Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bigger and better things.

I had a job I was good at, once, spending the odd Saturday working in my art teacher's son-in-law's plant nursery. My qualifications were impeccable: I was young, able-bodied, and willing to work for a pittance. It was fantastic. I'd come out of the chill and drizzle to a bright, verdant paradise heavily perfumed by the microbes in the fresh loam.

I screwed up at first, adding fertilizer pellets that would have burned the plants' tender roots, but my boss noticed, I owned up to the mistake, and he patiently showed me what to do differently. From then on, the work was simple and pleasant, filling pots with soil, transplanting flowers, adding fertilizer, and hauling the pots across the greenhouse to hoist up and hang along the irrigation tubes. My boss praised me for doing my job efficiently, with no qualms about getting covered in dirt in the process and no proclivity toward getting sidetracked by conversation. I proved useful in other ways, as well, using my meager knowledge of Spanish to translate for my boss and the two men whose task it was to mix the soil, a job that required a worker with a strong back, but not necessarily a command of English.

So went my days, plodding cheerily on in my own little world, carrying out my small tasks and listening to Patsy Cline on the radio. At lunchtime, the boss's wife brought us hot dogs, and we rested, telling dumb jokes and washing our meals down with icy Cokes. When evening came, I'd survey the rows of petunias and impatiens before heading home, aching and filthy, eager to stumble into a hot shower.

It couldn't last, of course. I had ambitions and so headed off to university. When the summers came, I sought employment that would further those ambitions, and, with transcripts full of A's and letters from learned professors attesting that I was bright and diligent, I found plenty of labs willing to induct the newest bottle washer and button pusher into the profession. So my days played out under sterile hoods that reeked of ethanol and in basement laboratories lit only by the laser light and the dim glow of ancient computer monitors.

My tasks were less clear cut than in the greenhouse, and I struggled mightily at times. I found eighty-seven ways not to stain rat hippocampus for immunofluorescent microscopy and watched filters explode again and again. It took weeks and months to develop the techniques to get crotchety equipment to yield meaningful results. I wrote painfully dull grant proposals.

On the best of days, I sat for hours in the dark pushing buttons and adjusting settings while watching my proteins dance to the Brandenburg Concertos as a squiggly line produced by inscrutable software. When I managed to steal away for five minutes while waiting for heaters to come up to temperature, I generally devoured a granola bar and a stick of reduced fat string cheese in the windowless office adjoining the lab. At the end of a day, if I was very lucky, I'd have some grainy pictures of red and green blobs or a string of numbers that hours of analysis would turn into meaningful graphs, and I was eventually able to cobble together a poster and a thesis. I clung to the hope that my techniques might help the biology lab progress in their effort to help treat stroke victims or that my protein denaturation data might provide some clue to some latter-day Watson and Crick unraveling the mysteries of life.

As my undergraduate career drew to a close, I began seeking yet another job. After writing essays, getting still more letters of recommendation, and going through interviews, I somehow managed to dupe people into believing that I was not just a good student, I was a problem-solver, a striver, a potential leader in a grand movement. It was enough to get me a position teaching science in a room where the grey paint peels from the cabinets and the students litter the floor with wrappers from their forbidden sweets.

I fail daily here. Even when it works, it isn't enough, never really enough, for significant gains. I worry that I'm actually widening the achievement gap. The best sound I can hope for is a moment of silence, an instant where every student is on task instead of chattering or striving to invent new ways to annoy me or his neighbors. I rarely eat lunch, save perhaps a packet of the saltines some clever student keeps leaving on my desk, as I spend my time grading and planning. At the end of each day, I head home with a headache and another bag full of failing quizzes to grade. I pray that someday some student will be better off for my having been here, that something he learned from me about Newton's Laws, ionic bonds, pseudostratified epithelial tissues, or how to study and solve a problem will make a difference, and he'll end up with a career instead of a dead end job or with some new spark of curiosity about the world, or at least there will be one fewer poor black kid in prison or on welfare, but, honestly, I doubt it.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Frugal but frumpy.

I'm funny looking. Always have been, always will be. I also have no sense of style, preferring to live in jeans and flannel shirts when given the option. My hair is generally a mess. I made my peace with this at twelve, pretty much walked away from any thought of being feminine or pretty, and I'm ok with it.

Usually. Now I have fourteen year olds giving me a running commentary on my appearance every morning in homeroom. I don't care that they mock my slacks and cardigans. Nope, my shoes are not as cool as your Jordans. No big deal. I could, however, do without the daily updates on the state of my skin. Yes, my breakout has gotten worse. No, despite all of your mocking claims, it isn't herpes, just bad acne, probably exacerbated by the stress of dealing with you charming children every day.

It doesn't matter that it makes me look ugly, but I'm getting sick of looking so young. When I went to picture day, the photographer asked what grade I was in, even though I had my best no-nonsense updo and slacks and blouse that in no way resembled the school uniform. When I swung by the art teacher's room on prep period to get my face painted for homecoming, there was a chorus of complaint about his insisting I should cut in line until one of the kids I know yelled out, "Shut up, she's a teacher." Last night I went by Wal-Mart after the football game, and the checker noticed my school spirit t-shirt and asked if I "go there".

So every time I go to the store, I have to talk myself out of buying more soaps and potions, reminding myself that I already have plenty at home. If they were going to help, they would have. I've been tempted to buy make-up as well in some foolish attempt to look a bit more mature.

I was vehemently anti-cosmetics throughout my adolescence, refusing on principle to support an industry that can exist only by making women feel dissatisfied with their appearance. I was the only teenage girl I knew who had fights with her mother about not wearing make-up. Then when I started college my aunt marked the occasion by mailing me a box full of Clinique, and I began to relent and wear the darn stuff for interviews, weddings, thesis defenses, and other such occasions. I gave the mascara to my mom, but the tube of lipstick and tiny trial sized blush and eye shadow got me through four years and aren't quite out yet. I discovered that a dab of concealer, a quick swipe of powder, and some lipgloss could make me look a bit more presentable on ordinary days when I was feeling blah.

But, alas, I left all that at home when I moved. Buying everything I want to replace would easily run $25, and I can't justify spending that on vanity, not when my retirement account has lost almost a quarter of its value. I need to suck it up, accept that this is what I look like, and get on with my life.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Getting funny looks from the checker at Wal-Mart

I spent portions of my senior year more or less living on generic maple frosted shredded wheat. Not the healthiest choice, I'll admit, but not wholly devoid of nutritive value either. As a breakfast and lunch coupled with a protein rich dinner with plenty of veggies, it probably wasn't too terrible to do for a week or two at a time. It's cheap, tasty, and I've never gotten sick of it.

A couple of weeks ago the store quit carrying the cereal. I sighed and resigned myself to finding other breakfast choices and perhaps occasionally getting my fix by buying a box of the much more expensive name-brand variety.Then today I strode into Wally World determined to buy one, and only one, needed item. No impulse buys for me today, no siree. I'm over budget as it is.

Naturally, the first thing I saw as I walked in was the huge display of clearance cereal with the name-brand maple and brown sugar shredded wheat marked down to a dollar a box. For a mere $17.12, including tax, I was able to acquire 196 servings of the stuff, all guaranteed by the manufacturer to be good through June 12. (Andrew Tobias would be proud.)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Another Saturday night and I ain't got nobody

I did indeed just get paid on Friday. Spending the evening lesson planning and compulsively checking my email every five minutes in the hopes that there's someone in the outside world who wants to contact me counts as frugal, right? Is it terrible that I wish I had somewhere to go and someone to go with, costs be darned?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

What gives, HSBC?

I decided to move more money into a c.d. since I wouldn't be surprised if the Fed tries some more rate cuts in a futile attempt to keep credit available so the economy doesn't crash down around us. I'm not sure HSBC is that stable right now, but I've been sticking with them largely out of inertia, and I figured that moving $1,000 from savings to a c.d. wouldn't increase my risk any. The six month 4.00% a.p.y. looks pretty good right now, and I can afford to decrease my liquid e-fund by that much since I'll be able to replenish it with over $900 after payday tomorrow. So Sunday night I took about a minute and a half to set up the transaction.

Tuesday I got the nice confirmation email informing me that I have an account and the information would all be available online in 3-5 business days. Today when I logged on, I discovered that I do, in fact, have a new c.d. With $0.00 in it earning 0.00%. I'm planning to ignore it for a day or two in the hopes that it's a computer glitch that'll get straightened out without my intervention. At least the HSBC customer service people are generally nice.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My first raise (w00t?)

The school board has approved a 3.5% raise for all teachers and staff in the district. Even me. Even though my most significant accomplishment so far is finding 87 different ineffective teaching strategies. It isn't remotely fair. In a truly merit pay based system I'd probably be earning 17 cents a day. (Can you tell I feel a bit guilty?)

Emergency preparedness revisted.

Roommate and I both brought rabbit ears, but we get absolutely no reception. We've decided that we're too cheap/broke to spring for cable right now, but she likes to have something going in the background while she works. Since we're first year teachers and work spills over into pretty much all of our time at home, her dvd collection gets a lot of use, with House and Numb3rs in heavy rotation. It's a nice distraction when I need something soothing to do to keep me from crying while grading, except, of course, when I become emotionally invested in a darn crime show and stop to realize that we're totally unprepared for a terrorist attack on the water supply in our small town. (Even though that's a whole lot less of a threat than, say, gang violence.)

Back in December, I set a goal of increasing my emergency preparedness in 2008, and I'm afraid I've failed rather miserably. I have a terrible habit of lapsing into complacency for months at a time. I'm actually in even worse shape now than I was six months ago since I left my cache of water and food at my parents' house when I moved and am only now beginning to rebuild it. Roommate and I could get through 72 hours of sheltering in place after a natural disaster with no problem, but beyond that we might not fare so well.

After perusing the web for a bit, I'm reasonably certain I could dramatically improve our readiness level with about $200 worth of additional supplies. Obviously, I should purchase those supplies. I'm tempted to take a chunk of Friday's paycheck and order everything we need in one fell swoop. Then we'd be set, but it'd be a pretty hefty unbudgeted expense. I know myself well enough to know that I wouldn't actually stick to paying this back into savings over several months.

The other option is to space out these purchases over the next few months and budget a smaller sum each month. That would be a lot more sensible financially, but I'd be gambling on not absolutely needing any of the things I don't have in the intervening months. Since my 72 hour kit is solid, we'd probably be ok. Thoughts on which way I should approach this?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Various teaching updates.

I've made it through 80% of another week of teaching. Most of my major problem students have gotten themselves suspended, and following the sage guidance of my amazing long distance mentor, pleading with my TFA program director for help figuring out how to deal with major misbehavior, and getting the least helpful of my assistant principals to at least agree that I don't have to admit students who've physically threatened others back to class that same day has made for a somewhat saner situation.

The physical science students still aren't learning much, but they aren't throwing chairs. They were actually relatively attentive today in two of the three sections so I got to spend a lot of time helping them decipher the textbook and get past unfamiliar terms like "billiards," "atmosphere," "swat," "table tennis," and "opposite direction" in order to figure out what the heck forces and inertia are. I had football players up in front of class shoving each other around to help demonstrate, and, by some miracle, they were into it and yet stopped when asked!

Also, even though I'm a lousy teacher, I could conceivably have some positive impact on my anatomy students. So far this week I've helped a high school senior on food stamps make a game plan for applying for financial aid and pointed him toward free ACT prep resources. I probably haven't yet convinced my student with type I diabetes that she needs to get back on her insulin no matter how much she loathes giving herself the shots, but she has agreed I'm allowed to check in with her every day about her blood sugar and harass her about it. Can I count that as progress?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

There are sane jobs out there.

When we hit orientation in the Delta, we were given a speech about blogging and talking to the media. Basically, we're expected to think long and hard about how what we say will impact society's perception of our kids, our schools, and our organization. So I haven't been writing much about my job.

I know that all workplaces have their problems. I've listened to my dad's stories about when he first started in the engineering department under a boss who managed by belittlement and intimidation. I know that police officers, firefighters, and the men and women of the armed forces face more dangerous situations than I on a daily basis, and for this I am immensely grateful. Practically any job involves an element of stress.

There are, however, probably a lot of jobs that don't involve teenagers threatening to shoot you. There are jobs where you don't get cursed at on a daily basis, where you don't spend any significant fraction of your time trying to keep violence from breaking out in your workplace.

There are probably also a lot of schools where you can use the Fred Jones methods of body language and proximity to show you mean business without having students inform you that you are going to get hit if you keep doing that. I would guess that in most schools, if a student picks up a chair and threatens to throw it at another student while calling him a [racial epithet], refuses to go to the office, and wanders the halls until security hunts her down, the office wouldn't send the student back to class after talking to her for a few minutes.

I'm getting better at handling the minor misbehavior, the talking and juvenile silliness. The options at my disposal, a referral to the office or a phone call home, generally have some impact on that. Not so much on the student who piped up during a discussion of speed to tell me he has a rifle with a scope on it, suggest that that travels faster than 70mph, and inquire whether I could outrun it. He was back in the hallways making shooting motions with his fingers and grabbing his crotch as he walked by me a few days later. I'm not sure what impact sending him back to the office had. At least the kid who directly threatened to shoot me is being much friendlier now and is no longer in my class.

It's also highly ineffective for administrators to tell students that they view anyone throwing anything at me as assault and that they will pursue legal action and expulsion and then give the one student of the many I know are doing this who I'm able to actually catch three days of in school suspension and send him back. (Don't threaten consequences you won't enforce, please.) The kid continued throwing things. Upon catching him again, I wrote him up and dealt with his subsequent defacing of the referral form and managed to get him to stop screaming expletives at me and get the hell out of my room. As I began to write another form to send down to the office, I was hit by an open bottle of lotion which spilled all over my pants, absolutely hilarious in the eyes of my students. Then, of course, the 2L bottle of hand sanitizer I provided because there is no soap in the bathrooms was thrown my way, along with several paper wads. (At least it wasn't a book this time; my medical dictionary is in pieces because of that class.) I went to the office to get help, and an assistant principal told me he'd try to get to it that day but that there was little he could do unless the students confess. I ended up leaving early after struggling not to break down in front of my next class, and I know that by Monday every kid in the school will know that and perceive me as even weaker than they already do. I fully expect to be hit by a student someday.

In short, my classroom culture sucks. There's this charming idea in TFA that if I can just invest my students in doing well and get them to want to succeed all of these problems will go away, but I can't envision doing that with some of these kids. The year got off to a poor start, it's largely my fault for being such a shattered wreck the first weeks of school, and I don't know if it is fixable. I'm exhausted and running out of emotional resources to devote to this task.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

These Christmas gifts brought to you by Bank of America

As I was flipping through the glossy alumni association magazine yesterday, I noticed a Bank of America ad touting new Alumni Association checking. I'm not about to be swayed by a debit card with a mascot on it, but the ad also promised $100 for new customers. A perusal of the fine print revealed that I need merely sign up for free checking by the end of October, make an opening deposit of $25, and wait 90 days.

Now, I have no desire to use Bank of America. They have a lovely reputation for inventing random fees, and based on my mother's experiences with my grandparents' accounts Bank of America's customer service isn't as good as that offered by my hometown bank, USAA, and HSBC. But, heck, I think I can deal with the minor hassle of opening and closing an account to get $100. Nowhere in the ad did it say that you had to actually be an alumnus or association member to get this deal so if you aren't a Bank of America customer and feel like making a quick $100 drop me an email and I'll send you the offer code.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

An almost payday net worth update

The rough total stands at $22,866.71. That's substantially less than last time I calculated in June, which is slightly depressing, but this is the first month in ages that I've gotten paid and the market turmoil hasn't been kind to the index fund in my Roth. For a bit of perspective, my first year's take home pay will be $23,759.44. So, yeah, it could be a lot worse. Meh.