Stumble Upon

Sunday, August 29, 2010

"Stand Up" Biology by Guest Blogger Brian Leiken

Third block biology is a bitch.

The class has improved slightly from the first two weeks, when the freshman capered about like wild spider monkeys as they devoured their sole source of nutrients, small orange bags of red hot chili nachos.

At first they dropped the refuse into the two foot deep lab sinks, treating the wash basins like trash pits.

Now they just stuff waste in the cabinets beneath the counters. I found close to sixty empty nacho bags in one of the back cabinets, complete with candy wrappers, plastic gatorade bottles, and miscellaneous junk food trash worthy of Homer Simpson.

I've never had to follow so many students outside of class wearing my Parrot costume; usually it's an effective deterrent. Embarrass one kid, and the rest fall in line out of fear of the same happening to them.

By the seventh or eighth victim. the class finally catches on that I would follow each and every one of them to their next class, squawking and chirping while flapping my wings, calling out their name at the top of my lungs in a squeaky parrot voice.

I've never had to follow the same kid twice.

Even then we had to call in the Dean and threaten to expel five of them.

And 90% of them had to fail the first half of the course before it dawned on them that they would have to repeat the class again.

So now it's better, if by better they (mostly) remain in their seats and they (mostly) do their work, even if that means copying from a friend. I'll take it.

When I enter the class now, there is a smattering of catcalls, mostly "LEIKEN" followed by two minutes of my making the rounds. Every boy, and some of the girls, want me to acknowledge them with the "ghetto" handshake of pounding hands.

"Mr. Leiken, I've got an important question! Who would win? Iron Man or the Hulk!"

"The Hulk." This is part of our tradition. I've got four boys who are obsessed with super hero match ups. So long as they do their work, I placate them.

Plus I really like talking about superheroes. If my college friends, John, Steven, Vinnie, or even my roommate Christopher were around, I'd be way out of my league, but the kids don't read comics. They only know movies, so among them I'm like a trivia genius.

"Okay, who would win, Superman or the Hulk?"

I grimace. This is going to take a while. "I told you before, Superman. He can fly, and they had a special Marvel vs DC crossover where the two fought and Superman won."

"Okay, who would win, Batman or Superman?"

"Batman." Four boys immediately begin protesting. How the hell can Batman beat Superman? I cut them off. "Batman cheats. He would trick Superman, and failing that use a kryptonite Baterang."

"Okay, who would win? Iron Man or Batman?"

I pause. That is a good question. "I'll tell you.... after you finish this worksheet."

The boys let out a collective awwww.

I make the rounds around the room, talking with students in clumps of two's or three's. Sometimes we can discuss biology; sometimes we go off topic. What can I do? I'm lucky to get them to pay attention for even a few minutes.

"Mister Leiken, Mister Leiken!" one of the girls calls out. "I've been calling your name and you've been like ignoring me for the past five minutes!"

"There is one of me and forty of you. What is it?"

She thrusts the worksheet out in front of her. "I don't understand it!"

I put it down in front of her and have her read the first paragraph. It's about the water cycle. After we read it, I ask her the first question. She answers it.

"Did you even read it?" I ask her.


"Why not?"

She actually looks embarrassed.

"Hey, Mr. Leiken! Yo Momma so fat when she gets on a scale, it says to be continued!"

I look at the clock, five minutes until the end of class. I should yell at him, I should give him a stern lecture, I should do a lot of things.

But I can't let that pass. My mother's honor must be satisfied.

"Oh yeah," I snap back, "Yo Momma so ugly that when they put a bag over her head, and she looks in a mirror, it still breaks."

The class cracks up and lets out a giant oooooohhh!

Unlike the kids, I've got fresh material. I think of yo momma jokes on the way home.

Don't ever mess with a writer.

"Yo momma so big," I continue, "they had to put in a double wide garage just to let her in the house!"

The class is laughing hysterically. Another, another, they cry! I give the kid a chance to make a come back. If you don't use original material, the kids will call you on it. You can't repeat an old yo momma joke; that earns you no respect.

Time to move in for the kill. "Yo momma is so fat, when she steps on a dollar bill, you get back change, minus fifty cents!"

My heckler is silent. A chorus of boys in the back begins to chant Cu-ler-o! Cu-ler-o! This basically means "girly man," or "pussy."

Who knew that my years of doing "stand up" would someday be useful?

Copyright 2009-10 by Brian Leiken

Biology 9 photo by Sabrena Carter
Hulk photo by Mauro Martins
Man with Michophone photo by Michal Zacharzewski

LA Teacher Blog

Brian Leiken is an L.A. inner-city, special ed teacher and author of Crossed Out, a book about and for his students. Oh yes, he's also my son:)

Crossed Out by Brian Leiken at

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Rooms R Us

My own room for the first time ever. I could hardly wait!

I didn't have to sleep with other people in the room anymore...a place where I could close the door and escape into daydreams, fantasies, and PRIVACY.

My parents even found a used vanity table with a mirror and chair for my room. The cosmetics on the vanity crowded my stuffed animals. I knew sooner or later there would not be room for both.

I felt so feminine and grown-up in the vanity's mirror seeing the reflection of a future acclaimed actress or best-selling author.

The closet held only "my" things, no one else's.

My storybook dolls, timeless princesses adorned in beautiful gowns and tiaras, slept undisturbed in their plastic, see-through boxes, unspoiled and forever perfect. Like Sleeping Beauty, they awaited the kiss of the handsome prince to awaken them.

I would transform my room into a sanctuary, dreamscape, and bigger-than-life movie starring me. Sometimes the room became a time machine transporting me to a wonderful future filled with love, romance and riches.

On my fantasy stage, I would confront my parents and win; accept the Oscar graciously; be crowned Miss America; and passionately kiss the senior class president.

It was here where I rehearsed for life; and, all my stories had happy, victorious endings written, produced and directed from the theatre of my mind.

Years later, I shared my room, this time with my husband. How strange to be lying there beside him with my parents in the next room. I felt self conscious about the squeaky bedsprings and refused to make love, for somehow that would be sacrilege.

In this place, nothing in reality could compare to the exquisite romances of my girlhood fantasies.

After my divorce, I stayed in my room for the last time. The house was empty. My parents had divorced long ago and my mother had passed. I went there with a man I cared for but had no plans to marry.

As I lay beside him, memories and ghosts swept over me. I wept as I realized my lovely, girlhood dreams had shattered in the outside world.

Now I possessed wisdom and experience, but the innocent girl imagining her first kiss was gone forever.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009-10 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Georgie’s Girl

All the girls adored him.

Georgie was cocky, mischievous, wore his jeans slung on his hips without a belt, a black leather motorcycle jacket with his collar up…an irresistible mix of James Dean and John Travolta with thick, blonde, wavy hair and blue eyes that made me melt.

Georgie was the leader of the eighth grade boys. I was the new kid in seventh grade in the suburbs of Chicago. 

Georgie was king of the school and everybody tried to please him, except me. I was so shy that I wouldn’t talk to him and only looked at him when he couldn’t see. The others thought my awkward standoffishness was what they called “stuck-up.”

I fantasized about Georgie but never dreamed he would notice me. I’m not sure what attracted him to me, except that I was the only girl not fawning over him. One day, his simple “hi” broke our silence as he walked me to my locker.

After that, we were “a couple,” and he escorted me to my classes regularly. Of course, I was thrilled as if my dream had come true. Georgie also started riding his motorcycle to my house, the ultimate display of affection to a girl who never had a boyfriend before.

Since Georgie liked me, the eighth grade girls’ clique called the Sub-Debs (like the Pink Ladies in Grease) invited me to their lunch table, and soon I became one of them. We wore identical yellow jackets and rolled down our bobby socks an inch at the top to look cool.

I cut my hair short in a slick DA shaped into a duck tail in the back with side curls that I taped to my cheeks at night to train them to lie plastered against my face during the day.

Though Georgie looked like a gang member from West Side Story, he was always a gentleman with me. Our relationship was innocent and delightful, just handholding and closed-mouth kissing. We never “made out.” I was still very shy, and he never tried.

I remember his asking me to “go steady” on a summer day on a bench near the park at the end of our street.

He even gave me his engraved ID bracelet to wear so everyone would know I was Georgie’s girl. After that, I gained new status in the school and became the envy of the other girls.     

Other than a few sweet kisses, my first love and I only shared socializing at school and some parties at other kids’ houses, usually in the basement, the knotty-pine, paneled party room for working class families in suburban Chicago homes.

I’m not sure when Georgie and I went our separate ways. We seemed to drift apart when I went to high school. I started spending more time with student leaders and other teens that wanted to go to college.

That didn’t interest Georgie. He was street smart, savvy, and in a hurry to make money.

We no longer had much in common. He still had a following of the boys from Berger Elementary School, but was not a high-school achiever in sports, scholastics, or extra-curricular activities.

I lost track of him in our overcrowded high school of 4,000 students. The following year I was elected the first girl president of the sophomore class.

After I graduated and moved on to the University of Illinois, I came home for the summers and worked in downtown Chicago. One day I ran into Georgie on the street in my hometown.

It felt awkward. We really didn’t know what to say to each other. It had been much easier in seventh grade. We were now in very different places.

I was dressed for business and he was still in his construction coveralls. Working in the sun made him blonder, rugged, and more handsome. He was still mischievous and his confidence was disarming.

We made small talk and scanned each other. I felt sexually attracted to him at 19 and wondered what it would be like to be intimate with him. I sensed that the feeling was mutual but neither of us tried to revive our lost love.

I never saw Georgie again. I married my college sweetheart and moved to another state to teach near where my husband was attending law school.

My father later told me that Georgie married one of the quiet, pretty girls from my class who never went to college.

They seemed to be doing well: big house, cars, boat, etc. I knew Georgie was a hustler and was not surprised that he was earning big money in the construction business. He always had to be number one.

A couple years later, I heard that Georgie was in prison. His ambition had led him to his own private plane, major drug deals, and connections to cartels smuggling drugs into the country. As always, he did things in a big way and never stood for being second best at anything.

Many years have passed, but the memory of him as my first love remains tucked away in my heart forever. He made an awkward, young, skinny girl feel pretty and special. I will always be thankful that I was Georgie’s girl.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009-10 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Motorcycle boy photo by Michal Zacharzewski
Corrente2 bracelet by Felipe Skroski

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Halo Lounge

At age 13, as if by divine intervention, I was chosen to represent the Presbyterian church on a local TV quiz-kid show aptly named, “This Way Up.”

I attended Sunday School in the Chicago suburbs and was their star pupil, an aspiring missionary, who saw God through shafts of sunlight  seemingly directed at me.

Looking at the heavenly skylight, I felt a special connection to my maker, and my church nurtured it.

Though my parents never visited the church, nevertheless, I was recognized in front of the congregation for memorizing more of the Old Testament than anyone else in my class. I basked in the glory.

Little did I know that my Old Testament Bible knowledge would lead to bigger and better things.

In the mid-50s, TV programming in Chicago kept viewers captivated with cooking demonstrations, Howdy Doody puppets, Uncle Miltie, and quiz shows. Being chosen to compete with other churches’ Sunday school contestants was an honor.

Besides appearing on TV, I had a chance to win a $25 bond for the church and a white leather Bible with gold trimmed pages.

To prepare for my TV debut, I carefully picked my hat and slipped my fingers into my pristine, white fitted gloves to be properly dressed in my Sunday best for the auspicious occasion.

There I stood in front of the camera answering all the Bible questions confidently and winning easily. I took home the white leather Bible autographed by the TV host and carried the bond safely back to the church.

The televised event was an epiphany, a transformative experience.

 I ascended from Sunday School starlet to full-fledged celebrity status among the Presbyterians. I was their Junior Miss Achiever.

“What next?” I thought. I was on my way to God, and a door had opened to my fantasy adventure to become “Nancy Drew, Missionary.” It all seemed to be falling into place until one unforeseen afternoon.

After Sunday School, the minister called me into his office to congratulate me on the honors I had brought to his parish. After some polite conversation, the head of the church asked me why my parents never came to services.

Since my parents were of different religious denominations (Greek Orthodox and non-practicing Jew), I had tagged along with friends to find “my church.”

As always, I attended on my own with neighborhood kids. By 13, there was already an assorted list of churches in my repertoire: I had spent time with Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians and occasionally Catholics.

The minister continued his interrogation. He wanted to know my father’s occupation and where he worked. Suddenly, I felt hot and clammy as my perfect holy life began to crumble. I didn’t want to lie or tell the truth.

The time of reckoning had come. I knew if I disclosed my father’s work, I would fall from grace and off my sacred pedestal.

As if confessing, I stammered that my father was a… bartender at the Halo Lounge… a local bar with a blinking neon halo above the sign of the establishment.

The minister became silent, looked away, made some unrelated comment, and wished me a good day. It was over. I was exposed and embarrassed not knowing what to say in that awkward moment of truth that seemed like it would never end.

My short-lived fame was deposed by a neon halo. I could no longer reign as the Sunday School queen. Like a golden calf from the Old Testament, my holy tiara was toppled by a neon halo.

God works in mysterious ways.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009-10 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED