Monday, August 8, 2011

Summer Adventures 2011: Nerd Camp is a Wrap

A very rare blue first edition of Huckleberry Finn.
If you're a taxpayer in the United States-- yes, you-- then, thank you.  Thanks for a lot of things, of course, but a very special thank you from me to you.  You funded my trip to Nerd Camp.  Or, specifically, you funded the National Endowment for the Humanities, which in turn granted me this three-week, uber-nerdy, life-broadening, brain-fortifying adventure.

Every year the NEH sends dozens of American K-12 teachers to these various nerd-programs, and every year these dozens of teachers return to their classrooms renewed, refreshed, and with new skills and knowledge to impart to the youth-that-are-our-future.

That's a beautiful thing.  The very kind of beautiful thing that is probably in jeopardy in our current economic crisis.  

But I digress.

I spent three weeks in intensive study of Mark Twain, specifically of the Mark Twain where Sam Clemens became Mark Twain-- Virginia City, NV-- and the Mark Twain of Hartford, CT, where he wrote most of his most famous books.  And I came away understanding that Twain is both more and less  than I had always imagined him to be. More creative. More clever. More warm and charming.  Less kind. Less successful. Less modern.  

Twain wrote because he was compelled to write.  To this day, we discover an average of three new letters written by Twain each week.   But he was not compelled to be an author.  Twain was an author for the paycheck; he hoped each book he published would be the one to set him up for life, so he'd never have to write another book again.  All of his many (many, many) failed financial ventures were get-rich-quick ploys.  

Twain didn't want to work.  He wanted to play.  His dreams of "big money" weren't for himself, a humble boy from Hannibal; they were for his family.  He wanted make sure his wife, Livy, could live the way she was accustomed to living, wanted to live up to the New England moneyed class he'd married into, but he wanted to do so with as little work as possible.

And writing and public speaking were his only successful ventures.

My feelings of kinship with Twain went beyond the connection forged by spending three weeks of all-Twain-all-the-time.  Went beyond the connection forged by walking where he walked, getting to bypass the velvet ropes and stepping deep into his rooms, looking at personal items normally only viewed by museum archivists.  

If you've been reading this blog while I've been away, you'll know I suffered financial and technological distress, stresses that he wrestled with all of his life**.  Most importantly, though, Twain's conflicts between work and play spoke to my soul.

I learned a lot about Twain these past few weeks, but after spending just about every waking moment with 23 other teachers I learned lot about teachers and teaching too. The most disturbing thing I learned: teachers everywhere are struggling.

Keep in mind that this group of teachers were some of the best of the best.  They're the (ill-paid) teachers who spend their own money to buy t-shirts for the Math Club because there's no money in the budget.  They're the (ridiculously overworked) teachers who are the first to get to school and last to leave so that their students can have all the extra help they need.  These aren't the teachers who phone it in, who teach their classes and get out, who chose to be teachers for the summers off.  They're the kind of teachers who choose to take three weeks out of their hard-earned summers to, essentially, work.  Hard. (No lie, but a lot of it was fun too.) They came from all over the country, from all different kinds of schools.

And out of 24 teachers, only two or maybe three were happy.

And the problem was never "the kids." You know me: I'm a passionate defender and advocate of teenagers. And these were my people. To a person, what these teachers loved most about their jobs were the kids.  The problem was all the other hooey. State mandates. Standardized tests that dictate curriculum. Overbearing parents. Poor pay. Administrators that behave like CEO's. Overcrowded classrooms. Job insecurity. Meaningless budgets.

It's been a bad year for teachers. We've been told by politicians and the mainstream media that we are "part-time employees."  That we're "overpaid." That whole school systems of us can be pink-slipped at whim. I remember rocking the boat at my old job, once upon a time, and being told by the headmistress of the school that "English teachers were a dime a dozen." That cut me to the core; it felt so personal and so demeaning. And now all teachers are essentially being told that.

And if you think it's not sending shock waves through our society, that it's just the rhetoric of some blow-hard tea partiers, you're wrong. You better believe that parents are hearing this and buying into it. And you'd better believe that they're passing these sentiments onto their kids.

Despite only having a 5th grade education, Twain was a fierce advocate of public schools.  He said, "Out of the public schools grows the greatness of the nation." I'm not a public school teacher, but most of my Twainiac (apparently that's the accepted term for a Twain nerd) friends are. We need more Twains; heck, we need more Matt Damons. Michelle Malkin, on the Fox News Website, wrote an article called "Matt Damon's Silly Teacher Rant" and epitomizes all the anti-teacher sentiment that I'm talking about. It literally hurts me to read these kinds of things.

For the first time in eleven-plus years of being a teacher, I'm not really looking forward to going back to school. My Twainiac teacher friends fired me up and inspired me to do better, to be more creative, to give even more of myself. But their stories amplified my own gnawing feeling that it's not a good time to be a teacher. That we're under fire. That teaching is no longer a "noble profession."

I learned a heck of a lot at Nerd Summer Camp. If you're ever curious about the social and technological developments during the Comstock Era of silver and gold mining in Nevada, buy me a beer, and I'll chat your ear off.  If you want to know how the Colt gun manufacturer not only made Hartford the richest city in the East for a time but also helped make manifest Manifest Destiny in the West, I'm your girl. But what I'll probably remember most about my Nerd Summer Camp experience is that teachers are an amazing lot, and I'm honored to be counted among them.

[calls for a minion to bring a step ladder and then steps off her high horse]

**When all was said and done, Chase Bank did a reasonably decent job dealing with my account hacking. The upshot was that I dealt almost exclusively in cash this past month and was exceptionally more frugal than I normally than I usually am.  And that's not a bad thing.  But the stress was paralyzing at times.  And the computer thing was almost an unmitigated disaster, but I ended up being very lucky.  On the downside, I lost the use of my computer for three weeks, lost precious writing time, and lost upwards of a year's worth of pictures, writing, and music uploads.  On the upside, my computer was rebuilt almost from scratch and Apple waived all fees even though I was 55 days out of warranty.   Big gold stars to the Genius Bar at the West Farms Mall Apple Store in Connecticut.


janelle said...

it's good to hear that the bank situation has been resolved. and that huck finn copy is gorgeous!

i have to say, though: reading your comments about being a teacher, how people seem to view educators, and the stress educators feel is why i'm very hesitant to start my masters in education program. it's scary (and heartbreaking) to know that people view teachers as disposable. besides the pay, which scares me as is, knowing that i could be leaving a good paying job where i'm at the top of my department to being overworked and underpaid just... it's a lot.

how did you/do you get over that feeling? it's apparent that you love your job, but what happens when that's not enough? when the job you love no longer loves you?

Shiloh Walker said...

Welcome back, Lou...

I hope you know that for every twit like Michelle Malkin who spout off like that, there are plenty of us who love and adore people like you. A good teacher is worth their weight in gold...more than and they touch a child's life for more than just a few months out of one year.

M said...

I don't know, Janelle. I really don't. I just know that we underestimate kids all the time. They're amazing and deserve the best of the best when it comes to teachers and mentors. I'd never discourage you from becoming a teacher. But Lordy, it's a tough job and you need to be ready for the backlash.

Every time I think about quitting, I realize that there are SO FEW people who genuinely LOVE teenagers. And I do. Love them. To pieces. So I'm not sure I will ever quit.


SamAnnesivaD said...

You took the words right out of my brain!

~I work in the trenches as an 8th grade language arts teacher.