Family and/or Autobiography, On Blogging, On Writing

Am I Enthusiastic? Apparently So!

The lovely and talented Britt Skrabanek recently accused me of being enthusiastic about life. I wasn’t sure if she was correct in this assessment. (My morning coffee hadn’t quite kicked in.)

Then she invited me to write a post for her popular monthly blog feature, “The Life Enthusiast Chronicles.” Suddenly I discovered that I was enthusiastic! By golly, Britt was right!

So that’s where I’m hanging out this week. Come on over and leave a comment or three. I’ll bring scones.

Britt Skrabanek

Last month Zen from Zen Scribbles reminded us never to lose sight of the child in ourselves, to enjoy things that makes us happy—no matter what they are, no matter hold old we are. In my monthly series, The Life Enthusiast Chronicles, magnificent human beings from all over talk about what makes them excited to be alive.

Today I’m stoked to bring you guys a New Jersey native, Mike Allegra from heylookawriterfellow. Hands down, Mike’s blog is one of the funniest and most entertaining blogs I read on a regular basis. He puts a humorous spin on day-to-day experiences that will make you laugh your ass off. Seriously, I’ve spit out my coffee in the mornings on numerous occasions. 

Beyond that, Mike is just a great family guy with a great talent for writing (and doodling). I’m so glad that he took me up on the Life Enthusiast offer. Enjoy.

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On Writing

Why I Will Never be a Teacher

I’m crazy about teachers. They are selfless, fun, ridiculously dedicated, and a wee bit nutty. I should know, for I have been surrounded by teachers — either by choice or design — my entire life. Both of my parents were teachers. My older sister is a teacher. My wife, Ellen, is a teacher. And, for the past 15 years, I have worked in schools.

But I do not teach; I write and edit alumni magazines — and this is for the best. I would not be a good teacher.

To best explain why I feel this way, I need to tell you a little story:

***

Back in 1995, one of my short plays was accepted into a one-act festival. The cast and the director were selected without my input, which is pretty common. I also found everyone to be pleasant and fun, which is far less common. I especially liked the director, a weather-scarred longshoreman named Joe who was built like a vandalized brick house. He was tapping into his artistic side, apparently – and was very successful in doing so. He came up with many excellent ideas that I embraced without reservation.

The cast was also a pretty good fit. The actress playing the lead – let’s call her Marla – was playing slightly against type, but Joe, who had nothing to do with the casting either, was addressing the problem. He figured Marla would work out just fine. He turned out to be right; Marla was a quick study, and the rehearsal process proceeded apace.

But, as you probably guessed by now, something happened.

Something always happens.

On the week before opening night, the play was on its feet and the actors were off book. Now Joe was just working on little things — sharpening the timing and making sure that the actors not only remembered their lines but also understood why they were saying the lines as written.

It was at this very, very late point in the process that Marla started to forget large swaths of the play.

This surprised everyone — for Marla had her dialogue down pat for weeks — but no one was more surprised than Joe, who I discovered, to my delight, was even more control freaky and detail oriented than I was.

Joe decided that an interrogation was in order. He called for a break and pulled Marla aside while the rest of us sat around pretending to not eavesdrop. After a few minutes, the two of them broke away and, with a sigh, Joe called me over.

“She quit smoking,” Joe said.

“Does that affect memory?” I asked.

“It does if your brain keeps yelling, ‘I want a cigarette! I want a cigarette! I want a cigarette!’”

Despite everyone’s best efforts, Marla could never find any spare brain real estate for her lines. It was like watching a car wreck in slow motion. Short of pinning Marla down and blowing smoke into her mouth (and I’m pretty sure Joe considered this option), there was nothing any of us could do.

Our fears were realized on opening night as a jittery Marla regaled the audience with an improvisational nic-fit fueled monologue. It was quite remarkable, really; what she uttered was so dissimilar from any of the lines I had written, that the rest of the cast was too fascinated to interrupt. Their silence only seemed to prompt Marla to spew more words in the hope that something coming out of her mouth might eventually sound familiar.

It took a while — a very long while — but Marla did find her way back to the script. The rest of the cast lunged at this opportunity and wrestled the play away from their co-star.

At that moment, I heard Joe, who was sitting two rows behind me, groan, “Oh, thank God!”

Joe’s outburst prompted me to giggle like an idiot until the play was over.

***

I recently told that story to a teenage actress I was interviewing for The Lawrenceville School’s alumni magazine. After she stopped laughing, I asked her, “Do you smoke?”

“No,” she replied.

“Great!” I said. “Don’t start.”

Then I added, “But if you do start, don’t stop.”

Something tells me a teacher would never urge a smoker to keep on smoking.

But I do not teach; I write. And, as a writer, I stand by this advice, now and forever.

On Writing

Tales of a Sixth Grade Writer

The sixth grade me. I kept my writing talent in my hair.
The sixth grade me. I kept my writing talent in my hair.

I mentioned in a previous post how Sunday morning TV programming helped kickstart my writing career.

Mrs. Snelback, however, was the one who kept me on the writing path for life.

Mrs. Snelback was my sixth grade teacher. She didn’t seem to like children all that much. The children didn’t seem to like her all that much, either. They did, however, fear and respect her.

I liked Mrs. Snelback. I understood her personality type; my Great Uncle Bill was very much like her, grumpy on the outside but a great person underneath. Uncle Bill got happy just like everyone else, but it was a subtle, non-demonstrative kind of happiness. Blink and you’d miss any outward signs of it. I made a point not to blink much around Uncle Bill. He fascinated me.

Snelback fascinated me, too. She was my hero because she, like me, hated the clique of obnoxious popular girls who abused people for sport. And, unlike every other teacher at Lincoln Elementary, Snelback refused to ignore these girls’ inner ugliness. She punished them with relish and reveled in their subsequent waves of whining.

“Oh, that isn’t fair?” Snelback would ask after the whiniest among them ran out of steam. “Well, life isn’t fair, honey.”

And because Snelback always enjoyed giving the knife just one more twist, she’d close with a mock frowny-faced, “Oh you poor thing!”

Snelback didn’t believe in sending people to the principal. Any misbehaving that took place in her room would be handled in her room, thank you very much.

One of Snelback’s favorite punishments was “The Infamous 100 Words.” If, for example, Tommy T. called out in class without raising his hand, Snelback would bellow, “THOMAS! 100 words on raising hands!”

And, that night, Tommy T. would have to write a 100-word essay on why it was important to raise your hand before speaking.

The Infamous 100 Words was like KP. Everyone had to deal with it sooner or later. I was no exception.

“MICHAEL!” Snelback bellowed. “100 words on talking in class!”

So be it.

When one of my classmates penned an Infamous 100 Words on talking in class, he would write that talking in class was rude to the children and the teacher.

He would then write that talking inhibited the learning process.

He would then write that he was sorry.

He would then write that when a kid talks in class…um…the Communists win.

On and on it went until a 70-word essay became an 80-word essay, and that 80-word became a 90-word, and that 90-word became a 95-word, and that 95-word became…still a 95-word, and…and…and…OH, COME ON! I JUST NEED FIVE MORE FREAKING WORDS! THINK! THINK!

As far as I was concerned, that was a stupid way to write The Infamous 100 Words. I had a different technique. I told a story:

Little Billy Bumpus leaned over to tell his neighbor the latest booger joke. Unfortunately the teacher heard. She stared hard at Billy, and, without a word, reached for the tiny key that hung around her neck. The class gasped. Some of the girls put their heads on their desks. They knew what was about to happen and didn’t want to see it.

The teacher unlocked the bottom drawer of her desk. Out popped the toe monster. It oozed from his home onto the floor and slithered down the aisle to Billy’s chair. Billy, resigned to his fate, gripped the sides of his desk as the toe monster wrenched off his shoe, yanked off his sock, and bit off Billy’s big toe down to the second knuckle.

“You have nine more chances to behave in this class, Mr. Billy Bumpus!” the teacher said. “Because once your toes are gone, so are YOU!”

There! 100 Words on talking in class. More like 150 words, but who’s counting?

My stories attracted Mrs. Snelback’s attention.

When Mom and Dad came to the next parent teacher conference, the first words out of Mrs. Snelback’s mouth was this: “Do you know what your son’s strongest subject is?”

“Reading,” Mom said. “He is always reading.” This was true.

“WRONG!” Snelback bellowed. “It is WRITING! Your son should be a writer. Your son WILL be a writer!”

The inference was that if I didn’t become a writer, it would be my mom’s fault.

I had wanted to be a writer since I was seven. I was now 12 and the desire to write was still strong. When Mom told me what Mrs. Snelback said, I wanted to be a writer more than anything in the world.

I wanted to prove Mrs. Snelback right. And she was right. Thanks to her, I’ll be a writer until the day I die.

So! Was there a teacher in your life who was particularly influential?