What the Kony Campaign Says About Us

On Tuesday, something happened that, depending upon your age group and online social media presence, was likely hard to ignore.  If you have a pulse and a Facebook account, no doubt you saw it.  An organization called Invisible Children released a 30-minute video about a Ugandan man named Joseph Kony and the many violent and heinous crimes he has committed against humanity as the leader of a group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army.  This group has kidnapped, enslaved, and tortured thousands of children in Central Africa and has exerted its control using violent and tyrannical methods.  The video assumes, and rightly so, that most of the world’s population is unaware of Kony or the crimes he has committed, despite that he is at or near the top of most lists of the world’s most wanted fugitives and war criminals.  The United States has twice sent military forces into Uganda and the surrounding region to help capture him, once in 2008, and again just last year (the strategic forces deployed in 2011 are still there).  When I watched this video on Wednesday, it had close to 4 million views on YouTube.  Three hours later, it was up to 7.4 million views, and the clicks continued to multiply exponentially.  The exploding exposure and outpouring of support that has followed the release of this video has made it the purest example of viral video that our culture has seen in a while.

And by being watched, the video is accomplishing its voiced purpose: to “make Joseph Kony famous.”  The logic Invisible Children uses, as declared on their website, is that “if the world knows who Joseph Kony is, it will unite to stop him.”  So Invisible Children has asked for a few things: they have asked for people who view the video to share it, and that has happened.  They have asked people to support the movement financially, and no doubt that is happening.  And the third thing they asked for is for people to take part in a scheduled movement they’re calling “Cover the Night” on April 20 of this year.  If successful, and all signs point to it being so, this movement will feature thousands of people the world round going out on that evening and plastering walls, buildings, windows, or anything within eyesight of the general public with signs and stickers that draw attention to Kony and the movement against him.  While far from over, it’s safe to say that the mission to make Joseph Kony famous has been accomplished in part, and all signs point towards more success in the coming weeks and months.

Admittedly I was hesitant to watch the video, and even since I have, part of me still feels what for lack of a better term I’ll call an “uh-oh feeling”.  I pride myself on making every effort to find the appropriate words to express the truest sense of my feelings when writing for this blog (certainly hard to believe coming from someone who just used the phrase “uh-oh feeling”), and the conclusion I’ve drawn from thinking about this video and the events surrounding it is that I find it troubling.  Let me preface the discussion that follows with this: I clearly recognize the need to stop Joseph Kony and bring him to justice, and am in full support of any effort that does so in a manner that is safe, strategic, and considerate of the issue’s inherent complexities.  Yet I find Invisible Children’s methodology both intriguing and yes, troubling.

Let’s start with intriguing.  Should this story end with the capture and arrest of Joseph Kony, I find it fascinating that social media could play such a pivotal role in its inciting incident.  This is yet another example of the growing power of social networking, and how it can play a crucial role in enhancing democracy and the power of the individual voice.  Though the assumption made by Invisible Children that many individual voices banded together for a common cause can affect genuine change is not a new one, it is a noble one.  For all the pornography, mindless hero worship, and cat breading that the internet produces as an effort to prove to the world its uselessness, there are also moments like this one that demonstrate its capacity for producing seismic cultural shifts.

That being said, when I watched the video, I didn’t get the feeling that I was being made aware of something, I got the feeling I was being sold something.  There is a difference.  Regardless of what you believe about their cause, the Invisible Children experience is a trendy and fashionably-packaged one.  If you’re one of the thousands who will purchase the $30 “Kony 2012 Action Kit” to help raise awareness of the issue, then according to the Invisible Children website, “People will think you’re an advocate of awesome.”  There is an attitude that accompanies this whole movement (and phrases like “an advocate of awesome”), and it feels like the same attitude that always tries to convince me that who I am is a product of what I wear, eat, drink, or watch.

Above all else, what I take from this Kony phenomenon is a reassurance that in order to make any sort of waves in our digital culture, you have to be cool.  Yet the needless slaughter of innocent children by a tyrannical war criminal is decidedly uncool.  Invisible Children strives to bridge that gap.  The mentality they appear to be using is the same one that made “Save Darfur” a phrase that reflects how hip and worldly you are just as much as it does your opinion on Sudanese politics.

According to their own financial statements, 31% of every dollar donated to Invisible Children goes toward supporting Central African children, their families, and the effort to stop Kony.  That leaves 69% to cover operational costs which more than likely includes a hefty marketing budget.  I hesitate to pass judgment on how Invisible Children spends its money, as I have never run a non-profit organization myself.  My assumption is that Invisible Children spends so much on marketing because they believe they have to.  It seems a natural conclusion that either 1) Invisible Children does not believe it can be effective in accomplishing its goal without the use of stylish packaging and gimmicky sentimentality or 2) the general public has such a moral deficiency that it takes social acceptance and “coolness” to make something right seem worthwhile or 3) both.  I believe that if there is any blame to be laid on Invisible Children for their methodology in creating an over hyped or artificial uprising, it is a load that should be shared by a public who did exactly what the video was carefully and specifically designed to have them do.

The first words spoken by Jack Nicholson’s character in the film The Departed are “I don’t want to be a product of my environment.  I want my environment to be a product of me.”  Is a super-awesome, George-Clooney-and-Justin-Bieber-sponsored revolution a product of a culture that demands it, or is our culture adapting because we’re being told what causes are cool to support?  In a CNN article on the Kony hysteria, Invisible Children’s spokeswoman Noelle Jouglet responded to claims that the organization was oversimplifying the conflict by saying that “the group ‘had’ to ‘simplify’ events in the documentary to make it easier for the targeted audience – young people and the wider population – to pay attention and understand.” Is that true?  To paraphrase Jack yet again, can we not handle the truth?  Or is it just that if it wasn’t presented in such a manner, we wouldn’t be inspired to do anything about it?  Because if that’s not true, then our response should be indignity – towards the tragedy the film portrays, to be certain, but also towards an organization that thinks so lowly of us that it felt required to stoop to such tactics in order to get our attention.


The Content of Your Character

Nostalgia is a funny thing.  For example, the other day I was feeling nostalgic and came to this very site to reminisce about the days when I used to write on a more regular basis, and it inspired me to make an attempt at picking it back up again (also, I’ve got a heckuva lot of free time these days).  So after a year and a half, I return.  For those that knew nothing of this blog, welcome.  Poke around if you’d like.  For those that have been anxiously waiting, I’d encourage you to find a hobby (though I appreciate your allegiance).

Here’s what I want to talk about: I want to expand upon this post, which I wrote almost three years ago, and maybe allow that expanding to take us in an entirely new direction.  The post in question, if you don’t care to click the link and read it, was specifically about the football player Plaxico Burress, who at the time the post was written was about to go to prison for carrying an illegal weapon.  In the post, I posed the question of why anyone cared.  Or, more broadly, why our culture seems to value celebrities and pay so much attention to them when we possess no personal connection to them (more detail, obviously, in the original post).  In other words, why does anyone who works for TMZ have a job?  I gave a couple of possible answers in the original post, but the conclusion I came to was, essentially, I don’t know.  Now, three years later, when ironically Plaxico Burress is now being released from prison, I had a thought that I think has something to do with all this business.

I think that our society is obsessed with characters, and when I say that, I define the word “character” differently than I would define the word, let’s say, “person”.  Here is what I mean: Plaxico Burress is both a person and a character.  Plaxico Burress the person probably takes out the trash and maybe mows the lawn.  Plaxico Burress the character shoots himself in the leg and goes to prison.  What then is the difference between personhood and characterdom?  It has almost everything to do with perception.  When someone performs an action that most people would suggests aligns with how they are broadly perceived, they are acting as a character (or when we do something that is so monumentally unaligned with who we are that it changes that very perception).  Personhood is everything else.  This can be tricky, because it depends upon a perception that often we do not choose for ourselves.  If we as a society had somehow collectively decided to establish Plaxico Burress as a gentle family man, then to see him taking out the garbage would fall under characterdom, because taking out the trash is a thing a gentle family man would typically do.  But for whatever reason (or reasons, and discussion of those reasons is for another post entirely) society established Plaxico Burress as a “thug” of sorts, thus carrying a gun is something that his character would do.

The question then is not why do we care about Plaxico Burress the person, because we don’t (unless you are one of those types of people who possess an unearthly amount of empathy, in which case, bless you).  We rather care about Plaxico Burress the character, and that is more because we like characters in general than it is because we like the specific character of Plaxico Burress.  It is characters on the cover of US Weekly and People that sell magazines, not people.  Characters are the reason we go to movies, read books, and watch television shows, and the reason Johnny Depp keeps getting paid millions of dollars to dress like a pirate.  If we want to get even more broad, I’d suggest that we like characters specifically because we like stories, but stories in their most elemental form are simply characters encountering conflict.  So when the character Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg, what society saw was a character encountering a conflict, and we were engaged.  The problem is that while the character of Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg, the person of Plaxico Burress did too, and as outsiders we ignored that side of the issue.

The author Donald Miller (more on him later) suggests that every good story has beneath it a “story question,” something that keeps the audience engaged.  We care about fairy tales because the underlying story question “will the knight save the princess?” is engaging and carries us through (I feel like I touched on this a bit, though indirectly, in this post).  Three years ago, the main story question at hand for the character of Plaxico Burress was “Will Plaxico ever play football again?” and our desire to answer that question is the reason he was on the news.  But the questions that faced Plaxico the person were far more complex, more human, and largely ignored.  What message will this action send to the pee-wee and high school football players that idolize him?  How will Plaxico’s absence affect his family?  Will his marriage survive?  Will his being in prison during the formative years of his children’s lives have a negative effect on their future, or on their future as a family?  How will he repair the relationships in his life that this action will undoubtedly damage?  In general, these are questions society did not ask, and I would posit it is because these are questions that concern a person and come from a place of love, and that’s where Jonathan Franzen comes in.

Jonathan Franzen is an author who recently gave the commencement address at Kenyon College (an adapted essay version of that address is here, and it’s worth a read).  One thing Franzen touches on in his address is the idea of “liking,” but liking in the Facebook sense of the word, that is, more along the lines of making a consumerist choice (again, it would be more helpful to your understanding if you just read his words).  Franzen argues that “liking” has become a substitute for genuine loving, and I think that has something to do with what I’m getting at.  I think we “like” characters, but we can only love real, whole people.  Because we see Plaxico Burress (and any other celebrity for that matter) as characters, they will never be truly loved by society at large.  They may be liked, they may be admired, but they won’t be loved (certainly the people in their own personal lives love them, but not you or I).

Think for a moment about Stefani Germanotta.  Stefani Germanotta is the name of a person, but that person understands the theory I pose– that society values characters.  So Stefani removed almost every shred of personhood that she possessed and became the character Lady Gaga, and we ate it up.  As Lady Gaga, Stefani now lives almost entirely in her characterdom (can you imagine how odd it would be to see Lady Gaga, say, shopping for produce?) and she has experienced a tremendous amount of success because of it (also because the specific character that she has created is compelling and just so doggone weird).  The tragic part of that transformation is that by living entirely in characterdom, Stefani has removed any possibility that people who meet her as Lady Gaga will genuinely love her.  I would imagine at some point Lady Gaga drops the act, and there are likely people in her life that still just know her as Stefani, and perhaps those people love her.  But by diving so deeply into characterdom, I would suggest she is doing herself a major disservice.

What then does that mean for you or me?  I would argue that most people– be they famous or not, present some sort of balance between personhood and characterdom.  We all know someone for whom the phrase “(s)he’s a real character” may apply, and there are likely things that people who know us would suggest we are known for doing.  And being known for something is often a good feeling, often leading us to identify with those things we are known for.  This is clearly evident if you think back to your high school days.  Jock, nerd, skater, drama kid– these are all characters (that we were so quick to be characterized in high school is likely why high school was so glorious for some, and so miserable for others).  Aspects of our character are often what lead us to feeling a sense of belonging, which is why we as “normal” people (whatever that means) don’t abandon character entirely, even though it poses less value to us than it would to a celebrity, or someone trying to be one.  In general, the people that we know fall more within the category of person than character, and that is precisely because we know them.

It is a selfish and egotistical fact that I sometimes see myself as the starring character in a world that revolves largely around me, the lead in some sort of Truman Show-esque fantasy world.  I think the reason for this is because deep down, I have a strange desire to characterize myself.  If I am a character, then my life is not boring– I can take part in harrowing adventures and sweeping romances, and the moments when I’m nervous can be enhanced by a tremolo-filled string score.  Donald Miller (I told you we’d get back to him), in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, argues that we should live our lives this way, we should see ourselves as characters in a grand story.  He suggests that we should seek out opportunities to create story-worthy events in our lives, constantly asking ourselves if we are satisfied with the character we are creating ourselves to be.  Miller came to this conclusion after a Hollywood movie director decided to make a movie out of a previous memoir that Miller had written, but realized that the life Miller had described in that previous memoir wasn’t story-worthy enough.  Miller then set out to story-ize his life, to make his real life worthy of a film, and argues this philosophy of living through a sort of get-off-the-couch-get-out-there-and-live lens.  While I tend to agree with elements of it in that manner, I’m wary of it as a holistic life philosophy.

The problem I see is the potential for us all to end up becoming miniature Lady Gagas, which makes for a thrilling and entertaining world, but also a world that is largely self-focused and totally devoid of Stefani Germanottas, which I see as a tragedy.  While it is nice to be liked as a character, it’s nothing compared to being loved as a person.  When we characterize ourselves, we risk the potential for loss of vulnerability.  Of love, Franzen suggests “[it] is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are.”  The problem with characters is that they aren’t real.  They are a photograph, a limited view of the whole.  We like them this way.  With characters, we can cut out the boring parts, the unimportant parts, the little messy contradictions that exist in our everyday lives.  But with real, breathing people, all these things exist.  Living in a world of characters is easy, but to live in relation with people, we have to accept, perhaps even love, all the boring parts, the unimportant parts, and the messy contradictions.  Without getting too sappy, I’d suggest that’s what love is, and I’d bet Jonathan Franzen would agree with me.  It’s a challenging proposition, no doubt.  To quote him again, he says that it is “the prospect of pain . . . [that] makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking.”  I think you could substitute the word “character” for “liking” and the quote would maintain its validity.  When we stop being characters and start being people, we run the risk of getting hurt.  Sure, I could live life as a character in some grand story, who swings from tree to tree and rescues princesses, but the problem is that I never open up my true person to what’s out there.  When I get hurt as a character, I can write it off as something that happened to “that guy”, and keep my self protected from that part of life.  So while I’m not suggesting that Miller’s book is an anti-vulnerability tome of any kind, I am suggesting that it should be viewed more as a simple call for action than a call for the restructuring of how one sees themselves.  In the end, both Franzen’s and Miller’s messages share a similar simplified message, that being to get out there and live.  But it is the manner in which we live that I believe makes the difference.  And perhaps the solution then is a compromise of sorts– to view one’s life as a grand story, but to exist and navigate through that story as a whole, unedited, living, loving person.  While it may not look so good on a movie screen, I’d suggest that life isn’t meant for adaptation, it’s meant for living.


May I Call You Dan?: Letter to a Bestselling Author

More familiar readers know that a portion of my current professional life is consumed by Barnes & Noble, a company that, due to a recent downturn in sales, has become very excited about the release of über-popular author Dan Brown’s latest book, The Lost Symbol. About a week prior to the book’s release, a photocopy of the following letter appeared on the bulletin board in the break room of Barnes & Nobles nationwide:


September 2009

Dear Barnes & Noble,

As I prepare for the September 15th release of my new novel, The Lost Symbol, I wanted to take a moment and thank you for the important work you do… for authors, for readers, and, above all, for books.

A few years back, with the release of a little book called The Da Vinci Code, Barnes & Noble led the way with unparalleled enthusiasm and support.  You made an enormous difference, and I will be forever grateful.  This fall, more than ever, let’s make it a season to remember.

With sincere thanks and best wishes,

Dan Brown


The following is my reply to that letter:

Dear Dan,

May I call you Dan?  Pardon me if I’m being too glib, but I figured as long as we were communicating via these casual letters, we might as well skip all the “Mr. Brown” formalities and get right to the more penpallsy vernacular you established in your note.  And while we’re on the subject of that note, let me take the opportunity to now thank you.  As a part-time bookseller at one of the thirteen Barnes & Nobles in my immediate area, I can’t tell you how often I feel the work I do to help support authors, especially wildly successful ones like yourself, goes unnoticed, and to at long last have one of those authors return some thanks certainly validates me and the effort I put forth.  You (or your assistant, whoever jotted the note) are a gracious and wonderful man (Consider for a moment that J.K. Rowling [the heartless bitch] hasn’t even sent us the likes of a measly “thank you” drunkenly scrawled on a used cocktail napkin despite that it was we the booksellers who turned that stale cliché of an orphaned wizard into a cash-printing cultural phenom.  All that to say, it’s nice to be recognized.).

Now as to your most recent novel: I’m sure it’s been difficult to gauge what the word of mouth is from your gated beachside home in New Hampshire, but let me tell you, from where I’m standing, things are looking good for you, sir!  I haven’t yet had the chance to read it myself, but being surrounded by book lovers at work, I’ve been able to have my fair share of conversations with people who have, and let me tell you, I’ve heard some glowing reviews.

“Literary masterpiece” isn’t a phrase that’s tossed around very liberally, which probably explains why I haven’t heard it used to describe your book yet, but I have heard that it’s really passed the time on a number of trans-continental flights, or in the terminal in between trips to the bathroom and the Cinnabon kiosk (or should that be the other way around? *lol*), or on a week’s worth of bus rides to and from the office.  I’ve even talked to one man who’s already halfway through your book despite he’s only been reading it over a handful of visits to the bathroom, and he told me most of the time it’s been so thrilling that he doesn’t want those visits to end!  And if there’s one thing the eager bibliophiles of the world need more of, it’s literature that’s enjoyable from the bus to the bathroom, that passes time like a 528-page game of minesweeper, but with even more dramatic tension.

(“…enjoyable from the bus to the bathroom.” Hey, that’s kind of catchy… maybe you could use that on the book jacket for the next major reprint?  Fingers crossed for you that it’s before Christmas!)

Really, though, we the readers shouldn’t expect anything less from the author of (as you put it) “a little book called The Da Vinci Code.” Little, Dan?  Hardly!  If your intent was to amuse with a modest and self-effacing jab at your hugely successful novel-turned-multi-billion-dollar-Ron-Howard-movie-franchise, then consider me tickled pink.  Calling the world’s most purchased novel little? It’s biting wit like that that can only come from a paid professional writer, and here you are giving it away free to Barnes & Noble employees nationwide.  That’s why you get paid the big bucks, friend.  Consider all those royalty checks validated.

So again, Dan, many thanks for your gracious note, as brief as it may have been.  I know I appreciate your brevity in that, had it been any longer than four sentences, it likely would have been as gripping a page-turner as your newly-grown library of cryptic mystery novels, and everyone reading it could have taken a hefty withdrawal from the productivity bank here at our local B&N, and then who’d be available to sell your book?!

Do know that we’re doing all we can here to push your most recent of masterpieces on everyone who comes in the store.  We sold over 200 copies in the first week of release, so if we can’t break 1,000 before the holiday season, well then that’d be a Langdon-worthy mystery if ever I’ve heard one.  As an eager reader, I encourage you to keep writing, because I know I can’t wait to see which religion you (and then hopefully Tom Hanks, *ka-ching!!*) will debunk next with a flick of that mighty pen of yours!

Your Friend,



Have You Ever…

…seen anything like this on a late night talk show before?  You may have seen this before (it is over two years old), but I just discovered it today, and thought it was worth sharing.  I argued in this post that celebrities are simply normal people, and should be ignored just like any other normal person we’ve never met before.  Craig Ferguson had an opinion on how our society treats celebrities, and thankfully he had a forum to share that opinion, because it was worth hearing.  It’s marvelous to see that there’s someone out there on television that is actually sharing a worthwhile opinion, and not just trying to please their boss, or their viewers, or themselves.  Anyway, on to the video.  Take some time, and watch this:


Sam’s Choice

If there’s one thing Hollywood loves, it’s— well, it’s probably money.  If there’s two things, it’s money, and a good inspirational teacher movie.  Think Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Freedom Writers, even Sister Act 2 had that “if you want to be somebody, you better wake up and pay attention” song, and it inspired the heck out of Lauryn Hill.

There’s a reason these stories are so popular, and it’s because they’re at least somewhat relatable.  We’ve all had a teacher or two in our lifetime that has helped us realize that maybe we’re able to do things we didn’t know we could do, so while we watch Mr. Keating talk about seizing the day, or Mr. Holland beat quarter notes onto the helmet of a well-intentioned but rhythmically challenged football player, we see that teacher who took special interest in us, who made learning geography more like learning real life, or who encouraged us to pursue things that were bigger and better than we thought we could.

But there’s one thing that I promise you you will never find in any inspirational teacher movie, and that’s the inspirational teacher taking a day off.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember any scene from Stand and Deliver where Kimo needs his bi-annual dental check-up, but the only appointment he could get was right in the middle of third period, so he decided he might as well take the whole day off and call in a sub.

There is a reason that scene is omitted, and that’s because generally, it is assumed that nothing inspirational happens when the substitute shows up.  There’s nothing inspirational about math word searches, silent reading, or movie notes on Bill Nye the Science Guy.  Let the inspirational teacher be inspiring, the substitute can… babysit.  The inspirational teacher is Coca-Cola, the sub is Sam’s Choice.

This post is about what it’s like to be Sam’s Choice.

Growing up, going to Fourth of July parties and summer backyard barbecues, I opened a lot of coolers to disappointment.  Nothing takes a party down a notch from absolute perfection like a can of Dr. Thunder.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing terribly bad about Dr. Thunder, and a deep swig of Mountain Lightening can give you just the right jolt to get through that next round of chicken fights, but the message that a two-liter of Sam’s Choice sends is “you’re not getting the full experience.”

This past year, as a substitute teacher in a typical school district north of Denver, I spent most of my time trying to fight that stigma, trying to prove that I could be the full experience.  Substituting, typically, is not taken seriously, in the same way a bartender might not take you seriously if you asked for a rum and Sam’s.  Normally, substituting is something old ladies do because bridge club only meets once a week and their fingers get tired if the only other thing they do is knit.  Because of this, and a number of other reasons, students refuse to accept, respect, or pay much attention to substitute teachers.  For the past year, this was my challenge to overcome.

Quite frankly, the biggest problem is the title.  The term “substitute,” a term which over the course of the past year I came to repudiate, implies inadequacy.  To substitute is to replace with something that is, more often than not, inferior.  “We have a sub today” really means “Don’t worry, it’s not a real teacher.  We’ve got nothing to worry about.”  Which is why over the past school year, I was never a substitute, I was a freelance educator, an alternate teacher.  I would not allow myself to be a substitute.  I’m no Mountain Lightening.

The problem is, convincing the world you aren’t Mountain Lightening when that’s exactly what you’re expected to be is a lofty task.  A note from a teacher like “sixth period can be a handful, but try and get a list of the kids that mouth off, and I’ll deal with them” might as well say, “Hey, Sam’s Choice, I know you can’t handle it, but at least remind them who the real authority figure is, and that should hold them off until tomorrow.”

And I got plenty of those notes.  But thankfully, every once in a while I had the chance to show my stuff, to prove that a little Dr. Thunder doesn’t have to ruin the party, and it can even have its advantages at times.  Students at the school where I did probably 70% of my subbing eventually got to know me, and they started to realize that they couldn’t pull the same stuff with me that they had with other substitute teachers.  I learned that the most powerful word you can use when talking to a student is their name, and I made darn sure to use them.  All of the sudden something as simple as “Auburney, come in and sit down.  You’re already two minutes late for class” held even more power than if it were said by the teacher I was subbing for.  Now not only were they doing something wrong, but I knew who they were, and they had to account for that.  I was still the same person, still a “substitute” in their eyes, but all of the sudden I had power.  The label was gone, now it was just a blind taste test, and without that stigma of “Sam’s Choice,” I was suddenly just as refreshing, just as bubbly, and perhaps even a bit more cost-efficient than that Coca-Cola we all seem to think is far superior.

Of course, there are some disadvantages to removing that stigma.  When people have expectations of you that you don’t meet, no matter the reason, they get upset with you.  When students are used to being able to be late, to sit wherever they want, and to waste time all period listening to iPods when there’s a sub, they start to look at you as the bad guy for not allowing them those luxuries.

And if there’s anything I know from being a high school student myself, it’s that high school students pretty much only consider one perspective, that being their own.  A high school student rarely looks at a substitute and thinks, “the more I’m distracted, the more difficult his job is,”  the high school student thinks, “I should be able to get away with more than this.  This deal is not fair to me.”  And the (sometimes) great thing about high school students is they almost always say what’s on their mind.  And because of that, I have a notebook filled with comments and exchanges that prove this point.  Like this one:

“Omar, I don’t get it.  Why won’t you finish the work that I assigned to you?”

“I shouldn’t have to.”

“Really?  Why not?”

“Because you’re just a sub.  We never do anything when there’s a sub.”

“Well unfortunately for you, Omar, I’m a different kind of sub.  And what that means is yes, you do have to finish your work.  And you can choose to do it now, or you can choose to come back and do it at lunch.  But don’t think that just because I’m not Mr. Fitzgerald that you get a free pass.”

Excuses like “because you’re just a sub” are commonplace, and you can allow them to sting, or you can deal with them head on.  It took me a couple tries, but I learned how to deal with them, and I learned that with some kids, that was going to come with the cost of them not liking you.

“You know what Mr. Graham,” one well-intentioned, good student told me once as he was leaving one afternoon.  “No offense or anything, but I thought you should know: a lot of people think you’re one of the worst teachers here.”

I’m sure I quickly came up with something to say to move him along, but it was difficult for me to hide the emotion that was building inside me.

He called me a teacher.


Somebody in Congress Has Been Reading…

Careful readers will remember this post, specifically, bullet point number one.

Now, there’s this in the news.

I’ll be awaiting your vote come November.


Adam Lambert, J.J. Abrams, and Mystery

As previously mentioned here, I have occasionally found myself part of the conglomerate of Americans that weekly find themselves lingering on the every word of the well-groomed and omnipresent alien being that refers to itself as Ryan J. Seacrest.  And as an American Idol viewer, I am keenly aware of the three contestants remaining in this year’s contest, and have formed my own personal opinions about the outcome of the competition.

For the uninformed, here is the general rundown of the three gentlemen who have yet to be eliminated from the program: (since there are only three contestants remaining, it should be assumed that all are talented vocalists, which they are.  If we assume the playing field is even in the talent department, then the contest will be determined, as it typically is, by the persona each contestant has created, the demographics they appeal to, and the way they style their hair rather than pure musical giftedness.  This will be a discussion about those particular nonmusical qualities.) Danny Gokey is the odds-on, overwhelming favorite, as long as the only people you’re asking are white, Christian, and middle class.  He’s a church worship leader, he wears trendy glasses, and he’s a widow, which in an eerily morbid way, makes him more likeable.  Kris Allen is a guitar-strummin’, aww-gee-shucks southern heartthrob, and his style lies somewhere between Jason Mraz and John Mayer.  Whenever Ryan Seacrest says Kris’ name, hundreds of pubescent girls scream like his last name was Jonas and hold up signs that say “Marry Me Kris,” while Kris’ clearly visible wife smiles on adoringly.  And then there’s Adam Lambert.

Adam Lambert, in many ways, defies description.  He wears eyeliner and lots of jewelry and leather, and has a vocal range that would make Steve Perry wet himself with jealousy.  The only thing the public really knows about Adam Lambert is that he’s a theater kid, and was in the Los Angeles cast of Wicked before he became a contestant on the show.  We don’t really know where he came from, we don’t know anything about his family, we don’t know who taught him to sing like that, and we never know what he’s going to do next.  Moreso than anything else, however, we don’t know whether or not Adam Lambert is gay.  And that’s where J.J. Abrams comes in.

J.J. Abrams is the man behind such T.V. shows as Alias, Fringe, and Lost, and movies like Star Trek and Cloverfield.  J.J. Abrams knows the power of an unanswered question, as evidenced through this article he wrote in Wired Magazine, or his Ted Talk here.  He has revitalized suspense in a way we haven’t seen probably since Alfred Hitchcock.  What J.J. Abrams knows is that an integral part of human nature is our inquisitiveness.  Going all the way back to Socrates, we have been a society that questions. As humans, we seek truth, it’s just part of who we are.  What happens after we die, who would make the best president, and what the hell is that smoke monster thing, and why did it kill Mr. Eko?  And now, added to that list of unanswered questions is the question on every American Idol fan’s mind: is Adam Lambert gay?

I think I know what J.J. Abrams would answer if you asked him whether or not Adam Lambert was gay.  I think J.J. Abrams would probably say, if we knew, wouldn’t that just make it less exciting?  The truth is, if Adam Lambert told America he was gay, it wouldn’t change the fact that he’s still a talented singer, and I don’t think it would change anyone’s vote for or against him.  The kind of person who would only vote for Adam Lambert if he wasn’t gay is likely already casting their vote for Danny or Kris.  If Adam Lambert told America he was gay, the only thing he’d be changing is the mystery that surrounds him, and that might just be the reason we don’t know yet.  The reason people keep watching Lost week after week is because they expect that eventually, all their questions will be answered (even if forty-seven new questions show up every time you answer one).  Isn’t it possible that, aside from his obvious talent, Adam Lambert is still on American Idol for the same reason?  We figure if we keep watching, if we keep voting him to the next week and the week after that, he might just answer some of those pesky questions.

I’m not saying Adam Lambert left his sexuality in question intentionally, but he might have.  If he didn’t, he’s probably realized by now that he’s stumbled into something that’s keeping the public’s attention, which is why he hasn’t just flat-out said anything about it yet.  As Abrams points out in the Wired article I linked to earlier, we live in an age of immediacy, where the answer to literally any question we may have is only a mouse click away, and that truth has enhanced the way we look at questions that don’t seem to have obvious or easy answers.  In other words, in a world where we can have all the answers, we’re intrigued only by the ones we don’t have.

And that’s why I think Adam Lambert is going to win American Idol this year.  Or, if he doesn’t win, he’ll end up more successful than whoever does.  It’s apparent from the itty-bitty-nobody-to-all-powerful-cultural-icon path of previous Idol winners like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson that twelve weeks of being on that show is the equivalent of an upper division master class in becoming a celebrity.  And judging by the way in which he has captured the public’s attention (he hasn’t even won yet, and he’s already on the cover of this week’s Entertainment Weekly), it’s clear that Adam Lambert is at the top of that class for this year.  Whether or not they deserve the attention they get, (and that’s another story entirely) the celebrities that capture the public’s attention do so by utilizing Mr. Abrams’ favorite concept of mystery.  Who are they dating, where are they going, what will they do next, and yes, are they gay?

And that’s why Adam’s going to win.  Like all the contestants, he’s got the talent to deserve the spotlight, and perhaps more importantly, he’s got the mystery to maintain it.  And as long as he keeps America guessing, he’ll be at the forefront of the public eye, and he’ll preserve our attention.  That is, until some bigger mystery comes along to distract us.