|His students called him Thompson. He began his career in a world without smartphones. Thirty years later, in a world dominated by them, he retired. The atypical element in a typical school, Thompson was constantly rankled by educators who did not educate, parents who did not parent, and leaders who did not lead, but his interactions with more than 6000 students, some of whom you will meet in these pages, inspired him to keep fighting the good fight. In and out of his overheated and overdecorated classroom, Thompsonís stories of students, colleagues, and family members serve as a backdrop against which he reflects on teaching, raising children, and navigating the cultural and educational overhaul that occurred between 1989 and 2019. Dancing Through Graveyards with Ninth Graders is a pre-Coronavirus memoir of American public schooling that is by turns funny, sad, absurd, angry, and ultimately hopeful. It illustrates that good teachers are always in demand and that humanity is always at the heart of learning.|
English 9 Calendar
Honors 9 Calendar
I seldom go outside lately. For the past two weeks, the sky has been full of smoke from forest fires all over the western U.S., and the air is almost unbreathable. Not only that but the summer has been a record-breaker in both heat and drought. My lawn has always been a barely-greenish shade of brown for most of the summer because I can't bring myself to dump thousands of gallons of water on a plant that was never meant to survive in this desert to begin with. But this year, I was trying to be an especially good citizen because the meteorologists are in a tizzy, the reservoirs are at record lows, and blazing sun burns down unlike any summer in my memory. My lawn is certainly dormant, if not dead now, because I have barely watered it, hoping such efforts might leave behind enough to sustain human life in this place until my granddaughter gets her turn to enjoy it. That's her over to the left. Since we have no grass to play in at home, we go to the park on cool mornings. It gets watered regularly because it is a public good. And I like this picture because -- despite the godforsaken nature of our weather, air, landscape, and politics -- it illustrates Hope. You'd never know by looking at this photo that the world's on fire and COVID-19 is making a resurgence in the form of the Delta variant. Hospitalizations are up, as is the death count. Here we go again. Why? Because about half our population doesn't believe in the public good. They aren't vaccinated and they won't wear masks. They petition and picket school board meetings so that not only won't their own kids have to mask up but no one else will be allowed to either. The state legislature outlawed mask mandates. School starts next week. I am glad I retired from teaching when I did and happy to have new jobs that allow me to work from wherever I am whenever I want. It won't last forever, I know, but maybe there will be some justice in who the pandemic kills this time. I just hope it isn't kids.
"I had to get real with them. Sometimes it did seem hopeless to me, and I did fear for future generations who would grow up in a world run by (and completely devoted to) the selfish pursuit of personal gratification at the expense of critical thought and social consciousness. I feared both for the kids who grew up believing they were entitled to every personal pleasure they could imagine and for the kids who (through no fault of their own) grew up with nothing" (p. 95).
I love getting real mail! It's Announcement Season, and I am lucky to still receive a few every year. And, yes, I still keep them with the massive collection some of you have read about: "On the wall next to the desk was the Hall of Fame: hundreds of high school graduation announcements from former students, high school dance pictures, special notes, wedding invitations, doodles and drawings, college graduation announcements, and other physical evidence of people who remembered me and thought I would like to know where life had taken them. I looked at these things often, reminders of why I had been doing this for so long despite the frustrations. Every year there were more frustrations and more announcements. The Hall of Fame now covered most of the north wall of the room, and in some places memorabilia was stapled many layers deep. Looking through the glass of Juliet's tank, you could see the faces from the past on the wall" (pp. 287-8).
I've been out of the classroom for two years, neither of which (thanks to COVID-19) were typical school years. It looks like my last class of ninth graders may get a normal senior year if we're no longer living in pandemic world by next fall. (Knock on wood!) It has been nice to interact with my granddaughter minus the mask! It has also been nice to still receive the announcements and updates, both real and electronic. Thanks!
Until two months ago, I hadn't worked a traditional job since the day I retired from teaching. I went from having no job on one day to having two jobs the next. I have flexible hours, and I have had to learn how to attend Zoom meetings. Both jobs are related to teaching, but they are not teaching. I recently visited the school to see some of my old pals, and I discovered that many of them have also retired or moved on. Of course none of the students know me anymore, but I was vaguely surprised to learn that neither does anyone in the office. The entire adminsitrative staff has turned over since I left. I had to get a visitor's pass to walk in the halls I walked for a quarter century. Since I retired, I have resisted looking too carefully into Room 198, lest I get emotional because it is no longer "my room," but this time it didn't bother me. As far as the school knows now, I was never there. I once said to my friend, who was retiring a few years before I did, that the great tragedy of teacher retirements (and life itself) is how quickly we are forgotten as the past becomes the future. But I think I was being melodramatic. That's the way it is supposed to be. The school forgets us, but our friends never do. It's not the place. It's the people. And though we may dance through many graveyards before we come to our own final resting place, the people live in memory. Without them, the place is meaningless.
Sarabeth made me the coolest afghan in the world! She made an almost-as-cool one for my nine-month-old granddaughter, about whom Sarabeth has been hearing since last summer when we began corresponding. Sarabeth read my book and realized she was in my class about 17 years ago during that year I almost blinded myself trying to remove a contact lens. ("The Eyeball Story" is the name of the chapter. Here's a version of it some of you may remember. ;-) She sent me a very kind e-mail, and we have been pen pals ever since. I hope you all have a friendship like this one during the pandemic! As you can see from the picture above, sometimes such friendships grow beyond the boundaries of e-mail, even when it means we have to wear masks. I'm so glad she contacted me! The book can still be ordered here, or you can get an e-book version here. If you want a signed copy directly from me, I might have a couple left. It can't hurt to contact me and ask! I'm still firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay well! Spring is coming!
Dancing Through Graveyards with Ninth Graders is not a bestselling book, but it is a selling book. I get a small residual payment once in a while, and the ones I sold myself last month are almost gone. I think my days as a book vendor are numbered, although it has been fun talking to many of the folks who contacted me in December. I had pre-Christmas visits with some former students and colleagues (sometimes in their COVID-safe classrooms after school), but the highlight of the month was when I heard from the parents of a former student whose story is at the heart of my book -- a sad chapter but full of hope and probably the most profound experience I ever had as a teacher. Part of the reason my final stash of "author's copies" went so quickly was because some folks who had already read the book bought multiple copies to give to family and friends. I am honored they found my words worthy of sharing. And thank you to everyone helping to make me a selling author! The book can still be ordered here, or you can get an e-book version here. If you want a signed copy directly from me, I still have a few in the office as of this writing. It can't hurt to contact me and ask! I'm still email@example.com. Stay well! Here's to better days ahead! Happy new year!
They're here! I ordered a couple more boxes of books so I could sell them myself. This allows me to personalize and sign them before they are delivered. (It also allows me to offer them at a 15% discount until the end of the month or until they are gone. Shhh!) So, if you've been wondering what this old teacher might have said about you, now is the time to get your copy. Or if you know a teacher, parent, coach, or other saintly soul who could use a holiday distraction, you can give them a book they might enjoy. To order directly from me, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or send me a private message via Messenger, Instagram, or Twitter. (If you want to learn more about the book before you order, there are multiple reviews linked in the updates below, all of which were written by former students. Or, if you're not sure the book is right for you, scroll down to the August entry for a description of the kinds of people I thought might like it. And as always, thanks to those who have already read it and contacted me with the inspiring updates and kind words! Stay safe!
Jacque was in my class about 20 years ago. She reviews books on her blog (Read on till Morning), and I was honored to discover that she recently gave my book a very kind review. Check it out here and post a comment to let her know you did, especially if any of your own memories of ninth grade are anything like hers! With the new spike in COVID-19 cases, it looks like we are going to be encouraged to avoid crowds, so if you want to occupy your mind with a trip down Memory Lane, you might want to read the book for yourself. It would also make a good gift! If you know someone (a teacher, parent, or other saint who works with kids) who could use a holiday distraction, copies are always available here. If you'd like a signed copy, you can order one directly from me. (Send me a private message via e-mail, Messenger, Instagram, or Twitter for details. I am ordering some more "author's copies," and I should have them soon.) If you've already read the book, I'd appreciate it if you would go to Amazon and post a review of your own. Even just a few sentences helps. Thanks! Stay well!
I was honored to be the first "adult" guest on the Tale of Two Cities podcast with Miles and Sam. It's not as literary as the title suggests. (Miles didn't even read the Dickens novel when I assigned it to his ninth grade English class, and he still doesn't know which two cities that book is about, but he is a good host who asks fun questions.) I had a good time, and I hope they will invite me back. I promised them I would try to help them double their audience, so if you've got 25 minutes to spare, click here and scroll down to the "Mr. Thompson" episode! If you are amused by all this teenaged tomfoolery, subscribe and listen to the other episodes as well!
October 1, 2020
At the beginning of July, FedEx delivered five big boxes of books. These were my so-called first editions that I could sign and sell myself. At the time, I thought I would give away copies to my family and close friends, sell a few at a discount to other teachers, and then have two of the five boxes of books gathering dust at the back of the garage for the rest of my life. I hoped to break even, but I was not confident that I would. Well, thanks to many of you, I did. In fact, all five boxes of the first editions are gone, and I have had a few requests to order more, so I can sign and sell them locally. I haven't decided if I should do this yet because now that everyone who initially expressed interest in the book has a copy, buying more would mean I have to try selling them to people who don't know me. I'm not much of a salesperson, but I am thinking about it. Thank you to everyone who supported my literary aspirations!
Last month, I exchanged e-mails with a few more former students who read the book. That correspondence has been so uplifting for me at this otherwise depressing time. At first, I was surprised by how willing some of them were to share very personal stories or otherwise private aspects of their lives, but then one pointed out that while I usually came across as honest with my students in class, sometimes I couldn't tell "the whole truth." The book, however, took the level of honesty to a whole new level: "You poured your heart into those pages, Thompson!" And I've learned that when you do that, people are more likely to trust you with their own hearts.
The highlight of last month was when Baby Bear (the star of one chapter in my book) came to see me! We sat on the patio, ate our lunch, and talked about all the places life has taken her since she was in my class all those years ago. Even though we had to keep six feet apart to maintain COVID-19 protocols, it was so nice to "socialize" for a couple hours. Speaking of socializing, I'm still waiting to hear from Miles, who promised he would have me on his podcast to talk about the book. I even sent him a digital review copy. (Ahem! Miles?) If we ever do it, I'll post a link to the conversation.
Can I ask a favor? If you've read the book, will you go to Amazon or Goodreads and post a review? Here's one that exceeds all expectations, written by a student who always did: Brigitte. Not only did she post it on her old Honors English blog, but she found an error in my book! (I'd be ashamed if I weren't so proud!) And if you want to touch base with me, even if just to check in and say hi, I'm still email@example.com.
September 1, 2020
Since March -- as part of our self-styled, pandemic-inspired exercise routine -- Maddie and I try to get out three mornings a week and walk around the school seven times before the sun rises and outdoor activity becomes unthinkable. We have grown accustomed to our lonely stroll, being careful to allow at least six feet between the occasional dog walker and ourselves as we circle the empty school with its deserted parking lot. Yesterday, the sun was still behind the mountain when we set out, and although the heat of August broke records, it was cool and pleasant on the last day of the month. There were other differences, too. The parking lot was beginning to fill with cars. Masked teachers made their way to doors thrown open wide to air the hallways. As the sun cleared the mountain, the first bus arrived. School is back in session!
On our final lap, we crossed paths with three of my former colleagues. The conversation with each was nearly identical. I asked how the first week had gone, how the new hybrid schedule was going to work, and what it was like to have only 20 masked students in each class rather than the 36 (unmasked) I remember from pre-COVID-19. Then, without exception, they all said in a kind of sing-song voice, "I'm reading your book...." The momentary silence that followed indicated I was waiting to hear what they thought of it and that they were not ready to tell me. "Thanks!" I broke the silence. "I hope you enjoy it!"
Last month, I heard from many former students who were reading (or had read) the book, and they had so many kind things to say that it was almost overwhelming. Now, I guess, I'll get to hear from some teachers. I'd be lying if I said I'm not a little nervous.
Wow! Thank you! When I posted the preview at the beginning of August, I did not expect such an enthusiastic response. I set out to sell enough copies of the book to recoup my initial investment, and I think I will be able to do that, which makes me happy. But the best part has been the number of former students and colleagues I have heard from since then! Thank you for your updates and stories and kind words! You give me hope for humanity during these strange times! If you've read the book, look carefully at the shelf above to see if you can identify the significance of all the items on it! (You might need to open the picture in a separate window and zoom in to see some of the meaningful details.) If you haven't read the book and you want to, follow the links at the top of the page. [I also have about ten "first editions" left that can be purchased directly from me via PayPal. I'll sign them before they are mailed.] Many of you will soon be returning to some version of "school" amid the pandemic, and I will be thinking about you. Stay well!
August 2020: Preview
Former Students: You've been on my mind a lot lately! It's been more than a year since I was in an actual classroom and longer than that since I updated this website that we used to access every day, but I never quit thinking about all the stuff you taught me. In fact, I thought about it so much and I was so ambivalent about letting you go that I spent six months writing a book about my teaching career. (Then I spent another six months trying to figure out how to publish it.) I didn't know at the time that COVID-19 was going to change everything about the way education happens, and people have been saying to me for the past few months, "Whew! You got out just in time, Thompson!" But I still think about all the adventures we had in Room 198, and while I don't miss the PA interruptions and the long, hot days of testing, I do miss you. As my last classes already know, I have a memorial tattoo that makes it impossible for me to forget. (The whole story is in the book, and a few of you are in that chapter, too!) While much of the book is about you, some of it is not really for you. Some sections may only interest other teachers (and principals are gonna hate it!), but my former students might like to know what went on behind the scenes of the stories I told in class: The Fly, The Kardiac Kid, The Eyeball Story, and Aragog (the spider in the jar). There's also quite a bit about some of the literature we studied. (You can't read The Pigman out loud as many times as I did without taking those lessons to heart.) And of course I had to mention Fahrenheit 451 (still happening now more than ever!), Stargirl, and Romeo and Juliet. There are also some sections where I'll tell you how I really feel about dress codes, lockdown drills, "honors" classes, and air-conditioners that only make everything damp but not cool. (The book is rated PG-13 for language! ;-) There are a few stories about students who impacted my life more than I impacted theirs. And I also talk a lot about my teacher friends, my children, and my grandma! If you want to read it for yourself, it is available on Amazon. The e-book is currently available for Kindle, and I hope to soon have it in other e-book formats as well. I was also planning an audio-book, but the pandemic sidelined that idea for now. [There are a limited number of first edition copies you can get directly from me (via Paypal), and I would be happy to sign them and send or deliver them to you. They are still paperbacks, but they are designated as first editions on the title page, and they are on higher quality paper than the ones Amazon sells. People who used to be my students will get the first shot at these, so if you are interested, e-mail me or find me on social media and let me know ASAP.]
I hope things are going well in your lives, and I hope our paths cross again.
Teacher Friends: Many of you read early drafts of the book and gave me lots of encouragement even though you couldn't understand how someone so full of rage about the lack of air-conditioning in schools could teach as long as I did. I realize that my tone (like my classroom dress and meeting minutes) could be considered less-than-professional at times, and that's why I had to wait until I retired to write the book. For colleagues who have not seen any previous drafts, if you imagine me amidst one of my faculty-room rants, you'll have a good idea for how the chapters about all the evils of The System sound. And I realize that for many of you, that ain't your cup o' tea. Don't worry: I changed all your names, so no one will be able to blame you for my blasphemies.
Other Teachers: If this book finds an audience with anyone outside my immediate circle of friends and former students, it will be you. I say things about educators who don't educate, parents who don't parent, and leaders who don't lead that you may have always thought but never dared to speak aloud. You are not alone, and while parents, politicians, and principals often have no appreciation for what you go through, everyone knows that students need you and schools can't function without you. You deserve better! And I hammer on that point in no uncertain terms. Also, depending on how/if American education recovers from COVID-19, this book may serve as a historical record of how things used to be.
(I'd like to think things might improve for you now that everyone has had a taste of what it means to be responsible for kids all day!)
Educational Historians: My career began in a world without computers. It ended in a world where everyone had one in their pocket. I witnessed firsthand the technological revolution in education, and while I was always an early adopter who embraced technology, I also saw how the attitudes that developed as more of it became available were not always effective or educational. If you want the perspective of a teacher (as opposed to a superintendent or a salesperson), there are things in this book that might be of interest to you. Be warned, though: there are no graphs, pie charts, or data samples. It's a series of little stories and reflections that make up the big story of my career in teaching. I didn't do formal research, and I didn't collect any data. I'm just telling my story as I remember it -- and thanks to technology, I grew to loathe any mention of data.
Parents of Former Students: If someone recommended this book to you, you are probably the sort of parent I wish all my students had, but it might make you cringe when I go off about entitled moms and dads who want to prepare the path of life for their children rather than preparing their children for the path of life. A teacher's impact on a student can be profound, but it will always pale in comparison to the simple, daily example that parents set whether they are trying to or not. Obviously, no one should care more about a student than his/her parents, but sometimes I felt like I did. I have little patience for parents who turn their children over to an admittedly imperfect and overcrowded system without ever doing a parental check up to see how the kids are faring within that system, and I am positively apoplectic about parents who then criticize the system for what are actually parental failings.
School Administrators: Um...you probably don't want to read this book. If you've ever found yourself writing a scolding e-mail to an entire faculty because two teachers on that faculty never enter attendance, you are a cowardly and ineffective school leader and one of the various composites I target in this book. If you have written such an e-mail at the behest of someone else, that person is even worse. (Such e-mails, by the way, are called flock shots, and they serve only to make good teachers doubt themselves. They never reach the ones who are causing the problem, and that's why you keep having the problem.) If that kind of direct criticism bothers you because you aren't used to hearing it from your underlings, this book will infuriate you. I saw this kind of s**t happening in schools for thirty years, and I go after it all guns blazing. That said, some of you might read this book to find out what NOT to do if you want teachers to respect you. Don't get me wrong: I don't hate all administrators, and there are even a couple I hold in high esteem, but there is something that happens to you when you become a principal that makes you forget how much you hated the condescending, trivial, and ignorant stuff you despised as a teacher, and when you start doing it to other teachers, you have truly joined the Dark Side.
District/State Administrators, Politicians on Educational Committees, and Other "Educators" Who Never Go in a School: No. Just no. This book is not for you or anyone on any of the PLCs you surely meet with.
People who like the books of Stephen King, the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and the poems of Shel Silverstein: You'll find lots of things here you might relate to!
Metalheads: I see everything through the lens of the music I grew up listening to, and most of it was heavy metal. I have a works cited at the end of the book that includes the Holy Bible and Megadeth. I'm also a huge Rush fan, and my students will remember all the KISS paraphernalia. While the content of the book does not focus specifically on music, there is a rock 'n' roll sensibility about the book that you may appreciate.
Pre-service Teachers: Are you thinking about doing this for a living? I don't want to talk you out of what is unquestionably a noble profession, and you will find in these pages how amazingly fulfilling teaching was for me, but I'm also pretty direct about the professional and personal frustrations. If you see the world through rosy glasses and you are willing to shrug off those frustrations, you'll probably be a better teacher than I was, but you probably won't like this book very much. If, on the other hand, you are a teacher who is willing to get messy, down in the mud and the grit, you might be inspired by the stories about my students. Which brings us back to what it's all about and who it's all for.
Let's see, who else might like this book? Coaches, driving instructors, tattoo afficionados, social media influencers, literature lovers, Simpsons viewers, dieters, baby bears, tie-dyers, tarantula keepers, life-long learners, and graveyard dancers!
We're all in this together, and nobody gets out alive!
Order your copy of Dancing Through Graveyards with Ninth Graders today!
Read. Write. Repeat.