Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” Not a Children’s Story

This year marks the 175th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” first published on Dec. 19, 1843.

I am teaching the Dickens classic for the first time in my career.  When I planned this out back in the summer, I thought how apropos it would be to finish the fall semester with a holiday story, one most of my 10th grade students knew from films but likely never read.

I usually end the school year with “Oliver Twist” so adding “A Christmas Carol” would serve as bookends to the spring semester.

However, when re-reading the book as preparation for teaching it, and imagining it through their lens, reality hit me.  I am teaching to teenagers who, for the most part, don’t like to read and whose primary language is not English.

Studying “A Christmas Carol” in some ways is more challenging than “Oliver Twist.” While only about 60 pages, the novella is full of antiquated terms related to jobs that no longer exist, sayings that no longer make sense, and a highly descriptive and complex writing style that firmly cements the work to 19th century literature.

Here is Dickens’ Preface:

            “I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which

            shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the

            season, or with me.  May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay

it.”

The first problem will be explaining the difference between American English spellings and those overseas as in “endeavoured” and “humour.”

The idioms “ghost of an idea” and “out of humor” would have to be clarified.

“Haunt their houses” does not refer to a literal house but the reader’s soul and mind.  And “no one wish to lay it” is a joke by Dickens that a reader would not want to put the book down or away.

Once we get past the comprehension hurdles, we can focus on connecting the story’s themes to their lives and times.

For example, health care and living wage issues remain current.   The main reason Dickens created Tiny Tim was to call attention to the need for better health care for the poor.  Back in the first part of 19th century England, nearly half of all funerals were for children.  Tim represents the child that is doomed to die because his father’s boss, Ebenezer Scrooge, doesn’t pay Bob Cratchit enough money to sustain his family.  Employers were perceived as greedy.

The concept of giving to those less fortunate permeates the novel, and is the ultimate lesson Scrooge learns through the three ghosts.

While the word “scrooge” has come to mean a miserly person, “ebenezer” symbolizes one who helps, a word from Hebrew, according to Merriam-Webster, “used by Samuel to the stone which he set up in commemoration of God’s help to the Israelites in their victory over the Philistines.”

In other words, Scrooge’s name represents the before and after aspects of his character in his transformative journey through the story.

Upon finishing “A Christmas Carol” we will attend a live theatrical performance of it at A Noise Within in Pasadena to further extend the students’ understanding of the story.  Then, as a culminating activity, students will present to the class their own 15-minute versions of it.  By that time, hopefully, students will have gotten something meaningful from the book.

So, if you romanticize reading aloud “A Christmas Carol” to your family on Christmas Eve, you had better preview the actual text first and pass out some handouts.  Or choose Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” instead.

Old Grades, New Parades

One benefit of having winter break in the middle of the school year is that it provides an opportunity for fresh starts.   And those of us who work at Hoover High School sure could use a cleansing of last semester’s turmoil that slammed our campus like a tornado:  the student brawl, the walkout, the negative press.  A feeling of unfinished business hung over us like a fog for a good part of the fall.

With this in mind, I began the first day back by passing out neon red squares of paper to my students and having them write last semester’s grades along with a short reflection.  I told them this would not be shared with anyone including me.

Once students finished, I had them fold the paper in half twice into tiny squares.

“We are locking away the past forever and . . .” I said, as trash cans were distributed down each row, “. . . throwing the grades and any negative feelings out.  Not the lessons learned just the grade itself.  It’s a new year and a new semester, time for a new beginning.”

I dimmed the lights.

“First, let’s get reacquainted with Room 11202.  Did you miss this room during the break?  It’s been a while, so in your new seat, place your hands in front of you on the table to have a physical connection to the environment, close your eyes, and think positive thoughts.  In order to give you ideas on what to think about, I will share mine.”

“Dear Room 11202.  Thank you for being here for my students and I.  For being a sanctuary of learning.  We look forward to wonderful memories the rest of the way.”

“Now I’m going to ask you to close your eyes for at least one minute.  You may begin.”

I played meditative music at low volume.

Once most students’ eyes had opened, I passed out pastel blue squares of paper.

“Write down a favorite memory you have from winter break that brought you joy.  It could be a gift, a song, a text, a sunset.  Write down what the memory is and why it brought joy to you.”

“Fold it once and put it inside a safe place in your binder.  Now you have something that makes you feel good each and every day.  Some of the approaching days will be pleasant ones, but some will not.  For that darkest day that may surface, when it seems everything has gone wrong, open up your binder and look at this piece of paper and be reminded of what gives you joy.”

By happenstance, principal Jennifer Earl walked into my classroom right at the time I was beginning this lesson.  Usually she stays for a few minutes then continues on to other rooms in making her rounds.

This time I asked her to stay for the entire lesson because I wanted her to experience this for herself.  She even threw away her own red piece of paper with great enthusiasm.

Well, she was so inspired by what she saw, she asked me to do the lesson with the entire staff at that afternoon’s faculty meeting.

When I demonstrated the activity with my peers, I sensed a calmness in the room.  Reconnecting with our workplace felt like the right thing to do coming back after the break.  We all needed closure. How serendipitous that Dr. Earl walked into my room when she did as if it was meant to be.

And all of this happened in just the first day.  I can’t wait to see what will unfold the rest of the year.

 

 

“Christmas Carol” adaptations include Rich Little playing Edith Bunker as Cratchit’s Wife

While preparing lessons in recent weeks as I teach Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” for the first time, I have absorbed myself with all things Dickens’ re-discovering why this book has remained a classic for 175 years.

I also wanted to have my students examine several filmed adaptations of the story, determining the faithfulness to the text, and comparing interpretations of Ebenezer Scrooge.

The first one we viewed was the MGM version made in 1938 starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge.  If you are unfamiliar with Owen, one of his last film roles was as Admiral Boom in “Mary Poppins” who would fire a cannon on his rooftop.

As a kid, I always liked this version not knowing how much it diverged from the source material.  A key scene in the book is when the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals under his robe a boy and a girl representing ignorance and want.  You won’t see it in this version.

The famous last scene in the story of Scrooge pretending to be angry at his clerk, Bob Cratchit, for arriving 18 and ½ minutes late to work on the day after Christmas has been replaced with

Scrooge going to Cratchit’s home on Christmas armed with food and toys.  He informs everyone present, including his nephew Fred, that he will raise Cratchit’s salary.

June Lockhart, the actress best known for the TV series “Lassie” and “Lost in Space” (and is currently 93), made her screen debut playing a child of the Cratchits, both portrayed by her real-life parents, Gene and Kathleen Lockhart.

The 1951 British version was originally called “Scrooge.”   Clive Donner who edited that film would later direct the 1984 TV version starring George C. Scott.

For me, this is the version that best replicates the spirit (no pun intended) of Dickens’ original.  Scott portrays Scrooge as a troubled man not an irritable ogre.  In a scene not in the book, Scrooge laments out loud and alone, “What have I done to be abandoned like this?”

There is much to admire in the 2009 Jim Carrey film directed by Robert Zemeckis.  However, the motion capture computer technology overwhelms the story, must as it did in Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express.”

One version I did not share with my students must rank as the strangest adaptation.  “Rich Little’s Christmas Carol” from 1978 has the impersonator playing all the roles himself.  Since most of the personalities come from the 1970’s and earlier, anyone under 40 would have to access a who’s who of famous people in the 20th century in order to understand it.

Little is President Nixon as Jacob Marley’s ghost with reel to reel tapes replacing the chains.  Watching this with my sons, I had to frequently stop not only to explain who Nixon was, but the significance of the tapes as well.

Yet where do you begin to explain to a 15-year-old who Paul Lynde was and what made him famous (I struggled with this while he was still alive).  Then the quandary of explaining Rich Little dressed as Jean Stapleton playing Edith Bunker who is playing Mrs. Cratchit.   Pause and insert a whole lesson on Norman Lear sitcoms.  Never mind Truman Capote as Tiny Tim.

Well, no matter which version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” you watch, the notion that an old man full of hatred can transform into a man of goodwill seem improbable, but it is an idea that has kept this book alive for nearly 200 years.

What would the scenes from your past look like, the regrets, the heartaches, the people who touched you and those who you hurt?  If you could become a nicer person, what images would get you to change for the better?

Yes, “A Christmas Carol” is a work of fiction.  In reality, change does not come overnight, if at all.   But what is wrong in believing it is possible, even once a year?

 

 

Supporting Schools is a Necessity Not a Desire

Thanksgiving came early in Burbank and Glendale courtesy of the majority of voters who said “yes” to increasing the sales tax from 9.5% to 10.25%, the maximum amount allowable in California.

In last week’s mid-term election, 60.71% of Burbank voters passed Measure P; 53.45% of Glendale voters passed Measure S.   Both initiatives concern spending on infrastructure and city services.

However, the most curious election result was Burbank Unified School District’s Measure QS which did not pass despite garnering more votes than Measure P, 61.68%.  So why did the measure with the most votes fail?

Because Measures S and P were sales tax increases needing a simple majority to pass whereas Measure QS was a parcel tax requiring two-thirds majority to go into effect.  The average annual property tax increase for homeowners would have been $170, or $14 a month or less than 50 cents a day.

It failed by 1,928 votes.  And so has the city in supporting its schools and students.

Pasadena solved the dilemma of raising revenue for schools by foregoing the parcel tax route, asking voters to support a similar sales tax boost but with a supporting advisory vote that one-third of the money go to schools.   The result?  Measure I, the sales tax increase, passed (67.685), and Measure J, the advisory vote, passed even higher (70.43%).

Mayor Terry Tornek told Pasadena Star-News reporter Chris Lindahl that he interprets the advisory vote “as a mandate by voters and would spearhead the transfer.”

Evidently Pasadena’s city council and school board believe in working together unlike those bodies in Burbank.

While the city of Burbank likes to boast about the quality of its schools, it isn’t willing to back them up when it counts.

Burbank Leader reporter Andrew J. Campa reported that in L.A. County, BUSD ranks “46th, or dead last, in spending, the smallest total gross dollars for raises for credentialed teachers over the past three years.”

How much longer will Burbank teachers leave the district for literally greener pastures?

Take a look at the starting salaries of Burbank Unified compared to Long Beach Unified.

In Long Beach, a new teacher can automatically earn 16% more than a teacher in Burbank doing the same job:  $58,271 compared to $50,647.  No wonder some teachers have departed.

News flash:  if excellent teachers leave Burbank, then the quality of its schools leaves as well.

Since the “yes” votes for both Measures P and QS were close in number, one could assume the same group of people who desire improved city services also desire improved city schools.

Why not ask the nearly 62% of Burbank citizens who voted for QS to donate $170 to BUSD?   It would serve as a tax deduction as well.

I shared this idea with Amy Kamm, Burbank Educational Foundation (BEF) Vice President of Communications, and that’s exactly the social media campaign already under way.  The public would be ensured that their donation would “impact as many programs as possible which will reach as many students as possible.”

If all 16,354 citizens who voted for QS donated $170, that would generate $2.78 million.  While not the $9 million they were counting on, a significant amount nonetheless.

Earlier this year a handful of potholes in Burbank were repaired by Domino’s Pizza via its “Paving for Pizza” national campaign.   Where is the corporation who can shore up the financial potholes in BUSD’s budget?   Nickelodeon, Warner Brothers, Disney—any takers?

 

Power of the Students

Through the Great Depression, World War Two, Korean and Vietnam wars, and 9/11, one thing was for certain:  that in the fall each year Glendale and Hoover High Schools would meet for the final football game of the season.

That tradition ended last week.

Hours before game time, “out of an abundance of caution” Glendale Unified School District cancelled it “due to increased rumors of possible disruptions . . . that put student, employee, and spectator safety at risk” as stated in a prepared statement.

Fallout from the Oct. 3 fight at Hoover ultimately led to GUSD’s decision.

The 88-straight game streak was broken as were the hearts of students and alumni and anyone else who has a link to the city’s storied history.  Even the homecoming dances were postponed.

It wasn’t just a football game that never happened.  For the Hoover senior football players, it meant a chance at history by beating Glendale all four years of their high school career, a feat never before accomplished.

Much preparation goes into this one event each year whose purpose is to instill school spirit, the major sporting event no matter the football team’s season record, with an early morning ceremonial poster drop from three floors up and a school-wide assembly of skits performed by each grade level.  All of this work done by a small group of dedicated students, all leading up to the game, the game that was not to be.

If there was a serious threat of violence, then cancelling the game was the right move.  However, if the cancellation was based on rumors, something the district admonished everyone after the fight at Hoover not to fall prey to, then questions should be asked.

After all, when a rumor on social media spread following the fight caused a huge amount of absences, school was not cancelled “out of an abundance of caution” so why would the game not happen?

If you are trying to make things go back to normal, the last thing you want to do is to end a positive, long-standing tradition between the two oldest high schools in the city.   Not having the football game is abnormal.

Then, guess what happened?   Just when the TV news minivans stopped parking in front of Hoover, they returned on Monday.

Students organized a walkout to protest the district’s cancellation.  Well over 100 students walked two miles to district headquarters wanting their voices to be heard.

“What really happened on Oct. 3?  Why was the game cancelled?” were questions never fully addressed.

Three days later, GUSD attempted to answer these questions in their first press conference on the matter four weeks after the initial incident.

The district is moving forward to facilitate communication with all members of the school community.  Let’s hope such efforts succeed.

Give credit to the district for doing this.  However, even more credit goes to the persistence of students who felt that questions remained unanswered and issues unresolved.

Would there have been a press conference if there was no walkout?

The motto at Hoover is “be responsible, respectful, and engaged.”  The students who organized the peaceful demonstration embodied that standard, and adults should embrace these young people for speaking their mind and reminding all that this is their school.

 

 

Cranky Kavanaugh Not Suited to be a Supreme Court Judge

By the time you read this, more likely than not Brett Kavanaugh will have become the 114th Supreme Court justice in American history.  Next to the 45 presidents, it is the second most exclusive job one can hold.  And unlike presidents, justices’ jobs are for life.

The controversy over his confirmation concerning alleged sexual misconduct from his high school and college days has underscored the divisions among political parties and the public.

For me the issue isn’t the alleged sexual assault.  It isn’t even the decisions he has made as a federal judge.  It was his histrionic performance at last week’s Senate judiciary hearing.  He wasn’t just angry, he was furious; he wasn’t just defiant, he was combative; he wasn’t just teary, he was red-in-the-face near full-out balling.   And remember, he was exhibiting these emotions reading from prepared remarks, not speaking extemporaneously.  Are these the traits of a Supreme Court justice who needs to be measured and reasonable when deciding cases?

Someone with the temperament of Kavanaugh should not be a judge, especially on the Supreme Court, one of the most hallowed government institutions.

Of course, the same could be said about Trump regarding the presidency.   He has drained the office of all decorum.  Is it any surprise that he chose a less-than-stellar candidate for the Court?

Too bad that the confirmation vote was delayed a week because all it served to do was to give those Republicans on the fence—Jeff Flake of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—a “the FBI could not find corroboration” excuse to vote for him.   The whole delay was an agonizing tease for those who did not want a justice with an asterisk by his name like Clarence Thomas.  Now for the next 30 years or so we will have a judge who could have assaulted a woman.

When my students study characters in literature, we talk about how all of us have different sides to our personalities.  It is very possible that Kavanaugh has many positive sides to him.   The problem is that there is a darker side to his character.  We should expect those nine people who serve this country on the Supreme Court bench to be of the highest moral fiber.   Kavanaugh’s demeanor last week should have sealed his fate.

It didn’t.

In this age of Trump, the decency bar continues to sink lower.

We have a president who ridiculed Prof. Christine Blasey Ford at a rally, with the crowd encouraging him to continue.

Trump could care less about the twisted optics of his mockery of a sexual assault victim, even as he stands accused of sexual misconduct himself.

More disturbing were the people laughing at his insulting behavior.

Based on his resume, Kavanaugh looked like a cinch for the Court.  He declared it as such in his remarks last week.  Like a spoiled brat, he assumed that coming from a wealthy family, attending the right schools, and working for the right powerful people meant he could walk right through the doors to the Supreme Court Building.  And he may yet do it.

If he is confirmed, he should remember these words:

“To be a good judge . . . it’s important to have the proper demeanor . . . to keep our emotions in check.  To be calm amidst the storm.”

He should remember them because he said them back in 2015.  So just who is the real Judge Kavanaugh?

Honoring the Legacy of Long-time School Employees

When I first started working at Hoover High School in September of 1989, the school was so overcrowded that there wasn’t a classroom available for me so I became a traveling teacher:  four rooms in five periods.   That meant I had to carry chalk, erasers, paper, pens, staplers, paper clips, and more in my bulging briefcase.

It wasn’t until my second year that I had my own room, but there was a catch.   It was a temporary room, a portable bungalow out near the softball field.  While it was isolated next to three other portables, it had its own air conditioning unit that I controlled, unlike the permanent buildings where the thermostat was managed by the district office.

A couple of years later when high schools converted to four-year institutions, a new building was erected to accommodate the additional ninth graders.  Then principal Don Duncan invited teachers to choose their own classrooms while construction was underway.

I selected a room away from a stairwell to minimize outside noise.  I also wanted my windows to have a view so I chose one that faced south overlooking Glendale’s burgeoning skyline to my left and the Hollywood Hills to my right.

And I have remained there ever since.

This school year marks my 30th as a teacher.  It also happens to be the 90th year that Hoover has been around.  That means that I have taught at Hoover for one-third of its entire existence.   During my tenure, I have worked for six principals and five superintendents.

Reaching such a milestone has made me reflect on many of my former co-workers who are no longer at Hoover.

Too often these people just disappear whether through retirement or moving on without announcement or acknowledgment of their service to the school.  There is no mechanism in place for their legacies to be memorialized.

Past superintendents in Glendale have their photos mounted at the district headquarters.  No matter that the average tenure has been eight years, with one serving only a year, these men remain the face of the district despite working at other districts for the majority of their careers.

However, for those teachers, secretaries, custodians, and cafeteria workers who have devoted their lifetime to GUSD—20, 30, 40 years’ worth—their work is not preserved.  Nowhere are their photos or names displayed.   That is like having a memorial dedicated to the armed services with only the names of the generals on it.

These people have more of a connection to students than do superintendents.    Preparing food, cleaning campuses, greeting visitors, and teaching students—these are the most meaningful jobs at a school.   If it weren’t for these people, there wouldn’t be a place of learning.

Just last month a custodian who worked 39 years, Glen Esquivel, retired. Where is his photo?  His name?

As soon as he left, the history of his stint in GUSD disappeared. It’s as if he never worked in Glendale schools.

Thirty-nine years.  Vanished.

Devote your entire working life to a company and never be remembered.  That’s a terrible lesson to teach young people.

Never mind the clichéd certificate of recognition at a school board meeting.  As the district prepares to move to a new administration building, serious consideration should be given to erect a Hall of Fame with the photos, names and years of service of all employees who have worked for GUSD at least 25 years.

It’s the right thing to do.