Grade Levels

This post will be a return to a discussion of my career as a high school English teacher. I want to explore, for myself as much as any reader, how I regard teaching each of the grade levels I have experience with, and break down some basic elements of my teaching that I’m hoping to come back to with more depth in the future of this blog.

full frame shot of stadium
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

To start, I don’t know how valuable any sort of comparison is between grade levels, but let me tell you – comparing 9th and 10th and 11th and 12th graders is an absolute favorite pastime of teachers. To be honest, I really don’t think there’s much of a difference between full classes of these grade levels, certainly not nearly as much as we high school teachers make it out to be. I’m absolutely guilty of that, and even now I can’t shake the mental concept that teaching 9th graders and 10th graders is absolutely going to be totally different experiences. There is a difference, but how much of it is just the school system siloing kids into these broad categories, which are ultimately arbitrary? One group of kids labeled freshmen, yes, will all conceivably be about a year younger than a group of kids labeled sophomores, but there will certainly be exceptions, I think. I doubt it would be hard at all to find freshmen who are actually older than some sophomores, and vice versa. The school system, however, has taken this rough classification and propelled it to incredible heights. Teaching freshmen in high school is absolutely going to be different than teaching sophomores, not to mention a class of high school seniors.

So, that being said, I’m going to set the arbitrary nature of ‘grade level’ aside and take it for granted that a freshman will be different than a sophomore, in ways which teachers love to generalize and argue about. I’ve been a teacher for four years, and I’ve moved around somewhat in the grade levels I teach. My first year I had just 9th and 10th graders, two classes each. Since then, I’ve had classes of sophomores every year, and so that group (and that set of curriculum) has become the most familiar for me. Starting my second year, though, I have had the privilege of teaching a specialized, 12th grade English course, called Language and Gender (this course will have its own dedicated post). I’ve taught English 12: Language and Gender for three years, and next year will be the fourth.

So I’ve taught freshmen, sophomores, and seniors. What’s the big deal? Here’s my chance to make some sweeping and likely somewhat inaccurate generalizations about these approximate groups. I’ll start with the seniors.

12th Grade: This is a watershed year for students, starting with the summer of 11th grade when they realize that their next year will be their last. The year proceeds, filled with this moments and realizations that wow, high school is almost over, and for much of the senior class the gravity of that gradual realization sets the tone for the year. Different students respond to this concept in different ways, and nearly all of them grow to resent the awful question (what will you do after high school??) that hangs over their heads. Some will respond by shutting down, putting themselves in precarious academic positions on the eve of finishing secondary school. I’m happy to say that, in my experience, the vast majority are able to get themselves back on track by the end, but there are also inevitable close calls, and the few students who, for a variety of reasons are unable to pass my course, or I learn have found it necessary to pursue other ways to earn their GED and finish or move on with school. Taking this in mind, I have found that teaching 12th grade is both the most rewarding, intellectually engaging, and also the most stressful and heartbreaking grade to teach. I think just about everyone has vivid memories of their last year at high school.

10th Grade: This is the grade level I’ve taught in each of my four years of experience, and so it has become the grade and the curriculum with which I am easily the most familiar and comfortable. Tenth graders, to over-simplify, come to school with something to prove. They are no longer the new young faces at school, they have some knowledge about the system, and they often seem determined to cause a ruckus. However, once engaged with a class, I have found 10th grades to often be deeply thoughtful, aware of their surroundings, curious about the material and larger implications, and often already motivated to do well in their studies. Tenth grade English class is, however, often fairly bleak. Our district English departments have collectively agreed upon a set of texts, one per grade level, to be regarded as a obligatory reading in order to promote departmental and cross-school cohesion. The text that every 10th grader (more or less) in the city reads is Elie Wiesel’s Night, a gripping Holocaust memoir. The other units I teach for 10th grade are often similarly dark, I won’t go too much into detail with them, but another is the perennial sophomore text The Lord of the Flies. Over the last two years, I’ve tried out various units and texts to try and mix things up, with some successes. I guess I like teaching 10th grade because its the grade I’ve been able to put in the most trial and error with my teaching, and I’ve found that 10th graders are often the most forgiving when I’m trying something new. They will not hesitate to provide feedback, whether its a grudging acceptance or blistering criticism, but all my sophomore classes have shown a wonderful ability to come to each day’s class with the potential to engage – something that starts to evaporate in the late spring for the senior classes.

9th Grade: This is the grade level with which I am the least familiar. I’ve only taught freshmen once, and it was back when I was a first year teacher. It was pretty tough, as every teacher’s first year is. It has been interesting, though, to see some of those same students back in my classes in later years, most notable again in my 12th grade classes, and I got to see them them graduate just this last June. Getting back to the freshmen class, I would characterize them simply as new. They all have their individual personalities and study habits and curiosities, but all of that is a little reserved while they sit back and wait and see what the others will do, what the upperclassmen will do. Of course this is probably the most sweeping and least accurate generalization of them all, certainly there are countless brash, impatient, and fearless freshman. As they make their transition from middle school to high school, though, the observation I recall from my classes is this moment of hesitation.

Next Year: I’ve recently learned that there is a good chance I will, once again, have 9th graders next year. Its been a long time, and those classes will sit next to my course for 12th graders. It will be interesting to return to this grade level, as much as the difference between 9th and 10th graders is arbitrary. I’ve started going over my notes and reflecting on what I’ve discussed with other teachers in my department, and I’m excited to start planning out my units and the year in earnest. The curriculum, certainly, will be a big chance of pace for me from the material I have for 10th grade.</p>

Where do you work?

Something that always comes up when making small talk, or meeting new people, is where each person works. “What do you do?” or “Where do you work?” has never been a question I enjoy asking or answering, no matter my job, and I don’t think I’ll ever feel totally comfortable with it. I’m guilty of asking the question, and I do really enjoy the follow up to it when talking with other people about their school or career or whatever. What I try to do, though, is take the conversation in a different route, avoiding obvious follow up questions and trying instead to ask about something other than the routine small-talk job questions. I try to do this because for the past five years my end of this question about where I work has been, to be honest, tedious and predictable.
“Where do you work?” I’m a teacher, and I can answer the inevitable follow up questions too. I teach high school, English classes, and I’m mostly taught 10th and 12th grade. Next fall will be my fifth year as a teacher, all at the same school, and yes summer breaks are great. I have taught summer school before, and honestly I enjoyed it, but having time to decompress and read and study is absolutely necessary for teachers.
I hope I haven’t overstated the awkward nature of this particular branch of small talk, and talking about teaching really it doesn’t bother me too much. This is evident if I meet another teacher, or someone who is in the process of going into teaching. I think most non-teachers know that once two teachers meet, any discussion of teaching (shop talk) can easily fill the space of hours, and often I have to stop conversations about teaching with some effort of will, for the sake of the non-teachers around me. Maybe I feel a little uncomfortable, then, when people ask what I do for a living, because I know I’m about to bring teaching and school into the conversation. Teaching touches everyones life, and everyone therefore has a lot to say about it – about their schools, their teachers, their kids, education in politics, unions, teachers’ pay, bad teachers, great teachers, and so on, you get the idea. Its obviously something I feel strongly about, and something that most people have strong feelings about, and so I have this moment of hesitation when I’m meeting someone for the first time and they ask me, “so, what do you do?”
In this blog, I’m going to be making an attempt to actually answer that question. My goal is to use posts to reflect on what exactly I’m trying out in my classes, and consider ways in which to improve my practice. I want to use the blog to review educational texts, and sift through my notes in search of practical applications for whatever I’m considering and working on. And I want to hold space for some posts where I can get into shop talk, where I can take an issue of the day and explore where my particular positions on it might be.
As a teacher, I’m kind of a public figure. Not in a major way at all, but I will be paying close attention to the things I write, and they will be in the context of my self as a teacher, instead of as a private individual. I won’t have my name or talk much about my personal life on here, but this is the internet, and it won’t be too hard to put two and two together. My students are very good at this, and there is a reasonable chance that students or former students will find this blog. I actually hesitated for a long time before deciding to use the blog posts to write about teaching – something I did before even entering the teaching credential program was to scrub my online presence to a minimum. To be honest, I probably worried about it far too much, but taking down my old blog was still a good call. There was some really bad writing on there, and I was pretty dramatic with the song lyric titles for posts.
One thing that will definitely intersect with teaching posts is my book reviews. I think my book reviews will soon take a turn into YA or near-YA books, as I do like to have a sense of some YA titles for my classroom reading program, or SSR. I think my next teaching post will go over my present approach to sustained silent reading, how my program has evolved over the past few years, and further changes I’m considering for next year.

Ancillary Justice

51D-qGmHGgL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_
image from amazon page

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie, should not be described as another distant future space opera, although it operates within all of these categories. The book hurls the reader into distant space, where the Radche is an enormous, overwhelming empire, overseen by Anaander Mianaai and her multitudinous bodies are the Lord of the Radch. The reader begins to piece together the connections between two plot threads. In one, the mysterious stranger Breq, comes across a Radchaai officer, Seivarden, she had known a thousand years in the past, now slowly dying in the snow of a winter planet. Breq shows mercy to the young officer, and continues her pursuit of a legendary weapon. In the other thread, Breq is not using the name Breq, but is the collective consciousness of the spaceship Justice of Toren, as well as all its ancillaries.

These ancillaries are the idea that was so hard for me to wrap my head around at first, along with the collective consciousness behind them. Ancillaries of the Imperial Radch are, in fact, bodies killed during Radchaai annexations, then revived as automaton soldiers. Therefore, the ship Justice of Toren is aware not only of every individual within the ship (and the data from all their implants), but also is each of the ancillary units. The notable unit of ancillaries is in fact stationed on the planet Justice of Toren is orbiting during its annexation, Shis’urna, and are serving under the orders of Lieutenant Awn, who is trying to unravel a plot of sabotage in an occupied city before it spirals out of control. Justice of Toren, and its ancillary unit One Esk, seems quite preoccupied with this officer, and the way Leckie lays out this fondness and concern on the part of what is essentially an AI is masterfully done. This is all happening while the reader is still grasping how Justice of Toren thinks. One memorable moment in particular is when One Esk is standing near the lieutenant, and sees herself also outside of the temple in several locations around the lower city courtyard.

Slowly, the two threads of the plot reach towards one another, and we learn how the peculiar habit specific to Justice of Toren One Esk had – of collecting and singing various songs from all its visited planets and peoples and thousands of years – becomes crucially significant, and how this enormous starship AI was reduced to a single, frail ancillary body who took the name Breq. What happens if the connection between each of the ancillary units and the ship are cut off? What happens if the Lord of the Radch sneaks onboard, with secret orders for the ship that supersede even the ship’s captain? What happens to a ship if it grows fond of an officer, or even its captain, who then dies? What does it mean for a starship to lose its mind?

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_long-640x364
image from this Ars Technica review

A couple other notes. I found the function of the Imperial Radch fascinating, as I did the Empire’s approach of assimilating all religions, and how Breq came to embrace them. I want to learn more about how that works and how it plays out across the sprawling Empire. I want to learn more about the ships, the Justices, the Swords, and the Mercies. Also quite well done, in my view, was how Leckie built a galaxy-spanning empire of people without a gender binary. I have to admit that I’m primed for this kind of society, being a teacher who uses Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness annually to discuss gender – and to be honest I think Ancillary Justice does a far more satisfying job of carrying out the concept. The decision to use the female pronoun for all Radchaai citizens is certainly not perfect, but I think it was the best possible approach. Carrying the idea home is how Breq can never figure out pronouns when on a planet with a gender binary, the flipping of pronouns by others when regarding the officer Seivarden, and both of their obvious relief upon returning to a Radchaai region, when the binary no longer presents a puzzle. All of that works, it takes some time and effort but creates a non-binary society better than Le Guin did, even lacking a biological interlude, and it does it in a way that really doesn’t obstruct the plot. Once the reader figures out who is who (which is further complicated by these individual consciousnesses in collective bodies), everything else starts to click into place (in this io9 piece from a longer interview, Leckie talks about how she received early criticism for the pronouns, but was steadfast in her decision). Overall, I found this a wonderful book, and eagerly look forward to reading the second book of the trilogy.

FLCL

I always have difficulty in answering questions like “what’s your favorite book / band / TV show?” I don’t really have consistent favorites, just common answers that I return to, and there have definitely been times where I answered a question about a favorite band that I really didn’t mean, and just used because its something I’d said before.

I think my favorites are constantly shifting, and its really dependent on what has been recent for me, in addition to the fact that comparison among such big genres is nigh impossible. Whenever I try to pick a favorite, then, I usually just preface my answer by saying that this is my favorite right now.

However, the brief anime series FLCL (pronounced Fooly Cooly) might very well stand up as one of my all-time favorites for a television show. Its a show I’ve habitually returned to over the years, despite being a person who almost never rewatches shows.

FLCL_image.jpgFLCL_(Fooly_Cooly)_anime_logo.svg.png

From the very first scene (“he who conquers the left side conquers the world, Chief”), I got the sense that this would be a new favorite show of mine. The show immediately and deftly works together a small-town, slice of life atmosphere while simultaneously setting itself up as a cheeky, never-serious and over-the-top series. The series somehow manages to have both deep, complex characters and a wild, unpredictable chain of events.

FLCLcharas.jpg

“Nothing amazing happens here. Everything is ordinary.” These small moments of calm and reflection (in that case as the camera pans upwards past a massive building in the shape of a clothing iron), are tucked neatly into Japanese anime industry in-jokes, raucous action sequences, and the dramatic shifts in style. The moments of quiet, though, are the real reason this show is my favorite. A second where Naota lays on his bed and listens to a plane fly over, the school announcements coming on in the background of students talking, or a long, tense moment of silence after a yelled outburst. This show is a master of capturing “real” moments of everyday life, and I find it difficult to think of other shows that have the same level of detail.

The show was produced by the FLCL Production Committee, a supergroup of sorts from the anime industry. The director, Kazuya Tsurumaki, said in an interview that with FLCL he tried to “break the rules” of an anime show. One way to do this was to mimic a promotional or commercial style, creating a slapdash, short but densely packed series of episodes. Another fairly unique production choice was to bring in a Japanese alternative rock back, The Pillows, for the soundtrack.

FLCL has earned widespread acclaim, and several reviews really resonated with my own feelings of the show. “FLCL is something that allowed those involved to try a wide variety of styles and techniques and does come off as quite experimental. But nearly everything worked in their favor and you end up with three hours of nearly break neck speed action, comedy and commentary on modern life.” says Chris Beveridge of Mania (quote from Wikipedia as the original website seems to be lost).

One of the more comprehensive and well-written reviews comes from IGN, where Davis Smith writes, “Logic dictates that FLCL should be an undisciplined and unaffecting mess, given all the insanity that its creators are attempting to weld into a functioning whole. Yet while it’s hard to explain exactly why, it works. It entertains me. At times, it makes me laugh; at times, it makes me a little misty-eyed; at times, it makes me want to scream and howl and light things on fire and break windows with baseball bats and yes, maybe even buy a Vespa. That’s the kind of success that you just can’t argue with.”

1200
image from Gainax through this AVClub review

One of my favorite characters is the robot, who is known by a variety of names, like “TV Boy” by Naota’s father, or Cantido, the Lord of the Black Flames by Mamimi. I love how this character is just deeply unknowable. Most often referred to as Canti, he becomes a critically important character in the plot, but as that happens he’s used for a variety of tasks by the rest of the characters – from retrieving drinks and adult magazines to recording TV shows, to playing baseball or becoming a powerful host for characters in mecha combat. Canti is a robot who’s been anthropomorphized, feeling shame at having the back of his head cracked, mysteriously eating curry, or displaying compassion and kindness even to those who try to destroy him.

Now, 16 years later from the original 2000-2001 production of the show, FLCL will have seasons 2 and 3 released in late 2017-2018. I was blown away when first hearing about that, and I’m happy to learn more details about the new seasons, especially the fact that The Pillows will once again be providing the soundtrack. I will have to make an effort not to raise my expectations too high, but a return to the world of FLCL is certainly a trip to look forwards to.

 

Buffalo Bill’s Brewery

Note: The intention behind this post is to start a series within my blog, where I focus on the history of the local area, in this case the East Bay Area in California. My former blog had a few posts in this category, and I really enjoyed learning and writing about this subject. They won’t be all too frequent, but look for more posts of this type in the future.

Buffalobills_goldlogo.png
official logo from Wikipedia

Buffalo Bill’s Brewery has been a staple of downtown Hayward since it was founded by Bill Owens in 1983. The year prior to Bill’s opening, California finally changed a state law prohibiting businesses from brewing and selling beer on the same premises. Therefore, Bill’s became one of the very first brewpubs to begin operating in the nation, standing at the very origins of the craft brew movement. The first beer offered by Bill’s outside of their brewpub location is the Alimony Ale – supposedly created for a client going through a divorce in 1987.  In addition to this, Buffalo Bill’s is also credited with creating the very first commercial available pumpkin ale (the linked article is a fascinating read about both pumpkin ales and the position pumpkins have had in American culture).

After first getting a job by cleaning out tanks for free, the current owner of Buffalo Bills is Geoff Harries purchased the brewpub in 1994. Since then, he has expanded the offering and reach of Buffalo Bill’s, and has recently been working on opening a Hayward distillery, called the Russell City Distillery. According to the Mercury News, Russell City is a reference to a town west of Hayward, a blue-collar town sitting right on the bayshore, which was annexed by Hayward in the 60s and out past the Hayward Executive Airport. The latest news from Russell City Distillery is that a larger sill is being installed, and that hopes are that production begins later this summer.

The Turn of the Twin Peaks

I have watched the TV series Twin Peaks once before, but it has been startling to me how much of the show was lost to my memory after only just a few years. The show, easily one of the strangest shows to be consistently listed in “best of all time” television show lists, nonetheless had a profound impact on me when first watching it, as it no doubt has had on many others. Returning to that experience without remembering much of the particulars has been just as enjoyable.

that’s a damn fine cup of coffee

One of the things I do remember, after finishing watching that finale of season two, was my intense desire to discuss, read, and contemplate the show. I didn’t go all that far into the twin peaks fandom, despite that desire. I’m not entirely sure why. I think I was satisfied simply by remembering specific parts of the show, tying myself back into the town. I also recall never being all that satisfied with any particular fan theory.

Now, slowly working my way back through a second viewing (I’m only 6 episodes into season two right now, so don’t worry about spoilers here), I have slowly come to what I think is a better perspective for Twin Peaks. This is a show that is built, built by a master to resist interpretation, a single answer, or some satisfactory solution. I remember this strongly – even as questions that seemed so crucial are answered, there are simultaneously new wrinkles that make those answers incomplete, unsatisfactory, and only an opening to a still darker pathway. Once the hooks are in, there is no stopping the show from pulling us all along into its depths, a thrilling roller coaster drop into something endless and unknown.

A parallel I can draw from David Lynch’s show, is to the masterful work by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw. I first encountered this story in college, during a brilliant class on literary theory. The Turn of the Screw, a ghost story with Gothic overtones about a governess sent to a forlorn, potentially haunted mansion, has a very similar quality to Twin Peaks in that both of these works derive their power from their ability to remain ambiguous, exploiting the viewer or reader’s fear of the unknown, and prompting both to seek out answers and solutions. The Turn of the Screw is famous in literary theory just because of that – early critics offered interpretations of the work, suggesting insanity or applying a Freudian frame to the story. However, those interpretations were easily picked apart by other critics, given the highly (and deliberately) ambiguous nature of the story. Effectively, the critical response to the story just became another turn.

I have no doubt that by the time I finish my re-watching of Twin Peaks, finally watch Fire Walk With Me, and start on the newest season of the show, I will find that this show, too, will solve decades-long riddles with still more riddles, dropping its viewers into still-deeper and darker depths, and utterly failing to offer the ‘answers’ we will all look for. I’m excited for the ride.

Starting once more

I’ve realized that I’ve effectively put off writing blog posts on here for practically a year. What started a summer ago, with the intent to take the summer to get it up and going, stayed behind in the summer. Being a teacher, it became easy to push this particular project back and back, until finally I look up and its the end of the year and the dawn of a new summer.

So, after taking things into stock, I’ll brush off the dust and try it again. This last year (by which I indicate the school year) was really a rough one – with triumphs and challenges and wonderful moments among the rotten ones. I have gotten the sense that every year as a high school teacher is going to feel like simultaneously the best job and the worst job, but never without a sense of being right there in the trenches.

trenches-2
my classroom after sixth period

The year is over, however, and I’ve now got three years of teaching experience, and a hopefully soon-to-be-processed clear credential. I attended a week-long PD (professional development) after the school year was over, and worked and thought a lot about how I’m going to continue to get better doing this thing. I’m not even out of June of summer break and already I’m thinking about the next year on a daily basis.

That said, I also have an incredible amount of plans in the works for this summer. Writing fairly regularly to this blog is one of those plans.

Bad Feminist

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay, contains a brilliant collection of essays that range in scope and topic from competitive Scrabble in a small Midwestern town to the film Fruitvale Station, to myriad issues in politics, media, and personal life relating to language, race, gender, and through it all picking apart how intricately it’s all woven together. Gay writes with both eloquence and straight-forward articulation about issues that are, frankly, hard to talk about. I want to take her remarks on heroism to heart, so I’ll just express that she goes far beyond being a Bad Feminist. Although, now that I recall her remarks on the title I don’t want to even seem to deny that title to her either. I guess what’s happening is I found her observations and arguments so compelling that I’m reconsidering the way in which I respond to the collection, since I want to get it right. Roxane Gay writes it right.

quote-i-would-rather-be-a-bad-feminist-than-no-feminist-at-all-roxane-gay-79-56-29

On any particular topic, Bad Feminist addresses the nuances and complexities with clarity. There is no need or desire on behalf of Gay to reach a tidy solution either, which is refreshing in that so many other writers and articles feel this desire to “figure it out,” and acknowledging that that’s impossible (for example, in “A Take of Two Profiles” which examines both Trayvon Martin and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev). Roxane Gay doesn’t leave anything out, just considers the information in an elegant, cohesive way. Having honed her skills on Twitter, Gay is also a master of the pithy line, which so often stopped me as the reader right in my tracks. Nothing is left out, and she’s as quick to express what she likes as what she feels deserves to be called out. I liked movies and books she didn’t, and didn’t like some things she did, but yet I appreciated everything she wrote. It becomes clear early on that every topic is considered carefully and fully, and I look forwards to hearing more.

Links here to Roxane Gay’s website  and to the book on Goodreads.

Dungeons and Dragons

You’ve heard about this game, or seen in portrayed in various media – such as the TV show CommunityStranger Things, or in the various negative news reports over the years. Like it or not, this game has become a part of our national psyche, although in this post I will explore the game on a more personal level.

I started playing Dungeons and Dragons at a very young age, thanks to my parents. My father was in the Army, and apparently when he and my mom were stationed in Oklahoma, they had a small group of friends who discovered and played the game. In particular, my dad talked about how they would gather before a blizzard, and once snowed in, they would wait out the storm with some old-fashioned Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (or the 2nd edition of the game). That was the version that I started playing too, in a family game night setting. The 2nd edition, also known as AD&D, was the first version to explode in popularity, sweeping the nation in the 70s and 80s (((fact check))) and inspiring all the subsequent events in this games fascinating history.

Advanced_Dungeons_and_Dragons_2nd_Edition_Player's_Handbook
The AD&D Player’s Handbook. Image: Wikipedia

My very first character, as was befitting a 6th grader (my best guess as to how old I was), was an elven ranger. I don’t remember his name, or much beyond some disjointed memories of my mom basically carrying the party, being terrified as our party escorted a caravan through the woods, and being absolutely enthralled at the fact that, despite looking at a little pewter figurine and a piece of graph paper with some scrawled notes on it, the game had generated a broad, endless landscape, populated with warriors, dungeons, hideous monsters, and unimaginable wonder. I knew from the start that the opportunity offered by Dungeons and Dragons in terms of harnessing the imagination would far surpass any video game, movie, or TV show that I knew. The game still has that power for me, the prospect of not only creating compelling worlds but creating them in a way that is fully cooperative is engrossing. The world is created from imagination, but then the people who play characters within it have the power to interact and shape the world as well. The collaborative aspect is the engine that drives the game – Dungeons and Dragons is an exercise in group story-telling.

After being introduced to Dungeons and Dragons by way of AD&D, the third edition of the game was released, by Wizards of the Coast. This company, who also manages the popular deck building game Magic: The Gathering, had taken the source material of D&D and streamlined, organized, and redeveloped a system for play. We tried it out on a trip down to my grandparents house once – my dad and brother, fighting our way through a couple rooms of skeletons and dire rats. This is the first character I remember, another elven ranger named Celador. As I read more and played more, I realized how the ranger in third edition is actually one of the more underpowered classes in the game. But I liked Celador, and I used one of the little pewter figures for him and enjoyed our play-through, imagining him battling through the dungeon and holding back enemies like the elves in some of my favorites stories of that time, the Sword of Shannara series.

eejY8Fa
Image: The Fodder Cannon. Screen by Wizards of the Coast

Above is a cardboard screen, used by the Dungeon Master (or DM) in-game. The Dungeon Master’s job is to be one step ahead of the rest of the players at the table at all times. Each of the other players control a single character – the DM builds the world in front of them as they walk, describing scenery, playing as the people they meet, and refereeing combat or negotiations.

I really got started a few years later, when I was on a competitive youth soccer team, of all things. There was a small group who was interested in the game, and my dad was an assistant coach, so the routine became that, on Saturdays, we would return from a soccer game for a session of Dungeons and Dragons. This was first extended campaign I had played in, and until recently the only lengthy campaign as well. Our characters I remember fairly vividly – I was a human cleric, and my friends played characters like Samo the half-orc barbarian or Okem Emton, the human paladin. The group of PCs grew from first level to 5th, over the course of the adventures, which sometimes stretched long into Saturday evenings.

After that campaign faded out, I was determined to find a way to keep playing. I believe my brother and I tried to play on occasion, but with two players it didn’t work out. Sometime at this point too I introduced the game to my friends from school, and many an evening were spent with it, although without a clear vision and a group of kids still in middle school, I was never really satisfied with our campaigns of joking around, distractions and side conversations, and poorly thought through adventures. I shouldn’t have expected anything else, but I knew that D&D was something much larger, and I spent a lot of time alone thinking about how I could put together a perfect campaign. Nonetheless, throughout high school my experience with the game stagnated, and through college it had dropped off just about entirely. There were a couple stabs at putting together a gaming group, but in most circumstances I was the only one familiar with the game, and my passion for it was only able to interest people enough (and for me to successfully manage my other obligations) to play for one or two sessions before fizzling.

41dbPr4+DOL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
Of Dice and Men

A year or two out of school, I heard about and ordered the book Of Dice and Men, written by the New York Times reporter David Ewalt. I had inadvertently ordered the audiobook version, so it became a text I worked through while on road trips or driving longer distances. The book is absolutely captivating. David Ewalt is someone similarly enthralled with childhood memories of Dungeons and Dragons, and eagerly set himself to the task of writing an article about the game for the Times. Being a project of passion, his writing swiftly blossomed far past any article, and the full-length book is a wonderful blend of simulated narrative from his adventures within the game, and a sweeping history of Dungeons and Dragons. It starts with the games predecessors, and covers its founded Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, as well as tracing the games spectacular success and twisting, labyrinthine challenges. This game must be one of the most resisted and scorned – once holding the mantle now levied upon video games and violent media as “corrupting our youth,” labeling all those who play it in the game of nerds and geeks, and indeed making sensational connections between the game and dark forces of demons and Satan. Dungeons and Dragons has a fascinating place in our nation’s cultural consciousness, and David Ewalt does a wonderful job in articulating it.

After reading the book, I spent some timing looking online for a group to join and start playing Dungeons and Dragons again. After a period of searching, I found a great group that was really to start a fresh campaign, and I felt the rush of everything that D&D has to offer all over a gain. I have a group of comrades, I now look forwards to Mondays (the evenings we play), and we get to collectively imagine an alternate world, where we make mighty contributions and engage in daring adventures.

 

 

Stranger Things

stranger-things

Stranger Things, a recent mini-series to hit Netflix, is a stirring exploration of small-town politics and community, coming of age, friendships and love, and, of course, the supernatural. It starts off with a group of boys playing the game Dungeons and Dragons in their den in the basement, the contents of which becomes spectacularly paralleled in the real world. I’m already excited about the various theories emerging from one of the very last scenes (I’m avoiding spoilers throughout this post) where the boys discuss Dungeons and Dragons once again.

66.0
Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown

The show quickly had me reminiscing and thinking about other, similarly-minded shows and movies, such as Twin Peaks or The Shining, which have the same spooky but deeply compelling allure. Events start slow and the viewers’ skepticism starts high, but gradually the show hooks you in. I remember vividly how I reached the ending of episode 6 and then 7, thinking about how at the beginning of the series I had only watched one episode in an evening, and finding myself unable to pull myself away until the series reached its incredible conclusion. The tropes this series uses also seem drawn from films from the 80s, mixed in with sometimes direct references to those movies. These tropes are rarely deployed in a straightforward way, either, and an example of this is an inversion of the flying-bike scene from E.T. Here is a list of  some of the tropes identified in Stranger Things, but beware, this list will suck away hours of your free time. In addition, here is a Rolling Stone laundry list of 80’s cultural references in the series (w/autoplay video)

960
Picture: AVClub

In my exploration of the various articles and fan theories already proliferating, a curiosity I quickly noted was how much sympathy and affection exists online for the character Barb. Barb is the close friend of Nancy, and as Nancy finds herself drawn into an intense high school romance, Barb can see it all happening too clearly. She tries to get Nancy come to her senses, but can only stand by in the end. The scene most symbolic of this is when Barb sits alone on the diving board, as the rest of the party has moved inside, staring down into the steaming, brightly lit water.

I certainly enjoyed seeing the events in this particular storyline include the perspective of Barb, instead of leaving her behind as Nancy does, but I don’t think that this is anything particularly groundbreaking for the show to do this – in fact I think its a fairly common trope for media – as “the one left out” is an easy way to quickly form sympathy points for a character. A fuller exploration into why Barb becomes such a fan favorite necessitates some significant spoilers, which I am avoiding, so I’ll just say that even considering the full events of the series, in my opinion there are many characters far more compelling, interesting, and just as worthy of sympathy as Barb. A quick list of these characters would be Benny Hammond (the owner of the diner that Eleven visits), Eleven herself, Lucas and Dustin, and then Sheriff Hopper. The last four in this list are who I would consider my favorite characters, and a distinction just came up for me. Barb and Benny both are flat, one-dimensional characters, although Barb certainly has a bit more screen time. She is fairly developed and present in the series, despite being one-sided in this way as the ‘voice of reason’ friend to Nancy, and perhaps that very simplicity in character development is why more people find it easy to identify with her. Benny, on the other hand, exists just to serve as character development for Eleven, and then as plot development as the ‘child services’ arrive. On that note too, Eleven, Dustin, Lucas, and Hopper are all complex characters, and so it isn’t really fair to compare them to a character like Barb.

Like many, I’m already very excited about the prospects of additional seasons of Stranger Things, as well as the impending release of the soundtrack for the series.