A Connecticut Yankee (still) Lives In Rhode Island (and you should, too)

Screen Shot 2012-12-30 at 9.50.19 PMYesterday morning seemed to be a good time to reflect about my twenty years in Rhode Island. I was driving to an appointment I inadvertently scheduled for next Saturday, making me seven days and ten minutes early, when all of a sudden a rusty-red truck cut me off, nearly knocking me into next week (which would have made me only ten minutes early for said appointment).

The truck felt the need to zip in front of me, avoiding me by a fraction of a micron, though there was not another car on the road, then proceeded to slow down to a half a mile an hour, take both lanes, and navigate a ninety-degree turn in just under fifteen minutes, sans blinker.

“Rhode Island drivers,”  I exclaimed, nodding my head.  Actually, I didn’t say that at all, and that wasn’t the gesture I made–I made the real one in my mind because I think such gestures, though deserved, lack class and dignity. But I did say the word out loud.

Rhode Island has such a unique little culture–once called Rogue Island by the other 12 colonies, it was so difficult in all matters of trade, intercourse, and politics, that Connecticut threatened to invade it and wipe it off the map.

Perhaps you find yourself in Rhode Island currently. You might be attending one of our excellent colleges like Brown, RISD, Bryant, Providence College, URI, Roger Williams, Johnson & Wales or RIC. Perhaps you are stationed in Newport at the Navy base. Maybe you’re thinking of moving your business here. I have a friend from Brooklyn who came to Rhode Island just because, and appears to be stuck forever.

So, in case you are driving through, not realizing Rhode Island is a bona fide state, and you get a flat tire, I’m here to help you consider the possibility of spending even more time in the Ocean State.  You can develop an appreciation for the “biggest little state in the union” and its culture while you are waiting for AAA. You know you want to live here forever. Here are some reasons to stay:

It’s cheap. Compared to Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts, you can afford a lot. A house that’s a half a million dollars in Massachusetts is sure to be a couple hundred thousand here. Many people commute to Boston from Northern Rhode Island as a result. We even have connections to the Boston commuter rail (the “T”), an Amtrack to New York, and a real honest-to-goodness airport where you will only be delayed sometimes, and when you are, there’ll be plenty of Dunkin Donuts coffee.

We have great food.   Federal Hill has some of the best restaurants in the country. I’m partial to little establishments tucked away in remote neighborhoods, but don’t be mistaken–we also have a list of heavy-hitters a mile long in the five-star department.  It’s just that, well, not many five-star chefs enjoy sharing their art with five-year olds who only eat noodles with butter, so I don’t get to these often. Guy Fieri has recognized the Rhode Island culinary scene–he’s been here twice!

In addition to restaurants, we have farmer’s markets, like the summertime market at Casey Farms in South County, which is more like an event than a market, showcasing food, music, and artisan crafts. South County is really Washington County but no one knows that–it got nicknamed “South County” because it’s–well, south of the other two counties, and it’s easier to spell on a form than “Washington.” Casey Farms has been active since 1750.  It now has a community supported agriculture program in addition to the farmer’s market.

There is a wintertime farmer’s market in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in what is called the Hope Artiste Village.  “Hope” is a motto of Rhode Island, as in “I hope I can find my way out of this place,” “I hope I can understand you people,” and “I hope I don’t lose a tire to a pothole.”

The Artiste village is really inspirational, though. This is an old mill converted into loft and artist space, where you will find everything from artisans and businesses to the New Harvest Coffee Roasters.  Just follow the hippies and sustainability people (you spot them easily because they carry their own canvas bags) and Brown students (you recognize them because the expression on their faces is a unique combination of pride at their intelligence mixed with sadness since they are about to spend the rest of their life paying student loans). It’s every Saturday morning. Incidentally, I used to live a few blocks up the street, but when I lived there, there were no hippies and Brown students, just people trying to steal my car.  Ironic twist of fate–the cool stuff comes when I leave.

You’ll save on gas.  This is because the state is only three feet wide by four feet long.  Local Rhode Islanders don’t see it this way, so you’ll have a decided advantage when immigrating. You’ll say, “Wow, I can get there in a half-hour.”  Driving a half hour or crossing one of the state’s three main bridges will cause a Rhode Islander to pack an overnight bag–no joke.  “Mainlanders” going over to Newport, a drive of twenty to forty minutes depending on the point of origin, often incur hotel fees, but if you come from any other state, you’ll jump up and down for joy at how little time it takes to get anywhere and how silly-short your commute will be.

Believe it or not, despite the size of Rhode Island, there are many drivers in this state that do not use highways, and prefer only to enjoy the scenic back roads. This gives you more space to cruise down 95 from pothole to frost heave, making your commute even shorter.  Beware, though–Rhode Island and Massachusetts have a long-standing feud from on who has the worst drivers. Blinkers are optional but middle fingers mandatory. If you have a good imagination, you can pretend you’re participating in one of those NASCAR adventure excursions without paying a dime. Be safe!

You won’t have to watch mobster movies anymore.  They say that Rhode Island corners the market on two things–mobstas and lobstas.  Both are true. If you’ve been watching too much reality TV or an excess of Godfather reruns, you’ll save time with your move to Little Rhody. Turn off your Goodfellas and Jersey Shore. Read a few days of the Providence Journal and your craving for these things will be satisfied.

You can visit all the important places from “Family Guy.” Although it might look like a cartoon, it’s real. The Big Blue Bug exists. I lived two miles from the Quahog Convenience Store. For real.

It’s easy to make friends here. You won’t have to memorize many names. If you forget one, you can call everyone “my friend.” All male names have only two conjugations–the “ie” conjugation “Vinnie, Joey, Ralphie, Nicky… ” and the slightly less common “o” conjugation “Dino, Rocco, Bruno, Vito.” This makes it very easy to bond quickly and remember everyone, which is important if you want people to like you.

If you do move to Rhode Island, however, the first thing you’ll want to do is get an accent coach. He can double as a translator for learning words like “kah,” and “bubbla” or when you are puzzled to discover a “cabinet” isn’t something that stores dishes, it’s something you drink. This is costly but essential to your successful integration to the state because Rosetta Stone’s Rhode Island course won’t be ready until 2014.

All in all, Rhode Island is a great place. There are a million things to do–hike the woods, go to the ocean for clams, eat the best food in the nation, pretend you’re in Venice, drop a couple hundred grand on a prestigious institution of higher learning, or pretend to be a mobsta. Prices are cheap, the economy is rebounding, commutes are short, and in a week or two, with hard work and a friendly attitude, you can meet most of its citizens.

If you get a chance, come visit. If you get lucky, stay!

[That is my public service announcement for Rhode Island, the only state smaller than Connecticut.  For more great info, visit my Learnist board “About Rhode Island”]

Mom, Why is There No Scrooge II?

John Leech's 1843 illustration

John Leech’s 1843 illustration

In fourth grade, I won a spelling bee. Or something similar. I got a prize.  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I was an avid reader, the kind of kid who didn’t mind getting sent to my room because there were books there. I took my prize upstairs and started reading.

It appears that Charles Dickens is written well above the reading level even of the most nerdly of fourth graders. I knew the words–that’s the type of nerd I was in training to be–but context defied me. I asked my mom several questions, and eventually threw a fit and cried because at ten years old I was not equipped to understand the deep workings of human transformation and redemption about which Dickens was writing. I had frustrated myself beyond belief. Mom took the book away.

My experience was similar in high school when I read Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and “Grapes of Wrath.” Ability to read–yes.  Vocabulary acquisition-yes. Totally missed the entire literary point even with an expert teacher standing there jumping up and down trying to say that it was a good thing that he shot his friend or that she breast-fed that guy–I don’t get it.

And now, my love of great literature is coming back to haunt me in the form of a nerd-in-training Scrooge obsessed five-year old.  In fact, he’s been obsessed Dickens since he was nearly three. He stares transfixed at the television any time Scrooge appears. He streams it on Netflix, requesting the exact rendition to suit his mood. He replays certain frames, monologues, and images over and over. He compares and contrasts the versions. He ranks them in order of quality. He loves them almost as much as his dinosaurs.

He is a connoisseur of every version of A Christmas Carol, from George C. Scott to Patrick Stewart from Alistair Sim to the new Jim Carrey. We argue about which version is the best. I like the George C. Scott. Declan likes it too, but finds the Jim Carrey the most frightening.

Declan recites the monologues throughout the year. Key words in conversation might trigger “the ponderous chain” speech, for example, randomly in public.  In fact, try saying the word “business,” in any context around him, and you will endure a loud punctuation piercing the middle of your conversation–which was probably about some real business endeavor–startling you out of the “business” at hand.

“BUSINESS?” he will shout, “Business!”  “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” [Edit: We managed to capture this unprompted yesterday: Declan Recites Scrooge]

You will most likely stare at him, with your mouth gaping open, look back at me, and wonder, “Is this kid playing with all 52 cards?” In fact he is–there’s just no joking about Scrooge.  Today, we had the following conversation after he noticed some writing on his dry erase board and commanded me to…

“Sponge away the writing on that stone!”

Business indeed.

There were serious questions to attend to.

“Why does Scrooge need to see all the ghosts?”

“Why does the white horse take him to his grave when he’s standing there?”

“Why did he die in his dream?”

“Why couldn’t Jacob Marley stay? He was his friend.”

“Why doesn’t the Ghost of Christmas Future talk? He NEEDS to use his talking. He needs to use his English words.”

“What’s a conscience?”

And the most important question of them all…”Why isn’t there a Scrooge II?” We’ve discussed all of this over and over. Scrooge, when presented with his own demise, got it the first time–no need for a Scrooge II.

We always end with a spirited debate about whether the black ghost is, in fact, good or bad.  I explain that he’s good–Scrooge needs these lessons even if they’re scary.  Declan insists the ghost is bad because he has crinkly clothes and he’s dressed in black. Archetypes appear early. “He’s bad. But he’s my favorite ghost. I like Marley too.”

Sort of brings me back to high school again–all the shades of meaning I wasn’t prepared to understand. Then college, where I must confess I spent more time waitressing than I did studying.  It wasn’t until later in life that I finally looked down at my shelf of classics, my piles of syllabi, the original research of the innovators in my field, and smiled.  I understood. I was ready to learn. Ready to dig deeper–ready to apply those shades of meaning to my life.

The expression, “when the student is ready, the master will appear.”  I have seen this many times in life, in the lessons I’ve taught and in the lessons that have been taught to me.  Sometimes those “masters” appear in the form of a person, sent only when you are ready to understand. Other times, those lessons appear in history, or in words written on a page–words we’ve read a thousand times but suddenly capture us when we are ready to apply them to our lives.

This year has been full of such lessons in my life–lessons about taking chances, living up to my expectations, doing more with the gifts I have been given, letting go of fear and apprehension and knowing that life generally turns out okay.

This blog is the smallest result of one of those lessons.  I wonder how many more lessons I can relearn and apply by digging into those gems from my past–my Dickens, my Steinbeck, my Dostoyevsky…we don’t have time to teach them in schools anymore, and sadly some of them are going by the wayside.  However, in all fairness, I wasn’t ready for them then–I didn’t deserve them then. I’m ready for them now. I will reread them and remember an outstanding instructor from my past, jumping up and down telling me what Steinbeck was trying to say, and be secretly proud that I’m finally old enough to get it.

I think Scrooge would be proud.

The Black Ghost

Declan drawing The Black Ghost

Where’s My Snow? How to enjoy holiday blessings without it.

Thomas Kincaid's "Christmas"

This is something I can now ascertain with metaphysical certitude. There will be no snow. It was fifty degrees when I closed up shop for Christmas vacation, walking out of the school in a flurry of high-fives after what seemed to be the longest semester of my life.

I drove home.  I looked for snow along the way.  It’s impossible to see the snow on the ground when it’s nearly fifty degrees, so I contemplated the options. I could wish for snow, which will probably get me nowhere because it seems my friends in Chicago, Wisconsin, and my beloved Great Lakes region have hijacked my share. I could wait for snow, which means I’d have to reschedule Christmas for sometime in February. I could hallucinate about snow, which would also be unproductive, because it is still nearly fifty degrees, and that will not bring the white stuff at all. It would only bring the men in white coats who will bring me to a very white room which will still not have snow.  I decided the only thing I could do was imagine the scenes of the “New England Christmas,” and sing some Bing as I stopped at the grocery store on the way home.

Since the Big Move Out of the City, I now shop at the local IGA–that means Independent Grocers Association. Each one has its real name. In this case it’s Brigido’s.  It’s a family market. In this first Christmas in my new town, it’s really nice to have a family market to go to when I forget the sweet potatoes, cream cheese, sour cream, and stuffing for Christmas Eve dinner. I’m trying to plan a traditional meal despite the lack of snow, because I don’t think I can get away with no-snow food like hotdogs and potato salad with the calendar turned to December.

In the old house, I used to shop in the Big City. I’d go from bodega to bodega–all the little ethnic stores–for spices, herbs, produce. I would dance in the aisle to the salsa and bachata blasted over the store’s loudspeakers.  They don’t blast salsa and bachata in the forest-town IGA at all. But they do have friendly strangers-soon-to-know-my-name who smile at me and sell me herbs and produce.  And once in a while I travel to say hello to the shopkeepers at the Indian, Korean, Chinese, and Spanish stores because they’ve always been good to me, and I restock the “obscure food wrapped in foreign languages” section of my pantry. I catch up on what’s been freshly baked, share a story, get a recipe. They usually remember me because I’ve been doing this for so long–and–let’s be honest–there aren’t many non-Chinese-non-Cambodians non-Indian-non-Spanish anglos shopping at those stores.  Let alone ones who can hold their own in Spanish, try hard in Chinese, greet you and thank you in Hindi and, well, smile politely in Cambodian.

I can drive to those place and take a tour of the world. But for this Christmas, I’ll stay nestled in my new corner of the forest waiting for snow.

I’ll look at the beautiful pink miniature roses on the bush in the front of my house that should have crumbled months ago. They are stunning. When I finish making the first batch of egg nog, filling the house with the smell of the Christmas cranberry bread, and going back to the IGA for the stuffing I forgot despite the fact I only had four items on my list, I will sit down in the forty-to-fifty degree weather, wish Santa a safe journey and say a prayer to thank God for all the blessings I have enjoyed this year.

I’m not going to lie, it’s been a stressful year.  But one full of blessings–I fully appreciate our ability to move to this little stone ranch in the middle of the worst market in history.  I’m convinced this town was designed by Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kincaid as a mockup for their art. A town where the postmaster smiles and talks, and when she sees a box headed for San Francisco or Virginia, she doesn’t scowl like they do in the Big City, knowing she’ll have to wait for me to fill out forms.  She reports the weather en route to my box’s destination as if I were traveling there myself and says she can get it there faster with a few forms, which she fills out and sticks to the box for me.  A town where everyone in the school knows my name and they care about my little monster. Where I get to drive by a two farms and a giant golden Buddha, which, catching the sun just perfectly, brings a little snapshot of heaven to my morning and evening commute. Blessings.

My family has been blessed with health, jobs, safety. We’ve finally–after years of working alternate schedules, been able to sit down at the dinner table together and remember we are a family, not people working 24 hours a day to coordinate daycare and get somewhere in the universe.  Life seems to be settling down into a pattern of peace blanketed with happiness. Not happiness every day but the kind you get when your blessings and optimism are focal points in your life, and your gratitude for them is never far away.

I may wait patiently for the snow. But most probably, I will sit and enjoy the seed catalogues that are arriving, look out at the soft squishy earth outside, circle pictures of heirloom carrots, beans, corn, and tomatoes, and wait for the chirp of the birds to announce the first leaf buds of spring.

Meanwhile, I am blessed and grateful as this year comes to an end–for you who are reading this, for my family, friends, old friends, new friends, students, home, and the gifts that come to me each day through God and the magic of the universe. Whether this year has been kind or cruel to you, I wish you blessings and solace as well, and the happiest of new years.

[Edit: Not twenty minutes after I published this, I heard, “LOOK, MOM! SNOW!!” Sure enough, flurries are falling. Even if it doesn’t stick, it’s a nice reminder never to doubt the magic in the universe.]

Kids in the Hall: The Bell’s About to Ring (Surviving the Day before Christmas)

Screen Shot 2012-12-21 at 6.01.28 AMIt’s between classes.

I’m looking down the hallway at the kids running around, scattering in every direction in the five minutes between classes. I’m remembering what it felt to be one of those kids.

The kid with the outrageous fashion, the kid talking to her friends in hushed tones. The kid with the entourage spearheading her way through the crowd joking with another girl, implying “I own this hall.” The kid who’s about to start a family.

The drama queen. The seven-foot basketball player. The bully. The one who stands up to bullies on behalf of kids who won’t. The one who hates school but will talk to me. The one who I hope will not try to kill herself this year. The one who acts like a jerk but I think there’s something going on at home and I just can’t get the time to figure it all out yet. I feel bad about that. The kid who annoyed everyone two years ago and is now featured in articles on the fast track to success.

The kid with the hipster glasses and Chucks, who half-a decade ago would have gotten himself locked in a gym locker but in today’s hip-is-cool fashion stands out a leader. A group of “those that care.” A group of “those that do not.”

Tons of girls holding each other’s hands–gay rights buttons, shirts, artsy fashion.  Tons more throwback jerseys. Some I-want-to-be-Japanese outfits. Kids with phones-that-are-illegal-in-schools popping out of pockets for one last check of the social media making sure all’s clear for 40 minutes of lockdown in a class they didn’t choose.

The bell’s about to ring. Someone peeks out the door to see if any teachers are watching. To see if I am watching. I am. I say, “Sit down, the bell’s about to ring.”

The bell–that relic of the factory era to which we still teach like hamsters in a cage or Pavlov’s dogs.  It rings. I obey. I enter. I teach.

I struggle lately. There’s too much to teach. Too many students. Too many systems. Too many requirements. Too much in my mind. I’m buried in systems. No time to make larger connections. To build relationships. Will have to do it all online. “Email me your homework.” I wonder if they feel that way, too. “Okay, Miss.”  I’m starting to have nightmares. I can’t keep up with the numbers. There are too many. They don’t pass the test. I can’t save them all. They can’t become numbers. They are my kids.

My husband tells me not to be ridiculous. I try to listen. He makes a lot of sense. He’s expanding a business. An entrepreneur. Worrying about real things like funding, contractors, plans, paying his staff. Not just about data, a million students, a new evaluation system, and my first bad evaluation. EVER. People are starving in the world. There are bigger things to worry about.

But today, I try to make class fun, engaging, less like a tread mill of prep-for-tests-wait-for-another-evaluation-did-you-use-higher-level-questioning-do-your-senior-project-I-failed-my-evaluation-rubrics-checklists-teacher-training-oh-my-god-I-have-252-students-and-I-really-want-to-read-their-stuff-I’m-overwhelmed-you’re-overwhelmed-are-we-all-in-a-sinking-ship?

I try to make it real. More like the magic that swirled around me when I first walked through the doors in education. When I got all the time in the world to teach lessons that made kids return from their busy lives to say, “Remember when you said…” “That time we learned…” “When we discussed…” It mattered. It still matters. It matters more.

I remember when my heroes transformed me when I was that nerd wearing India cotton walking down the hallway talking to my friends, knowing that the biggest thing of the day was the crush I felt on the kid coming my way…that if I just stayed in that spot one extra second after the bell–that bell–I could have a decent conversation and feel the butterflies in my stomach. Even though he liked my best friend.

Back to the class I am presently teaching–I make some big connections. I share some laughs. I ask about someone’s mom.  Someone else has been out all week. I email a link to the kid who’s in Columbia for a month–he can participate, too, thanks to technology. I talk about opportunity cost. I take some late papers. Someone says, “I handed that in.” I say, “You did not.” They find the paper and hand it over. “My bad.” I tell them not to forget to study.  Someone asks me if they can have a cup of coffee. “You have to earn your cup. Report before school. We’ll talk.”

“Miss, what time does class end?”

I shrug my shoulders.  “I don’t know. When the bell rings. The bell rings, you leave, It rings again, more of you come…the bell….” It’s always the bell.

I remember feeling freedom in school.

Lunches outside near the track. Finishing projects into the afternoon unsupervised.  Secret meetings in the band room, theatre, drama, picnics, games. Freedom. Writing notes. Folding notes. Stuffing them in locker vents to wait for the 20 years until trees would be rescued by texting.  Walking to school early–5AM–to run the track for an hour then shower before school–to get a piece of peace. Alone. Freedom.

Back to the present. I smile. I wish these kids freedom. They may never taste it. Things are different now. Tough to think outside the box in schools and buildings with locks, chains, and gates. With high-stakes tests. With cameras. With so many rules. With police. I’m thankful we don’t have police. Yet.

Oops. There it is. The bell. They get up. Some say “thanks.” I say, “See you tomorrow. Don’t forget to finish…” Someone complains about a test. I say, “Come in the morning. We’ll fix it.”  I take a sip of coffee. I’m hungry. Didn’t eat lunch again. Corrected papers. Went to the bathroom. Got ready for the next class. Five periods gone, a million connections made, a billion more left to make, two more periods left to teach.

One more day till vacation.

I think I’ll make it.

I need to relax.

[image: deadhomersociety.com]

Glitter, Garbage and Gratitude

Yesterday I made a strategic error in lesson planning.  I wanted some old-school fun that disguised learning. Some “edutainment.”  I needed the quickest of projects that showed mastery of the Bill of Rights, synthesized some research, and didn’t look like it sucked. Since the next item on the agenda is Midterm Review–which isn’t a trip to Disneyland even in Casey’s World–I wanted a lesson guaranteed to make us smile.

I got an idea–I would use glitter.

I haven’t really done any of these old-school crayon, glue, glitter projects lately since I got all tech-drunk. Instead, we do blogs and infographics and tweets and comments.  Certainly technology is productive and fun, but in my day we used glue. I am a history teacher, not to mention a relic thereof, so I decided to take off the tech-gloves and unleash some good old-fashioned old-school paper and glue fun. With glitter.

What a disaster.  First off, I remembered why I love tech in the first place.  You don’t have to say a million times to high-schoolers “Scissor safety! Do NOT pretend to cut her hair.”

This isn’t their fault. Despite my decrees and rules that materials should be used appropriately, kids don’t really get enough art time in schools, so hands on supplies become a novelty. They’re excited. I don’t blame them.

When teaching with technology, you don’t have to say, “You are using the glue on your project. Not making hand gloves.” Secretly, I smile at this one, remembering with nostalgia how many times have I slathered Elmer’s glue on my hand, let it dry, and peeled it off saying, “LOOK, I’m MELTING!”  Maybe that’s a bit of an elementary school thing, but when you break out the glue, we’re all kids at heart.

When using technology in the classroom, you certainly do NOT have to say, “Please don’t waste the paper and supplies. I have to buy these myself and they have to last for eight classes. Use them wisely,” as five thousand confetti pieces of various colors and sizes fly through the air because someone needs red.

But the GLITTER.  That was just a Jeff Foxworthy “Here’s your sign!” teaching moment.  At first, it seemed great. Tons of kids passing around bottles and cups of shiny stuff, gluing words like “Freedom of speech” onto little holiday ornaments, synthesizing their  research into holiday decorations.

But then, the mess crept in.

And I remembered why I don’t use glitter.  Probably half of the educational technology out there was inspired by people who used glitter in class. They said, “I’m gonna make an app for that because I am NOT getting glitter all over my clothes again!” And thus, Silicon Valley ed tech was born.

After about five minutes, the hypnotic spell of the glitter wore off, and a kid got the idea that it would look great in the hair of a girl he probably wanted to date. Guys in the 14 to 16-year-old range aren’t smart enough to realize that chucking stuff in the perfectly arranged hair of a girl they like gets them farther from the end goal of her being impressed with him.  So, I had a couple of cases of “misuse of classroom resources,” to deal with followed up by a student “my bad,” the universally accepted apology.

Behavior corrected, I got the projects I wanted.  Things went well for a couple of classes. Then I got a case of the human  .

“Are you out of your MIND? What possessed you to throw that glitter up in the air?”

“Miss, it’s snowing!” Okay, so it hasn’t snowed here. Truth is, I’m getting worried, though I’m enjoying the pink roses in my front yard. I think the Mayas or Al Gore might be right–this weather is freakish.  I decided to be forgiving. In true Arlo Guthrie style, I made him pick up the garbage and get back to work.  And I managed to get a nice project once again.

By the end of the day, however, the room was destroyed. I had swept, straightened, and arranged all day. My idea of a peaceful holiday-music craft session with kids who never get to do crafts turned into an energetic “constructive chaos” free for all.  Highly productive, tons of fun, but zero of the holiday zen for which I had hoped.

And the glitter.  Glitter, you may not know, is the only inanimate substance capable of reproducing when let out of the container. I bought one container of gold glitter.  It reproduced like a virus until my room was covered three feet thick. It really did look like a snow globe.  I stepped back. I snapped a picture. I froze the moment in my mind and decided if I couldn’t have snow on the ground for December, this would do just fine.

In the end, I was blessed with a senior who came in and took charge of the cleanup. I don’t think she was very happy, because, although she thinks she wants to be a pharmacist, she seems to be headed down the road of becoming a professional organizer.  We have a deal–I help her get into college and look at papers, and she tells me to clean my desk.  She took charge of that cleanup so efficiently that I felt a pang of guilt.  She then issued a proclamation that I will probably obey:

“Mrs. Casey-Rowe,” she said, “There will be no more glitter in this room.” For a moment in time, she held the authority of Commissioner Gist herself. I’m pretty sure I will obey.

But by the time I left school, I was truly overwhelmed, not by the glitter and mess, but by the tragic news feeds from my home state which had been coming in steadily.

I picked up my son from school, and we ran laps around the gazebo, which we do together if he stays “in the green” and has a good day. He did.

“Look, Mommy. It’s your flower.” On the ground, there was a single newly blossomed dandelion. That’s my university’s flower, and Declan knows that. He became a Rochester fan watching the YellowJackets rock “The Singoff.”

He picked the flower and handed it to me. “It’s for you.”

It matched the gold glitter all over my body. At that moment, I knew that my lesson was good. And that life is good, too. I hope that someone went home and told their parents that they got glitter in their hair, or that they got to glue stuff together. I hope it’s one of those lessons that we don’t do often enough but that they never forget.

I’ll clean up the rest on Monday.

This is the single dandelion Declan found.

This is the single dandelion Declan found.



Tardiness, Cluelessness, and Lack of Balance

Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 10.18.38 PM

I was going to a conference on a topic that I suspected was not going to be exciting. My boss suggested I go, and since he’s right about many things, I decided to listen. I was not really excited about the topic, but I figured I’d survive till 2PM with enough fully charged devices, so I went.

I tried to be on time–there is never an excuse for being late in my book. I’d make it to work early in the snow. People two feet down the road would show up an hour late and try to pull the weather card.

“It’s snowing! Gee, thanks, Jim Cantore–try this–watch the weather, get up early, and leave your house. That’s what people do.

In Rhode Island, there’s pretty much never an excuse for being late other than “I’m inept.” I’ve been struggling with this one myself lately since our move to the forest.  My mind refuses to acknowledge the fact that I’m geographically farther from work on a road frequented by farm and recycling trucks with no passing zones. I can’t seem to comprehend that I cannot physically leave at the Old Time and get to work early. It’s neurolinguistic programming–habits and ruts that we build deep in our minds that we have to reprogram.  This is a deep one.

But there is never an excuse for tardiness in a state the size of a yardstick. Even in the unfortunate event of a traffic pileup, it’s possible to get off the exit, which in Rhode Island is probably six feet down the road, and back-road it the rest of the way.  People don’t though–they’ll sit in traffic instead.

“I didn’t know how to get around it.”  That’s why the Lord invented GPS.  Even if your iPhone mocks you by sending you random places, in this state, you can’t be too far off.  Just follow the direction of the sun and stars. You’ll still get there on time.

But for this conference, I was late. Perhaps it was my motivation level that day.  I walked in five minutes after the appointed time. Generally, this is okay for teacher functions because teachers take more than five minutes to chat and get coffee, then even more time ignoring requests to listen. I figured I could slip in unnoticed.

There was another participant walking in late. I walked in with her. We chatted on the way from the parking lot.  Finally, I did the right thing–I introduced myself.

“You look familiar,” I said.  “My name is Dawn.”

“I know,” she replied. “I work with you.”

Indeed, she did. She was hired at the beginning of the year, we had talked once or twice, and then I retreated to my classroom. I haven’t left since.

How do you recover from that?  There is no way to dig out of stupidity that deep. I was forced to go with the classic, “My bad,” which includes an offer to buy lunch. That’s the last resort when admitting you are dumber than tree mould.

That would have been tragic enough if I hadn’t done it once before. I did it in my own neighborhood after living there a good half-decade. I was in my next-door neighbor’s yard. She had a friend over chatting. I introduced myself.

“I know. I’m your neighbor across the street.”  I had waved to the woman for six years, but when I saw her twenty feet over into the next yard, completely out of context, she was unrecognizable to me. In the end, though, she delivered my son. She turned out to be the maternity ward nurse.

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is. Maybe that we’re not as neighborly as we used to be and that everyone is so busy dealing with their own stuff that we’ve lost that sense of community. That work really has become a rat race, and that we don’t break out of our molds and habits enough to pay attention. That the speeding up of the world forces us to dullen ourselves to personal experiences around us…That we lack balance in so many areas of our lives.

Yesterday, I was copy-editing a pile of senior thesis papers. There was one about the evils of social media. After checking my Twitter twice, I finished reading the paper, whose thesis was apparently that social media has horrific effects on the teen developmental mind. It turns them into antisocial malcontents who lack balance and can’t have a real phone conversation or interact in person. I’m thinking of a conversation I had with a great friend whose one flaw is that he never calls back, “I’m not good at the phone, but I rock it in person.”

Society has changed. It’s faster, more efficient, has lots more cool gadgets. But my senior was right, even as I said, “Nuh-uh,” throughout the whole thesis. At times, the world speeds up so much that I sometimes lack balance. Though I get tons more done, I rush from thing to thing, apparently missing some really cool people at the same time.

I was at a meeting tonight, where a local superstar educational leader** discussed that very concept, suggesting that working hard in the field of education was critical, but that we need time for our families, too. We need balance.  We need to prioritize, slow down and attend to what is important–our loved ones. He was right. I’ve often felt it ironic that I save the world’s children while at times ignoring my own. I’m improving.

Balance is difficult. I always seem to do better during food production season when there are veggies and fruits to grow, things to can, and nature to watch. While there are plenty of tasks that need doing, the fact that I get to stop and watch something grow makes me marvel at the moment–and reminds me to just sit and be. To enjoy the gift of the present and to consider that nature cannot be rushed, that we must enjoy its seasons. To realize this is to discover the smallest part of the meaning of life. It is the essence of balance.

[Plug: The educational leader in question is a co-moderator of #Edchatri, one of my favorite Twitter chats. It’s on Sundays at 8PM, and it’s not just RI anymore! Check it out!]

[image: www.creatememe.com]

Putting up the #$%$^ Tree. A Holiday Tradition of Love

Screen Shot 2012-12-10 at 5.43.08 AMEach year, we put up the Christmas tree. Each year, we have the tree fight. It has been this way since the dawn of mankind.  When I was little, we’d tag the tree and later in the season, we’d cut the tree down. Some years our tree would be there, others it would not–when you live in a low-crime area, tag switching is the crime of the century, but somehow you make a Plan B and succeed in finding another “perfect tree” which you drag through the forest instead.

For most of my childhood, the Great Annual Tree Fight occurred somewhere between the putting up the tree, which required several sharp tools and the correct combination of swears, and the unstringing of the lights. Lights are no small matter.  First you have to find them.  That requires at least one curse.  Then you have to untangle them, because no matter what you do to put them back, the mischievous little things always self-tangle in the off-season–light sex, I suppose.  They come out of the wrong box in such a tangled mass that Clark Griswold would be reduced to tears.

The lights we had growing up weren’t any of these new fancy LED lights that just seem to work. They were big colored bulbs–that took considerable time to prepare.  We had to test the string and find all the lamps that were defective. Some of the strings were series circuits, meaning that if one light was out, so was the whole string, making it nearly impossible to find the culprit without testing each and every bulb. That whole operation, from untangling to testing, took about seven or eight swears.

Getting the tree in the stand was even worse.  For most of my childhood, we lived in a regular house. That meant there was a standard-sized door and normal-height ceiling restricting the size of the tree. We never obeyed these constraints when choosing the tree–they all look miniature out in nature.  We’d bring that sucker right up to the door and realize…again…that the tree was far too big, that we accidentally took the one tagged for Rockefeller Center. That meant another eight or nine swears.  Once we shoved the tree through the door and discovered it was too tall we needed an additional swear or two to finish getting it up.

One year, we lived in a Victorian in Eastern Connecticut. Victorians have tons of room. We were able to use the double front doors to get the tree in, but it was so big that it kept falling over.  After going a few swears over the usual limit, my dad and his tree-standing companion–I actually don’t remember if it was his friend the priest or someone else–found a sledge hammer and railroad spike and banged it right into the floor.  Thanks to the sturdy construction of antique wrought iron spikes and 19th century hard wood floors that tree was officially reinforced.

Growing up, I thought this was how tree trimmings were supposed to go, so when I got big, it was no different.  My husband got upset at the lights, the size of the tree, and the whining in the room, and I got stressed. One year, they pulled out my circular saw and hacked far too much off the too-tall tree, gumming up it up to the break-point and creating a four-foot tree. The Charlie Brown tree.  And when it was up, everyone was only allowed to say, “Oh, it’s beautiful.”

One year, we made a monumental discovery–my tree allergy. Every year at Christmas, I’d get sick. Like clockwork.  I always attributed my illness to the fact that I work myself into the ground, and that I needed a bit of a rest–that the school year/job/life was getting to me.  My mom said, “Maybe you’re allergic to the tree.”  Sure enough, when I reflected upon my odd list of allergies pine was on them.  So, it stands to reason that if I can’t have pine candles, sprays, scents…maybe a big pine tree in the middle of my living room was to blame. I’ll never be a rocket scientist, that’s for sure.

So, we got a fake tree. This presented a whole new set of problems, including the “you didn’t fluff the branches” discussion. I never fluff the branches right. I’m not orderly and symmetrical.  I never even notice the lack of fluff. I just put the tree up and decorate.

This year, we got a pre-lit tree. Our old tree got moldy during the Great Flood and didn’t make move to the forest.  Ironic that we bought a new fake tree while living in the middle of a forest, but that’s the way it goes when you’re too stupid to know that a large pine tree stops you from breathing if you’re allergic to pine. And brings in spiders, by the way…

I put up the tree myself. I waited until I was alone so I could get New Tree up before anyone got to the tree fight stage. I know, it’s tradition, but I wanted to skip the argument and go right to the eggnog.  The boy was asleep on the couch, and Rusty was out.

The directions looked simple. Pictures of sections marked 1,2, and 3. The opposite of building the greenhouse last year. In three minutes the entire thing was up. No swears, no tree fight–even for someone too dumb to realize that having a pine allergy meant that she couldn’t have a tree. Instant Christmas cheer.

When we were done with all the decorations, only two ornaments smashed, we sat down and watched it twinkle.

“Hey,” said Rusty, “You forgot to fluff the branches.”

Yes, indeed. It’s perfect.

[image: clarkgriswoldcollection.com]