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Three Down

written Sunday, 6/8/2008

Teaching is like…

Teaching is like constructing a building. At the start of each year you carefully survey the land and envision the bold project ahead. You start with a foundation established under previous leadership. You assess the capabilities of your workers and strive to utilize and expand the depth and breadth of their skills. With you at the helm, your team spends the next 9-10 months diligently erecting a solid structure of knowledge – a monumental testimony to boundless human achievement. Upon completion of the project, you stand back and gaze upward at the towering skyscraper of scholarship, beaming with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. You inhale a deep breath, smile, and proudly reflect on the wondrous experience. A couple months later you are blessed with the opportunity to do it all over again.

Something like that.

Teaching is like constructing a building. In the months prior to laying down the first brick, you rely on your expertise and faith in the human spirit to map out an ambitious yet achievable blueprint for the project at hand. Where others point out a weak foundation, sagging joists, and bowed floors, you envision an ostentatious mansion. The raw talent and boundless potential that you recognize in your workers energizes you to view the project in your mind with grandiose magnificence. A few of them affirm your confidence through their dedication to helping you fulfill your vision. Even more of them, though, arrive late for work, half-ass their way through the day, and punch out early. Some fail to show up at all. Contrary to your wishes, you’re not allowed to fire them. Stinkin’ union. Trudging forth with what you’ve got, you toil through the long days. You try your best to meet the milestones laid out in your initial proposal, but materials aren’t up to code, parts are built out of spec, tools turn up missing, and labor is woefully inadequate. The workforce hasn’t officially called a strike, but an unmistakable slowdown cripples the whole endeavor. You finally reach the ultimate deadline and apprehensively turn to view the construction. You shudder at the thought of even setting foot inside such a lopsided, rickety old shack as the one flimsily erected before you. You release an exhausted sigh. In a couple months, you’ll have to do this all over again.

Signs of Summer

Yes indeed, my third year of teaching is over. Summer is finally here. Insects signal the seasonal change in southern Louisiana. About a month ago, while the intellectual lifecycle of the listless lazybugs in my classroom started winding down, carefree lovebugs swarmed in pairs throughout the city, coupled in flight (“Dude look, those insects are totally doing it in midair”). Young Buck Moth caterpillars dropped from oak trees, stinging whoever had the misfortune of breaking their fall. Flying termites claimed dominion over my apartment. The scarlet hickies of thirsty mosquitoes let me know how much they’ve missed my scrumptious flavor.
A slightly Photoshopped recreation of real events.

As I write, my darling kitties scurry about the apartment. This kind of giddy exuberance can only mean one thing: The cockroaches are back. To be clear, I have no fondness for roaches. But I can’t be mad at them either. They just do what roaches do. There goes one now, scuttling across the floor. Oooh… Kong swats it like a hockey puck, ricocheting it off the baseboard. The hapless insect flails on its back, struggling to upright itself. Too late. Estelle pounces. Why don’t the girls just put it out of its misery with the mercy of swift death? They’re not even trying to kill it. The roach is back on its feet. It’s Kong’s turn to play. I hear a crunch as she picks it up in her mouth and carries it under the bench. Ouch. Even a cockroach doesn’t deserve this brand of torture. I’m tempted to halt the maiming, but instead I let Mother Nature run her course. I’m not mad at Kong and Estelle. They just do what girls do.

DC Trip 2008

In early April, I traveled to DC for a few days on behalf of the Greater New Orleans Writing Project. Accompanying a few members from other National Writing Project sites around Louisiana, I visited offices of four members of congress to request continued federal funding for the program. Representative Charlie Melancon cordially took the time to talk to us personally. We only spoke with young assistants to the other members of congress: Senator Mary Landrieu, Senator David Vitter, and Representative William Jefferson. Ahhh, Louisiana politicians, workin’ so hard to perpetuate national stereotypes. Yeah, I’m sure some legitimate goodness must get accomplished on behalf of our state in DC, but the sensational prostitution scandal (talkin’ to you, junior senator) and outrageous corruption schemes that lead to storage of $90K in one’s freezer (it’s all you, 2nd district congressman) are so much more memorable. Way to go, Harvard, for imparting moral and ethical excellence on both of these boys so well.

Outside of NWP duties, I didn’t get as much time to sightsee as I had during my first DC trip a year earlier. This time, no steamy romance ensued from a chance encounter on the Metro.
At the National Writing Project meeting Roaming the Senate Office halls Out and about the Capitol, on a search Revisiting a place where I stopped last year Temporary museum display of a national treasure Museum display of a familiar creature


In late April/early May, the 39th annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival took place. For my third year of “Jazzfest,” I attended by myself on the second Sunday of the event. I enjoyed a few performances including Galactic and The New Orleans Bingo Show, but a hot, sticky, horseracing track seems an unfavorable venue for live musical events to me. Perhaps demonstrating the decreased stamina that comes with age, I much prefer to see any one of those live acts in a music club with comfortable seating and air conditioning. No disrespect intended to one of New Orleans’ greatest tourist draws, but Jazzfest reminds me of a mediocre smorgasbord in which all the entrees have been sitting under the heat lamps a little too long. Variety is great, but quality of the total experience is lacking. The lukewarm fare fulfills a basic hunger, but you secretly wish you had just gone to a good restaurant and ordered fresh off the menu. Okay, just a little disrespect intended.

End of school year

Have I ever mentioned that I believe the children are our future? I strive to teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside. Give them a sense of pride to make it easier. Let the children's laughter remind us how we used to be.

I just had to get that out.

Now that I’ve set the tone, here’s the gallery of future-embodying, well-taught, beauty-possessing, pride-sensing superstars that I’ve inspired this year:
Is there anything more precious than watching a child sleep? The kid in the last photo was not in my class this past year, but I asked him to start practicing for how to get a good grade in case he ends up with me next year.

High notes

This third year of teaching was a struggle. At times in the final weeks of school I failed to hide my disappointment during some of my classes. As I watched most of my 7th period thoroughly waste study time that I had set aside in the days preceding the final exam, one student remarked, “Mr. White, you look really pissed.” Yeah, I was. But not always. Summer allows me the essential time to look back and savor the highlights.

  • Graduation – Lusher High School graduated its small inaugural class of 36 seniors. I taught most of these students in one of the last two years, and I’m sure I’ll miss them just as much as they miss me! Some performed remarkably in my class while others barely scraped by, but I was proud to see them all walk across the stage to receive their diplomas. I hope some of them report back to us from time to time on how their lives beyond high school are unfolding.
  • The underdog champs – These kids make my day. The ones who refuse to let their lack of inherent mathematical fitness serve as an excuse not to succeed. One girl regularly came to my class before school, at lunch, and after school to get help. In class she’d halt my lecture and ask me to elaborate if I wasn’t explaining things clearly. Nothing mathematical came easily for her, but nothing was going to stop her from earning several A’s on her report card. Another girl fumbled her way through the first quarter with lame effort and excuses, but really stepped it up second quarter. Throughout the third and fourth quarters, she was one of my most active class participants and most consistent achievers. I can’t always convince these students to like the subject of math, but at least they’ve enjoyed that sweet feeling of accomplishment in conquering such a formidable challenge.
  • The never-say-die kids – These kids make me incredibly proud. Math is their most-frustrating subject. No matter how hard they try, they rarely earn grades above a C. Lesser students simply give up. The never-say-die kids keep on trying until the end. Some of those who hung out in my classroom before school fall into this category, and I know their perseverance will make them capable of great things in life.
  • The math nerds – An artsy school like Lusher doesn’t have many true math nerds. There are certainly some kids who use their naturally-sharp skills to do the bare minimum amount to earn an A, and not an ounce of effort more. The ones I admire though are those who know they could get an A with their eyes closed, yet still push themselves to learn as much as they can. The genuine math nerds are not too proud to participate in class discussions and even humbly ask questions once in a while. There are a handful of kids like this, and I appreciate these kindred souls.
  • The spirit of diversity – For whatever gripes weigh me down at my current school, I’m still astounded by the level of acceptance with regards to different cultures, races, beliefs, and backgrounds. I know some students believe that we have a long way to go in this respect. They’re right, and I hope recognizing that fact drives us to be even better. However, I still find our current degree of integration to be extremely impressive in the large urban setting of New Orleans.
    As my favorite example, for 1.5 years we’ve experienced the immense pleasure of getting acquainted with a few students from Jordan. The two oldest children attended the high school while two other siblings attended the middle and elementary schools. Very limited English skills must’ve made adapting to their new environment difficult. Many kids actively reached out and befriended the Jordanian students. Even many of those who didn’t get to know them well learned to appreciate and admire them nonetheless. Unfortunately visa issues require them to return to Jordan this summer. However, the eldest girl earned her diploma and received one of the loudest ovations of all during the graduation ceremony. The eldest boy will have one more year of high school back in his home country. The pleasure of having her in my class last year and him in my class this year has been invaluable to me.
This kid was quite a pain in the butt at times in the year, but she (partially) redeemed herself with a good late-year effort and this very sweet card of appreciation.
Some of the coolest kids I’ve ever met.

Summer plans

“Well at least you get the summers off.”

Curse the uninformed non-teacher retort to the demands of this job. I know many teachers who seek employment during the summertime to make ends meet. I’m thankful that my finances are strong enough not to necessitate such drastic measures. I will be sure to get some good relaxation in, but the summer agenda is getting full.

On the summer lineup: Trip to CA to help Mom prepare for upcoming move, my last (hopefully) graduate class at UNO, thirty hours of “curriculum mapping” for the upcoming school year, a short online class on Saturday mornings (personal interest), lotsa really really really deep reading (yeah, seriously!), a guest presentation with this year’s Writing Project group, a little Flash cartooning and/or programming, preparation for my Algebra 2/Calculus/AP Calculus classes next year, preparation to co-teach a Tulane education class in the fall, and perhaps work with my UNO advisor on a book chapter covering dynamic geometric software. I’m also signed up to attend a four-day AP Calculus workshop in late July. I specifically chose the workshop site in Austin so that I may meet up once again with my geometry teacher of twenty-one years ago, who has graciously offered to host me during my stay.

The CA trip already occurred, and I returned to New Orleans last week. Approaching the airport ticket counter at 5am in San Jose, I ran into my former manager on the AirBorne Laser (ABL) program. Both of us were scheduled for the same flight to Dallas. He had worked several levels up the management chain from me at Lockheed Martin, so I didn’t know him particularly well. We walked to the gate together and proceeded to talk until time came to board the plane. I enjoyed sharing my New Orleans experiences with him and hearing his perspective on the pleasures and frustrations of the aerospace industry.

Whenever I encounter someone from my engineering past, the fear always enters my mind that I may look back and regret abandoning that career. The further I get from those days though, the more secure I feel in my decision. That being said, I still don’t have a clear vision of where my current career is headed. Maybe I never will.

A couple weeks ago a former ABL colleague emailed me a link to his new website (Here’s his other website). “Bad Bob” is an artist at heart, and to this day I still wonder, “What’s he doing working at Lockheed?” I know others wondered the same thing about me. Bob’s new site includes a couple of my favorite drawings from his cartooning heyday, which still resonate with me today. I’m also reminded of the series of posters I created during my final year in engineering. The source of inspiration for those illustrations –a distressed feeling that I was stumbling waywardly through life– was painful. The goofiness helped me cope. In the presence of goofiness, I trust I’ll always be fine.
Posted with permission from my former colleague “Bad Bob.” (Right, Bob?) Two of my workplace posters. All six from the series are posted here.