Tuesday, June 30, 2009


My father is on a mandatory two week unpaid vacation. In other words, they're closing the plant down and doing temporary layoffs. It isn't the cheeriest of news.

I'm not sure what he did for his first day because I ran away to the library, where I had to pay $1 to replace the card that's floating somewhere amongst the flotsam of my life back in the Delta. In the future, I shall judge all possible places to live by the quality of their libraries, I think. Bustling libraries bursting with books suggest that a community actually cares about being part of civilization. I had no idea how nice the area where I grew up is until I went away.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I have a handful of half-finished posts started in the past few days, but tonight I don't feel like completing any of them.

This morning I took my grandmother to the nursing home for a conference to discuss my grandfather. They do these every so often, and the news is always the same. He's stable for an eighty nine year old who has suffered two strokes leaving him with a significant degree of aphasia and little use of his right arm, had had breathing problems and been on supplemental oxygen since a bad case of double pneumonia in December of '99, and has been unable to walk ever since he was bedridden due to minor surgery in the summer of '06. They tweaked the dosage of one of his meds, but his condition is basically unchanged. There isn't really any hope that things will get better.

Afterward, I met up with my mother at the movies. We watched Up. I wept repeatedly.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Only the truly cheap

My boyfriend has a new kitten. She's pretty rambunctious so she's going to need some toys to keep her occupied, although, like most cats, she seems to prefer a crinkly ball of paper, a ballpoint pen that fell under the table, and some stray dice to her spandy new store-bought playthings. However, I do wish she'd find someplace to sharpen her claws besides my flesh.

I offered to buy a nice catnip-infused corrugated cardboard scratching contraption for the little darling, and a discussion of whether it mightn't be more cost effective to just let her shred the sofa ensued. Given that the couch in question is a very threadbare and somewhat uncomfortable blue reclining monstrosity for which my boyfriend proudly paid the princely sum of ten entire dollars this spring, I can see his point, but I still oppose letting kitties wantonly destroy living room furniture. Finally, I came up with an argument to support my gut instinct: what if ten years from now he gets a couch that costs, say $200, which I know from furniture shopping with my mother would buy a much nicer used couch but not a new one, and then she destroys it because she's developed bad habits. He countered that he can't imagine ever having furniture that costs that much.

Good grief! I like frugal finds, but I plan not to base all of my home furnishing decisions on what I can score cheapest at the thrift store when I'm in my thirties. I guess I'm hoping for a little lifestyle inflation.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

It sure would be nice to get paid.

Normally, I get a paycheck on the fourth and nineteenth of every month. The school had said they'd mail the summer paychecks since our salary is divided into twenty four increments. Then the day before the end of the year, word came down that they had decided not to mail the first of the June checks and to come pick them up instead. This presented no minor difficulty since I planned on being five hours away. My assistant principal called down to the central office to see if there was any way I could pick it up before I left, but no dice. Then one of our wonderful secretaries volunteered to send it on if I'd bring her a self-addressed stamped envelope, which I did. My June fourth paycheck has yet to arrive.

Thus, I guess I'm going to have to call on Monday and try to figure out what happened. I'm also not betting on my other paychecks actually making it parents' house either. I went to central office three times to try to change my address for the summer, and all three times the one person in the entire school district capable of inputting the information into the computer was out of the office. On the third try, I think one of the other ladies took pity on me; she told me to write down my new information and she'd be sure the correct person took care of it. At least if those paychecks get mailed to the wrong place, my roommate will let me know.

On the bright side, although it is somewhat frustrating and will probably be a hassle if the checks got lost in the mail, it's nice to have enough in savings that even waiting until August to get paid would be just a blip on my radar. I can't imagine how stressful this would be if I needed the money to make bill payments on time. Maybe I will go to direct deposit next year, but given my school's record for messing stuff up, I'm not all that keen on letting them have access to my bank account.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Your Tax Dollars at Work, Part 2

Someday, I'm going to have to sit down and calculate how much extra money the government has devoted to me, above and beyond the normal things like public schooling and my salary as a teacher. I suspect the total will be staggering.

There were a couple of nice summer programs in junior high and high school, science and literature camps funded entirely by the state. Things got a bit crazier when I hit college. In addition the standard state subsidy for my university, I got a sizable scholarship from the state. They were willing to throw $40,000 at me to try to keep me around after graduation, and I accepted $30,000 of their money. I guess it worked; the feeling of moral indebtedness played at least a small role in my decision to ask to be assigned to teach in my home state when Teach For America asked about my geographic preferences.

Then there's the research funding. My first summer research internship was partially funded by a private foundation, but the second was funded entirely by the NSF and paid handsomely. Throw in the funding for lab supplies and a dorm room, and that was an expensive summer. Then my great state decided to give me a grant to pay myself to shoot lasers at proteins, pay my advisor a pittance for his help, and buy still more lab supplies. That struck me as a spectacularly inefficient use of state funds, especially given that I was going to do the work for my thesis anyway and could requisition funds for supplies from one of my fellowships.

I probably don't want to know how much has been invested in turning me into a TFA corps member. I'm sure paying all of the people involved in my training has not been cheap, and later this summer I'll be getting a Americorps funding of $4,700-something to use for graduate school. If they renew the funding, I'll be getting a similar award next year.

Now I'm up to my eyeballs in "professional development". By the end of the week I should have 82 hours, all from classes that are not only free, they come with stipends. I wasn't aware that this program came with a stipend since the packet of materials they sent me went missing in the mail, and I have no idea how much they're paying, but last week I got $250. This program also registered me for a dorm room even though I told them I could commute from my parents' so I'm typing this from a two bedroom, four bed, private bath suite that the luck of the draw has me occupying alone. I've got another week in July down where I went last week; that one pays $625 and provides a dorm room. The programs also provide some supplies to take back to the classroom that are worth hundreds of dollars.

I can't help but think there's been some mistake. Huge amounts of money were invested in developing one individual believed to be valuable human capital, but I'm not sure what the return on that investment will be. My undergraduate research was a lot of fun for me, but I suspect it could have been done better, faster, and cheaper. I'm gradually getting better at teaching, and I suspect this week in particular is going to have a positive impact on how I approach ninth grade physical science, but I would have been equally happy commuting and not getting paid. I can't help but feeling that somehow, someday, I need to do something to justify all of this expense.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


Today at lunch the other teachers were debating whether attending this training is worth the $250. It sounded so good, but the best thing about day one was that one of the presenters looks like a Muppet and occasionally talks about Star Trek. In other words, I haven't learned much. However, I had a delightful evening in the motel pool so the trip thus far has not been a total waste.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Living in the lap of luxury

That's right: I'm in a Motel 6.

There are a couple of days of teacher workshops on weather and soil at a university in my state. They didn't have enough teachers to fill the slots and were practically begging people to come help them spend their grant money. In exchange for attending, I'll be getting a $250 stipend and a weather station worth $200 which I assume science club will put to good use. The only downside is that it's for teachers in the region where I teach, not where I'm spending the summer.

I could have driven five hours to my delta town today, then risen at the crack of dawn to drive another two and a half hours to the training site. Instead I chose to drive directly to the university town, a trip that also happens to take five hours, and get a room for the night. Frivolous? Heck yes! Worth it? Absolutely! Even with two nights in the motel, gasoline, and food, I'm going to come out ahead financially in addition to learning new things and getting twelve hours of professional development credit. If I had to do all of the extra driving, I would have been tempted to stay home.

Plus, I'm counting this as my vacation trip for the summer. It didn't involve traveling until the wee hours of the morning crammed into the backseat of a car with my little brother while my parents either bicker or seethe up front , I have an entire queen size bed to myself instead of sleeping on some relative's floor, and I get to eat out wherever I want instead of living on sandwiches from an ice chest for days on end. It's everything I dreamed of as a kid.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Self doubt and selfishness.

It's time to get serious about the rest of my life. I need to register for tests and start studying in earnest, blocking out the hours a day to devote to binging on esoteric vocabulary words and learning to speed solve tricky physics problems. Once I get going in earnest, maybe this queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach will disappear.

I'll be without a stout safety net for the first time in my life. Before I even sent in my application, my state university offered me a substantial scholarship so I knew that even if they found me unworthy of a bigger, more prestigious fellowship and the other schools rejected me, I was going to be able to go to college. When I was worrying over my Teach For America application, I was reasonably certain that the graduate education program at my university would be happy to have me, even though I did let self doubt get the better of me at times. However, I've watched a decent physics student set his sights too high and get rejected by every school he applied to, plus a couple of others get a long list of rejections and ultimately land somewhere thanks primarily to faculty members talking to friends in other departments in the hopes of securing a slot in an unexpected opening.

Plus, the competition has grown more fierce since the recession makes jobs in industry much harder to come by. The top physics student in this year's graduating class initially got rejected by a school my professors considered a good fit for me last year, back before I let my physics skills atrophy, and he's a much stronger candidate than I could have been. The school in question has gone to a points based system for evaluating candidates where they look mostly at grades and scores. Somehow I don't think they give points for accomplishments like helping a fourteen year old finally master adding fractions or writing grant proposals to get a bunch of impoverished high school students ACT prep materials. And they probably shouldn't: it doesn't demonstrate physics skills.

There's always going to be a thought lurking in the back of my mind that I'm not good enough. I'm not that brilliant; I'll never be Feynman, Maxwell, Bohr, or Newton. I get by by the skin of my teeth, with plenty of difficulty and with support from wonderful mentors. My chief virtue isn't in being innately gifted, it's in continuing to plod along even though I'm not. I still worry that someday soon I'll reach material that I simply won't be able to master, no matter how hard I try, that the math will throw a brick wall in my path and it will turn out that I'm not an unstoppable object after all.

Then there's the other problem with becoming a scientist: I dreamt of my kids last night. After this last year, they are my kids. I may not have done much good, but the problem of educational inequity is now my problem in a way it wasn't when I joined this crazy organization. Trust me, if you'd spent a year in one of these schools, you'd be mad as hell too. Spending another year in the classroom may help a few kids, and that's worth doing, but it doesn't begin to touch our country's deeper educational and cultural problems. I might do a little more to help if I were more like my friends, considering careers in educational administration, counseling, or non-profit administration, like my cousin's girlfriend the social worker, like my boyfriend's mother the attorney ad litem for kids in foster care.

Yet I'd rather study science. I don't think I'd be good at any of those noble professions. I like teaching, but liked teaching college students as well, and I miss the lab. I'll probably never cure a dreaded disease or solve our energy problems, but that's okay, that isn't why I want to do this.

I don't think I'm romanticizing the job of being a researcher. Doing science often isn't glorious. There aren't a ton of eureka moments. You spend a lot of time writing grant proposals that might not get funded, plotting eighteen billion graphs to make meaning of those strings of raw data, waiting for the repair guy to get the immunofluorescent microscope in working order, aligning the optics so your laser beam hits at precisely the right angle, or analyzing why your filters have exploded and spewed your painstakingly prepared sample all over the floor again. Often, though, you do get to investigate neat things, and even the question of why the gosh darned filters are exploding (or whatever the similar problem in your lab happens to be) is an interesting puzzle when looked at in the right light. Ultimately, I can't think of anything more exciting than getting paid to be curious.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

I hope I have a job.

My district has, at long last, hired a new high school principal and superintendent. I heard about the new principal immediately after the school board voted thanks to a text message from somebody actually at the meeting, and a cheer went up at the table of TFAs having dinner at a Mexican restaurant, mainly because they hired someone from outside the district. That's about all we know about the guy at this point, but given the current state of our administration, that alone is cause for a little renewed optimism.

Now if only they'd get around to hiring some teachers. For a while, I quit worrying because my official observation and evaluation went pretty well. My assistant principal had a lot of praise for how much he thinks I've improved over the course of the year. He offered a couple of constructive suggestions as well, reiterated his desire to be supportive, and seemed genuinely surprised when I asked whether he intended to recommend me for contract renewal. Funny that he wouldn't understand why I was concerned when he was one of the administrators who told the entire faculty that we needed to "get it together or find other professions" (not quite as bad as when the superintendent/acting principal threatened to fire everyone, but still). The second years assured us all that the previous year nobody had gotten new contracts until the very end of the school year.

The end of the school year has come and gone, and there still aren't any contracts. Older teachers have said that sometimes the school mails contracts out during the summer and that there was one year when they didn't actually get around to hiring anyone until a couple of weeks after the new school year started. Apparently, they expect everyone to show up whether we formally have jobs or not. Somehow I do not find this particularly reassuring.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Do you know the episode of the X Files with the poor guy who was in the wrong place during a secret government experiment and had to keep moving west?

Where the guy was willing to carjack Mulder to keep going, but met his untimely demise when they reached the coast and his head popped in a shower of blood before Scully could rupture his eardrum with an icepick to relieve the pressure? That's about how I feel right now.

My ear started hurting Thursday night. It wasn't so bad then, as much a sensation of pressure as actual pain, accompanied by a bit of hearing loss. Friday it continued to be a source of irritation, but it wasn't worth missing school. Saturday morning the pain was a bit worse, but I still hoped my body's defenses could handle it. I'd read that most ear infections resolve themselves on their own just as quickly without antibiotics, and, besides, I needed to hit the road and the only place I could have obtained treatment before heading out would have been the emergency room. I figured I could wait it out. I tried to dull the pain with ibuprofen and keep going.

Sunday night my ear hurt badly enough that I couldn't sleep and it was oozing pus. I try to avoid doctors and had only been once in the past five years for anything besides a routine checkup, but I reluctantly concluded that I needed to get medical attention. First thing Monday morning, I was dressed, fed, and ready to head to a walk in clinic and wait outside for it to open. Then my mom woke up and insisted on spending forever looking online to see if the clinic was in my insurance network (It wasn't, but with a $1,500 annual deductible that's almost irrelevant), trying to talk me into letting her call various doctors for an appointment, half of whom weren't in my network either, and ultimately driving me to the clinic.

24 hours, a $90 doctor visit and $30.88 worth of azithromyocin tablets and benzocaine ear drops, several doses of OTC analgesics, and countless warm compresses later and my ear still hurts about as much. As expected, I have a nice case of otis media, plus probably a bout of strep throat that the doctor didn't bother to test for since she was prescribing antibiotics anyway. All those pamphlets I read as a little kid waiting at the doctor's that promised that as I matured the angle of my Eustachian tubes would get better and I wouldn't have to deal with this anymore were lies, lies I tell you! I'm feeling a bit whiny and self pitying as I hope that the combination of antibiotics and my own white blood cells works its magic soon.