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July 2022

Obviously, the picture to the left is not July, but I like it for a lot of reasons. For one, it shows the last day the air was cool and clean enough to go outside. I took almost a year away from this website because the last post was kind of a downer, and I kept hoping the world would improve. It got worse. In every measurable way, we as a species are worse off than we were last year. It would be fruitless to list all the current woes of the world, the country, the state, and the people who aren't rich. Name something horrible and it is happening right now. War. Injustice. Poverty. Death. Disease. Tyranny. Idiocy. Hate. There are more than four Horsemen, and they are all coming our way at top speed. But I only include this introduction for context because I am planning to elaborate below on some of the reasons I haven't killed myself despite the hopelessness and despair. If I get ambitious, I might even include a few more pictures.

The reason I have time to spend on this today is because I have COVID, so I can't go to work. I was as careful as I could be for two-plus years, but the germ finally caught up with me. What variant? Who knows? Is anyone even keeping track anymore? All I know is that I've been isolating at home with a sore throat and a semi-wicked cough for the last six days. I feel almost back to completely healthy, but I still test positive. I'm vaxed to the max, which is probably the reason I'm still alive (being one of those high-risk cases), but my main concern is that I don't share this illness with anyone else, especially the kid in the picture, who will soon be vaccinated now that a shot for 2-year olds is available but who currently is not. I am the first person in her immediate environment to contract the plague, and so far I have not shared it. Hence the isolation and the extra-long blog post.

Question: So, the world is a piece of shit, Thompson. What do we have to feel good about? Answer: Each other.

"Hey, Papa T!" the voicemail began, "It's Viola! I was just calling see how you're doing. Rosie told me that, like me, you also have COVID...." Still as upbeat and kind as ever, she's in her early thirties now, and she still checks in from time to time. I was sad to hear that she was also isolating in her (now faraway) home, but her message brought tears of joy to this old man's eyes.

Coffee tomorrow? Nathan's text arrived, as they always do, at a midafternoon hour when I usually would have been occupied with some aspect of my job. And, as with all his communication since he was 13, it was clipped and direct. Had I been able to answer in the affirmative, my reply would have been nothing more than Yes. He would have known to meet me at Starbucks the next day at 1:00 P.M. Creatures of routine, we've done it approximately every four months since he graduated from high school more than ten years ago. Nathan was in my class for his 8th and 9th grade years, and over the next few I helped drag him across the finish line of public education. He is now working as an EMT for a fire department in a place 45 minutes away. We remain friends, but now he has others closer to his own age. I replied that COVID was keeping me home, and I thought (knowing him as I do for as long as I have) that would be the end of it. Moments later: Doing ok? Need anything?

"Mr. Thompson," Tiffiny's e-mail (of a few months back) began in a more formal register than that of any of my recent students. She was in my class long enough ago that it was still important for students to include the Mr. before my last name, and she made a mighty effort to finally get it down to Mike by the time we met up. She was in my only Honors English class that deserved the title. She continued: "I'm hoping to be back in town for a weekend in June. Lots of good memories and reflections. I hope all is well with you." That arrived in my inbox back in April, and over the next two months, we exchanged others that ultimately put the two of us (along with her sister Julie, another former student) together for lunch on the afternoon of Tiffiny's 20th high school reunion. A proud graduate of OMHS, she took me to task for my critical take on her alma mater. It was so much fun talking to Tiffiny and Julie that we not only stayed far beyond when the restaurant closed but also forgot to take a picture together. Had we done so, it would be included here. Since we didn't, here is a recent one of Michelle and me at a coffee shop in March.

I should probably clarify that Michelle does not drink coffee. She was very quiet when she was in my class. In 2020, Michelle contacted me and we exchanged lots of e-mails during the initial pandemic lockdown. She reminded me of how I had embarrassed her terribly by reciting this poem to her aloud, on one knee, in front of the entire class. (I substituted Michelle for Marcia.) When she came through town in March, we met at a coffee shop to catch up. (I repeat: Michelle does not drink coffee.) Since this picture was taken, she dyed her hair red, so for now I call her Ginger Snap.

Michelle is a year younger than my son JT, who is old enough to have fallen head-over-heels for a med. school student named Rachael. They share an apartment in the big city, and when they heard I had COVID, Rachael whipped up a week's worth of plant-based goodies to keep me nourished without need of going to the store. In The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell wrote, "We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at least one which makes the heart run over." The only reason I am aware of this quotation is because Ray Bradbury included it in Fahrenheit 451. As I finished off the last of Rachael's vegan mac and cheese (scrumptious, btw!), my own heart ran over thinking of all the kind angels and thoughtful friends I've been fortunate enough to hear from this year.

(Yes, I know I'm jumping around in time -- this is stream-of-consciousness. Blame COVID.) In early April, I got an e-mail from When she was my student, her last name was not Ellsworth, so Hailey's e-mail address was not nearly as amusing. Now she is an English teacher in a high school populated by a faculty and a student body made up of an uncomfortable number of my former students and colleagues. On behalf of one of those former students, Mrs. Ellsworth, as she is now known, was contacting me for my address. She wouldn't say why, but how could I deny a former student as gifted as she? A few days later, a "save-the-date" card arrived. A few days after that, an invitation. Kobe was a member of my final class of 9th graders -- back before anyone had ever heard of COVID, and he was memorably talkative. Anyway, Kobe remembered me for introducing him to books by Stephen King, a fact I was not aware of until I went to the celebration and heard him read his speech about me before an auditorium filled mainly with teachers from the high school we were in at that time. Sitting in that auditorium, the first time I had been in such a crowded room without a mask on in two years, I realized this was more than likely the last "teaching honor" I would ever receive. I savored the moment. Kobe, who will likely serve a religious mission and then return to play college baseball, did not look like this when he was in my class three years ago:

He was much smaller. Sadly, so was I. I wore that shirt for two reasons: 1) It is older than Kobe and one of my most worn classroom shirts in the years before I defaulted to Dickie's work shirts. 2) It still fits, unlike most of the shirts I wore during my final year of teaching when I was down to a healthy weight. (I put on the so-called COVID 19 during the first year of the pandemic. Now I'm up to the COVID 38. Kobe was one of the top students at his high school, and I was honored to be remembered by someone like him. In a beautiful irony, which was in no way Kobe's fault, they misspelled my name on the award certificate -- exactly what I would have expected from The System I grew to despise by the end of my career.


The graduation announcement and photo from Parker -- another student in my final class of 9th graders who found me by way of Macie, who is now a counselor at his school -- was at once so touching and so funny that I had to take him to lunch after he graduated. When we met at the restaurant, he gave me a pastel birthday bag with colorful ribbons, bows, and tissue paper. (He remembered my birthday. Aww!) The Ozzy figurine was inside, and it has been proudly blaspheming at me for the past three weeks from its place of honor on my printer. While we were at lunch, Parker and I exchanged phone info, and I told him to take an appropriate picture of himself so I'd recognize his avatar in my phone. He reminds me so much of me in so many ways.



And then there's Gina. Gina was in my class in 1990-91. Her younger brothers, then later her sons, also made their way through my classes over the intervening decades. For years, I saw Gina every time I went to the pharmacy to pick up my monthly supply of blood pressure pills. She was the tech who handed them to me and asked how Rosie was doing. (As a 12th grader, Gina was one of Rosie's caretakers in the high school daycare where I dropped her off every morning. She reported to me every day on all the cute things Rosie loudly announced to the other children -- like, "Boys have penises! Girls have vaginas!" and "Papa cools my fever with a cold beer!" Gina recently reached out to me on social media when she came across this in her box of memories. (Sorry, you'll have to click the link to open it in a separate window. I want to preserve the words with a high-quality copy because I don't have one of my own, and I only vaguely remember writing it. It was typed on an electric typewriter and copied on an old mimeograph machine, so no pristine digital copy exists.) I cringe hard at a lot of stuff I wrote, lessons I tried, and things I said to students back when I was a greenhorn teacher, but I'll stand by this one. And the fact that Gina actually kept it, not ten years or twenty as I requested, but now more than 30, tells me I must have been doing something right even before I knew what the hell I was doing. And Gina is a grandma now, which brings me to my favorite topic lately: Adventures with Koppa and Mimi.

I'm Koppa. Maddie is Mimi. That's what our granddaughter calls us. She's two now and is currently the greatest joy in my life. The reason having COVID enrages me is because it prevents me from seeing her. We have had many adventures lately, some of them to places you would probably expect.


Wait! You took your two-year-old grandchild to a Judas Priest concert?! No, JT and I, after repeated postponements over the past two years, finally got to use our second-row tickets to our favorite heavy metal band. (Yes, I took this picture!) But I include it here because when my grandkid saw it, she pointed at Rob Halford and said, "Koppa!" (Oh, my heart!)




August 2021

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 once journaled this at the end of a literature unit: "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."

June 2021

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 know 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."

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.


March 2021

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 realized she was in my class about 17 years ago during that year I almost blinded myself trying to remove a contact lens. (It came to be known as the "The Eyeball Story." 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! Stay well! Spring is coming!


October 1, 2020

Last month, I exchanged e-mails with a few more former students. 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. But 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 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.

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. Their answers were not hopeful....

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 about my teaching career. 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. I hope things are going well in your lives, and I hope our paths cross again.

We're all in this together, and nobody gets out alive!



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Oh, and by the way...

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