Puffy Poodle Doodle Doodle

 

Germaine was in a state. She could not find Puffy Poodle Doodle Doodle’s winter coat. “Walter, I knew I had it but after I sent it out to be dry cleaned I don’t know where Cecilia put it and she took today as her weekly day. Of all the days!”

“It’s cold out there, Doodle could freeze to death,” said Walter turning the page of the New York Times. He wasn’t nearly as interested in the little puff ball as was his wife but he never let on; best to keep peace in the family. His wife could get into one of her “states” without much prompting.

It was cold too. January 15 and it was eight degrees! It had been 55 yesterday and then the temperature plummeted overnight. Oh, well, that was New York City weather. Up one day, down the next. It’s the price you paid for living in the greatest city in the world, thought Walter.

“I found it!” shouted Germaine just as the doorman called up, “A Ms. Livingston, ma’am.”

“Yes, yes, Maurice, send her right up.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Ms. Livingston was a college kid who walked dogs to earn some money. For Doodle, it was an alone walk for which Walter paid quintuple so that Doodle did not have to rub fur with other dogs. Germaine had insisted on that, “I do not want our wonderful Doodle with those other dogs, touching them and smelling their pee-pee and poo-poo.”

Germaine put on Doodle’s coat—a faux-fur over Doodle’s own thick fur.

Just for the record, Germaine did not work but she did attend daily lunches, symposia and club activities and she was well-known in philanthropic circles, “Those poor, poor Afroid-Americans and Lantinos all the way up-town; you have to feel sorry for them and all those drugs that they can’t stop taking. A little money can’t hurt them can it?” And that is what she gave, a little money.

All the women had dogs and some had dogs and cats. Germaine did not like cats. “They stare at you. They are not nice.” Germaine’s dog was the cutest and most obedient. She kept that to herself; she didn’t want the other women to feel inferior, although they must have felt inferior every time they saw Doodle and how well he behaved.

Outside Ms. Livingston walked Doodle. She wondered why this little dog that had so much fur needed a winter coat. Her dog walking clients had many odd habits but Germaine was in a league of her own.

Of course, Germaine was stereotypical too, a rich husband, ladies’ lunches, clubs, meetings, charity; living in a building of apartments with price tags of $10 million or more. Ms. Livingston doubted she would ever be rich, not when she was a philosophy major. Dog walking might be her future as well as her present, but after all, she did have a very special connection with dogs.

And this poor dog, sad too; it didn’t look happy in its faux-fur coat.

They were crossing the street near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The icy wind was whipping down the avenue. Ms. Livingston took another look at Doodle. She crouched down and cradled its manicured face in her hands. “What’s the matter?” she asked sweetly.

Little bundled-up Doodle gazed deeply in Ms. Livingston’s eyes. “I used to be a wolf,” he said sadly. “Now look at me.”

Frank’s latest books are Confessions of a Wayward Catholic; I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, e-books and at bookstores.

Students Are Sharks

 

Students are sharks, no doubt about that. When they scent blood in the water, many will unite and attack. The object of that attack will be the teacher.

I saw some teachers destroyed by students when I was in high school. Even in Catholic schools, teachers were fair game if you could rip them to shreds and not get in trouble (or too much trouble). Few teachers wanted anyone in the school to know that their students swarmed them, sometimes daily, and made them tremble in the face of disdain or vicious attacks. Many teachers would just hold it all in and not share their torment with others. Some of these teachers broke down and quit the profession. That was a true victory for the sharks.

It didn’t matter if the teacher was a nice person; if he showed some fear, or lost his temper and yelled, or trembled; he was dead meat. As a student, I never joined the sharks in their blood-letting. It was too easy; a weak teacher, belittled, and getting his ass chewed; I didn’t want anything to do with that. But you only needed a few students to set up the shark attack. Three or four and the class could be thrown into chaos.

Dealing with Possible Destruction

As a young teacher, losing control scared the hell out of me. It terrified me. I did not want to show any weakness on any day that would open me up to attack.

In 1969, before I entered my first classroom to teach my very first class, I had nightmares of the students turning against me and making me bleed so much that the front of the room was bathed in red. After teaching for 33 years and being out of the game for the past 16 years – I still have nightmares (which I call schoolmares) about not being in control.

In my teaching career I have strong memories of the teachers who lost control; who would cry, females and males, weeping shamefully, after their sharks’ devoured their soft flesh with delight.

I remember a former Marine, a big, strong guy who could rip a student to pieces in a physical fight, brought to blubbering in the teachers’ lounge. He didn’t last a full year on the job. I remember one teacher who was being observed by our department chairman crying as the lesson unfolded because the students became uncontrollable. He lasted two years before he gave up the job. There were plenty more.

Now some teachers can maintain discipline by being bastards or being scary or being both. Students can be rightfully afraid of strong-willed, mean, unrelenting teachers. And many of these teachers actually taught well. A good teacher is a good teacher even if he is a prick or she is a—(well you can supply an accurate descriptor here).

I didn’t want to be a scary, nasty teacher; that’s not me. I wanted to enjoy the classroom and have a good relationship with my students. I wanted to like my students and I would prefer that they liked me. Admittedly there will always be kids you dislike and, yes, some kids would dislike you. That’s the human condition.

Just prior to entering the classroom at the age of 22, I wondered: How do I circumvent the possibility of ultimately facing a school of ravenous adolescent biters looking to chomp on me?

I recalled both good and bad teachers I had encountered when I was a student. One started the very first lesson on the very first day by saying, “People, people let’s begin.” Nothing happened then but he had unknowingly lumped all his students together into one grouping (“people, people”) and many of those “people” in a relatively short time had formed a school of sharks and ripped this guy apart.

Okay, lesson one, don’t let the students think of themselves as one group. Keep each one thinking of him or herself as an individual. They had to think of the relationship with you as a dual relationship – me and Scobe – between two distinct individuals. If a kid liked you that probably would stop that kid from kicking your ass in class.

So no kid represented a group. No kid was the leader of the classroom. No kid represented his race or religion or ethnicity. The kid was the kid and nothing more. It was the student and me, period. Easy to say but how do I put that into effect?

I would face close to 30 kids per class on that first day. I figured that I’d meet them at the door and try to say something personal to as many of them as I could. The administrators of the schools want you to stand at your door to make sure the kids in the hall are behaving. No, it would be better for me to set up the future conditions in my classroom on that first day at the door.

So I would stand in the doorway those first few days and say silly things. If the kid had a tan I’d say something such as “Well, at least we don’t have to go swimming and have fun anymore now that school has begun.” Or “I’ll bet you can’t wait to do a lot of homework.”

To kids who swaggered and looked tough, I might say, “Okay, you are in charge of protecting the nerds. They need someone like you or they are dead from… ” and I’d wave my hand at the students rushing through the halls to their classes. I think most students, like most adults, think other people are idiots. I’d play on that with the tougher kids.

I’ll admit that what I had to say was never all that clever. I just wanted a word with the kid; that’s all, just a lightning-fast personal word, one-to-one.

In class I could build a one-on-one relationship even if I hadn’t gotten to the kid at the doorway. If some student said something really stupid, I would look at another kid in the class and do a quick eye-roll that only he or she could see. We made a connection at that moment. Then I would tease the kid who said the stupid thing— never nasty, just in fun. A little humor and a quick one-to-one with an individual student during class could go a long way in establishing a personal relationship and a classroom tone.

I also knew never to do the same lines or actions over and over. That could get boring.

Okay, that was one idea to employ, a truly personal relationship.

The Humor Trip

Some teachers don’t have much of a sense of humor in their classrooms. If a student got off a good line at your expense, how should you react? Get angry that a kid would dare say something funny about you, the paragon of education? No. For God’s sake, just laugh. What the hell? I enjoyed teasing my students, so why can’t they tease me? There were only a few times when I really wanted to kill the kid who said something mean to me, but I never let the #$%^&* know that.

Or come back with a funny remark of your own. But never nasty, “Timmy, your mother is a smelly ape!” That achieves nothing.

Okay, so have a sense of humor. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Enjoy what you are doing. If you like what you are doing, the kids should like it too. I called that emotional transference.

Classes didn’t have to be dry, dull and deadly. I would do the literature I liked, that I enjoyed, that I could get excited about when I taught it. I would teach writing the way I wanted to teach it.

So this was the plan I put into effect the very first day of my career. Did it work? I think so. In 33 years I never had to throw a student out of my class; or write a disciplinary referral on anyone. I never had to yell at a kid. Don’t get me wrong; there were times when I wanted to walk down the aisle and belt a kid in the nose. No teaching day is perfect even for the best teachers. That is something all teachers know. That’s why most days you see the teachers dragging their asses out of the school building.

Liking My Students

Did I like all of my students? Just about. I did have a few that I couldn’t stand and a couple I can honestly say I hated.

People might think it is wrong for me to say I had a couple of students I hated but I did. Why lie? Out of the approximately 6,000 kids I taught, I think hating two of them is pretty good. Some will say the word hate is too strong a word. If it is then feel free to change it to a word that means hate but doesn’t sound like hate. I’ll have a section about these two creeps in the future. You might hate them too.

And one seemingly weird thing, which will probably sound totally idiotic to many of you, but I remember from my little sister and my cousins when they were toddlers that they liked to have the same books read to them over and over; that they liked to eat the same food night after night. I remember an uncle who shaved his beard and his daughter cried as if he had died because she had never seen him clean shaven.

A certain sameness creates calm.

So I dressed basically the exact same way day after day after day. Each year I tended to have a different uniform (after all my uniform would wear out with such extensive use over one school year). I figured it would be easier for the students to basically see the same Scobe day after day. A leopard doesn’t change his spots and my clothes were my spots.

I remember one year when a PBS station was doing a show about my classroom and that year I wore a burgundy sweatshirt every day. So for the show every student wore a burgundy sweatshirt. It was fun to see all of us looking alike. And we did not give in to telling the producer of the show what we were doing. I just taught my regular class and the students were just great. It was a fun day!

The Attention Span Problem

Here is another situation that concerned me, the attention span of students. I found in my elementary and high school days, in college (even in high-level honors programs), in graduate school and in the mind-numbing education courses to which would-be teachers were subjected, that many students could not concentrate for prolonged periods of time. You could see legs beginning to vibrate; faces lost in dream-states, eyes drooping, and big yawns.

I knew you couldn’t teach a kid if that kid couldn’t pay attention. How do you solve that problem?

Over my years of teaching there have been many idiotic attempts by educators to find methods to engage students for prolonged periods of time. One such was called cooperative learning, where you put students in groups and they teach each other. The smart kids did all the work, achieved all the grades for the group, and the lazy kids did nothing, but they still achieved success through their hard-working peers. Of course that nonsense was not around in 1969.

So what did I do? I watched television. The kids I would teach had been brought up with television. So what held their interest for a half-hour or hour-long show? Something did because we had a nation of kids addicted to this form of entertainment. It took me a while but I got it. Commercials!

Every 10 minutes or so, the show was interrupted with a commercial that did two things; it introduced something new, maybe some product or food or cigarette brand and it gave a break from the program that the kid could get back into when the commercial was over.

How could I introduce the commercial aspect into my lessons? Every 10 minutes or so, I would interrupt the lesson and go on a short riff, something funny or unusual. Then I would get back to the lesson but first I’d say something such as, “Wait, wait, I’ve forgotten what we were talking about. Can anyone help me?” Of course, the kids would raise their hands and tell me what I had taught. Okay, that was a sneaky way to do a review and it also gave the kids the idea that I had a pretty poor memory.

The Students I Taught

In my career I taught every type of student—from advanced placement to regents to non-academic. I once had a class comprised of six felons who had taken someone’s life when they were in junior high school. I had some students who were—even at the young high school ages—far smarter than I would ever be. But a kid is a kid, no matter how brilliant. If a kid taught me something by something he said I had no problem saying, “Excellent. I never thought of that.”

I taught kids from all races and many ethnic groups. I treated them all the same—I’d tease, cajole and praise kids if what they had just accomplished was worth it. I was never overly-critical. I was not an easy grader.

My department chairman won a bet against a teacher who said my popularity was based on my giving out high grades. He told the guy to bring his grade book in and he’d compare the grades, especially when we taught the same students. This teacher’s grades were far higher than mine. My chairman won the bet.

So I had my plan and I put it into effect from day one. I might still have schoolmares so long after retiring but I did accomplish what I set out to do—that was, being the best teacher I could be and to never lose control.

Frank Scoblete’s latest books are Confessions of a Wayward Catholic; I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.

The Hunt for the Great Horned Owl

 

By Frank (and the Beautiful AP) Scoblete

After four months of weekly birding trips on Long Island, where I became the well-known expert in not-knowing-anything, my wife the Beautiful AP, our son Mike and I headed to Cape May, New Jersey for our annual Christmas trip. And this time, now knowing that Cape May is a premier bird-watching venue, we brought our binoculars.

This would be a bird-watching vacation! The three Scobletes reveling in nature while staying in a magnificent hotel, just where we (meaning “I”) belong. Knowing that Mike sleeps just as well camping under the stars as he does in a top hotel, AP told him, “This is as outdoorsy as Scobe and I get,” as we navigated well-marked trails.

Cape May has woodsy, watery, and grassy places harboring birds of all types, from cute little colorful and skittish songbirds to ravenous raptors such as hawks, falcons, and sometimes even bald eagles. It is one of the best birding areas in the world.

As we entered the “bird observatory” (about two miles of trails around a few lakes) I noticed a prominent sign. It had pictures of the birds that were currently being spotted, and smack in the middle was a photo of the great horned owl.

The great horned owl – at almost three-feet tall with strong wings and slashing claws – is perhaps the largest owl on earth and it eats just about anything it catches, including mammals and birds, some of which are its size or bigger.

Seeing the great horned owl would be a major coup in my birding career and quite early on at that. Very few birders in my South Shore Audubon Society have ever seen this bird since it is nocturnal. It would give me much-needed status in the birding community and take me from my current position of “Oh, he’s a birdbrain,” to a position of, “Can you believe this guy once saw a great horned owl?”

The following two days as we tramped around the great areas near the Cape May Lighthouse, we saw an amazing number of birds:

On a small pier in a salt-marsh lake we saw three cormorants perched looking for lunch.

We saw disorganized flocks of robins moving from tree to tree.

We also saw ducks: mallards, pretty males with their plain females; several spectacularly colored wood ducks (I consider them the peacocks of the duck world); and a few American black ducks, which are mostly brown with some gray and a spot of blue.

Of course, there were the ubiquitous Canada geese (named after a man named Canada – seriously – not after the country); a half dozen majestic white swans; three great blue herons, the largest of which came flying down from the sky to stand still on the edge of the lake also looking for lunch. These herons can stand still for a very (very!) long time just waiting for their meals to arrive.

We also saw numerous gulls – I just don’t know one gull from another yet. To be honest I also don’t know the names of most birds from most other birds. Sadly, I am a birder without a bird brain yet

And, of course, there were dozens of different types of songbirds – those small, swift flying creatures seemingly always looking out for predators that are looking to eat these little guys. It’s hard to get them into view because as soon as you lift your binoculars the birds tend to zip away.

Although we saw various types of sparrows, they don’t give us a thrill; we have maybe 800 thousand of them at our feeders every day.

We got a close-up view of a nest of the cute black-capped chickadees. Actually it was more like a communal apartment building made of leaves and small branches with quite a number of these adorable birds flitting in and out.

Then we saw a bird that Paul, a member of our South Shore Audubon society, calls “butter butt” which I think is actually called the yellow-rumped warbler. If you look at the bird’s butt, right under it is a yellow horseshoe design – I’m talking bright yellow. I have only seen this particular one so far in my expeditions, although the Beautiful AP has seen several.

For three days up above we saw numerous hawks. We’re still trying to identify them. They glided in the sky as if they owned it.

In fact, these predators, and other predators like them, do own the sky. They don’t so much fly as soar; they glide through the air like winged warriors. All other birds, constantly flapping their wings, look as if they are putting such energy in flight, but not the predators. They are the birds to be reckoned with.

As we hiked, we scanned the trees for the great horned owl. We talked about the past, the present and the future. We stopped to focus on myriad birds. We admired nature (as outdoorsy as we get). We joked around. We looked up birds on AP’s Audubon app. One or another of us stopped to pee. One or another of us produced mini alcohol wipes for the person who peed.

And our hunt for the great horned owl? No luck there. But the walking, talking, kidding around, the spotting of all the other birds, the admiring of nature even at our modest level of outdoorsy-ness – isn’t marked or marred by the absence of the great horned owl. Instead it is an occasion memorable for the time we did spend together away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, for what we did see together and for what we did say to one another.  And that, my friends, is a Scoblete bird walk.

[Read my new book Confessions of a Wayward Catholic! Available from Amazon.com. kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.]

The Search for the Great Snowy Owl

 

All the birders (birders are bird watchers but “birder” sounds stronger and classier than bird watcher) were at Jones Beach West Field #2, tromping through the sand and the dunes with one harried lady scolding us: “Do not walk on the grass on the dunes!” We were not listening; instead we tromped all over the grass which was unavoidable since it was under our feet.

The grass is not like the grass on your lawn or on a golf course. Each stalk is about a foot or two high and every couple of inches there it was. You couldn’t help but step on the grass. But this lady, protecting our planet as she had a “Protect Our Planet” shirt on, was adamant. Everyone smiled at her benignly and she finally gave up the fight and stepped on the grass too.

Birders were all over the place – on the dunes, the beach, near the parking lot. Wherever you looked, there was a birder or groups of birders in their birding clothes with binoculars pointed wherever they thought they would see the creature we had all come to Jones Beach to see, the great Snowy Owl.

My group is from the South Shore Audubon Society and we were hunting for that great Snowy Owl also known as Bubo scandiacus. (Bubba scandiacus, if you are from the south.) We hungered to see it as these owls are tough to spot around our area since they hang out in the Arctic, which is a long drive from Long Island, New York. In the fall they migrate to the south. I guess these birds are the real snow birds, not to be confused with NY senior citizens who spend three months in Florida every winter.

Now, birding is not a precise activity. The leaders of our group saw the Snowy Owl just a few days earlier and some photographed it. So, everyone excitedly looked here, there and everywhere to catch a glimpse of this magnificent owl. Alas, after an hour and twenty minutes of climbing, walking and binoculing, Mr. Owl didn’t make an appearance. I have printed a great one from Claire Reilly, a pro photographer, who photographed the bird several days later on Jones Beach.

That night, after our day’s disappointment, my wife the Beautiful AP and I watched a documentary titled Wild Arctic and one beautiful sequence had a fabulous video of this fabulous bird. In the birding world, this sighting doesn’t count. We can’t put it on the list we’re not keeping (see article “The Pelican Brief”). But the documentary was great to watch.

snowyowl

Photo by Claire Reilly

[Read my new book Confessions of a Wayward Catholic!]