Friday, September 28, 2012

Smoke and Mirrors: An AmeriCorps Tale

Note: I've gone ahead and changed names and altered the accompanying photo for the sake of story's characters, since I don't necessarily have permission to write about them like this. I'm hoping that if they see this story, they'll take it in the spirit of fun it's intended to have.  

It'll end too soon if it ends at all
I don't worry now, 
The friends of summer'll be the friends of fall. 
"It'll End Too Soon," Crooked Still

In 2009, I signed up for an AmeriCorps program. I was fresh out of college, graduating into a stagnant economy with a degree in not-science, not-medicine, and not-any-other-field-where-you-might-actually-get-a-job. I wasn't bitter about this: college was awesome, and I was happy about having studied linguistics, with a minor in more linguistics. But I needed a job, and AmeriCorps had positions, so I took one.

When I showed up for training, one of the first lessons I learned was how to talk about AmeriCorps when people didn't know what it was. "Whatever you do, you shouldn't really say 'It's like a domestic Peace Corps.' AmeriCorps has a very different set of goals, structure, and kind of activity from the Peace Corps." Instead, I was supposed to mention that AmeriCorps is a government-sponsored program that provides a way for Americans to dedicate themselves to a period of service to their fellow citizens.

Typically, talking about my experience would go like this:
SOMEBODY: "What're you up to these days, man?"
ME: "Oh, I joined an AmeriCorps program this year. Do you know about AmeriCorps?"
ME: "...well, it's like a domestic Peace Corps."

For real, anything else was a mouthful, and people's eyes tended to glaze over when I tried to deliver the approved spiel. But just so you know: AmeriCorps isn't really all that much like a domestic Peace Corps.

I was charged with co-leading a team of people in an elementary school. We were supposed to tutor kids in reading and to run an after school program, and occasionally we'd put together a school-wide event of some kind. That was pretty much it.

It sounds simple, but it was actually really tiring, frustrating, challenging work. Part of the trouble was the fact that we had long days (7:30 to 5:30, if I recall, with a half-hour lunch break) and that working with kids can be super draining. But most of the trouble came from the fact that we were a bunch of oddball misfits who didn't really get along.

How all these strange peopleand I include myself in that descriptionended up on the same team is a colossal mystery. There was Harriet, the dreadlock-sporting conspiracy theorist and probable stoner; she wore sunglasses inside a lot, and tried to teach children that milk was bad for them and would give them asthma. This upsetJosh, the Republican Jew law-school applicant, who regularly employed questionable tactics in engaging children, including using military history to teach his 4th graders reading andmy personal favoritetaking a child's chips and eating them in front of him to emphasize that the child should not bring food to tutoring sessions. He was also very fond of dodgeball, due to its being his sole opportunity to peg children with dodgeballs without repercussion. To his credit, though, we all ended up fond of dodgeball. For the same reason.

Next to Josh's spot in our room was the one belonging to Elena, our Hispanic lesbian with a fondness for making non-school-appropriate jokes when kids weren't around. In fairness: the whole team was fond of this; it became, over the course of the year, a game to try and make me blush at lunch hour. Leela was Elena's right-hand girl in inappropriateness, but also would get real stone-faced if things started to get out of hand. It helped us keep it together, sometimes.

There was Alice, our fairly straightforward, Christian gal, who was the "old lady" of our group, mannerisms, memory, speech patterns, and all. There was my co-leader, Carrie, who took things a little too seriously, seemed to have home issues she couldn't unburden herself with, and, um, lied. Like, more than I was prepared for. She lost the team's faith a lot sooner than she lost mine, perhaps because I'm a sucker and can't spot lies and half-truths very easily.

King of lies and obfuscation, though, was Ulysses. Ulysses was a gay black man with an extreme fondness for Beyonce Knowles and matching his shoes to his outfits. He was noteworthy for his tendency to take creativity too far, like, say, crafting elaborate board games for his tutoring students, but then not really using them to teach them to read, which is what he was supposed to be doing. If he was confronted about this sort of thing, he'd throw up a verbal cloud of smoke and retreat, sometimes to the cafeteria. He once drew fire from the school administration for teaching children the "Single Ladies" dance from the eponymous Beyonce music video, but by that point in the year I was too far gone to ask him to account for it. His explanation would have involved too little sense and too much leaving the room to hang out with the cafeteria staff, and I wasn't up for it.

We did have one normal, everyday-seeming guy there to balance us out and help us stay even-keeled. His name was Peter. He left the program after a week with us.

This team was often a frustrating group to work with. There were days I would show up and feel that the group had just stopped a conversation, not wanting me to hear what they were talking about. They would accuse each other of not working or being inappropriate when I wasn't around. They generally acted in ways I found confusing. There were months in my year with them where the general smoke-and-mirrors feel of it all left me unsure who to trust or what to do.

Late in the year, though, I had bigger troubles, when two terrible months-long developments came to a head on the same day.

It was April, and a couple months before I had invited a former professor from college, a Deaf woman, to come talk to my students about Deafness and Deaf culture. She agreed to do so, but to get her to come, I had to hire an interpreter. I got a woman named Rebekah to agree to come, on the condition that she be paid $50 an hour, a sum which staggered my mind at the timemy AmeriCorps stipend was $250 a week. Fortunately, the school agreed to pay her; she said she'd like to be paid in 30 days, the school admins said that'd be fine, and that was that. My professor came, the interpreter interpreted, the kids had a good time, and everything was grand. Rebekah worked for 2 hours and was owed $100.

A month passed, and one day I got a concerned text message from Rebekah, asking about being paid. I talked to the school admins, who said that she had some paperwork that needed to be processed, and it would be a little while longer before she could be paid. I texted this to Rebekah, who was not happy about it.

This situation repeated itself several times; each time, I'd get a text (and they grew angrier and more vehemently accusatory each time) from Rebekah, I'd track down an admin, and they'd tell me that her paperwork was still processing. Once, Rebekah asked for the school's number so she could call and complain; I gave her the number on the school's website. It turned out that this number was no longer in use, so Rebekah accused me of trying to keep her from talking to the school and getting her money. I started loathing my phone, fearing it: any vibration could be another threatening, spiteful text message from this woman, which added immeasurably to my stress level, usually high enough from corralling children and my team.

The other issue was my co-leader, Carrie. Carrie was a stalwart servant and passionate leader early in the year. Unfortunately, she got stressed easily and it started to show. By this point in the year, she had lost the team's faith for lying about where she was and what she was up to when she should have been workingpretending to have sick relatives or job interviews when she was really at home or out on the town, that sort of thing. She had also gotten in serious trouble with the organization for getting caught breaking a fraternization rule. And then one day in April, I got a call from my boss, saying Carrie had been demoted. Carrie had been caught in a pretty big lieshe'd decided not to tutor a student for months and lied about it to me and the schooland had been demoted from team leader to regular team member and suspended from service for a week. I was now on my own as the leader of this team. And not just the only team leader, but a leader of a team where everybody hated one person, Carrie. So it was a bad day.

The day as I climbed the stairs to our classroom in the school, I got that call from my boss, Rebekah texted me. She said that she was fed up; she accused me angrily of denying her what was rightfully hers, and said that if she didn't get her $100 very soon, she would sue me for it. Not the school: me. I about broke down in the stairwell with terror and anger.

That day, I sat with my team at lunch, and I gave them the news about Carrie. They were angered by it, but unsurprised: they'd had their suspicions that Carrie was neglecting that student. I also told them that I was super-stressed, and had been for a while, about Rebekah, and that she was threatening to sue me and that everything was terrible.

And then my team made it all seem okay. They told me I was the team leader that they actually trusted and liked, and it would be okay if I was their only team leaderbetter even. And they made sure I felt like Rebekah wasn't going to be able to mess with me anymore. In an inappropriate way, sure: they told me they'd be happy to give Rebekah a beat down; I just needed let them know where to find her, and they'd take care of it. But seriously, Josh chimed in, there was no way I could get sued for $100; for one thing, court costs would eliminate any benefit. Besides, Ulysses pointed out, she really should have worked those measly 2 hours for free. We all practically were.

And so, in my dark hour of need, my inappropriate, obfuscatory, strange team came through and lifted me up, and helped me realize that things weren't so bad. At the finish, Rebekah got her money, we got through our year, and everything ended up all right.

Friday, September 21, 2012

This Much Is True Recording

Part of a series of Live Story Recordings.

Art by my friend Alex
Last week, I wrote about my experience at a Chicago storytelling event called This Much Is True. I told a version of a story that I wrote up a few weeks back, which you can read here, if you wish, but I think the live version was better. And now you can listen to that version here! Enjoy.

Coach V and the Native American Project - This Much Is True by James Davisson

Friday, September 14, 2012

The This Much Is True Experience

this is the picture of me on the TMIT website, because I don't have a "head shot" like famous people.

This is the sound of my soul. 

Tuesday night I went on stage at an event called This Much Is True, and it was awesome.

This Much Is True ("TMIT" hereafter) is a storytelling event not unlike Story Lab, about which I've written before (there's a recording of a performance I did at Story Lab here). Telling stories is an important thing for me, and has been for some time. I'm not sure exactly when, but at some point in my life I realized that I could get the attention of a large group of people if I remembered an interesting-enough story and told it in a gripping way. Indeed, without stories to tell (or an audience that will listen), I'm typically lost in large group settings.

I'm always excited to tell stories to a new audience, but what made me extra excited to do TMIT was that, unlike most other events I've performed at, TMIT is invitation only. I had no way of signing up or requesting a slot. Instead, I had to wait for one of the show's hosts to see me do my thing and invite me to perform. I was also excited because I knew that most people invited to perform at TMIT are thoroughly talented. I was going to be performing alongside seasoned storytellers, actors, and others who've been in this game or related ones for a long time.

Given that fact, I felt oddly unintimidated. Honestly, I was a bit cocky: up until this show, I'd performed with lots of people with less experience than me or just less audience appeal, so it was always easy to feel like I'd done a great job by simply comparing myself to my fellow performers. And, now that I think about it, I totally expected to keep doing that. I went up first, and afterwards, I was all set in my chair, ready to rate myself against my fellow performers and feel great about myself because I was as good or better than they were.

So it was a shock when everyone else did either really well or fantastically well. Almost every other story was more emotionally fraught, more engaging, or funnier than mine, sometimes all at once. I slowly realized how un-unique my talents were in this context. As my roommate pointed out to me later, it was not unlike the transition I talked about briefly in the story I'd told on stage: in high school, I believed I was an intellectual all-star because I compared myself to my peers, but college put me in my place. I was similarly taken down a few notches here.

Thus, I was a little dazed when intermission rolled around. I got up and walked around a bit, eventually bumping into one of the show's co-hosts—the one I'd never met before. I complimented her on her story, noting that she had taken a universal experience and used it to describe something very personal. (I'm still not sure if this was a profound analytical comment or the merest pseudo-intellectual fluff, but she took it in the spirit it was meant: I was trying to say I'd paid attention to her story and liked it.) I then half-complained about being put first in the show's lineup, saying that her co-host tended to put me first in shows and I wasn't sure why. (This is a little annoying if, say, you have friends who tend to show up late to things and they miss your material because you were first.) She responded that she knew why her co-host tended to put me first: I had great energy, the kind that makes people laugh from the get-go. It's exactly the kind of thing you need to start a show off right and draw people into the experience. It's typically thought of as a place of honor, she said.

So I sat back down for the second half of the show, my confidence in my uniqueness restored. And then I was blown away again by three amazing storytellers. The last of the three was a nationally recognized storyteller and musician, who told a gut-bustingly funny and simultaneously affecting and warm story about cleaning out his parents' house after his mother passed away. He brought the house down, and I was put back in my place. This time, though, I felt happy to be there, because it felt like a place to grow from and aspire to be as great as others had been that night. 

Ahem. Because this is stuck in my head and needs to be let out somewhere:
Ah, hah-hah, HAAAH HAAA, I KNOW this MUCH is true...Ah, hah-hah, HAAAH HAAA, I KNOW this MUCH IS TRUUUUUUE....
My apologies.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Mr. B: NRA Member, History Teacher

Half my life is in books' written pages,
Live and learn from fools and from sages;
You know it's true,
All the things come back to you.
"Dream On," Aerosmith
(Note: summer is over, so I'm going to try and return to my original one-post-per-week schedule.)

In 8th grade, I had the coolest history teacher; I'll call him Mr. B.

Here's the thing about Mr. B: he stands out in my memory as a great teacher, but many of the details I remember about him make him sound kind of terrifying, or just like a not-ideal teacher. Mr. B was a card-carrying NRA member, and he let us know about it. He often spoke about the possibility of revolution in the U.S. because of too much government control or corruption (he never claimed to be a Libertarian, but he strikes me as one in hindsight; maybe he just didn't think we'd know what a Libertarian was and didn't want to explain it). Not that he advocated revolution: he was just letting us know it might come one day, and we should be prepared. He was going to prepare by owning guns.

Mr. B was a loudmouth, and he often poked fun at his students, though never in a way that struck me as intentionally mean-spirited. If you gave him a silly or ignorant answer to a question, he'd ask what you'd been smoking (and, on his better days, request that you give him some). He was generally just not interested in any way in being politically correct: the man had us watch "The Patriot" in class, for Pete's sake.

But I will assert that Mr. B was the best teacher in the whole school, no contest. The man should be honored as a hero and, I think, remembered as a legend. Why, you ask?

Mr. B was the most energetic, enthusiastic, engaging teacher I've ever been taught by, known, or heard of. He was utterly unhinged, unafraid to be weird, goofy, or even abrasive if that's what it took to get kids' attention and focus it on learning. He was creative and imaginative, and he cared deeply about his students. I've never had another teacher give me a Myers-Briggs personality test, and even if I had, I doubt anyone else would have thought to group students together by complementing personality types or would have been able to address them in class by type ("James! You're an INFJ, what's your opinion on X? Our ENFP over here thinks otherwise, eh?" and so forth).

My favorite part of Mr. B's classes was the opening monologue, where Mr. B would riff on current events and try to teach us about how the world worked. It could have been the most self-indulgent nonsense ever, but it was usually awesome; in particular, I remember hearing about and discussing the implications of the U.S. spy plane collision in (debatably) Chinese territory, and I realize now that there was no one else in my life who bothered to talk about big, knotty political and international issues like that when I was 13. Heck, not many adults took me any kind of seriously at all at that age, so Mr. B was definitely special.

Mr. B was the greatest. It's thanks to teachers like him that I grew up into a person with any kind of ability to think independently or analytically (and perhaps that I survived such teachers as Coach V later on down the line). I hope my kids get a few teachers like that guy someday.