Old People Alert: Words You Can’t Say

Vocab testI’m giving a vocabulary test. I don’t like vocabulary tests. I’m tired of them. Even though I don’t love tests, vocabulary is important. Not just for students, but for me.  I’m getting old. Words change their meaning. Not being up on vocab is a dangerous thing.

I used to be at the epicenter of student pop culture, even though growing up I was a walking anachronism. You’d think technology would enhance this, but in fact, it’s done the opposite. It’s let me “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Streaming music online has let me drift off into indie-music obscurity, getting pleasantly out of touch.

In the process, I miss the shifting tide of vocabulary. Using old words has dated me.

Awesome is an 80’s word. So not “awesome,” to say. You can’t say “dude.” A “ratchet” is no longer a tool. It should never be said in public. Neither is “ho.” Used outside of December, it’s not nice. I tried to explain garden “hoe” to a student. She couldn’t make the connection–even with a picture.

VW MicrobusVocabulary is important. So is context. Kids think I’m a hippie because I grow vegetables and my vocab’s stuck in the 90’s, which reminds them of the 60’s if you just flip the first number. I tell them I’m not old enough to be a hippie.

Recently, I was discussing basketball, informing a student I’d defeat him on the court. I stopped just short of saying “yo mama.”  It is also a dated expression. I admitted I couldn’t shoot well but I “could play some Big D.” That, in my day, meant “defense.” Coach would yell up and down the court, “Give me some big D.” We’d win the game. I was the good at defense.

Defense is important. Stopping the other guy from scoring a basket means they didn’t get two points. This is the same as if I was able to score a basket, though with none of the glory and recognition. I learned to hang in there and never give up. It’s not a bad lesson for life.

Vocabulary alert:

Big D doesn’t mean “defense” anymore. It refers to the male fifth appendage. Never, ever, ever say that in the presence of teens. Even when discussing a sporting challenge. The class stopped. Something was desperately wrong. Even the good kids were drowning in their own laughter.

Someone finally filled me in. Time for me to study vocab again. Maybe even take a test.

I remember being overseas. I was teaching English, using a book from the 50’s.

“The cock crows at…”

“Mary is gay.”

“John went to fetch some water.”

Not cool (“cool” being another dated word). I took out my pen and began crossing off words. “You can’t say this.”

I have stepped over the generational divide. My vocabulary’s old and I even try to pick up the check at restaurants rather than ducking into the bathroom dividing the bill to the last cent. That’s how you know you’re really old. I’m stuck in my music instead of theirs. And I watch the Discovery Channel instead of MTV.

“Miss, did they have TV when you were in school?” I look at the student in front of me. She’s serious. I must respond politely.

Antique Apple“Yes, I was born in ’71. Computers weren’t invented. There was no Internet. You had to pick up the phone. Which was wired to the wall. To text, we wrote it all down, put it in an envelope, and put a stamp on it. I had a cast-iron Royal typewriter in high school and an electric typewriter in college, but by then they had a computer lab, but you had to fight the nerds to use them.”

“Wow.” She soaks this in. The phone buzzes in her back pocket. She goes to look, but remembering she’s in school glances at me and walks away. thinking.

Thank God I didn’t have to live back then,” she thinks. But there are no words, because the vocabulary has changed. So she takes her leave, incredulous, in silence.

[images: thisisgrame.wordpress.com and http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/retro%20cars%5D

Jurassic Frogs

dino frogWe found a frog in the garden. A big, green Calavaras-county style bullfrog hiding under the straw.

“Mom, he reminds me of a palaeobatrachus. That’s a dinosaur that was an amphibian. A dinosaur frog. Frogs are amphibians, you know. They live in the water and on land.” He continued, “Mom! I discovered a lot about frogs. They’re slimy because of the water, and they have feet like a duck. That’s how they swim.”

I googled this fact. Not the part about the duck–about the paleo-frog I couldn’t spell. He was, in fact right, down to the last detail I couldn’t understand.

This is serious. I think he might get locked in a gym locker earlier than I previously expected–do they have gym lockers in kindergarten?

He tells me lots of facts–math facts, obscure facts from the dawn of man, geo-facts, and he carries a little piece of shale in his pocket with a leaf fossil. Or a crinkle in the rock. We want to think it’s a leaf fossil. He’s been digging intently to find more for three days.

“Be careful, you’re going to dig to China, and I didn’t get your passport yet.” I said.

“MOM! You CAN’T dig to CHINA! You would only dig to molten rock and lava. That’s what’s at the center of the Earth.” Point well taken.

“How do you know this?” Inquiring minds want to know.

“Because I am a Man of Science.” Indeed.

He loves his class and his friends. He has just one critique. “School is boring, I just want to play.” Fair enough.

“Let’s do your math first. We have to draw the circles near this problem.”

“I don’t need the circles. That’s for babies. I know how to add the numbers.”

“Let’s check.”  I put a handful of plastic dinosaurs onto the table. “How many dinos?”

“17.” Correct.

“If I take eight,” I do not touch them, “How many will there be?”

“Nine,” he says.  Nine is correct. He’s doing better than Wall Street.

What if school were all about dinosaurs. What if we added dinos, subtracted dinos, talked about how dinos interacted with people and how we have dino shows today? We could graph the extinction pattern, project meteors throughout space, and classify geo-material I can’t spell. I’d learn too, though. Bet he’d never be bored. What if we could do that for every kid? I think about that a lot lately.

Yes, my kid’s a giant nerd–he reminds me of my friend’s kid when he was the same age, but his thing was robots, and he didn’t get locked into a gym locker. He’s in high school now. But if Declan isn’t as lucky, I feel confident that when he gets let out, that in twenty years he’ll fire the people who put him in.

And that is what life is all about.


Shakespeare Smackdown (You Can’t Handle the Truth!)

ShakespeareIt’s Shakespeare’s birthday. I don’t have a card. To tell you the truth, I’m a bit angry at the man, dead though he may be, because no one will do my work in class. They’re all walking around with scraplets of paper in their palms, muttering.

“Get your work done,” I cajoled.

“I can’t! I’ve got to recite this #$%$ Shakespeare next period. It’s stupid!” I’m not a very good teacher if a guy dead 500+ years trumps my assignment. That annoys me even more. Oh, Shakespeare! I do desire that we’d be better strangers…More of your conversation would infect my brain! And I’d like to have a few words in Shakespearian with these young braggarts, as well.

Shakespeare makes me think about how elegant the British are–it’s entirely possible to be insulted by any Brit on the planet except Gordon Ramsay and walk away feeling like you have just been given a Golden Globe. Shakespeare trained them too well.

“Shakespeare’s not stupid,” He was simply interfering with my work.

“No, Miss, he’s dead. But still boring,” said the knave in training.

“He’s not boring. You’re just not equipped to understand it.” I popped off a line or two from Julius Caesar and a couple from MacBeth. The rest I had to look up. It’s been a while. Now would be a great time for a Shakespearian insult that’d make Gordon Ramsay blush, “Your wife’s a hobby horse…your tongue outvenoms all the worms of the Nile.” Truth be told, I enjoy how Shakespeare made up words where common insults just wouldn’t do. Maybe Rachael Ray read Shakespeare, too. And half the kids who write essays in my class.

I consulted Google. Discussing the Shakespearian insult would, in fact, make the artless doghearted bugbear more…bearable. Error– BLOCKED–IP EXCEPTION. HUMOR.

Humor?  I cannot discuss Shakespearian insults with my students because they might be…funny? There will be no humor on our watch!  I so wanted to give them something they could actually use in the locker room today. She would swear that gentleman would be her sister.

Is anyone really equipped to understand the Bard of Avon at fifteen? Have you had that soul-wrenching love yet? No…but you just got dumped via Twitter…Have you been forced to kill someone to take the throne? Maybe not, but team politics may have ousted you as captain of the cheerleading squad. Have you been cast aside for failing to conform? That one’s easy. Look at teen fashion.

To tell the truth, I’m rereading my Shakespeare. And my Steinbeck. And my Hemingway–and most of the “greats” who were thrust upon me at fifteen, part of the Great Cannon of Things I’m Not Equipped to Understand. I hated them in high school, too. Who gets this stuff at fifteen?

Steinbeck–showing the simultaneous crushing and resilience of human spirit…reading this now, I cry. I weep for the struggles of the characters in The Grapes of Wrath…no teen is equipped to understand this level of tragedy, defeat, life beating you down, not being able to support your family. Who gets that at fifteen? You have not lived. It’s not about a guy sucking on a lady’s breast, it’s not “ewwww….” It’s the essence of human compassion triumphing in impossible times–such a critical lesson in today’s world of violence, economic uncertainty, and difficult times.  As a teacher, I can make this analogy in class, but until you’ve really lived, and either been or saved that troubled soul…it’s a conversation that can’t fully connect.

At fifteen, the end of Of Mice and Men was the worst resolution in the world.

“I read that whole book and he shoots his friend?” said fifteen year-old me. “WHO SHOOTS THEIR FRIEND?” How long do you have to live to understand that level of love, compassion, human self-sacrifice? Someone who would do anything for a friend, even the unspeakable?

I’d thought Great Cannon should be revised to include more world literature–some Allende, Achebe, Dostoyevsky. But Shakespeare, like a plantar’s wart, never moved aside.  Eighty Shakespeares a year. Steinbeck remained. Hemingway loomed. Kids roamed the halls with fake swords in the era of no-tolerance muttering lines, refusing to do my work.

Now, I sit for tea with Shakespeare. And my other dusty, dead literary friends. I apologize. Because now, I have lived. I know why you drank. Smoked. Wrote. Bled on the page. And in some cases, like Hemingway, died. I tell stories to kids grumbling about texts. They stop. Stare. Look. And comprehend to the best of their life’s experiences…If I’m very, very lucky, they come back and say, “Hey, I read this, did you know….”

This has been a “be careful what you wish for” epiphany for me, because at the very moment I admit I was wrong and embrace these friends, the new standards are, in fact, replacing The Cannon with a great deal of informational text. “Students need to learn this for college and the workplace.” I picture Hemingway, with a dry martini, shaking his head. But maybe this is a good thing–they’ll save the greats for later. A 30-year old alum texted me about Kafka yesterday.

“Holy @#%$!” he said. I’d like them to say “Holy #$%^$!” about every lesson I teach. But if I saved them all till they were ready, there’d be nothing to do today. Sometimes you just have to dive in.

Happy birthday, Will. I’m sorry for the years of underappreciation. I have just one request–can you keep the sword fights down next door? I’m giving a test today.

[image: Shakespeare2006.net]


Financial Literacy Is Overrated

Robin Hood“Mom!”


“Can I borrow five bucks?”

“You’re five. What do you need five bucks for?”

“My Junior Bow.” We went to the Bass Pro Shop about a month ago. We passed by the hunting section. I wandered in looking at the bows. I don’t hunt. I’m a vegetarian Gandhi-loving pacifist. Archery is fun, though.

“You need this,” said Rusty, showing me a cross-bow so complex it required an auto mechanic.

“No,”  A few days earlier, after the banning of dodgeball hit the news, we’d discussed all the things you can’t do in schools nowadays. I learned archery in school. Now that we have land, I contemplated picking it back up again. I don’t want to kill large animals. A crossbow is unnecessary.

“How about this?” he asked. It was a huge compound bow. I don’t want to be on a Homeland Security list, either.

“No, a simple bow. Like Robin Hood.”

“Oh, you want a longbow.” Helpful Salesman advised they didn’t have longbows. This was the hunting section. Longbows aren’t best for killing. I didn’t want to kill anything but targets. Maybe even study kyudo, zen bow. Samurai hunted. Kyudo supplies should be in the hunting aisle.

Declan picked up something at eye level. I thought it was a toy. It was the Junior Bow. Helpful Salesman informed him that the $149 starter hunting bow was a real bow. Seeing my face, he advised that it was only available when you turned seven, but he’d put this one on hold. I thought that’d be the end of the subject. Alas, I was mistaken.

Declan has been scrounging, saving, and trying to earn money. When asked why, he says consistently, “For my Junior Bow.” He remembers the price, counts pennies, and makes piles of coins in Mr. Smiley, the bank my dad gave to me for my pennies and Declan now has on his dresser.

“Mom, I need cash.” He does this a lot lately. I worried that he was developing a drug habit he needs cash so often. He reminds me, “For my Junior Bow.”

Today, it was a whole five bucks–usually he scours the car for pennies, or tries to see if there’s change in my pocket.

“But it costs more than that.” I said.

“I know. You can lend me five dollars today. Then $144 dollars a different day.” He shrugged his hands in the air to illustrate this was basic common sense.

WHAT? At five, he can already fleece me into the hundreds? I’m not even saving for college. I’ve got two words for that–West and Point.

I’m in deep trouble with this kid.

He taught me a lesson. Financial literacy is dangerous. I’m canceling all references to the subject in my teaching. True, I think financial literacy is one of the most critical yet undertaught skills in schools. I always integrate it in my lessons, no matter what subject I’m teaching. I tell students who “hate math” that they can continue to do so–if I hire them for my business, I won’t have to pay them correctly. I win. But truthfully, finances are important.

Years ago, a student I’ll call Jonathan (that’s his name) brought me a bank statement.

“Miss! What are all these minuses?” They were overdraft fees.

“Did you put any money in this account? Here’s where you got gas, and where you went to the store.” There were three days’ difference between the two transactions.

“No. They forgot about this one so I went shopping.” He hadn’t realized that could take multiple days to clear. There may be a delay between when you spend the money to where the cyberbank delivers it. Ouch!

But now I had this little five-year old Alex P. Keaton staring me down for five dollars today so he could “borrow” $144 tomorrow. And the totals equaled out. Sans tax–that’s a lesson for a different day.

Money grows on treesTeaching financial literacy is dangerous. It’s too expensive. If the next generation knows more than Congress and the IRS about fleecing me for money, I’m going to be broke, no matter how much I work and how well the business does, taxes aside.

Today it’s $5, tomorrow it’s $144, what’s next? Real estate? “Mom, I saw this property down the road–it’s a fixer-upper, but I think I can flip it for a nice profit.”

Suze Orman and Clark Howard are getting put on the back shelf before it’s too late.

I’ll just tell the kid to watch Les Stroud on the Discovery Channel, and go into the woods to make his own Junior Bow. He can invest that $149 somewhere else.

But if I see him turn the cartoons even once for Financial News Network, I’m canceling cable.

[images: http://mafabaalaso.wordpress.com/2011/02/24/robin-hood-or-robin-bis/ and http://drboycefamilyfinance.blogspot.com/2009/04/recession-promotes-literacy.html]

A Good Lesson…A Bad Poem

I am in the middle of class.

A good class. They listen.

A hand goes up.

I say, “Yes.”

I am waiting for the genius, the home run, the reply–the question of the year.

“I have to go to the lav.”


I try again. The class smiles.

I reengage.

The class leans forward.

Attention is in the air. The discussion gains momentum.

A hand is raised.

I say, “Yes.”

I am waiting for the genius, the home run, the reply. The question of the year.

“I have to sharpen my pencil.”

I start again.

I recover.

I finish the tale, give a preview of tomorrow. Someone stands. Raises out of his seat at the pinnacle of the lesson.

I say, “Yes!”

This is the genius, the home run, the reply. The question of the year!

“Just getting a tissue.”

Bell rings. Everyone leaves.


Maybe tomorrow.

I Can Do Anything I Want

Don't Touch the Thermostat“Mom, you can’t do that!”

Um, yes, I can. It seems like I, once again, made an executive parenting decision that was unpopular to the crowd. Too bad.

I started to think. I just turned 42. There is a whole host of things I can do now. In fact, I can do anything I want.

For example:

I can eat all the candy I want. Every day. I remember the first time I discovered this. I bought a pound of M&Ms with my babysitting money–back when a pound was 16 ounces, a boatload of chocolate–and kept it in my room. I ate the whole thing I didn’t want candy after that. I tell that to Declan I can eat all the candy I want but he has to eat vegetables. It’s fun parenting. I rarely eat junk. But I can.

I can use the thermostat. Heck, I pay bills, so I refuse to “put on another sweater.” There’d be days growing up when I looked like the Fat Albert I had so many sweaters, and Dad would tell me to get one more. Lesson one: you can never have enough sweaters. Lesson two: don’t go with electric heat during the Carter administration.

Even today, I argue with my husband–he feels strongly heat should be kept at one steady temperature. Something about the molecules of the furniture reabsorbing heat and costing more. Maybe there’s a science person out there who can weigh in on this. We’ve argued–I’m sure he’s correct. That’s not the point. I want to be warm. With great pride I touch the thermostat, even though I get flashbacks of having my life threatened and being given more layers.

I can take long showers. I don’t, though. I don’t want the world to have less water on my account. I love the environment.

I can stay up as late as I want. I can party all night. But that never quite meshes with my getting anything done at work the next day. It’s just not fun. I learned that in college–looking at a plate of eggs at 6AM and falling asleep at an 8AM class just didn’t bring the joie de vive that it should have for someone who had the freedom to be social all night.

I can say the F word. I like to save it for emergencies though, because otherwise it loses its effect, and there really isn’t a better word in reserve. Well, there is, but it’s not in English–it’s a swear in Russian that packs quite a punch, but when translated, comes across as “penis from the mountain,” which doesn’t reflect extreme anger as intended. Lesson: never swear in a foreign language.

I can hook up stereo wires, pack a trunk, and use a lawnmower. I can drive a stick shift. I can do all the things that were relegated to the male world or put in the “no” and “don’t touch,” category growing up.

I can do anything I want. But the problem is this–It’s no longer a big deal. That’s how you know you’ve grown up…when you can do anything you want, but “anything,” is no longer fun. Fun, for me, is growing more carrots that I could ever eat, reading a book, running. Or writing this post. All nerd things.

I wonder if, when I contemplated all the things I’d be able to do when I grew up–the things everyone prohibited earlier in life–the idea ever crossed my teen mind that it wouldn’t be fun. Or productive. Did I even know what productive was?

When I’m at school and this subject comes up, I take the liberty of informing students, “Yeah, you’ll be able to do anything you want. And it’ll suck. Because you’ll have bills, responsibilities, and people counting on you. So you won’t party. You won’t blow off work, and you won’t waste stuff. Because you’ll be paying for it. In fact, study more now. You’ll be grateful later.

They all groan and tell me how terrible I am for even saying that. And I smile through the veil of a million years of experience and the commensurate beatdowns I’ve taken giving me the right to make such a statement. That’s the joy of teaching. Everyone hates the truth. That is the truth. But it must get out in the open.

And once in a while it’s fun to say. And I do. Because I can do anything I want.


“College Girl–Get Me Some Coffee!”

Screen Shot 2013-04-18 at 8.19.51 AMI needed a job badly. School was expensive. After the financial aid was subtracted, I still had a ton of cash due to the University each month. I moved off campus–our campus housing was like a country club. The food was great, the housing decent, and both were priced accordingly. It was more affordable to live off campus. I needed to work. There was a diner being built down the street sporting a “Help Wanted” sign. How fortuitous.

I walked in the front door. It was still under construction. There were guys doing various degrees of finish work–a guy was working on a booth and another guy was bent over some sheet rock.

“Hi, I noticed you’re looking for help?”

“Yeah,” said one guy, busy looking for a nut or bolt at that very moment.

“I brought my resume.” I said, extending the paper.

The room stopped. All the construction, the bustle, suddenly came to a halt. All eyes were on me.

He took the paper. He read the paper. He shouted over his shoulder.

“Hey, she’s got a resume.” The guys in the back began to laugh. Not just a normal laugh–a headliner at the Comedy Connection laugh. A guffaw.

“A resume!” Laughter. I heard the word a couple more times, choking between the laughs, as the joke was telephoned to every man in the joint, with a new bout of laughter ensuing each time.

I was hired. I don’t think it was my resume–apparently, I learned many jokes at my expense later, one doesn’t apply for a job at a diner with a resume. One goes in, hopefully sober, and gets the job.

I was hired to waitress. “Hey College Girl…get me some coffee!” I heard that a lot.

Working at a diner isn’t easy. It’s a tough crowd. It wasn’t college, though at times hung over fraternities came in. I’d wait on them. I’d wait on all the crazies, particulars, and undesirables. We were located very close to the psych unit of the local hospital, where interesting people abound. Perhaps my boss and the other waitresses thought my college courses included psychology or patience (they did not–they included “work or starve”) Maybe the other staff simply didn’t want to wait on these people. I worked hard.

I quit the diner–I couldn’t randomly stay and close when staff failed to show–I had classes. My boss had a business. I was straddling between both worlds, not really understanding what having a business means. It means you deal with that stuff at all costs.  Now, having my own business, I get that. You don’t just shut the doors because you have a Gospel Choir concert or 2PM class or an ice storm. You stay. You deal. You make things work. These are things entrepreneurs get but “College Girl” wasn’t equipped to understand.

I ran into my boss at the grocery store a few months after I quit. “You were right. She was stealing.” He apologized. I knew I was right. That’s what college is for. Taking stands that made you quit because you were right, while you totally miss the big picture.

I get the big picture now. I write this by way of apology.

That diner was my intro to real life, whether I knew it or not at the time. I was being given the biggest gift of all–getting to be part of the city, part of the good people, receiving mentorship from the real world. My boss always told me, “You’re good with people.” He wanted me to drop out of “that useless college” and do something “real”–a daycare perhaps. He’d front the cash. He knew an opportunity when he saw one.

I wanted to finish college. After college I wanted to finish graduate school. I did. And I did a little bit more, just for good luck. I loved them all.  I read, studied, and networked. I wouldn’t be where I am today without having done so. But my real education–I got at the diner.

I returned to the diner after some time in the Corporate world. I sat down for  lunch. “Hey,” shouted my boss. “Get College Girl some coffee!” That’s when I knew I had earned a modicum of respect, even though I’d gone to college. Years later, when I watch our business grow and succeed today, it’s this boss I remember–the guy who could turn anything into an opportunity. The epitome of entrepreneurship.

“What can you do?” was his mantra. Not “How many books can you read, or how much debt can you incur?” Nobody in that business ever asked to see my sheepskins.

It took me nearly two decades, but I finally understand. Creating businesses and opportunity is hard. This stuff doesn’t magically appear. None of this is easy. This is one lesson I wished I understood while I was standing in that diner. It’s one lesson I hope to impart to my own students. It’s something “the tests” don’t measure and we don’t teach well systemically.

When you make, create, and work through problems, you do something that no 9-5 job does–you create a space for yourself in society. A unique spot in the universe nobody can take away.

This is what I’ve learned. It’s what I’d like to teach going forward.

[image: rochestermetromix.com]