Tales From School: 4, 3, 2, 1, Pharaohs Want Their Buildings Done

After an exhausting weekend of two 3-hour drives, 2 workshops, 1 roundtable, and a ton of fun new memories at Eau Claire, it was time to get back to Madison and back to school. With my college students, I managed to stay awake enough to discuss Mother Courage with them, but stayed up half the night brainstorming ideas for how to introduce my next unit to my elementary school students tomorrow. Since Passover is coming up next week, and we have two weeks off, I got them started on thinking about this month’s country, Egypt.

I started off today with a riddle:

“My first letter is in a TREE but is not a FRUIT, my second letter is in the GARDEN but is not a FLOWER, my third letter is in the SKY but is not in the CLOUDS, my fourth letter is on the PLAINS but not in the LAND, and my fifth letter is in the DESERT but not in the SAND.”

In order to solve it, my students needed to figure out that they had to cross off letters that appeared in both words. The first one was pretty easy, since E was the only option, but the second letter could be either G, A, D, or N; the third could be K or Y; the fourth could be P, I, or S; and the fifth could be D, E, R, or T. After a few missed attempts (Eakie, anyone?) and running back and forth from the map, they figured out that it was Egypt. Which led me to introducing the riddle of the Sphinx, which segued into learning basic facts about modern-day Egypt (the lecture portion of the class).

After our mid-class break, we went to the multi-purpose room where I showed them pictures of some of Egypt’s great wonders: the temple at Karnak with its great pillars; the temple at Abu Simbel with the giant pharaoh statues; the Pyramids of Giza; and of course, the Sphinx. This led to a game similar to Simon Says, but I called it Pharaoh’s Builders.

The premise: One student is “pharaoh,” and all the others are builders. Pharaoh does not like it when the builders are lazy, so they must walk around in the hot hot sun until he decides which structure he wants them to build. If he says “pyramid” the builders must get in a group of four and join hands at the top; any student who does not get in that group is eliminated. If he says “sphinx”, the builders must get in a group of three; one as the pharaoh, one as the body of a cat, and one as the magic wings. Again, whoever doesn’t get into a group in time is out. If the pharaoh wants a “temple” two builders stand together side by side (with even numbers, no one gets eliminated; however, we later amended the rule to say that the couple who pairs up the slowest is eliminated). And finally, if he wants a “pillar” that means that the builders must stop where they are and put their hands to the sides; the slowest one, or the one who does the wrong position, is out. The winner becomes the next pharaoh.

We did this for several rounds and it was extremely fun. For the most part. The hiccups that occurred:

  • Tracey kept forgetting what a pillar was, despite making the final two almost every round, crossing her arms instead of putting them to the side.
  • One time, with four players left, the pharaoh called “sphinx.” Bella kneeled, Nora went down on all fours behind her, and Perry made the wings, but as he knelt down, Nelly slipped between him and Nora, making her own wings. Of course, arguing ensued, with the pharaoh (and me) saying that Perry was out because he hesitated when making the wings, Bella and Nora saying that Nelly cheated by cutting in front of Perry. In the end, though, it was resolved when the pharaoh said “what the pharaoh says, goes,” which actually solved the problem, and Perry (who is a pretty easygoing kid) went to the sidelines with no argument.
  • The game was pretty much determined by whoever made the pillar pose the fastest when the pharaoh called out “pillar,” so basically it was a game of walking and waiting. In one round, however, when Nora and Stephanie were in the final two with Nelly as pharaoh, Perry yelled “pillar!” from the sidelines, which confused the heck out of everyone else. It was a great discipline opportunity however; once that round had finished and Nora had won, I told the class that Perry, being a disobedient builder and not respecting the rules of the game, would be required to sit the next round out, and that we would play two more rounds.
  • Of course, there was a ton of arguing “I got here first!” “You moved!” but for the most part, the “what the pharaoh says goes” rule worked to resolve it, and if not that, then “what the teacher says goes.”

Despite the aforementioned issues, I think that this game is incredibly useful and does not get annoying like other games (like The Game We Shall Never, Ever Mention Again). I could play Pharaoh’s builders all day. The best part is that the kids will definitely remember all those things now.

That was quite the long blog post. In other news, today is 4/4 and I paid my VISA bill today using check #444. So that’s something?


I Didn’t Choose The Teacher Life…

Ten minutes to midnight on a Monday, and as I am composing this lovely blog post, I am also simultaneously…

  • Wearing jeans, a sweater, and a scarf
  • Sitting among several piles of paper and books
  • Furiously chewing about five pieces of Extra bubble gum
  • Photocopying several activity sheets for class with the kids tomorrow
  • Cutting up said sheets
  • Pressing down the paper on one sheet that got bent in my backpack
  • Preparing to do laundry
  • Listening to Justin Timberlake on my iPhone
  • While watching The Golden Girls with the sound muted.

I didn’t choose the teacher life, the teacher life chose me.

Hashtag, teacherlife.


Tales From Elementary School: To Vladivostok and Beyond…

Day two of Tuesdays at the elementary school, check. I also led a lesson on Thursday, but today’s turned out to be pretty epic.

In going along with our theme of Russia for social studies, I began where I left off last week, at the end of the Czars and the beginning of the Soviet Union. However, I wanted the kids to get some perspective on just how large Russia really was, so I introduced them to the Trans-Siberian Railway. I know that these kids love anything that has to do with transportation, so it was perfect. We went around the room and made guesses on a) how many miles of train tracks there were, and b) how much time it would take to get from end to end, Moscow to Vladivostok. Some of the guesses were silly, but most were pretty on target. Miranda (again, all names for privacy), one of the youngest students, guessed that the train was 6,000 miles long, which was the closest of anyone; the actual distance, according to my source, was 5,772 miles, but I checked a few more places, and the number seems to be closer to 6,152. Still, in the ballpark. The actual time it takes to travel the whole way is 8 days, and two students got extremely close in their guesses, choosing 7.5 days. Those two? Kate, and…Miranda. I don’t know about you, but if it involves guessing numbers, I want to be on Miranda’s team.

Next, I wondered aloud how long of a trip that would be, so it was time for a class trip. We all lined up in a train, and I used my phone’s stopwatch to time how long it took all of us to march around the block and back to the school, and then see how long it took, and then see how many trips around the school it would take to equal a one-way trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The answer? 1,152. That’s a lot of walking for little legs.

After a quick break, we headed into the Multi-Purpose Room for Part II of the lecture. We left behind the train and fast-forwarded to the 1950s/1960s, the birth of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, and the Space Race. Crystal surprised me by knowing what the Cold War was, and explained it to the rest of the class. We then talked a little about the first people to go to space, and the first to land on the moon. Then, it was time to do…a space dance!

First, I instructed everyone to find their own space in the room, and crouch into a ball. Then, I turned on “Cold War” by Janelle Monae – a perfect backdrop song for this activity – and we went through the stages of space flight. We built our rockets, attached our engines, put on our seatbelts, flew through space, landed on the moon, experienced zero-G, re-entered our pods, strapped in, and flew back to Earth, landing just as the final drumbeats hit on the song.

Then, we reconvened in the classroom to talk about the breakup of the Soviet Union, and I broke the kids up into five groups of three, and each group got a packet of info about a country which came from the Soviet Union, and were assigned to make a poster about it, following the diagramming plan (a satellite diagram) that I did on the board about Russia. For this project, I did research on five interesting countries: Azerbaijan, Latvia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Each group got an info packet and an iPad to look up pictures of things like national symbols and flags. Marla helped the Ukraine group with their poster, which included horses and the Chernobyl disaster. The Azerbaijan group worked on their own to draw an incredibly detailed Azeri flag, and made a border of flames, and a cup of tea. I flitted between the three other groups – the Latvia group had a slow start, I think they ended up with a flag and a few other shapes; the Kazakhstan group, consisting of three kids who I wasn’t sure would work together well, came up with a cool poster full of apples and eagles; and the Kyrgyzstan group drew flags, airplanes, snow, tulips, and their national animal, the snow leopard. We only had enough time for Azerbaijan and Ukraine to present, but we’ll finish it up next week.

As for me, I learned a lot today as well. Dealing with the train game taught me to handle outdoor activities with care, and that I need to figure out more about how rocket ships work. Also, when doing guessing games, everyone gets one shot, no answer-changing. And of course, make sure the kids know why Azerbaijan is the Land of Fire, and not just what it is.

Oh, and someone in the class wants to be me when they grow up. So that’s kind of a big deal.


Random Thought of the Day: Old Home Movies

So, tonight, my parents and I were watching some home movies my grandfather made of my mother when she was a baby, in 1952. Apparently, he went to her nursery school and filmed her and her friends doing nursery-school type things. I’ve seen the video before and it’s incredibly funny, but for the first time I noticed that in one bit, my mother is making up a bed for a baby doll and pretending to put it to bed.

Upon seeing her make the bed, my dad said “I guess it must have been a Tuesday.”


Children Are Always Cute When Saying the Four Questions

And that’s just about the only time.

Yeah, I’m being serious.

Small children at meals usually mean that I need earplugs and two Advil. There’s just something about their voices screeching in unison at unholy pitches that just goes straight through the brain. With babies it’s somewhat more tolerable, since they don’t know what they’re doing, bless ’em. It’s the walkers-and-talkers who are germ-spreading, attention-seeking little future-people.

But at the Passover seder, it’s different.

The first night, I dined with YJP (which was supposed to be at the Concourse, but ended up moving to Chabad, oddly enough) and there were no children, so that was cool.

The second night, I returned to Chabad for an undergrad seder. Basically, it was four long tables of loud, obnoxious undergrads over whom the rabbi had to shout the seder.

At the normal point, the rabbi asked everyone to quiet down for the Four Questions, which the youngest children traditionally sing. The baby is still a baby, but fortunately most of the wild undergraduate elephants quieted their roar for the shy, overshadowed middle child to say the four questions with the help of his father. The talking got a little louder when the older, outspoken one started to do it double-time, English interspersed with Yiddish, but strangely, I found myself siding with the kid rather than the crowd. Maybe I like the underdog, or maybe I just intensely dislike the JAPs who go to Chabad because a) their parents told them to and b) they’re getting free food. And they’re probably going to hit up Wendy’s or Chipotle at the soonest opportunity. Or maybe because it’s actually a legit part of the seder.

The cool part of the seder was, after dinner, the rabbi directed anyone wishing to sing more songs over to our table. Because that’s how we Chabad regulars roll.

Not a lot of new visitors over the past few days, but welcome to The Bahamas. Bring friends. And now that I have people who actually read/comment…I’m taking suggestions.


Putting Chabad Houses in Proportion

Since I didn’t have any work to do today, I decided to spend my Shabbat relaxing. It wasn’t exactly a conscious decision as I was asleep until about noon, but it was as relaxing as it could be, I guess. I did something that I don’t normally do on Saturdays, but should more often: go to the Chabad House for Shabbat lunch.

I got there, and I didn’t even know anyone was there – that is, until I heard children’s voices, then Rabbi’s head poking around the corner, saying “come join us!” I stepped in, and to my astonishment, instead of the normal four or five tables, they only had one set up, with 13 seats around it – exactly enough for everyone, once I was there. As the semester has ended as well as finals, just about everyone who can leave the frozen tundra of Madison (even if it’s for the frozen tundra of Milwaukee or Minneapolis) has done so. The diners assembled consisted of myself, the rabbi, his wife and three kids, four workers at Epic (who apparently never have vacation time, ever), and two other students who have chosen/were forced to stay in town until next week. Every time a new conversation started, so did a new round of screaming started, either by oldest boy who should know better, the middle boy who doesn’t know better, or the baby who’s a baby. And a sick baby (yeah, I don’t know either…). Usually once one started, another would join in yelling and screaming for no apparent reason and usually in a dissonant manner, and right behind my head. And of course, the rabbi’s response is timid laughter, unlike what I would say, which would not be appropriate to say in front of children that age, which is why I am not their father.

He also said, “Isn’t it funny, that the smaller the crowd, the louder the children?” Well, rabbi, you and I have different concepts of “funny,” but it’s actually kind of true. Back in Houston, I knew that whenever the children outnumbered the adults, it meant we were in for six more weeks of whining, and I was out of there.

Which brings me to the topic of today’s post:

Putting Chabad Houses In Proportion

The older the rabbi, the more awesome he is.

The younger the rabbi, the more he thinks he’s a college student.

The greasier the food, the better the cooking.

The sugarier the desserts, the colder the climate.

The prettier the sheitl, the more adult children of the rebbetzin.

The more the children, the higher the likelihood you’ll leave with a runny nose, a cough, pinkeye, or streptococci.

The nicer the silverware, the more the donors.

The more plastic on the table, the more drunk college students.

The more the alcohol…yeah, that doesn’t mean much.

The more decrepit the house, the more like home away from home it actually is, regardless of what you’re used to at home.


Platinum Child

You’ve heard of the Golden Child, right? All-American, popular, wealthy, straight As in high school, perfect attendance, grade point average, teeth, and hair?

And that phrase “born with a silver spoon in your mouth?” As in, the top 1%?

Well, this series of interconnected memories is about a person I went to high school with who was neither one of these.

He was worse.

Meet…The Platinum Child.

Disclaimer: For fear of being sued, I’ll just call him Platinum. If you happened to have gone to high school with me or are slightly older or younger, you may or may not know who I’m talking about.

Platinum showed up in my high school in 7th grade. He came equipped with a laptop. He said he had a “learning disability,” but it was basically to show off that he was loaded and not shy about it. Also, that his parents would get for him everything that he wanted and more. His parents also must have given generously to the school, because his behavior was tolerated by just about every teacher. This was in the time before laptops, so everyone was naturally jealous of how we’d be taking notes in history and he’d be playing around with his webcam.

The first time I knew something really wasn’t kosher here was in 8th grade. By this point, we all had laptops and since it was the golden age of AOL Instant Messenger (long before Facebook!), we were constantly chatting on it. So constantly, in fact, that the school completely blocked anything having to do with AIM or AOL. Fair enough, given that five years later, the rest of the world would too, so I guess they were ahead of the curve. For me and most of my other classmates, it was like “well played, school. It was fun while it lasted,” and went back to taking our notes and writing our papers. Platinum and I were in the same science class, and as the teacher was walking around the room while talking about something having to do with physiology, Platinum’s screen caught her eye. His Yahoo! was open (a no-no), and the search term? She helpfully enlightened the rest of us. “AOL Firewall Hacking Technology.” BUSTED. Infuriated, she stopped class and called the principal over the intercom. Well, actually the vice-principal. He came down and took Platinum out of the class for about 90 seconds, and sent him back into the room, saying “we talked about it, and he won’t do it again.” Okay, maaaaybe a first strike, but had it been me? Who knows.

Next stop: 10th grade. Same science class together, same teacher, same room even. It’s first period, and we’re taking a chemistry test. I’m not the best science student, but by this point in my high school career, I’ve figured out what to study and how to take this teacher’s test so that I will get an A (aka, the normal high school student thing). Writing, writing, writing, la dee da…then a tap on my shoulder. It’s the science teacher, and she takes my test away and leads me outside the classroom. I am about to pee in my pants, wondering what I did wrong, when she sits me in a desk, saying “Platinum was sitting behind you copying your answers, so for the rest of the semester, you can take your exams in the hallway so nobody will copy you.”


I didn’t really care that much at the time, I was just happy that I wasn’t really in any trouble (even though it sure felt like it!) and what do you know, I did well on the test and got to have my own little bubble while taking it. Later on, I realized that I’d been completely scapegoated by Ms. Science Teacher. For one thing, HE was the one cheating, so shouldn’t HE have been excused from the room, the class, the school? As far as I know, nothing happened to Platty.

And every science test until the end of 10th grade, I had to sit in the hall like a naughty puppy. And it doesn’t even stop there.

Fast forward to 11th grade. By then, Platinum’s got cheating down to an art. His strategy? Whenever we had a test in any period before lunch, he would say something to the teacher along the lines of “I don’t feel ready to take the test, can I take it in the library during lunch?” Of course, the teachers would say yes, and of course, before lunch, he’d have a cheat sheet ready, or an old copy of the same test. The librarian (read: barbarian) was supposed to “watch” student test-takers in this situation, but she usually had better things to do. No, not tequila, but usually harassing all the students, but that’s a story for another time.

Anyway, Platinum’s cheating was a known fact among the students by this point, and for one guy in our grade, it ground his gears so much that he set up a sting operation. Camera phones were not too common by this point in time, at least not among us high school students, but he had one – no word on whether it was his or his parents’.

I’ll call him Cam.

So here’s what happened:

Platinum did his normal lunch-test-taking thing. As he entered the library, Cam was already there, just hanging out at a computer nonchalantly, doing his thing. Platinum pulled into a study carrel, took out several pieces of paper, and started with the dirty deed. While he was setting up shop, Cam had pulled a book out of a nearby bookshelf a short distance away, and was pretending to read, but instead focused his camera on Platinum and acquired the incriminating evidence. That night, he uploaded them onto his computer, enlarged them, cropped them, and made them black-and-white to really bring out the contrast. The pictures clearly showed Platinum with his test on the desk, a pencil in his right hand, and another piece of paper marked with a big bold A across the top. It’s almost like Platty wasn’t even trying to hide it. The next day, Cam brings in the pictures and shows them to a few students along with an anonymously written letter addressed to our principal (who was a complete moron) explaining exactly what was going on in the pictures, as if it wasn’t evident enough. Between classes, he pulled aside some students, showed them everything, and asked them to sign along the bottom, so Cam could maintain his identity should the plan backfire. As head of the high school photography staff, I was impressed with the results, and this combined with my complete dislike of Platinum made me grab the first writing utensil I saw (it was a black pen, I remember) and sign my name in the boldest letters I could. By the end of the day, he’d gotten a bunch of signatures from students, and at least one teacher, who all promised to keep his secret. He slipped the items into a blank manila envelope and under the door of our principal’s office. Mission complete.

The result?

Well, the next day, we went to school. It was a normal day, and then…

…we went home.

Nothing happened.


Granted, we don’t know if he’d had some sort of parent-teacher conference, or had an out-of-school requirement, but as far as we could see, nothing, nada, zip.

And that’s not even the worst part.

Here we are, first semester, senior year. Platinum and I are in the same second period class taught by Rabbi Awfulbaum. Rabbi Awfulbaum was probably not a horrible person, but he also had a pulpit that semester, therefore rendering his unable to teach 75% of his classes. So, it was basically either study hall or take a quiz on the homework and readings under the “watchful” eye of a sub.

So, one day, Rabbi Awfulbaum is out on official rabbi business (big shocker) and we’re given a quiz, overseen by today’s patsy, Rabbi Naiveman. The quiz is relatively short. Among the first to finish are Platinum and a friend of his. He goes to turn in his paper, and asks if he and his friend can go get a drink. “Sure,” says Rabbi Naiveman (spoiler alert: bad move). The rest of us keep working.

Time ticks by, and most of us are done with the quiz and are either doing homework or just sitting and talking. Rabbi Naiveman realizes he hasn’t seen either of the boys since the first ten minutes of the ninety-minute period, and he’s starting to wonder how getting a drink could take so long. Another student leaves the room for the same purpose and comes back a few minutes later, upon which Rabbi Naiveman asks him if he’s seen the two of them, to which the student says no. He asks one or two of the boys in class if they could go find Platinum and Friend, who are probably just roaming the halls or making trouble. They return after a walk around the school, and like the guy before, they haven’t seen them. It’s been an hour at this point, and Rabbi Naiveman is getting nervous. He intercoms the main office, asking them to make an announcement for Platinum and Friend to return to the main office. He lets us out a few minutes early so he can go to the main office and explain that two students left class and didn’t come back.

Third period happens, then lunch, then fourth period. Several more announcements go over the intercom. The two students are officially missing. Fifth period comes and goes, and no one can say that they’ve seen them either in or out of school, and nobody knows where they went.

I don’t actually know exactly how things unfolded after that. I believe that the police came, or at least a call was made. Students and teachers were genuinely worried. School ended, and we all went home, wondering what became of Platinum and Friend. Rabbi Naiveman was probably crying off in a corner somewhere, or at least redoing his resume and looking at the want ads.

The next day, I went to school, and still knew nothing, but that they weren’t there. As usual, the school did a crappy job of covering up what actually happened, but word got around that they’d been found, at a 7-11. Just hanging out, or whatever it is that scummy 18-year-olds do when they cut school and nearly give the administration a heart attack.

Here are two versions of what I heard happened:

1) Someone (a parent, or a student who’d left early that day) had seen them at the 7-11, and either called in a tip or came to school to give them the news, whereupon one of their parents or someone from the school went out to said 7-11, found them there, and took them home. And then spanked them and sent them to bed without supper.

2) They actually came back to school after the school day had ended but before everyone had left, and walked in as if nothing happened, got busted, and sent straight home to get spanked and sent to bed without supper.

Either way, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Although Platinum’s Friend rejoined us for the remainder of the year, claiming “it wasn’t his idea,” and getting to graduate with us but not attend graduation, this was the end for Platinum. He was finally gone. Kicked out. Expelled. Game over.

I didn’t shed one tear for him, but I did wonder what would happen to his life now that his permanent record included getting kicked out of a private high school, where he lied, cheated, and broke the rules constantly. Plus, he had a horrible personality. And he was not nice, either. I wondered if I’d see him serving me pizza, or bagging groceries down at the store.

Well…I was wrong.

In 2005, Facebook happened. As college freshmen, all of us added each other as friends. I searched Platinum’s name…and learned that he was indeed attending college, a private university somewhere in New York.

An actual university.


He wasn’t the Devil Incarnate, but you tell me: if you or I pulled all the crap that he did, where would we be right now? Probably in prison, or working at a K-Mart somewhere.

And all because his mommy and daddy had enough money to get his record expunged, or at least the connections to get him into a university.

I don’t like to use the word “hate” anymore, but I’m at about one level separated from using the word. I dislike this. I dislike him. I dislike him. This is just plain wrong.

Am I just jealous? No, not in the least. I had my own issues in high school, but managed to get myself together enough to survive without much carnage. Am I bitter? Not really, no. Yeah, I was made to feel like a dog, but since high school, I’ve gotten to go to university, graduate with honors, spend a year overseas, and be awarded things based on merit, talent, and hard work, rather than a trust fund. So, how do I feel? Other than disgusted at him, his family, our school, and the system that rewards people who behave badly if they can afford to pony up the green, I kind of feel sorry for him. I wonder if he’s reflected on anything he’s done, anything he’s done. I wonder if he wished he’d done things differently, and regretted. I wonder if he’s found fulfillment in something, and if he’s become a better person.

And then I usually think of something else. Crap, it’s 1 AM, I’m still on the couch in my sweats and I need to shower and get into bed so I can get some reading done or something.

The last time I ever saw him was at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. My dad and I were driving from Amherst to Baltimore during a break, and while stuck in a horrible clog of traffic, my bladder decided to turn into the Hindenburg, so we drove illegally on a shoulder until we got to a rest stop, whereupon I ran through the building, clutching my stomach, to the nearest toilet. While I was running, he was walking in the other direction and I’m sure he didn’t notice me but I immediately recognized him. Only now he was much taller, thicker in the chest and arms, had a little more facial hair, and clad in a standard scumbag-possibly-still-living-in-the-90s ensemble: oversized white wife beater, baggy jeans, cap turned to the side, and a Jewish star on a chain around his neck, walking with the swagger of someone who used the word swagger in daily conversation. It was just a brief glimpse, but it told me all I needed to know about who Platinum was today.

Anyway. I made it to the bathroom on time, and had such a relieving post-urination afterglow that I forgot all about what I just saw.