admiring the sensibilities illustrated here, and reading her wonderful Animal, Vegetable, Miracle last year, I'm thinking I really like her - not just as a writer, but as a person as well.

September 12, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Book Giveaway Contest: On The Clock


As I mentioned earlier, Bottom Dog Press recently published an anthology, On The Clock: Contemporary Short Stories of Work, which includes my story "The Last Final Copy." I'm working my way through the collection - the stories of Bonnie Jo Campbell and Jim Daniels are particularly good - and have really enjoyed it so far.

To give the book some more exposure, I'm holding a contest here to give a free copy to one lucky winner. To enter, please leave a comment below in which you describe your first real job, and the most important thing you learned from the experience. To get everyone going, I'll offer that my first real job was working fast food - first cashier, then grill cook - at a smaller, third-rate amusement park outside of Chicago. (For Chicago-area natives of a certain age who really care to know, it was Santa's Village, in 1983.) I worked there the summer before I started college, and the most important thing I learned is how important it was to study hard and get good grades in college, and thus avoid having to work fast food for the rest of my life.

To save on mailing costs, I'm limiting eligibility to U.S. participants only. The contest will remain open through midnight, Thursday, September 16. Shortly after that, I'll pick my favorite of all the entries, and that person will win the book. Good luck!

September 9, 2010 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tony and the Nevilles


I first knew Tony Fitzpatrick as a poet, specifically for Bum Town, his book-length ode to his beloved hometown of Chicago. It wasn't until after I read (and loved) that book that I realized Fitzpatrick is even better known as a visual artist, specializing in collage pieces that draw heavily on Chicago history and also incorporate his own vast collection of matchbook covers and other ephemera.

I follow Tony on Facebook and noticed his recent status update in which he mentioned that he happened to be working (that is, creating an artwork) while cranking the Neville Brothers at high volume. I slowly began to consider how much Tony's work reminded me of New Orleans folk art and then, prompted by that status update, I fetched from my shelf the Nevilles' Yellow Moon, a terrific album that I hadn't listened to in quite a while. As I glanced at the lovely cover art (shown above), I was struck by how much it resembled Tony's work. So I checked the liner notes, and there it was: "Cover Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick." One of my favorite artists, and a favorite album, intimately and unexpectedly linked. Quite the serendipitous moment.

September 8, 2010 in Art, Books, Chicago Observations, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Through the Viewfinder

As I mentioned earlier, I recently acquired an old Kodak Brownie camera. I'd love to take photographs with it, but the required 620 film is pricey, and I'm doubtful if the optics - which probably weren't high-grade to begin with - have held up well enough that I'd be fully pleased with the (expensive) results.

So for a quick and cheap alternative, I'm trying Through the Viewfinder (TTV) photography. Basically, you use one modern camera (in this case, digital) to photograph images through the viewfinder of an older, usually medium format camera (here, the Brownie). The resulting images are less than perfect, but I still enjoy the imperfections in all their idiosyncratic glory. Here are three of my first attempts, all photographed in our breakfast nook.

Here's the artsy effort, including oh-so-chic kitchen chair from IKEA:

Ttv chair 090510

Here's feline heartthrob Spike, playing coy for the camera.

Ttv spike 090510

And here's the rarely coy Maddie, smiling as always.

Ttv maddie 090510

This is a fun and easy process, one that I'm really looking forward to more of.

September 6, 2010 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (1)

Just what the world needs, another...

Over at the Two Dollar Radio blog, Grace Krilanovich has some kind thoughts on bass players, both in general (" Guileless, a little bit mysterious, endearingly dorky; if they know what’s best for them they’ll be lurking in the shadows next to the drummer.") and the dual-bass band Dos of Mike Watt and Kira Roessler ("It’s a small music, origins stained with grief, and maybe a kind of romance too.")

If I was in a band (a big stretch, since I don't play any musical instruments) I'd definitely be the bass player. I don't have the pipes to be the singer or the charisma to be guitarist, and the coordination required to have three or four limbs operating independently yet still in sync that's required of a drummer is far beyond me. But I could probably (eventually) master playing the same bass chords over and over again, though I'd never be more than competent, nowhere near the league of Watt, Flea or Entwistle.

That subject line comes from a college-era memory that always gives me a chuckle. One of the record stores in Champaign, Record Swap, had a stairwell that was always plastered with flyers, primarily of musicians looking for bands, or vice versa. The one flyer that I remember best was from a bass player looking for a band, which had "BASS PLAYER" in bold letters and a picture of Jimi Hendrix. But the guy also added, in a wonderful bit of self-deprecation, several other words and a dialogue balloon, so that it looked like Hendrix was saying "Just what the world needs, another...BASS PLAYER." Priceless. If I had a band back then, I would have hired that guy on the spot.

September 2, 2010 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Another camera joins the brood


Over the weekend, Julie was kind enough to buy me the charming little camera shown above - a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye from the 1960s. During my teens I had one just like this (a family hand-me-down) but I don't know what ever happened to it, so I was quite pleased to find this one. Not only is it in perfect condition, but it also came in its original box, with flash attachment, all nine original bulbs (the old-fashioned screw-in kind) and instruction booklet. The only thing missing from the box was (I'm guessing) the roll of 620 film that came with the kit (there's an empty cutout in one corner of the box, just the size of a film package). And I just learned you can still buy 620 film (technically, it's 120 film re-wound onto a 620 spool, for a premium price of course) so conceivably I could really use this one. We'll see.

The Brownie now enjoys an honored place on my shelf, alongside my Mamiya C33, Beacon and fold-up Kodak Hawkeye circa 1910s. I've just now realized that I never featured the latter camera here on my blog, but it's a charming relic in its own right. Maybe I'll post about that one sometime soon.

September 1, 2010 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)