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Peter Marmorek [userpic]

Handling the Reality of Drugs

July 10th, 2014 (03:04 pm)

Part of a teacher's job is to enforce the school's rules. Teachers are the referees, calling penalties as they are needed and when they are deserved. Sometimes that's easy: for example, everyone agrees that stronger kids shouldn't be allowed to bully weaker kids. Sometimes it gets harder, particularly when you don't agree with the rule that it's your job to enforce. For me, one of the major challenges came with entheogens, teacher plants, or drugs. As a child of the 60s, I had ingested a wide variety of things, and felt that drugs were tools, that used appropriately, could deepen and enrich one's life. I remembered being a student at MIT, where the administration established a program that would test anonymously submitted samples, and tell you (via phone, and 10 digit code number) what the submitted drug actually was. MIT did not want their students taking drugs, didn't approve of their taking drugs, but most of all didn’t want them taking drugs that were cut with adulterates. It was an intelligent and compassionate program that I have always admired.

None of the school systems for which I taught had any remotely similar program. Their view was that drugs were a viral evil, and that anyone a teacher could identify who had been infected by the virus should be isolated and punished.  The difference in perspective, between my attitudes and high school administrators’ attitudes, led to a number of sometimes amusingly dissonant situations.

The first one came when I was in teacher's college, and was assigned a practice teaching position in Lindsay. I was 25; my teacher advisor was maybe double that. On our first meeting he explained to me that he was very concerned about drug use amongst his students. He explained that as I was younger, I might be able to recognize signs of addiction he had missed. If I did, he urged me, I should immediately tell him which students I thought were on drugs. He then took a deep breath and confided that a friend of his on the Lindsay police force had once shown him marihuana, “both the leaves, and the berries”. Part of me really wanted to point out to him that marihuana doesn't have berries, it has seeds. Fortunately, I was able to bludgeon that part into silence. Nor did I point out any of the kids in his class who were obviously extremely stoned. (How could I tell? When I asked one student what his name was, he started giggling hysterically, and couldn't stop for 5 minutes.)

My first full time job after teacher's college was in Cobalt, and as I got to know the students there, it became pretty clear who the stoners were. At my second parents' night, the mother of a student I'll call Richard came in, and went on a long tirade about how terrible it was that students were smoking marihuana, and how it was my duty to share with the police any suspicions I might have who was supplying it. I knew who it was: her son, Richard, who was getting it from her older son who was a student at University of Toronto and sending packages up to Cobalt. It was a really tempting moment, but I kept quiet. I had learned one of the great secrets of teaching, which is that if you want to know what's really going on in your students' lives, you can't pass judgements about it.

I was 26 and my senior students were 18, so the differences between us were much less than they would be three decades later. Joan, one of my Cobalt students, told me about Supertramp, a new band who sounded interesting and offered to make me a tape of them, together with the new David Bowie album. I accepted happily; a few days later Mary handed me the tape box. When I got home and opened it, there was a very professionally rolled joint on top, with a note saying, "I like to get blitzed when I listen to new music; hope you do too." In fact, I did, but that wasn't the problem. The problem was that while it was clearly a generous and friendly act, Cobalt was a small town where everyone knew everything about everyone. When I passed Joan an envelope the next day, containing both the joint and thanks for her kind offer, I learned that most of the students in the school already knew and had eagerly been waiting to see what I did. I was learning that as a teacher I had to walk the walk.

IndEC, the alternative school in which I taught four years later, was more challenging because the rules were fuzzier. The students were older, and more mature. In chemistry, there were sophisticated presentations on THC, the active intoxicant in marihuana. In my photography course, students would hand in projects on drug pipes. In literature, Hunter S. Thompson, and William Burroughs were perennially popular. In World Religions, students would read Aldous Huxley and Tim Leary's works on the use of drugs as a way of moving towards enlightenment. One of the surprising truths about drugs has always been that if someone talks intelligently about the effect of a drug, it's pretty likely they've had experience with it. I suspect that made it pretty clear to both my students and to me that we were colouring outside the lines with similarly psychedelic crayons. But nothing was said, and I never admitted to anything that might come back and haunt me at a later moment.

Except once, at the David Bowie concert at Maple Leaf Gardens, in 1980. Another IndEC teacher and I were at the concert with about a half dozen IndECers, and a joint got passed down the row. It got to me, and I took a deep breath, inhaled and passed it on. Nothing was ever said about it, which is good, as it was certainly a hanging offence. Must say, it was also a very fine concert, Bowie being at peak form and in his 'Thin White Duke' phase. I'm still close friends with three of the students who were in that row.

When I went back to a traditional school, Clarkson, things were different. I was older, and my students were younger, and while IndEC's one to one student-teacher meetings encouraged openness, the traditional classroom discouraged it. But I still had lots of facial hair, and listened to current music, so I knew the question would inevitably arise. And when it did, I was ready.

“Sir, do you smoke marihuana?”

“Well,” I smiled cheerily, “that’s really a silly question to ask me. Because if I didn’t smoke marihuana, I’d tell you the truth, and say, ‘No, I don’t smoke marihuana.’ And if I did smoke marihuana, because I’m a teacher who wants to keep his job, I’d lie and say, ‘No, I don’t smoke marihuana.” So the answer to your question is no, I don’t smoke marihuana.”

Many of the students from Clarkson did smoke, and some made a lot less of an effort to hide it than others. The student smoking area, inches outside school property, often had clouds of marihuana smoke over it. So the staff generally tried avoided going near it, so as as not to be in a situation we could neither condone nor ignore. Lorne Park was a wealthier school down the street, and we counted ourselves lucky that our students’ problems were usually with alcohol and marihuana, as they couldn’t afford the more expensive drugs such as cocaine that richer students indulged in. As Robin Williams once noted, “Cocaine is God’s way of punishing you for having too much money.”

There were times students did come to me for help. One of my gifted students, Jean, came to talk to me in the throes of her first LSD experience, which had become longer and more intense than she had expected. I was able to be present, supportive, and non-judgemental and when it wore off she was (and has remained) hugely grateful. Another gifted student (from the Lorne Park area) had a year and a half of cocaine-fuelled dysfunctionality. I didn't kick her out of the gifted program, because it was absolutely clear that her problem wasn't academic, and I couldn't see how being put back into the regular program, away from her friends, would do anything other than alienate her further from school. She came through wonderfully, and had become the editor of a major Canadian fashion magazine when last we crossed paths. People will often live up to your expectations, but they certainly will live down to them.

The head of Clarkson’s guidance dept once sought me out to serve on a teacher panel he was convening to address the issue of student drug abuse. I told him what I felt, that the place to start was with recognizing that some students were inevitably going to use drugs, and our role was to teach them how to use drugs in a way that minimized dangers and problems. He looked at me in shock, and said that he felt all illegal drugs were always bad, and we certainly couldn’t condone any drug use under any circumstances. And that was the end of my formal participation. I felt at the time that he was wrong, but I don't think I fully understood why. He felt that the problem was that some students didn't have the right values, and he wanted a program that would give them those values. I don't think you can give people values. I think you can shape an environment that encourages them to develop the values you want them to have, but that holding the students in compassion without judgement  is essential key. Too wish-washy? Perhaps it made me a less good referee of student transgressions than some might have wanted, but I'm sure it made me a better teacher.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

All My Little Eccentricities

June 17th, 2014 (11:08 am)

There was a knock on the classroom door, and Miranda, my student secretary, announced that the next parent had arrived for her interview. She came in, and inspected the classroom intently. "It's so nice, " she finally said, "after hearing about them for so long, to get to see all your little eccentricities."

Me? Eccentric? I had always thought that I was completely normal, and all the other teachers were unusually conservative. But as I tried to look at my classroom as a stranger might see it, I could see atypical aspects to the carpet on the floor, the giant stuffed cushions on the carpet, the desks arranged in a circle around the classroom, and most of all the lights. Clarkson had standard high school lighting levels, rows of banked fluorescents that blazed with a blinding intensity. I hated them, and of course couldn't do anything to change them because it was board policy. So I bought vertical halogen lamps, about five or six, and put them around the perimeter of the room. The room was dim, with shadows. It felt comfortable to me, and my students loved it.

Years later an ex-student would say to me, "Your classroom had shadows…what I mean is, because your room had lamps which could not throw light equally across the room, there were corners were the light was far dimmer. You could go there and sit inside yourself with yourself. The implicit message was the lack of surveillance. … That's what was so different. That's why we relaxed. Sometimes, you'd visit us in the shadows. Other times, you'd leave us alone. Doesn't that sound like exactly the kind of thing teenagers need? They need to be permitted to be in the shadows."

I know that as a teenager I needed shadows. That was why when I got to MIT, the first place where I had control over my room, I created a space painted completely black, and illuminated mostly by ultra-violet light that made the day-glow murals on the wall shine more effectively. Some of the murals were weird, some were abstract, some were both. There was a powerful sound system, (Grateful Dead and Zappa), and a smell that I would claim was incense. Later at Queens’s University teacher’s college, I fought admin to get the bed springs out of my room, so I could put in a canopy over the mattress and break up the concrete box space. I won that fight, though I had to sign an official form that I would take responsibility for making my own bed. (Queen’s felt that having to bend down would put too great a strain on the ageing bi-weekly sheet-changers.)

At IndEC I started having cushions on the floor and dim light. It seemed a more relaxed comfortable and egalitarian way to talk to students, and as we only had one to one interviews, formality just got in the way. I never liked having a formal distance from my students, which is certainly is part of why so many of them became and remain my friends, or why when I decided to write about my classroom I posted on Facebook the question, "What do you remember about our classroom?" and had 20 responses from ex-students within 24 hours.

What did they say? They started with the poem on the classroom door: I called my classroom Xanadu, and posted the opening to the Coleridge poem there: "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ a stately pleasure dome decree". There was a shabby couch, and progressively shabbier cushions. Over the years I noticed how many of my gifted students would come into the classroom for the first time and immediately throw themselves onto the cushions. Others were much more hesitant at first. Because the desks were in a circle, there was no obvious front, and I'd often sit in different parts of the classroom. This challenged the students whose style was to sit as far away as possible from the teacher, which I suppose was part of why I did it.

When I finally won permission to have a computer lab, the circular desk setup had to go. The computers occupied all the space around the perimeter of the room, and shared tables were in the centre. Bonnie, the head of Art, the fellow supervisor of the Mac lab, and a dear dear friend and I agreed that all the computers should be named. We alternated between writers and artists (Joyce, Atwood, Freeman, Georgia O’Keefe, Blake did double duty). I liked the personalization of the computers, and gradually we became aware of the different personalities and abilities each computer had. Partially this was because we only acquired two or three per year, so that the eMacs were more powerful than the Power Macs; partially it was because different computers got different software. None of that explained why Kafka would crash unexpectedly so often, or why Atwood was the most reliable for Quark Express. Because the Peel board refused to support Macs, I had complete control over what was on the computers, which is how they came to have games on them, something that was utterly taboo elsewhere. I am proud that I remained the Snood champion, despite my students’ best efforts.

Always, in all my classrooms, the top right corner of the board was reserved for the thought of the day, an epigram that might be deep, or silly, or both. On Facebook my ex-students mentioned some of them: "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana”, or "Beware the wrath of dragons, for you are small and crunchy and good with ketchup.” My perennial classroom favourite was G. K. Chesterton's, "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly", a vital message with which I tried to unstick students so paralyzed by fear that their work would have flaws that they felt it was safer to do nothing than to try and fail. I still have above my desk my favourite Beckett quote, "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."

There are teachers, many of them excellent, who view the core of the classroom experience to be challenging the students to meet the teacher's expectations. Increasingly that was not my approach. I felt that the student had a relationship with the subject material, and my job was to be a catalyst for that relationship, to remove the obstacles that kept him or her from mastery. Feeling hungry, feeling judged, feeling uncomfortable were all antithetical to a good learning experience. One of Clarkson's principals once marked down a teacher he was observing because she had let a student open a window without asking her permission, and he felt that "students should always feel slightly nervous in a classroom." He and I didn't get along terrible well.

Einstein famously observed that “education is what's left after you've forgotten everything you've learned." I wanted my students to leave feeling that learning was fun, and enjoyable, and something they could do. Eccentric? I've been called worse things.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

Dancing Around the Rules

June 4th, 2014 (01:16 pm)
current song: Brother - Sunny Pompeii

"The more prohibitions you have,
the less virtuous people will be."


Today I was talking to Rick Hosside, who's a teacher at Clarkson, the big school in which I now teach. I've always felt a certain kinship to Rick because like me, he had also once taught at IndEC, a small alternative school. Rick had come up in my World Religions class, when one of my students had had a cell phone ring in her bag. That is Very Bad according to school rules, so she tried to cough to cover it up. I laughed at her, and said I couldn't believe any teacher took that sort of rule seriously, and she said oh no Mr Hosside did, so when I ran into “Mr Hosside” I kidded him about taking it seriously and he said no, he did because it was, after all, a school rule. Then I said "So?" in a way that indicated that my concept of what a school rule meant was very different from his, and the conversation...and probably the relationship...was on a downward spiral that reached its nadir when he explained that in the business world people had to follow rules, and I explained that I wasn't training people for the business world, I was training them to live, which was the exact opposite.

It was depressingly similar to the conversation I had with Miguel, who teaches Math, and who was upset because Shawn had been writing rap lyrics in his class last Tuesday, and when Miguel confiscated them they had Bad Words in them. He was displeased when I clearly didn't give a fuck about the type of language, and more displeased when I explained that as Shawn (who is often a jerk, but that's a whole different subject) was doing a rap magazine for my Media course, it was appropriate that he use such language. Miguel felt that it was unreasonable that we had different rules about what was acceptable language in different classes, and I could tell who he felt should change their rules. And he could probably tell what I thought of his attitude, which didn't help the mood he was in after being told by Shawn's mother that she thought he was a rude idiot.

There's a fine old quote, “The more I see of people, the more I like my dog”. It would probably be cruel to say, “The more I see of teachers, the more I like my students”, but it does amaze me that these people take these kinds of rules about personal style seriously. I too get irritated when a rule in my classroom is violated, like the rule not to change the names of all the folders on the computers, which one little troll did today, or not to steal all the mouse balls, which happened last week. But I get irritated because it makes more work for me, or for the students who have to figure out where their projects have disappeared to. Other teachers seem to assign a moral value to style. Students are bad if their style of behaviour is different from what the teacher wants it to be. If I were playing tennis and my opponent's serve went out, I'd call it out, but I'd be disinclined to believe this made my opponent a bad person.

One of the really important issues I often have to explicitly address is that students are not bad people because they're failing or not working, or not handing in work or skipping class. And that they shouldn’t think that the fact that they're getting 23% in my course and haven't handed in a single assignment of substance since September means I don't like them. Because it doesn't. If I were Macbeth on stage and they were Duncan or Banquo, the fact that I killed them in the play wouldn't mean we couldn't go out for a drink afterwards. Those are just the roles we're playing. And we are neither Broadway nor Harvard. We're a little rep theatre company trying to help each other. Why impose this heavy morality on superficial behavioural choices? Our school's new dress code, under which I am supposed to send any female student to the office if I can see any part of her cleavage, is another example of a very bizarre moral overlay to a stylistic choice, before we even get to the impossibility of a defensible response to the obvious parental question of why the teacher was staring at his student's cleavage in the first place.

Our school has a rule that there is no eating in class. This means that when kids are hungry, they ask to go to the washroom, disappear into the cafeteria where they run into their friends, and miss a half hour of class. So I made a rule that students can eat in class, if they clean up their mess. If they don't, they lose the privilege. This worked well, until one kid was intercepted by the vice-principal carrying food to my classroom, and when she said, "But you know you aren't allowed to eat in class," he explained that he was allowed to eat in Mr. Marmorek's class. The VP called me down after school, and clarified that I did in fact allow students to eat in class. She then said, like someone playing the ace of trumps, "But you know that's against school rules." I agreed that I did know.

Then there was a very strange and interesting pause. I knew she was waiting for me to apologize and say I wouldn't do it again, because it was against school rules. I thought it was a silly rule, so I wasn't going to say anything. I was curious what she would do. Eventually she said, "Well, I'm going to have to tell the principal about this," an extraordinarily weak response that conjured up visions of 1950's Mom saying, "Wait till your father hears about this." I smiled, gently, and said, "You have to do what you feel you have to do." I never heard anything about the issue again.

People impose a moral overlay on all sorts of things today. Sports teams win because they dig down deeper, because they give more, because they are morally superior. Increasing demonization of political opponents, in which those who differ are morally culpable, is ubiquitous. Anyone since 9/11 who has ventured to suggest that it might be useful to explore the reasons why some people hate the US has quickly found that out. Always I come back to Elie Weisel's line in “The Gates of the Forest” in which he says “The just man knows a thousand truths and that's his weakness; the murderer knows one and that's his strength.”

I mark essays and assign numbers in courses, and do so with as much honesty as I can muster, but these are at best a consensual hallucination. In other places and times, at higher or lower academic levels, the essay to which I give an A would be a failure, and the one that abjectly fails would be a wonderful piece of writing. Fifty years ago the seventh man on the ice in hockey, the rover, was a legitimate position; today it's a two minute penalty for too many men on the ice. A referee has to call the penalties, but they are arbitrary. That's vital to recognize because there are so many deeper levels of communication possible than superficial morality. As David Foster Wallace said, "You might consider that how to escape from a cage must surely require, foremost, awareness of the fact of the cage.” Taking superficial rules seriously is wrong because it means you never get beyond those rules. If everyone walked in step, how would any of us ever learn to dance?

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

Why I am not an Atheist

May 20th, 2014 (11:30 am)

We were having a fine party in honour of Queen Victoria's 195th birthday, and we were into about the 48th hour when my friend, the Amazing Spider-Man, pulled his 16 year old son over and said, "You should ask Peter your question."

So he asked me whether I was or was not an atheist, and caught off guard, I said I was not, explaining that to me absolute certainty about the nature of the universe was equally arrogant whatever particular conclusion one held to. And then I wandered off into a long and pretty irrelevant story about weird experiences, which seemed at the time to be related, though that may well have been the fault of the second bottle of champagne.

I do stand by my original assertion that it’s absurd to have absolute certainty about the nature of a universe in which 95% of what's out there, dark matter and dark energy, is stuff we can't even see, let alone understand. We have a tentative working sense of how the remaining 5% works, at least in our own backyard, approximately the equivalent of studying a blade of grass at home in order to understand the kinds of amphibians they have in Asia.

In high school I was president of our debating club, and the existence of God was a perennial debate topic. It continued to be popular in the late night sessions at university which while marginally less formal than high school debates were significantly better lubricated. I called myself an atheist then, though these days I feel about teenagers and atheism rather like Clemenceau felt about his son: when he was asked if he worried that his son was a communist, he answered “Sir, if he were not a communist at 19 I would disown him. If he is still a communist at 29, I will disown him then." I think rejecting the certainties you have inherited is an important step, and reaccepting them for yourself is even more important. So I would never try to use logic to argue anyone out of or into a position. I have won debates on both sides of the issue, and in the process generated far more heat than light.

Besides, I think rational inquiry is the wrong approach. Let me argue for something far more radical. My premise is that the ultimate truths of the universe, if they exist, are unknowable by humans. We can't argue our way to the truth. But another approach is open to us. If we don't know what's true, we might choose to look at what is most useful. We navigate this world by maps. Each of us has an internal map of how the world is, a map that we have drawn based on our experiences. One person's map says all races are equal; one says their race is superior to all others; one says races don't exist except as a social construct. What happens when you navigate by the map is that either you find your way to where you want to go, or you get lost. That's a clue. Another clue is that the simpler a map is, the more important information has been left off. A map in black and white, no shading, no colours, is not terribly useful. "All my group are good, everyone else’s is bad" is a map that many people have had; almost none of their stories end happily.

So where does the Atheist map take us? The hard atheist position (Richard Dawkins’, as opposed to the agnostic uncertain position Sam Harris has been moving towards) says there's nothing beyond this world. What you see is what we got. There are two problems with navigating by this map. One is that it's so small. You're born, get 100 years max, then you die, and that's it. There is no point beyond fighting to give your genes a better shot at carrying on. That's not a map with a lot of exits labelled “happiness” on.

The bigger problem is that when you assert there is no God, there is no spiritual power, there is nothing beyond the most basic physical world, you are also asserting that 95% of the people who have ever lived are wrong about life. That's a powerful assertion, and it needs powerful proof. It's a point of view that appeals to teenagers, I suspect; I certainly know that when I was a teenager I was sure that I had The Answer, and that anyone who had a different answer was wrong, probably because they weren't as smart as I was, or they hadn't yet read Ayn Rand. Probably both.

I've never seen Antarctica. But a lot of people claim they have, and lots of successful navigation happens based on maps that claim Antarctica is there. Before I am convinced it's just a conspiracy of cartographers, I want to know some specific benefit to this alternative map that leaves Antarctica off. It's not just that I would miss the cute penguins, but that I'm claiming a  lot of people have been at best mistaken, at worst malicious. To believe everyone who values spirituality is deluded or lying cuts out of your life a huge chunk of the experiences most humans have always considered the most important ones.

This may sound as though I'm in favour believing things that make you happy, even if they're not true, like Vonnegut saying, “When the truth of your life becomes too terrible to bear, that truth becomes your enemy.” I'm not, though I like David Foster Wallace's observation that while the truth will set you free, it will work you over pretty badly first. What I am advocating is that maps in which all destinations are valueless need really good reasons before you follow them, and I haven't seen any such reasons for the atheist map. Maps that show destinations that are meaningful, hopeful, with supportive and loving communities offer at least a claim you can get somewhere worth going. (If your belief map doesn't offer meaning, love, and compassion, perhaps you might consider getting another map, or figuring out a better way of folding the particular map you have.)

I don't worry about offending God by not believing in Him. Any God petty enough to care is way too small to be worth believing in. But I'd hate to lose the potential of aligning with something larger than myself, something that has sparkled in the corners of my life a few times. I'd hate to make my world smaller than it might be, because I don't have definative proof of how big it can be. Almost all religions say that there is something that is bigger than humans, and that it is a beneficent force. That I can't see it if I close my eyes is not a good enough reason to close my eyes. So I keep looking, eyes open.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

An Online Troll

May 3rd, 2014 (05:01 pm)

It's not easy being a troll. How many stories have you heard in which the troll was the hero? Yeah, me neither. When we were picking teams in magic school, guess who got picked last? You know all those stories in which the troll hides below the bridge? Ever wonder why? It was because he wasn't welcome anywhere else, that's why. That's about the height of what you can hope for in your life if you're a troll.... your own damp home below a bridge. The bottom 1% of the otherworlders, that's us. And as bridges go, mine isn't much. No soaring steel spires reaching skyward, no braided spiderweb of cables. No, it's just a run-down back-woods covered bridge, maybe 25 yards long. The sides have cute gingerbread windows, I’ll give it that.

But it was my bridge, and I lived beneath it, and while I could never get anything from people who drove over it – they were into the next county by the time I could “push” them – I could still catch the pedestrians. They would suddenly stop and feel something; “strange" seemed to be the word that they used the most. They would walk to the side of the bridge, and take out whatever they had that was most valuable to me, and throw it down so I could catch it. Then they would carry on going wherever they were going, and when they got there they would be very puzzled over how they had lost their watch, or their wallet, or their iPhone. But try as they would they could never quite remember when they had last seen it or where it had gone. Like my bridge, my power is a bit old and rundown, but it still works. Such is the life of a troll in the 21st century.

My big problem was that very few people walked across my bridge any more, and those who did tended to be old and poor. So pickings were thin, and so was I. Trolls don't like to be thin and hungry. It makes us even more grouchy and miserable than we are naturally. It was the iPhone that turned out to be my lifeline. I was puzzled by it at first, but I pushed buttons and figured out how to use it. As the old troll saying goes, “There’s nothing new under the bridge.” Of course, I didn't have anyone to phone. I don't talk to humans, and if I wanted to talk to another troll, there were ways to do that predating iPhones by several millennia, and without roaming charges either.

But I found the Internet really fascinating. I learnt that some people went crazy over covered bridges. They had long debates over which one was the finest, and which one had the most authentic craftsmanship, and who had seen the most. At first I just found that all pretty weird, in the same way I found Justin Bieber pretty weird, but then I decided that I could use this. So I pushed some more people to throw me iPhones, as mine had run out of power, and I didn’t have any way to recharge it.

Next I spent two nights actually on my bridge, which I rarely go up to. I carved an intricate scene of two people giving alms to a beggar, done in a faux 1800’s style. I did the work at night because if people see me they have a tendency to get slightly hysterical, and that just creates problems. Besides, night doesn't affect my eyesight at all. I spent a third night infusing the carving with a spell that created an intense desire to see it as ancient. I registered on the website, the biggest of the sites devoted to covered bridges. For my online name, I chose "The Troll". I mean why not? Sometimes truth is the perfect disguise. Then I took a picture of my bridge with the iPhone, which I was appreciating more and more. On, I wrote a rave about the extraordinary carving on this bridge, uploaded my photo, and waited.

No more than six hours later, the first guy came by. I could hear him bustling about above me, taking pictures, talking to himself about how come no had ever reported this. I decided not to push him; humans call this "priming the pump". The next day my post had his reply, raving about the quality of the carvings. He was particularly obsessed by the carvings' "obvious authenticity". And in some ways that was true. He said they were clearly done by an 18th century craftsman, and yes, I had been a craftsman in the 18th century, as well as for several centuries before that.

The next day, a Thursday, was amazing. Fourteen people showed up, and I pushed eight of them. I got a more modern iPhone, an iPad, and enough money and credit cards to keep me in exquisite food for months. Trolls can't actually spend money or use credit cards, because as I said, most people go a bit squirrelly when they see us. But we have established a fine bartering system with the dwarves through the years, and they generally are pretty fair to us on the exchange rates. Unlike the elves, but don't get me started about them.

There were seven new posts the next day about how stunning the carvings were. One person thought they were fake and I considered flaming him. (No, not online. For real.) But then I thought that maybe the disagreement would be good for business. I had no idea. On the weekend the bridge was full of people, so full there was a lineup to get on. This had never happened before, and while I am by nature modest in my needs, I got enough money and goods to last the rest of my life, which I estimate will be about 1400 years.

But now what was I going to do? Then it struck me. Using my iPad, I tracked down a website created by women to share fantasies about trolls. I put another, more specific, spell on the other end of my bridge, and carved a few explicit pictures of myself next to it, copies of which I posted on this website. I expect the women to start coming by any moment now. Life has gotten so much better.

And that, dear friends, is how a real troll uses the internet.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

The Long and Digital Road

April 10th, 2014 (01:42 pm)

I started teaching as an escape route from two spates of employment, programming computers to do statistical analysis. And I deeply missed both computers and programming (though not statistical analysis), but in the early 1970s computers were giant beasts that filled entire rooms, (with small ante-rooms where you punched holes in cards), way too expensive for a high school to own. Then in the early 1980s, desktop computers appeared on the scene, small furry mammals darting through the legs of the soon-to-be extinct dinosaurs. The first person I knew who owned his own computer was a lawyer friend, Eric. He bought a Commodore PET, which had 8k of memory. Eric didn't know yet what 8k meant, but he was a lawyer, so he knew how to ask questions. He put on a suspicious look and inquired, "Is 8k enough?"

The salesman laughed scornfully. "Sir," he said, “there's nothing you will ever do on a home computer that will take up more than 8k". These days, a Word file takes up 27k before you've entered a single word of text.

IndEC got two PET computers, and I happily leapt back into a world I thought I’d lost. I played hours of “Dragon’s Eye”, battling golems and dragons while searching for hidden treasure. I taught students how to program, and wrote my own mark-book program, to keep track of students and their marks. I hoped the staff would all adopt it, so I decided to test it out on Bob, who was the most technophobic of our staff. I led him to the computer and the opening screen came up, asking, "Do you want to start a new class record? Press 'y' or 'n'". Bob looked at the keyboard as a mouse might look at a cobra. "Where are the y's and n's?" he squeaked. I decided maybe he wasn't a candidate for a computer program just yet.

Two years later we had a Commodore-64 at school, with a modem, and I had one at home. There were word-processing programs, and bulletin board programs, and students could conference with staff from home by computer, which seemed pretty futuristic stuff, even if it probably wasn't as quite as efficient as a phone call might have been. Wenda, with whom I’d taught at Clarkson, proposed we team up and design educational software for the Ministry of Education, so we wrote up a proposal for a program, that would help people create essay outlines. We got the contract, and immediately faced a dilemma. Wenda owned an original 128k Mac, I had a Commodore-64. In those days computers and files were completely incompatible, so it was clear that one of us had to switch. It was a hard call: the Commodore had colour and could be more easily programmed, while the Mac had something called a mouse and MacPaint, but was only black and white. I presciently decided the Mac seemed the better of the two, and in late 1984 got my first Mac, the 512k.

The Ministry insisted every screen of the program be completely designed on paper and approved before any programming started. We had a wonderful time designing the program (for the Commodore PET, at that moment the most popular computer in Ontario high schools) and hired a co-op student from University of Waterloo to do the programming and made what seemed to us like a lot of money. But what I really remember was the pleasure of spending hours working out how each screen would work. Wenda challenged my hard-core belief that you had to have a thesis before an outline, and an outline before you wrote anything. Gradually, I became a convert to her heresy.

When I went back to Clarkson to teach in a big school, I wanted to have Macs in my classroom. But the Peel Board of Education had just emerged from an abortive romance with the Icon computer, a computer designed by the Ministry of Education specifically for use in Ontario classrooms. On the plus side, the Icon was indestructible. On the negative side, there was no software for it, and as only a few thousand existed world wide, no one was interested in writing software for it. (Ok, “no one” is overstating it. Wenda and I designed a program for it, and made some more money.) So Peel had decided to go with IBM PCs, a safe and solid computer. Suggesting Macs to them was like going into a Catholic church and asking where the Torah was.

But I got two Mac pluses for my classroom, passed on when the library upgraded its machines. And a few years later, I got a few used Performas, some free software, and Xanadu was born. Xanadu was the name Bonnie (the head of art, and a dear dear friend) and I gave to our fledgling Mac lab. As I wrote at the time:

Xanadu, Xanadu,
It’s where I’m found and what I do:
a Macaholic’s addictive brew
of chips and mice and printer queue.

State of the art is what we’re not;
We do our best with what we’ve got.
Ancient programs on reused machines,
iMacs, iBooks: they’re only dreams.

A printer, scanner, six more machines–
I found the way; admin the means
with low end cables, financial prudence
we’ve half as many Macs as students.

And then Steve Jobs came back, the iMac took off, and we got a colourful Mac lab that the art department and the English department shared, as Xanadu grew to be about 20 computers, each named after an artist or writer (or, in Blake's case, both). The computers were networked together, and we had Photoshop and Quark, (the professional graphic design program) on all of them. I used them for Media, and Bonnie used them for art.

Of course, Peel still hadn't accepted Macs as bonafide computers, so I was responsible for keeping them all running. I became the Mac IT guy, and learned all there was to know about how things could go wrong, and some of what there was to know about what to do when they did. But it was a functional enough lab that we could participate in WIER, Writers in Electronic Residence, a wonderfully creative program that allowed a dozen schools, and a dozen of Canada's top writers to work together, with students posting their work online and responding to each others' work, and the writers responding to everyone. It was my first experience of long distance computer mediated learning, and it was hugely successful. At the time I was amazed that the students cared far more about what other students thought of their work than about what the “real” writers did. That was an insight that would stay with me.

The internet arrived, and all the school’s classrooms got internet cables. I asked Peel IT department if I could hook up my Mac lab to the internet and was refused. I asked why, and was told, "Because it might work." I hadn't seen that as a problem, but the IT guy explained to me that if it did work, then other schools would want to the IT dept to do the same thing for them, and that would create more work for them. To avoid that, they simply wouldn't allow anyone to hook up a Mac. It was clear that the purpose of schools was to make life as easy as possible for the IT department, rather than the other way around as I had naively thought. I agreed politely, hooked up the lab to the Internet, and kept quiet about it.

The course I taught that most relied on computers was Media. Students learnt the basic principles of graphic design, and in groups of four got to design and produce the skeleton of a full colour magazine: cover, table of contents, and some sample pages. There were magazines on games, on fashion, on news. It was magical. In senior English I started a computer bulletin board, on which essays would be posted and responded to by other students. I was intrigued that the feedback students gave via computer was far more sophisticated than they had ever given in face to face groups. Then I realized: in person, you are talking to someone, and that personal relationship dominates the conversation. On a computer, there's just the writing, so you focus on it. I filed that piece of information away too.

I joined thirty fantastic teachers, and together we created a province wide bulletin board, Creating a Culture of Change, to help Ontario teachers share what we were all learning about how to use this wonderful new medium. It lasted for a few years, until the incoming Conservative government decided it didn't want teachers collaborating, and killed the project. I helped create the Triangle bulletin board for the Peel Board, so that GLBT students could anonymously share experiences, strategies, and support. I was the only staff member invited to participate in a student bulletin board, Evil Lobsters, run by a two techie geeks outside of the school. There I argued with students about homophobia and racism, and generally had a good time.

And then, eventually, it was time to leave high school, and I thought about how best to have a going away party. I'd always had friends amongst both staff and students, so it certainly seemed as though there should be both at a farewell party. And of course most of the students I had taught didn't know one another, and were by now scattered across the world. So it seemed that an online party was the way to go. I created (with help from Evil Lobsters) my own bulletin board, Marmorexit, and invited everyone I knew to come and comment about how they'd known me. It got hundreds of comments, from my parents (then in their 80s), from students in their teens, and lots of students and and teachers from the 30 years I'd taught. People who hadn't seen one another for years reconnected. There were moving and/or hilarious stories about me, and I responded to everyone. It was a most successful party, and unlike real world parties, I have the transcript saved, so that I can remember exactly what people said about me.

I've always been fond of toys, and the computer always seemed to me to be the best toy there ever was. But as I gradually became more aware of the importance of deep communication, I learned that computers could make that possible, not in a way that was better or worse than face to face communication, but in a way that was different. All of those little bits of knowledge about computers and learning were fragments I took away with me from the classroom, and they were all to come together, a few years later, in the Writers' Croft.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

A Badly Told Story

March 8th, 2014 (08:18 am)

current mood: grateful

I’m so grateful that it was such a terribly organized story: the denouement came first, and the crisis didn’t even get revealed until later on. Everything is wrong with that structure– the incredible terror and stomach-wrenching fear were all skipped over, completely thrown away by starting with the happy ending. I’m a writer, and a writing teacher, so I know how much any story lives on tension and uncertainty. All I could do with this one was collapse, and thank the universe, and Victor, for how it told the story, and for the ending it gave it.

Thursday afternoon I come in my front door and get a phone message, “My name is Victor, and I have your dog Rui over at Dufferin Mall. Here’s my number; phone me when you get this message.” This is news that passes puzzling without slowing down. Rui is, I believe, on his afternoon dog walk with Alex, a dog walker in High Park, about 5 kilometres west of Dufferin Mall. There is no message from Alex, so I phone Victor.

Victor tells me he was crossing the intersection of Dundas and Roncesvalles, two major Toronto avenues, when he sees this dog running across the street, narrowly avoiding being hit by the cars. The dog comes up to him, and seems friendly, so he takes him by the collar, and goes into the animal hospital that’s right there. They read the chip, and the dog tag, and identify Rui as the dog, and me as the owner. That intersection is over two kilometres from where Rui walks in the park, half of that distance being through busy downtown streets.

Victor, who is by now a personal saint, says he borrowed a leash from the animal hospital, and took Rui home, by subway. I am out seeing a friend, so he goes over to the mall and waits for me to return. Now that I’m back, he brings Rui home, and I thank him, very very deeply. And give him a reward. I phone Alex and leave a message telling him Rui is home, more than somewhat curious to hear the other side of the story. Then the penny drops and I realize why I haven’t heard from him.

Three days previously, I was going skiing. My iPod had been acting weirdly, so I restored it completely from its iTunes backup, and learned that to do that I had to turn off the “Find My iPod” feature. I turned it off, went skiing, and –of course– lost the iPod on the only day of its two years with me when it wasn’t wearing its “Find My iPod” leash . The lost iPod had the message system, Fongo, that Alex and I used to communicate.

So I go and fire up Fongo on my new iPhone, and there’s a two hour old message that Rui has run off and disappeared, and a one hour old message that Alex is desperately driving around High Park but can’t find Rui anywhere. I read these messages, with Rui sleeping at my feet, and am struck with how much easier it is to read them this way than if I had gotten them when they were sent.

When Alex does come by, the next day, we talk. He says he yelled at Rui for eating poop, and Rui just ran off and disappeared. When Victor found him, Rui had made it about half way from High Park to home, so my guess is that he was trying to get home on his own. But Rui has never run off in seven years; he will play “you can’t catch me” when he has a stick, or (even better) your glove, but he always stays with his pack. Diana and I had noticed that he didn’t ever leap up to greet Alex when Alex came to walk him, unusual behaviour for a dog who greets everyone else enthusiastically, and loves walks. I ask Rui for his side of the story, but even liver treats can’t get him to tell me what happened.

We have a new dog walker now, and Rui greets him enthusiastically. I keep the message from Victor on the answering machine, and every time I hear it, I am so deeply grateful for the blessing of badly-told stories that start with a happy ending.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

Doing Something

February 27th, 2014 (05:23 pm)

“Sometimes,” said my student, “I hate this school.” It was first period Monday; she stood at the back of the classroom facing me, looking at the backs of all the students between us. She was alone and looked vulnerable. She was talking about the experience of having a close friend beaten up, seeing him lying on the ground being kicked in the head while other students stood on cafeteria tables and cheered and tried to get a better view. Her friend was gay. I knew the kid who beat him up: I had thrown him out of a Math class last year for his homophobic remarks. I tried to think of something to say in response, something wise, something consoling, and nothing came to me. Instead I remembered the student who told me last semester in a letter that she was lesbian and said, “If other students found out, I don't think I could go on.” And I wondered how much more terrified she must feel now. I stood there looking at my World Religions' class, and I felt like an actor in a spotlight who has utterly forgotten his lines.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil”, said Goethe, “is for the good people to do nothing.” I am here today, I exist, because at times in my family's recent past the good people did not do nothing. When the Nuremberg laws were passed and Jews in Germany could no longer employ Christians, the man who had been my grandparents’ gardener left to become Hitler's gardener, and my grandparents were fed by him through 1939 and 1940 on vegetables grown in Hitler's garden. They were able to escape from Germany because of the bravery of people like him, and like Maria, their maid, who faced the Gestapo on Kristallnacht, and said, “These are good people who have never done anything to hurt you. Why are you here?” And she shamed the Gestapo into leaving my grandparents untouched. I heard of their butcher who broke the laws of 1940 to provide them with a beef tongue they ate on their rail journey out of Germany, across Siberia in winter, and eventually to freedom in the US.

Others saved my mother, helping her to get to England. They saved an uncle by getting him out of Dachau. They saved my father by enabling him to stay in England, and not be sent back to Austria after it had been annexed by the Nazis. But there were others. And there are relatives I will never know, who whisper from the truncated limbs on my family tree of good people who did not do enough to help, or who were silent.

Nor is this just history of my parents and grandparents. There were good people who helped me when I was chased home from school in small town Quebec by kids screaming I had killed Jesus. And I know too many of us in this world are at some time condemned for something over which we have no control, something that at other times, in healthier places would not even be an issue, let alone a crime. Perhaps it is as trivial as wearing, or not wearing a scarf. Maybe our skin is too dark, or our hair too red. But I also know that we all are faced with moments when we have to make a choice. Either we do nothing, or we do something. And for me, that classroom was such a moment.

Over the next week I talked to students and staff, friends of the boy who was assaulted, other people who were sympathetic, and I created an after-school group, AHA!, the Anti-Homophobic Alliance. I put day-glo pink stickers up all over the school, announcing our first meeting. The stickers were vandalized, (as I had expected) so I ran announcements mocking that cowardice and cruelty and challenged people to stand up against it by coming to the meeting. On the afternoon of our meeting, there were a lot of curious onlookers in the hall waiting to see who showed up. The first group was the entire senior football team, some of whom were close friends of the boy who had been beaten up, and whom I had invited to attend the first meeting. There were no mocking comments when they marched in.

AHA! was a success. We put on a play, "Removing the Glove", a thinly veiled allegory about a world in which left-handers are persecuted by right handers. The teachers brought their English classes to it, and loved the page of activities we offered for classroom followup. The students loved the humour: the hero's father says, "I'd always hoped he'd be a quarterback, but who would want to catch a ball thrown with someone’s left-hand?" His ex-girlfriend says, "How could I hold his hand when all the time he'd be thinking of using his left hand?"

It wasn't enough. Two years later a lovely young Sikh boy killed himself, because he was gay and didn't believe he could change that. He was sure his community would never accept him as gay. Partially in response to that, our school board passed a policy condemning "heterosexism", the privileging of heterosexuality over homosexuality. Having the official policy behind me made the fight easier in the classroom; I wasn't just some weirdo, I was some weirdo representing official school board policy. I managed, with help from some stalwart allies, to set up the Triangle Bulletin Board, on which GLBT students could anonymously share their stories and support one another. And as Peel was at that time the largest school board in Canada, there were a lot of students who had stories to share.

Because I was doing this work in Clarkson, students would come out to me. Dean was a shy boy in my gifted English class, who for three years would write me heartrendingly beautiful letters, about five single-spaced pages at a time, about his utter loneliness and despair. I was terrified that he too might kill himself, and I knew there weren't any simple answers to his pain. But I was able to sit with him with the questions, and empathize with what he was going through, and it was enough. Now, two decades later, I see lovely pictures of him and his partner on Facebook, and I feel a tiny thrill of pride that I was part of helping him get there.

I was lucky, of course. This was during the years that Canada came to legalize gay-marriage, so the times were right for the issue to be fought. Because I was married, it was safer and easier for me to publicly fight this issue than it was for the gay or lesbian staff in the school. But it would have been easier yet to do nothing, and I didn't. The Talmud has a favourite saying, “You may not complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” And I did something.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

The Travelling Teacher

February 21st, 2014 (03:53 pm)
current song: Solo Piano - Keith Jarrett

I’ve always loved travelling, and that was certainly part of the appeal of teaching. I had the two months of summer, the perfect time for canoe trips deep into the wilderness and back out again, mostly. (But that’s another story.) Even more enticingly, the Peel Board of Education – my employers – offered what they called a “four over five”. For four years you were paid only 80% of your salary, but you got the fifth year off, with the 80% that had been held back as salary. And you were guaranteed a job with Peel afterwards. I took advantage of that offer twice, and both times travelled to Asia, where 80% of an Ontario teacher’s salary was a princely income. I travelled largely on my own, met wonderful people, had adventures, took photos, and learned about life outside of my North American bubble.

There are a standard set of questions one gets asked in other countries. “Where are you from?” was easy, and most people seemed to have positive impressions of Canada. “What do you do?” was trickier. Being a high school teacher was just fine. In Asia there is a universal respect for teachers (they’re the highest caste in Hinduism), which was pleasant change from North American attitudes. But was I an English, Math, or World Religions teacher? The more subjects I listed, the more people’s eyes glazed over, so three seemed too many, even without my occasional teachables like Physics, Computers, or Sociology. No one was interested in talking to a math teacher; I suspect they all feared I might suddenly demand to know if I got on a train here travelling to there at a certain speed wanting to intercept a friend travelling on a different train from somewhere else at another speed, how long would I have to wait at the station? But I was able to use my abilities at mental arithmetic, skills I owe to our family’s car trips to the cottage or skihill. During those trips Dad would give my brother and I non-stop mental arithmetic quizzes, which I hated at the time and am quite grateful for now. Those painfully acquired skills at math were always useful for mentally converting currencies, and nowhere more so than in Burma.

Burma had in 1985 an official exchange rate of 8 kyat to an American dollar, and you had to change $50 when you entered the country. The black market rate, by contrast, was 50 kyat to the dollar, so almost all travellers exchanged the rest of their money on the black market. But the hotels you’d stay in (and most other places) always offered two costs, one in official kyat (they wrote on your travelling papers how much you’d paid there) and a much higher rate if you wanted to pay in black market kyat (for which no one wrote anything). When you left the country, the government checked the travel papers to see the official amount you had spent, which had better be less than you’d exchanged; if it were more, it was proof you had been trading on the black market. Keeping track of all that, and being able to figure out instantly whether that lacquer bowl was a better deal at 15 official kyat or 75 black market kyat, was a lovely version of those childhood car rides, and I revelled in it. Perhaps that was why no one was interested in talking to a math teacher?

Being an English teacher had a bit more appeal though it too was intimidating. Most people in Asian countries who speak English were always apologetic about their English not being very good, even though they could speak some of my language and I couldn’t speak any of theirs. When they found out I taught English, they grew reluctant to speak. The one great door that being an English teacher opened was in Vietnam. I went to the University of Saigon, and talked to the head of their English department, who asked if I were willing to join their fourth year English class just to talk to them. That seemed exciting, so I agreed and walked into the appropriate classroom. Instantly all the class immediately stood up next to their desks, and said, “Good morning, Sir.”

I smiled, and said, “Good morning, class.” They stood there and looked at me. I looked back at them, sure there was something I had to do but not certain as to what it was. Finally I said, “You may sit down,” and they all smiled happily at me and sat down. As good fortune would have it, they had just finished reading a classic Jack London story I was fond of, “To Build a Fire”. (Newbie prospector ignores veteran’s warnings, goes out in Arctic springtime, falls through melting ice, can’t build fire, freezes to death. Classic Canadiana; used to happen in my high school all the time.) But the Vietnamese students had some problems understanding this story, not because of their English, which was pretty good, but because the coldest temperature ever recorded in Saigon is 55º, so some of the concepts, like snow and ice, seemed more science fiction than realism. Fortunately I always carried a small booklet of photos with me, of my home, family, and classic Canadian scenes of skiing, and blizzards. They looked at the photos in amazement and I just knew exactly what they really wanted to ask, but were way too polite to, “Why would anyone ever live in a country where it something as horrible as this?” I suppose winter, my favourite season, is an acquired taste.

But it was World Religions that was absolutely the best subject to teach. When I explained to my interlocutor what I taught, they would immediately ask if I knew anything about their religion. My answer was always, “I know a little, but not very much.” I sure didn’t want to come across as posing as an expert in someone else’s religion. But what often happened next is that I’d get taken to a mosque, or stupa, or ceremony, which was always fascinating. In Rangoon, the capital of Burma, the Shwedagon pagoda is a mind-blowingly beautiful gold-covered 99 metre tall tower, reputed to be 2600 years old. One of the monks took me, and led me into some intricate storerooms, where he gave me a list of English translations of 15 basic texts that I absolutely had to read before I could begin to be a teacher of Buddhism. I told him how grateful I was, and took the list. Maybe, some day, I’ll read the books.

In Kashmir, I was invited to join a two day celebration of a Moslem wedding. The women's singing had beautiful multi-harmonic resonances, and the men were hugely sociable and friendly, until we got to dinner. That was when I explained I was vegetarian, a comment that froze the room. Kashmir is of course hotly disputed between Moslem and Hindu factions, and being vegetarian made me seem Hindu. I explained it was strictly for health reasons, but it was no use. I was their guest, I refused their food, and it was only the teenagers who were willing to talk to me after that. But Ivan, with whom I was then traveling, hid that he was vegetarian, ate the excellent feast, and was very sick the next day. It's hard to switch diets that suddenly.

Everywhere people were open and eager to share their religious traditions. In Ladakh I shared a meal with the high lama, in a Himalayan monastery guarded by a huge sign proclaiming, "NO meat eating past this point." (I was just fine with no meat, though salted tea flavoured with yak butter is certainly an acquired taste.) In Turkey, a Sufi man was so delighted that I knew anything about Sufism, the gnostic branch of Islam, that he invited me to come and stay with him. Alas, travel plans couldn't be changed.

And my own interest in religions led to some of my most powerful and transformative experiences, whether it was boating on the Ganges river at dawn in Varanasi, watching thousands of pilgrims washing their bad karma away in the river, or traveling to northern Cambodia at the end of the Khmer Rouge battles to seize what might be my only chance to visit Angkor Wat, the “City of Temples”. Because of the ongoing fighting, and the large number of unmarked land mines, there weren’t many tourists, and so one early morning I stood completely alone on the upper terrace of the huge baroque Bayon temple, watching the sun rise and listening to the noises of the waking jungle. Above me, four giant faces of the Buddha of Compassion smiled down serenely, as they have for almost a thousand years. Below me, on the five lower terraces, another 200 Buddha faces gazed out at their surroundings. I stood there for a long time watching the light spread across the land, and smiled as well. Some moments are so perfect that even the unenlightened can recognize them.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

"And Now A Word From Our Sponsor"

November 19th, 2013 (09:15 am)

When the bell rang the end of the Ms. Langston's 12 Calculus class, Jenn Mitchell pushed herself out of a desk inscribed with notes, obscenities, and math hints from generations of bored students. She walked to the heavy institutional door of her classroom, past Mary and Mark whispering passionately to each other, and prepared to battle the changing classes thronging the school hallway. But instead, she found herself stepping into a dimly lit restaurant, all deep reds, oaken woods, and candles as Paul, slouching at the furthest table from the door, leapt up. “Jenn! I was afraid you weren't going to make it. You look great! Come and sit down next to me, you sweet thing.”

Jenn was utterly confused. She had left the Calculus class, which she shared with Paul, and found herself on what appeared to be a dinner date with him. She had never liked him; they had never gone out. Paul was on the football team, as he always reminded people. He was a mixture of muscle and fat, with greasy black hair and an unwarranted sense of entitlement that intimidated some people. Jenn just found it repulsive. He was wearing a hounds' tooth sports jacket that clearly had Value Village in its future, if not its past, and she noticed in horror that while she had been wearing a sweatshirt and jeans in her classroom, now she was wearing a slinky black dress. Why was she here, and where was here?

“Paul, what's happening?”

“Aw Jenn, you're hurting me, girl. It's our dream date, the perfect evening we've been planning all semester. And it's going to go just as we knew it would, all the way.” There was a leer in his voice that reminded her of another reason why she had never liked him. Fortunately, they were in a public place...but which one? He motioned for her to slide into the faux antique chair across from him.

“Listen, I've got to go to the washroom to freshen up. I'll be right back” She walked to the back of the garish restaurant (she decided it was pretending to be Italian). The tough boys who usually hung out in the school smoking area were at one table, and they had accumulated an impressive number of empty beer bottles, considering they were all under age. After only one false try, she found the Ladies room, cutely designated by a baby carriage icon. She opened the door and walked through.

“Miss Mitchell,” the flat dry tones of Mr MacTap, her History teacher “so glad you could make it before the class was entirely finished.” She started to speak, though she had no idea of what she was going to say, but he bore on. “No, no please don't tell us some story where you were. This is Canadian History, not Writer's Craft. When you have found your seat I will continue.”

Jenn found her seat, in the second row. Dazed, she fished a pen out, opened her note book (where had it come from?) noting with horror both that she was back in her jeans and sweatshirt, and that Paul, sitting on the other side of the room, paid her no attention whatsoever.

She ignored Mr MacTap for the remainder of the class, which was easy to do (she usually ignored him anyway, and since he ignored the class in favour of a small section of ceiling it seemed only fair.) What had happened? Had it been real? There seemed no way to make any theory explain these facts. At the end of the class, she gathered her books together nervously, and walked to the door (same heavy institutional door as all the school doors, though the square foot of glass in this one was obscured by a poster of the twelve most important members of the Family Compact). She took a deep breath, and walked out of the classroom, through the door and into her best friend Mary's bedroom. She recognized it immediately, (pink chiffon, stuffed animals), though she was helped out by the sight of Mary lying on the bed sobbing brokenly. “He said he loved me. He said we'd always be together, that he loved me, that we'd get married. And then afterwards he just got up and dressed and left and I, I haven't heard from him all week.”

Jenn looked around in horror, her eyes widening as she saw that her reflection on the closet mirror was now wearing a tight tank top. She guessed that Mary must have been talking about Mark, her boyfriend, a slimeball who had been trying to get into her pants all semester. Then she heard herself saying things she would never say, “Mary, you're too good for him. You could have anyone in the school. Mark's just something you wipe off your shoes and then, girl, you just walk on.”

Mary looked up gratefully from her bed, her puffy eyes not noticing the look of confused misery on Jenn's face. “You mean that about my being too good for him?”

Jenn started to think of how to answer, but before she could decide she heard words coming out of her mouth. “Mary, you're gorgeous. You could have anyone in the school you wanted. It's just that there's no one there who's worth you.” Part of her mind was pounding the inside of her skull in horror. How could she say such utter bullshit? What was happening to her?

Mary smiled wanly, and wiped her eyes. “Thank you Jenn. I'm so lucky I have one friend who can be totally honest with me. Hey, are you okay?”

“I'm feeling funny. I'm going to the bathroom. I'll be right back." She walked out of Mary's room and entered the cafeteria, where Paul and two other members of the football team were doing a break dance on the stage at one end, while the grade 9's hurled milk cartons at one another at the other end. She stared in disbelief, and fled the cafe hysterically, only to find herself back in Ms Langston's room which had always been at the other end of the school, on the top floor.

Her Calculus teacher sat there, smiling brightly at her. Mary took one look at Ms Langston, and broke into tears. Her teacher continued smiling, though she was also trying to look sympathetic, a strange combination that seemed slightly more than she could manage.

“Jenn, dear,” the sympathy seemed to be trying to overtake the smile now, “what's wrong? You know you can tell me anything.”

“It's my parents, Ms Langston” Jenn by now was on auto pilot, knowing that to explain the real reason she was so upset was utterly impossible. She didn't believe what she had been seeing, and it would have been absurd to ask anyone else to, let alone Ms Langston, who had a reputation for being far more interested in getting students to reveal their innermost secrets than in actually saying anything useful or supportive once they had done so.

“My parents don't want to treat me as a grownup.”

“Dear Jenn,” sympathy on “You know I'm a parent too” Smile on. Smile off. “Well it's hard to be a parent. Maybe” smile back on “almost as hard as it is to be a kid. So if you are gentle with your parents, maybe they'll be gentle with you.”

Jenn was trying to respond to this when the loudspeaker crackled to life. “Would Jenn Mitchell please report to the office immediately? Jenn Mitchell to the office immediately.”

“Well, Jenn, I guess you've got to go. But I'm glad we had this little talk, aren't you?”

“Yes Ms Langston. Thank you for being so understanding and wise.” The sane part of Jenn's mind screamed in horror as it heard those words coming out of her mouth. Why was she saying this? What was happening? What would happen when she walked through the door? She ran to it, pushed the sticky handle away from her, and stepped directly into Mr Ogilvy's office.

“Thank you for your promptness, Ms Mitchell” the unctuous tones of the principal “please have a seat.” She sat down in the student chair, numb with apprehension. It was uncomfortable because it was too short, which meant you had to look up at Mr. Ogilvy. What was next? Mr Ogilvy sat down behind his desk, locked his fingers behind his bald spot, and looked down at her with an expression of sympathy horribly reminiscent of Ms Langston. She wondered, fleetingly, why no one in this school was capable of a genuine emotion. Mr Ogilvy gazed sadly at his computer, on which a screen saver showed little dollar signs devouring one another, becoming larger as they did, till only one was left. It flashed brightly a few times in gold, the screen went blank, and a set of euro signs appeared. He looked back at Jenn.

“Ms Mitchell, you've been a good student, and your marks show it. But I'm sorry” Ogilvy picked up a sheet of paper “your audience response ratings are way behind those of the other students. You just haven't managed to develop a persona of interest to anyone out there” a vague all purpose gesture failed to give Jenn the slightest idea of what he was talking about. "You refuse to be a bad girl with Paul, which is such a good way to get people involved in your story, and in all other areas, you're just, well, bland. Even when we dub your voice, you just look as though you're not into it. I'm really sorry to have to tell you this, Jenn, but the board has cut your contract. With the ratings war as intense as it is, and the school's income so directly tied to the number of viewers, there's just no room for dead weight. We're rescinding you, effective immediately.”

Jenn stared at him in horror. What he said sounded like English, but it made no sense at all. She got shakily to her feet, left the office, and disappeared from Mr Ogilvy's sight. Sighing, he rose, and followed her into the empty room. Jenn was, of course, nowhere to be seen. Mr Ogilvy made a note to have all records of Jenn wiped from the credits by his sexy blond secretary, twice-divorced and now in the midst of a tragic breakup with the head of Phys. Ed. He shook his head. It was pathetic really. Even given the chance for a heart–rending final scene, Jenn had done nothing. Some days, it seemed as though these kids weren't learning anything at all.

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