Raleigh County schools are having “Reimagine Days” today and tomorrow. For those unfamiliar, this is a snow day that isn’t a snow day. Homework has been sent home with the kids and they are to do the work from their homes on reimagine days and then the teachers will go over it whenever they return to school. It allows administration to count the “snow” day as a “school” day, thus allowing the system to reach 180 “instructional” days in less calendar days than if the snow day had been a snow day. Unfortunately, my wife (a first-grade teacher) must still go into the school to be there for any students who may call in needing help with the reimagined work. All of this is new this year. I love the schools my kids are in, and I know how hard the teachers there, and around our county, work every day for our kids. I’ve been on the “inside,” so to speak, of our local education system for my whole life. This current situation has led me to have the following thoughts about the state of education in our county/state/country: The 180 days requirement needs to go away. Quality of education, not quantity of days, should be the most important things. And the “reimagined days” are definitely NOT quality. Kids should start school the day after Labor Day and end the week of Memorial Day. They should have Thanksgiving week off and Christmas week off, and one week in the Spring for Spring Break. Then, snow days should be used ONLY if bus drivers deem it unsafe to operate on the roads. Missing school because it is too cold adversely affects those kids who live in impoverished conditions where it is colder at their house than at school. It also keeps many kids from getting the one (or two) only good meals that day that they would get if they were at school. I would much rather have my children receive 150 days of excellent education, with the kinds of breaks that kids need to BE KIDS, than to receive 180 days of hit-and-miss education. And speaking from a teacher’s perspective (I am the son of two teachers, the brother of one, and the spouse of one), teachers would MUCH rather have the time and resources necessary to put together those quality 150 days than trying to fill the 180 days just to meet some arbitrary quota. Teachers work hard, very hard, to try and provide an excellent education for our kids. Meaningless rules like 180 days, meaningless activities like reimagine days, and meaningless goals like standardized test scores (another whole discussion), keep teachers from being able to do their job to the best of their abilities. We should be more like Finland, where they pay their teachers very well and treat their kids like kids. Rant over…. for now
Some superstitions hold that whatever you are doing on January 1st is what you will be doing throughout the year. Hmmmm. On January 1, 2018, I woke up on a Murphy bed in the 1980s, then rode a bus to the local kingdom. I had delicious gluten-free pastries in an enchanted castle, then fired laser guns at an evil emperor. Then I rode a train down into a mine filled with multi-colored gemstones and populated with hard-working dwarves, and then a ghost hitched a ride with my kids and I out of a haunted mansion. Then my family and I went underwater to visit a mermaid, and then emerged to fly a plane through a barn. Following this, I made sure my beautiful bride got to ride on a horse owned by a princess, and then I ate salmon in a different enchanted castle while four other princesses stopped by my table to have their picture made with my daughter and flirt with my son. Then I rode on a pirate ship, and then a magic carpet, and then guided my family to meet a delightful fairy, and then we rode off into the sunset. All in all, I’d say 2018 is going to be one magical year.
A chapter from my memoir. Enjoy.
One Thursday when I am in the seventh grade, my dad picks me up from school.
This particular Thursday is very sunny and warm for a West Virginia November. The leaves have all fallen from the trees, but the grass is still a bright green and I am able to wear a short sleeve shirt to school.
As the sun shines on my bare arms and I laugh with my friends on the school’s front steps, Dad pulls the car into the carpool line, and smiles. I am talking and joking with a couple of guys, and I can see him through the car’s front window. I wave. He motions for me to come on over, so I leave my friends Jerry and David on the steps with a simple, “Later.”
When I open the passenger side door to his Ford Escort, I am greeted with this question:
“So, did you see any good-looking pussy today?”
I almost come to a complete stop, the door still open and in my right hand, my left leg just barely into the car. I slow my entry, but answer quickly, “Ewwww, gross, noooooooo!”
Falling slowly into my seat, I drop my backpack down in front of me, my eyes darting around to see if any of my 13-year-old friends had heard, then I shut the door.
“You didn’t see any good-looking girls at your school today?” he asks. There is a hint of concern in his voice, as if I didn’t know what a girl was.
“Sure I did,” I say, “I just didn’t see their….” I wave my hand in front of my pants. My face scrunches.
A good hearty guffaw rumbles from Dad’s belly and fills the small car, the driver’s seat holding together just enough to support him. The car convulses with his laughter. I fasten my seatbelt, he puts the car in drive, and we continue down the carpool line and behind the building.
“Pussy,” he says between laughs, “is a slang term for a girl.”
“Good-looking pussy,” he has to catch his breath, “means good-looking girl.”
His laugh continues as we circle the school and pull out onto the main road.
“Oh,” I say, and begin laughing too. Dad’s guffaws die down to chuckles, but even those are loud and infectious.
We continue our giggles for a few minutes. Stoplights and slow traffic make the ride home take longer than usual, but it beats the hell of out 40 minutes on the bus.
After the laughter stops, and we are about halfway home, Dad begins to scratch his beard.
“I want you to know,” he says, “there’s only two things you could ever do that would make me disown you.”
I sit up a little straighter in the seat, scratch the side of my face and pull on my ear.
“What does disown mean?”
He clears his throat.
“It means, I wouldn’t claim you as my son anymore,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to have you in my life.”
“Oh.” I slump back into the seat. Through the side-view mirror, I can see there are suddenly rainclouds in the sky behind us.
We come to the last stoplight, before we will turn onto the road that leads to our neighborhood, just as it turns red.
“There’s only two things you could do that would ever make me disown you,” he repeats. He often repeats things when he wants to make sure I understand his point. “If you grow up to be gay, or if you marry a black girl.”
“Oh,” I say. “Ok.”
“Don’t be gay, and don’t marry a black girl. That’s it.” He moves his hand in a slicing motion across his lap.
The light turns green and he turns the steering wheel left, taking us onto Prosperity Road. The 100-foot-tall green water tank looms over the entrance to the community like a massive Roman column leading into the heart of the city. It is the first thing that lets me know I am almost home.
Large looming objects scare me. I can never stop myself from imagining being atop them and falling. Skyscrapers are the worst, though of course living in Appalachia meant the only time I saw skyscrapers was on television. We went to New York once when I was a kid to catch a plane to Denmark. Those three hours in the Big Apple were terrifying.
The water tank always fills me with mixed emotions. I yearn to see it, even if it does scare me, because it means I am almost home. But I am afraid to look directly at it, to see myself in my mind’s eye standing on top of it, and falling fatally to the ground below.
The next morning was a Friday, and no one really wanted to be at school.
First period was band class, with my favorite teacher Mr. Madison as the band director. He was a handsome, six-foot-tall African-American man with a melodious voice and kind brown eyes. For whatever reason, he really liked me, and I often stopped by his classroom during my lunch break just to chat.
When we came to stand at our appointed positions in band class that morning, preparing to practice for our halftime performance at the upcoming final football game of the season, a white boy named Jackie stood beside me, and a black girl named Latonya stood in front of me.
Latonya played the trumpet, just like me. Her hair smelled like coconuts, and reminded me of the beach. She would frequently say “Hi” when we passed in the halls, and would giggle at some of my corny jokes when we were in band class. Once, during a break at a band competition in Charleston, we spent five minutes laughing at each other’s fake fart noises before Mr. Madison made us both do ten push-ups for “poorly representing the band” in public. Latonya was my friend, but we never had spent any time together outside of band events.
I had told her once that I thought her dress looked nice, and she had smiled and said thanks. Today, she was wearing a purple shirt with really short sleeves and tight blue jeans. The blue jeans had holes in them, right at the side of her thighs, and standing behind her in band class, I realized for the first time that she was beautiful. She had the kind of skin that looked like it was blemish-free from head to toe, as if she didn’t have to bathe, the dirt would just be repelled by her beauty. The purple shirt hung loosely from her shoulders, and I could tell she was wearing a black bra. Her hair was short. I could see the muscles in her neck as she laughed at something the girl next to her said.
Her skin looked like it would be so soft to touch, and I could see myself running my hands down her arms, running my fingers across her exposed thighs. Her curves made me woozy. I felt myself getting aroused, and I tried to clear my mind. I didn’t want anyone to notice. I was sure everyone would notice.
She smelled like sunscreen and warm sand, and I closed my eyes and tried to think of ugly things, or weird things, anything to calm me down. I was taking deep breaths through my nose, exhaling loudly through my mouth, and didn’t notice when Mr. Madison said, “Attention everybody.”
I was drawn out of my daze by some giggles around me.
I was the only one not standing at attention, the only one whose breathing was loud enough to be heard by several fellow trumpet players around me.
“Mr. Otte,” Mr. Madison said, “attention.”
Thrusting my trumpet up between my hands, I assumed the attention position, holding the horn like a rifle in front of me, legs stiff and together, arms stuck in a V-shape from my shoulders out to my elbows and back in again. My best friend Jerry, a member of the drum line standing three rows behind me, snorted.
Mason, the boy who stood beside me, was the only openly gay person I knew. He got all kinds of hell from everybody about it. I had never talked to him, and this was the first band routine we had done where he would be standing beside me.
“You got busted,” Mason whispered loud enough for me to hear.
“Whatever,” I said.
We practiced our routine, played our school fight song, and played the national anthem for about the thousandth time. I didn’t look at Latonya anymore.
After class, Jerry came up to me as I was putting my trumpet back in its case.
“Did you fall asleep or something, man?” he asked.
“What are you talking about?” I said, though I knew what he meant.
“At the beginning of class. I’ve never seen you zoned out like that. Sounded like you were snoring or some shit like that!”
I closed the trumpet case and slid it under the storage table, grabbed my backpack and stood up next to Jerry.
“Yeah, I guess I’m pretty tired,” I said. “Haven’t slept much lately. No good reason. What are you doing after school today?”
Some people won’t let you get away with changing the subject, and will hound you until you cough up whatever secret you were trying to swallow.
Jerry was my best friend. He understood.
“I think I’m going to my Grandma’s house,” he said as he put his backpack on his shoulder. “My dad’s working late again.”
Just as Jerry and I were walking out of the band room’s front door, Latonya walked back in. I bumped into her, knocking a book out of her arm.
“Oh, man, I’m so sorry,” I stammered. “Let me get that.”
I picked up the book and handed it to her. Her hand brushed mine as she took it from me.
“No big. I forgot my notebook,” she said. She smiled and walked around me. “See ya later.”
I smiled. “Later,” I said, and turned back toward Jerry. We continued our walk toward second period. I know my face had to be red. Jerry didn’t say another word. But out in the hallway, I saw Mason. He winked at me. I smiled, nervously, and then bolted for class.
At the end of school that day, I met Jerry outside of the front door to the school. We began to walk down the steps and head for our respective buses.
“So, do you like Latonya?” Jerry asked me with a hint of a giggle in his voice.
“No,” I said quickly. “Why would you even ask that?”
He smiled. “No reason.”
“Look man, I gotta go,” I said. “I really don’t want to miss getting my seat on the bus.”
We did our special handshake, two smacks on each side of our right hands, then a high-five. “See you Monday.”
I walked around to the side of the school. The doors to bus #189 opened, and I was the third one on the bus. The first two kids headed straight for the back, so I got my seat behind Marlene.
“Hello sweetie,” she said with her tooth-filled smile. “How was your day today?”
It was out of my mouth before I could stop myself, “I saw some good-looking…. I mean, I saw a pretty girl.” My voice trailed off. “I mean, nothing.”
“That’s nice dear.”
I didn’t say anything else to Marlene on that ride home. It was a quiet, thankfully uneventful ride. I dug into my backpack and found the science-fiction book I’d been reading, A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony. It was about a boy who lived in a land of magic, but didn’t think he had any magical skills. He was banished from the land, because everyone who lived there had to have at least a basic magical ability, and “Bink,” apparently, had none.
When I got off the bus, Dad was waiting for me at the post office, sitting on the rear bumper of his car, reading a book. When he lifted his body off of the car, the bumper raised up at least two feet.
“Hey Dad, I didn’t think you’d be here.”
He closed the book and smiled. Standing, he opened the passenger door for me and gave me a pat on the back.
“Got done a little early, so I figured I’d meet you here,” he said. “How was your day?”
“It was ok,” I said.
“Anything exciting happen?”
I thought about how to answer that question. I had gotten an erection over a black girl, and a gay guy had winked at me. My best friend noticed that I liked Latonya, and I didn’t know what the hell Mason thought. Was he flirting with me? Did he think I “got busted” flirting with him? Did he not know I was looking at Latonya? Was he winking because he knew I like Latonya?
And out of all of it, for which one would my dad disown me?
“Nope,” I said, and sighed.
The following is a chapter from my memoir-in-progress. Enjoy.
If X = Fedora, Solve for X
All of the eighth-graders lined up to enter the room.
Inside would be problems that would surely keep each of us biting our nails and wiping our brows, measuring our strengths and judging our peers, as this room could mean the difference between glory and defeat.
We were the smart ones. We were the gifted. We were the type of kids you would expect to see at an event called “Math Field Day.”
We represented 28 junior high schools, middle schools they call them nowadays, across seven counties in southern West Virginia, and we looked like it. Awkward and gangly, we were the best of our schools, best of our counties, and now we competed to be the best in the region, with state championships awaiting the people who emerged unscathed from the other side of this room.
There had been other rooms all morning. First came the testing room – an hour of filling in the bubbles and how fast did the second train get to Cleveland and solve for X.
Next came the puzzle room – an hour of putting together complex puzzle pieces, some made of blocks, some made of sticks, some actual pictures of historic paintings, and one that was like a Rubik’s Cube but with letters on each square instead of colors. The room was like a kindergarten play room for smart kids.
Those were the two rooms that we had been told would be part of this day, the two rooms we could prepare to tackle.
Lastly, came this room, with its possibilities, perhaps estimation or intricate problem solving.
The buzzer sounded, the door swung open, and the mustached instructor with the suede jacket motioned us all to come in, handing us each a small pad of paper as we entered.
There were 14 stations around the room, and the first 14 of us walked in with heavy steps mingled with nervous giggles. Mr. Suede, who bore the serious look of a man planning a tactical maneuver in a war, held a clipboard from which he read our names aloud, and when we heard our names and timidly raised our hands, he instructed us each to go to an appointed station. I happened to be placed at Station #1.
The mustache spoke. “You may begin,” and he paused, looking at his stopwatch; the room was completely silent as 14 pubescent mathematicians held their collective breath.
My station contained a blue cylinder housing colored marbles: blues, reds, yellows, greens, purples, oranges, blacks and whites – all of which seemed to be about the same size – filling the cylinder from the bottom to just below the rim at the top. A white envelope lay in front of the cylinder, and I opened it to read the instructions for this station, fully aware that I had a total of 60 seconds to complete whatever conundrum may lie within.
“Estimate the number of marbles within the cylinder. Write your estimation on the answer pad you were given as you entered.”
Putting the instructions back in the envelope, I stuck my arm out up against the cylinder, and saw that its height was from my elbow to my wrist, which was precisely 13 inches. Laying my hand across the top of the circular opening, with my wrist resting on the edge, the tip of my middle finger fell just short of the opposite side of the cylinder. This meant the structure was approximately six inches across, as the length from my wrist to the end of my middle finger was just under six inches. That meant that the radius would be about three inches. Lastly, I held the end of my finger next to one of the marbles at the bottom of the cylinder. One inch exactly. Just to be sure, I scanned the cylinder to see if the marbles appeared to be of different sizes, or if each one was the same. With the clock ticking, I had to make a snap judgment that each marble appeared to be the same.
The equation for solving the volume of a cylinder is V=, where V is volume, r is radius, and h is height. A stack of pieces of scrap paper lay next to the cylinder, and I quickly did my calculations before entering my answer of the pad I had been given. The volume is approximately 367, so my estimate, allowing for the air and space around each marble, is 350. The buzzer sounded, and we all moved on to the next station.
Keys to Math Field Day Success #1:
Know the length and height of your bodily appendages
The end knuckle on my pointer finger is exactly one inch long, a fortuitous happenstance of my own personal evolution, which allows me to measure in inches quickly and effectively. My elbow to my wrist is 13 inches, my wrist to the end of my middle finger is about six inches, so my elbow to the tip of my middle finger is 19 inches, give or take a hair. My dad and I did not measure my hair. “If you know these things going in, you can use your body the same way you’d use a yard stick or a ruler,” my father had told me the night before when we turned my body into inches and feet. He was kneeling before me with a tape measure by his side. “I bet you’re the only one whose dad thinks of this.” He paused as he finished measuring my foot, which was not a foot but was only 10 inches long. He looked up at me, and asked me as casually as you would ask the time, “Ever measured your dick?” When I just stared back at him with my mouth open, he winked and laughed, standing and turning to walk out of the room.
Moving quickly to my second station, there are no props or gizmos or anything to measure, but I see that the previous student failed to put the instructions back in the envelope. It is a small gift of probably three to five seconds that he saved me by leaving it out, but when you are competing with 27 supposed fellow geniuses for only three spots in the state championship, seconds matter.
“Estimate to the nearest million the answer to the following: 187,596 X 2,998. Write your estimation on the answer pad you were given as you entered.”
There is no scrap paper at this station, but that doesn’t bother me. I close my eyes, imagining a chalk board in front of me. I pick up the piece of imaginary chalk, and begin to write out the equation, making sure to leave plenty of space underneath the bottom number so that I could show my work.
The funny thing about multiplication estimations is that, when given a number like 2,998, which is oh-so-very tantalizingly close to 3,000, and with only 60 seconds to do the math no less, you will be tempted to just use 3000 to make the math quicker and arrive at an answer. After all, they want you to estimate to the nearest MILLION, so just adding 2 isn’t going to make a big difference.
If you do the math on your imaginary chalkboard, with a stick of pink chalk in your hand, because pink stands out so clearly against the dark forest green of the chalkboard, you have time to do the real math. Time seems to stand still, the numbers clearly illuminating on the board, your hand whizzing around writing each number with effortless ease. You don’t have to think, you simply do what you’ve done since you were in third grade and write down what you already know from memorization. Eight times six is 48, nine times eight is 56, and so on. The fluidity of your hand across the chalkboard does not surprise you – you have been training for this like an Olympian trains for the marathon.
The answer is 562,412,808. That means to estimate to the nearest million would mean the answer is 562 Million. I set the chalk down, picked up the imaginary eraser, and erased all of my work. Around me, I heard a couple of snickers, and one quite clear “humph.” But I did not want them to “see” my work, for what I knew that I hoped some of them did not, was that if you had used 3000 to make the math easier, you would’ve put down 563 Million, which is one million wrong. Two can make a huge difference.
I opened my eyes, put the equation back in the envelope, closed it up and wrote my answer on my paper. The buzzer sounded.
Keys to Math Field Day Success #2: Ignore the competition
Like bullies on the playground trying to intimidate their classmates, math geeks will use trash talk, or the nerd world equivalent, in Math Field Day (MFD) competitions. You can listen to it for motivation if you want, but the fact remains that usually, everybody in the MFD rooms has been the victim of verbal abuse in one form or another, so we don’t usually find trash talk motivating. Instead, we cower at the least sound of it. But if we are amongst our fellow MFDers, some of us suddenly get brave enough, arrogant enough, and cocky enough to feel like we can use the trash talk element of intimidation. So some MFDers try to use it to show they are the smartest kid in the room, like a bully does to prove he’s the toughest. The difference between our trash talk and bully trash talk is the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek: They are alike in name only. MFDers may snicker at your work, or may out right laugh as you draw your equations in the air, or they may say things like, “I bet he doesn’t even know how gravity works. Hey Leonard, in 10 seconds or less tell me how gravity works. See, I told you he didn’t know! Ha!” When well-meaning parents or teachers tell you to ignore bullies, they mean the playground kick-your-ass ones. The funny thing is, ignoring doesn’t work on the playground, but it does in MFD. Show them it doesn’t bother you, and they will start to second-guess themselves about who the smartest person in the room really is.
Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of my friend David walking away from Station #14, which would’ve been his second station but would end up being my last. David was currently our class’s valedictorian. He had come in 1st in our county competition and I had come in 2nd, which had given each of us a spot in this regional battle. He was my friend, but he was also my biggest competition, and in that brief moment I saw a look on his face that could only be described as bewilderment. He saw me, and quickly smiled, but he was paler than usual and beads of sweat were on his forehead. Whatever Station #14 was, it had stumped the smartest kid I knew.
My third station asked us to solve a math riddle, and it took me a second to focus, as the look on David’s face had given me pause. I knew that it would be awhile before I got to Station #14, and I had plenty of math to do in the interim, but it still took me a couple of precious seconds to gather myself for the task at hand.
Luckily, the riddle was one I had seen before: “Part 1: What digit appears the most frequently between and including the numbers 0 and 1,000? Part 2: Within the same parameters, what digit occurs least frequently? Write your answers on the pad you were given as you entered.”
This is a riddle designed to test your ability to quickly recognize patterns, an important skill set in mathematics. If you think about just the numbers 0-30, you’ll figure out the answer in seconds, and as I had seen this riddle before, I had plenty of time to write my answers on my paper and then look around the room. My eyes were drawn to David first, who was back at the station where I began. He was staring at the cylinder with his pencil in his mouth, his finger drumming on the side of the table, and though I couldn’t know for sure what he was thinking, I would’ve bet money that he was actually counting the marbles.
Keys to Math Field Day Success #3: Never let them see you sweat
If you don’t know the answer to something, and you let your opposition see you struggle, see you get frustrated, see you fight back tears or even (God forbid) let them flow, you are toast. It doesn’t really matter from that point forward how good you are at math or how smart you are in general, because you are simply going to lose. It is kind of like the power of positive thinking in reverse – let the universe know that you just can’t solve this problem to save your life and the universe will respond by making you begin to doubt your ability to solve any problem anywhere for the remainder of the day. It does not matter about your prep work. The night before MFD, my dad was like a drill sergeant. “How do you solve for the area of a triangle?” “What is the equation for the volume of a sphere?” “How many faces on a dodecahedron?” Twelve. In the heat of battle, it is good to have these things memorized, but you are not going to remember them all. Don’t know the answer or even how to solve it? Fake it. Put down anything, and then forget it and move on. You will not get every single problem right at an MFD no matter how brilliant you are or how many quizzes your dad gave you the week leading up to it. You will simply not know what the hell some equation means, and if you let the rest of the world see it, you will be done. Fake it, fuck it, forget it. Write down X. Move on.
The answers to the last riddle, by the way, are one and zero respectively, and Dad had told me that one many times. The stations that followed were all things with which I was at least moderately comfortable. Some more estimations, like the surface area of a ball or the volume of a cube, and a few more riddles, most of which my dad had shown me before. For some of them, I required every second of the 60 to complete the task, but for a few of them, I had a little spare time. Each time I was gifted with these extra seconds, I would take a peek at the person at Station #14.
Without exception, every single student who stood before this station, from the tall blond girl who wore cowboy boots to the short fat kid that smelled like cheese, every one of them looked dumbfounded. Every single one of them walked away shaking their heads or scratching their cheeks. Some rubbed their pencils on the tops of their skulls like they wanted to erase whatever they had just seen.
Finishing the puzzle at Station #13, the butterflies in my stomach flittered more than they had all day, and as the penultimate buzzer sounded, I moved to Station #14.
The last person who had been at this station had clearly gotten pissed off, and just shoved the paper back into the envelope, wrinkling them both. My hands were sweaty and a little shaky, and it took me a second to pry the wrinkled question from the envelope.
When I read it, all the butterflies flew away, and a smile spread across my face.
“If N=X, R=Y, and F=Z, what is X=? Write your answer on the pad you were given as you entered.”
I almost laughed out loud. Now I knew two things, and I knew them with as much certainty as I had ever known anything in my life: 1. I knew the answer to this problem, and 2. I knew I was the only one in the room who did.
Keys to Math Field Day Success #4: Be my dad’s son
Green Bank, West Virginia is home to the world’s first large satellite used for scanning the universe and viewing the stars, built in the 1950s in the mountains of Appalachia and hundreds of miles from any major city. It houses the world’s largest moving telescope. The site at Green Bank is the original home of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which now also has satellites in New Mexico and Washington State, and it is the place where SETI was born. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence conducted their first scans of the galaxy right here, their search for little green men beginning among the bright green mountains of my home state. It is a two-hour drive from my hometown, and they offer tours of the satellite during the summer. Two years ago, my dad drove the five of us to Green Bank, in the heat and humidity of a West Virginia July, in our brown station wagon with the camping trailer bumping along behind us, precariously attached by a frayed towing cable. In the woods of a Pocahontas County campsite, we popped up the camper and settled ourselves in, sweat pouring from every part of our bodies the moment we stepped out of the car. After setting up camp and begging for some water, we climbed back in the wagon, now unhitched from the trailer, and drove over to see the satellite. “They can see millions of miles into space with this thing kids,” Dad was saying from behind the steering wheel. “Soon we’ll know for sure what other stars have planets and how to travel to them and things that we can’t even begin to imagine.” He was like a kid headed to Disney World, and for me, his enthusiasm was becoming contagious. “Maybe,” he continued, his voice rising with each second, “just maybe, they will hear the signal that means life exists on another planet, that we are not all alone after all.” That did it. I sat up straighter in my seat, and began to peer out the window to try and be the first to catch a glimpse of the satellite. As we rounded a curve and came out from a grouping of trees, I saw it. At once, I was in awe and terrified, as this gigantic machine loomed larger than anything I had ever seen. It made the 100-foot tall water tank in my neighborhood seem like a toy. Like something out of a science fiction movie, the satellite seemed to be a spaceship that had landed and deployed its contents, as dozens of lab-coated men and women could be seen walking around below it, ants under an enormous magnifying glass. It was beautiful and scary and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. “Damn,” my dad uttered slowly from the front seat, with a deep intake of breath. We parked in the lot and walked up to the main entrance to the facility, and never once did my eyes or my dad’s move from the satellite. Once inside, Dad forked over $20 to pay our entrance fee, and we walked around a museum dedicated to the scientific discoveries that had been made in Green Bank since the facility had opened some 40 years prior. But what drew my dad’s attention, and subsequently mine, was a small room called “The Scientists’ Lounge.” We headed over to it while my mom took my brother and sister into the gift shop. Dad approached the room as if he were a priest making a pilgrimage to the Vatican. As he reached the doors, he took off his fedora and held it tightly in his hands. His steps were slow and deliberate, and even though we could see the room was empty, he moved as one who doesn’t want to disturb the sleeping. My dad knew what had happened in this room, and he illuminated me in loud whispers as we walked slowly through the doors. “Son, in the 1960s a group of scientists met in this room, and changed the world forever,” he said. “They included Carl Sagan, Melvin Calvin, and the one and only Frank Drake. They called themselves the Order of the Dolphin, and they were here to discuss an equation meant to determine if life on other planets could be found.” The room just looked like any old meeting room to me, like you might find in some hotel lobby, but Dad took me to the far wall, and showed me a golden plaque, with letters that shined with the reflection of the summer sun coming through the windows. “This is the Drake Equation,” he said. “Memorize it, know it like you know your home phone number, because someday, someone will use it to know for certain just exactly where life in our galaxy exists.” He stared at it, and so did I, and we didn’t speak for several moments. Later that day, when we finished our tour and went into the gift shop to get a couple of souvenirs, I bought a journal with the equation written on the front, and I stared at it in my room every night when I used that journal as the diary of my teenage years. It looks complicated, but once you memorize the terms, it is actually pretty straightforward. N=. N is the number of civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy with which we might be able to communicate. R is the rate of star formation in our galaxy, fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets, ne = the average number of those planets that can support life, fl = the fraction of those planets that actually develop life on them, fi = the fraction of those planets with life that actually become what we would call civilizations, fc = the fraction of those civilizations that send signals of their existence into space, and L = the length of time they actually send out those signals before they all die off or blow themselves up or whatever. Two years after first seeing that equation, and I had stared at it nightly when I went to write in my journal.
All the Math Field Day test creators had done was replace one letter for another, not as a math question, but merely as a question of how much the students knew about their own state’s unique place in scientific history. I calmly placed the paper back in the envelope, wrote “The Drake Equation” on my answer sheet, and waited for the final buzzer.
* * *
As we sat in the auditorium awaiting the results, Dad’s left leg was shaking. He fidgeted with his belt buckle, twisted his shirt sleeve and put his fedora on his knee then back on his head then back on his knee. He reached over and patted my back a couple of times without looking at me.
Finally, Mr. Mustache approached the podium and the room of 28 students and their extended families came to complete silence.
Without a smile, he began a lengthy speech, thanking the families for supporting “these bright young minds and leaders of the future,” and thanking their teachers for “instilling a love of math and science in these bright young minds,” and thanking us students for “studying hard and using our bright young minds” and I counted five uses of the same phrase in his speech. He also grunted 13 times and said “Um” sixteen. Dad’s leg shook the entire row of seats.
“And now, the third place student in today’s Region III Math Field Day competition, winning the right to attend the state championship next month in Morgantown is,” and Mustache said a name that I did not recognize. From a couple of rows behind me, the tall blond girl wearing the cowboy boots jumped up, and a lady that I can only assume was her mother squealed and jumped up with her. Cowboy boots walked toward the stage, and the room politely applauded. My dad wrung his hands, but I smiled and looked down at my feet, because I knew something that he didn’t know – I had this in the bag. I could not wait to see the look on his face.
“In second place in today’s Region III Math Field Day competition, winning the right to attend the state championship next month is,” and when he didn’t say my friend David’s name, my shoulders slumped. The kid whose name was called was the only African-American boy in the whole competition, and when he stood up three rows in front of me to go to the stage, so did his entire family, which must’ve been 10 people. More polite applause around the room, more hand-wringing from my Dad.
David was the smartest kid I had ever known, but I knew that only one of us was going on to the finals. If his name wasn’t called in second place, and neither was mine, then one of us was about to be heartbroken, and even though I was happy to have done so well during the day, I was sad for David. I knew something, and knew it as well as I have known anything to this point in my life: My name was about to be called.
“And finally, the winner of the Region III Math Field Day competition, and the top student representing Region III in next month’s state championship is…”
Time really does slow down occasionally. When you see a beautiful girl walk past you, when you take your first plane ride, when you open a door to an unknown room, when you take in your breath seconds before you get sad news, when you get your first kiss, when someone you love takes their last breath. Time. Moves. Slowly. It is not a scientific thing, it is not a mathematical thing, is a spiritual thing. You can’t write out an equation to prove it. It just happens. The human spirit says to the universe, “Hold on a second, we need to experience this moment a little more deeply, for all its beauty or all its pain, just hold on a second universe. Deep breath. Let’s take this in.”
The fedora on my dad’s head hit the ground in front of me.
“Jørn Earl Otte.”
It is quite possible that my dad leapt ten feet in the air.
I stood with a smile and walked past my dad, who grabbed my shoulders and shook me with such force that he could’ve dislocated a rib. Grinning, I gingerly wrestled myself out of his grip and walked onto the stage, shaking Mustache’s hand and taking my trophy, looking out at the audience and their polite but muted applause, and spotting my dad, whose big hands thundered and shook the room.
When we left the auditorium, Dad took off his fedora and put it on my head.
“Now you are worthy to wear this hat,” he said. I had no idea what in the world he meant, but I wore it and a smile the rest of the day.
Proud to announce that I have won Brightly Press’s poetry contest. The award comes with $100, which of course is nice, but more importantly it comes with publication not only on their web site (http://brightlypress.com/p/contest-winners), but also publication in their print volume “Shake the Tree.”
Thrilled and proud to be the winner for my poem “Faith.” Thank you to Brightly Press!
Keep writing, keep submitting.
The Natural Habitat of the Unicorn
Of course there are the usual suspects,
Narnias, fairytales, other sides of rainbows,
young girls’ fantasties,
young boys’ as well, I promise you,
and within the everlasting hope of dreams.
But I discovered another dwelling place
in shadows cast by darkened windowsills
overlooking our childhood playgrounds,
in empty spaces on bookshelves between
musty volumes dampened with forgetfulness,
knocking inside our house’s walls that I hear
when no one else is home, singing that comes
faintly in through breezes borrowing brief
eternities of solitude. When I think of you,
my little brother, gone nearly three decades,
I know with no doubts that wisdom
comes when we sit in the silence of memory
neither contemplating nor debating, neither accepting
nor disputing, but eagerly and with patience akin
to a child the night before their birthday,
hoping for that solo ride across no mythical country,
alongside the guardians of infinity,
astride our magical chariot, our connection
to the immeasurable, our bliss and belief
and our glory, always slightly unobtainable.
They live there in these moments, blessed boy,
as surely as you are alive in my blood vessels,
as surely as the sun awakens life within me.
King Coal and Captain Coffee
The battle for so-called “good-paying” jobs amid an economic climate of fear and marginalization runs rampant in the coalfields of Appalachia.
Likewise, any expressed desire to find alternative sources of energy is seen as a direct condemnation and attack on the hard working people of the small towns that inhabit Appalachia, who have only known essentially one fundamental way to make a living for multiple generations.
Thousands of miles south, in the tiny nation of Nicaragua, thousands of coffee bean farmers battle for a living wage, while struggling to meet the demands of raising a family in a climate of poverty. This in an environment where thousands of acres of forests have been destroyed to pave the way for a cash crop that lifts few of the people who farm it from the brink of starvation.
While many people in southern West Virginia have jobs related directly or indirectly to the coal mining industry, many others are beginning to recognize the devastation wrought on their communities over many decades in the name of profits. A strong environmental movement has arisen, and while outnumbered by the pro-coal forces, it is a grassroots effort which continues to grow. Unfortunately, too many people whose lives have been negatively affected by coal mining still cling nostalgically to the industry, and proudly wear badges proclaiming themselves “Friends of Coal” despite the poor water they must drink or sulfuric air they must breathe.
People in Nicaragua, and in particular the 50,000 or more who derive their income directly from coffee bean farming, feel the effects of climate change just like everyone else. No one would fault them for trying more efficient ways of growing a crop that keeps their families fed and clothed, but newer coffee farming methods are having an adverse effect on the climate, whether or not they are part of fairly-traded co-ops.
Using coal mining in southern West Virginia and coffee bean farming in Nicaragua as the primary focal points of discussion, this paper will seek to show that, despite their cultural differences, coal miners in Appalachia and coffee farmers in Central America are fighting similar battles for decent employment amid an environmental war in which they are unwitting participants.
Coal has been used as a device to heat homes and ward off the cruel of a cold winter since the 1300s. Its use became widespread in England during a population boom in the 1500s, and even early environmental writers in the United States waxed poetic about the warming effects of coal in the 1800s. Ralph Waldo Emerson thought coal to be a great equalizer for the poor and a hero for the colder regions of the world, “for coal is a portable climate. It carries the heat of the tropics to Labrador and the polar circle” (Freese, 10).
But in 1902, a new use for coal was discovered. Willis Carrier invented the Apparatus for Treating Air for the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Co. in Brooklyn, N.Y. The machine blows air over cold coils to control room temperature and humidity, keeping paper from wrinkling and ink aligned. Finding that other factories want to get in on the cooling action, Carrier establishes the Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America, powered by coal (Green).
“The hotter the summer, the better,” says Jack Williams, my brother-in-law and general manager for Hannon Electric Company in Beckley, West Virginia. “That means we’re burning more coal, which means I’m selling more equipment.”
Hannon Electric manufactures and services mining equipment for coal mines and coal operators throughout Appalachia (web). So colder winters and warmer summers mean that the coal industry has customers needing their product throughout the entire year.
For years, scientists have bemoaning the world’s addiction to oil and the energy that oil provides, and their arguments are completely valid. But what many people do not realize is that a more accurate description of what people are addicted to is this: The world is addicted to energy, and by the year 2017, more people will be getting that energy from coal than any other source (Masters).
“Should the world eventually adapt the U.S. level of the need for cooling, energy demand for air conditioning would be equal to about 50 times the current demand for cooling in the U.S.,” Michael Sivak, a research professor at the University of Michigan, told the Christian Science Monitor.
In developing countries, the most likely source of energy to power all those new air conditioners is coal (Cox). The reason, of course, is that coal still remains one of the cheapest forms of fuel, and rapid increases in the ownership of air conditioners are already occurring in many developing countries (Sivak).
In China, the world’s largest developing nation, the percentage of households that owned an air conditioner back in 1990 was just 1 percent. In just 13 years, that number had jumped to 62 percent (Unger). In neighboring India, home to more than 1.2 billion people, only about 2 percent of homes had air conditioning in 2007. Just six years later, air conditioning sales across India are growing by roughly 20 percent every year (Unger).
Meanwhile, 29 coal miners perished on April 5, 2010 when an explosion rocked the Boone County mine at Upper Big Branch in southern West Virginia. The company who owned the mine at the time, Massey Coal, had been cited just one month before the accident for more than 60 mine safety violations by MSHA, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (Galuzka).
It has been four years since those 29 men died and their families’ lives, and the lives of so many coal mining southern West Virginians were affected. How many new safety laws or guidelines have been passed by Congress and put into effect in the coalfields of Appalachia, to ensure the safety of future mining operations?
Twenty-nine seems to be an unlucky number for miners, as in August of 2014, 29 miners were trapped underground in Nicaragua when a mudslide caused a collapse in the mine. Seven of the miners died, and 22 were rescued. But this mine had been closed for 80 years. So why were they there?
“Guiriseros,” or small-scale independent miners, desperate for work amid the difficult working conditions in the country, went into the abandoned mine in the hopes of finding gold. Because of the crisis facing Nicaragua’s economy, and in particular the coffee industry, men with mining training, however little, seek out opportunities in often unsafe places.
According to Bianca Morel of the Associated Free Press, the mine had been owned by an unnamed “foreign mining company” and was abandoned when that company thought the gold supply had been mined to completion.
In a struggling economy, people will do whatever it takes to feed their family, even sacrificing their lives. The unnamed foreign company still owns the mine that they abandoned generations ago. Will they pay the families of the deceased miners?
In Nicaragua, there is a coffee crisis, and it is as much humanitarian as it is environmental. The World Bank has called the coffee crisis “a silent hurricane,” because of the roughly equivalent destructive impact it has had upon Nicaragua and Central America (Vakis, Kruger and Mason, 18). The 2011-12 coffee harvest brought in just $31.7 million which was a 70% fall in the value of the coffee harvest from previous years. According to the authors of the World Bank study called “Shock and Coffee: Lessons from Nicaragua,” this is causing untold hardships on the already poor people of Central America.
Nicaragua’s 2012 coffee harvest was down dramatically from recent years, and it was only the second time that earnings from assembly plants, tourism, fish, meat and sugar produced more revenue than coffee, which is usually by far Nicaragua’s biggest income source (Solomon). A June 2012 figure calculated coffee revenues at seven percent of national income. The four-month coffee harvest is the only cash producing income for more than 200,000 Nicaraguans, yet for last winter’s harvest only 50,000 could find work. This means the families of the 150,000 who couldn’t find work had no income. As a result: Many have moved to roadside camps and town squares in hope of receiving food and medicine. Households affiliated with the coffee sector were the most vulnerable to decreases in welfare and least mobile to exit poverty compared to non-coffee households, suggesting that the coffee crisis has indeed affected their mobility and vulnerability (Vakis, Kruger, and Mason, 31).
In addition, to increase productivity among the coffee farms, many industrial plantations have moved from the environmentally sound practice of shade-tree coffee growth to “sun-cultivation” techniques. . ‘Sun cultivated’ coffee involves the cutting down of trees and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This type of industrial coffee farming leads to severe environmental problems, such as pesticide pollution, deforestation and the extinction of songbirds through habitat destruction. According to The Smithsonian Institute, this production-driven form of coffee farming has resulted in the destruction of vast forests of over 1.1 million acres in Central America.
The Smithsonian Institute has identified industrial coffee production as one of the major threats to a wide variety of birds in Central America due to deforestation. Songbirds of the Western Hemisphere are at a particular risk due to the types of trees they normally inhabit. Quite simply, the birds no longer have a habitat in which to live. Soil and water continue to be severely damaged by many coffee farms, as coffee pulp is often dumped into streams. In addition to the harmful effects on the environment caused by the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides in coffee cultivation, workers are also at risk of drinking contaminated water and being poisoned by pesticides (Smithsonian).
For these reasons, many biodiversity conservationists have developed standards for promoting “shade-grown” or “bird-friendly” certified coffee. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, as well as Rainforest Alliance and the Seattle Audubon Society, all promote various labels of coffee that promote tree and bird conserving farming practices. In addition, many consumers are committed to purchasing organic coffee in order to promote sustainable farming techniques in poor countries (Smithsonian).
While the people of southern West Virginia and the people of Nicaragua are fighting separate battles to have decent employment, they are both unwittingly contributing to global warming and the destruction of the environment.
An environmental movement that seeks to enlighten the impoverished worker about their respective industries’ contribution to global warming must also include an element of hope about future employment opportunities. The plight of the coal miner is directly related to an industry that has already made significant contributions to climate change, and will continue to do so in the future. The struggles of the Nicaraguan coffee farmer cannot be improved by an environmental outcry against their methods of farming if an alternative solution is not offered.
The relationship between these two hard-working, often misunderstood groups, is real and I hope this essay shows some of the similar struggles that each group is trying to overcome. My work will continue to bridge the gap between their respective dilemmas and discuss how they can unite their efforts for better, more environmentally-friendly employment.
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