Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Nashville by Van

It was a dark and stormy night, and I was one of eight people in a van only slightly larger than a covered Radio Flyer wagon, headed for Nashville, Tennessee. A few colleagues and myself were headed to the Music City to attend a National Writing Project convention, designed to help us all become better educators.

Someone should’ve educated us on how many people can fit comfortably in a van because at some point this information was miscalculated. The one advantage of being ass-to-knuckles is that had we have gotten into any kind of collision, everybody in our little sardine can wouldn’t have budged an inch. A Mack truck couldn’t have budged the compactness of our vessel.

It rained for almost the entire drive down, making for an extremely long journey, so by the time arrived at our Embassy Suites hotel, it was so late that even the local prostitutes were packing up shop and heading home after the long workday.

The hotel was lovely, though the hot tub was under construction and the “workout room” was actually a regular, converted hotel suite with a slew of treadmills strewn about the area. Still, the little courtyard was a lovely mixture of lush vegetation and trendy upholstery. There were glass elevators that loomed over this little square, making for a quite a view, yet the most memorable aspect of the hotel would have to be the King’s Breakfast, which wasn’t actually called that but certainly warranted such a moniker. Eggs, Bacon, French Toast, Biscuits and Gravy, and an assortment of juices and pastries. I ate like a French dictator during the Revolution. I was merry, and full.

The conference itself was helpful in some ways, wildly entertaining in others. For example, my sessions taught me loads about using more technology in my classroom and how to combat intolerance and narrow-mindedness (mostly in terms of homophobia and racialism) in my classroom. Honestly, there are things that I can’t wait to apply when I get back into the swing on Monday morning.

The entertaining portion of the gathering came in the form of observing how nerdy we teachers are, and how it’s a universal truth country-wide. Everyone reading this knows that in the court of the Land of the Nerds, I’m court jester (I also head a few subcommittees and organize company picnics), but some of the other teachers at this place were a scream.

It’s a given that authentic female “teacher-types” wear holiday themed vests adorned with sequins, flashing lights, and moving parts, but I had always assumed that was in the privacy of their own classroom. In Nashville, an assemblage of educators from Texas to Alaska to New York to Alabama wore these vests. That, or shirts that look like something stolen from Liza Minelli’s closet.

As I said, wildly entertaining.

The evening of our first night there, we indulged in some tasteful local Nashvillian cuisine. One of my travel-mates suggested a Cracker Barrel, to the chagrin of basically everybody else in our group (and even a few people standing nearby who only overheard the conversation). That simply wouldn’t do, so I suggested some local flavor in the form of a high-class area barbeque restaurant called Jack’s. It sounded delicious and classy. I was half-right.

Jack’s is your friendly neighborhood backwoods barbecue joint, complete with wood-paneled interior walls adorned with bodiless products of taxidermy and an overwhelmingly delicious aroma of hickory smoke. Certainly not a five-star place; no one was playing jazz on a grand piano for example, but I’ve never had beef brisket that delicious in my entire my life. So despite the cheeseball flashing neon sign out front, the place was worthwhile and oh-so-delectable.

We spent the majority of our second day in Nashville at the National Conference of Teachers of English free give-away festival, which was being hosted at the Opryland Hotel. Any testosterone I woke up with in the morning was sucked from me by the time I left this effeminate Graceland for hammed up old ladies eager to see the Rockettes on Ice. It’s sparkly things and trinkets and crafts and girly coffee shops all over the place. Even the “sports bar” was well-decorated, clean, smokeless and filled to the brim with women.

This place is one of the hugest hotel complexes in the country, teeming with hundreds and hundreds of people, and when I went into the men’s restroom, it was completely empty and spotless. I had a private laugh about this and went on about my business.

Still, my sufferings in a place full of women (and a party that included me and four other ladies) were entirely worth it. This NCTE convention was a huge showroom filled with booths from basically any book publisher you can imagine, and they were handing out all kinds of free stuff. I’m not talking about the usual free crap menagerie that includes magnets and pens (though that stuff was offered); I’m talking about books, novels, and serious teaching resources—all completely FREE!

I went through my gigantic bag of books and counted up the collective prices. Almost $250 people, for free. I even got a hardcover copy of “Freakonomics” free of charge, when the jacket price clearly read $27.95. How sweet is that?

So now I’m back in the van (less crowded now since two of our group stopped back a few hours to meet up with some family) writing this blog. There’s still over two hours before we get home, and honestly I can’t wait to just hit the hay and see The Girl.

Still, next year’s convention is in New York, and if we’re looking at great workshops and free books again, I’ll be there or be square.

But only if we travel without the van.