Week 19: Equipping Seniors to Leave Our Classroom Nests

“But I haven’t done anything yet! I’m just a student…”

“How do I calculate my HOPE [scholarship] GPA…?”

“I don’t have any work experience….”

“What’s the passing score for the SAT?”

“My ACT score wasn’t good enough. Now what…?”

“Who am I supposed to get references from…?”

What is that smell? Fear? Exasperation? Is it coming from them or me? Why do I have to fight so hard against making assumptions about what my students are capable of, of how far they’ve progressed? Maybe I’ve just overlayed my own high school template on this situation: I think I saw my guidance counselor once in the four years I was there, and one of my English teachers kept a poster of SAT dates by her door. That was it; at no time did any of my classroom teachers connect me we resources, skills, practices, or people to help me get to college. And of course I was going to college, so I’d just wait for the conclusion of that chapter of my life for someone to wave their magic wand and make an English major ready to get out and land some interviews.

Okay…so I think that fear-smell is wafting off of me. In the opening days and weeks of the first semester, I’m terrified of letting my students think that I, not to mention the curriculum, might be useless. The educational landscape has certainly changed, and for the better in many ways. Our “academy” model emphasizes authenticity and practical, real-world instruction, but when I’m honest with myself, I’m not as comfortable practicing job interviews or searching for scholarships as, say, discussing the human condition in light of Beowulf or Paradise Lost. Sure, there will still be a budding novelist, screenwriter, or professor lurking and lingering in the Socratic seminar on Orwell’s 1984, but my students want to know how to get into college and how to land a job, with or without four more years of school. And so, with thanks to my supportive and brilliant course team teachers and coworkers, I pull lessons together that teach us all about accessing the latest resources in order to prepare for the next steps after graduation. This “Week 19” title is just how I’ve loosely labeled these “real world” portfolio projects. The first semester concludes with assembling a checklist of documents for college applications; second semesters wraps up with students having gathered materials needed for beginning a job search.

Again, these units are based almost completely on assembled plans from my stellar 12th Grade Course Team, and l’d like to quickly underscore a few classroom realities, just in case you’ve come this far only to question whether it’s worthwhile to read any further. Maybe you don’t yet “smell the fear.”

Assume the reality that many “College Prep” and even “Honors” level students will not be coming into the classroom in the fall having met test registration deadlines or scoring goals and will not be anywhere close to ready to apply to college. In the fall, even my “high flyers” are coming in with more questions than answers. They’ve taken the first steps: GPAs are respectably high and test scores may be on the way, but there is an essay requirement, an online recommendation deadline looming, or a pending interview.

Now think about spring semester: eighteen weeks of “Senior-itis,” with a healthy dose of interminable Prom discussion mixed in. Later, as we hurtle into the final stretch, there are desperate attempts and finalizing graduation plans (“Can I do a ‘GoFundMe’ for my senior dues”?). And while a few diligent ones may be juggling part-time work, the idea that someone on my roster may very well be dropping my name in a few months in an attempt to land a paying gig at the local mall is, at best, a cringe-worthy notion.

On our school’s EClass page, the resources are grouped under headings of “What’s Next?” and “The End.” My idea of the “19th Week” is that by the end of fall semester, seniors have made significant progress toward being ready and equipped to apply to college; the conclusion of spring semester will have them ready with the documents and soft skills for applying for jobs.

Both units rely intensively on computer access. Students access or create an email account for logins and correspondence. In addition to basic online research about schools and jobs, students should be saving their materials to the cloud and, for me, submitting electronic versions of “deliverable” pieces for feedback and assessment. Students – even these seniors – are all over the map of computer literacy, too. Some have already begun creating application profiles for college, while others are simply trying to recover forgotten passwords from email accounts with awkwardly juvenile monikers like “sweetbubbbbblygirl123456@obscuremail.com.” I’m on the lookout for anything, but find it helpful to work in some lessons about the best practices in professional writing and where and how to file it all. At the end of the day, it’s hard to beat the myriad assortment of tools available for those with a Google account.

During the first semester, the focus is on colleges and financial aid for the “19th Week.” I find our school guidance counselors are an invaluable resource for quickly bringing students up to date on the latest FAFSA deadlines. They maintain a page on our school’s site devoted solely to links and resources directing students to educational funding. This makes it easy for me to facilitate an online “scholarship discussion thread” with the students. Students access and update their Georgia Student Finance Commission [GAFutures] accounts, begin (or continue) online college applications, and reach out to teachers, coaches, and counselors to request recommendations. For students without a specific essay requirement already pending for an application, I still ask them to create a “base document” that addresses one of several of the more popular trends for college application essays. I even ask the “undecided” students, who are not even sure about going on to college at all, to fill out the Common App. After all, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it ready to send out.

While spring semester is still frenetic with managing college-entry tasks, we all feel more confident about knowing where to go and what to do for these types of needs. Be aware that by now, any plans for a timeline are virtually useless: some early acceptance letters have already started coming in; others are taking another SAT or ACT; still others have reflected upon everything they’ve gathered in the fall and are still in the finalization stages of applying to a school. While we are still keeping tabs on Shakespeare, Shelley, and Orwell, it’s time to begin transferring some of our literacies and skills over to the second 19th week goal, which is a portfolio of material for a prospective job search. Why bother with this? What about all the college readiness? Remember when I alluded to the “cringe-worthy” possibilities of some bright young mind dropping my name as a job reference?

[Practice Interview Question]: 35. What motivates you and gets you up

in the morning?

[Initial Student Response]: Usually coffee and cigarettes.

Clearly, we have work to do.

This work involves reflecting on goals, making lists of clubs, activities, and honors, digging up names, emails, and phone numbers for referrals. We browse and select résumé

templates and draft cover letters. The reality begins to dawn: just one version of each of these will not suffice; revise, revise, revise. It goes without saying that I am not cool enough to be trusted with fashion tips, so we watch some videos about how to dress for an interview and what to expect. We discussed the importance of “doing your homework” about a company, and dressing appropriately, rather than over- or under-dressing for the position. Yes, students with little to no experience can provide several professional references; they come from teachers, coaches, counselors, and other non-family mentors. The hard part is just making sure to collect the most up-to-date contact information for these.

Finally, we culminate with mock job interviews, both sides of the table trying to step out of our respective roles as teacher and student and exchange them for employer and candidate. Even the classroom becomes the “waiting room,” and the quiet hallway outside is the forum for our one-on-one interviews.

These weren’t perfectly – executed plans. In the future, I would make sure to check in with the 11th grade teachers about their spring plans and discuss the requisite coordination of the “hand off” into the students’ final year. I’d also like to get further away from the walls of my own room and spread the interview responsibilities around to more of the staff, especially some of the experienced Career and Tech Ed. teachers. My students were deeply appreciative of each and every one of the few sessions led by our counselors, a division of our team that is always stretched thin. Moving forward, I’d try to plan early to arrange bi-weekly or monthly appointments for these team members to have time with my classes.

I reflected with my different classes once the dust had settled. We laughed about how awkward and stressful the mock interviews felt, and I commiserated. I had to fuss about how some of them had overlooked deadlines; they pointed out, and rightly so, that sometimes I’d been confusing when laying out directives. Ultimately, the most telling feedback came during Teacher Appreciation Week, when the bulk of these assignment pieces were already submitted and in the rearview mirror. I received many kind notes of thanks, and there was a common theme: thanks for “caring about real life,” for “being real,” for “helping me prepare” for the future.

I find it telling that no one thanked me for his or her newfound love of Milton or for a fresh perspective on our political environment because of how I’d masterfully guided them through Orwell’s dystopia. We gathered tools, equipped ourselves, and quelled some fears. That, it turns out, was as good for me as it was for my students.


Chicopee Tortoise ‘Crossings

From the "Tortoise" Loop at Chicopee


There is something eerie about riding cyclocross*. Not eerie as in, “I really don’t feel like I’m totally in control here,” though those thoughts do go through the brain sometimes. No suspension, no springs, skinny tires, and drop bars leave this old cross-country MTB’er  -literally-  hanging on for dear life.

NO, it’s the kind of eerie you get if Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were to actually meet in a back alley somewhere, concoct a plan for human torture, and then seal the deal with a couple of beers and a few good laughs.

For nearly two decades (ugh), I’ve always kept the flat bars and fat tires in the woods and spun up and down the roadways with the skinny rubber and noodle-bars. Heck, I even sold the road bike and focused solely on making time to go get in the woods. I’m surrounded by crappy roads and drivers, but also some epic, nationally recognized singletrack networks. No problem; survive the former, enjoy the latter.

Until this year. The cross-country rig finally came down with a terminal case of cancer of the welds, nearly killing me in the midst of its death throes.  Suddenly, getting back on the road was becoming more of a priority; at least getting clipped by a soccer mom texting her life coach out on the main thoroughfare had a slight chance of getting me to an emergency room. In the woods where I make a habit of riding (usually alone), clipping a tree and flipping over into the rock garden would only guarantee the squirrels something to chuckle about until they called their buddies, the vultures. (Yes, squirrels can chuckle. I always hear them after my high-speed crashes.)

Meantime, somebody out there’s been building bikes that look and act almost like a road machine, but by beefing up the brakes and the wheels and squeezing on knobby tires, it becomes a trail rig, too.

 Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde… Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll. 

Like any good predator, the weaker you are, the more it will single you out for death. The temptation to lock your elbows and rest weary arms is met with instantaneous skittering and sliding ‘neath the old chinny-chin-chin.

 Your sweaty, cramping hands? Nope, can’t relax them. They’ve been hanging on for dear life to those goofy roadie brake hoods, and they better durn well keep up the good work, because there’s just about every inch of the trail that’s waiting to snatch those silly things right out from betwixt your throbbing claws and send you headlong into an oak tree or a nest of vipers or the arms of a boisterous young lady (and NO-body likes a boisterous young lady….).

And that’s just picking the good lines. Bless your stupid, pounding heart for trying to keep up with your riding “buddies” on their dedicated dirt machines: “Yeah, full suspension, man… thirty-two feet of travel…I don’t even stand up for bumps anymore.”

Or the college kid he brought out here: “Dude, I just ran nineteen miles and chugged four beers for breakfast. I forgot my bike shorts, but I’m wearing dad’s underwear. Dang, I’m not even buzzed right now.”

I was more than happy just staying pinned to the tail of the group, only hiking-the-bike twice in the fourteen miles of trail, and generally not getting myself  killed. Just had to be happy with riding my own ride.

So I did, and I was.

Since I was almost hallucinating anyway (no granny ring!), I could see Mr. H. elbowing Dr. J. in the ribs and pointing at me and winking.

Conspiratorially, even.

*p.s.: I know, I know. I was merely riding my cyclocross bike, not really riding cyclocross. Keep your tutu on and have another beer. I’ll have to get back to you later, after I’ve jumped over fences and run up and down steps in the muddy grass in the middle of winter.

Frankenbike for mah Lady

Good bike bones, for sure. This frame is wonderful. If you hold your ear really close, you can still hear the echoing chords of grunge music, too.
XT wheels, SRAM nine speed, pedals for comfy shoes, fenders, and a ridiculously sprung seat. Gotta, gotta be EASY.
Mostly scrounged and swapped for everything, like the slick rubber and plush perch. Had to re-do the cables and plumbing for the extra-rise bars.

So Your Brother Wants to Borrow the Truck…

God help him. 

Print these addenda to the Owner’s Manual, and leave it on the kitchen counter, next to the keys and insurance cards. I don’t mind letting him use the old truck, but your brother should really read this before driving it anywhere.


If you see your brother, tell him that the A/C works, but he’s got to pull the little knobbie-things off and turn the whatchyamacallits with the pair of pliers that I keep above the rear view mirror. It’s better to do this BEFORE setting out into traffic, as the pliers are the folding kind and can make for a rather “unfocused” yet adventurous grasp of the more important vehicle control features (skip to the POWER STEERING SECTION OF THIS CHAPTER). While on the subject of the A/C, the funny smell usually goes away pretty quickly, though I don’t know if there’s actually anything involved in creating this odor that would trigger an allergic reaction due to your brother’s sensitivities.


The duct tape doesn’t hold the left side mirror in place very well, but it (the mirror, not the tape) shouldn’t actually fall OFF or anything. If your brother has really bad peripheral vision, then he’ll be fine. Otherwise, it’s a very vertiginous feeling to accelerate or brake and notice -out of the corner of your eye- that the little rectangle that is the part of the left side of the universe you just motored past is hurtling around out there, willy-nilly.


And it would be wise of him to check the oil before setting out; I don’t remember the last time I did so, but the truck will use a little as the weeks pass. At worst, I sure don’t want it back. If the engine locks up, “Abandon ship” is the best motto: he’ll just have to rip the tag and the VIN off the truck and fend for himself (the CLIMATE CONTROL pliers would be very useful about now). Make sure he grabs the rest of the roll of duct tape, though.


The passenger seat latch that adjusts forwards and backwards is loose; he should check to make sure that the latch is secured, or – at the very least – only allow passengers to ride “shotgun” if they have really strong leg muscles, in case of a panic stop (usually occurs while trying to adjust the aforementioned CLIMATE CONTROL features…though he may need to cross – reference the REAR VISIBILITY paragraph as well)


   Drivers unaccustomed to the nuances of handling a vehicle of this caliber should be advised: The steering wheel is the most important (and overlooked) aspect of driver input for this particular truck. While some automobiles have steering systems described as “responsive,” “intuitive,” and even (gasp) “telepathic,” the vehicle your brother is about to have the pleasure of operating far exceeds this list of notable quotables. In fact, he’ll probably very quickly discover his own personalized list of adjectives that describe the handling of this mighty behemoth in which he’ll soon find himself.

   But I digress; back to driver input:  things as decisive as “left,” “right,” or “straight,” are reduced to mere suggestions and approximations. With enough road time, it becomes second nature to correctly guess the direction in which the truck will (usually) lurch and apply the correct amount of counter-steer to maintain a straight-line path.*

*Inevitably, the presence of an officer of the law directly behind this vehicle causes much more erratic lurching. In an ironic twist that any good citizen could appreciate, my experience has shown that it’s worth a little lost time to simply pull into a local bodega and refresh one’s thirst while said officer of the peace continues on his way without your distracting driving inspiring a most personal and awkward line of interrogation.


Tie all cargo / passengers securely!!! Sudden stops, off-course diversions, and other bumpy and swervy behavior are “de rigueur” while operating this truck, and pretty much anything else NOT already covered could happen, too. Your cargo’s value will never be higher than the last millisecond before it is catapulted into oncoming traffic.

By the way, tell your brother I said, “Hi.”

Happy Motoring!!!

-b.s.   😉

Mud on the Voodoo

It’s the first of the month, and I’m perched on my Voodoo Bokor, leaning with a hand on the tailgate of the truck. The July morning sun is quickly burning through any of last night’s dew, and the tattered mist retreats under the shady pines at the meadow’s boundary.  Breathing deeply and listening, I click in and out of the pedals a few times and bounce the suspension up and down  as I begin a test lap around the parking lot. I can make a list and duct tape it to the downtube, but my brain only kicks in to a final pre-ride checklist as the knobbies crunch through the gravel around the truck. Sunglasses and helmet, check. Gloves, on. Tube and CO2, in my pack. Water and energy gel, also in the pack, along with phone and keys…wait: the keys! Did I zip that pocket closed? The gravel scritches as I grab for brakes and sling my pack off of one arm and around so I can check my keys (probably for what is the third time here in the parking lot) and confirm that they are, in fact, secure.

  This morning’s coffee sluices through my veins but can’t quite wash out the thoughts of the basket of bills on the table at home. There’s also an annoying buzzing in my brain; I can’t shake the worry hounding me since my boss told me he had to cut back on my hours. Before I know it, summer will be over and the girls will be going back to school. More Benjamins  that won’t be falling out of the money tree any time soon. Not to mention the fact that we haven’t really been on a good vacation in a couple of years, though I don’t know how we’d pull that one off. And I heard a new noise under the hood of the truck just this morning as I was pulling up the las hill here before unloading the bike. . . .  

. . . .Wait a minute! I came here to ride, to get lost on the crisscrossing, rusty ribbons of singletrack; I’m about to get lost inside my own head, but finally remember to spin the cranks and go. The topography here is programmed onto my muscle memory. The dark arch of the trail entrance zooms overhead and I drop into the cool forest and hook the high line on the berm of the first quick right hander and across the waiting bridge. Just after the flats on the other side of the bridge is a three-way junction: a hairpin  left will take me through the sandy flats along the river’s edge. Bearing off on the right fork, will lead begin a short but very technical loop through some steep climbs and very low-lying and potentially boggy gumbo. Since there’s been a little rain in the afternoons, I decide to avoid the sand and the gumbo on either side and just shoot straight across to the slightly more gradual but long and twisting climb, aiming more or less for any heart of darkness that this trail system has to offer.  

It’s a good choice; I know there’s a nasty upkick a few hundred yards from the top of this climb, but the first mile or so is old hat, so I keep steady big-ring power on the cranks. My memory of the twists and roots and stairsteps, is spot-on. My suspension fork smooths out the chatter bumps, and as the roots seek out my front wheel with more enthusiasm,  I loosen my elbows, hitch myself up on the saddle a fraction, and gain some momentum with  each stroke of the pedals.

Gravity always wins out, though. The annoying, buzzing worries of a few moments ago have been drowned out by the hammering pulse of my increasingly labored breathing and the wind singing in my ears. Easing my weight back slightly while momentarily soft-pedaling, I flick my left wrist quickly, shifting the chain down to the middle ring. All the weight is off the palms of my hands now, my fingers hooking around the grips and sensitive to the slightest need to lift the front wheel up and over obstacles as my overall speed drops dramatically. It’s very steep now; I make it a point to draw my gaze away from the summit (or, rather, where the trail will switch back one final time before the summit) and rake my eyes up only that 10 or 15-foot portion of the trail in front of my tire. It’s kicking up enough now that any minor misstep in my technique could result in a stall. Incorrectly shifting my weight would loosen the back wheel, especially now that I’ve grabbed a few clicks’ worth with my right hand, a plea for help from the bigger cogs nestled down there. No more breeze, only my gulping for air and the occasional click or rattle of bike feedback.

And then it’s done. I’m broken free of the worst of it. Right after the final switchback, the grade eases off and I hook back into a faster rhythm, pushing more power and speed along the ridge, holding back just enough to catch my breath and recover enough for what’s next.

The path here eventually breaks left and right, and both heading down. Going left will only get me back to the starting point sooner, so I hook around to the right, hungry for more of this rush. It’s here that I find it. On the way to the center, appropriately enough. This downhill sucks you in, gradually beginning her pull with easy sweepers and wide clearance, almost like a mysterious, forgotten section of double track or fire road on its way back to being reclaimed by the land. The slow drop in builds speed deceptively, though, and an off-camber left plays spooky  hell with the rear wheel for a few yards. I end up just letting its drift bring me through the exit of the turn, though I have to put a little English on the bike  and the front brake lever to stay upright.  I’ve ended up scrubbing off most of my speed, but it’s just as well because I’m now hitting the first of four three-foot drops in a row. Up off the saddle, stay loose: drop, lean back, breathe…drop, lean, breathe…drop, lean breathe. One final sequence takes me down into a gully that’s narrower than the bike is long. the steep exit chute in front of me seems instantaneously vertical and I have to pivot the bike under me, bringing the handlebars nearly into my chest  powering up and out of the chute. Fortunately, my momentum carried me through because I was in the wrong gear after the fast descent.

A few more miles of easy rollers and forgiving twisties got me back to the junction above the first bridge. I spun along the riverbank for a few final miles for one last rush of speed. Finding the loop at the end and circling it made for the out-and-back, and with the river whispering and gurgling in my right ear, I eased to a stop in the soft sand and leaned the Voodoo against an agreeable Dogwood tree. Easing across the trail to a rock outcropping, I lay back and crossed my arms under my head. The whining and buzzing of this week’s hassles had vanished, and the lapping of the water under my perch assured me a few more moments of blissful, thought-free treetop contemplation.

Later, I couldn’t help grinning as I got up and stretched and beheld the inevitable red muck that bespattered my bike; I think it’s a most beautiful, ever-varying accent to the glossy black paint. It will be nice having to take a few moments to clean her up in the garage, before going back to the bills and the chores and the noise under the hood. This I know: it’s not  just a temporary fix,an escape. The riding is soul-maintenance. I can’t get away from one iota of responsibility by hitting this trail, but I can gain more energy and a healthier perspective once I make it home.