On the Eighth Day, The Lord Created Learnist

Today, the Lord came to me and told me to throw out my textbook.  You know, the one that’s so old that the Iraq War isn’t included?  The one with two columns on World War I—twenty five million deaths; generations of Europeans demographically decimated—and the textbook gives it two columns.

The one I’m using this year for Civics is somewhat better—after all, the Declaration of Independence is still the Declaration of Independence. No amount of time is going to outdate that document.  But the modern-day references to the early Clinton Administration are a bit disturbing.  I don’t blame my administrators—I wouldn’t want them wasting thousands of dollars on new books, which simply swap out the name of Clinton for Whoever Wins in November while they try really hard to avoid upsetting Texas…All to the tune of thousands of taxpayer dollars.  That’s just wasteful.

Acres of rainforest die to make new textbook editions each time we fight a war, elect a new President, or decide whether Creative Design does or doesn’t belong in a the biology book.  The point is, information and interpretation changes.  But textbooks remain.

So, when the Lord came to me and said, “Casey, I have listened to your prayers.  You have been a good and faithful servant.  You have given your last apples to growing teens. You have acted out the end of Zulu when the VCR broke, break-falling over desks while throwing paper spears. You have written electives, watched school sports teams get crushed, and you have chaperoned school dances.  Therefore, I’m going to grant your request to make the textbook obsolete.”

“But Lord,” I said, “How is that possible? What about the vocabulary words? The chapter questions?  The pictures of historical figures that have long gone to You?  Who will give these students matching exercises and true-false tests? Long, boring essays?  Pictures of countries that have changed boundaries since the last print? Who will teach them to spell places like ‘Yugoslavia’ and ‘Rhodesia’ that no longer exist on the modern map?”

“Rest, my child, I have this covered.”   And He gave me Learnist.

From the time I received the beta invite, to the first board I created, I knew this was a game-changer for everyone in education.  For the schools that are tech-savvy, Learnist can be used in the classroom to collaborate on learning.  Learnist allows the user to create “learnboards” that look similar to Pinterest boards, but act more like Facebook.  Teachers can curate—or assemble—the boards and assign them, or they can have students contribute learnings to existing boards.  Students can even research and create boards of their own, becoming content-area “experts.”  Then, the “Facebook” kicks in, as everyone involved views the boards, “likes” them, and adds comments, even tweeting, emailing, or sharing boards with others.

For schools that lack technology, Learnist levels the playing field.  Students can use the mobile apps—just released today—to curate and view boards.  They can view them at home–if necessary–in the case of classes without the technology to take proper advantage of Learnist in school.

Students who are not in class or who are in need of remediation have access to the material as well, and students excelling in the material can work with or help create advanced material. All in all, Learnist helps create individualized instruction for each student without requiring a dime of taxpayer funding. And—this is perhaps the best news yet—100% of the new Common Core State Standards are represented in learnboards, with more being added by the minute. It’s the type of thing that makes a teacher feel truly loved.

Learnist was created by Grockit, a Silicon Valley leader in test preparation built on the premise that studying together is much more effective than studying alone.  If students work on material together, collaborate on material together, and truly engage with each other, they will be motivated to practice and learn more—social learning produces proven results.  So, why would anyone want a textbook?

Grockit’s creator Farbood Nivi is an ed tech entrepreneur and innovator in the field of social learning.  In creating Learnist, he brought education and technology together to create something really special—something will benefit millions of students and no doubt change education.  Learnist, I am convinced, will truly be a game changer, an answer to my prayer.

So, yes, I have seen the Lord. And his name is Farb.

 

What is that moment where I change someone’s life forever?

Later today, I will look at the faces of my students and I will try to predict the future. They are a mystery shrouded in wonder.  What will they become? Will she be an achiever, the next big entrepreneur, a great parent, loyal citizen, or inspirational speaker?  Will he die in a car crash speeding along the road? Will I visit them in prison? Will I write him a recommendation for acting school? I have taught all these students. Which one will this be?

I can’t know.

What is the exact moment where I change someone’s life forever? Where, if I had not been there, he would have gone in an entirely different direction, made a bad choice, or even failed to live out his life? And what are the moments where someone has done this for me?

It’s difficult to know. Often I don’t know until years later. The kid who stared me down from the back corner shooting daggers came back and said, “When you said that to me in class, it changed my life. And now I’m doing…”

Another kid said, “Yeah, Miss…nothing personal.  History and Shakespeare just aren’t for me. But you’re cool.” Thanks, kid.  Nothing personal, teach—you’re cool, but everything you do sucks.

“Okay, Luke. What’s your plan?”  This is the point in the conversation where I usually get a ton of blank stares and give the “put some thought into making a plan I can get behind” speech.

“My dad owns six tow trucks. I’ve got contracts. I’m going to run that business and make it bigger.” Nicely done—spike the ball in my face. You have a plan. Let’s get busy.

“Listen, kid,” I said, “Don’t worry. I’ll teach you what you really need to know.” Lesson learned. Take the time to listen, and you’ll uncover the moment where you really influence a life. And it matters. In education, it’s easy to dictate instead of listen—especially now when numbers and targets measure the effectiveness of a teacher more than lives changed—how do we measure a life changed? There’s no data and targets for that.  There should be.

One scholar returned from two tours in Iraq, and called me to meet him at the airport. He quoted back a speech I gave at graduation five years earlier.  I had said that the world allows people to be mediocre, but I do not.

I said I am tired of asking scholars, “How are you doing this year?” only to hear, “Oh, I’m passing.”  Passing is not good enough.  I don’t want a doctor who “passed.” If I have a doctor who “passed” it means that seven out of ten times, I’ll should come out healthy and the remaining three visits—just run the math—I will not. I will look at his diploma on the wall as I fade out of this world, and hear the echoing phrase, “But I passed.”

If I go to my mechanic, I want my car to work 100% of the time, not 65-70%. I will hear, “But I passed,” as I am trying to avoid the devastating effects of Newton’s law about an object in motion staying in motion unless you get a mechanic who “just passed” and you are his lucky tenth customer.  And so forth and so on.

This boy-turned-man–who had spent years defending my freedom feeling blessed because he only lost three of his friends in the process–came back and told me that he would not be mediocre. He would be excellent.  And he is. What a humbling feeling.

So, by the numbers—because education is all about math—I know that I may only affect a small percent of students. Even if that number is one, I have no way of knowing which one that will be, and it is never the one I suspect. I must be constantly vigilant. I must get to know each person in front of me as an individual and serve his or her needs—especially the ones that aren’t apparent at first glance. Then, I can I plant the seed of knowledge, water it with inspiration, pick out the weeds of despair, and hope and pray that seed will grow.

It’s easy to be desensitized to the importance of this mission when looking at the numbers. The numbers promote fear in educators, which means we keep our noses to the grindstone to meet changing targets and we don’t always veer off the path to do what’s right. Education, in the name of reform, has become big data, small data, stats and evaluations. As such, I am watching good, good teachers make their exit plans because something is being lost in the quantification. You can’t measure the lives they have changed.

When I feel like we’ve lost our way, I take a moment and I leave the math behind and think again about the questions. What is the moment where I change a life forever? And who has done so for me?

I lived overseas in a large city.  There were homeless, indigent, drunk, and stumbling people.  In the beginning, I gave out small bills to these people.  After a while, they became invisible. Obstacles to avoid on the way to my destination.

One day, I stepped over a man lying in the street.  He could have been drunk. But he looked different—dead.  I looked back. Yes, dead, indeed. And I walked by.  Everyone else in a city of eleven million people walked by.  Street venders, gypsies playing tunes, businessmen, mobsters. We all walked by.

We do this all the time.

We step over people who are dying or dead—spiritually dead, emotionally dead, morally dead, intellectually dead. We continue along our straight-line path and never veer from that course—never fulfilling our own incredible power to change a life, if we had just reached out and done the simplest thing. It’s as simple as listening. And occasionally taking action. Figuring out, one by one, who my students are—and what they need.  Because math and history aren’t enough, tests be damned.

I am truly humbled by this power.  I think of that man often, and I apologize to him through my daily interactions with others.

There is an old story that a man came upon a child at the beach. It was low tide and thousands of starfish had been washed up. The child was picking up each one and throwing it back into the ocean, saving its life.  The man told the child he’d never get them all. The child said that they needed to go back in the water or they’d die.

“But you’ll never get them all.  It’s pointless,” shrugged the man.

The child replied, “But I can get this one. It matters to this one.”

That is why I teach. To repay the people who have done this for me—who have changed my life at moments where I would have made poor choices, failed to fulfill my destiny, or made the decision to pass through the revolving door of life before my time. In teaching, I repay them and complete the cycle–the cycle that others have started, and people far better than me will continue, hopefully because of some effect I have had.

The Devil Sells Baby Gear

I attended a wonderful baby shower yesterday for my friend who is going to be a mom.  She’s beautiful, kind, pragmatic, and hard-working—she’s ready.

But the baby industry is not for the faint-hearted. Even the best of us fall into its clutches, which makes us feel like abysmal failures if we don’t set the baby up with all the necessary supplies.  They give new moms free magazines chock full of obnoxious advertisements loosely disguised as informational articles.  They create an entire industry around things that we don’t need. It’s the American way.

Baby showers are lovely. They’re rites of passage for women.  Somewhere around the time that the near-mom gets big, fat, and grumpy, she gets to sit down in a chair to eat cake with other women who were once (or will be) big, fat, and grumpy telling horror stories.  Near death tales about terrible births and baby emergencies that would render Poe speechless, like how she won’t sleep for eighteen years. It’s an endless feed of information nobody should speak out loud lest the world depopulate.  At least she gets presents. It’s a bonding experience, because like it or not, motherhood is a club.

Before I entered The Club, I had friends who were moms.  They gave me “the look” every time I opened my mouth.  It didn’t matter what I said, I got “the look.” The look that said, “You poor girl. You’re as dumb as a stump.  If you were only a mom, you’d understand.”

“I just picked out a theme for the baby’s nursery,” one friend said.

“Not me,” I replied, “I’m going to get hand me downs, and they will be free.” Seemed pragmatic and environmentally friendly enough. But no…the look.

“When you’re a mom, you’ll want the best stuff—and you’ll want your nursery to match.” I did not.

“I hope you don’t mind that we’re going to be parking cars up and down the street all day Friday and have the fourth ring of Ringling in our front yard,” said my neighbor. “I wanted her to be able to have a big party this year. She hasn’t had one yet.”

“But you had twenty-five kids last year.” One man’s big is another man’s small, I guess.

“No, eighteen.  But she’s in school now. They make you invite the whole class.”

I’d be damned if I’d let some kindergarten teacher dictate the rules of my kid’s birthday party—no adult wants to go to those anyway. It’s like the times in high school when kids put  those plastic flamingos on someone’s lawn under the cover of darkness and they woke up to realize they got tagged. “A kid birthday invite. Crap!”

“I’m not going to invite the whole class to anything. I will let him have his few good little friends, and that’s it.” You guessed it—the look. And a bonus comment just to help me get my mind right like Cool Hand Luke.

“You wait,” she said, maintaining the look—gee, I was kind of hoping her face would freeze that way, “You’ll do it.” I’m proud to say I haven’t. And I won’t.

If I poured myself a drink for every time I have heard “you’ll do it,” I’d be majority stockholder in Betty Ford.  I have resisted the urge to go insane just because I have allowed an egg and sperm cell to join in my womb and creating a human being.  I think that’s a big enough miracle in and of itself—that I (my husband can have some of the credit, too) have made this little boy who is becoming his own obnoxious little person.  He can say “no” on his own, choke on marbles on his own, sleep standing on his head all by himself and fail to listen to me twenty times a day. All without help from the marketing machine.

Baby showers remind me just how insidious the industry really is.  Sure, getting together to give a new mom little clothes soon to be covered in poop—that’s all well and good.  But in addition to the practical items, there are a ton things on that list that I can’t even identify.  Here are some of the market victories the baby industry achieved at this shower:

  1. Diapers:  Good old petroleum-based plastic.  Most of us go for the plastic.  Who wants to scrape chocolate-pudding poop off of terry cloth in public and carry the diaper around in a zip-lock bag.  This ranks somewhere below using a handkerchief to save snot for later.  This may be the one free pass people get while the rest of us try to save the planet.
  2. Wipes:  Face cloths would work, indeed, but disposable wipes in the wasteful plastic bin are beautifully versatile.  Not only do they clean baby puke—they can be used to detail a car while waiting in line at a drive-through.
  3. The monitor: Just in case the baby doesn’t wake you up every five minutes, this can amplify the sound.
  4. A spout cover: This one was new. Looking somewhat like a hollow, Sesame-shaped phallus, which is disturbing enough on its own, I discovered that it slides over the metal spout of the tub, thus preventing The Child from sliding around and whacking his or her head on the metal. I feel like a really bad parent for never investing in this.  The other day, for example, Declan was playing soap hockey in the tub after it drained.  I told him not to, but he’s not preprogrammed to listen, so “crack,” he whacked his head on the spout.  I simply told him that he had bad karma for not listening, and to stop crying immediately. Clearly this could have been prevented by the Elmo-phallus.
  5. Baby blender:  Why would someone needed a mini blender to make baby food?  It’s pretty easy to squash carrots in the big blender, but I suppose for urban dwellers this might come in handy in saving counter space.  You can cut up an orange in just seven small sections and throw the juice in your smoothy.
  6. A travel system. Never call it a stroller. The one I saw yesterday was brilliant.  It had a separate carrier for every time the baby gained five pounds, and it snapped together perfectly. It came with a gift certificate for ten free lessons from a former NASA engineer, at the end of which the new mom would be able to take The System apart and put it in any minivan in the country in not more than six minutes flat, even with a crying baby. This particular one came with a mosquito net and a rain cover in case they travel to sub-Saharan Africa or the rainforest for vacation.
  7. Lots of knitted things. These make marketing people cringe because they’re handmade with love. Who hand makes anything these days when Marketing Guy can get it wholesale from some village nobody can spell in some small underpaid nation? Handmade with desperation, which is sort of like love, because the poor kid who made them while chained to a tree loved the penny he got for doing the job.  But people love to give knitted stuff to babies.  The blanket he’ll cry over when he leaves it at Chuck E. Cheese, requiring a twenty-mile trip back, the little sweater in which she’ll be arranged for the family picture.  Everyone says, “Awww…” Except I’m noticing now that the age of the handmade artisan crew is shifting. It’s not the grandmas anymore—they’re too busy retiring and having fun. It’s the 20 and 30 somethings who are bringing back these timeless crafts.
  8. Stuff that you’ll lose and have to buy again: This includes, but is not limited to, bottles, hygiene stuff requiring an electron microscope to find, things with two parts, brushes and cleaning supplies, mini Tupperware in which to save the tablespoon of baby food made with the tiny blender, safety silverware and sippy cups without BHT.
  9. Lactation supplies: The husbands who come at the end to pack up the car always look away when these things emerge—the breast pump, the little bags for saving breast milk, and worst of all, the nipple cream, but like it or not nursing is making a comeback. In several states, it’s no longer illegal and won’t get a mom arrested and registered as a sex offender the baby tosses off the cover while nursing quietly in the corner of a restaurant.

These are just some of the things the consumer industry convinces us we need for our children, and often we cave, labeling it an investment the future. Because somehow, if we don’t provide the basics, they’ll be off to a disadvantaged start, then they’ll drop out of school, rob banks, or worse yet–become politicians.

I’m torn between admiring the baby marketers for their genius, and wanting to banish them to an uninhabited island for promoting junk that no human needs. But either way, I love the baby shower—it’s a nice time to get together and induct one more person into The Club.

Avoid Reading Dumb Books: Free Summer Reading Summaries Here

School is starting for me next week. I don’t give summer assignments to my students, but my friends and colleagues do, which means that my students are too busy cheating on their summer reading to pay attention to what’s really important–me. This is a great loss. Who picked these reading selections, anyway?  Who decides that, say, Shakespeare–a dead white guy from the 1500’s, has more educational merit than reading something cool like The Hunger Games? Yeah, sure, the guy had wit, but no one understands the phallic jokes because all the characters are too busy rhyming and talking in iambic pentameter.  You’d be beaten for that today–even in today’s zero tolerance climate regarding bullying.

“Romeo, Romeo…wherefore art though Romeo?”

“In this damned gym locker! Get me out! I swear to God I won’t rhyme again! And I’ll take off this ridiculous shirt and tights.”

I can save America’s next generation from having to go on Yahoo.answers researching summaries for books they didn’t want to read in the first place–not that research is a bad thing. They shouldn’t have to read awful books written by a bunch of dead people anyway.  These books are annoying–filled with big words, twenty-page paragraphs, and not even a hint of an LOL. Why would anyone want to read in five hundred pages what they could condense into two tweets?

So, today, I’m putting out summaries for some of the great classics.  If you are a student and I’ve missed any key works on your list, please comment, and I’ll add that book as soon as possible. That way, you can get back to playing Call of Duty or shopping for the ridiculous clothes that I will be sure to mock when we get back into the classroom. Truth be told, I wanted to tweet these summaries, but due to the length of some of these novels, it’d be less like a tweet and more like a long squawk.

This list isn’t only for students–how many times have we gotten our behinds handed to us in public by the innocent-looking Facebook quiz “How many great books have you read?” only to have it blast out the answer in public and make us look like complete imbeciles: You have read 2 out of the 100 Greatest Books of All TimeYou’re illiterate. 

So, there’s no need to go online asking strangers for summaries and risk getting blasted by the author of the book or your instructor. These helpful recaps will do the trick. formerly known as “CliffsNotes,” they will now be called CaseyNotes.  Here goes:

A Christmas Carol

A very bad man gets scared by four ghosts, one of whom is his dead friend.  He decides to be good and gives away a Christmas dinner. Everyone lives happily ever after. Except the goose.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a guest in one of Stalin’s premiere gulags.  Every day pretty much stinks, today is no exception. He steals some bread, washes floors, and gets stripped naked and searched in frozen Siberia. At the end, he gives away a biscuit, and marvels he has only 3,653 days of suckiness left to go.

The Grapes of Wrath

The Dust Bowl devastates Oklahoma. There is no food.  People die. A grieving mom nurses a starving man at the end. High school students reading are horrified. They don’t get the emotion of the scene because they’re too busy watching “Pretty Little Liars” and “Glee.”  No happily ever after.

Lord of the Flies

Read the Hunger Games trilogy.  Better yet, watch the movie–it’ll be quicker.

1984

Read the Hunger Games trilogy.  Better yet, watch the movie–it’ll be quicker.

Brothers Karamazov

The Spanish Inquisition puts Jesus in jail. People discuss whether holy men rot when they die. The father gets killed.  People always gets killed in Russian literature, even so, there must be a trial. Which there is. It is not fair. Welcome to Russia.

Don Quixote

A whack job of a man goes and fights windmills in honor of a peasant he thinks is a princess. She doesn’t know he exists. He ignores the real hot chick who likes him and then dies. In about a million pages.

Of Mice and Men

Migrant workers try hard to find work.  George watches out for his friend Lennie then shoots him in the head.  It’s supposed to be compassionate. Definitely not a happy ending. At least it’s a short book.

Lolita

Old guy likes younger girl. Disturbing on many levels. Hopefully nobody is reading this for summer reading anyway—that’d be creepy. You’d get put on a list.

The Scarlet Letter

The woman gets accused of adultery and has to wear the big red A.  The guy doesn’t have to wear an A. Not fair.

Les Miserables

Translate the title–you have the summary. Everyone is miserable. And to top it off, the revolution is coming. If you’re already depressed, see the musical. At least you can sing while they all die. No happy ending.

The Call of the Wild

Lots of dog sleds mush through Alaska. Reminds me of Sarah Palin except she has a snowmobile. And more guns.

I hope this has helped and that you have the best school year yet.  Students–may your teachers not interrupt your social life, parents, enjoy the six-hours of freedom to drink coffee and plan ways to embarrass your kids, and teachers everywhere, press on. Let’s unite to find even worse selections for next year!

Fashion Emergency 101: Someone Tweet Carson Kressley! Stat!

I hate shopping for clothes. It’s a problem. I get anxiety. If I had to name five things I’d rather do besides being beaten over the head by the fashion industry, they would be the following:  clean the refrigerator, take out garbage in the infectious disease unit sans mask, scrape road kill off highways on a ninety-degree day, polish kid vomit from the floor at school, or repair industrial tractors in the middle of an Oklahoma corn field waving a Nebraska flag.

Fashion mystifies me. I hate clothes a lot, but I hate “teacher clothes” more.  You won’t catch me alive in a Halloween or Christmas themed sweater.  If I’m thrown in one when I’m dead, I will find the culprit and haunt their family for generations. Poltergeist-style.

But it’s back to school time, and I do need clothes.  And so I forge ahead and shop. No pointy heels and A-lined skirts for me, thank you.

Fashion rules for teachers:

  1. I must look cool(ish) in an old-person geeky sort of way. I should project enough of an air of authority so students to not want to chuck spit balls at my cardigan when I turn around.
  2. I must feel comfortable. I’m active. It’s tough to jump over small items of furniture while dressed like an investment banker.
  3. I should not look like someone’s grandmother.  That would require me to bring in milk and cookies every day, and that’s just not healthy.
  4. I should never look like a candidate for prom queen. This includes the times when I attend school functions that require me to dress up, like dinners and proms. This is public education, not a Nabokov sequel.

To solve this dilemma, I created a “school uniform.” It’s a public school. Even though studies show that schools requiring uniforms achieve success at higher rates, I’ve only seen a couple of public schools implement uniforms fully. Most of those that try say the uniform is “optional” because no administrator in his or her right mind wants to box three rounds with the American Civil Liberties Union, whose watchful eye protects the rights of students to wear death metal t-shirts, sideways-fitted caps with stickers and a healthy collection of gothwear.

Because no one will force me to wear a uniform, I’ll force myself.  I have no desire to have Catholic school flashbacks. Those obnoxious plaid miniskirts that Sharon Stoned girls’ at recess scared me away from skirts forever. Just a simple pair of khakis and a golf shirt for me, please. I want people to wonder if I’m about to teach or about to pop under the hood of a car. Universal worker-wear, the kind that makes you want to get down and dirty. Because education is a down-and-dirty kind of job if you do it right.

I created my school uniform for a few non-fashion reasons, too.  One, because we have “dress-down day” fundraisers. I don’t like to pay for dress-down days. I think I dress down enough as it is. Dress-down days always raise money for a good cause, but I like to choose, myself, where I give. I’m not too cheap. I can certainly afford two dollars on the days I carry cash, which are few and far between—teachers do not carry cash.  It’s just that giving is personal to me.

Also, I don’t want to be shaken down for money for the honor of wearing clothes to school. Maybe that’s an exaggeration. I’d have to wear clothes anyway or I’d be facing far bigger problems than who blew off my homework, but I’m also uncomfortable having a policy that defines charity.  And then there’s the issue of The Sticker. Even if I did give, I would politely refuse to wear The Sticker saying I contributed. I don’t need a badge identifying me to the Giving Police. I do want to be helpful. I just don’t love dress-down day.

But that’s not the reason for my uniform either. The real reason I created my school uniform—khakis and an array of golf shirts paired with my favorite Keen hiking shoes, is because I can’t coordinate fashion.  It sounds so much better when I put it in a sociopolitical context and cite data, performance, experts, and research, though.

The truth is, I can’t shop for clothes. It causes me anxiety. Serious, go-see-someone type anxiety. Oh, how I’ve prayed that I’d win a contest and have Carson Kressley walk through my door saying, “Oh, no! We’re going to take care of that girl right now.” And he would wave his fashion wand over me like Cinderella’s haute couture godmother, replacing The Uniform with things that make runways appear before with the speed of light.

But he didn’t appear, and I struck out on my own. I went to several stores, tossed some things around and emerged with one measly shirt.  One…shirt.  I feel no achievement  at this because I already own that shirt in three different colors.

First, I failed to find a suitable pair of shoes in a warehouse of more than a thousand pairs of designer shoes.  I walked out overwhelmed and empty-handed. Next, I exasperated the kind retail professional who pulled out all the stops to show me a million outfits that just might do. At outfit twenty, I told her she deserved a raise.  She laughed a little.  Just a little. Because what I said was true.

She brought me blue suits (too Republican National Convention). Cranberry pants, pink shirt, (too ice cream shoppy), grey flannel “blazer,” (to bathroby-Thurston-Howell-the-Thirdy), a purple shirt (too “holy crap that’s ugly”) and some fancy shirts—shirts with low necklines and flowers tied in the middle in just the right spot to make me feel like I had a third boob.

When The Girl Who Deserved A Raise finally escaped for a breather, I struck out to find something on my own. I found the shirt.  It had been folded into a perfect square, with about fifty little pins, pieces of cardboard, and plastic collar supports ensuring that it would look perfectly square forever when matched up with other perfect squares lined up in perfectly aligned rows. Was I even supposed to touch this?  After reading the shirt-origami instructions, which were completely in Japanese, I unraveled the booby traps I tried it on.  And there was. The shirt. My one, tiny, victory.

All in all, I think I failed. And I blame Carson Kressley, who did not come to my rescue. Couldn’t he have taken one little day away from his busy schedule transforming slovenly bachelors for me? I’m hoping somebody will send me his number.

As a last resort, I considered putting an ad on Craigslist, “Professional fashion-deprived individual seeks kept woman to help her shop for clothes. Must have at least five years experience spending husband’s money. No leopard print need apply.” But I can’t tell a Gucci from a Prada, and I think Vera Bradley looks like very much like my grandmother’s front room curtains. And certainly don’t want someone else’s initials written all over my purse to the tune of five Benjamins.  Generally, a cloth shopping bag suits me just fine. I might be beyond redemption. Better not to waste someone’s time.

So now I’m home, waiting for the anxiety to pass and my heart rate to return to normal. I’m going to retreat to my desk and come up with seven more studies that show scientific proof that the school uniform will indeed be the key to education reform. And then, I’ll wear it forever.

A Tax Primer for Kindergarteners

Today I had a deep and meaningful conversation on the subject about taxes with Declan, my five-year old. He loves money. He counts it, he jingles it, he puts it in and takes it out of his thirty-five year old bank, “Mr. Smiley” who used to gobble up my change when I was five, a relic from when my father came home from trips examining and auditing banks for the Federal Reserve.

“Mommy,” he looked up from the piggy bank he’d emptied all over the floor. Again. “Why are there guys on my money?”

“Oh, that’s a good question,” I replied. “They’re the presidents. Like President Obama. Presidents run the nation—they’re the boss of America.”

“Who are these guys?” he asked, rearranging the nickels.

“Those are some dead presidents. Do you want me to tell you their stories?”  He likes stories about ghosts and dead guys, and not just for Halloween. He arranged the money some more.

“No. Are they made of silver?” He thinks silver is cool. But he doesn’t like gold because we told him the story of King Midas, and he thinks one day, I might get turned into a cold gold statue. Though he will most certainly be able to turn me in for a secure financial future, I won’t be “soft and cuddly” anymore. And I won’t be able to get him snacks or juice.

“No, the economy stinks. People sell and hoard. Silver’s too expensive to use for coins.” I replied.

“But why are these guys on my money?” He was getting upset.  The dead presidents should not be touching his stuff, “unless they ask first.”

I gave it some thought.  “Because ultimately, all money belongs to them and they want you to remember that fact.” It was the best I could do.

“Are they going to take my money?”  I could see the apprehension rise in his voice as he cupped his hand over the pile of pennies. Now you’re getting it, kid.

“Yes.” Sometimes, a kid just has to hear the truth. “They’re going to take your money and maybe fix a road or give a large business a tax break. Maybe, if you’re really lucky, they’ll give it to someone else—someone nice who needs a little money.”  Nice people getting money always makes me smile.

“They’re not going to take my money.” He frowned.

“Well, since you brought it up,” I confessed, “they are.  They take a lot of my money every day.”

He looked from my wallet to me. And back to my wallet, half-waiting for the Washingtons to dance across the room into the hands of “The Guy Who Takes My Money.”  Who, in his mind is probably related to Al Gore, since I invoke the name of Al Gore for all things related to power, environment and recycling.

“Did you turn off that light?  Quick…Al Gore’s going to get you.”  I know you’re not wasting water… Al Gore wouldn’t like that…” Al Gore, in fact, has become the Santa’s evil helper…the guy who puts kids on the list if they toss their peanut butter jars into the common trash or try to get a wasteful bendy straw for their chocolate milk. He’s quite helpful, actually—I’m grateful. And now, I’ve done it again—created another government villain to do my bad parenting for me, “Taxman.” Someone should pass a law against parents like me.

“They’re NOT going to TAKE MY MONEY!”  Quick as a flash, he rose for the broom and brandished it like it was a Revolutionary musket.  “If they try to take my money, I’ll slap them like this.”  He proceeded to slap his own face—pretty hard.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that punching himself out wouldn’t dissuade the IRS.  But he didn’t stop there, “And then I will hit them with this and punch them like this, and I’ll kill them.”  Wow.  Such violent rhetoric coming from the progeny of a Gandhi-loving pacifist like me. Taxes bring out the worst in mankind. Ask Sam Adams or Patrick Henry. They’re available, because they’re not currently guarding any denominations of money.

I probably shouldn’t even write the word “kill” here lest the poor boy’s name be housed somewhere deep in the annals of a Homeland Security watch list at age five…That’s a bit early to start a long career of being tailed. The government resources it’ll take will serve to justify jumping the kid another tax bracket by age six—there’ll be agents at his kindergarten posing as lunch ladies, at the playground, at the local pink ice cream stand.

That’s pretty expensive, and besides, the agents could end up gaining a lot of weight stalking us at ice cream stands, further exasperating the health crisis in the United States. Which would definitely require a new taxpayer-funded government program.  Where would it all end—age eighteen, or when Declan gets a rejection letter from his first job for reading too much Thoreau?

“Wait,” he said, dropping the broom-musket on the floor and running for the silverware drawer. He came out with my grandmother’s antique corn holding spike—the one that was locally crafted five decades before someone in Congress would surely have passed a law prohibiting corn holders with excessively long one-centimeter swordlets. You could lose an eye.

“Mommy…I will kill them with your Swish [sic] Army knife.”

“I don’t like the word kill. You’re not going to kill anyone. Don’t be fresh.” Learn to channel that anger now, boy.  It’s a skill you’ll need.

“I’ll poke a hole in them.” He brandished the corn-knife like a cross between Zorro and Poncho Villa.

“Son, that’s not even long enough to poke a hole in Glenn Beck’s ego. Put that thing down! It’s sharp.”

“Well, they’re not taking my money.” End of story.

The birth of a five-year old conservative. An Alex P. Keaton in training. Where did this come from, I ask myself. Last election cycle, we adventured to political rallies for both parties.  While Huckabee’s was by far the best due to the Governor’s band and the people I thought for sure were carrying automatic weapons touting signs telling me to go ahead and try to take them away…All the rallies had fun signs waving, balloons and people cheering. A good time from both sides of the aisle. And I’m certainly no broom-musket brandishing tax avoider. My husband and I pay tons of taxes. Income taxes, taxes on cars, taxes on stuff we buy, taxes on the business, taxes on things I consider buying, taxes on the taxes paid to other tax collecting agencies.

Since I’m not part of a local militia or the Director of Graft at City Hall, I can only hope at least a modicum of my taxes are going to something good—like paying my friends in the military, fixing the crumbling bridge I stood under last week, or even bribing someone to get something good done.  Because–Machiavelli should run for office–the end “justifies the means (sometimes).”  I’d even settle for someone using my cash to repair a pothole in my honor. I’ll put a plaque on it like the WPA.  It’ll say, “This pothole dedicated to the good citizens by taxpayer Casey” like those bricks you buy on walkways to dedicate to your grandmother or your long-lost cat.

But that’s not how Declan feels. Even as we speak he is rounding up the pennies and nickels with the dead presidents on them and hiding them.  Which means that he won’t be able to invest them to save for an overpriced college education or buy a car to impress the ladies.

But maybe he’ll have the good fortune to win the two-dollar lottery (which, I’ll tell him is a voluntary tax on people).  Then he can buy a plane ticket to Switzerland, where at least he’ll be able to hide his pennies and nickels in a box next to Mitt Romney’s penny and nickel box, where they’ll be safe.  Because nobody’s going to get those, either.

Loser for Life: Tales of a Girl without Klout

I’m feeling pretty good about myself. I’ve had some downtime this summer, adventured with family, reconnected with friends, and had a chance to meet a visionary group of people who I predict will change the direction of education. In so doing, I’ve learned about the mysterious world of Silicon Valley startups and had an amazing time in the process.  I’ve even learned a few things about myself.

I’ve learned to text and email in sentence fragments, for example, because (sigh) “no one has time to read an epic—we get a lot of email.” I’m a researcher—a nerd. Our motto is, “to make a short story longer.”  The idea of dangling a participle, cutting emails by seventy percent or ending a thought midstream would have left me seeking treatment not six months ago. Now, I can split infinitives like firewood and carry on two different conversations—in sentence fragments—with the same person across three different platforms, simultaneously. It’s not ADHD. It’s a personal best overlapping with far too much caffeine.

I’ve discovered sites and blogs I never would have known, engaged in conversation with brilliant entrepreneurs, and found new worlds of information enabling me to boldly go where no educator has gone before.  I even took the enterprising step of linking my social media accounts and using the ones I’d left dormant.  I’m up to thirty-three Twitter followers.  Pretty soon the President will take my calls. He certainly sends me enough email. So many people in education fear these things, because they put you under a microscope. Nobody wants to look like stagnant pond-dwelling plankton in front of the world, or worse yet, to be controversial.

I threw caution to the wind—I went nearly public.  Why wouldn’t the world want to hear what I have to say?  I know stuff—I can spell.  Can even learn to write in sentence fragments. I was, indeed, feeling good after “playing tech with the big boys” for a few months.  Like I had a voice in the universe.

So imagine my surprise—my horror—at realizing the entire time the Internet has been rating me—and I am a gigantic loser. Algorithms, scores, numbers, charts, graphs. My pitiful status cemented by math.

You guessed it, I found my Klout score—that magical number that defines and quantifies the impact I have in the universe—the ability I have to influence the world. Can I cure cancer? Check my Klout score. Do I have the potential to lead the PTA fundraiser or be a soccer mom?  Klout score? Do I deserve the quantity of oxygen I siphon from the universe on a daily basis? Klout score, please. Now!

At first I thought it was a techie joke, so I played along. No doubt a round-table of geeks and hipsters wearing black, restricting their sugar intake, sitting around old college yearbooks rating people like some B-grade talent show. Payback for getting cut from the football-cheerleading clique; having to be captains of their respective math and chess clubs instead.

Then I discovered this was most certainly not a joke. There are entire industries that take this very seriously. Industries like social media, publicity, and politics. Places where “influence” is critical.  Circles I have grown to like. And they have numerically branded me a loser in public, affixing the lowest of numbers and a big scarlet L to my digital profile. It’s sort of like living in high school…forever.  

To rub it in, Klout, which no doubt knows when I last visited the gynecologist, showed my friends’ scores— my flesh and blood friends as well as the imaginary-digital ones—just to emphasize my bona fide cyber-pariah status, reinforcing that I’m a social washout.  It placed me unfavorably next to my heroes, like the Dalai Lama, who is up in the Kloutosphere, and the President (he won’t take my calls if he sees that number) who scored 99. Regardless of his approval ratings in the latest poll. That’s a lot of Klout.

Apparently, the Kloutier you are, the more “perks” you get.  Perks are free things given to you by people who want to attach to your Klout-tails or who are just impressed by you. I don’t know. I don’t get any perks. I think they’re sending me a bill to cover my Klout-deficit, actually. One lady I read rejoiced when her Klout hit 50—I guess that’s the magic number where you transform from a nonentity into a person. People congratulated her like she won her first Pulitzer or solved the problems in the Middle East without first consulting Jimmy Carter.

I have the least Klout of all my friends. A stat professor friend of mine hovers close to the Dalai Lama, and my entrepreneurial friends are within ten points. I bet my husband’s higher, too–he has more “friends” than me.  If I run the math, that makes me 2.5 to 3 times more of a loser than all my friends.  I suspected as much, (okay, the stat professor surprised me), but it hurts to see it proven. And I’m lucky I’m not a spinster.

Just to rub salt in the wound it asked, “Do you want to post this to your Facebook profile?”  No, I don’t want to tell Facebook I’m the supernova of anti-influence. That I couldn’t convince a born again Christian to love Jesus or a redneck to watch NASCAR. That my digital impact is nonexistent.

It mocked me further, “Casey…you’re right. You are subterranean. It’s been confirmed. No one important likes you. Here are the quarterly numbers. Spin them like FOX News if you like…Social grace, down ten points. Likeability, a modest 10. Optimism, a little higher, cool factor, a stone cold 0. Unfortunately, we can’t measure fashion in negatives. Go back to the punch bowl with the other dweebs.”

I am left to wonder if these numbers are like the old dating system in high school.  If I’m a six or seven, I can date people scoring one point up or down.  A two-point difference is getting shady. THREE POINT SPREAD? That person is “out of your league.” Or is this like the article I saw in The Economist that said that people must marry based on equivalent credit scores. Could my Klout score ruin my marriage? Ahhh, life by the numbers…

I was hoping beyond all hopes that the algorithms would be influenced by the body scanners at the airport. At least there I had a chance to pick up some points.  “Fits through the scanner,” check. “Aged very well,” check. “Totally in shape,” check.  However, it was not to be… I can’t even use my assets (no pun) to promote my inner cool.  How incredibly tragic for me.

So, as I go through life Kloutless and lonely, I would like to thank my sister, who writes for a major online publication.  Because even though she has far, far more Klout than me, she will still read my stuff. And occasionally give me a “like” in order to help me maintain the little Klout I have. Which is truly much more than I deserve.  And I’ll remember the tweet I saw yesterday, “Whenever you get upset at how many followers you have, remember that Jesus only had 12.” If I run that math, I guess I’m not so bad after all.