Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Teacher's Purgatory: Summer School and Technology

If you've read my posts about how the iPhone jacks up my life, or if you've interacted with me in person for more than fifteen minutes, you know that technology and I have a tumultuous relationship.

I accept the necessity technological competency; I accept the benefits of technological progress. If it weren't for computers, it would have taken a lot longer to produce my novels. And yes, I am willing to admit that it has contributed to my growth as a writer because I can type in time with my thoughts and experiment with different genres and styles more easily.


It complicates my life, much like the iPhone. My attitude doesn't exactly help: it bores me and because of that I don't spend a lot of time futzing with it. So when I have problems (which I frequently do), I am unwilling to spend a lot of grey cells or time on it. If I have a computer issue during one of my high school classes, I just freak out until a student helps me either out of pity or out of a desire to shut me up. If I have one at home, I call everyone I know until I find someone who knows how to fix it.  If I can't find a lifeline, I take my laptop to a repair shop run by a couple of Russian gentlemen and roll in with a lot of cleavage, batting my eyelashes and feigning helplessness.

I have yet to pay for computer repair, but I'm pretty sure they are on to my game.

The fact that I am publishing some of my work online is pure irony. Or hypocrisy. Whatever:  TomatO, TomAto. (Note that I can't even figure out how to add an accent mark to the appropriate letters. Oh well, can't capitalization be used in any way that I need it?)

Therefore, my feelings about technology + the importance of technology in contemporary society + the fact that I'm OCD + the fact that I have the worst memory = disaster.  Add to that the trials and tribulations of summer school and you'll begin to understand that I am armed to bring in the apocalypse (I need to give Apple some competition).

Allow me to explain.

I am teaching two classes this summer: one high school; one junior college. Two different campuses; two different classrooms (neither of which are mine during the regular school year).  FIVE different computers.

I try to avoid using my personal computer for work--courtesy of OCD--, but in the cases that I absolutely have to, I save everything to a flash drive. My personal computer has Microsoft Office 2010; the computer in my classroom has Microsoft Office 2007. Simpatico.  But I am not in my classroom for either of my summer classes.

No problem, the high school just bought me a laptop; I cart that sucker around.

Silly me. I should have known that even though the school was generous enough to purchase me a laptop, it couldn't help throwing in a monkey wrench: Microsoft 2003.

No problem. I happen to have bought Microsoft 2010 to install on three computers and since I only own one, that leaves two computers to benefit from my generosity. As it turns out, I can't even change the date and time on the computer without an administrative password, and believe me, no one in their right mind would put the word "administrative" anywhere near my job description.

I called one of the head mucky-mucks of technology for our district and asked if I could run my new laptop by his office so he could install the program for me. He told me that he couldn't do that. Apparently, only programs bought by the district can be installed on its computers. In other words, they can't install one program that I bought onto one of their computers, but if the district buys it, okie dokie. Only after I put in a work order and wait for two months for them to get to me.

My plan to install a program that will single-handedly bring down the entire school district under the guise of Microsoft 2010 was thwarted.

But, I had a plan B: I re-saved all my files onto a flash drive in Microsoft 2003 format  and then transferred them to my work laptop and if I used only that computer for work I wouldn't have to keep remembering to save in 2003, because with my memory, I'd forget more than I'd remember. And I didn't worry about not wanting to haul the laptop around because my OCD would demand it.

In the classroom that I teach my high school summer class, I use my laptop for instruction, but I have to use that room's computer to go online so I can take attendance and update grades. If the district won't allow me to install Microsoft, it sure as fuck isn't going to give me the password to tap into the wireless network (believe me, I've already asked about that. Their answer: NO ONE has the wireless access code).

Clearly, I don't get paid enough to understand this shit.

No biggie. Running back and fourth between computers gets some exercise in. It does get risky when it comes to printing, because I have to remember to eject my flash drive so I have it for my college class.

For my JC class, I have a computer in that classroom which is hooked up to a LCD projector, DVD player and surround sound speakers. But, no printer. I have to go down the hall to the part-time faculty lounge to print anything.

At least their computers don't have Microsoft 1800 on them.

Despite all of the differences between computers, I had been managing with few hiccups . . . until last week.

One of my JC students asked if he could take the final early so that he could attend a family reunion and I acquiesced. He was more than willing to work around my schedule and made sure to ask me before adding the class. When the time came to do so, I had to scramble to get it together because I had procrastinated. For those of you who aren't teachers, writing a test is actually quite difficult. And it takes a lot of time.  And if you are me, you will make it 10x more difficult than it needs to be (refer back to the formula for the apocolypse).

The night before I needed the final ready, I decided to go to dinner with a couple friends, drink some wine, and then go home and write the test.  Great plan, right?  It gets better: I left my work laptop at the high school.

But I had my flash drive (because I have that thing duct-taped to my body at all times).  After dinner, I simultaneously wrote my final, chatted with my friends, and drank more wine. Once finished, I printed that bad-boy up and put it and my flash drive into the bag I carry all my JC stuff in.  How responsible am I?

But, I did not lay the bag against my front door, so the next morning, I left WITHOUT it. No final. No flash drive. No brain.

I didn't realize my error until I had reached the high school. I live too far away to turn around and get it before my morning class, but I could go in-between my high school and JC class. But, the extra two hours that would put me on the freeway was not attractive.

Luckily, my friend Cher works from home and lives only blocks from me. And she has a key to my apartment.

I called her to tell her about my dilemma. After she finished laughing, she told me to email her all the passwords, name of files, etc she would need to get onto my personal computer and email it to me. She ducked out during her lunch break, emailed me every file with the word "final," "test," and "exam" in its title and even took my personal laptop home with her just in case.

Cher may be on a mission to ruin my playlist, but she also is on a mission to save me from myself. Thank God.

Six files were emailed to me; none of them was the final I had written the previous night. As I was reaching for the phone to give her a call, I remembered that I had saved the final to my flash drive only.

Fuck me.

Let's all say "yay" for OCD.

Cher would have been willing to go back to my place to get my flash drive, but I figured I had asked enough of her for one day. Keeping me alive is a tough job, and I wanted her to save her strength for the next time I screwed up. Also, all my materials for my JC class were also at home, and even though I have my JC files on my high school computer, they were probably out-dated (I revise my curriculum often). I had been willing to wing it, but now I figured I had better just man-up and drive home.

The round-trip commute should have taken about 1 1/2 hours. It took 2 1/2 because a) It was 3 p.m. and b) every street between my job and my home is currently undergoing major road construction.

I showed up to administer the final late, sweaty, and pissed. But the real bummer is that the only person I had to blame was myself.

Moral of the story: do not disrupt The Vancester's system.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

How My Friend Is Ruining My Music

And I am not going to change this friend's name; I am throwing her right under the bus.

My two BFFs -- Lisa and Cher--and I decided on a last-minute trip to Solvang, CA for some quaint culture, boutique shopping, and WINE. I have known both of these amazing women for 30 years. As teens, we had similar music tastes; as adults, we have definitely struck out on our own: I love hard rock; Cher, country; Lisa, Indie Music spiced up with some Top 40.  It was my turn to drive, but feeling unusually accommodating, I decided to create a playlist that all three of us could enjoy (I almost made Cher psychotic after forcing her to listen to my music during the four-hour drive to Las Vegas).

So, I created a pretty cool playlist featuring the favorites we all shared from our youth -- Duran Duran, Def Leppard, Beastie Boys, Depeche Mode-- with a few of Cher and Lisa's current favorites thrown in.

Well, Cher must have not approved, because during our drive home, she managed to ruin a few of my favorites.

During the Bee Gees hit, "You Should Be Dancing," when they hit the first chorus, Cher said about the line, "What are you doing in the back, ahhh?" she said:

"Don't you guys think he's saying: 'Do you do it in your butt?' It sounds like he certainly does."

The next time the chorus rolls around, Lisa and I focus and burst out laughing: "He totally does!"

Every time they sang the chorus, all I could do was guffaw like a 16-year-old stoner.

When TLC's song, "Silly Ho" filled the car, after the line, "I'm not a chick you can hit," she asked, "Did she just say 'I am not a chicken head'?"

Yes, Cher. R&B artists often use farm animals as metaphors.

That is how she sang that line for the rest of the song.

The final shot? As she climbed out of my car, the song "She's Crafty" by Beastie Boys was thumpin' and she drops, "And with this one, it sounds like he saying, 'She's crapping'."

I will never be able to listen to those songs again in the same way. Next time I'm loading up Disturbed, Avenge Sevenfold, Seether, and Breaking Benjamin.  I can totally handle psychotic better than the visual of the members of the Bee Gees in sliver, skin-tight body suits) having anal sex while singing.  A disco balling spinning above their heads.

I guess I could do the same to her the next time she drives and I must endure her music. But, she listens to country and there's not much more damage I can do to their lyrics.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Teacher's Purgatory: Summer School

No high school teacher wants to teach summer school: not even the teacher who loves his/her craft, who loves kids, who would still teach even if he/she won the lottery.

Yes, even that teacher doesn't want to teach summer school.

Any teacher who teaches summer school does so because he/she has to for financial reasons. And I mean I-won't-be-able-to-eat reasons. These teachers aren't good savers--or have financial goals beyond a normal teacher's salary and might want to consider administration. Those fools have to work in the summer as part of their contract, but they make A LOT more money.

I'm a little of both: I don't save well and I live like I am already a published and a successful author. So, my punishment is summer school.

And since I am angry and have a flair for drama, summer school for me is HELL. Total hell-- flames, pitchforks, and demons to rule over. So, I guess that makes me Satan. You'd think that prospect would make it more attractive, but . . .

It's HELL I tell you.

Homelessness, starvation, the pole are looking better and better every day.

I have 48 students (no, that's not a typo) ranging from ages 14-17 who have all failed English. 38 of them are boys.

I'm in HELL.

Picture dealing with 48 of your worst customers, clients, or employees for 2 1/2 hours a day for 24 days. The most immature, the most idiotic, the least motivated--the ones with the most attitude. All at once.

I just finished day 12 and I might not make it without committing a felony.

I take pride in my work. Yes, I entered teaching to pay the bills until I get published, but much to my chagrin, I find that I do love it--during the months of September- June.  But, faced with having to teach this summer, I decided that all I wanted to do was get through it.

That takes a lot of patience and very few standards.

This is where I might get myself in trouble because I know one of my current bosses and one of my former bosses (you know who you are, mister) will probably read this, but shit, I have tenure.

I am not showing movies. I teach vocabulary and grammar every day. The students have a test every week. I make them read. I make them write.

But, I try to make it interesting: right now, we are reading literature related to insanity. We've read excerpts from Fight Club and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest; we've analyzed "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" as a poem. Read some Edgar Alan Poe. Currently, I do have them working on a synthesis essay, but I am offering so much guidance a monkey on acid could follow me.

You wanna listen to your iPod (my school has a strict no-iPods-ever rule) while working? Okay. Keep that phone out and update your Facebook periodically--as long as you are fairly focused. While I am distributing handouts, go ahead and play Angry Birds.

You hear this phrase a lot in my room: "Okay everyone, unplug and look up here because I've got something to tell [teach] you."

During the normal school year, I send one or two students to the dean.  One or two a year. Last year, I didn't write a single referral. I have excellent classroom control. In fact, when I do send students to the dean, they send SWAT up to my room because they assume something HUGE is going down.

My reputation among the students is that I'm a "hard-ass" who makes my students work, but that I'm cool. I have a strict "no bullshit" policy, but enforcing it is a bitch with summer school kids because they assume I am as clueless as they are.

On the first day, I had a student taken out of the room by security for defiance.

I had a student claim that the giant bong he drew on his paper right in front of me was a cup with a straw. When I rolled my eyes and informed him that a) I'm not a moron and b) I have a legal obligation to report suspicion of drug use, he accused me of being judgmental.

Right kid, people who don't smoke weed draw bongs all day long.

I threw his ass out.

Yesterday, this a student said to me with much indignation: "I'm not stoned, Ms. Vance, I am hungover -- okay?"

My response: "Well, since you are in summer school, how do you think that drinkin' thing is working out for you?"

On that note, another student who has attended 5 out of 12 days so far told his classmate that he hasn't been coming because he's been smoking too much weed--I heard him loud and clear even though students believe that teachers become deaf and blind the moment they sit at their desks. And then he strolled over and asked me for make-up work.

I have perfected my fuck-off expression.

A student threw papers at me.

That one almost required SWAT. Let's just say he's not in summer school anymore.

I've put students in corners. Straight-up desk in the corner, student staring at the wall.

I've lost count of how many I've had to send outside for a little chat.

One particular day, after sending two students to the office, I said: "Okay everyone, all iPods and phones need to disappear. I see a wire or an earbud, hear a bleep or a buzz, I am taking you phone, iPod, hand-held center of your world, and running it over with my car."

"I'm done with you," I continued. "I am trying to make this as painless as possible by reading stuff that is edgy and interesting. But, I have no problem handing out worksheets for 2 1/2 hours and if you even fart without asking permission, I'm throwing you out."

"No more Fight Club. No more Metallica. No more Angry Birds. Nothing but Puritan Literature, Charles Dickens, and T.S. Eliot poetry."

Well, that is if I can figure out what the heck Eliot is writing about. That dude is complicated.

"Test prep until your eyes fall out."

Tomorrow? "A thirty-minute lecture on the dash vs. the hyphen." And I'm not nearly as entertaining as Missed Periods.

Forty-eight pairs of wide eyes staring at me in fear.

I finish with, "You want the bitch? Here she is!"

From somewhere in the room, I hear whispered, "You mean she gets worse?"

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Artist teasers: Interpreting "the 4th" in a Different ( and disturbing) Way.

My serial-killer thriller, The Artist, begins after the murder of the fourth victim. Below are some snippets from the first chapter.  I'd love, love, love some feedback.  Enjoy!

The killer always called Detective Corey Malone at home after committing his crime.
      The first phone call came four months ago in October.  He had called at 2 a.m. waking Corey from a seldom-found deep sleep.  Her answering machine had caught the message, projecting his voice throughout her apartment.  At first it had lingered in her ear, intermingling with her dreams. A haunting ancient sound he made, like something trapped within the walls of her childhood fears.
        Corey. Coreeeey.  I've left you a present. 
        The present? A mutilated and murdered freshman college girl.
        The phone had rung two more times since October.
        Now, a few minutes after midnight, the phone rang for the fourth time in four months.  
        “I’ve left you a present." The killer left the name and address of an apartment complex and hung up.
        He didn't give Corey a chance to respond to him.  He left her dumb with the receiver perched at her ear.  She listened to the buzz of a disconnected line and the thunder of blood rushing through her head. 
      But that was her relationship with him: a disconnected line.
      Corey grabbed her car keys, cellular phone, brown leather jacket, and gun. 
     She lived west of the Las Vegas strip on Jones Boulevard. She decided to go north to take Charleston across the Strip to avoid the mass of tourists that the huge hotels drew. Her heart pounded, sending vibrations through her entire body.  She was like a young lovesick girl late for a date. 
       Date? Could a police detective have a date with a killer? Definitely. Dating was part of many relationships, and enemies have relationships just like friends.  Enemies exchanged pieces of themselves, hoping to extract something new, something desired, something one needs and does not have any other way of getting, just like friends, or even lovers.  Corey gave the killer the attention he hungered for and in exchange she wanted a glimpse of his mind.  Corey needed him to call, yearned for it like a junkie.  But how else could she catch him?  Police no longer hunted criminals. The life of an undercover was slowly becoming the technique for all types of investigation: become the think you are trying to catch.  Vice cops did drugs; Corey allowed a serial killer to use her home phone number. She must indulge the killer: allow that twisted part of his soul to seep into her house through the ring of her phone. Doesn't the phone goes both ways?
      By the time Corey reached the location her tires were squealing and her nerves were screaming.  Checking her watch she noted the time at 12:37 a.m.  Gripping her gun, she climbed out of the car and hurried toward the apartment buildings. 
      She should call her partner. She should call CSI. She absolutely should not enter the scene alone.
      But Corey had to see his gift as he intended: she, alone; the scene, undisturbed. 
      The designated apartment door grew and swelled in her vision becoming a blue blur. She squatted down and scurried up to the door.   Staying low, she pressed her back against it closed her eyes and counted to ten.  Holding her gun with one hand, she raised a trembling fist and pounded on the door.
      "Police," she shouted.  "Open up."
      No answer. She tried the knob, but the door was locked. Squeezing her eyes shut, she cocked her head and bit her lip.  Her mouth silently formed the word damn.
      She unfolded into a standing position, angled her body away from the door and kicked her right leg out.  Her heel slammed into the doorknob, knocking it loose so that the second kick busted the door open.
      The scream that tore from the apartment nearly blasted Corey back over the railing.  The unexpected violence of sound hurled her into a state of hesitation and confusion.  She lingered in the terror of an unsuspecting citizen for only a few seconds before this killer's present jolted her back into a homicide detective.                                      
      “Police,” she blurted. 
      A few drops of blood led from the doorway to a mass of entangled limbs 6 or 7 feet away. A sour stench wafted thick in the room.  Corey placed her hand over her mouth to restrain the gasp bubbling in her throat and to keep the smell from becoming a taste.  At first it appeared as if the victim sat with her legs outstretched and her upper body bent over them so that her head hung between legs and her hands had been tied to her ankles with rope. The victim’s head bobbed while the hands flexed and clenched.
      "Thank God," Corey whispered and began to approach the body, careful to walk in a single path from the door to the body with as few strides and possible. A quick scan of the apartment revealed the tracks of a vacuum.  Then she froze, her pale face shining, her eyes bursting with a flame of horror.
       The head and arms did not belong to the same body as the legs. The arms were milky white and the legs, tanned.  Urgent glances caught only pieces of the picture but as Corey's nerves calmed her perception sharpened.  There were two bodies.  Two women had been stripped naked and placed in a 69 position.   Each girl had her wrists tied to the ankles of the other.
The girl on top was alive. The girl beneath her was dead.