Make Drivers Education Classes Mandatory in High School

Knowing that the leading cause of death among teenagers is fatal car crashes, one would think that teaching adolescents how to safely drive would be a national priority—or at least a high school graduation requirement.

Not so.

California Department of Education Public Information Officer Giorgos Kazanis said that out of the 1,100 school districts in the state, only 171 still offer a driving education course

despite California Education Code Section 51220(j) stating that “grades 7-12 . . . shall offer courses in . . . automobile driver education.”

Schools nowadays have plenty of bullying and drug prevention programs, but nothing on car accident prevention.

 Drivers education classes fell victim to budget cuts a quarter of a century ago when money from the Victims Compensation Fund (an explanation that would consume another column) which paid for in-car training was redirected for other purposes, leading schools to stop offering the courses as well. That funding has never been replenished.

Maybe that explains why fewer 16-year-olds have a driver’s license these days.

If you are old enough you may recall taking a class in high school called Safety that focused on the state’s Vehicle Code.   In addition to learning about the rules of the road, films were shown depicting staged and real car accidents. For a nominal fee, students could sign up for in-car driving lessons after school, usually taught by coaches or counselors. Some schools actually had driving simulators.  

One of the enigmas of public education is the dearth of important life skills not taught in classrooms. Part of the state’s secondary curriculum should include knowledge on how to open a bank account, how to apply for a credit card and a loan, and how to drive a motor vehicle.   And all students should be taught how to properly use electronic devices such as smart phones and tablets.

Oh sure, young people can quickly figure out how to text using abbreviations and emoticons, but how many know how to intelligently navigate the Internet or specify their Google searches, important lifelong abilities?

Some teachers on their own may give a lesson or two on life skills, but there is nothing that mandates it.

It’s too bad for what better way to make use of the regular school day than to have at least one hour devoted to things most people need to know when they grow up.  

Now that my son is 15 ½ I am going through the experience of paying hundreds of dollars for a driver’s ed course along with personal in-car training.   The 30 hours of classroom instruction is in addition to his normal school workload. It’s as if the driving class is an extracurricular like a sport.  

Of course Advanced Placement courses are important, but honor students get in accidents, too.

Sometimes those in education have tunnel vision when it comes to what students need to know.   It sounds good to require a student to take academic classes. However, beware: the word “academic” can mean something that is educational as well as something irrelevant. You would have a hard time convincing my son that geometry is more practical than driving.  

Instead of Common Core dominating the education conversation we need more of a Common Sense approach to what kids should know in order to survive in the real world.



Our Kind of Town, Chicago is

This summer my 15-year-old son and I traveled to Chicago in order to see Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary before major renovations change the baseball stadium.

We decided to make the whole trip “Vintage Chicago” by visiting not just the 2nd oldest ballpark in the nation but the longest standing eateries and shops as well.

As soon as we arrived at Midway Airport, we stopped for a traditional Chicago hot dog at Gold Coast Dogs.  I had the traditional char dog with neon green relish, tomato, pickle, and mustard on a poppy seed bun.   My son had his usual ketchup and onions even though a satirical sign posted read that anyone using ketchup on a dog would be arrested (he wasn’t, just kidded a lot by the server).

We stayed at the boutique Talbott Hotel which has been in the city since 1927.   It is a wonderful establishment with friendly staff from the doorman to the concierge.

Luckliy, we met a wonderful old timey cab driver, Phil, a citizen of 50 years and a cabbie for 25.   He took us to two special doughnut shops:    Do-Rite Doughnuts and Doughnut Vault.

When planning our trip, I researched the 25 best doughnuts places in the U.S., and Chicago happened to have 4 of those places (the other 2 were too far away from our hotel). The doughnuts at Do-Rite rank among the best I’ve ever eaten.  I can’t comment on the Vault’s doughnuts because is was still closed at 7:30 a.m.

Our first dinner was at Pizzeria Uno which originated the famous Chicago deep dish pizza in 1943.   This was the only disappointing eatery.    I found the crust over done, and my son could barely eat his.    This is an example of a place that may have originated a particular meal that doesn’t necessarily make the best version of that meal.

When I was last in Chicago nearly 30 years ago, breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s make an impression. At that time, Mr. Mitchell was still alive personally handing out small boxes of Milk Duds to the ladies, “Sweets for the Sweet!”

The best part of Lou Mitchell’s, established in 1923, is the atmosphere including the seasoned waitresses.   When our server found out we were headed to the original location of Margie’s Candies, she got very excited.

After breakfast, we walked across the street to the historic Union Station building.    Then we took the El train 15 minutes north to Margie’s Candies.

Margie’s has two locations but we wanted to visit the original location.   Clearly, the neighborhood around the small establishment had changed over the decades since the store opened in 1933.   Inside the cramped store was an authentic soda fountain in addition to its chocolate candy counter.   As a lifetime Los Angeles resident I’ve gotten spoiled by See’s Candies, still the box of chocolates around.   Still, Margie’s was good.

Then it was time to go to Wrigley Field.   The dixieland band playing outside the ballpark got added to the festive atmosphere.   One of the most wonderful things about Wrigley besides the obvious 100 years of its history is the minimum amount of visual and aural noise that has become epidemic at nearly all professional sports complexes.   What a pleasure to mainly hear an organ playing and to have giant video screens with commercials between innings.   

Throwing out the ceremonial first pitch were members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (made famous in the film “A League of Their Own”).   Also present was the granddaughter of the man who planted the famous ivy against the outfield wall.

For dinner we headed out a 20-minute cab ride to the White Palace Grill, opened since 1939.   As far as diners go, it was pretty average, nothing special.    The crunchy hash browns were delicious.

Our final day in the Windy City was a whirlwind tour of city highlights.   We began with a morning architectural Chicago River cruise.   It was very informative; even my son recalled specific architectural styles when we walked city streets later on.

For lunch we went to the Billy Goat Tavern, serving burgers since 1934.  Those of you old enough to remember the early seasons of Saturday Night Live may recall the “cheezburger, cheezburger” skit which was based on the long-standing eatery.  Sure enough, the man at the cashier sounded just like John Belushi, “You want a double-cheeseburger, double-cheeseburger for you.”   Just getting to the Billy Goat Tavern is an adventure.   Good luck with GPS helping you to locate the right staircase off Michigan Avenue to go subterranean.   

We then headed over to the Willis Tower (formerly Sears).   Since my son had been to the top of the Empire State Building, the Space Needle, and the Eiffel Tower, we had to add this to his repertoire.   At the top of the building, they have a clear cubicle that extends a few feet out so that you can look beneath you at 1,353 feet.

Finally we visited the Museum of Science and Industry which opened in 1933.   My son is not a museum kid.   He’d rather watch a PBS special on the brain than look at art.   I knew my choice was a success when he unsolicitedly said “I like this museum” twice.   We went into the real coal mine, an original exhibit dating to the museum’s origin.   We also enjoyed looking at the German U-505 sub that was captured in World War Two.

Our best meal was our last dinner at Gene and Georgetti, the oldest traditional steakhouse in town founded in 1941.   The food and the service were topnotch.

I’d highly recommend a Vintage Chicago trip.   Nowadays there are so many of the same restaurants and stores that it is worth an effort to research some of the less trendy destinations that were responsible for putting bustling cities such as Chicago on the map.



Teachers Have Time Off?

“Teachers have so much time off” is an often repeated sentiment among non-educators.

True, teachers have vacation time that rivals workers in European nations.   For example, Portugal provides for 35 paid days off.   Never mind that the teacher summer leave is unpaid.

In Glendale, those who do teach in the summer end up with 4 weeks off compared to 9 for those who don’t.   I’m fortunate to be in the minority of teachers who don’t teach summer school, though that wasn’t the case for my first 20 years.

It was a nice coincidence that when I finally did settle down, get married, and have children (in that order, by the way), I had the extra time off to spend with my kids who were also at home.

“Time off” is something that is quite relative.   It reminds one of the saying “time off for good behavior” which of course refers to prisoners not teachers (though there may be a few similarities).

As a teacher, my mind remains “on,” receptive to ideas I absorb through reading material and watching content.   I’ll print out a well written op-ed piece to share with my journalism students or I’ll draft a new way to help kids edit their writing.

Hours are invested in organizing files, lessons, thoughts before the school engine revs up.

What I’ve discovered is that it takes a few weeks to decompress from the rush-rush-rush nature of teaching five classes a day.   Once my mind ebbs and flows at a more natural clip, then I can relax.

Even if a teacher is able to not think about work, days out of the classroom may help those who feel the dreaded teacher disease—teacher burnout.

When I was a rookie teacher, many a veteran colleague spoke of teacher burnout as a coal miner would of black lung disease, an ailment that inevitably gets to all educators.

Old, bitter people holding court in the faculty cafeteria sharing their war stories and exit strategies were not going to burst my enthusiastic bubble.

I learned quite early on to pace myself. Teaching requires a level of mental and physical vitality that is hard to sustain if school were in session year round. Teachers don’t have solar panels on their bodies that store energy from the summer ready for dispersion throughout the rest of the year.

What is asked of and demanded of teachers nowadays is an impossible expectation.   How can you meet the Common Core standards, keep up with the ever changing pedagogy, accurately account for the whereabouts for 150 students, handle the emotional needs of dozens of diverse students from a variety of cultural backgrounds, and still connect to kids so that they will receive instruction that will improve their skills?

Each start of school I have to brace myself for the first month until things finally settle into a routine.

Those initial weeks more than pays for all the time off during the summer.

Well, I can confidently say that as I enter my 26th year of teaching I have yet to catch teacher burnout (maybe it’s the Omega-3 fish oil supplements).

Quite frankly, I’ve grown to enjoy teaching the more I do it. What I still relish about it is that no matter the increasing encroachment of federal and state mandates, I still control and create much of the work I do with children.

Perhaps when I retire I’ll grasp the meaning of “time off” means. Until then an idea just came to me on how to get kids jazzed about using subordinating conjunctions.


A Conversation With “Leave it to Beaver” Star Jerry Mathers

Bringing up decent children in a sometimes indecent world is challenging to both parents and teachers.

So as Americans celebrate this country’s 238th birthday, what better time to visit with one of the most iconic stars in television history, Jerry Mathers, who played Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver on the classic “Leave it to Beaver” series that aired from 1957-1963, and find out what he has to say about the changes that he has seen in an acting career that began when he was two and continues to this day (see

“Leave it to Beaver” has continuously been on the air since 1957.  What accounts for the enduring quality of the show?

“The show airs all over the world and people still enjoy watching it in many different languages,” Mathers said.  “Obviously there’s a broad market for quality television.  Not only do I have fans of my generation and older, but also their children and grandchildren.

“The life experiences of children growing up in the 1950’s are still relevant and understood by people today. If you watch the show as a child you relate to Beaver, if you’re an adolescent you relate to Wally, and as parents you see the situations from June and Ward’s point of view.”

Considering how permissive TV standards are today, it’s hard to believe that the very first episode of “Leave it to Beaver” almost didn’t air because there was a scene showing a toilet used as an aquarium for the boys’ pet alligator.   The compromise was to only show the toilet’s tank.  Looking at what passes as family entertainment today, what goes through your mind?

“When I watch many shows today they are written as joke shows; it’s set-up, set-up, joke; endlessly without much of a story.  In ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ the humor comes from the situation, not just jokes that a writer thinks everyone should laugh at.”

How do you answer critics that “Leave it to Beaver” depicted a family that never really existed in this country?

“Some people criticize the show saying that it does not depict real life of the 1950’s, but it wasn’t supposed to be real life; it was a situation comedy about a child growing up.”

Do you think the crassness in today’s media has a negative influence on today’s youth?

“I think it is very possible that many young people could be influenced when they watch so many shows on television that popularize rude and offensive behavior as normal and acceptable human discourse.”

What motivated you to get involved with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Summer Cybercop Challenge for Kids that focuses on the dangers of cyberbullying?

“I have law enforcement officers in my family, a family that gives a lot back to the community.  The Internet has linked us to everything good and bad in ways we couldn’t have imagined when I was a kid so it’s important that parents and children understand how they can help prevent themselves from becoming victims.”

Any thoughts about the demise in decency these days?

“The mores of culture ebb and flow and we as individuals are responsible to judge what is right for us.  It is important that we set positive examples with the hope and belief others will follow.”

Sound advice from a man who not only represents wholesomeness in his career, but in his life as well.

So once you’ve eaten some barbeque, grab a slice of pie and watch an episode of “Leave it to Beaver” and ponder if we are that much more civilized today now that the whole toilet can be shown on television.


Inspirational Dodger Opening Day

Due to my son’s school being closed on Monday, I had to take a day off of work to be home with him. That day happened to be my birthday, so the stars were aligned when I found out that April 1 was also the Dodgers’ Opening Day. And it was an experience that I will never forget (and I hope my son doesn’t forget either).

If someone asked me what would you like to see on Opening Day, there is no way I could have asked for all the wonderful moments that occurred at Dodger Stadium.  The fact that my boyhood idol, Sandy Koufax, threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and that Dodger legendary hall of fame announcer, Vin Scully, narrated the whole scene over the P.A. system was fantastic. I told my son that no matter how the game played out, the day was already amazing.

Little did we know what was to unfold. Clayton Kershaw, a southpaw like Koufax (notice how both of their names start with ‘K’, a letter that symbolizes a strikeout), broke a scoreless tie leading off the bottom of the eighth inning with his first career home run, then pitched a complete game, a shutout no less. Well, even the best Hollywood screenwriter could not have come up with such a scenario.

I’ll forever remember Monday’s game and the fact that my son shared it all with me.  But my birthday wasn’t over with yet. 

Later that evening, my son pitched a scoreless final inning for his little league team, striking out the side.  He told me he felt inspired seeing Sandy Koufax.  That’s the best birthday present a dad could ever have.  Like father, like son.


Bad Service

Going out to eat is supposed to be one of life’s pleasures. You don’t have to cook or clean up afterwards. Plus, servers take your order and bring your food. For just a little bit of money you can feel a lot of specialness – even if it’s only for an hour or two.

Unfortunately, sometimes the experience is lacking. As a coffee drinker, I expect to receive refills once my cup is near empty. So it is especially frustrating when one dines out and has a server who doesn’t do that. My wife and I often comment that the establishments which have good service, even coffee shops, have a dedicated worker who refills water and drink classes. That way the server doesn’t have to concern herself with checking everyone’s drinks. It’s such a simple concept, I don’t understand why more restaurants don’t employ that strategy.

Another odd aspect to dining out that I don’t get is when a completely different person other than the server brings you the food. Shouldn’t the person who takes your order also bring you the food? After all, the server knows what you ordered and who ordered it. There have been times when someone in our party received either the wrong food or the food cooked wrong – something that the person bringing the food has no clue about because he wasn’t the one who took the order in the first place.

I’ll never claim to be an expert in running a restaurant, but I’ve had plenty of expertise in eating out over the years. I hope some of you restaurant folk listen to your customers. I like eating out, but I can just as easily fill my own cup of coffee at home.

Thanks for the Legacies, Dr. Buss

The death of Dr. Jerry Buss affects any L.A. sports fan. I kept reading and watching the sad news on Monday as a way for the loss to sink in even though his absence in the public eye the past two years was an unspoken foreshadowing of what transpired.

If it weren’t for Dr. Buss, the City of Los Angeles would have had few professional sports championships in the past 30 years.

Think about this. Since 1979, the Dodgers  have been in the World Series two times; the Lakers 16 times (winning 10 times). It was only last year when the L.A. Kings won their first Stanley Cup championship. And we haven’t had a pro football team for quite some time.

As a lifelong Lakers fan, who as a boy suffered (along with Jerry West) through all the NBA Finals losses to Boston, the 1985 title was the sweetest one since it was the first win against the Celtics, and it occurred on the hallowed or haunted Boston Garden parquet floor.

We were very fortunate to have had the best sports owner in history here in Los Angeles helming the Lakers. How many other sports team owners would be willing to freely pay millions of dollars in luxury taxes just to ensure even more championships?

Of all the wonderful sentiments expressed this week about the legacy of Dr. Buss, Magic Johnson’s comments closest echoes my feelings, that the two worst deaths for Lakers fans have been the loss of Chick Hearn and Jerry Buss.  Magic said that as long as he lives he will make sure that Dr. Buss’s memory lives on. “The refrigerator door” may be closed, but let’s hope Jim and Jeannie Buss carry on to fully stock that fridge.

No to Binge Viewing

Last week, NetFlix made available to the public the complete first season of their new TV series “House of Cards.”  This meant that a viewer could watch all 13 hours of the show, one after another. And people did.

This is known as binge viewing. Sitting in front of the television for hours on end and consuming an entire season of shows. I’m sure there are people out there who used up an entire weekend watching an entire TV show’s episodes. 

Can you imaging watching all 9 seasons of “Everybody Loves Raymond”? At about 22 episodes a year, 22 minutes in length, that amounts to 72 hours. So, if you started watching Friday night on President’s Day weekend, you could be done by Monday night.  Of course, that would mean not sleeping, going to the bathroom, or living your life.
My wife and I did tune in to “House of Cards” mainly due to the positive reviews we read. We were pleasantly surprised at the high quality of writing and acting in the show, especially Kevin Spacey. And because it was well done, we didn’t want to watch all the episodes in one sitting. A couple of times we watch two episodes in a row, but that was sufficient.
It’s been nearly 2 weeks since the show premiered and we still haven’t finished all 13 episodes which is fine. Something this good evidently took time to write, produce, and edit. So why should we be TV gluttons and gorge ourselves on it?  It’s definitely not of the “Honey Boo Boo” caliber.   
Since so few excellent TV shows exist, viewers should savor a “House of Cards” and make it last. Too often people overdo things they like. There is nothing wrong with waiting for the next good meal, the next good vacation, or the next good TV show. Remember the old saying, “too much of a good thing”?

My Mentor, Mr. Sage

I was contacted by an author to contribute an essay to a book on influential teachers. No, I’m not one of the influential teachers; rather, I am writing about one of my influential teachers.

John Sage, my advanced 10th grade English teacher, impacted my life more than any other teacher I had. While a very good teacher, what I remember most about him has little to do with his lesson plans.

I was impressed by the way he approached his job. He was the best dressed teacher at Burroughs High School, always wearing a suit jacket, tie, and shiny shoes. His demeanor was proper; he was a gracious gentleman who loved literature.

When I was hospitalized at age 15 at UCLA’s Medical Center, he visited me twice, each time with a book as a present.

He took me to my first serious dramatic play, Jason Robards reprising his career-making role of Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.”
After graduating high school, we kept in touch. When he retired to a condo in San Clemente, he’d invite me down for dinner. He was a wonderful gourmet cook. When he was in the mood, he would serenade me and other dinner guests with his piano playing and singing.
When I was considering teaching as a profession, he patiently listened to my pro and con arguments.
No matter how often I saw him socially, I could never call him by his first name. It’s like one’s mother or father — it’s always Mom and Dad.
Years ago I heard someone say that each of us is the sum of all the people we encounter in our lives. I am the type of teacher I am today mainly because of Mr. Sage. In fact, I dedicated my first book on teaching to him, even though he died months before its publication.
It’s hard for me to believe that right now I’m at the age that Mr. Sage was when I had him as a teacher. And soon I will retire, and hopefully continue receiving visits from former students, as I did with Mr. Sage. I hope I do justice to his memory by writing these words.

Remember Our Veterans

Over the MLK holiday I took the family to visit the USS Iowa that is permanently docked down in San Pedro. Ever since it was moved here in October, I wanted to visit the famous battleship. Wanting to avoid the huge crowds that it attracted, I figured a Sunday with two NFL playoff games was a good day to go.

Since the attraction is fairly new, no guided tours are available yet. However, strategically spread around the massive ship are volunteers, including former veterans who speak firsthand about the experiences of being on the Iowa. The information these folks provide is worth the trip itself. It makes such a difference to hear from those who know rather than from those who memorize a script.

Two things we noticed right away. One was the low overhang so that even someone 5’10” would have to lower his head in order to avoid banging it on the ceiling. Also, every time you move from one room to another you have to be careful to step over each of the hatch openings.

While some of these mild hazards may be better marked in the future, it was fairly liberating to notice how little accommodations have been made so far to the ship, preserved as closely as possible to the way it was while in operation.

Walking five stories up and down the steep narrow stairs gives a layperson a better grasp of the living conditions the servicemen dealt with. Being put in the place of a soldier gives visitors an appreciation of the tough job of those who defend our country.

One of the more moving things to see is a plaque dedicated to 47 sailors who lost their lives back in 1987 due to a freak fire that occurred during a basic drill.

Sunday may not have been officially Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day, but for me it was both. Thank you to those who serve.