“The whole history of the world is summed up in the fact that when nations are strong they are not always just, and when they wish to be just they are often no longer strong,”
Christmas weekend was bitterly cold this year. Temperatures ran in the single digits, serving to keep people holed up in their homes. Not a bad place to be when you had a copy of the new Chuck Berry biography and a warm fire.
The kids were engrossed in their new record player, and my wife began the dive into a Murakami book that she’s been gifted by our daughter. Suddenly there was a knock at the door.
I open the door to find my old friend Slatski standing there with a plate of cookies and a bottle of sparkling cider.
“Why you looking so surprised?”, he asked, “You know I always drop by on Christmas afternoon.”
“Yea, but it’s never been 2 degrees before on Christmas Day”, I replied, “Get in here and get warm.”
I placed his gifts on the counter. As he pulled a chair up in front of the fire I asked, “Cup of coffee? I just brewed it.”
I brought the steaming cups from the kitchen and found him sitting in one of two chairs in front of the fire. He’d thrown another log on, and the flames were leaping higher than before. Handing him his cup and settling into my chair, I watched him place his cup on the floor while he extracted a small flask from his pocket. He dumped a healthy dose of its contents into his mug. Returning the small container to his pocket, he picked up his cup, took a sip, and leaned back with a smile. The scent of peppermint and alcohol wafted in the air.
“Peppermint schnapps? Really? You are caring a private stash of peppermint schnapps in your pocket?”
He just shrugged, and with a grin answered, “Hey it’s Christmas time.”
I returned his smile, and settled back into my chair, gazing into the crackling fire.
“How’s your Christmas been?”, I asked.
“A big pain in the ass”, he answered and then rushed to clarify, “Well I shouldn’t say all of it, the family has been great and I enjoyed getting to settle in with them for a bit. They all loved their gifts and we laughed a lot these last couple of days, but man getting those gifts…navigating the stores…that gets old quick.”
“Ah…the age-old lament”, I reply.
“No, no no. Yes, it’s always been a bit of a pain in the ass, but it’s gotten infinitely worse.”
“How so?”, I ask.
“Well, to begin with, you used to be able to select your stuff from the shelf, take it to the register, and have them ring it up. They’d give you a total and you’d give them some money. transaction complete”, he said with some emphasis before continuing, “Now, maybe your stuff is on the shelf or maybe it needs to be back-ordered. Once you get it to the register, you have to provide all kinds of information before they’ll even begin to ring you up.”
“Yea, I’m not a fan of that email collection thing.”
“Not a fan? It’s more than that, it’s a means to collect data on you. Data that they use for god knows what”, he says, “Think about this, corporations have more data on us than at any time in history. They know our shopping trends, how much money we spend, where we spend it, what we spend it on, and how has it benefited us? Customer service is worse than ever.”
“It’s certainly becoming a lost art.”
Slatski wasn’t done yet though, “Yet, they all expect a tip. These days everybody has a tip jar out or an option to add gratuity when you pay with a card. I was at a buffet place and they had the option to add a gratuity. I was baffled, and couldn’t understand why I was tipping someone when I was getting my own food and drink and bussing my own table.”
He took a sip of his coffee before continuing, “You and I worked as bartenders when we were young, and both of us have taken plenty of server jobs over the years. Tips are supposed to be earned for providing exceptional service, otherwise, it’s just a wage supplement. I don’t mind tipping, but I’m not down with supplementing wages.”
“I still work one shift a week as a bartender”, I said, “People are more inclined to tip than ever before. If you are willing to do the work, their generosity will surprise you. I maintain that if you are working a service job and making a minimum wage, that’s on you. Kids don’t like to hear that, but it’s the truth. I believe that all these expectations of a tip, are going to end up killing it as a practice.”
“You are probably not wrong”, he replied, “Shame, because man we used to make some bank. The work was hard, but the rewards were great. it was the only job I ever had where I actually had some control over the money I earned.”
“No doubt”, I said as I sipped my coffee, “I gotta admit, I’m about over these self-checkout machines. The kids think they are the best, but I wonder why I’m now expected to do stuff that they used to pay people to do, and again, there is no trade-off in an improved customer experience. Shouldn’t I get something more than just the privilege to spend my money with them?”
“Preach on brother. I was in a store this past week where the clerk told me that they were getting rid of registers and that they wanted me to download their app and pay through it. You can imagine how that went over.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
We sat in reflection for a few minutes. Before Slatski broke the silence, “You know what we sound like?”
“A couple old men” I responded with a smile.
“A couple old men”, he echoed, “But we are not wrong.”
“No, we are not wrong.”
We sat for a bit, sipping our coffee. Eventually, I got up and threw another log on the fire, sending sparks spiraling up the chiming.
“You following all this Science of Reading Stuff?”, I asked.
“How can you not? It’s everywhere Now it’s even spreading to high schools.”
“Look nobody is saying that phonics isn’t important’, I said, “but that’s just not how adult readers read. We are not sitting there sounding out every word. hell. I don’t even read every word. I’ve read enough that my mind fills in gaps and predicts patterns to quickly discern meanings. Can’t even imagine how long it would take to read a novel if I sat there and sounded out every word.”
Slatski had some things to say, “What drives me nuts is all of this being driven by the argument that kids can’t read. That’s not what we are actually arguing about. For the most part, kids can read, now there is definitely room for improvement around punctuation, spelling, comprehension, and other associated literacy skills, but the real question is whether they can pass a test or not. A test that may or may not be reflective of their ability.”
“I have seen some legislators start to actually raise those questions”, I interjected, “I heard Cepicky, who’s on the House Education Committee, talk about if we have too many standards and if they are the right standards. Last week he was talking about TCAP literacy scores being basically flat for a decade. More phonics and decoding aren’t going to change that. We need to have a very deliberate conversation around the standards and testing itself.”
Picking up where I left off, Slatski continued, “Yea but let’s leave that bullshit idea of using these literacy screeners as an accountability measurement out of the conversation. That’s not what screeners are designed for. Their purpose is to guide instruction. That may be a small distinction to some, but it’s an important one for all.”
Silence fell between us for a moment before I picked up the thread, “Last night I talked with a guy who played professional soccer for many years, and is now coaching. He bemoaned the focus on winning games, at the expense of developing players. He told me players aren’t getting fundamentals because coaches are more dedicated to racking up wins. Coaches aren’t looking out for the best interests of players, they are focused on themselves moving up. Same thing in education. Everybody looking for a six-figure job. Teaching is viewed more and more like a pathway upward. Like major league baseball and the minor leagues. The less time spent, the better off you are.”
Slats nodded in agreement, and then added, “You know the pendulum is eventually going to swing back to math.”
Sitting up, I said, “Can’t believe I didn’t tell you this story. So you know back when I was in my twenties I worked for that guy that would get so upset because all the cashiers used calculators and couldn’t add anything in their heads. I thought he was being ridiculous, remember?”
“Well I’ve changed my tune”, I said, “About a month ago, was doing tips paperwork with a young bartender. I think we were subtracting 150.15 from 249.18 and the bartender before had written the result as 99.12. I told him we’d have to check that number. He was puzzled, so I explained that in no world does 8 minus 5 equal 2. His response was to reach into his pocket grab his phone and use the calculator feature to check me. He then proceeded to dismiss the error because it was only a penny off. I argued that whether it was a penny or a hundred dollars, it was still wrong.”
“How’d he respond to that?”
“By telling me that numbers weren’t his thing and he tried to stay as far away from them as possible.”
“Does he not realize that he’s in a numbers business?”
“I tried to explain that”, I said, “But I don’t think he got it.”
Once again we fell silent before Slats spoke, “Old men.”
Slatski spoke, “I wish I could it is just one political party that was responsible for this stupidity, but after reading Cardona’s Tweet…”
“The one where he said all students deserve an education aligned to industry standards? Yea, that was stupid.”
“What makes these people say such tone-deaf things?”
Neither of us had an answer, so we sat in silence sipping our rapidly cooling coffee. Finally, I asked, “You heard anything about Schwinn?”
“Other than that she’s never in the office and often out of the state?”, he said, “Not a peep.”
“When is Governor Lee supposed to announce his cabinet for his next term?”, I asked.
“I don’t know. Soon I assume. Guess he’s waiting to see if she lands another job before he commits to her?”
I thought for a minute, “I do believe that if she could find another gig, she’d be out of here. You can’t convince me that a California girl who’s been as transient as she, has suddenly fallen in love with Tennessee and is willing to stay put for another 4 years. No, the right offer sends her packing, but apparently, despite the endless stream of PR all Fall, there are no offers forthcoming. And so we are stuck with her.”
“I agree with that. The governor may be blind to the empress having no clothes, but unfortunately for her, the rest of the country is not and they don’t want any part of what she’s selling.”
“You mentioned Cepicky earlier”, said Slats, “You see he’s proposing new legislation that kids have to be 7 or pass an assessment in order to be eligible for first grade?”
“I saw that. Not sure how I feel about it. Probably going to wait until I see the bill before deciding.”
“I agree”, he said, “On one hand I get the concept, on the other…gives me the queesies. What I didn’t realize was that two-thirds of states require students to take an assessment before entering kindergarten.”
“I do like the other bill he’s filed. The one that ups the amount given to teachers for supplies to $500. The current $200 just disappears too quickly.”
Slats used the lull in the conversation to pull out his flask and add another healthy dose to his cup. Prompting me to ask, “Do you even have anything left in that mug.”
He didn’t respond, just gave me a disparaging look as he took a sip from his mug.
After a bit, I asked, “Did you see the Nashville Scene named André Prince Jeffries as its Nashvillian of the Year?”
“I did”, he replied, “Long overdue if you ask me. And a pox on any of those who stand in line for Hattie B’s instead of going to Prince’s.”
“I had no idea that the Princes are a family of educators. makes me love them even more. Remember when they were out on Dickerson road?”
Chuckling he responded, “In that tiny place where the parking lot was jumping at 1 AM? I remember once taking a glance through the little window at the cooking area and seeing the grease-coated walls. Can’t say I was shocked when the place burned down. But damn they had some good chicken. The new place on Nolensville rd is good, but not quite the same.”
“No, it’s not. But I love having it here.”
Setting his cup on the floor, he rose with a sigh, “Well I better be going. The wife’s mother is hypothetically flying in tonight. Her flight lands in an hour and I’m sure the airport will be a mess.”
“Thanks for coming by”, I say as I walk him to the door, “See you soon at the gym?”
Once again he didn’t say anything, just cast me a disparaging look as he made his way down the stairs. I chuckled and shut the door behind him.
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