Jason’s Inferno

When I was in elementary school we had what was called Fire Safety Week every year. Firefighters from the local department would come to the school and talk to us about how to prevent fires and how to react to them should they occur. Apparently, I need a refresher course.

I arrived home this evening around 6:00 and immediately began preparing supper. I was making taco salad. Everything was ready — the meat, the veggies, sour cream, salsa — everything but the chips. So, I put some tortilla chips on a small cookie sheet and popped them in the oven under the broiler. When I closed the door I turned around, filled an empty ice tray and put it back in the freezer. I turned back around (less than one minute later) and saw flames leaping from the burners on the stove top. I knew that none of them were on. That’s when I saw the soft amber glow in the window of my oven door.

The chips, the chips, the chips were on fire!!

I quickly reached and turned the broiler off and removed the pan of meat from the top of the stove. I decided that since I didn’t have a fire extinguisher the best thing to do would be to get the cookie sheet out of the oven and dump it in the sink to run water over it. (If the front door had been closer I would’ve taken it outside.) I forgot about the movie Backdraft. When I opened the oven door, the sudden rush of air sucked the flames back into the oven and out the door. I closed the door quickly. As long as the door was closed the inferno was relatively controlled. I tried again but the same thing happened. It was then I realized I might be in trouble. There was no way I was going to be able to put the blaze out, my apartment was filling with smoke, and I’m pretty sure smoke inhalation was setting in.

Fire Safety Week Lesson Number 1: When a fire occurs, call 9-1-1.

I grabbed my wallet, my keys, and my phone and ran out the front door. I called 9-1-1 and the dispatcher acted quickly to dispatch the fire department. In about three minutes I could hear sirens headed my way. I thought that perhaps I should’ve told the dispatcher that it was a small fire confined to my oven. I’m not much for the thought of wasting resources, but no matter now. The cavalry was pulling up — lights and sirens, full bunker gear, industrial sized fire extinguisher in tow. The five firefighters crowded into my small kitchen and prepared to open then oven door. I was sure there would be a repeat of my experience only moments before. Not so much.

When the lead firefighter opened the door, dark black smoke poured out, but I didn’t see any flames. The firefighter reached in with his gloved hand and removed the cookie sheet. There, leaping from the pile of charred corn, was one, tiny flame.burned chips It might have been the size of the flame on a birthday candle. I expected him to blow it out, but he didn’t. He (and the other four) took the cookie sheet outside, sat it on the sidewalk, and instead of using a foot, a glove, or the fire extinguisher, they got my neighbor’s water hose. They didn’t even turn the water on. They just held the hose upside down over the chips and let the water that was in it dribble out. The lead radioed in…

Fire out. All clear.

There wasn’t even enough smoke for them to stay and help clear it. One of them told me the best way to get it done. Now, you might think that my embarrassment was complete and couldn’t get any worse. You would be incorrect in your thinking. As I was standing there talking about how to get the smoke out of the apartment, the other firefighters had gone back to the engine and removed their gear. A few of them walked back to the apartment and I realized then that one of them was a former student. My heart sank. My stomach turned and I could feel my face turning red. To his credit he stayed professional. He wasn’t laughing at me — I would’ve been. I looked at him and sheepishly waved. He smiled and waved back. He didn’t let on that he knew me and, at least in front of me, he didn’t make fun of my plight. He was a good firefighter.

As funny as this story is, and it is funny, I am thankful because it could’ve been a lot worse. There is no damage to my apartment or even to my oven. No one was hurt, and except for a rather disgusting smell, there’s little evidence that anything happened. I’m going to get a small fire extinguisher. If I’d had it tonight this event would’ve been over before it started. I’m also going to refresh my memory on the best way to handle kitchen fires, and I’m going to put new batteries in all of my smoke detectors.

Thanks to the Canton, Texas Fire Department for getting here quickly and not making me feel anymore like a fool than I made myself feel.

I’m not a dead poet

Dead Poets Society is one of my all-time favorite movies. I liked it the first time I saw it and still like it just as much now after seeing it probably upwards of 50 times. It combines two of my greatest loves — literature and writing — with classic themes like self-realization, friendship, love, loss, grief, and loyalty; and, it doesn’t hurt that Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau are quoted throughout. Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) is the teacher that every student wishes he had and every teacher wishes she could be (or, not). I started watching it again the other day. I wanted to find some inspiration or, at the very least, some ideas. Then I stopped it just after the carpe diem monologue. I’m not going to finish it — at least not for a while.

Wouldn’t it be great for teachers if students like those made up our classes? Wouldn’t it be great for students if their teachers were like Mr. Keating? But, they don’t and we’re not.

I’m not going to have my students rip pages out of their literature books or let them jump off my desk. I can’t afford to pay for the books and the school’s insurance wouldn’t cover the medical bills.

I wasn’t a member of a club that found an old cave where we recited poetry to one another. If I’d suggested that in high school I probably would’ve been beaten up.

I was in a play in high school. I had one line, “It’ll be alright, Cora.” Because of that role I can play Shenandoah on a harmonica, but, a thespian I am not.

I will probably have my students write their own poetry, but will not ask for a barbaric yawp. I’m sure my colleagues in the classrooms next door will appreciate that.

Parents, you can breathe a sigh of relief, I’m not going to do anything that might inspire your students to disobey.

Walt Whitman & Henry David Thoreau

Walt Whitman & Henry David Thoreau

No, as much as I would love to be Mr. Keating and play Handel’s Water Music over an old record player while my students quote Whitman and kick soccerballs…wait, no I wouldn’t love that. The world we live in is not the world of Dead Poets Society. In truth, I’ll probably be lucky to have one student who actually understands what it means to “suck out all the marrow of life” much less one who thinks it involves reading poetry. My students will most likely be more concerned about volleyball games and football games; about who said what to whom and about whom; about how they will survive the tragedy of a lost teenage love. If I can get them to forget those things long enough to learn the difference between dependent and independent clauses I’ll be happy. Okay, maybe not happy, but I’ll be at least temporarily satisfied. I might even do a little victory dance to the finale of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony — in private, of course.

Not everything in DPS is a waste, though. While I might not do it exactly the way Mr. Keating did, I will ask a question of my students that he asked of his.

What will your verse be?

If you’ve been reading this blog very long you know me. You know the things I value and think are important. I think that question is one of the most important questions that will ever be asked of any of us and it’s a question we should ask ourselves daily. Apart from what we contribute to the world and to our fellow human beings, there really is no other meaning of life. People search for it far and wide, but the truth of the matter is that the meaning of life is what we do with the one we have. The meaning of life is what we make of the things we’ve been given and then what we do with what we made.

What will your verse be?

Some people might think I’d be going a little overboard to ask a question like that of middle school students. Why? It’s not about what they want to BE when they grow up. It’s not about a commitment to a long-term educational or career path. In fact, it has nothing to do with those things at all. The answer to that question is about a daily impact regardless of age, ability, geography, or any of our other limitations (excuses). It’s about what we contribute here, today.

What will your verse be?

Most of you reading this now will just let it pass right on by. Oh, to be sure, maybe you will click the little star and favorite it. Maybe you will comment and tell me I did a good job writing it. Maybe you will even share it. But, after that will you think about it? Will you think about your verse? The one you’ve written? The one you’re writing? The one you have yet to write? You can’t come sit in on my English classes, but if you could I’d ask you to think about it. I’d ask not so that one day you’d say, “wow, that was a really cool lesson he taught.” I’d ask not so you’d remember me. I’d ask so that you you’d walk out the door and consider, at least for a moment, what to do with what you’ve been given.

I’m not Mr. Keating. I don’t want to be. But, if there’s a lesson to be learned from one of his it is this: if all my students get out of my class is a passing grade then why on earth would I want to teach? Passing grades are not why I’m here.

“O Me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.”
― Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass 



What We Lose When We Ban Books (a reblog from Kevin M English)

Kevin English is an English Language Arts educator, school board member, and teaching consultant. He also writes a fantastic blog. This morning he took on the subject of banning books. The impetus for this post is the controversy surrounding a new novel entitled, The Miseducation of Cameron Post. You can read more about that by clicking here. I’m not a fan of banning books, nor am I a fan of limiting the choices students have when reading. I think Kevin is right on here.

What We Lose When We Ban Books

You can follow Kevin on Twitter – @KevinMEnglish

Those who can…

Over the years I’ve had opportunities to sing and perform some of the greatest music ever written with amazing artists and groups in equally amazing venues. They are memories I will treasure the rest of my life and I wouldn’t trade a single one of them. I became a better singer, musician, and individual for those experiences. I also learned many lessons. One of those lessons came quite by surprise and was, in a small way, disappointing. That lesson?

Those who can, cannot necessarily teach.

We’ve all heard that old saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” It is an absurd notion on its face and is insulting to the throngs of great teachers who are most certainly able to do. However, its antithesis, “Those who can, cannot necessarily teach” is very much true. I learned that while performing one of the best known and loved choral works of the twentieth century. I had the good fortune to be selected for a small ensemble performing the work with its composer as conductor. I was thrilled not only to get the chance to sing the piece, but also to meet and work with a composer I deeply admired. I quickly discovered that there is a vast difference between being a gifted choral composer and being an effective choral conductor. He was, to put it bluntly, awful. I still value the experience and, as I already wrote, wouldn’t trade it for the world, but wow! What an eye-opener. And, what a sobering reminder as I embark on this new career as an educator.

I would describe myself as an above average writer. Some have offered higher praise, but I hesitate to congratulate myself too much. I understand grammar and do my best to use it properly. I have a good vocabulary. I know how to craft words and make them easy-to-read, if not enjoyable and informative. I also know how to use both a dictionary and SpellCheck – because everyone has limitations. That’s all well and good, but what if? What if I’m not a good, or at least an
effective teacher? What if I’m like that composer I admired so much whose conducting skills were, at best, rudimentary? I have a terrible fear that I am going to be one of the ones who can do but who cannot teach.

“There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.” ~Robert Frost

apple-bookThose of you who’ve been following this blog long enough know that fear is not something new to me. I’m a naturally fearful person. I have been most of my life. But, this is more. This time my fear involves other people. I am now responsible for making sure that students get a quality education in English Language Arts, Reading, and Writing. I will be teaching students who are at, arguably, some of the most formative years of their education. I know that it was my middle and high school English teachers who helped cement my love of reading and writing. Mrs. Maciel (6th & 8th Grade) and Mrs. Horton (7th Grade) were incredible teachers who brought literature and grammar to life. In high school, Mrs. Landers encouraged my writing by not trying to remake it. They all provided a language foundation upon which all of my other writing and reading skills are built. Their influence cannot be understated. Granted, I don’t expect to be so influential to my students, especially during my first few years. I guess my goal this year would be not to mess them up too much or make them hate English class so much that they never want to read or write another word.

I’ve spent the last week or so gathering my thoughts and reading anything I can get my hands on written by experienced educators. I started out devouring one particular book like it’s the Bible. Then it dawned on me, if all I do is duplicate her classroom, her techniques, and her results, I will fail miserably and my students will suffer. I can’t be her. The truth is, I can’t be any of my teachers, either. I will never be able to dig in to Edgar Allan Poe the way Mrs. Maciel did. I probably won’t teach grammar as methodically as Mrs. Horton did. I don’t expect to ignite inspiration in my students the way Mrs. Landers inspired me. No, I’ll never be all that any of them were and are. The best I can hope for is to use the things they taught me in a way that suits me and helps my students. That terrifies me.

Like so many other things in life, I wish there were a magic pill that would make me a good teacher. I know there’s not. I don’t mind making mistakes because I learned to learn from them. I don’t mind asking questions because that’s how knowledge is acquired. I don’t mind admitting I need help because everyone does. What I do mind is making a student’s day worse or causing undue stress on them and their families. I’m not aiming to be the teacher everyone likes, but I surely don’t want to be the one they dread.

Below my signature line on all of my emails is this quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To know one life has breathed easier because you have lived — this is to have succeeded.” I truly believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that is my purpose for being on this earth. I am here to help folks breathe a little easier. God help me make that a reality in my classroom.

New name, New look, Same ME!

Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. ~L. Frank Baum


I like to freshen things up from time to time…

It’s been a while since I’ve done any serious writing about anxiety and depression. Not to say that I’m over it or anything like that, but I’ve sorta moved on from the point where it was a constant in my life. I’m in a good place, for now at least. Because of that, I thought it was time for a new name and a new look to the old blog. I got a nice message from the good folks at WordPress just yesterday congratulating me on the 5th anniversary of this little endeavor. What better way to celebrate than to change everything!! :)

So, now…Welcome to MEtopia: Ramblings of a Redneck Sophisticate!

You can still comment. (Does anybody do that anymore?) You can still “like.” (Does anybody do that anymore?) You can still share. (Did anybody everdo that?) And, I hope you will! That’s it for now. Enjoy your weekend!





Can we stop being excellent now, please?

Words are very important to me. When I write, I write carefully and thoughtfully. I am intentional about the words I choose. When I first learned about three months ago that a teaching position might be available for me, I began thinking about a personal mission statement for this new career. Since words are so important to me I wanted to take my time writing the ones which would best convey my intentions as an educator. In an effort to better understand the goal of a mission statement I started looking at ones which already exist. I looked at the mission statements of Fortune 500 companies, of non-profit organizations, of colleges and universities, of school districts, and various other institutions and organizations. I can sum up my assessment of most of them in one word:


Disappointed doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings about the vast majority of the mission statements I read.  I was aghast. How is it possible that so many people in so many different roles in so many organizations could produce so many words that mean absolutely nothing? I read some of the worst multiple times and still hadn’t the faintest clue what they meant. They were full of industry jargon, marketing-ese, and public relations hogwash. I would challenge any person on the street to read any one of those mission statements and determine a) what they meant, and b) what the organization actually did. Yet, through all of that useless nonsense ran a common thread. It was an almost unanimous  goal and high ideal to which those companies, organizations, institutions, and people aspired. That ideal goal: “excellence.”

ex·cel·lence  [ek-suh-luhns]

1. the fact or state of excelling; superiority; eminence: his excellence in mathematics. 

2. an excellent quality or feature: Use of herbs is one of the excellences of French cuisine. 

3. ( usually initial capital letter ) excellency (  def 1 ) .

No matter what its geography in a sentence, or how many times it appears, a meaningful word surrounded by blather is rendered meaningless. That has unfortunately happened to EXCELLENCE. I can’t tell you how many times I saw it in those mission statements, nor can I cite statistics regarding its frequency of use. What I can tell you is that, just like a song that is overplayed on the radio, a word that is overused and misused loses its power and effectiveness for the reader, and in the case of mission statements, the participants in the mission.

I read one mission statement which so profoundly intrigued me that I went to the organization’s web site. There I found excellence spread like cow manure on concrete. There was a whole lot of stink and not one sprout growing. They had the departments of: organizational excellence, relational excellence, executive excellence, service excellence, and initiative excellence. I looked around on the web site for a while and never once found a Department of Barf Bag Excellence. Not to be outdone, I found a church whose departments included: congregational excellence, pastoral excellence, missional excellence…oh, must I go on? Seriously, though, what do any of those labels even mean?

Excellence, like so many other words I could list, has become a buzzword. It is a word that cubicle cruisers in marketing departments (or, should I say, Departments of Branding Excellence) stick in literature about their companies that gets people’s attention and makes them think someone in that organization actually cares about their product(s). The problem is that it doesn’t…mean…ANYTHING. They strive for excellence. They pursue excellence. They promote excellence. But, they never actually become excellent.

stop-signCan we stop being excellent now? Please. Can’t we just make the best products, cook the best food, provide the best service, or educate the next generation to the best of our ability? What good is a mission statement if the words that make it up mean nothing? The answer: not any good at all.

If I was told I could do only one thing as an educator I would instill in my students a sense of care for words and their meanings. Language is, arguably, the single most important development in human history. Language/words, both spoken and written, convey the entirety of human existence. Our thoughts, our emotions, our experiences, our history, our ethics, morals, and values are all shared through language. Why then are we so frivolous with the words we choose? When we speak, let us speak with clarity of meaning. When we write, let us write being mindful of purpose.

And, let’s stop being so damned excellent!

Know Thyself

In her book, “Writing to Change the World,” Mary Pipher has a chapter entitled, Know Thyself. In it she talks about how important it is for writers to know who they are and where they come from. She offers a short poem there called, “I Am From,” and suggests that her readers do the same. In an attempt to better understand where I come from and, hopefully, become a better writer, I have accepted that assignment. This was more difficult than I imagined it would be. There are a lot of things that make me who I am and choosing only a few of them was not easy. I guess that’s part of the point, though. Sometimes we view ourselves in a one-dimensional way and we forget that there is much more that makes us who we are than what we can see in a mirror. So, whether you’re an aspiring writer or not, I would challenge you to think about where you’re from, too.

I am from…

I am from Tom and Suzi.
From Barbara, Gene, Virgil, and Lilian.
I am from divorce and remarriage.
From half-siblings and stepparents.
I am from Mammy and Sister’s house on High Street.
And from our little apartment overlooking Pioneer Drive.

I am from the city and the country.
From boulevards and back roads.
I am from Sister’s camelias and roses.
From Mammy’s bluebonnets and marigolds.
I am from huge oak trees in a big yard.
And from a few potted plants on an upstairs balcony.

I am from Methodists and Baptists.
From Church of Christ and no church at all.
I am from Reagan Revolutionaries.
From New Deal Democrats.
I am from preachers and Sunday School teachers.
And from a gospel piano player who taught me to play, too.

I am from Country and Western.
From Southern Gospel and High Church Hymns.
I am from Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms.
From Herb Alpert and Henry Mancini.
I am from radios, eight tracks, and cassettes.
From CD’s and MP3’s.

I am from green beans and new potatoes.
From Mammy’s salmon patties and hot water cornbread.
I am from Sister’s 1234 Cake.
From Aunt Daisy’s Chocolate pie.
I am from Mom’s chicken enchiladas and stuffed manicotti.
And from peanut butter and jelly on good old white bread.

I am from sultry summer nights chasing fireflies in the yard.
From the sound of crickets, locusts, hoot owls, and raging spring storms.
I am from Friday Night Football and Saturday morning cartoons.
From Sunday afternoon wrestling and, “be quiet my story is on.”
I am from unconditional love and unbearable loss.
From memories of words I should’ve said and deeds left undone.

I am German, English, Scotch, Irish, and American Indian.
I am an artist, a writer, a thinker, and a lover of words.
I am a worrier.
I am a dreamer.
I am a helper.

I am my father’s absence and my mother’s endurance.
I am my sister’s energy and zest for life.
I am my nieces’ beautiful spirits.

I am my faults, my failures, my fears.
I am my desire to overcome them all.
I am not lost.
I am here.
I am known from the foundations of the earth.
I am loved.

I am all of these things and all of the other things.
I am more than the sum of them.
I am me.