Friday, September 30, 2011

The Importance of Hair

My New Hairdo 9/28/11

Hair is important... just ask any guy spending $19.95 a month on rogain, or the average woman who spends well over $100 every 5 weeks for a cut and color (don't even get me started about the additional cost of a blowout).

Millions of dollars are spent every year in salons and on styling products, and networks are starting to create reality TV shows (e.g. Tabathas Salon Takeover; Shear Genius) that showcase the "real" trials and tribulations of bobs and bangs. Even Sarah Palin's hair salon is getting its own series: Big Hair Alaska, "where the personalities of the owner and her staff are as big as the hairstyles they create."

Why all the fuss?

Hair has long been considered a source of mythological and cultural strength. Some Native American tribes believed that scalping was a way to capture their enemy's strength. In the Bible, Samson is granted unimaginable physical strength by God on the condition that he never cuts his hair. (Samson of course loses his power when Delilah finds out his secret, and has his head shaved.) Even today, certain faiths still forbid their followers to cut their hair, such as Amish women and Sikh men.

Hair is important... just ask any cancer survivor who has gone through the trauma of losing it.

I've been a frequent flyer at different cancer centers these last 15 months, always with a full head of hair. While I am grateful that carcinoid cancer really doesn't have a treatment path that leads down the way to baldness ... my locks always make me feel like a bit of an impostor - like a weak warrior on a battle field of combat veterans who wear their shiny bald heads (delicately lined with thin blue veins, wrapped in colorful silk scarves) like fierce battledress.

In the new Seth Rogen comedy, 50/50 (opening this weekend) two 20-something bosom-buddies find out that one has cancer - with a 50% chance of survival. The trailer plays a familiar scene in which they use a "questionably clean" set of body trimmers to shave off the one friend's hair, before the chemo and radiation can melt it away.

This film scene isn't fiction for one of my seniors - Tim - who did the same exact thing, two years ago. (Except he used very clean trimmers of course!)

In tenth grade, Tim was diagnosed with advanced stages of Hodgkins Lymphoma, and had to complete the year through home-tutoring and painful cancer treatments. He returned his junior year and organized the first ever PC Relay for Life, which raised over $43,000 dollars for the American Cancer Society. He and I were the speakers at Relay's opening ceremonies, and formed an instant bond. We were both thrilled that he was in my English class this year, and for the past two weeks, we have been working on his college essay.

Tim started his college essay with a memory from the day his pediatric oncologist told him, "you have cancer" for the first time. At this point, his immediate thought did not turn to the fear of dying, but to the fear of going bald. Apparently, Tim was absolutely obsessed with his hair and couldn't imagine living without it. Eventually, he decided that he needed to be the one to take his hair - not the cancer... so first he gave himself a Mohawk, and then he shaved his head.

Having the privilege of getting to know this young man, I can unequivocally state that Tim's spirit and strength could outmatch a follically endowed Samson in any battle - any day of the week.

So I think the mythology got it backwards. Hair in and of itself does not pass along secret powers to its owner... rather it is the act of losing one's hair in a deadly, knockdown-dragout fight against an invisible enemy that makes one truly heroic.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Life is Too Short for Self Hatred and Celery Sticks - M. Wann

Bent Spoon in Princeton
September 24, 2011

Saturday, Christine (the lovely girl with the flower) completed her first 80 mile bike race; a particularly awe-inspiring accomplishment in my eyes since I can't even ride a bicycle. I can, however, eat ice cream while basking in the joy of my friends... which is just what I did.

"Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart." - Erma Bombeck

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Teaching About 9/11 (in English Class)

During my senior of high school, my mother, sister and I moved to an orange farm in Ojai, CA; before that, we lived in Ridgewood, NJ in Bergen County. Three years ago, I moved back to NJ and began teaching English at Paramus Catholic HS - just a few miles away from where I grew up... a full circle.

Bergen County is a suburban area that is heavily populated by Manhattan commuters; and before my family's cross-country relocation, both my parents worked at what's now known as ground zero. Sadly, many of my students lost family members in the tragedy.

The beginning of our school year always inevitably corresponds with the anniversary of 9/11. This year, we had orientation on Thursday (September 8th) and started classes on Friday - two days before the 10th anniversary of when everything changed in America.

While I could have spent the first day of classes jumping right into Unit 1 - an introduction to the ancient texts of Mesopotamia, I felt it was important to recognize the magnitude of 9/11.

After I began the class with a prayer - remembering all those affected by the terrorist attacks, I asked students to raise their hands if they had ever read The New Yorker before - not one of my 118 seniors raised their hands.

I explained that The New Yorker is basically a literary magazine, filled with a datebook, cartoons, short stories, essays, fiction and poems; and that it would provide an important literary voice for reflecting on the 9/11 attacks. Then, I passed around my advance copy of The New Yorker's 9/11 edition (reason #637 why I'm not a Kindle fan - passing around a Kindle version of The New Yorker to students whom had never seen it before just wouldn't be the same).

I then read from an essay in the magazine's 9/11 edition: "Speechless", by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Literary Non-Fiction Essay

"Speechless" starts with a personal anecdote - the author recalling his young son crawling into bed with him and his wife after having a nightmare. When the author asked his son what the nightmare was about, his little boy was at a loss for words:

"At the time, I thought he didn't want to describe it: putting a nightmare into words - saying it aloud and sharing it - would only expand the terror. But I've come to wonder if he simply didn't possess the vocabulary. And if that failure of language was at least part of the problem."

The author uses his son's inability to articulate what was so frightening about his dream as a metaphor for his own inability to explain what it was like living in New York on 9/11:

"How could this world be so unlike the world that I believed I was living in? I can't describe it. Do I not want to describe it, or do I simply not possess the vocabulary?"

(Here - I snuck in a quick review of metaphor v. simile.)

The piece concludes with a reflection on the power of language - not only to make sense of the senseless, but as its own form of heroism:

"Is there anyone who hasn't played out the nightmare of having been trapped in one of the towers? Is there anyone who hasn't wondered if he would have had the superhuman composure to call and comfort a loved one? Dozens of phone calls home were placed from the towers between the moment that the first plane hit and the time that the north tower collapsed. When words should have been most impossible to find, there were words of grace, and dignity, and consolation. Words of fear, and words of love. There's nothing to learn from this, except everything."

After we discussed "Speechless" and the importance of having the "vocabulary" to adequately tell our own stories, I asked the class if anyone had seen photos of the planes crashing into the towers. This time, every hand went up. The fact is, you couldn't turn on a television leading up to the 10th anniversary without feeling like you were trapped in a time warp - the newsreels looping a never-ending reminder of terror.

I then asked my students if any of them knew what the City was like immediately following the attacks... none of them did.

First-Hand Account (Interview)

I then shared an interview of a 16-year-old girl that I heard on the radio on the way to school that morning. She was asked what she remembered most as a 6-year-old living blocks away from ground zero. Ash. She remembered ash covering everything - and how she begged her parents to buy her a purple plastic umbrella that she carried with her outside every single day for three years. She also said that she taught herself to read, just so she could read the weather report every day - so she would be prepared if something like this ever happened again.

I told my students that when I first heard the interview, I didn't make the connection - but then it dawned on me. This little girl associated an environmental change (ash) with panic and sadness. She didn't see the towers crashing, and had no way of linking cause and effect; all she knew was ash was falling from the sky - like rain - and if she had some advanced warning when the ash was coming again, she could feel in control of her situation.


Then I lead a brief discussion about how poetry could also be a way to gain a sense of control through self-expression. Next, I held up the tenth anniversary edition of Poetry After 9/11, An Anthology of New York Poets, and I read a short excerpt from the Forward, written by editors Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians:

"There were, in the immediate aftermath, poems everywhere. Walking around the city you would see them - stuck on light posts and phone stalls, plastered on shelters at bus stops and the walls of the subway stations. In neighborhood newspapers the letters-to-the-editor pages were full of them. Downtown, people scrawled poems in the ash that covered everything. And on brick walls of police stations and firehouses, behind mountains and flowers and between photos of the dead, poetry dominated... Prose wasn't enough. There was something more to be said that only poetry could say. Everybody, apparently, knew this."

We then discussed as a class what the editors meant by: prose wasn't enough. (Here, I managed to sneak in a mini-lesson about genre, and the relationship between form, purpose and audience as well as the importance of cultural context in analyzing literature).

Finally, I shared one of my favorite books - which isn't a book at all in the traditional sense... rather it's a book of postcards entitled Haiku on 42nd St, A Celebration of Urban Poetry & Art . Each postcard is a photograph of a haiku poem that found its way onto one of the empty porn marques of Times Square.

After shocking the socks off of my students by describing how Times Square used to be a very different place (filled with shady hawkers, prostitutes and drug addicts - not $200 show tickets, strolling tourists and sidewalk seating), I defined the word "gentrification" and briefly mentioned some of the mixed social connotations of the word.

Holding up my postcard book, I explained that the photographs captured a moment of transition in Time Square's history - just before one of the most dangerous areas in NYC became one of the most sought after tourist destinations in the world. Perhaps these unsolicited haikus were one last rebellious dare - challenging the magical land of Oz (or Wicked) that was soon to follow.

For homework, students were asked to brainstorm about a moment of change in their own lives that they might use for their college essays. I reassured them that their "moment" didn't have to be as dramatic as 9-11, it just needed to provide a little snapshot of their character for the admissions officers to see.

I will end this blog the same way I ended my first day of 12th grade World Literature classes - with two 5-7-5 snapshots of New York City ...

9/11: Remember * Honor * Reunite.

Additional 9/11 Links:

Gathering Place - remembering those with disabilities on 9/11: This blog reflection is especially powerful for me, because my mom is disabled and this was one of the first things she said after the planes hit ... "what about the gathering place?" I didn't get it - she did. When you are disabled you are supposed to wait at a certain location for help in case of an emergency - all those people with disabilities (save one blind person whose dog led him out) died at the designated "gathering place" waiting for help that never came.

Baseball symbolized resiliency after 9/11: The nation turned to baseball after 9/11 for a sense of normalcy and healing; this article captures some of the incredible moments - including Fenway Park's famous 7th inning stretch when the entire stadium erupted in "New York, New York" during their first home game against the Yankees after 9/11.

National September 11 Memorial (WTC): A guide to a national tribute of remembrance and honor to the 2,983 people killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993.

Prayers, Vigils, Remembrances Mark 9/11 Anniversary
: A listing of events in Washington, PA and NY to remember the victims of the 9/11.

The Sept. 11 Attacks, Remembered - PICTURES
: A series of pictures of international and national remembrances.

For My Teacher Friends... Concepts Taught In This Lesson

Vocabulary: gentrification; connotation
Literary Terms: simile; metaphor; genre
Writing: relationship between purpose, form and audience; cultural context; voice
Poetry: haiku, postmodernism
Big Idea: there is nothing more important than stories - and nothing more powerful than having the ability to skillfully tell our own stories to others

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Organizing Classroom 1204

My new classroom's "before" pictures...

Just add "interior designer" to my job description...

It's official. The first day of school was Friday.

For the past two weeks I've been setting up my new classroom, which is located in a part of the building aptly nicknamed "The Tower" - mainly because there are only two rooms on the entire floor (part of the old priests' residence), which are up two flights of stairs - completely inaccessible from any other part of the building.

My new and old digs are in sharp juxtaposition. My old room was next to the cafeteria and doors leading out to our fleet of buses - which meant that every single one of our 1570 students had to walk by my classroom on a daily basis. By contrast, in "The Tower" - there are never more than 60 people on the floor at any one time.

At first, I had mixed feelings about the move, but there is a quiet calm about the room that I've come to embrace. Moments before my first students arrived, I added the final touches of "clean linen" scented oil diffusers and air fresheners, which seemed appropriately metaphoric (hey, I'm an English teacher)... time for a fresh start with a brand new set of 116 seniors.

Cue Rocky Theme Song.

Below are some additional classroom makeover pictures; just hit the "play" button on each collage...

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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Big Gay Ice Cream

(picture from NY Examiner article)

If you've never heard of a "salty pimp" before - you've probably never heard of the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck in NYC either. Thanks to our friend Christine (a fellow ice cream aficionado), the truck has been on Gary's and my radar for a long time - but they usually are only "rolling" on weekdays, so we've never been able to catch up with them. Today, however, was the grand opening of their Big Gay Ice Cream Shop - eliminating the need for weekly location Tweets and daily Facebook status updates.

We were in the City this morning anyway, so obviously, the logical thing to do was to walk 10 blocks and wait an hour in line to finally taste their iconic cone (salty pimp): vanilla soft serve, covered in dulce de leche sauce, sprinkled with sea salt, and dipped in chocolate.

Overall, I have to rate the ice cream a solid B. It was good, but all the flavor was in the topping... the ice cream itself was nothing more than Dairy Queen vanilla. While I'm glad that we finally had this NYC treat, it wasn't exactly the same ordering a salty pimp in a shop adorned with unicorn murals - instead of from a Good Humor truck on rainbow colored steroids. Perhaps these crazy inventive ice cream toppings (toasted curry coconut, pumpkin butter, key lime curd, wasabi pea dust, elderflower syrup) are more awe-inspiring when they come out of a slide window on four wheels rather than a brick and mortar shop. For my buck - I'll stick to the Wafels & Dinges truck, until something better rolls along.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Six Years After Hurricane Katrina

Monday was was the 6-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005.

In the summer of 2006, I went to New Orleans with a dozen other Marianist volunteers to help with the rebuilding efforts. The devastation was unfathomable. I recently came across some papers from that trip, including a catalogue of items found in the first house I ever helped to rebuild... the list speaks more to the tragedy than anything I could write here.

List of Items Found in Home - Lower Ninth Ward (June 23, 2006)

unopened prison letters - marked "censored by staff"; "Vote for Kerry" campaign button; insulin needles; soaked polaroids of small children; rosary beads; mardi gras beads and coins; baby shoes; bible; rotting food in the refrigerator; bail bond receipt; IOU note for $195; small batman action figure; heart shaped wood block with two little boys on it; David and Goliath picture book; a plastic bag on the door with a picture of a family sitting on the lawn; china - some broken; baby shampoo; coats and dresses stuck together with mold; The Joy of Signing: The Illustrated Guide for Mastering Sign Language; candle sconces; bills - some marked paid, some not; a purse with a social security card in it; cards from grand kids; insurance papers; 1 tie.

We salvaged what we could, and the rest was thrown out with the gutted mold encrusted drywall and cockroach infested floor boards - until nothing was left but the house's frame... an entire family history of love and heartbreak, washed away by the storm.

As I was working, I couldn't help but worry about the fate of the family member who was in prison. I knew that most of the New Orleans prisoners had to be moved last minute when Katrina hit, and were haphazardly scattered across jails in several states - without clear records of placement. For example, one college kid - who had been in an overnight holding cell for public intoxication - was "lost" in a TX jail for nearly 4 months before he could be processed and released. Also, many of the court files in NO were not electronic, and were damaged in the flood - a litigator's nightmare. These violations of due process were almost wholly ignored by the media - I only knew about them through a fellow social justice worker, Bill Quigley, who is a Loyola University law professor in New Orleans. As I brushed off the prison letters and moved them to the "keep" pile, I felt this profound sadness - for both the physical and spiritual loss this family had suffered.

I was so incredibly moved by the experience that I vowed to return - with students from Archbishop Riordan HS (where I was the Campus Minister and Director of Service Learning, as well as an English teacher).

In 2007, a brave colleague (ARHS Director of Operations) and I took 16 students and 3 parents to New Orleans over spring break. Below is a news report (I'm the one in the white jacket, leading the prayer) and a few pictures from the trip:

The tradition of going to NO during spring break has continued at Riordan every year since - maybe it's time to bring this same tradition to Paramus Catholic HS.


Hurricane Irene vs. Hurricane Katrina: How They Stack Up
S.F. students join Katrina relief | Staff report | Local | San Francisco Examiner
Marianist Reflection: My Everyday Struggle with Justice (April 2007)
Casey: My Hero is a Bus Thief
Just Faith Ministries: Prayerful Reflections and Faithful Responses to the Gulf Coast Disaster
Catholic Charities - Volunteer in New Orleans