CATEGORY: ScholarsAndRogues

S&R makes major change to commenting policy

CATEGORY: ScholarsAndRoguesOnce upon a time I could be counted on to say something like “the comment thread is often the most important part of a blog post.” When you have an intelligent community of good-faith readers and commenters, the initial post need not be fully baked and comprehensive – it can instead be treated as a conversation-starter, a jumping-off point for something larger and organic. I have learned a great deal in comment threads, and I imagine many of our readers have, as well.

I not only participate in comment threads here at S&R, I have been aggressive in counseling my former employers and business clients with blogs to keep the comment section as open and free as possible because such a policy promotes clear, productive communications between the company and its customers. (It also serves an important canary-in-the-coalmine function – if you let your customers say what they want, a lot of times you’ll glean useful information and you’ll frequently get a clue of impending problems before you would through conventional channels.) In sum, comments good.

Lately my belief in the value of the comments sections has waned, and I’m not alone. Nearly everyone on the S&R staff feels some level of frustration at how unproductive our comment threads have been lately, and many other online publishers are encountering the same issues. How to respond? Some sites, including Xark, Dan Conover and Zen Habits, have gone so far as to completely shut comments off. (Some big names, including Seth Godin, The Dish, John Hawks and Talking Points Memo, never enabled comments in the first place.)

Fueling our individual and anecdotal suspicions that the train has jumped the tracks is a new study suggesting that the modern-day comment thread can actually damage the perceived credibility of the original post.

In an experiment mentioned in the Science paper and soon to be published elsewhere in greater detail, about 2,000 people were asked to read a balanced news report about nanotechnology followed by a group of invented comments. All saw the same report but some read a group of comments that were uncivil, including name-calling. Others saw more civil comments.

“Disturbingly, readers’ interpretations of potential risks associated with the technology described in the news article differed significantly depending only on the tone of the manipulated reader comments posted with the story,” wrote authors Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele.

“In other words, just the tone of the comments . . . can significantly alter how audiences think about the technology itself.”

Researchers found that even knowledge of science did not seem to mediate the effects of the comments.

These findings are specifically concerned with scientific conversations, but I suspect a similar dynamic plays out around nearly any kind of expertise-oriented post. I know what I see in comment threads these days often follows the path suggested by the study, regardless of the topic.

Why Have Comment Threads Deteriorated?

So, once upon a time comment threads were great and now they’ve gone to hell. What has happened? I described what I called “Thinkworld vs. Shoutworld” for an op-ed in Editor & Publisher back in 2004, and I suspect what Brossard and Scheufele are finding is eight years of further deterioration around a couple of predictable variables.

First, the rise of social media is siphoning off discussions. There have been a number of times where an S&R post has spurred lengthy and lively comment threads…somewhere else. Like at Reddit or Current or, of course, Facebook. Perhaps the reason here is simple: blogs and online publications like Scholars & Rogues are perceived as “public” space. Anyone can wander in and say whatever.

Your social networks are controlled by you, however. If you want to discuss something we have written, you can port it over to FB and do so with your own circle of trusted friends. You have constructed those networks in a way that suits you – if you don’t like flaming and shouting, you have unfriended the people who are prone to that kind of behavior. Beyond that, these people are “friends,” not strangers. While you may not know them very well all the time, there exists a social contract between you.

Second, what’s left once the nice people are gone? We have known since the ’90s that online conversations can quickly get nasty. Online forums are impersonal and seem to foster appalling behavior of the sort we’d never exhibit in person. There have been any number of times when participants in online groups have hidden behind anonymity and said things to me that they wouldn’t say to my face, and if you have spent more than ten minutes online you have seen this happen. It has probably happened to you. Perhaps you have been the one exhibiting the anti-social behavior yourself, and if so, you may well have felt embarrassed later as you reflected on your actions and words.

The Internet also tends to be a very “male” environment – that is, it favors those who speak loudly and aggressively. Women have never participated as much as we’d like because many of them, if I might generalize a tad, don’t like being bullied by testosterone-soaked jerks. Further, loud debates are frequently not thoughtful ones, which has the effect of driving off a lot of smart folks, most of whom have better things to do than trade insults with people who are more reliant on attitude than intellect.

In other words, over time online environments self-select for the worst elements: the loud, the belligerent, the less informed, those with agendas and firmly closed minds. In other words, says Bora Zivkovic at Scientific American…

But there is another problem here – most of the good, nice, constructive commenters may have gone silent and taken their discussions of your blog elsewhere, but the remaining few commenters are essentially trolls.

This isn’t always the case, of course. We’ve been fortunate here at S&R to host some fantastic comment threads. Lisa Barnard’s recent online dating post, for instance, spurred a genuinely friendly response, and we heard from dozens of people who shared their own experiences in ways that reminded us all of what a comment section ought to be like.

What Can Be Done?

The staff has kicked the comments question around a good bit. We’ve discussed the good and the bad, we’ve offered up a variety of proposals (ranging from “leave it alone” to “kill them entirely”). In the end, we decided that as badly as we want to rid ourselves of the ignoramuses, the jackasses and the trolls, we don’t want to sacrifice those moments where our readers can be genuinely enlightened by smart input from other readers (nor do we want to deprive our thoughtful followers of the chance to engage in public discussions that interest them).

After some discussion, we think we’ve hit on a better model given the current environment: the old newspaper “letters to the editor” section. Our new policy, which is effective immediately, will operate like a cross between that and what we have now.

The New S&R Comment Policy

The comment section will remain at the bottom of each post, and we will encourage readers to craft thoughtful responses to what they’re seeing. Unlike a regular comment thread, which posts the comment unless it’s objectionable, our new approach will reverse the presumption: we will not post a comment unless we feel it legitimately furthers the conversation. This doesn’t mean we’ll require a fully sourced and cited thesis, but it does mean that we need to see evidence of thought and/or insight.

It also means that we won’t be green-lighting any of the “me, too” comments you find on most blogs. If your response is essentially “hey, I like this,” then please hit the “Like” button at the top of the page (and even better, click the links at the bottom of the post, which make it easy for you to share the article with your social networks).

We don’t want our new policy to come off as too intimidating. We do want to set the bar higher, though. If you read the site regularly, it’s obvious how much effort our writers put into S&R, and we can no longer abide those cases where our hard work is undermined by commenters who aren’t advancing the conversation or who are deliberately sabotaging it for their own narrow, cynical ends.

It goes without saying that hateful, ad hominem, substance-free submissions will be deleted and repeat offenders will be banned.

CATEGORY: ScholarsAndRogues

Two years adrift in the blogosphere and no land in sight

We have just marked my second anniversary as a blogger. It’s not clear what I thought I was getting into when I approached S&R for a tryout. But over the last two years I have produced 85 posts. An average post is about 800 words, so that’s close to 70,000 words, a respectable book. It feels like it, too. I know something about what it takes to write a book—I’ve written seven good ones, five of which have been published and two of which are being shopped. I have also written one more that should be buried in the back yard at midnight on a moonless night.

I’ve learned a lot over the course of this. I’ve learned that no matter how hard you work to get the words just right, someone will misunderstand it. I’ve learned that there are some people so cantankerous you can’t even agree with them without setting them off. (Yes, gun nuts, that’s you.) I’ve learned that I shouldn’t do rants. What I think is sharp and funny comes off as acrid and nasty. I’ve also learned that I won’t do series or thematic pieces, like my colleagues Sammy, Russ and Brian. I am good for five or so on a topic, then like Ferdinand the Bull, I wander away and lay down to smell the flowers. Odd, eh? You’d think a novelist would have more stick-to-it-tiveness than that.

Not that I don’t have hobby horses to ride. 80% of my posts have fallen into three categories: Politics (40%,) social commentary (25%,) and Sarah Palin and Tim Tebow (15%.) (For what it’s worth, I was a little worried when Sarah started fading, but I prayed and God sent me another Christian idiot to replace her, Little Tim. Praise to His name. Amen. I guess with Alabama and Texas God must have an unlimited supply of these buffoons. But I digress.)

The remainder of the posts were carved up between the occasional non-Tebow sports piece, book reviews, travel pieces and odds and sods. When I went back over the list, though, I was pleasantly surprised that for the most part the pieces were all fresh and new and distinct both from each other and from what others out there were saying.

As I look down my list of titles, there are not many regrets. But there are a few.

I wish I’d recognized that I suck at rants before I tried to do them. There’s an art to those. When you see Frank take off on a hilarious wild-eyed riff, know it ain’t as easy as it looks. By comparison, my attempts look like the humor column in a high school newspaper.

I wish I had never taken on the issue of obesity as a choice. My position was right, but this is one of those issues that people cannot think clearly and rationally about. Quite a few people got their feelings hurt and I am not sure I really changed anyone’s opinion. I also wrote a post that I meant to be a salute to a charity that was closing its doors, and for reasons I have still not quite figured out, the charity saw it as patronizing and hurtful. I meant well, but I goofed. I wish I’d never agreed to review a book called Sweet Heaven Before I Die. I make a practice only to review books I like. I know what a nasty review feels like. I can’t quote any of the hundred or so great reviews I’ve gotten over the years, but I can tell you word for word the gratuitous nut-shot that Publishers Weekly gave me for my second novel. But I agreed to review Sweet Heaven and at the end, had to be honest about what I’d found.

So out of those 85 blog posts, I’d say I can hold my head up about 80 of them. I’d rather be perfect, but the nature of blogging means that I will never be, and it looks like my personal Oops Factor is about 6%.

There are some things I am genuinely proud of. I called the Republican primary virtually blow for blow months before it started. My accuracy rate was better than any of the pros who work at the big organizations. I got out way ahead of the educational loan scandal and I can even argue that one of my early posts on the topic, “University of Ponzi,” helped accelerate the national conversation. I am also proud of my travel posts about Palau, Costa Rica, Berlin and Galapagos. Others who have been there tell me I captured the essence of those places pretty well.

For the most part, Otherwise is intended to be savage humor, but occasionally I broke from that to write about personal topics, ranging from my painful childhood (A long way from Waycross, Georgia) to the guilt of growing up Southern (The 9:1 Ratio) to grappling with my own latent racism (Would I have voted for Barack if he’d been white?) For the most part, readers were very kind when I put myself out there.

Of course, the thing that drives every blogger crazy is when you work for weeks on something that you think is important and exciting, and it sinks without a trace. I had a lot of those—the vote for Barack piece, my series on the apocalypse, my Dick and Jane primer on Rick Perry. Sadly, I didn’t have a lot of the reverse, unlike my colleagues Sam, Denny, Chris and Wufnik who have seen small pieces on everything from Johnny Rotten to postage stamps to zombies go viral and rack up huge hits. I am like so envious.

It’s not clear what’s next for Otherwise. It’s clear to me that writing blogs has made me a better writer, but it’s not clear that it made the world a better place, which is what we all do this for. I have recently started on a new degree and am stuck into my next novel, and how much time I have for blogifying remains to be seen. Still, writing is the best process known for sorting out your own thinking. Many times I have started a blog and ended up having to rewrite the thing because the logic made me change my position completely. Thank you for helping me think through what it is I really think. Thank you for reading.

How to be a five-star commenter

When I told my friend Marcus, who edits a major magazine, that I’d signed on at a blogging site, he shook his head. “OK, but the first thing you better do is to uncheck the box that says ‘Allow Comments.’”

“What do you mean?” I protested. “That’s the beauty of the blogging. Instantaneous feedback. A direct connection with your readers. I can’t wait for the comments.”

He didn’t say anything, but gave me a look that showed that he found my naivete both endearing, but at the same time a little pathetic.

Now, eighty blogs later, I have learned through the comments thread that I can’t write, can’t think, and am so woolly-minded and stupid I probably have the attendant at the home tie my shoes. I now know that I am a Neanderthal, brute and all round big meanie. Continue reading

New recommendation for your reading list: Guerillassance

My friend Evans Mehew (the man who, several years ago, introduced me to this brand newfangled thing called “blogging”) has launched a site called Guerillassance (as in guerilla + renaissance). Evans is a very smart guy and lately he’s been thinking a lot about our addiction to things, to stuff, and more generally, what the hell has happened to the American Dream?

Have a look at his latest, “Retail Therapy (Or, The Most Effective Trap Is the One We Volunteer to Walk Into).” Thoughtful and immediate – I’m guessing most of us are going to see our own reflections in the mirror he’s holding up to the world.

Bloggers and journalism – what is a "citizen journalist" to make of all this?

It’s a funny thing that happens when someone buys a car, especially when they think they’re buying a none-too-common sort. I buy a Mitsuyota RoadWidget, in part because it is distinctive, and next thing I know, they’re everywhere! A similar thing happens when one starts blogging in earnest apparently. Substantive issues that may have long been around may have flown under the personal radar since they weren’t perceived as personally relevant. Write an article or three and next thing ya know, there’s significant current debate surrounding related issues all over the place.

Cases in point. As I’m scanning the headlines today looking for fodder, I find what appear to be three relevant articles. Continue reading

Righthaven LLC may have wrong approach, but news companies need to protect content

by Jane Briggs-Bunting

Stephens Media and its erstwhile partner, Righthaven LLC, lost a significant copyright battle in both Nevada and likely Colorado when a Nevada judge ruled Tuesday that Righthaven did not have standing to sue alleged copyright infringers who had reproduced articles and other content from the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

It’s yet another push by news media to try to get paid for republication of news content reproduced by aggregators, bloggers and others, with or without credit. And bloggers and folks from groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are fighting back, dubbing Righthaven nothing more than a “Copyright Troll.”

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Haste, cost erode editing of online and mobile news

In 1976, I was a general-assignment reporter of limited experience and minimal accomplishment. So my editor kindly fired me, then said: “Now get your ass up on the copy desk where you belong.”

I knew little about copy editing. So I asked my newsroom godfather: “Neil, what do copy editors do?”

He looked over the rims of those 1950s spectacles he favored and said, “Defend your reader.”

“Against what?” I asked.

Error,” he said. “Any error possible.”

The memory of, or, perhaps, even the desire to exercise that dictum may remain in today’s newsrooms. But the ability of copy editors today to defend readers against error has inexorably been eroded. That decimation of editing capacity has been fueled by computerization beginning in the late ’70s and continued in this past decade by the sacking of newsroom staffs and the insatiable demand of management to get stories online or winging to mobile devices right now.
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FCC: Move to digital hasn't improved local news reporting

From the “The Feds Are The Last To Know Department”:

The Federal Communications Commission released a study today reporting that an “explosion of online news sources in recent years has not produced a corresponding increase in reporting, particularly quality local reporting …” The study, titled “Information Needs of Communities” takes a broad but somewhat shallow look at the media landscape. It reads as more of a history of how modern media arrived at its current state than as a clear, practical recipe for change.

The study — which looks at the local reporting performance of all media, not just that of newspapers — was undertaken by senior FCC adviser Steven Waldman, a former journalist for Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report. According to his study:

In many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting. The independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned for journalism — going so far as to call it crucial to a healthy democracy — is in some cases at risk at the local level.

Well, duh. Continue reading

How to win a meme, or how I avoided working this Spring but still managed to get all riled up

By Jennie Ver Steeg

I like Sam, of Dr. Slammy fame. Let me be clear on that, I am more likely to at least entertain the notions Sam floats out here than I would be those same notions from other like types: this to me is a character flaw, but I admit it freely. I’ve been playing along with his Facebook 30 Day Song Challenge Sequel the last few weeks, mostly because I like music and I live by the list: listing may be my only real skill. A friend points out to me that it’s not much of a challenge: he says challenges have winners, and wants to know what the prize is for the best. This challenge does have a winner, and as always, it’s me, motherfucker, or possibly those who get to read my challenge answers each day and feel… Jesus, how do they feel? Appalled, bemused? Continue reading

Post #1,000: four years along one writer's bumpy road

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posits what we might call the 10,000-Hour Theory – that is, to become exceptional at something, you have to dedicate 10,000 hours to it. Whether you’re an aspiring concert violinist, a hockey player, a business analyst, whatever, it takes the equivalent of three hours a day, every day, for more than nine years to separate yourself from the pack.

10,000 hours is a lot of hours, especially if your area of specialty, your passion, the hateful beast that you can’t live without no matter how hard you try, is mine: writing.

A small team of us (myself, Mike Sheehan, Brian Angliss, Jim Booth, Denny Wilkins, and Gavin Chait, plus Edmundo Rocha, Rori Black, Robert Silvey and the late Martin Bosworth) launched Scholars & Rogues in April of 2007, and this marks my 1,000th post to the site (932 under my own name and 68 writing as my alter-ego, Dr. Sidicious Bonesparkle). Continue reading

Arianna Antoinette: "Let the motherfuckers eat cake"

A few weeks ago I asked a question: is the Huffington Post a force for good or a liberal sweatshop? In the wake of HuffPo‘s megamillion-dollar sale to AOL, it struck me as appropriate to question the ethics behind an allegedly progressive business operating in a fashion that was indistinguishable from the greedmongering corporate entities it professed to oppose. I know a number of people who have written there (uncompensated, by and large) who feel that they benefited significantly from the arrangement, and I respect their perspectives.

Not everybody sees it that way, though. Continue reading

An important fund drive at Smirking Chimp

We all have our favorite stops around the ‘sphere. One of the oldest and best progressive voices out there is Jeff Tiedrich’s Smirking Chimp, and while we don’t normally do this sort of thing, I’m asking everybody to pop over there today and, if you can, contribute to their fund drive. They’re talking a heavy beating financially, as are a lot of worthy online publishers these days, and if a lack of cash causes them to under we’ll all be the worse for it.

We live in a world where pillagers like the Kochs and Rupert Murdoch make sure that their twisted story gets told. Unfortunately there is a lot less big-time money available for those of us working to counter the noise machine. Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, George Soros isn’t making us all rich. Continue reading

Why Google has to appear to play nice with China

by Matthew Record

For America, especially American companies, The People’s Republic of China is like a wild west for the modern day: a vast, untamed opportunity for companies and all Americans with an ideological missionary impulse or anyone who salivates at the largest single-state market in the world. That’s why Google represents such an interesting fulcrum in the battle of the hearts and minds of the People’s Republic: Google is both an economic success story and an ideological entity with its motto: “Don’t be evil.” Indeed, “that’s why China hits the American mind so hard. It is a country whose scale dwarfs the United States. With 1.3 billion people, it has four times America’s population. For more than a hundred years, American missionaries and businessmen dreamed of the possibilities—one billion souls to save, two billion armpits to deodorize” (Zakaria 87). Continue reading

Dirty Hippies: a new blog of potential interest to S&R readers

Some time back I mentioned that a group of us dirty hippie libruls have started a sports talk blog (because we love sports as much as we hate your freedom). Now, the same cast of ne’er-do-wells has launched an actual political site called, simply enough, Dirty Hippies (democracy, unwashed). Several of us here at S&R are members, and the site will feature a variety of fare from some of the finest thinkers, writers, agitators and wiseasses in all of Blogistan.

Give it a look if you get a chance.

We're just serfs in the machines of Facebook, Twitter, HuffPo

I am a content slave — a serf, says David Carr of The New York Times.

[T]hink of Facebook, which is composed of half a billion freely given user profiles, along with a daily stream of videos, posts and messages. It is both a media site and a social network, and all of the content is provided free of charge. By creating a template for information and a frame around it, along with a community that also serves as an audience, this new generation of content companies have created the equivalent of a refrigerator that manufactures and consumes its own food. [emphasis added]

A helluva business model, eh? It’s paying off handsomely for the folks who own the refrigerator. Arianna Huffington et al. have sold The Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million. Over the past several months, Facebook’s market cap (a company’s capitalized value calculated by multiplying current share price by the number of outstanding shares) has been variously estimated between $25 billion and $41 billion. Continue reading

So you're 17 and want to be a journalist? Do it — you'll love it.

You’re 17 years old. For some reason you’ve decided you want to go to college to learn how to be a journalist. My hat’s off to you — first, for wanting to go to college, and second, for wanting to answer what I still consider to be a calling to public service.

Journalists find out things, then tell people what they found out. Often, it’s stuff people want to hear. But a good journalist must tell people what they need to hear — even if they don’t want to hear it. So I’m glad you want to become one of us.

Perhaps you’ve had training already. Your high school has a student-run paper, a radio station, even a broadcast television studio. You know Twitter and Facebook and perhaps write your own blog.

Your parents might be opposed to your choice. They’ve heard journalism is dying, newspapers are closing, and so on. They’ve heard journalists don’t get paid much. But you’ve done your homework. You believe opportunity will rise from the ashes of an outdated business model corporations imposed on journalism as a profession and a calling. And you’d like to be one of the pioneers who have a hand in its rebirth.

So (whether you like it or not) I have a few suggestions to offer. The first is simple:

If you’re not nosey, learn to be. Right now. Journalists must be curious about the world around them. So much of their work begins with an understanding of their own lived experience and observations.
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Farewell, Day 2

by Terry Hargrove

Something less than 228 hours to go.

I found a gypsy. That is, I think she was a gypsy, although she maintained she was Lithuanian. I offered to escort her to the train tracks, which was obviously a Lithuanian idiom I didn’t know existed, because it meant something altogether different than the sum of its parts. We made a quick exchange of funds, and I ran, her Eastern European “conductor” right behind me.

For those of you who think I’m making light of a situation I consider as serious as any I have faced, let me point out that this very morning, I read an obituary of some poor individual who died yesterday. He was 55. He seemed fine yesterday, but now he’s dead. I felt fine yesterday, but today I woke up with a cold, that I am sure will turn to pneumonia and put me in the ground in just a few days. Continue reading

Writing for ‘new media’? The old still serves the new

As profs consider changing the names of their schools of journalism and (mass, strategic, public, etc.) communication, they are hurriedly reshaping writing curricula to reflect changes in the media of information delivery and, more importantly, prospective students’ attitudes that journalism is a dying profession.

The instruction of writing in the Age of New Media is under the microscope. But some (not all, but enough) journalism educators, methinks, approach teaching writing for “new media” as if it requires a brand-new skill set taught in courses with names that suggest the same. We must ask: Are educators entranced by “new media” overlooking the core learning goals of students in a journalism and communication program — to observe faithfully and completely, to record accurately, to analyze thoughtfully, to organize sensibly and to present compellingly?

No matter the medium of distribution, those traits of a good communicator have not changed. Nor has an old, reliable maxim all good writers must learn and that profs can use to distinguish writing for a newspaper vs. tweeting at Twitter.

Anyone’s who worked as a journalist – or in any writing-intensive profession – has heard these words: Write to fit.
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Time for journalism schools to unpack the tension between objectivity, subjectivity

Q: What’s the most effective way to piss off a journalist?

A: Lie to her.

Result: Moral outrage on her part – followed by determined, disciplined digging into why the lie and who benefits from it. And outrage, being an emotion, often leads to subjective judgments.

Finding lies and telling people about them are what good, progressive journalism programs must teach, even the programs with a conjunction and the word communication (mass, strategic or otherwise) in their names. Communicators, be they journalists, public relations practitioners, advertising agency executives, government or corporate representatives, or bloggers should not get away with lies. Or prevarications. Or evasions. Or deceits. Or no comment.

But we all know that someone with an agenda, someone who is willing to break the spirit or letter of the law, will lie to protect that agenda or advance it. It takes an experienced, well-trained journalist to detect the lie and find a truth in its stead. (Yes. I know: People who are bright and observant but who are not journalists can detect lies, too. But do they do it for a living? Make a career of it? For low pay and a lack of respect from the people who benefit from being told of the lies?) Continue reading

From Me to You

You have to start somewhere, so I’ll start here.

There was a guy in my elementary school named Lee W. (I’m leaving out his last name in case he’s out of prison – which is where he was in the last gossip I heard about him – oh, 30 years ago). Lee had “failed” a couple of grades, so by the time we were in the sixth grade (the last year of elementary school in those more innocent times) he was about 13 or 14…or 15. He was huge to the rest of us 6th graders – both physically and psychically.

I attended one of those old schools made of red brick that had huge windows that the teacher had to climb up on a stool to close. Those windows had ledges – and Lee would climb up on one of those ledges while the teacher was writing on the blackboard then leap out the window into the shrubbery below (usually a drop of 4-6 feet) and head off for the neighborhood store down the street where he would “buy” pockets full of candy. He would then come back to school and by guerrilla tactics make his way back to class.

Sometimes the teacher would notice he’d gone and he’d get into trouble. Sometimes she wouldn’t notice. Those times made him loom large in Burton Grove School myth. Continue reading