On September 13 I was the feature interviewee on Peter Cimironi’s “Blood Time” Podcast and spoke about my most recent book The Elite Wrestler and my own mentor coaches during my career.
For sale: Baby shoes, never worn. —Ernest Hemingway
Longed for him. Got him. Shit. —Margaret Atwood
I just finished reading the outstanding novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The narrative portrays the journey of Lydia, a Mexican mother on the run from a drug cartel, and her son Luka to the border American where they hope to cross and reach safety. Stephen King, John Grisham, and Sandra Cisneros have all praised this captivating novel.
Another First Day
Day one . . . Really? I’m already counting down?
My name on the white board, just like last year,
and the year before that
and all the years before that,
the name drawing annoying attention to itself,
the way a rusty stop sign does to drivers in a hurry,
but there’s protocol to follow in this who-am-I stage of academia.
Of course, I include the pronunciation, the importance of Mister,
an overt demand for respect (because I fear they won’t show it),
before a back-of-the-room voice calls “praying mantis,” an annual joke,
– and yes, I say, yes, I know, I know, quiet down – my palms facing them,
like I’m a cop directing traffic, praying the laughter stops.
What else to tell them?
Oh, yeah, the rules, definitely The Rules,
because, teachers fear, in the absence of rules is Chaos. So . . .
Arrive on Time.
Talk Only When Permitted.
Raise Your Hand to Speak.
Do Your Homework.
No Late Work is Accepted.
Bring Your Book to Class.
Don’t Distract Others.
There Are No Warnings.
I point – The Trash Can is By the Door.
I point again – The Pencil Sharpener is Over There.
I point a third time – Homework Goes in the Bin On My Desk.
I ask, “Are there are any questions?”
A curious voice from the front this time: “Are you a robot?”
No, I announce, I am the teacher you met last year,
And the year before that and all the years before that.
Like you, I live in this academic world before the world grownups call the real world,
where no one who has ever lived
has your face,
or your personality.
I point a final time, this time at their open faces, and grin.
Now let’s begin.
When I was eight and ruffling our German shepherd’s fur on the family room carpet, he suddenly lunged at me with open jaws and barred teeth. My older brother arrived just in time to push Jagger off before he bit my face. That experience has traumatized me ever since, and after Jagger died four years later from old age, I wanted nothing to do with a dog as a pet. I even hated movies with dogs in them.
That’s why I argued desperately with my mother nine years later when she informed the family she planned on buying a Yorkshire terrier. I had no idea what a Yorkshire terrier looked like or how it behaved, but because it was a dog, I knew I didn’t want it in our house or around me. I remembered Jagger’s teeth, his menacing growl, his dark eyes. “No way,” I told my mother at the dinner table. “Not another dog!”
I was older (17) and a little embarrassed to be so wimpy, but dogs were unpredictable. Right? My older brother was gone, living petless on his own. Who would defend me from this new dog?
“I’m getting us a yorkie,” my mother insisted. “I’ve already made arrangements with the breeder.”
I slumped in my chair and ignored the rest of my meatloaf and mashed potatoes. I felt doomed.
The next day, Mom showed me pictures of cute Yorkshire terriers and assured me they were gentle, but even with her assurances I wasn’t comfortable with getting another dog, even if it was small. Nevertheless, two days later Mom returned home in the after-noon with a four pound Yorkshire terrier. She named it Lilly. She gently cradled the little bundle of brown and tan fur in her arms and smiled. Then she dropped a bombshell.
“Keith, you’re going to train Lilly.”
“What?” Did I hear her right? She wanted me to train this dog? Didn’t she remember that I hated dogs?
“You will feed her before you go to school and again at dinner.”
I glanced at Lilly whose eyes darted around our family room, as if looking for a place to settle in. She was definitely more frightened than I was. “But I want nothing to–“
She raised a hand, stopping me. “Plus, you will potty train her and teach her to behave.”
“Me?” I still could not believe this was happening. “How am I supposed to know what to do?”
Mom smiled and walked away. “You’re an A student, aren’t you?” she said over her shoulder. “Do your research.”
So I did. Over the next week, I researched Yorkshire terriers at www.yorkshireterrier-training.com and talked to friends at school who were experienced dog owners about the methods they used to train their dogs to go to the bathroom outside and to behave.
Lilly at first tried to behave like an alpha dog, nudging me to pet her, barking to be fed, or pulling on her leash when I walked her. Yorkies can be demanding, and Lilly was no exception. She had that small dog syndrome, which I learned from Sharon Maguire on the Dog Breed Info Center website that dogs like yorkies should not be seen as cute and cuddly just because they’re small. They have to know their limits. If she barked at friends, I put her in the bathroom and closed the door. If she barked at other dogs outside, I yelled “No” and made her sit until the other dog passed. A dog’s size, I learned, does not matter regarding its behavior.
Lilly would run and jump when I came home from school, which I interpreted – incorrectly – to mean she was excited to see me. What she needed was exercise, so I took her for long walks to tire her out. If she pulled on the leash, I stopped until I decided we would continue so she knew I was walking her, not her walking me. I let Lilly sit in my lap when I wanted her to and to sleep in my bed if she behaved, but only at my feet.
Without me truly recognizing it, we developed a bond. We even depended on each other. Lilly needed me for food, walks outside, and guidance; I needed her loyalty and affection.
It took five months but the training eventually paid off, and Lilly became an obedient and friendly dog, although she still barked at strangers, especially the pizza delivery guy. Lilly helped me overcome my fear of being threatened by dogs and, in fact, feel more confident now about my ability to train one and control a dog’s behavior. When Lilly passed fourteen years later, I grieved for those times when she licked my face and cuddled with me on the couch. I missed our long walks together and even her yapping at strangers. I especially missed her friendship and loyalty which made me come to love a dog, not hate it.
Our founding fathers certainly knew what they were doing. Indeed, the United States is a great nation because of them. And thanks to James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, we have the First Amendment, which mandates all citizens have the right to free speech. Madison originated the amendment in 1789, addressing the need for free speech with these words: “. . . nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, nor on any pretext infringed.” The transition from “rights of conscience” to “freedom of speech” demonstrates a strong movement to the principles of democracy, making the First Amendment truly the soul of our democratic government.
When Madison and eventually Jefferson composed the First Amendment their true intent was to protect fellow Americans from persecution for expressing opinions about politics and religion. Madison and Jefferson certainly could not have predicted pornographic magazines, the Confederate flag, or Internet blogs, but they did advocate for free speech, which the British monarch George III unfortunately saw as treasonous speech. Madison, in fact, asserted, “A man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them.”
Today, our democracy and our free speech are as strong as ever. Our country is great because it allows Donald Trump to campaign for President and say in a speech that Mexicans are criminals. Phil Robertson from “Duck Dynasty” can make crude comments about gay men and women in a GQ Magazine interview and remain a popular television personality. After a Los Angeles substitute teacher Patricia McCallister said that “Zionist Jews . . . need to be run out of the country,” she lost her job but was not prosecuted. To be sure, the First Amendment clearly does not protect us from appearing stupid.
What remains understated by the first amendment is our right not to listen. Comedian Tom Smothers said, “Freedom of expression and freedom of speech aren’t really important unless they’re heard. The freedom of hearing is as important as the freedom of speaking.” This is an essential part of free speech: We also have the right to ignore words that are hateful or that emerge from those who are ignorant.
Even though we may confront offensive and hurtful statements, we still enjoy the benefits of free speech: Protesters can criticize the government, television commentators can editorialize on current events, and politicians can speak against their opponents – all without fear of persecution or imprisonment. Not only has America survived, it has also prospered thanks to free speech, even after all the speeches from illiterate politicians and quotes from uneducated celebrities. Because of this, our democracy is envied around the world.
In America, citizens can speak with confidence what is on their minds and assert their opinions, even if they face disagreement and criticism themselves. Indeed, free speech is closely connected to the liberty we enjoy as citizens. George Orwell stated, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
I’m going to change America with my vote. Whether I’m voting for a county commissioner or our President, you can count on me on Election Day to head to my local polling station, and if I have to travel, I’ll use an absentee ballot. I trust the board of elections because, like a referee in a basketball game, it has no personal stake in the outcome of the competition between any candidates. Plus, before I vote, I will research all the candidates, read up on the issues, and examine all the campaign literature that floods my mailbox. Indeed, I refuse to be uninformed or misled.
The truth is we all can change America – or specifically, the legislators who serve in local, state, or national government. Votes accomplish that; they are the soul of our democracy. Being of Greek descent, I feel proud my ancestors in Athens of 600 BC originated the democratic system (demokratia) where, like today, Athenian voters had to be at least 18 years old. I am also fortunate the 15th and 26th Amendments have enabled me to have my voting conscience represented on my ballot. Although my actual voice may go unnoticed, my vote, however, cannot be ignored.
My ancestry on both my father’s and mother’s side dates to the ancient Greeks in Sparta. The Spartans have always been know as fierce and feared warriors who have never lost a war. Go Greek or go home!
William Shakespeare and Career Readiness
My sophomore class and I had just started reading Act III Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” when Tony in agonized frustration with both Shakespeare’s language and the behavior of the characters called out, “Hey, Mr. Manos, how is reading this going to put money in my pocket?”
I paused, uncertain how to answer.
The seconds that passed felt like minutes as Tony’s classmates murmured to each other, a few even giggling, as they peered at their textbook or studied me. Would my answer satisfy Tony? Did I even have an answer?
Tony’s question was legitimate. Indeed, how can the soothsayer’s warning “Beware the ides of March” or Caesar’s arrogant response literally contribute to a paycheck for Tony? I paused because I wanted to formulate an eloquent response about the benefits of reading Shakespeare’s entertaining although violent play, but Tony simply wanted to discover the concrete connection between Shakespeare’s tragedy written in 1599 and his career plans 400 years later.
“Well, Tony,” I finally responded. “The play, to be sure, isn’t going to put any money in your pocket. No poem or story or play will do that unless you put them in an anthology and then sell the textbook to schools like ours.”
“I don’t want that,” Tony declared. “I want to own my own landscaping business. How is reading this play going to help me with that?”
Another pause. More twittering among his classmates. Once again, I engaged in an internal search for a convincing explanation.
I should have said: “That’s a great question, Tony. Reading about Julius Caesar, although Shakespeare presents him in a fictional way, prompts us to consider those who have authority over us, like an employer or a supervisor. Or if you’re the employer, the kind of individuals you would hire. You certainly want employees who will be loyal, but do you also want them to be ambitious?
“Shakespeare’s language can be challenging, but it makes us examine our own ways of communication both orally and in print. Effective communication skills are very important in any business these days.
“Furthermore, this play has several themes, and analyzing Shakespeare’s main points about loyalty, betrayal, and vengeance can help us in our own business relationships. How often do we hear about companies laying off hundreds of employees or CEOs being fired? Consider Marc Antony in this play. Is he more loyal to Caesar or to Rome? How many employees today show true loyalty to the company president or even the company itself?
“Critical thinking is a key demand from employers. They want employees who can analyze a problem and find solutions readily, much like we are doing with this play as we figure out why Brutus and the other Roman senators feel justified in assassinating Caesar. Are their actions justified or not?
“Also note that we are reading many scenes out loud, prompting students to cooperate to read a scene correctly. Employers want employees who have the ability to collaborate effectively to produce successful projects, much like Brutus and his fellow conspirators collaborate to assassinate Caesar. You are getting all those skills by reading this entertaining play.”
I wish in hindsight I had said all that, but I actually said, “Landscaping? Maybe the play will teach you to hire employees who will be loyal to you and not speak critically of you behind your back.”
Tony slumped in his seat and gazed grudgingly at his text. As we returned to Act III, I made a mental note to prepare a more cogent response for future students who asked a similar question. Indeed, how will any of what I do in the classroom put money in the pockets of my students? How am I actually making my students career ready? Where does my subject matter connect directly to career readiness?
I believe school districts should promote connections between what students are learning in the classrooms and the expectations and demands of the workplace. Teachers must connect their learning activities to the expectations demanded by 21st century employers. Moreover, school curricula should reflect a global approach to career expectations, and as career trends evolve, so should our approach to teaching, for instance, Shakespeare’s plays.
Unfortunately, according to ACT, “far too many U.S. students lack college and career readiness (CCR).” They are graduating from high school both unprepared for college and the workforce.
But what actually is career readiness? Here are some definitions:
From the National PTA: “College and Career Readiness means that a student is prepared to go directly to work or enroll and succeed – without remediation – in a variety of postsecondary institutions so that they are ready to enter a career of their choice.”
From the Career Readiness Partner Council: “A career-ready person effectively navigates pathways that connect education and employment to achieve a fulfilling, financially-secure and successful career . . . To be career ready in our ever-changing global economy requires adaptability and a commitment to lifelong learning, along with mastery of key knowledge, skills and dispositions that vary from one career to another and change over time as a person progresses along a developmental continuum.”
And from Careerreadynow.org: “A career-ready person is proficient in the core academic subjects, as well as in technical topics. This foundational knowledge base includes competence in a broad range of academic subjects grounded in rigorous internationally- benchmarked state standards—such as the common core state standards for English language arts and mathematics. It also includes a level of technical-skill proficiency aligned to a chosen career field and pathway, and the ability to apply both academic and technical learning in the context of a career.”
In the past, students were deemed career reading if they demonstrated strong skills in two main academic areas: English (reading and writing) and math. In addition, the focus for college and career readiness emerged primarily at the high school level. In short, the higher a student’s GPA or class rank or SAT scores or ACT scores, the more likely he or she was college and career ready.
Clearly, career readiness hinges on a more comprehensive criteria today. Different employers, to be sure, can have different expectations. For instance, the skills needed by a retail clerk certainly differ from those required of a carpenter, but all careers share some common requirements. Although document literacy in reading and numerical literacy in math still remain important, the focus now must include the noncognitive skills, for example, like personality, cooperation, punctuality, and diligence. Teachers can certainly observe these skills in students at any grade level, and thus, they deserve more attention as predictors of career-readiness.
How efficiently and thoroughly students gather information and use technology are also important to career readiness. According to a study by the Oxford Martin School’s Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, 45 percent of American jobs are at high risk of being taken by computers within the next two decades. Indeed, future employees will need to be tech savvy and well-traveled in the digital universe.
Exposing Ohio’s Great Writers
Did you know that Columbus native R. L. Stine’s books have outsold even Stephen King and J.K. Rowling? That Cleveland writer Les Roberts was once the head writer for the Hollywood Squares? Or that Nikki Giovanni, who grew up in Cincinnati, was once a finalist for a Grammy Award? In fact, many of Ohio’s most famous writers have accomplishments and histories that remain unknown to even their most devoted readers.
There have been several firsts for Ohio writers. Akron native Rita Dove, for example, was the first African-American and the youngest ever Poet Laureate of the United States. When she was hired by Princeton University, Toni Morrison, originally from Lorain, became the first black woman writer to hold a named chair at an Ivy League University. Accepting the position, Morrison said, “I take teaching as seriously as I do my writing.” Morrison was also the first black woman (and the last American) to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (1993).
Les Roberts, who grew up in Illinois but now writes in Cleveland,won the very first “Best First Private Eye Novel Contest” for his book An Infinite Number of Monkeys, and according to the Guinness Book of World Records, R.L. Stine is the world’s best-selling children’s author.
Higher education has certainly dominated many Ohio writers’ lives. Andre Norton (Alice Mary Norton from Cleveland) attended Western Reserve University (1930-1932) preparing first for a career as a librarian. Nikki Giovanni graduated with honors from Fisk University in 1968 and since then has received 25 honorary degrees. Dove won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Germany at the University of Tubingen before joining the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa and earning a Masters’ Degree in 1977. Toledoan P.J. O’Rourke attended Miami (OH) University, majoring in English, and then went on to Johns Hopkinswhere he earned an M.A. in English.
Both Stine and Harlan Ellison, another Cleveland native, attended The Ohio State University, although Ellison was kicked out for hitting one of his professors. Roberts attended the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and Roosevelt University (1954–1956), and Xenia native Arthur Schlesinger graduated from Harvard. Finally, Ohio State University professor Lee Abbott seems to emerge as the most prominent educator as he has taughtat Colorado College, Washington University, Rice University, Case Western Reserve University, and The Ohio State University.
Writing was not always these writers’ only professional interest. Gloria Steinem, who was born in Toledo, worked as a Playboy bunny in New York. Lee Abbott aspired to be a professional golfer, and Toni Morrisonhoped one day to become a ballerina. Les Roberts was once a Hollywood actor, young adult author Sharon Draper was a teacher in Cincinnati, and Cleveland native Antwone Fisher worked as a corrections officer with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Harlan Ellison has the most dramatic series of non-writing jobs. He has worked as a tuna fishermannear Galveston, Texas; a crop-picker in Louisiana; a truck driver in North Carolina; along with being a short order cook, cab driver, book salesman, door-to-doorbrush salesman, and even an actor at the Cleveland Playhouse as a youth.
Unfortunately, there has been early trauma for some Ohio writers. Gloria Steinem lived as a child with a mother who was institutionalized in a sanatorium periodically after suffering a nervous breakdown that left her an invalid and, at times, violent. In addition, after Steinem’s parents divorced, her father left them without any financial support. This, coupled with the way Steinem observed doctors treat her mother’s illness, had a profound effect on her view of social injustices.
Ellison’s brief tenure at Ohio State Universitywas cut short after he was expelled for hitting a professor who had, Ellison says, criticized his skill as a writer.
Antwone Fisher probably experienced the most personal troubles, after, having been born in an Ohio prison, he lived through the murder of his father, abuse by a foster family, reform school, and homelessness. Fisher says, “I think back upon a childhood full of longing for belonging, and see my life now as what I have created out of my dreams. An image comes to mind of Mrs. Brown at the orphanage in Cleveland, me sitting at her side, telling her, ‘you’ll read about me someday.’ I was definitely dreaming then with no evidence of that ever being possible, I clung to that preposterous vision and with the force of those dreams willed it and made it happen. Not because I needed to be famous, but because I needed a world that made me feel uninvited to be wrong. So I imagined myself free, I imagined myself loved, I imagined myself … as somebody.”
Indeed, we can learn much about writing from these Ohio authors. Stine says, “When I write, I try to think back to what I was afraid of or what was scary to me, and try to put those feelings into books.” Abbott claims, “I don’t write to instruct anybody about anything. I’ve got nothing to tell people that they didn’t already know by the time they got to be fourteen. There’s really nothing new for me to teach people. I want people to be moved — to have on the page what I’ve got between my ears somehow as I subordinate myself to these people that seem to have galvanized my imagination.” Abbott likens himself to a “guy who’s in the bar, and it’s fifteen minutes until closing time, and he’s decided that he’s just going to cut to the quick with the story about the world as he knows it.”
Many Ohio writers got their start as children. Stine began writing fiction at age 9 when he discovered a typewriter in the attic and refused to play outside, preferring to type stories indoors instead. Nortonbegan her literary career by not only editing her high school newspaper but also writing her first novel while still in her teens. Clevelander Sharon Draper claims that in elementary school, “I inhaled books and knowledge” by reading almost every book in her elementary school library.
Beyond their best-selling books, Ohio’s writers’ achievements are special. Pulitzer prizes have gone to Dove (Poetry, 1987), Morrison (Fiction, 1988), and Schlesinger (Nonfiction, 1946, 1965). Mademoiselle Magazine, The LadiesHome Journal, and Ebony Magazinehave all honored Nikki Giovanni as theirWoman of the Year, over two dozen cities have awarded her Keys, and an admiring scientisteven named a new bat species after her. Gloria Steinem has received an Emmy citation along with the Lifetime Achievement in Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. R.L. Stine is a three-time winner of the Nickelodeon’s Kid Choice Award, and Sharon Draper was the National Teacher of the Year in 1997. The Science Fiction Writers Association named their prestigious award for young adult fiction the Andre Norton Award.
Ohio’s writers are a creative group who have either lived or grew up in the state’s major cities. Their talents stretch beyond their writing: Just listen to former high school majorette Rita Dove play the cello or to Nikki Giovanni read her poetry with gospel music as a background (She has received the Best Spoken Word Album given by the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers).Harlan Ellison did a voice-over for a Scooby Doo episode, and P.J. O’Rourke is a prominent political analyst. Lee Abbott, who grew up in the Southwest but now calls Columbus home, may summarize the diverse and eclectic nature of Ohio’s writers best when he admits:“I just don’t understand anything about that part of the world [Ohio]. It’s too green and too wet, and there are no vistas. I can’t understand what the people are saying half the time. It just seems like an alien culture.”