Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Alas, Poor Buzzy

Buzzy the Fly, who reached notoriety in a blog entry just last week, has passed away. He went quietly, perched on a tissue on my classroom desk, undoubtedly of old age. He had been buzzing around the classroom for just about four weeks.

I was prepared to give him a simple funeral -- wrapping him in the tissue and dropping him in the wastepaper basket -- but the students insisted that Buzzy deserved a more formal burial. Well, since everything really is a writing prompt, I told them they would each have to write a eulogy to be delivered at graveside. And, indeed, they did.

My pal Bob Greenberger, visiting for the day, served as our gravedigger, scooping a hole under a tree outside the classroom building while the students read their tributes to our class mascot. "I have never liked flies," wrote one of the girls, "but you were the first fly I liked." Another apologized for trying to swat Buzzy when he landed on her head: "I should have realized you were just interested in my writing."

Once we'd all said our farewells, I pushed the dirt back into the grave and erected the marker, made from a pencil and a piece of paper. We had a moment of silence and then the kids went off for their afternoon break.

I can only imagine the reactions of the parents when they asked their kids last night what we did in class and were told, "Oh, we had a funeral for a fly."

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Ultimate Else

Dining hall conversations among the instructional staff at CTY can go pretty much anywhere and such was the case this morning at breakfast.
Arsalan, our robotics wizard, was telling me about a woman in Great Britain who came up with a way to teach computer programming to young children by turning the if/else statements into stories that begin with "Once upon a time..." Each new choice would take the story in a different direction and create numerous versions of the tale.
It is, I pointed out, a spin on the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, in which the reader is asked at various points to choose action a or b, and is then directed to a different page depending on that choice. But since the computer is not strapped by the physical limitations of a printed book, there is the availability of many more options to any given choice.
There did have to be, however, an end to the story and that would be the "ultimate else." It is the same in any video game; at some point you make a decision to do or not do something and you are killed/ destroyed/ whatever and the game ends. The ultimate else.
And, in fact, isn't that how to describe life itself? You make choices that lead you to more and more choices until you reach that ultimate else and then your "game" is over.
At this point, the discussion intrigued our tablemates, Brittany, Holly and Zach, who joined in. I postulated that Arsalan was actually an agent from the future, here to prevent the ultimate else of the entire universe from happening. Each time we reach that final if/else, we further speculated, he is able to "skip that line of code" and come back to reset things to change the outcome.
Ah, but is it something one of his students does? Or a number of students? Or one of us?
The possibilities, it would seem, are endless...

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Everything's a Writing Prompt

When I moved into my classroom for this summer's installment of teaching Writing & Imagination at CTY, I noticed that someone had left a fork and spoon sitting on the window sill. Not the plastic variety, but the stainless steel kind they have in the dining hall.
Jennie, my teaching assistant, asked if I wanted her to take them back. "No," I replied, "there's a writing prompt here somewhere."
And so there was two weeks later, as the students came up with tales ranging from one about ghosts dining in the classroom to another in which my grandson Alex brought them to the classroom to play with.

A rather persistent fly took up residence in the classroom, buzzing around and landing on desks, notebooks, and even the student's heads. He proved to be quite adept at avoiding being swatted and eventually became something of the class mascot. Buzzy's fly's-eye view of what was happening in the classroom and the people in it made for another round of interesting tales. "Why do these guys keep chasing me away?" he moans in one. "I just want to see what they are writing."

Just this week, two different lessons contributed to create another writing prompt. One, which we call "Squeeze the grape," has the students adding a word or short phrase to those original three until we have an often outrageous, yet still legitimate sentence. This time it expanded to include the description of "Oliver's Dad," who had an orange uni-brow with pink highlights and a neon yellow mustache with rainbow sprinkles.
When I was explaining the "hamburger theory" of writing a five-paragraph essay, I used a green marker to draw a lettuce leaf on the whiteboard. Turned out this marker was the "wet-erase" variety rather than the "dry-erase" version so, when I erased everything else, the lettuce leaf remained.
Long story short, that lettuce leaf turned into the mouth for a rather scary-looking version of Oliver's Dad. We joked about him showing up in the dorms and I added a word balloon to the pic: "Sleep well, children." And thus was born the prompt for "A Visit from Oliver's Dad."

Meantime, our class has been regularly disrupted by the group in the classroom upstairs who are constantly moving the furniture around, dragging it back and forth across the floor. Can you guess what this morning's prompt is going to be?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Functionary: A person employed in a bureaucracy who carries out simple functions and has little or no authority

Flunky: An assistant who does menial work; a toady

Flunktionary: A low-level employee in a business or government agency with minimal authority and an over-inflated sense of self-importance

Your company is doing a multi-million dollar project and you have submitted an invoice. Also required are a variety of waivers, affidavits, and forms. In many cases, the first stop for your paperwork is the desk of someone whose job it is to sort through and make sure everything is there, perhaps also distributing parts to various other people or departments. 

On one of the forms, you neglected to put in the date of the invoice or the title of the person who signed it or perhaps the zip code. Logic would dictate that the person who notices it fills it in, perhaps sending you a note saying, "Hey, just a heads up that you forgot to do this."

Flunktionaries do not do that. 
Flunktionaries call or email you and say that you have to redo the forms and resubmit them. (If you try to ignore them, they will bombard you with emails and voice-mail messages asking where the resubmitted forms are.)
Flunktionaries advise you that your invoice will not be processed until the "error" is corrected.
Flunktionaries believe that he or she has every right to do this because they have complete authority over you, the work your company does, and whether or not you will be paid at all. In fact, they have none.

Some people are actually cowed by flunktionaries and do whatever is demanded, further enabling this behavior. 
Others just don't want to be bothered dealing with them, so they redo whatever is necessary, regardless of the waste of time and expense. 
A few will actually confront the flunktionaries and threaten to go to their superiors. This will sometimes get the flunktionary to renege, but there are also times you actually do have to call their boss. But if you are going to call the boss, do it quickly because you can bet the flunktionary will be running down the hall to let the boss know that you are overreacting and that your paperwork really, really, really is incorrect.

Occasionally, you can be successful in your dealings with flunktionaries. More often than not, however, you will just be frustrated by them. Often, you will wish there was some way to send a zap charge through the phone.

Unfortunately, flunktionaries never seem to get fired.
In fact, sometimes they get promoted.
And then you're really flunktioned!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Slice of Life

  A man asked me yesterday if I wanted to buy a power drill.
  I was sitting in my car, waiting outside a supermarket for Laurie and Chuck, when he walked over and asked if I needed one. Last weekend we actually did, as Chuck's got misplaced in the move and he had to buy a new one. Not so any more.
  He walked over to a few others who were also sitting in their cars, but found no buyers.
  Having exhausted his pool of potential purchasers, he came back to me and asked, "Are you sure you don't need a drill?"
  When I assured him that I was, he asked, "Want me to wash your car?"
  This struck me as an odd idea, since there was nothing he could use to do it anywhere that I could see. I smiled and told him no, thanks.

  He told me he'd been down on his luck. That he'd had a job at a nearby condo community for eight and a half years, but when he took ten vacation days off to visit his ailing mother out of state, he came back to find out that a new supervisor had taken over who told him he was no longer needed.
   He said that he was successful in a suit for unlawful termination, but it got him a cash settlement rather than his job back. That money has since run out and his quest for new employment has been fruitless. "My wife is a good woman," he said, "but it's tough. And," he confessed, "I've been drinking, probably too much sometimes."
  And so, here he was, in a supermarket parking lot, trying to sell his drill and offering to do any odd job (like wash my car) to make some money.

  I wish I had the power to create work for people who want jobs but can't get find one, like this man seemed to. Life shouldn't be so tough here in the greatest country in the world. But it is...
  I gave him a couple of dollars and wished him luck. He thanked me and walked off in search of someone who needed a drill.