The 60-foot tall Buddha and my first last day of teaching

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(Note: Student already had an A before sending this.)

Ten days before teaching assistant workshop began, my wife and I got on a plane for Beijing. Reading books and workshop materials, and sleeping, occupied me over the thirteen-hour flight. Anxious about teaching, I studied the sheets closely, making notes.

In China, we visited the Lama Temple, where visitors lit incense, despite the stifling heat, and prayed to Buddhas at the red, green, and gold structures with orange tile roofs. At the furthest pagoda stands a sixty-foot-tall statue, not counting its base below ground, carved from a single sandalwood tree. Standing nearby, my friend Zefeng told me to make a wish. “It’s not a religious thing,” he said when I hesitated.

The issue, though, was deciding what to wish for. I am not hungry or homeless, uneducated or unloved. But my wish came to mind, stemming from my anxiety about TA workshop. I wished at the towering Buddha’s feet to be a good teacher. Or at least, I thought, not to screw it up.

The workshop came and went like a whirlwind, and all of the sudden, I was standing in front of twenty-five students who expected me to say things. Smart things.

The first task was figuring out their names and then figuring out how to remember them, both of which I failed. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but what I realized is: It is a big deal to them. This very basic slip-up told them whether I cared enough to know who they are. I made a point to write down the ones that tripped me up and memorize where they sat.

Thankfully, they choose their chairs forever. Even if the semester lasted a decade, not a one would consider switching locations.

One crisis averted, I moved on to the next: creating engaging activities. Some activities I thought would be engaging fell flat, while others I was unsure about were roaring successes. They either succeeded or did not based on whether they engaged the students. Did the students become invested in the activity? Did they find it fun? Did they feel like they learned something as well? For successful activities, the answer to all of these would be yes. However, it is still unclear why some activities did not meet some of these criteria.

I wondered why the Twitter rhetoric activity was not as fun as it could have been. I wondered why students were so distracted during an audience activity in which they had to write about their favorite movie, then write about it to convince me and a classmate that it was a great movie based on what they know about us. Most of the time, it came down to a lack of structure. I had not thought through all of the tiny details about the activity, and that made it stressful, and maybe a little bit annoying, for the students.

My biggest successes were the Logical Fallacies Theatre and teaching sentence patterns activities I created. Logical Fallacies Theatre required six groups of four students to act out a short skit that illustrated a logical fallacy. One part always chimed in with: “This is a classic example of the [fill in the blank] fallacy…” The students were not sold at first, but at the end, I overheard one student tell another, “That was actually fun.”

For the sentence patterns activity, I divided the students into groups and had them create a short lesson based on materials I provided them about common sentence patterns. One of the reasons it succeeded, I believe, is that I modeled a micro lesson for them first. This was one thing my TA mentor advised I do more of after her observation. The students did a great job of coming up with their own examples, and afterward, I uploaded a document to D2L that contained examples from the class. It seems that doing this gives value to their work and makes them more confident in their composition acumen.

The final day of class, we put together what I called The English 101 Bible. Students worked in groups of two or three, which I randomly created to prevent cliquish work avoidance, to write a page about an important composition concept. This seemed to be an appropriate test of their knowledge in lieu of a final exam. I was not sure how well it would work, or if I really wanted to know how much they had learned over the semester, but they all did very well. Some of them even surprised me by writing things from their notes that I had said in class but had not posted on D2L. I compiled the work with everyone’s names and sent the PDF as a reference for future courses but also as a way to show them that they do know how to write.

We had a party in another room after writing the Bible. Each student shared what they improved at over the semester and which skills still need work. The final student to share, an international student who had expressed his anxiety about the class early on, answered, “Everything.” I asked if that meant he got better at everything or needed to improve at everything. “Both,” he said. He laughed and everyone joined him. With a smile, he added, “I didn’t know any of this stuff before—thesis statements or APA.” It made me feel like I had done something good and important. Which is what I’d been striving toward since I first applied for a teaching assistantship.

To close, I thanked the students, whom I could name at a glance, for such a great semester. I gave my Mr. Feeney speech, saying that they learned many things over the semester, but the two most important are how to organize their thoughts and how to craft a rational argument.

“You’ve learned how to look at other people’s viewpoints and agree or disagree using research and actual factual information,” I said. “And those two things, I believe, are the signs of an educated person.”

They applauded, as if it really were an episode of Boy Meets World, and then filed out, and my first last day of teaching ended.

Buddha at Lama Temple, Beijing

Carved from a single piece of white sandalwood, this Buddha at the Yonghe Temple stands about 60 feet tall, though there is more buried underground to support it.

Did I get my wish then? Though there were struggles, I didn’t screw up—well, not everything. Much of this came from hard work, not any cosmic forces or the alignment of stars. So I will continue to work on activities and assignments and to build a catalogue of both. However, my anxiety about not having anything to say to the students has faded, a little bit, at least.

My wish did have some strings attached. Striding through the stone courtyard, Ben said that if your wish comes true, you are supposed to visit the temple again to return the good fortune. That way, you do not hog all the luck, and someone else can share in the good fortune. While I will keep working to become the best teacher I can be, I can’t help daydreaming about maybe, one day, revisiting the tall, tall Buddha.

Reflecting On: Brand New – The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me

I wrote a piece about Brand New’s third album, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, for the music site It’s All Dead. Check it out!

it's all dead

I wasn’t into Brand New before it was cool. But I did love the Long Island emo rockers before The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me landed on November 20, 2006. In fact, I was waiting for it. By that time, I knew what to expect—straightforward mid-aughts rock with pop punk undertones and emo vocals. That, however, is not what the band brought to the table with its third album.

The first track, “Sowing Season (Yeah),” begins quietly—Jesse Lacey’s vocals just a whisper, the solitary guitar a mere hum—before exploding into a mourning waltz. “Time to get the seeds into the cold ground,” the lyrics say. “Takes a while to grow anything before it’s coming to an end, yeah.” Lacey, who was raised in a religious family and attended Christian school, is no doubt referring to the parable of the sower. The sower spreads seeds of faith across his…

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Erasure Poem of a Quote from Angie’s List CEO Scott Durchslag

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

 

A transformative moment

we completed quietly, moved

our existing demand. Today

 

I am impressed, enthusiastic

and delighted with the dropping

of key members. Unique visits,

 

unique searching, these early days

the data is very encouraging. It is

a critical milestone in executing our profit.

 

 * * *

 

Angie's List CEO Scott Durchslag

Note: This is a found poem inspired by one previous employee’s night of insomnia after being laid off. The words in this erasure poem come from a quote that Angie’s List CEO Scott Durchslag purportedly said in a July 13, 2016, press release. The accompanying photos—many will be surprised to learn—are not from the press release, although the company can feel free to use them however they please. Which some would say is common practice. Nor is the title a piece of the press release. You will remember (unless you’ve developed convenient-onset amnesia, otherwise known as Giuliani’s Disease) that a silly white guy announced these words soon after starting one of the longest wars in American history.

4 Angie Hicks Fan Fiction Pitches from 1 “Non-Revenue Generating Headcount”

angies list layoffs and firings

1. Angie’s Lust

When a mysterious CEO comes to town, innocently midwestern Angie Hicks develops a dark obsession. She trails him, wearing a necklace of large white balls and crimson sweater, through Carmel’s lightless nightscape, right into his trap. During their midnight confrontation on an empty suburban street, he runs his hands through her close-cropped cut. What’s more seductive, she wonders, his cunning or washboard abs, curtained between an unbuttoned silk shirt? (Which would obviously be the book cover.) He whispers, “Ever tortured for pleasure?” his face so close she feels the flick of his tongue against her lips. Angel Angie’s body pulses, breath heavy, as he leads to a dank love nest in her city’s wet municipal sewer.

*

2. Angie’s Lease

Absent-minded Angie made “a major uh oh,” as she tells the kids, by leaving her purple purse at Splash Mountain during the family’s Disney World vacation. “Whoops!” she says on the return flight, realizing she’ll never recover the strawberry lip balm, prescription sunglasses, and $16.8 million in fun-money it held. But that won’t get her down. Always the optimist, she decides to identify savings. First, she gives up her house, seeing so much untapped sleeping space on her office floor. Next, she decides they can give up eating, which causes her kids grumble as they were accustomed to a certain lifestyle. Ever plucky, Angie encourages, “Come on, guys—be grateful for all of the savings we’ve identified!” Lastly, her Mercedes Benz has to go. Though emaciated and homeless, this hurts worst. But she finds happiness in a great lease on a 1998 Saturn.

*

3. Angie’s Lips

The massive amount of cosmetic surgeries have taken their toll on Angie, but even though doctors warned this last one could kill her, she can’t give up now. How did it come to this? she wonders, wrapped in bandages in her private recovery room. The story plays out in flashback, with Angie remembering how it all started with the varicose veins. Then came the facelift, then the arm and leg lengthenings, adding eleven inches to her height and nine to her reach. She could take the pain, although the Kim Kardashian ass made lying flat in the hospital bed very difficult. Her perfect lips must come last, transforming her into the bombshell basketball player she always wanted to be. She’d finally achieve her dream, an Air Angies shoe line. Finally, she’s wheeled into the operating room. Will she come out? More importantly, will she be happy?

*

4. Angie’s Lost

What started as a getaway turns to tragedy when a storm tosses Angie Hicks’s shiny $16.8-million yacht onto a deserted island. She must now learn to make fire, forage for food, and overcome fears of the distant howling. Then one day she encounters a hurt wolf pup, whose leg she bandages with trembling fingers. The wild canines encircle her the next morning, and they bow, inviting her to join them. Angie cries out in a howl, and they join her. Now she’s in the wolf pack, bolting barefoot across the island, pouncing on backs of deer. She eats their meat rare, blood running down chin, and smiles wide. Around the fire with her new fur-coated family, a burp escapes her lips. She feels none of the guilt that plagued her during her years in the cutthroat business world. When a search party shows up, however, Angie must decide whether to rejoin the human world or remain in the wild. Which one, she wonders, is more savage?

 

Midwestern Gothic

 

I talked to thMidwestern Gothic issue 22 literary journale good folks at Midwestern Gothic about life in middle America, Kurt Vonnegut, how to know when work is complete enough to send out, and taking showers. They interviewed me along with many other, better writers who contributed creative writing for Issue 22 of the literary journal, which came out in July 2016.

My story “Scavenger Hunt” is about a reporter who’s a skeptic on a journey with his once-close youth group friends from high school. My piece is near the end, so make sure to read cover to cover.

Check out the interview, and then get the magazine!

My essay on remodeling

bad jobs and bullshit anthology

The great folks at The Geeky Press have published my essay “Prodigal Remodeler” in their new anthology, Bad Jobs & Bullshit. The collection contains fiction, CNF, and poetry about those less than satisfying jobs that everyone has had to work. And, though I might be a little biased, there’s some great stuff.

Mine talks about that stuff, yeah, but it also talks about working with my dad and—sort of, sometimes—missing the rewarding parts of remodeling.

Here’s a brief excerpt:

At age four, I began riding to work with dad in a series of rusty trucks and vans. I started working with him full-time at age seventeen, and continued full-time until age twenty-one. Then I went to college to pursue writing, which was the beginning of the end for my construction career. But I continued to swing a hammer twenty to thirty hours a week.

I hated how my thin arms would heat up, muscles straining to lift cabinets or carry lumber or break shit. How we’d demolish entire rooms down to nothing but bones and dust, just to rebuild them. How the saw would kick and many times could’ve taken my hand. How the sawdust would spray into my mouth.

Important note on eating sawdust: There are many flavors—take your time to savor each one, recognize the differences between a fine oak and cheap pine two-by-four. It’s an acquired taste.

You can get the book on Amazon (a free Kindle edition is out for Prime members) and Barnes & Noble. You can also add it on GoodReads to make that end of the year reading goal!