O Coach, Coach, wherefore art thou Coaching?

[5-minute read]

It’s hoopin’ time again. *swallows nervously, drums his fingers on the desk*

Can you hear the whistle blowing? I am blowing the whistle. On coaching. Mine.

I can’t just walk away, and I don’t want to, and I don’t think I necessarily ought to want to, but the apparently never-ending intra-cranial debate continues. And the scoreboard says WHAT? I don’t know why I should feel that I’m losing this contest, since I’m playing myself. But it’s a battle of divided wits, and there is always the fear of loss. Such is the mind of a man who wants Sudden Victory, in terms even his childhood self could understand. Confetti. Trophies. Hugs from my brothers, kisses from my wife. A microphone in my face; it wants to know how it feels for me to be Such A Champion. Guess what?

I still want to win.

So yes, that’s part of it. It’s probably not the most stone-headed story I tell myself about why I want to coach basketball, still and again and for who knows how long. There are other reasons, compulsions, purposes and afflictions. Some of them aren’t so savoury, while others leave a mainly good taste in my mouth. But in the pursuit of the recently proverbial (and ungrammatically concise) “Know Your Why”, let me start off being truthful, and hang the embarrassment:

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It’s Been a Quiet Day in Dalian

Well, except that there’s a loud-speaking voice carrying into our ninth-floor apartment from the college next door. No doubt, it’s another exercise in, well, exercise and patriotism and precision marching for the young people of Qing Gong Xue Xiao. (This means something like the School of Light Industry, and as far as I can tell it’s where the future barbers, seamstresses and short-order cooks of Dalian come from.) Like all college and university freshmen — though some of these kids look about 15, and may have simply not qualified to get into high school — their first few weeks of school are spent marching, shouting patriotic slogans, and singing team -building songs.

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Driving Miss Piggy (Crazy)

[This piece, or something similar, was originally posted in May, but then I withdrew it as I had decided to shop it around. A shorter version was accepted by Canada’s national newspaper — — and it ran in the print edition of August 13, 2012, and on-line as well. If you missed it, here it is again, for the record.]


The tones, the tones, bane of my existence and forger of linguistic atrocities! You probably know enough of Chinese languages – Shanghaiese, or Cantonese, or the pu tong hua (“common speech”) that we call Mandarin – to recall that they are tonal. People used to say, and some probably still do, that Chinese people speak in a “sing song” way, but now that I’ve been listening to this music for a few years, I can’t help thinking that English must sound blunt and monotonous to folks here. (Actually, the French have been muttering about that for a long time, so no surprise there, I guess.) Yes, the tones do add melody to the language, and a certain intensity, too; for the first year I lived in China, I saw arguments breaking out everywhere for what seemed like no reason. Whenever I was with students or friends who could speak English, I’d ask, Are you angry right now? Or, What are those guys fighting about? The answer was wonderment, or confusion, or just a chuckling, They’re talking about their schedule/the weather/what was for lunch in the cafeteria. I was constantly fooled by hearing rising, strident tones that, in English, generally mean consternation or incredulity or rage,

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Return of the Creature

(An item recovered from a memory stick, frosted white while lost in the chalk tray…)

A year ago last September, I wrote a short on-line meditation about the slight disorientation I felt, after many years of trying to make classrooms live, at NOT being chalk-stained and eager at that time of year. Part of it went like this:

 (September 6, 2006) “It’s Labour Day Tuesday and, for the fourth straight year, I am skipping school. It’s about 2:30 p.m., and in the olden days I would have been well into the last teaching period of the day. The Teacher Dreams – can’t find my classroom, can’t find my clothes, don’t know what subject I teach – are over. The performance anxiety – can I still DO this? – evaporated two minutes into period 1, and I would now be feeling the great fun of a new beginning (even though the marking pile already grows thick) and the eagerness to find out who these kids are and what we’ll be able to do together.

“I would be in my element. I might be sitting at my desk watching them write their first journal entry (“All About Me by Me” or “What Am I Doing Here?”) or exercise or assigned reading, but more likely I’d be strolling about, interviewing students, offering random observations, observing the various adolescent species in their (un)natural environment. Or maybe I’d be standing at the front, leaning slightly against the chalk ledge, right ankle crossed over the left, rambling on. (The horizontal streak of chalk dusting my butt didn’t concern me; at least once, though, the grommets on my right hiking boot hooked the laces on my left, so that a particularly animated point I wanted to step up and make vaulted me face-first into the legs of the front-row desks. That was a good one. I bowed deeply, grinned maniacally, and blushed quite redly.)

“By this time, I would already have forgotten to send down the afternoon attendance check, so a (usually) cheery secretary calls to try again to get Mr. H. properly trained. But there are no staff meetings, no reporting deadlines, no rebellious kids (yet), no sense of depletion or the (inevitable) frustration of my most dearly held intentions. Hope springs in an educator’s autumn. This was always a great day to be a teacher…”

And on February 1, 2008, I had another one of those fine, hopeful, we-can-do-anything-together days. It wasn’t quite typical, because at my new school they send their students through their Semester 1 timetable in the morning; I didn’t see my new kiddies until the afternoon, and then only for a shortened period. With that, the in-flux timetables and the game-players who didn’t bother showing up the first day – and no, they actually didn’t miss much, except for me at my most charming and fun-loving! – we didn’t do much that was even vaguely curricular. But I started a relationship with students, got a few of my basic expectations across, and shed a little of my teaching rust.

By Monday, I was teaching my fool head off at Merivale High School, a southwest Ottawa academy that was surrounded by fields ten years ago and which is now boxed in by big box stores and malls and fast-food emporiums. (In other words, it’s a typical student’s dream, and a good spot for shopaholic teachers, too.) We are the Marauders. As a former student of McMaster University, that name and the colour maroon are more than comfortable. In fact, I told several people that I was feeling simultaneously disoriented and right at home.

I didn’t know where the photocopier was or have an office space to work from when I wasn’t teaching. I was teaching a course in Careers that I’d never taught before, and hadn’t yet realized that there IS indeed a textbook for it. I was always surprised by bell times and running head-first into Merivale routines — not to mention colleagues and students — that were new to me.

But at the same time, I was doing what I’ve done for awfully close to ever. Though I was foggy on lots of particulars and incidentals, I knew right where I was and exactly what I was doing. I was, once again, a full-time, ultra-dedicated, in-it-to-win-it educator. Thomas Wolfe famously said you can never go home again, but I’ve found that, if you don’t mind some of the rooms being re-arranged, you sure can. And I like it.

If I Had Only Had…

It’s a perfect day to account for my failings as a writer, quite apart from the practical consideration that I have to teach school today. The call came. It came to me. I’m a class act.

I find myself at one of the real centres of juvenile creativity in Canada, Canterbury High School. It’s a specialized arts school. The annual musical is spectacular, and a far more important event than any number of Big Football Games. (Actually, there is no football at Canterbury. There aren’t even that many boys at CHS; it’s about a 70/30 split. The kids who attend here because they live in the immediate district are also a minority. They’re called “Generals”, as opposed to “Visuals” or “Instrumentals” or “Vocals”, and they can find it a hard place to come in some respects. The place is crammed with keeners who applied from all over the region to come here and dance, sing, play, act, paint, sculpt and write. It may still be the only school in the country with a Literary Arts program. My family’s move to Ottawa five years ago was made, in large measure, because Son the Third had been admitted here as a ninth-grade writer. It was a 500-kilometre move, and an easy decision, finally, and a wonderfully fruitful one.

Replacing Ms. Barkley today, my Dave’s ninth- and twelfth-grade writing guru, I’m in a class where to write myself seems not only possible but necessary. Grade 12s. Supremely pleasant and diligent and highly motivated, which does not suggest that they are not also distracted by the epic conversational possibilities with fellow writers they’ve shared and performed and edited and sweated with for four years now. Still, they don’t need much from me. It’s a strange kind of a high school. It’s beyond okay to be smart, to read, to care about social issues and cultural richness. Among the seniors, it verges on being a requirement, which explains why coming from the school catchment area without actually belonging to the Arts Canterbury crowd can be a bit of a trial. Generals. Of course, it could be a rich and fascinating place to wind up in if, say, you were a smart, sophisticated and confident adolescent, unbounded by cliques and suspicion. In other words, for only a few.

But back to me. (It’s all about me.) I am prone to think, Gosh. Sons One and Two would have been so much more at home or challenged or stimulated by a high school experience like this one. But I am also subject to selfish and exculpatory thoughts: Damn, if I’d been exposed to the idea that writers were real, if I’d had the chance to be among other kids that read as much or more than I did, if I’d been encouraged to write and party ARTY when I was young, I wouldn’t find the literary learning curve so steep in my advancing age. I coulda bin a contendah. I coulda bin a star. Yeah, I just didn’t get the breaks. Sigh. Et cetera.

All of which helps me not at all, but it’s a soothing diversion. And it’s writing, and so am I. And it’s now. And the bell hasn’t even rung yet. Maybe I’ll even get around to posting about the WritersFest, as I recently promised.

Return of the Chalk Monster

Sorry to have been so long since the last post. (Hmm. The Last Post. What a mournfully gorgeous thing that is when played on a trumpet. November 11. Remembering the cause of peace, honouring the sacrifice, praying for the dead and the eternally changed. That is a thousand leagues from my recent inability to publish my tiny cerebral explosions.) As for my Web site silence, I can only say that education is to blame.

I am now, and again, a fully-fledged High School Creature. After months of substitute gigs in several Ottawa schools, I have taken over a position at a suburban educational emporium. (Cairine Wilson Secondary. Know who she is?) I’m not sure who has been more challenged and distressed by the change, me or the ninth and tenth graders I teach. (Okay, it’s the students. Who am I kidding?) Administratively, organizationally and interpersonally, it’s been a fair upheaval. For one thing, this place begins its classes at 8:10 a.m., so that my bride has had to adjust her morning routine in order to get Junior to his bus, which had been my job. And yes, I got a little lost on the way here the first day, and there were computer problems, key problems, and behavioural problems (not all mine!). Curriculum, planning, materials, mindset – all of this has needed considerable massaging and headscratching.

But for all that, and though many of the students have been reluctant to accept graciously the new Ogre in room 222, I feel at home here already. I still don’t know where a lot of things are in this funky, ‘70s-designed school layout, but I’m getting there. But being in the language classroom again – two French classes, one English – feels fine. Last Friday, after perhaps the most frustrating day of trying to get my new kids on the same page as me, was a turning. There were more smiles. There were glances that said, Hey, maybe this clown won’t be so bad after all. I could lower my shield and sword, bring some energy and animation to what was being taught, and not worry about losing the kids to side conversations and general distraction. Cool!

My writing schedule is completely thrown off, though. Not only have I not been posting to my Web site for the last two weeks, but the less visible writing projects that I’ve been trying to nourish lie in a dusty, chaotic heap in my home office and in foul-smelling corners at the back of my mind. Forgotten, but not gone, I hope.

The most urgent reason for returning to education was a financial one. I had a steady and adequate salary when I was writing for and with the former Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson. As an independent flogger of my own ideas, though, my income has been, well, less than stellar. (If I was a more confident/arrogant writer and weighed a little less, I might have called myself a “starving artist”.) After a year and a bit of literary exploration, I have had to bow to economic realities. (Can’t stand economics OR realism!)

Less urgent, but more important – at least to me – was that even during the best periods of my exclusive writing life, something was missing. It was my Teaching Jones. I love that whole relationship: Educators and Those Who Need Them. I love being at the centre of a community of learners, of which I am one. Sometimes high schoolers don’t recognize their own hunger to know, blunted as it can be by distraction and the habits of enforced ignorance. (And, I’ll say it, by poor teaching.) But when those coloured lights start to sparkle and glow, there’s nothing like it. I often felt, even when I was writing speeches for the visit of Heads of State or for national honours to the greatest of Canadians, that I was likely doing less for the world than I had done as a chalk-stained wretch or whistle-toting basketball guru.

And so I’m back in class. I surely hope to balance this return to Shakespeare and the passé composé with my ongoing quests as a writer. But if my next school needs a basketball coach, I don’t know how I’m going to keep all those ducks in a row. So many darned ducks!