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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Paint Chip Post

I don't know how many of you fine folks are aware of this, but I decided to take my writing to the next level and make it official: I'm getting my MFA in Creative Nonfiction at a local university and at the beginning of the semester we were asked to choose a paint chip color that represents us right now. Now no one who follows this blog should be surprised by my answer- gray. Shocker, right? In fact over the past few years that we've actually been putting the house together rather than taking it apart, I've chosen to paint each room a slightly different shade of gray. The kitchen has a blue undertone while my studio is more of a minty shade. My love of gray is lifelong but right now, here is how I came up with my response:

I chose the paint chip, "foggy day" but not for the reasons one might think. First, I have a deep and abiding love for the Victorian era and there is no more Victorian weather than fog. As a kid I grew up watching Jeremy Brett star as Sherlock Holmes in the miniseries and I became addicted to the image of 19th Century London with its gas lamps and cobblestone roads. The color gray was synonymous with the air of mystery that wound its way through Arthur Doyle's prose, making his stories come alive.

Later, when I started developing an interest in history, gray also lent itself well to my growing appreciation of all things mysterious and creepy. Gray has gotten a bad rap, being generally associated with doom and gloom, but often times it is doom and gloom that inspires incredible bouts of creativity—like every horror film ever made. Most every corner of my imagination is clouded with fog; the fog of history, of spirits, of death.

I have some very vivid memories associated with the color gray, most of them of photographing various buildings. The first time I photographed Northampton State Hospital for the Insane was in the fog. It was winter and the ground was covered with snow. Because the hospital is at the top of a hill in the bowl of the Pioneer Valley, the fog settled in and hovered just about the roof line of the asylum, floating in wisps in and out of the empty window frames. The fog made the red brick of the hospital look like granite instead, like a desaturated photograph.

There is a great deal of mystery in the fog and dark and because of that, human beings have become inherently frightened of both, yet the waning light brings us closer to a state of true meditation where we are uninterrupted by the demands of the day. But instead of embracing the fading of the day, human beings have learned how to fight the darkness with artificial light that draws out the hours, pushing back the nights when we could be embracing the darkness of thought and the spark of imagination it ignites.

I love gray, rainy days when all I want to do is sit, cozy in my reading chair with my old Rochester lamp burning and my cat in my lap, pretending I’m in 19th century London around the corner from Baker Street. Or I imagine I’m walking through the haunted halls of Ohio State Reformatory, or the back wards of Westborough State Hospital. I will settle in with a cup of tea watch my favorite thrillers, or perhaps an episode of Masterpiece Mystery, the opening credits of which also fostered my love of grey scale, the muted, less colorful sibling of black and white. To this day when I hear the sounds of the lady fainting in the opening credits, I get a thrill and remember watching Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express for the first time.

Strangely gray fog also transports me to our campsite on days when summer thunderstorms rock our trailer and a heavy mist rolls off the reservoir. Sometimes we will take the boat out after one of these storms and it feels as if we are the only ones on the water in a land that time forgot, bobbing along on the gray, misty waves until the sun breaks through and warms the day, chasing the gray away.
In many ways, the grayness of fog is also the herald of sun and light. It is the end of the storm, the gray day that breaks and brings warmth and new beginnings. It is the absence of color, yet the foundation of so many. It is the fog of creativity in which I live on a near constant basis, and I find I’m alright with that!

So there you are kiddies, don't be afraid to think gray thoughts and if any of you teachers out there are looking for an activity to try with your students, grab a few paint chips at your local hardware store (go ahead, they're free!) and ask your kiddos to do the same. I bet you'll get some interesting answers!



Saturday, December 19, 2015


Given that I'm sitting on my couch surrounded by pets and piles of books, now seems like a good time to make sure everyone knows about #GiveaBook. For every time the hashtag is used on social media, Penguin Random House will donate a book to First Book, a literacy nonprofit. Use the Give a Book  website and giving map to find a drive near you and give the gift of reading!

That said, I'm off to keep reading Maggie Mitchell's Pretty Is which I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys a good bit of mystery.

Happy holidays!


Friday, October 9, 2015

Foot in Mouth Disease

Wow. I really need to get on the stick and keep up with this blog but honestly, my students fry my brain to the point where I have taken up drinking heavily. In fact last year one of my favorite students asked me if the job was making me an alcoholic. Hmm. How did he know?

The other day we were sitting in the teacher's room discussing some of the boneheaded things the kids have said since school started. I'm working in a new program with a whole new team and unfortunately there isn't an ounce of maturity among us which makes for a very entertaining work day.

Yesterday's gem was one of the kids having a meltdown and telling a staff member (and remember I'm quoting this as coming from the mouth of a child who is locked up, NOT condoning his use of language in any way):

"Dude, you're so retarded you need a helmet and a short yellow bus." *mic drop* Kid walks out of the room.

However I would have been the winner this week had we been playing "How Far Can You Stuff Your Foot in Your Mouth" and the answer would be all the way up to my hip. One of my students attempted to steal one of my pens by shoving it down his pants (their uniforms don't have pockets for safety reasons) and then he showed me what looked to be yet another pen. This is the conversation that ensued:

Me: Don't you dare steal my pen. I'll get fired.
Kid: (no response, shoves pen down pants)
Me: Dude, how many pens do you have in there right now?
Kid: (no response, raised eyebrows)


Monday, June 15, 2015

Dude, I Just Want to Chill

I know I've been a little shouty about my job lately. In fact one of my coworkers who perhaps knows me best out of everyone here has avoided calling me that last couple of days because I can't control my internal volume when I talk to her about work. It could also be because I admitted to her that I get so angry that I spit all over myself while talking...

Yesterday I went to check in with a student who's technically no longer on my caseload but I have a misplaced sense of responsibility to my students who I believe deserve some level of continuity and support. I talked to him for a minute about his progress reports, his impending academic graduation (he'll still be locked up for a few more months after graduation), and his plans for after his release. Not too long ago he told me that he had decided he wanted to try going to a community college, just to see if he could do it. Of course I told him I would do everything in my power to make that happen for him because I (naively, apparently) believe that everyone deserves an opportunity to explore their futures and discover their bliss, as the kids say.

When I went to check in with his current teachers, they asked me why I would encourage this particular student to go to college because he just doesn't "have it". They told me it was a waste of time to think that this student would ever be released and make something of himself.


Aren't we paid (handsomely I might add) to do just that? Ok, maybe the majority of these kids will walk out our door just to return in as little as a day, but does that mean we stop encouraging them altogether? I can't understand the attitude that, because these kids are locked up, they shouldn't be told what's out there. I love talking to these kids about my college experience; it truly was the best years of my life. And even though I preface most of those conversations with the reminder that I'm the world's biggest nerd, my passion for education is occasionally catchy. The kids see how much I love to learn and how much I love to share what I've learned which is why some of them do finally say, "Hey, I'd like to try it."

Why on earth would I ever stop encouraging that?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

"It's a Fun Day to Be Incarcerated"

It's 8:17 am and I've already taken three Excedrin.

See, last November I changed jobs. Again. Raise your hand out there if you're surprised by that. No? No one?

I'm sure if you scroll through my blog archive you'll see that the longest I have ever taught in one place is the year and a half at the Dark Side and the year and a half I just wrapped up at the Dark Side's Satanic twin, the Center Ring of Hell School. Most people would say that at this point there must be something wrong with  me, but those of you who read this blog regularly also know that I've worked in some of the most hellish and horrible places you can imagine. I've been kicked, punched, bitten, spit on. I've had poop thrown at me, had my nose broken, and wrecked my knee (for which the "Shut the F*$k Up Ice Cream" kid still feels terrible). And now for some reason I've decided it would be a great idea to start working with incarcerated youth. After 15 years of this crap, you'd think I would lose a bit of my idealism but OH NO. I still think I can make a difference. Pfft.

The first few months here were amazing. I scored an office, I don't have to write lesson plans for every subject under the sun. I get to be part of a team working with some of the toughest kids in the state. At the same time, I'm working with some of the toughest kids in the state.

Throughout my career the hardest part of what I do hasn't been the constant fear that a fight is going to break out or that I'm going to get smacked in the face. The hardest part has been realizing just how much of a disservice we are doing when it comes to these kids. In fact, just this morning, my favorite professor posted a status on Facebook that definitely hit home: the average cost per year of incarcerating a juvenile is $88,500, and most of them are in for non-violent crimes like possession. My prof then asked his grad students to figure out what the per-year cost of a Harvard education was.

$67,000. More than $20,000 cheaper than incarcerating a youth. Education is cheaper than incarceration. Who knew?

Oh wait....

This past week has been rough. And heartbreaking. You can't help but love these kids because when they're incarcerated, you frequently get reminded that they're just that: kids-- the oldest is barely 18. Watch the science teacher break out a bottle of bubbles; then watch the kids go wild trying to catch them. Listen to them giggle uncontrollably at the lamest joke in your arsenal. Sit with them when they discover that you can do math on your desk with dry erase markers.

Then remember that once they're discharged there will be no continuity, no support. They may go on to a treatment program but what kind of treatment will they receive? Will they get the assistance they need to start over and go straight? Or will they go back to their block because there's no one there telling them that there's more to life than the streets and easy money? When they're incarcerated, they dream. They say they want to go to college, become engineers or lawyers. The bars make them feel safe, safe enough to imagine a life that doesn't involve drugs and weapons. But they know in their hearts that the rug will eventually disappear from under them and they will go back, often to a home that is more toxic than anywhere else in the world they could be.

I know, I know. The first lesson they teach you in teaching school is not to get attached. But when you do what I do, opening your heart to these kids is what gets them to trust you. Seeing an adult who cares about them just  because they can is what makes these kids feel secure enough to try, secure enough to learn. Why can't we provide them with that BEFORE they land themselves behind bars? Our school to prison pipeline is out of control and our programs have waiting lists that are sometimes 7 kids deep. Kids languish in programs, waiting to take the next step on their journey back to society-- time that slowly chips away at whatever optimism they may have built.

I also know I'm rambling. It's the stress melting my brain. But I needed to vent and I promise I'll keep this more up to date because knowing that you all are reading this is the best therapy I could ever invest in.

So tell me what you think. How do you feel about our juvenile incarceration system? How do we fix it? Where is my Excedrin?