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Mea Culpa

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Is there a circle of hell reserved for writers? Cause right now, I’m deep in it. I type this with flames licking my fingers to apologize for the fact that I haven’t posted in a while. Plus I’m midway in my life’s journey and feeling it (sorry, some of my tenth graders are reading the Inferno.)

Anyway, here’s the tale of woe. Last summer I had an article accepted at the Washington Post Magazine (that was the good part). In 4000 words I would turn this blog’s predecessor, “Certifiable?”, into a magazine feature chronicling my pursuit of National Board Certification. By agreement with the editor I held off with the ending to see if I passed. I didn’t (but that’s different bad news).

I wrote most of the piece this summer, loyal readers may remember, while teaching a George Mason graduate course for teacher-researchers and other educators who wanted to publish. One thing I forgot to tell them: be careful what you wish for.

The piece was slated to run this spring, but my editor called a couple weeks ago and told me it was going in this February. I finished it up and sent her the copy (still pretty good news).

The bad news kicked in when I checked my email on returning from a trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan to see my niece’s bat mitzvah last weekend. A long page of all caps from the editor explained, more or less, that my ten-pager just wasn’t quite what she was looking for. I had to rewrite it. Fast.

So, this Monday, instead of catching up on the old blog, hanging with the fam, and thinking about civil rights, I holed up in the manzone for about 12 hours and got ‘er done. Ouch. Felt like an all-nighter at college, except it was an all-dayer. And then some. Turns out the editor wanted more canoe in the piece, an idea I had pitched at our original meeting 6 months earlier. Zounds.

It was pretty rockstarish the next day when the Post photographer showed up at my classroom and shot a bunch of pix of me with the kids. I wore a tie for the second time in 15 years. On my free period he had me posing like Rodin’s thinker on a hunk of canoe wood.

Yesterday, a new round of comments from her and another six hours of frantic typing by me: three after school until my eyes were blurry, then a few more on the laptop at home as I sat in the rocker in my son’s dark bedroom long past the time he’d fallen asleep.

Now the sun’s come up again, and I’m still not done. I’ve got some time after school today before I head off to teach night school at the community college, so maybe I can finish this round of changes. The problem is, by this point, my writing has turned to mush. I don’t know what to leave in or take out, I can’t tell if it’s her voice in my head or something I thought of myself. And I have a nasty cold. This time my head probably really will pop like a grape. Grey pulp all over the screen. Deadline blown.

This all puts me in mind of something my dad used to say. He himself retired as the editor of the editorial page of the Washington Post after a storied forty year career (and no, he didn’t land me this piece; in fact, I’m pretty sure this current editor doesn’t know who he was). Anyway, he explained his job like this, “An editor is a mouse training to be a rat.”

It always sounded apt, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant. I imagine he heard it himself from some cigar-chomping editor at the city desk (you know: hard-boiled, heart of gold, despised dangling modifiers).

I actually really like the lady I’m working with at the Post. The revisions she suggests make sense; I just wish I had more time (and that she’d bump my rate to a buck a word). Anyway, let me leave you with the 500 word lede that got axed from my original draft. Someone ought to read the little guy. If you want to read the new opening, check out the Washington Post Magazine Feb 17.


I stood in front of a room full of parents on a Wednesday night two Septembers ago, imagining, for a moment, that the adults crammed into the small wooden desks we call “one-armed bandits” were tenth graders again. The years faded from their faces: the man with the power tie thumbing his blackberry was a tousle-haired kid fidgeting with a video game. The helicopter mom scribbling in her day planner was a cheerleader making notes in looping script.

Just as quickly as it came, the image faded. These were not my students; they were my students’ parents. And on my fourteenth back to school night as an English teacher, I had just ten minutes to tell them how I was going to give their child a top notch education in my class that year.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” I began, trying to project just the right mix of professionalism, warmth, and competence. “Are you ready for the quiz?” There was a sprinkle of nervous laughter. Locker banks and hand-lettered posters on the wall brought them back to their own school days, from seventh grade gym to diagramming sentences on the chalk board. The familiar surroundings belied the fact that what and even how they learned decades ago bears little resemblance to today’s steroidal versions of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. The truth was that many of these parents hadn’t quite understood the homework since their child was in elementary school.

“I’m looking forward to an exciting year,” I continued, and headed into my shpiel about the syllabus. The parents seemed pleased to hear that their kids would write a lot, and were interested when I told them about a grant-funded project to build a dugout canoe in our English and history classes.

Finally, the kicker: “I also want to let you know that this year I will be attempting to get an advanced professional certification called ‘National Board Certification.’ As part of that process, I will be studying your child’s work carefully, and at times I will video tape the class.”

There was a beat of silence. Running through their minds, no doubt, were questions: Shouldn’t he already be certified as a teacher? Is this going to help my kid? Who’s going to see that video? Knowing my ten minutes was nearly up, I concluded: “You may have questions about this, and I’ll be glad to talk to you later. You can also follow the process on my blog on Teacher Magazine online. Thanks!” I handed out a hard copy of the first post to my online diary, called “Certifiable?” In it I asked, “Am I nuts? Can I do it?”, and compared the looming challenge to a snow-capped peak against a clear blue sky. My reason for scaling this mountain was, “Because it’s there.”

1 Comment

Last week when they forgot to send a sub for you in the morning, we were all wondering where you were... I hope that you finished your paper! My family gets the Washington magazine and I can't wait for it to come out.
I didn't know that you taught night school... you must be pretty busy! Do we write better than your night school students, or do they beat us? =]

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