Oh Captain! My Captain!

I’ve mentioned before that after Robin Williams’ passing, I watched Dead Poets Society with my wife and let out a good cry. That viewing allowed me to rediscover my protagonist and ultimately inspired the prologue of Knowing When You’re Too Young to Grow Up.

I recently had my DPS moment with my seventh grade students. When we started discussing Walt Whitman and I mentioned “Oh Captain! My Captain!” a handful of my students astutely commented that they recognized the poem from Williams’ portrayal of John Keating.

After showing them a clip from the film (not the entire movie, for everyone knows it’s the cliche substitute/hungover English teacher go-to), they begged and pleaded to stand on their desks and belt out the poem. So, with Whitman’s poem on the SmartBoard, we all rose up onto our chairs (not desks, for I was too worried about one breaking and impaling a student). Boy, did that classroom roar that day with youthful exuberance, with passion, with pride, with meaning. It would have been a great picture/video opportunity if I believed it appropriate to do as apparently many other teachers do.

Students across all of my classes (6, 7, & 9) have exhibited unexpected skill along with an equally as surprising dedication to producing quality poems well-above their grades. While I do not believe in chronicling my interactions with my students in multimedia, as their champion, as their most ardent supporters, I will be sharing an anonymous student poem each week to commend their efforts.

When the student makes good on his/her promise, this is the validation of what the teacher does.

Always.

 

Like an Ordinary School Day

My unpublished manuscript ‘Knowing When You’re Too Young to Grow Up’ chronicles Andrew Brown’s struggle to reconnect with his best friend Pete Goodman as a lurid secret Andrew has never told threatens to break them apart for good.
As I mentioned in “A Reintroduction: The Prologue,” I intend to post edited chapters every few weeks. Here’s a sample from Chapter 16. As always, feedback is STRONGLY encouraged via the contact tab or comments section.

From the outset, it looks like an ordinary school day at dismissal. Except school’s out.

The buses and Beamers usually stuck in an idling stalemate have now been replaced by conversion vans and camera crews from the three major primetime networks – ABC, NBC, and CBS – jamming the winding drive leading up to the Balaam campus. Even the local WPIX Channel 11 that no one knows covers news is covering the story. I’m sure the entrance to the private road of Pete’s mother’s Dix Hills estate is as filled with storytellers. It is, after all, the biggest scandal to hit Long Island since the Mepham High School football team stuck pinecones and broomsticks up freshmen asses a few years back.

Newsday’s “Booked!” front page first broke the story. The New York Post followed a similar line of thinking with its “Throw the Book at Her!” cover. The more empyrean New York Times went with “Teacher at Esteemed Long Island Academy Accused of Statutory Rape.”

Not that the headlines matter, anyway; the picture on the cover of each of them, the one being featured on all the local and most national newscasts is far more sensational than any headline: it’s the buxom brunette in her weathered sweatshirt with the hood pulled tightly over her face and the Solow pants revealing the underwear she isn’t wearing and those ratty Birkenstocks, being led from the home she’d made for herself, for her lover. She’s bowing her head in shame, not contrition, shielding those seemingly tender, hazel eyes from the condemnations that come with being a rapist, the same doe-eyes that had pleaded with me that night when I took from her everything she had taken from me. Except my best friend.

Nobody’s seen Pete since graduation, and even then he wasn’t really there, surrounded by his mother who was more sauced than Marie after discovering Oxycontin and his father who flew in from Miami in the morning and probably flew back out that night and his brother John who looked like he had never seen a line he didn’t cut. Pete walked those stone steps adorned with flowers and speakers and various local and state representatives and trustee members with as much enthusiasm as Atlas, bearing the weight of the lost world he’d created with his concubine. And he shook Fr. Bagnani’s hand limply, devoid of any of the vitality that made him Pete Goodman – the music aficionado, the magnetic drummer, the erudite thinker, the best best friend anyone could ever ask for.

Until her.

Until me.

We together – and then on our own – had ruined him.

Lilly thinks he’s in South Oakes, the state mental facility after a failed suicide attempt; Marie swears she saw him drive past school this morning in his brother’s car, a brand new Audi TT. Can’t be, man, Tommy says. Pete’s home, no question.

I have no idea where he is, probably cooling off, waiting for everything to settle down. Not that I don’t care, obviously I do, but he won’t call or text me back, hasn’t since the indictment came down a day after graduation – on Friday, May 6th. I guess he can’t bring himself to get back to me, not with the unspoken words that both of us can’t speak separating us like binder dividers, not with what I told him – what he already knew – and what I didn’t.

Now, I’m back at Balaam for Fr. Bagnani who will announce his retirement this morning after God knows how many years in this wretched place, and I’m walking through those beveled church-like doors embossed with the decadent, bronzed crest – a repeated reminder that academic purgatory awaits on the other side regardless of the school’s scholarly torch logo or what the Latin underneath it says.

“Breathtakingly divine buttresses!” beams Architecture Digest, one of the myriad headlines superimposed on the wall staring back at you once you’re inside, a wall that contains candidly staged shots of gleeful students eagerly serving the homeless, reading to the elderly, taking tests, and throwing javelins. Balaam kids throw a ton of javelins at each other, but no one is ever that happy to take a test. We definitely look benevolent in pictures. Only in pictures, though.

Copyright (C) 2017 Andrew Chapin

The Road Not Taken

I remember having to memorize Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” in ninth grade English. Although terrified at first as an awkward freshman in a school I did not want to attend, the experience forced me to confront and overcome my fear of speaking in front of others. This experience has proven invaluable in adulthood as I make presentations every period I teach and regularly am asked to address parents and graduates.

That “Road Not Taken” is what I believe I am on right now as I’m finally finding my way out of a hole of middle school and ninth grade poetry that has consumed my life for the past two-and-a-half weeks. Rising earlier and leaving later has dominated the 2016-2017 school year.

That commitment has yielded some of my greatest professional successes:

  • Some of the best student-generated poetry I’ve ever read
  • Quantifiable progress from a handful of struggling learners
  • The return of The Overlook Journal
  • The maturation in perspective of my seventh and ninth grade classes
  • The building of my reputation as an academic mentor and tutor and an executive function coach
  • My own acknowledgment of my weaknesses inside and outside of the classroom

Yet, this year has also seen the stagnation of my writing, whether it be blogging, drafting my next manuscript The Heroin Times, or finding the right agent to ensure the success of Knowing When You’re Too Young to Grow Up.

I tell myself I have a primary job that at times takes me away from my writing. Yet, I also have a passion that gnaws at my conscience when I do not indulge it. In the past, I’ve robbed Peter to pay Paul by not doing my best in my planning, assessing, and teaching the kids. And the kids who are always the ones left holding the bag deserve better.

In other instances, I’ve driven myself up the wall to rush to put together substandard content – whether it be a blog post or a query or a proposal. I, too, deserve better than the mania I feel in every quiet moment where I’m reminded that I cannot find the time or am too mentally and physically spent to do what truly satisfies me.

So, as my father always tells me, nice and easy. A great struggle for me, for sure, but that’s the mantra I have adopted. With that in mind, I plan on taking off major portions of the summer to focus exclusively on my writing. That means no summer school for the first time in seven years and limiting the number of private clients with whom I will work.

If anything, this past year has reminded me that my haste will be my undoing. The more I rush to finish this, to get this out, to be here, or to see this person or that person, the worse the result will be. That much I can now admit. And I’m not trying to get another form rejection (if that).

Sometimes, I think maybe I’m afraid of rejection after seeing it early on. And maybe I am. But I believe in myself and what I have done and still can do.

And that’s what keeps me rising every day as I look forward to the work that lies ahead in the midst of my “Road Not Taken” moment. As Frost writes,

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
I truly do believe all of the trials of this year have prepared me for what I will do moving forward. And that will make “all the difference.”

Teal Pajama Bottoms

My unpublished manuscript ‘Knowing When You’re Too Young to Grow Up’ chronicles Andrew Brown’s struggle to reconnect with his best friend Pete Goodman as a lurid secret Andrew has never told threatens to break them apart for good.
As I mentioned in “A Reintroduction: The Prologue,” I intend to post edited chapters every few weeks. Here’s a sample from Chapter 15. As always, feedback is STRONGLY encouraged via the contact tab or comments section.

Her teal pajama bottoms, Gallo Bros. Construction tee, and black undergarments lie strewn in contrasting corners of the room, somewhere mixed in with my Diesel jeans and Balaam track jacket and Polo shirt and boxer briefs.

“So, I was reading on the plane how breathing in smoke is actually bad for you,” I say.

She sits up in bed and takes the lit cigarette from my mouth. A slight smile slips across her lips like a zipper being zipped. She takes a prolonged pull and punctuates her amusement by blowing smoke in my face.

“Does it, now, Andrew Brown?” she says. “Did you smoke when we went out?”

Shaking my head, I watch the whimsical wisps emanating from the end of her hand. There is something graceful about it like the ribbon in rhythmic gymnastics. She still looks the same as she did three years ago – only older and better now.

“Why did we break up again?”

“You wanted Sally too. Remember?”

I do remember Sally Spriggs. Her name rings in my ear like a mosquito – the nuisance, the succubus, the bloodsucker, the slut. Ant’s different, always has been.

It was late when she woke up to Pete screaming out into the night. She was scared. She wanted to go back to her room. And we left him there by himself on that couch and walked down the hallway and up the stairs I had sprinted up when I came to her after Tommy and I got into that fight.

Click.

The door opened.

She pulled me into her, kissing my neck, then my lips, roughly. “Come to bed,” she said dreamily.

“Not tonight; you’re drunk. Another–”

“Now!” She pushed me in.

[Read More…]

Mother’s Day Is

Mother’s Day is breakfast at the diner at 8:30 in the morning (like everyone else). Except it doesn’t matter you’re following the herd in this instance.

Why?

Because as cliche as Mother’s Day brunch is, it’s equally and appropriately perfect (and the perfect excuse for eggs benedict).

You’re catching up, not rushing through it on the way to work or some miscellaneous social function/obligation. You have time, the most precious commodity, and you can take a breath for a second.

It’s as simple as that.

My lovely mother with some drunk idiot via Dennis Tommasulo.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the women who give their time, their vitality, their love, and most importantly their values to their children; all those women who sacrificed and still do for their children; and all those mothers women no longer with us that children miss today.

Put your feet up, enjoy your family, and remember what and who’s important.

 

Free to Wear Sunscreen

My unpublished manuscript ‘Knowing When You’re Too Young to Grow Up’ chronicles Andrew Brown’s struggle to reconnect with his best friend Pete Goodman as a lurid secret Andrew has never told threatens to break them apart for good.
As I mentioned in “A Reintroduction: The Prologue,” I intend to post edited chapters every few weeks. Here’s a sample from Chapter 14. As always, feedback is STRONGLY encouraged via the contact tab or comments section.

I staggered into the single-stall bathroom ready to float away on the Arno in my drunken mirth. It was our last dinner on our last night. And I was finally content – finally – with Ant, Pete, with myself, with all of it. For once, I smiled, I felt like I was ahead of the curve. Before I heard a stirring whimper behind me.

I turned to the craned back heaving over the edge of the toilet seat, spindly arms shaking, her whole frail frame shaking, meek face in between. It was Becky.

And I stood stuck like a stroke in a place I knew existed but could never fathom, the difference between knowing about and experiencing, the difference between staying young and growing up. So lost in her own sickness, in not eating, in sticking her finger down her throat, she looked like an exhibit in the Museum of Natural History.

Old me would’ve beat out of there, for sure, pretended like nothing happened. And I wouldn’t have even thought twice about the girl I used to copy homework from and then complain to Pete when I got stuck talking to her at parties.

Things certainly have changed, I thought as I lifted her up on the sink. She hadn’t said anything yet, only looked back at me with those bug eyes like an emaciated Ethiopian child. She was.

There were no words. I simply wiped the gelatinous bile off her face and perked up her blouse that didn’t fit properly because it wasn’t a junior size and she was shaking so hard I did the only thing I could think of: I hugged her.

And then she spoke.

[Read More…]

The Warriors

My unpublished manuscript ‘Knowing When You’re Too Young to Grow Up’ chronicles Andrew Brown’s struggle to reconnect with his best friend Pete Goodman as a lurid secret Andrew has never told threatens to break them apart for good.
As I mentioned in “A Reintroduction: The Prologue,” I intend to post edited chapters every few weeks. Here’s a sample from Chapter 13. As always, feedback is STRONGLY encouraged via the contact tab or comments section.

Florence is like a bunch of tiny quaint streets, not busy intersections and zipping SMART coffin cars going out of their way to run us down. It’s just calmer here. So are the people. I’m not positive if they’re more patient or indifferent, but they’re definitely more willing to accept us as their American cultural refugees. Three thousand miles from the Island, I don’t feel out of place here. Actually, I feel more accepted than I do in my own house.

Figures, since we’re leaving tomorrow, I think standing in front of another church – so many I’ve lost track. This one’s the Duomo, Becky calls it. The nearly translucent girl who has more dignity than anyone I’ve ever met not named Antoinette Gallo is showing Glenn her sketches that chronicle our trip in charcoal and pencil and Balaam crests. Glenn’s gushing with goshes when Becky gives her one to keep, which she files into her beaten leather over-the-shoulder messenger bag.

It’s the most enthusiasm I’ve seen from Glenn in days. She’s pretty much given up trying to impress anything on us, but she’s still going through the routine, probably for about another hour-or-so and that’ll be it, asking, “Did you all know this is the second church to stand here?” even though Becky and Ms. Benevo are the only ones paying attention.

“It looks like a candy ribbon Christmas house, in my opinion,” Lilly says.

“Man, wish I had a joint.”

“For any of you all who are interested, Santa Reparata was the name of the church that stood here before, and, let me tell you, theorists say the original cathedral was built in 300 A.D., but…”

“It kind of reminds me of a wedding cake,” Ant says.

“Yeah?” I don’t see it.

Glenn’s still on the Reparata, and Becky’s asking her who the dome’s architect was. “Brunelleschi,” Ms. Benevo answers, engaged and completely unaffected – detached, really. Becky gives her a sideways glance while Glenn commends “Julie,” she calls her, saying her name like she has a lollipop in her mouth. It’s really only the three of them.

“I’m thinking more like dominoes,” I say. Ant tilts her head, trying to picture it. One flick and the pearl-colored shingles will cascade across, clicking and ticking from side to side, gaining, gaining, up A-shaped arches and down A-shaped arches and around the windows that seem to yawn heartily, clicking and ticking from side to side.

“By 1296, construction on a new church had begun, what would eventually become the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or, the Duomo,” Glenn begins before Mrs. Weary slaps at her watch.

“Well, before we go inside, if you look at the church’s appendage…Giotto’s Bell Tower. It was designed by Giotto di Bondone and was completed in 1359, more than 20 years after Giotto’s death…”

“Man, you know what you guys sound like, right?” – Tommy holds up a finger in the shape of an L – “Losers, man, losers.” He doesn’t see Lilly waving him off because he’s giving Candace’s headlights the eyes.

[Read More…]

ICYMI: The Overlook Journal Rises

ICYMI: The Overlook Journal Rises, originally posted on April 17, 2017, praises the impressive managerial and written work of Thornton-Donovan School’s The Overlook Journal.

For the past seven years, I have served as the moderator for this student club (that I really wish were an actual class). Anyway, besides a two-year window where the paper was run (and propped up) by a high school student who was more diligent, dedicated, driven than I was, The Overlook Journal has inconsistently produced varying degrees of content, usually on the weak and unappealing side.

That all changed this year with the installation of a student who sets the standard and then holds those who work for him accountable if they do not meet his expectations.

Just goes to show that strong leadership mitigates excuses and stagnation and makes everyone’s jobs easier, for, with it, roles are clearly defined and there is no question – just a task and a due date.

Throwback Thursday: Good Parents and Good Kids, Go Figure

Originally posted on December 21, 2015, “Good Parents and Good Kids, Go Figure” recalls how I found my way to Thornton-Donovan School seven-plus years ago. More notable about the piece are the relationships I formed with parents and their children – kids I had the opportunity to teach in middle school and watch grow throughout high school.

Each year, Thornton-Donovan School hosts its holiday luncheon. Besides the place having the best chicken fingers this side of the Hudson, it also gives the T-D faculty the opportunity to interact with parents in a social setting as opposed to when they’re being excoriated by said parents at a morning meeting.

Sitting in the Larchmont Yacht Club last week, I fondly reflected on my time as the middle school English teacher at T-D. As I watched families find their seats and students run up to me to make sure I got my fried food fix, I was reminded why I have such a strong affinity for the school that brought me in, in November 2010.

Our table at the annual Holiday Luncheon. Photo courtesy of Benoit Van Lesberghe.

Our table at the annual Holiday Luncheon. Photo courtesy of Benoit Van Lesberghe.

I had been working at a medical malpractice defense law firm in Eastern Long Island pretending I was an author but with really no material or writing credits to my name. I had a degree in English from Fairfield University and was certified to teach grades 7-12 in Connecticut. However, after teaching in a Bridgeport public high school months before, I had become disenchanted with the state of inner city, public education. In short, kids are set up to fail from the moment they begin elementary school and everyone, including the administration, passes the buck.

Anyway, as I sat there in my cubicle with no idea what I wanted to do with my life hating every second of my low-level, monotonous job and the fact that I had moved back in with my parents and even worse was questioning why I wanted to be a teacher in the first place, my phone rang. It was a lady named Sandy, and she wanted to know if I was interested in an immediate opening at a private school in Westchester. A headhunter, she set up a meeting with the headmaster of Thornton-Donovan School. His title seemed ominous. I wasn’t even sure where Westchester was or why I was going on a job interview if I didn’t intend to take the job.

[Read More…]