Saturday, August 25, 2012

Lay Lady Lay: The Woman Blog

All art today by the incomparable Anne Taintor

Taintor, Paint Her! Sold Her? *Sigh*

Today’s Huff Post headlines...all-male  roll call! Jobs, Romney, Obama, Bernanke, and...Limbaugh rejoicing at a Romney birther joke (ha, ha, what larks!); and as for the women: “Jennifer Greene Brings Back The Slit” and “Jennifer Lopez Goes Strapless.”

Yes, you guessed it: Uber-Feminist and Unapologetic Drinker Miss O’ is going to talk about rape, vaginas, and other girly concerns today. But first she wants to celebrate artist Anne Taintor.

Anne Taintor, Self Portrait

Anne Taintor is a visual artist who, beginning in 1985—using the magazine advertising models of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s as inspiration and material—made collage art commentary on what it is to be a woman in Capitalist America. Using fresh-faced advertising images and pasted strips of ransom-note styled words, she appropriated mid-twentieth century proto-woman sensibility and turned it on its costume jewelry earring. She became a commercial sensation. I am using her Googled art today to assist me in this foray into feminism, to serve as surrogate for Miss O’s sense of humor. Because Miss O' is fucking pissed off today.  

Just Like a Woman

Last weekend Miss O’ attended a wedding, an actually cool wedding, in a 3rd Floor photography studio in a fabulous old building on 18th Street and Broadway, near Union Square. Tall windows, wood floors, white walls, candles resting atop sunflowers inside glass globe holders, all designed by the artist bride, who was 52. She herself wore on her tall, fit but womanly frame a form-fitting gown of ruched silk with cap sleeves and low neck, the silk of a color like champagne tinted with bronze. To this she had added a white hydrangea boa she had made herself. Her face glowed in simple makeup, set off by exotic dangly earrings, the front strands of her long, reddish tresses, pulled back from her face and gathered lightly at the top of her head.

As readers know from previous posts, for all her own clothing simplicity, Miss O’ loves clothes, the artsy quality of them, yes, but really the fabrics. I love to see how creatively people can put together colors, textures, and patterns, accessorize and adorn them, and stride out into the subway world as walking art. I'm not all books and blogs, is what I'm saying.

I myself had never met the bride; I was the date of the man officiating the ceremony. He introduced us beforehand (it was a great open reception to be interrupted briefly for a heartfelt ceremony, followed by dancing and more divine catered nosh), and I gushed (as Miss O’ does), “So nice to meet you, and may I say you look gorgeous!” I looked her up and down. “The silk, the boa!” And she thanked me. Later, my date said, “Oh, I’m so glad you said something. All week her sisters have been telling her they hate the dress, she should wear white, all that, be more traditional.” (This was her first marriage; her groom had been a high school chum, now a globetrotting diplomat, and this was one of those great reconnections. To complete this picture, he wore a French blue and white striped shirt, a blue-based floral tie, and a cream suit in another pattern altogether, windowpane, I think—I adored this groom on sight.)

Later, when I met the bride’s gorgeous mother (wearing tasteful yet glamorous black), I remarked how stunning her daughter looked. Her mom considered me for a moment. “Yes, well, she can get away with it.”

That phrase, “She can get away with it,” uttered cooly by one woman to another woman, and about another woman, too—her own daughter, even—really sticks in Miss O’s feminist craw.

Earlier that evening, just as I had arrived, I had been introduced to another of my date’s friends, a woman he had worked with (now, like him, retired), and I saw her looking at my necklace. I’d chosen a crafted necklace, a small, brown clay face on a thickish cord, which my date had given to me years before (he’d bought it from an artist just because he liked it). I said, “Did you see?” and he said, “I saw!”

The woman looked perturbed. “Well,” she said, “I guess you can get away with it.”

Ain’t I a Woman?

You see it, you hear it, this sort of thing, and far too often, woman to woman: "She can get away with it, I guess." Out of what Miss O’ suspects is a combination of sexual jealousy and personal limitation, remarks like this are foisted upon creative women, unusual women, well, women, by all types of other women every day. It’s not even a backhanded compliment, but more like a mitigated insult, a less direct hit.

As Miss O' has meditated on often in past blogs, since the story of Adam and Eve, women have been blamed for everything that goes wrong in the world:  Eve’s apple munch brought about the fall of man. So powerful was her choice to bite in that even God Himself could no longer see Man on Earth: “Adam, where are you?” They’s some chompers on that girl! And ever since, Woman's wet, yummy pussy—signaled to exist, why, not only via the sway of an ample rump, nay, but also from the lights of her very eyes—drives men to rape and to war. Helen’s was the, er, face that launched a thousand ships, wasn't it?

In the thousands of years since man figured out that the woman goddess did not become pregnant divinely, but rather as a result of ejaculation out of his own hard pisser into her hairy, wet (or even dry) hole, men as a species, rather than honor women for their sacrifice, have chosen instead to subjugate women by using rape and the threat of pregnancy as weapons against them. Over the past two centuries many women have formally voiced outrage against this treatment; in the Western world the watershed may have been Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) where she argued that the only real difference between men and women was access to a good education. (She was the mother of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.) A movement was launched!

That we women, after 220 years, are but in the middle of the movement, not the end, is MADDENING to Miss O’.

And that this is as much the fault of other women as of narrow-minded men, if not more, maddens Miss O’ beyond the capacity of any asylum to hold her.

Evolved heterosexual men, such as President Obama and my father, Bernie the retired meat cutter from Iowa, are married to smart, strong women who freely share opinions and ideas along with the child-rearing and chore-doing. And there are a lot of good, honest laughs each day because like my mom and dad, Michelle and Barack Obama clearly love and enjoy and respect each other as humans. You would think that the Obama marriage would be the standard against which all others are judged.

But no. I keep forgetting they are black. In America.

“Mrs. Obama should not bare her arms in public.” Do you remember this outcry from GOP women and men in 2009? No? That’s because Michelle Obama knew these comments came from Conservative, Taliban-esque village idiots—the president joked that year at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner: “Michelle has the right to bare arms,” as she pumped her unclad biceps—thereby declaring she would not flinch at the sleeveless dress or top. No one mentions it now.

And yet still we hear any number of female voices oppressing other females, aside from the otherwise excellent Ariana Huffington's tabloid take on women on her Home Page…

“Well, she can get away with it.”

“No woman should get an abortion! I vote Pro-Life!”

“That little Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas really needs to do something about her hair.”

“Oh, lookee! Spikey-high-heeled shoes that will prevent me from running from an attacker!”

“10 Things Men Can’t Stand About You!”

“Did I scream at you lately that I vote Pro-Life????”

“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”

“One can never be too rich or too thin.”

“Thirty Days to a Bikini Body!”

“Jessica’s Dress Is a Red Carpet FAIL!”

“Please, let a politician in Washington, D.C., take away my legal right to my own body! It’s too hot for me to handle by myself!”

The messages all amount to the same thing: If society keeps a woman distracted—by insecurity in her own looks, the inadequacy of her own body for sexual allure, her sense of being too dumb, too powerless—or guilty, using religious winches to pull her head up inside her own womb, or that woman's, over there—then men in power can play money sports all day, whether it’s high-stakes Wall Street gambling or campaigning to take society’s taxes to spend on cronies through a democratic, corporate-run, “free” election. That is the game. And, Ladies, it is a game.

The truth is, too many women do not realize their own power. Years ago, I was playing touch football at a drama picnic when I was a teacher, and I was "covering" the QB, who happened to be the actual QB on the varsity team. He paused. "Miss O', I am genuinely afraid of you." I looked at him, as only Miss O' can, and said, "Because you have no idea what I'm gonna do." And he nodded. Physically, I was no match for him. But it didn't matter.

I really do contend that there is nothing more frightening to a power-hungry, money-lovin’ man than a smart woman who is paying attention, knows her own strength, and, as Churchill might say, past whom nothing gets. So Strategy Number 1 for Men Who Desire Money and Power: Keep the Fillies Down. That's more than half the population, after all. And that works for a while, what with the whole rape and pregnancy threat. (One of these days, we women will engineer a way for men to get pregnant when anally raped by other, larger men, and a new day will dawn.)

Pardon me while I repeat:

Akin for a Fight

Republican Rep. and Missouri senatorial candidate Todd Akin, I am not going down your road today. We’ve spent the past week saying everything that needs saying about your asinine, but wholly honest, comments with regard to women and their inability to govern their own bodies, including understanding when a so-called “rape” has occurred. The Christian Republican truth, like the Taliban truth, is that “rape” could only exist if a woman had a right to her own body. She does not.

Because it just makes so much sense!

Say You, Say Me

What Miss O’ is closing with today is a phenomenon known as Stockholm Syndrome. I think this nation is in the throes of a terrible case of it. Here’s a definition from the Wiki:

Stockholm syndrome, or capture-bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness.[1][2] The FBI’s Hostage Barricade Database System shows that roughly 27% of victims show evidence of Stockholm Syndrome.[3]
Stockholm syndrome can be seen as a form of traumatic bonding, which does not necessarily require a hostage scenario, but which describes "strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other."[4]
Battered-wife syndrome is an example of activating the capture-bonding psychological mechanism, as are military basic training, fraternity bonding by hazing, and sex practices such as sadism/masochism or bondage/discipline.[5][6][7][8]

Here's how I came by my theory: At the time of World War II, America did not have a Military Industrial Complex, as Eisenhower would come to call it (and warn against it in 1960). America, being huge and surrounded not only by two oceans, but by peaceable Mexico and Canada to south and north, respectively, was politically isolationist. Except in our (quiet, here) rape and pillage of the natural resources of less affluent nations, we kept to ourselves as much as possible. Then with WWII came victory through the atom bomb, and U.S.A #1 began its insistent drumbeat.  Just as those global humans who were oppressed by the U.S. would go on to oppress themselves by donning Western suits, tee shirts, or blue jeans—all while drinking stomach-destroying, refreshing Coca Cola as we missioned our Puritan Christian Capitalist ethos through the "good works" of our most pious disciples—we, too, began to identify with ideologies that we sought to snuff out.

This could be great—and, really, it's too bad we didn’t identify with the Native Americans more, for example—but somehow it’s the power-hungry evildoers who draw us in and spark our imaginations, hence a whole syndrome devoted to it. To cite one example: When it comes to women and their rights (to bare arms, to contraception, to legally own their own bodies), Republicans have begun turning into the very Taliban they purport to want to get rid of. How does the oppressor-identification take hold?

However divergent their political espousals, what the Big Three Oppressive Ideologies—Fascism, Communism, and Theocracy—have in common is that in order to take and remain in power, they must do two things: 1) Silence Dissent; and 2) Scapegoat the “Other.” To effect number 1, they must silence first the women, then the writers, then the teachers and artists and thinkers and scientists. To effect number 2, they must scapegoat first the women, then the immigrants, then the Jews (there’s some kind of global law, apparently), then the gays, and, throughout the purges, the schools.

They use myriad tactics. Whether the oppressive regimes buy the media to put out their propaganda, or use military force, or go door to door preaching damnation, the endgame is the same: They have money and power, and education, and you do not.

A final "tactic" is really a psychological accident. With Stockholm Syndrome, the Oppressed come to identify with, and even revere, their Oppressors. That is, the Oppressor manages to convince the Oppressed, "We are more deserving of life than you are; it's our planet. (Feigning pity) Well, maybe we will let you live. You might work for us. If you're lucky."

Hence the current poll numbers indicating that at least half of the citizens of the United States of America, poor and rich, old and young, sick and well, women and men, are seriously considering electing Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to the White House. How else to explain the success of these candidates if not Stockholm Syndrome? Their party of Republicans employs the usual arsenal of tactics, short only of military force (so far), to assume control: They play fluffer to the masses, riling up racist, anti-immigrant Americans against the black president with the African father, by cracking birther jokes; they promise to cut taxes for the rich while raising taxes on the middle class (to cheers!), putting even more of the nation's private wealth into offshore tax havens; promise to send even more jobs overseas; declare they will cut all social programs, and end any kind of national health care for all citizens, including Medicare and the defunding of the single most important source for preventing unwanted pregnancies through education, Planned Parenthood; deregulate Wall Street; and slash (er, "privatize") Social Security—and the oppressed followers bend over and thank them for the abuse of all their rights, as the oppressors-in-chief-to-be take all their money. All of this sounds like an article in The Onion: Most every news story and headline now causes Miss O' to shake her head: "How can anyone be this stupid?"

Just so, otherwise intelligent women become self-defeating abusers of other women, following the example of these men, whether putting down successful female athletes, artists, thinkers, writers, scientists, and politicians for their looks (Hillary’s hair!), or indulging in the extreme of insisting that no woman should have a legal right to her own body. Such self-hating women have even been indoctrinated into the “Pro-Life” movement, which is nothing less than an “Anti-Woman” movement. You cannot tell these women that their views are not merely uneducated, but also sick and self-destructive, so sure are they, so true is their faith in the egg-sperm conjunction trumping all other aspects of female human life. Well done, Male-Dominated Catholic Church, well-bowled Male-Run Corporate America. While those little Life-Loving fillies are out oppressing other fillies and voting for you, you can take their money. And maybe their jobs. And then, voila!, you have their independence. Here, too, The Onion has too much competition from real life. "Women should not have choices in their lives" is the message, and as Miss O' sees women nodding in agreement, she can only marvel, "How can any woman be this stupid?"

Keep the condescension on "high," and they won’t know what hit ’em. We're goin' to Stockholm!

And thanks to the corporate-owned Media Machine, the would-be oppressors say what they'll do and how they will work to enact it (actual quote from PA Republican House Majority Leader Mike Turzai: "Voter ID is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania. Done."), all in full view of the country and the rest of the planet, interrupted only by commercials urging us to buy stuff we cannot afford. 

Even the act of voting has been made suspect.

Legitimate rape, indeed. Only if we let them get away with it.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Who Makes the Grade?

Evaluation in America the Beautiful/Hot/Pretty/Undatable

Do you….

a.     strongly disagree
b.     disagree
c.      tend to disagree
d.     agree
e.     tend to agree, with lemon
f.      agree strongly
g.     couldn’t give a shit
h.     once gave a shit but forgot why

Is your work…

a.     Outstanding (top 1%)
b.     Excellent (top 10%)
c.      Super (top 20%)
d.     Very good (top 30%)
e.     Good (top 40! Gold!)
f.      Fair (around 50%)
g.     Poor (below 50%)
h.     Why Do You Live? (below 0%)

How do I know which letter to choose when the survey asks me to deliver 1) my final grades, or 2) the performance “talent link” score, or 3) the promotion assessment?

Miss O’ raises the issue of evaluation this week at the prodding of alert reader Rob, a former student from my high school drama days. Because we Americans do an awful lot of statistical nuancing to prove points in what is essentially an agree/disagree, pass/fail world, evaluation metrics are hard to write, for as Mark Twain once remarked, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

See, Rob wants to know the best way to evaluate teachers. If not student test scores, for example, then what do we use to show that a teacher is doing her job?  (NOTE: I use “her” for a teacher, and here’s why: from the government website (boldface mine):

Demographic Characteristics
    Among full-time and part-time public school teachers in 2007–08, some 76 percent of public school teachers were female, 44 percent were under age 40, and 52 percent had a master’s or higher degree. Compared with public school teachers, a lower percentage of private school teachers were female (74 percent), were under age 40 (39 percent), and had a master’s or higher degree (38 percent). 

In addition, among both males and females, 83 percent of public school teachers were White, 7 percent each were Black or Hispanic, 1 percent each were Asian or of two or more races, and less than one percent each were Pacific Islander or American Indian/Alaska Native in 2007–08.

Interesting, isn’t it? Most teachers are women: The majority gender in the profession most consistently under fire for "not doing its job" and blamed for all of the nation's ills, is the same gender that finds itself under fire for wanting reproductive rights and insurance-covered contraception. This is probably not a coincidence. But today is about evaluation.)

Real World Marks: Pass/Fail

“I like it. It’s got a good beat. I can dance to it.” Such were the criteria for a song’s worth according to the late Dick Clark’s ol’ American Bandstand’s teen dance crowd. Pass/Fail. And really, isn’t that how we all evaluate?

A candidate wins or loses. A deal comes off or it doesn’t.  One team beats another. Life is pass/fail. And this makes creating “Evaluation Criteria” really hard for humans: It’s completely artificial.

Oh, sure, you can say why you only kind of liked a movie, or how a meal could have been better. But in the end, you saw the movie and liked it, or didn’t; you ate the dinner and enjoyed it, or not. We usually don't like to say anything much, because then there’s the fallout of the evaluation you pronounce.

So. What Did You Think?

This past week, for example, Miss O’ was having dinner with a friend, and we got into a hearty discussion of the state of American politics. I told him my definition of what it means to be a Liberal, which really resonated with him. A few days later, he wrote to say he had shared this definition with a friend, who wanted to post it as a status update. How should she phrase it, and did I want credit? I directed him to a blog I posted in September of 2011, called “Compare and Contrast,” which alludes to several subjects that will also come up in today’s post, and features the exact wording of my definition of a Liberal. Here is the link:

Later, as I was checking the Stats section of The Miss O’ Show (to see, you know, if anyone’s reading), I saw that that old blog o’ mine had had seven new hits during the course of the day. I messaged this friend to thank him for sending the link out. He wrote back, not “That’s great!” but instead, “How do you feel about that?” Um. Well, it’s a blog. I want people to read it. Right? He changed the subject.

What I realized—what he was not saying—was that he didn’t like my blog. He did not approve of my work. Even as a friend who loves me, he could not offer one supportive word about this piece of writing. In other words, in our world of pass/fail, my blog was a fail. Assessments like this—even unspoken ones—can make things awkward in friendships. (Cue wine entrance.)

Really, how many of us have been to shows where friends were performing, and the show was just BEYOND awful, and maybe they themselves—our dear friends—weren’t even good in it, and we have to say something. It’s a mortifying feeling: “Wow, you were IN THAT SHOW!” we say, forcing a smile. (They fail.)

But when we really like something—a show, an article, a song—we can easily say, “I really enjoyed watching/reading/hearing that,” and mean it. (They pass.)

All in All, There’s No Rubric in the Wall

We don’t use rubrics much in the day to day. Here’s a definition of rubric from the Wiki:
In education terminology, scoring rubric means "a standard of performance for a defined population".

Here is an example of a rubric I found when I went to Google Images and typed “rubric”:

As you can see, each of the questions is a judgment call—“How well does the work…?” sorts of things—and a range of point values is lined up—from 4 (Excellent) to 1 (Needs Work)—for evaluators to check off in easy-to-use boxes.  I’m not even saying it’s a bad rubric. I’m just pointing out that even there—and in the many others I looked at—subjective judgment is involved in its use. Look at your own Performance Review Rubics at work: Someone is judging.

I said before that scoring like this is artificial. Can you imagine if we showed up with a rubric to our friends’ arts events, or to a sales meeting, or to a day on the job, or even a party, and received and awarded scores of 1 to 4 based on our perception of the performances of others? 

"I give your casserole a 2." When exactly does anyone really need to know what we think at that level of detail?

Imagine if you didn’t just give a hug and a kiss to your kid, but received afterward a rating of the hug’s effectiveness in buoying your child’s mood? ("Enh, two stars.")

Even when scoring seems objective, it often isn’t. Olga Korbut’s routine on the uneven parallel bars in the 1972 Olympics in Munich was possibly the greatest gymnastics routine ever performed on that apparatus. Her score? 9.8.

A guy I knew in college in the early ’80s used to say after a group of us had finished dancing to a song at a party, “9.8, 9.6, and a 2.3 from the Soviet judge.”

Advice. No Consent.

I told a story in another blog—not sure which one—where a friend, Myra, told me about being called into her acting teacher’s office (she was a college senior). The professor said something like, “Myra, you have no talent.” He went on to explain that further training would be a waste not only of her time and money, but a waste of any acting coach’s time, and any audience’s time. Myra changed. I’m not sure she fully recovered from that blow, emotionally—the last time I saw her was 2002, and she looked like the shell of the young aspiring artist I had been friends with years before. Sure, a lot of life had happened, but something was just missing in her spirit.

Myra had said to me at the time it happened, “Lisa, no teacher has a right to tell a student not to dream.”

When I recounted this story, months ago, to my unhappy blog reader (and very talented man) above, he felt the professor had done the right thing. Possibly you agree: “But, Miss O’,” you say, “part of being a teacher is saying the hard stuff.”

Not if the hard stuff is, “Stop believing in yourself.” That is not an evaluative comment. That is a judgment from hell. No one appointed that professor “GOD,” and no one anointed that professor with so much wisdom of the ages so as to have the right to make a judgment of a person’s dreams and find them wanting.

My friend who agreed with the professor is, quite frankly, wrong. (I still love my friend.) The professor was absolutely and utterly in the wrong, morally, ethically, and personally. I’ll go to the mattresses on that one. That professor, on that call, is a big FAIL in Miss O's Book of Other People's Faults.

So what is right in a case like that? Suppose you really see this student—an aspiring artist—as talentless (it never occurring to you that your ideas of what it means to be talented might be a tad limited). Suppose the student asks, in conversation, “What would be a good next step for me?”

You look. You blink. You think: Is this in my job description? You have taught your curriculum to this student to the best of your ability, with established criteria, and you have assessed all your pupils according to your rubric. Even if this youth is (in your view) misguided, said youth still probably managed a B in your class for doing all that was expected of her under the circumstances.

What do you say? First of all, saying something isn’t our job. Her next step is not your call to make. Isn’t that a relief? You smile.

All a teacher has to do, at a time like this, is ask questions and ask them with joy and real curiosity: When are you happiest? When you imagine a future for yourself, where are you? Would you like to get more education or try to apprentice somewhere? Have you thought about moving to New York/L.A./Chicago and seeing what’s out there? Just live life for a few years, gain some experience, form a strong worldview? Where are your friends going? There are so many ways to bring out the dreams of a person without having to pronounce any judgment on those dreams.

You can also share observations: You have always seemed most connected when I see you doing ________. Is this interesting to you at all?

This is not evasion—it’s teaching. The biggest job of a teacher is not, contrary to popular opinion, to deliver knowledge as one shares lozenges from a Pez dispenser. Sure, you tell them stuff they don’t know. The main job of a teacher, though, is to help students to access their own way to finding knowledge. A teacher shares, for example, texts and how to read them; movies and how to watch them; techniques and how to apply them. But in the end, the student has to take what sticks and use it however she or he sees fit to use it. It’s her life, his life, not the teacher’s, and it’s no teacher’s call to say, Don’t dream of anything I cannot imagine.

Whenever I feel discouraged—when I get sad that someone I love doesn’t believe in me or my work—I try to remember this evaluation of Fred Astaire when he screen-tested in Hollywood for the first time. Aside from his being the greatest dancer of all time, Mr. Astaire is my favorite singer of standards, even more than Frank Sinatra:

Fred Astaire: Can't Sing, Can't Act. Balding. Can Dance a Little.”

And here’s a lovely Gershwin song that sums it all up: “They All Laughed.”

So How Are We to Evaluate a Teacher?

In trying to think about how one should evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher, all I could think to do was write about my favorite teachers and what made them awesome. My challenge then, will be to assign to each marvelous quality a number that a principal could use in an evaluation—make some kind of rubric out of it. I have no idea what is about to happen.

My Favorite Teachers: Miss Dotson (Grade 1), Mr. Hart (Grade 5), Miss Covington (Grade 7), Mr. Edwards (Grade 11), Mr. Corbin (Grade 12): A Compendium of Inspiration

NOTE: I remember all my teachers. Of the 50 or so I had in all my years of taxpayer-supported public school, these are the best. I could also easily name the worst. For the record, I believe firmly they were ALL worth experiencing.

Miss Dotson: High energy, really skinny, cat-eye glasses, looked like Mary Tyler Moore on speed; she visited the home of every single child in her class (how smart was that?); she asked once, “What is the Milky Way?” and seeing my wide smile as I raised my eager hand, she smiled back, “And don’t tell me it’s a candy bar!”; I couldn’t read a word when I entered first grade, and when I left I was in the top of the three reading groups (I still remember graduating from The Redskins to The Cardinals the last month of school); she asked me to tutor new kid Mark Romano on how to count from one to one hundred, to tutor him on reading—basically to tutor him, and that’s when I knew I was a born teacher. Kisses, Miss Dotson, who became Mrs. Larson, and whose retirement party I attended in the ol’ Featherstone Elementary multi-purpose room in 2002.

Mr. Hart: Laid back; calm; always wore a suit; the only male on the entire faculty, Principal David Kite called him “the onion in the petunia patch”; taught all of us to play chess, and at snack time during the year, as he ate his orange, every kid had to play him once in rotation (one match per snack time, which time lasted as long as the match), and after your first turn was up, you could give it away, which I did, because I preferred to dance to 45s brought in by Terri Trelinskie, who was an incredible dancer (and is now a music teacher!); half of his kids were (I realize now) special education students—emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, or otherwise hard to reach, but the rest of us didn't know it—isn't that something?; gave out Coupons (pronounced KOOP-ons, not “Cue-pons” which drove my mom nuts) as rewards for good deeds and grades, with a regular auction so we could bid on things like lunch outside; taught us the American justice system by implementing Class Court, with a regular rotation of judges (I was taken to court by Randall Bowler for hitting him; I pled guilty, and grinned, because he deserved it; I believe I was fined 10 coupons); was given for the first time in my life actual praise for my good grades (well, it was kind of back-handed praise—it may surprise you to know Miss O’ was not a model student: He yelled after one grading period, “I mean, Lisa O’Hara has the best grades in this class!” as if to say, “C’mon guys, for love of fuck, Lisa O’Hara has the best grades! Get with it!”); we did unforgettable units: on Japan, complete with bowing and haiku we wrote and put on cloth scrolls we hung on the bulletin board; oceanography (my and Lori German’s flying fish sculpture was a thing of beauty; after we hung all of them from the overhead lights, Mr. Hart had us swim through our ocean like divers);  archaeology (using milk cartons and some kind of apoxie or something, in which we buried a small object, we learned, using little chisels (which must be illegal now), how to “dig”—I screamed when I found my fossil, and Mr. Hart was so sweet about it); when the natives got restless, he’d say, “Let’s go outside and play football,” or “Who feels like racing around the school?” and astonishingly, after ten minutes of outside activity, we’d all come back inside a lot more focused for math (and I learned all my times tables that year!); and he and his class ran the annual school variety show. I was an usher and I got to move colored gels around on the overhead projector/spotlight. What a year!

Miss Covington: (I have to open with what I really think is true: She couldn’t stand me. Everything about me—my personality, my way of thinking, my looks (especially my hair)—was met with a quizzical look, or disdain. It didn’t matter; I existed.) English and Social Studies were taught as a block. Her blackboard was covered with notes for us to take on grammar or history—I learned everything there is to know about grammar; I learned all about poetry; I studied the election; I learned about the Donner Party—I will never forget her intoning that in the final days, the party chose human flesh over animal: “The oxen was too tough to eat”; she told stories of prejudice in the South, or how funeral directors during the Depression would often find the “corpse” was only in a deep coma, but would embalm it anyway, because they needed the money—she always sat atop her desk, crossed-legged (and she was no small woman) when she talked; she made Cyndi Sears do a four-count burpee every time she said “Okay” as a verbal filler; she let us write stories; she was the first teacher to show me how to improve my writing, noting at the top of my descriptive poem, “The Dance”—every line of which began, “There are…”—“You might vary the beginnings of your sentences”—revelatory; she once had Mrs. Perillo next door come in and listen to a bunch of us sing the Preamble of the Constitution, as many of us learned from History Rock on ABC Saturday mornings, and in return Mrs. Perillo told us a joke the punch line of which was, “Pardon me, Roy, is that the cat who chewed your new shoes?”; it was the year I found real emotional connection, from gasps of horror to uncontrollable laughter, to be the order of every day in class; and aside from the poems we learned—many of which I can still recite—I remember reading nothing else.

Mr. Edwards: Junior year English, and because we were on year-round school we changed rooms every six weeks, and so all the walls were beige and poster-free and horrid: No matter. “You need to read this poem for the edification of your soul,” he'd explain whenever a student balked at American Literature's troubling depressive side; he explained that American materialism originated with the Puritans: "You know you are among the elect if you own a Cadillac"; his first name being Charles, we (affectionately) called him “Chuckie” because the Ricki Lee Jones song, “Chuck E.’s in Love” was a big hit—he'd roll his eyes and sigh, graciously; we read “Thanatopsis” for extra credit only; saw the video of Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst; read Whitman’s “Song of Myself”—well, the non-sex parts; Wharton’s Ethan Frome and Albee’s The Sandbox; learned grammar top to bottom once again so that we could completely diagram Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, which was our test, and I got 100%; when Scott Lichtman and I shared a trap table up front, we used to make faces at Mr. Edwards or crack quiet jokes (such as MST3K might do at a movie) to the point that Uncle Chuckie had to take us out into the hallway and say, “I am losing my dignity, and this must stop,” and we really did stop, because we really respected him, only to have him look at us during a lesson and turn red and say, “Stop it,” and we’d say, “We didn’t say anything,” and he’d laugh, “I know, but you’re thinking it!”; and he got me to take typing seriously, telling me on my research paper that while my handwriting was nice, it was not scholarly (and when we returned a year later to collect our research papers after graduation, he looked and then said, in that guttural and sweet, “Uh oh” of his: “This is going to sound like a 'dog ate my homework story,' but you know I drive a convertible…” and to this day, our papers are somewhere among the trees of I-95, owing to weak adhesive tape on the storage box. He says).

Mr. Corbin: Advanced Placement English 12: Scariest teacher I ever had: He just knew so much about everything—books, architecture, art, geography, Virginia history, the best colleges, good foods, fashion, pop culture—and he really let you have it if you weren’t curious enough to find out more about it, and then he’d chuckle; we studied Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting” and Shakespeare’s Hamlet and oh my god EVERYTHING; I did my research paper on Oscar Wilde and he was pleased; and we did presentations and recitations, such as the first 14 lines of the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, and the entire “To be or not to be” speech from Hamlet; and we listened to Eliot reading “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Mr. Corbin grinned when I said that I didn’t think he read his own work aloud very well; I wrote unsolicited rhyming parodies of Oedipus the King and other readings, so he asked me to write a "class prologue" to an updated Canterbury Tales (he also nominated me for the English Department Award, though I didn't winamazing he nominated me when I only ever managed a C during first semester and was grateful). I didn’t bother to take the AP test (though Mr. C insists I must have). I just didn’t want to know how much I didn't know (it could also have been because the test cost $40 to take, and my family didn't have it), and if I did take that test, I blanked out on it.

What Do All These Awesome and Wildly Different Teachers Have in Common?

·      Curiosity
·      Love of and great knowledge of subject matter
·      Interest in who we were as humans and learners, sometimes
·      Expectations that we wanted to learn all this stuff, or should
want to
·      Disdain, or little patience, anyway, for the bored
·      Variety of reading and other material
·      Variety of assessments (tests and quizzes, projects and presentations)
·      A willingness to let us play when we got tired
·      Showed us who they were and what they personally cared about, sometimes
·      Fun Fact: All were under forty, and at least two were in their twenties, but I later knew two of them as colleagues, and when they retired around age 60, they were still as awesome.

How Would I Grade Them?


4   Excellent
3   Good
2 Satisfactory
1 Needs Work
Personal Grace (Curiosity/
Passion/Sense of Humor/Self-Knowledge)

Knowledge of Subject Matter

Knowledge of All Kinds of Stuff Beyond Subject Matter

Ability to Make All of the Subject Stuff Relate to the Beyond-the-Subject Stuff, and Vice Versa

Variety of Lessons

Variety of Assessments

Effective Lesson Planning

Innovation When All Lesson Plans Are Shot to Hell by Snowstorm

Instructional Standards Hits (3 per standard per year) (Because it’s the law.)

Engagement of/ and in spite of Students

Engagement with Students

General Magical Properties of Classroom Management

The Mysterious Thing That Makes Kids Want to Knock Themselves the Fuck OUT for This Teacher

My Teacher Evaluation Rubric is, of course, subjective. All rubrics are subjective, whatever the number assignment they yield. In the end, just as any curriculum is only as good as the person teaching it, just so any rubric is only as good as the person doing the evaluation. That person, in the case of a school, is the Principal or Assistant Principal. Therefore, when Miss O’ harps on the need for effective school leadership, first and foremost—that is what she means. And how in the hell is one person going to bear witness to real teaching awesomeness or suckiness in only three 20 to 45-minute classroom visitations, when everyone is on his or her best behavior? Well, one can't. Real evaluation has to be done over time, and often occurs in chats in the hallway, observations on the fly, interactions at a collegial level, and, finally, on gut instinct. A good leader knows to beware of rumors, and yet be aware of a teacher who is too popular too quickly, as well as forgiving of one who is grumbled about for being "too hard." As Mr. Edwards used to tell the parents on Back to School Night, "I'll make a deal with you: If you promise to believe only fifty percent of what your child says about me, I'll promise to believe only fifty percent of what your child says about you."

Why Not Use Student Test Scores?

I've said it a thousand times: A kid in sophomore English has been on the planet 15 years before I ever meet him or her. So when he or she fails the test that year, do I take down with me all the teachers he or she had prior to me, in every school and in every state? But that's not even the important thing. This notion that learning sticks at the moment of encounter is moronic. Most of the stuff I taught did not kick in for kids until years afterward. I'd get visits from kids in their senior year of high school, or even in college: You changed me, they'd say. But they hadn't known it until then, and every epiphany is different (I learned the word epiphany when I read Joyce in Mr. Corbin's class). (P.S. I wrote Mr. Corbin a letter the first year I started teaching, thanking him for teaching me how to write. I didn't realize how important he'd been until I started teaching. And remember, I'd had a C.)

The fact is, most of us don't learn stuff the first time we are introduced to it, not when we are tested on it, and, believe it or not, not even during exam review. Often, we can't get it—that new hard concept, that deep meaning in the text, that elusive skill—for weeks, months, or years. (Fred Astaire rehearsed routines for hundreds of hours so the routine could be filmed in one continuous take. That's right: One take. The whole thing. Weeks of rehearsal, for one 3-minute routine. And he was a genius.) Think of algebra, or (in my case) geometry, where no teacher was going to get through, because my brain could not accept the information until two years later. Why? Who knows? That's what learning is like. If my geometry teacher had been evaluated on a test score of mine that year? Well, call it a career!

Life is learn as you go, pass or fail, with a lot of fudging in between. And, provided you are doing your best, with a true heart, what is wrong with that? When I think of teaching—my own and that of the teachers who mattered most—what I come away with is that the important thing—the ideal, anyway—is to engender in students a desire to dance out into the world and learn even more, so they can give to others the benefit of what they know. 

So. What is the true measure of a wonderful teacher? I think I’ll let Fred show you.

Grade THAT. (Who's got the last laugh now?)