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THE RUNNING ARTIST
Dan Spinner sits behind the desk in his art room sipping coffee out of the well-worn green thermos he carries into school every day. Long, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, long sideburns, and a mustache set him apart from the crowd. Behind him on his bulletin board sits a giant black and white picture of the girl’s cross-country team of 1998. Wearing his black and gold Barlow Cross-Country baseball cap, he stands proudly next to his team in the picture. Above it hangs a piece of white poster board with "Spinner’s Angels" written on it with magic marker. Scattered around the posters are a few pictures of students and runners, both past and present. If just from his bulletin board, it is apparent that Spin ? as he is affectionately called ? is a much-loved teacher and coach.
"I’ve been coaching cross-country for nineteen years; track longer than that" he reflects, taking a sip from his thermos. "My first teaching job was at the high school in Scituate, RI. The woodshop teacher who was the coach of the track team asked if I wanted to help coach." After a year filling in for a teacher in Rhode Island he went searching for a job in the surrounding states and found one at Fairfield High in Connecticut. There he coached boys track and cross-country for three and a half years. Afterward, he came to Joel Barlow High School of Redding, CT.
"When I came here the girls didn’t have a coach, they were just part of the boy’s team. Since I was already responsible for them during meets, I wanted to coach them. When we first started we had seasons of 5-6, but then it just took off. The wins began to add up." And so, the legend of the Barlow girls cross-country and track teams began.
At the recent cross-country banquet, Spin reflected on why he liked coaching the girls. "They cry at everything, and they give lots of hugs. And because of the leaves…" He added the girls’ ritual of catching falling leaves during the cross-country season for good luck, and handing them to him as they pass his car on a run. "Girls are more mature at this age. They talk about serious things and they include me in their conversations. They’re not afraid to include me; I appreciate that."
Last year, at a cross-country meet in Newtown, Spin surpassed 200 wins. "I remember when I was a young coach hearing about other coaches with 200 wins." It was a distant dream for Spin at the time, and continued to be distant until Newtown when he tallied up the total. He didn’t tell the girls about the benchmark until after the scores were in. Since it was a close meet to begin with, the team was thrilled to discover they had emerged undefeated still, but when Spin announced the accomplishment tears sprang to his eyes and those of his girls. "I’m proud of it. I’m proud of the girls that make me look good. I’m proud of everybody who has become part of the family."
The cross-country team has been undefeated for the past three years, racking up a total of 51-0. The girls came into school on the day after their last meet this year sporting homemade t-shirts saying, "We run for fun, we win for Spin!"
Coaching is not all about the wins, however. "The most rewarding part is seeing somebody go from a nobody to a competitive runner, or seeing someone have the drive to want to be good." A precious sight is one of Spin being moved to tears by the accomplishments of his runners. Maybe he’s been hanging around girls for too long.
"I try not to teach people to run marathons; I want to teach life skills, and to help people develop healthy lifestyles. I like to coach because I get to know the students outside the classroom; I get to see a different side of them." Though teaching and creating art remains his first love, the girl’s cross-country and track teams hold a place in Spin’s heart (and on his bulletin board). "A lot of people think we’re crazy for running miles through the woods, but that’s what we do. It’s a pretty special thing."
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"First of all," responded Derek Tiche , violently throwing down his tennis racquet in frustration, "it is called counter-punching, and it only got labeled wiener tennis because kids were jealous that I was the number two seed on the team."
Overhearing conversations of members of the tennis team, it seemed all I heard about was wiener tennis. I am not sure who gets credit for originating it, but the answer lies somewhere among Derek's teammates, Ryan Brown, Graham Bach, and Erik Nisch. Curious, I asked Derek to tell me what wiener tennis really was over a game of tennis.
"First of all I think it's a little ridiculous that my style of tennis is labeled wiener tennis when nine times out of ten it will beat the kids who ridicule it. But whatever, here it goes. Me, Ryan, Graham, and Erik were always real competitive in practice so it often led to a lot of name calling and belittling. It seems they were upset that I play a conservative style of tennis where you just hit everything back, and don't take risky shots while you wait for someone else to make a mistake. It really isn't that out of the ordinary. But they insisted on calling it wiener tennis, solely because they were jealous."
Derek hit a lob at me and I smacked the ball back as hard as I could, tempted by this ten mile per hour lob. The ball went out of bounds. Wiener tennis prevailed again. But I digress. Confused about why someone would get made fun of if they won, I asked Derek if he ever talked trash on the court to defend his style of play. He looked at me, took off his goofy red white and blue Norway soccer hat, scratched his red hair, and said, "I'll talk trash in casual conversation, but never on the court. That is just bad sportsmanship. It's against my ethics."
Trying to make light of the conversation, I asked him if it was against his ethics or the ethics of wiener tennis on the whole. He looked at me funny and laughed at the thought of wiener tennis ethics. He trailed off to retrieve the ball I almost hit over the caged fence. "It's a style of tennis, not a way of life. Besides Lleyton Hewitt is a counter puncher and is considered a racist. He obviously doesn't have the same ethics as I do, however, it does say something that a counter-puncher is the number one player in the world. He might not lob as much as me and he hits the ball much harder, but it is basically the same. It's just when you play against world-class tennis players like he does, everything is accentuated. You see, when I play against more competitive players, I hit harder, but I still counter punch. It's just the fact that when I play against kids who aren't as competitive I get lazy and I let them think they're in the match when they really aren't."
I realized that could be taken as an insult considering the given situation, but I decided not to comment. Instead I asked him if he perceived himself as a con artist. "I am deceiving. I play with opponents like puppets. They think they can beat me, but they become so impatient with the way that I play that they take stupid risks. I don't know about a con artist, but maybe a puppeteer would fit me best."
A puppeteer, a con-artist, or as his teammates call him, a wiener? Whatever you like to call it, only one-thing matters. It works.
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"The thing I'm most proud of is being a mom." My mother shifts her position in her chair and readjusts the knitted afghan in her lap. As we speak she is knitting me a sweater for Christmas with an awe-inspiring dexterity. I can't help but look at her and smile.
My mother has guided me for the last seventeen, almost eighteen, years of my life, but I have never really bothered to ask her what it's like to be her. A single-mom since my fifth birthday she has had to take on numerous roles and overcome a lot of obstacles in the name of motherhood.
"It's a very tough role, being a single mom. Probably the hardest job I've ever had." She stops to take a sip of her tea and then goes back to her knitting. "One of my main concerns was always being there for you. I even got a dog as a second set of ears, just in case I missed something. I was always so nervous I would miss something"
"As a new mom I was always overly cautious with you. It was fun to watch you grow up and learn that your more durable than you first appeared. You would fall down and not even give it a thought… I also learned that you were easy to entertain." She laughs out loud at her own little joke and I shake my head. "I would buy you expensive toys but you were always more enthralled with the simple things, like a cardboard box. It's been amazing to watch you grow."
I shifted the conversation a bit to stories. My mother loves to reminiss, so I figured she wouln't mind sharing a few of her favorites with me. "My, let me see….. I remember the day I took the trainging wheels off your bike and you thought that you couldn't do it. I told you that I would hold on to the back of your bike, and you were having so much fun that you didn't even notice I had let go. It was so cool! You got so excited that you could do it yourself."
She went silent for a bit, thinking about something. "I cried the day you went off to kindergarten. Preschool didn't bother me as much because it was only a couple of hours (a day). But when you got on that bus I knew I had to share you, and your need for me would diminish. It's hard on a mom."
"To say I did what I had to do is oversimplifying it. There were times that it was very trying b/c (as a mom) you don't get any relief. But I never felt cheated, because I had wanted a child for so long, and I got what I wanted; a perfect little girl."
I shook my head, and blushed a little bit. My mother
went back to her stiching. I went to go back to my room, paused, gave
mom a long hug and then offered to make her some more tea.
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"I was nine." Heather Sutherland smiled and talked easily about her leukemia. "I'd been sick. I had a re-occurring sore throat and I was bruising. What leukemia does is knock down your immune system so I was just getting sick all the time. And one night I just woke up screaming because I was in a lot of pain and my parents took me to the hospital. I went on chemotherapy for three years, oral medication, medication through IVs and spinal taps."
Eight years later, she is tall and healthy looking. With her long red hair, many freckles and green eyes she looks like a typical high school senior. Except that Heather had leukemia. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to be nine years old and be in that kind of pain, to know you might die. And I wondered how it would change your life.
"There were a lot of blood tests and spinal taps, pretty painful." Heather spoke clearly to the class. She was more than comfortable. I realized it was a role she had probably played before both at The Hole in The Wall Gang, a support camp for kids with cancer, or in her other classes. She was bearing witness to childhood leukemia. "I was hospitalized for the first year. In Danbury Hospital for a while, but then they transferred me to Yale New Haven." For the remaining two years of treatment Heather said she "would go back every two weeks for medication."
"I have one brother and I wasn't allowed to see him," Heather
one of the few times she sounded sad. "They wouldn't let me see
They were waiting until I was strong enough. I sat in a bed and
lots of TV. One of my parents always stayed with me at night."
Heather laughed when I asked her to explain what leukemia is. "I'm going to get technical. It's a blood disease. It's also in the bone marrow."
"Leukemia," she explained, fingering one of the three silver earrings in her left ear, "is when you get a superabundance of immature white blood cells produced and since they're immature and the white ones are the ones that help you fight off disease, they can't fight disease. There are so many of them they overcome the healthy ones. And they push out the red ones too."
Twenty five hundred children would be diagnosed with leukemia in 1992 according to an article in Current Health magazine (April 93). With the advances in treatment, sixty percent of them will survive. In 1960, survival was rare. Most children lived only three to six months. Leukemia is a painful death for children whose bodies have become defenseless to disease. New treatments are developed all the time increasing survival rates and reducing suffering. Heather is one of the lucky ones, if you can call someone who has lived through leukemia lucky.
"I had a lot of support from people. My parents were always there for me." But Heather didn't receive any counseling for coping with the disease. "I didn't really talk to anyone. I go to camps now, I didn't really discover camps until I was in remission." In recent years progress in the treatment of the disease has been matched by progress in the treatment of the patient.
"I think the medical profession has improved a lot." Heather said, appearing hesitant to criticize her doctors. She folded one blue-jeaned leg under the other. "There is this misconception that it's better if the child doesn't know. It will scare them, but not knowing will scare them even more."
"As a child I didn't understand a whole lot. They were doing all this stuff and it was really scary and I didn't understand why my parents were letting these people do all this painful stuff to me. I had never heard the word leukemia before, so when they told me that I said, 'What?'" She raised her eyebrows. "But I had heard 'cancer' before and I remember thinking, 'Me?'"
"I must have had a really insensitive doctor. He said,
die.' He just said that just like that and I was like,
I had this book handed to me. It said Leukemia and You and it had
a picture of this kid with a snowman. I thought Leukemia was his
"I think I can turn my bad experience into a good thing," Heather said. "I think I have a big sensitivity to people's differences. One of the side effects was that I did lose all my hair and I went to school with no hair. Needless to say," Heather made a face as she spoke, "I was treated differently. I know what it felt like and it wasn't good. So I don't look at who has purple hair or who wears weird jeans and stuff like that."
"I want to go into the medical field, to help kids with cancer and be able to say, 'I know what you're feeling.' I want to be a Child Life Specialist, someone who could do play therapy and just be there to talk to a kid. If a kid has just been diagnosed go in and talk to them about what their disease is."
"I'm six years in remission," Heather said. "So I'm pretty OK. I'm prone to getting other types of cancer. Having children may be a big problem because of some of the medications they gave me."
When I asked Heather what she would say to a kid just diagnosed, she looked down and seemed to reflect back to those first days after she found out she had cancer. "I wish I hadn't been so preoccupied with death," she said. After a moment's thought she added, "Someone said something to me one time, I think it was my mom, to take one day at a time. That's a cliche, but it's really the truth. Especially through the first year there's always something different. Twelve pills to take or something else or something else. Just get through that day," she said emphatically.
"For me I know I got something better out of it. I'm a more sensitive person." When I asked Heather if the experience made her more religious, she laughed. "Well I was nine when it started. I am pretty religious, though. I think that He helped get me through this, to help someone else, maybe, to make me more strong. Maybe there's something I'll have to face later on."
Heather smiled graciously as she fielded my questions and then more questions from her classmates. She's going to make a great Child Life Specialist, I thought to myself, a vibrant example of surviving leukemia.
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"When you join up there it's like a family," Bill Walkin said fingering his Redding Ridge Fire Department pager. "You go through a lot of stuff together and you make a lot of new friends." Bill is one of the six or seven students at Barlow who may leave school to respond to fire and ambulance calls. "Sometimes there are five calls a week. Other times there are none."
"My brother was up there," Bill said, "and I used to make fun of him. 'Oh fireman this and that. Cat up in a tree.' But then I went up there and I went out on a couple of calls with him and saw what they did. I thought 'Wow, that's cool." Bill laughed. "So when I turned sixteen, me and a bunch of my friends joined and we've been up there ever since."
"First you start," Bill said, leaning back and adjusting his maroon Beaver State college hat, "and you're a proby - you're on probation and they just give you crap." He went on to describe how he worked his way up the Fire Department equipment hierarchy. "I go on all the calls. The guys who are always there get the good stuff. I've got my bunker boots, bunker gear - pants, helmet, gloves and the airpack. All that stuff." Suddenly conscious of the tape recorder, Bill leaned forward and added, "Of course everyone has very safe equipment."
"I've got enough qualifications right now to be a paid fireman as soon as I'm eighteen," Bill said proudly. He leaned back in his chair and smiled out of the corner of his mouth. "I've taken a 175 hour Firefighter I course. I'm in the EMT course here. I've got my state exam for that on Saturday. I've done a lot of stuff on the side for it like 'Instant Command.'"
At the fire it's experience and rank that run the show. "First," Bill said, "you have to go up to someone with more rank then you, like an incident commander. [At my first structure fire] I went to my chief and he told me to go ventilate windows and look for hot spots. Then we took charged line and fought the fire." Bill paused then added, "You do what you're told, really. Everybody does the same thing. Just do what you have to, get it over with as soon as you can and make sure nobody gets hurt."
Bill described that fire almost as a job, but the excitement became evident in his voice and his blue eyes. "It was cool because you could put everything you learned into something. Finally! Ah, I've learned all this stuff and now I can do it. You have to love it a little bit."
"[Structure fires] are really dangerous," he admitted, "but you do all this training for it. I think for me and everyone else up there, our all time goal is to save someone from a burning building." He sat up and nodded his head for emphasis.
Bill was modest however about his own heroics. "I've helped," he said about saving people. "It's not like one person - hero, you know, doing everything. It's everybody in a group. Everybody does their share."
"The best I've ever done was in my hospital hours at Danbury for my EMT course. I did respirations with an amu bag on a guy that was in cardiac arrest." The excitement was back in his voice. "It's really weird cause it's reality - Bang! We got his heart going again." Bill took a deep breath. "I don't know what happened to him. I went on to the next guy."
"You get a certain respect [as a firefighter]," Bill
"You get to go on the calls and help people and it makes you feel
It's a lot of responsibility and stuff." He paused and looked
for a moment. "It's exciting. We just like helping
Bill leaned back, folded his arms and smiled. "That's all."
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Graffiti has been around for a long time. I remember seeing it scrawled on desks and carved into trees when I was little. "Kilroy was here," was written by GIs on walls all over Europe in WWII. But lately graffiti seems to be everywhere and in more and more sophisticated forms. As it grows more prevalent and sophisticated has it become art?
If developing its own subculture is the measure, then graffiti is art. It has its own language. "Writers", people who do graffiti or "write" have "tags", a word that they like that is always included in their work. It's a short word like "Jive" or "Cycle" or "Emit" that becomes the writer's signature. A writer's tag is a highly stylized design that you often see variations on it.
"A crew is a group who works together," local graffiti writer Chris Fanglord told me. Writers carry "black books" which they exchange and in which they collect each other's work and in which they plan "pieces". "A piece," Mr. Fanglord continued, "is something you spend a lot of time on, (with) a lot of different colors. You don't do that every time you go out." Otherwise you're "bombing". "That's when you just go out and do something really fast so you don't get caught, just to get your name up."
Bombing is just "tags" or "throw-ups" (quick designs). It's a way to establish your reputation among other writers. Respect is awarded for both design and risk. The risk seems to be a major attraction of graffiti. Part of its allure is the night-time, anti-establishment secretiveness.
But does a subculture devoted to graffiti make it art? What is art anyway? "There's doodling and there's art," Chris said. Doodling "is not inspired. Usually it's scribbles. It's not art."
"Art is when you think about it," added Matt Stadler, another graffiti connoisseur. A mustache on a picture "is just making fun of something. There's no point to it, but to deface something." The idea of "the point" seems to be the key in answering this question.
"There's no point to doing it in school bathrooms," Mr. Fanglord said. "It serves no purpose. You want people to see it." And spraying fences he added "gives graffiti a bad name." Among writers there appears to be a line between graffiti that is destructive and graffiti that is art, although Mr. Slais, Assistant Principal at JBHS does not see the difference. "I think there is a graffiti art," he said after carefully considering the question, "but because it's always on a fixed place, it's inherently destructive."
But can't graffiti be destructive and still be art? The word itself comes from Graffito "an ancient drawing or writing scratched on a wall or other surface." (Random House College Dictionary 1983) So in a sense graffiti is part of an ancient tradition. I imagine there were stone age mothers that were pretty unhappy to come home from a tough day of gathering to find their cave walls defaced. It took thousands of years, but now cave paintings are exhibited in museums. Will modern graffiti have to wait that long to be considered art?
I guess art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. So I decided to look for myself. I had to pick my son up at a birthday party in Danbury. On my way, I stopped with my daughter at the "legal wall" behind the Connecticut Candy and Tobacco Company warehouse off White Street. A "legal wall" is a place where the owner has given permission for writers to write. The pieces I found there were highly stylized tags with a few cartoon-like figures. I was disappointed at first, because I had hoped to see more complex pieces, more mural-like illustrations. But as I walked down the long wall, I began to appreciate the airbrush styling, the subtle variations: the cartoon-style to "cycle" with a small head coming out of the "y" and the metallic-look to a tag so removed from the original lettering that I couldn't read it. It had become pure design.
"What's that?" my three-year-old daughter asked, pointing to the wall.
"It's graffiti," I said. "Those are the artist's names."
"What's that?" Erin asked again.
"That one says EMIT," I said.
"What's that?" she asked gaining momentum.
"I don't know," I said, cocking my head to figure it out. "It's a design, I guess."
"What's that?" she asked and again when I didn't respond, "What's that?"
"It's art," I said at last. That seemed to satisfy her.
And I realized it satisfied me, too.
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