If the Music Won’t Die, Neither Will I

Screen Shot 2013-05-12 at 10.03.34 PMHaven’t run in a while–it seemed like a great day to get back. 80 degrees in Rhode Island. Sun. When I got home from work, the world was happy and everyone doing his thing–the perfect time for sneaking off for a pre-grilling workout. But…the iPod was on red. Deep red. Would ten a minute charge be enough? I need tunes–ten minute charge. Exit stage left.  I needed the run. I needed the music–the same three playlists that I listen to every run… helps my meditation, and helps keep me from running backwards. I always mean to change the playlist but never do. Sort of like half the tasks we all have hanging like fruit waiting to be picked from a tree that just hangs and never gets eaten.

The music lasted–It lasted and lasted till the end of the several mile run. It was like the Maccabees and Hanukkah in iTunes land–the music should have gone a tenth of a mile, but it lasted all five miles.  A miracle even if it wasn’t oil lasting eight days.

I ran and ran and ran–too far for a first day back. I lack moderation. The music played. That made me want to run some more. I did.

The iPod on red. Music played. I ran. The iPod had more in it than I thought.

Sometimes, we have more in us than we think.

I consider this year–a very good year. A year of transformation. New job, new business, new voice. Getting things done. Quite amazing. Every time I thought I had nothing more to give, I survived. I made things happen. I became a better person.  Exhilarating.

I ran and ran and ran and the music never stopped. Each time I thought it would, it continued.

I remembered a lesson from Chinese medicine. I studied for a few years, never achieving mastery, but I learned some life lessons. There was a point on a meridian, not far from the knee, called zu san li. It translates to “three more miles.” When stimulated, it helps invigorate the patient. It was useful in constructing the Great Wall–legend has it that by using this point to treat exhausted workers, foremen could get three more miles of work out of them before they keeled over and died.

Pushing and pushing can be a bad thing–sometimes we go three more miles and burn out.

But it can also be the thing that makes all the difference, taking us exactly where we need to go–through the wall, over the hump, and in the place where we need to be. To the glory.

So, I ran until I knew it was really time to turn around–a few miles too late. I headed back. I waited for the music to cease. It never did. I picked up the pace. I listened more. I sprinted the last half mile.

The music never stopped. It made it to the end.  Sort of how it always seems to work out that way in life.


The boy slept on the desk. I woke him again. I wasn’t that boring. Maybe I was–am I qualified to make that determination? That was a minute of his life he would never get back. I asked him after class.

“Was I that boring?”

“No, Miss, I had to work.” He worked in his family business–a restaurant–until one or two o’clock in the morning most nights outside of soccer season.  We agreed that he would do his classwork on weekends.

Another girl was failing. She was absent all the time. She never came after school to make up her work. “Redo that test with me,” I said.

“I can’t stay after school. I’m not allowed.” She had to babysit. Her mom worked multiple shifts. Food and rent were important. We got up early and met in the mornings. Some days she stayed home. She emailed me. I sent her work.

Another boy disappeared for months at time. His family moved for work–migrants. I gave him an assignment to be done on the road, not really sure if he’d return.

Still another paid the rent for his whole family–as a sophomore. The parents couldn’t. He was told, “You can’t work that much. It’s now allowed.” Sometimes life doesn’t give us nice  choices. I bet he learned more about life than if he learned my questions one through three.

I have had emancipated students, young parents, students shouldering the family finances, students who were undocumented and hiding. One student couldn’t go back to see his mom before she died of cancer in their country–months before graduation. Another was the caretaker for her terminally ill mother. She put off college for her family. One year, I gave my September Survey, “What do you do for fun?” A freshman girl answered, “Not much–I play with my son.”

It’s easy to be judgmental–to look at the problems students face as they strive to make it through high school and into the world. Honestly, we all have problems, kid. Someday your boss will fire you if you don’t get the work done. But I’m here to help. Not to cram my material down your throat, because truth is–standards be damned–that might not be the biggest mountain you climb today. Just getting to the sunset might be the goal.

What’s the right approach? How can I serve you?

How can I make sure that even though you have nearly insurmountable issues,  you understand you can control the outcome? We all face mountains in our own way. You determine what you need to be successful and you make it happen with your grit and tenacity. You use these insurmountable issues to make yourself a better person; a better adult. Sometimes they become a blessing, a benefit to you in the future rather than something that kept you down. Realize that you have the skills, the dedication, and the desire to succeed. How can I give you that guarantee?

Judgmentalism. “She can’t stay home to translate.” “It’s illegal for him work that late.” “Going to your country for vacation for three weeks at Christmas is not an excused absence.” “How can they have kids so young?”

Families often fight to survive. Somewhere in between, that kid tries to do your math, my critical questions, and read a text that doesn’t seem to apply to his crisis. Sometimes they do it just because they like me. Then it’s up to me to provide the justification. The value.  In the midst of all this chaos–where each day crumbles into a survival mechanism in the outside world…I teach that education is the only lifelong friend–that no matter where you are,  education makes you better, equalizes the playing field. Education is not just the stuff in the books. The desire to learn more and the curiosity to refuse to let the flame extinguish is the single factor that gets you ahead.

Education must be flexible, personalized, and human–I say this even as I watch class plan after class plan be filled with standardized tests, post tests, high-stakes tests and entire credit classes that prepare students for tests.

Each student who comes through my door again and again is a hero. Especially the ones facing challenges so big they’d cripple adults. Yet they come, and they bring it every day, and they smile.  Someday soon, they will be great–no, they already are. Someday soon, they will be monumental. The biggest success. More successful than me.

That…is why…I teach.


Separating Out the Geniuses

Smile, fish, you're a genius, too.

Smile, fish, you’re a genius, too.

I was having a conversation with someone I respect. He’s a member of MENSA. MENSA is a society for geniuses. This made my conversation important–I can say, “I was talking to a genius.”

Wait! I am a genius. There is a test score in a box somewhere from when I was little that says so. People might not realize this at first–I’ve been known to troubleshoot appliances that aren’t plugged in, leave stoves on, forget stuff, lose keys on a daily basis, and one hot summer I felt dismayed because the fan I put in the closed window didn’t seem to be circulating any air.

I wonder how they determine who’s a genius anyway.

Like the kid in my class who solves Rubik’s cubes, but gets bad grades. And a guy I know who can fix nearly anything but doesn’t really read. Why aren’t they “geniuses?” If the world’s destroyed, they’ll recreate it. I’ll just think.

When I was little, they gave us tests and separated the geniuses from the non-geniuses. Then they assigned us special classes to help us feel more genius-like so we could cure cancer and such. I felt sad for people who weren’t geniuses. As Forrest Gump said, “Genius is as genius does.”  I didn’t do much. I’m told I nearly got kicked out of genius class because I always did the bare minimum. While some kids invented stuff and filed for patents, I asked how many sentences I had to write and did just that. Somewhere, there’s a book called “My Dad,” with four sentences per page. It doesn’t look like a genius wrote it. Maybe I was a genius and a minimalist–it’s a possibility.

My mom didn’t reveal my scores; she was afraid I’d become a know-it-all. Everyone else’s moms made baseball jerseys with theirs and put signs on the front lawn. I nagged my mom. Finally, she told me, “It’s 84.” I was proud. 84! A nice number. When people rubbed in their 124’s and 128’s, I was finally able to share my score of 84. I was a genius, too.

I never got kicked out of genius class because we moved. I saved face.

Many times since, I have been asked to retake the test. I declined. I found the real score in a file. It was a good number, which I’ll never beat, therefore there’s no incentive to retest–the score can only go down. What if I’m no longer a genius, but only…normal?

I think about this when I teach. I’m good at tests. Many kids are not. Most schools have classes separated by ability level, assigned by tests. Students are tested to move up and down levels, and tested to graduate.

Ironically, it’s is rarely the “smart” kid that succeeds in life, but he does pass tests and gets the best classes. The kid that succeeds is the kid with enthusiasm who often gets put on the bench. “Smart” students are often so accustomed to the entitlement that accompanies the label, that they get soft, like Rome in its heyday. I know. I was that person.

“Miss,” said one scholar, “Why is school so boring? I like this class, but school’s boring. I want to learn about Oceanography. It’s ‘not in the curriculum.'”

“Would you work harder,” I inquired, “If I made school about Oceanography? You’d have advanced math, science, your history would be around conquest and exploration, maritime law? It wouldn’t be easy–you’d study math about biochemistry, environmentalism, fish populations, ocean-related tourism, the economics of fishing…would you learn that?”

“Math about the ocean?”

“Math about the ocean.”

Pause. Deep consideration. “Yeah! I’d learn that!” Soon, a half-dozen eavesdroppers joined the conversation, pondering the awesomeness of a school that personalized their curriculum around cars, nature, medicine, technology…

Right now, I do this sort of thing with students on the side–give them things that interest them, usually for no credit. There is no test–only a conversation with me starting with “How did you like it?” They take off from there–totally intrinsic learning. No testing, no benchmarks–only me, the professional, smiling because I just got a kid to read three-volumes of Japanese history. On his own. Asking for more. Yet in the mainstream world, we measure, rate, label, assess, exhaust, process, and make kids ask “Miss, why is school so boring?” Because we need to shift the paradigm. Open up curricula–de-standardize and re-individualize. Let them go crazy learning what they want to learn. And more.

We have the ability to make education work any way we want during this time of great reform. I hope it turns out fun–because a score on a piece of paper isn’t what motivates students to learn or predicts their success. Their dedication and love of learning is what does. But I don’t think it takes a genius to figure that out.

[image: kyo9.blogspot.com]

Carrying People Through The Sand

There is a story that runs over and over again in many different forms called “Footprints.” It’s about a person walking in the sand with God. You see the footprints. Two sets of footprints, and then, at times, just one.

Are you carrying others or being carried? Both are important.

Are you carrying others or being carried? Both are important.

The person laments to God, “God…these are the times in my life when things were most difficult. Why, ” he asks, “did you abandon me?”

God smiles. I imagine God smiling that sort of smile of love and amusement when someone has said something naive, bordering on stupid. “I didn’t,” God replies. “Those are the times in your life when you struggled. I carried you.”

We walk along the path of life, and we meet people. We connect. There is that moment of excitement–that period where we realize that our new friend is just the friend we needed. We exchange stories, plan activities, say, “Hey, me too!” a hundred times in deep conversation. We realize that through this connection, our world has changed in some way–sometimes radical, sometimes slight, but it has, indeed, changed. It’s “friend Christmas.”

We connect constantly–but we keep few. We gather an inner circle of people who together make, “the perfect friend.” We go to them for “their” things. We’d be fortunate enough to have one or two of these friends at any time. I look around. I realize I am lucky. In addition to my family, I have a compendium of others…my childhood friend, my sensitive friend, my friend of two decades who just sent me a photo, the friend who tells me I’m overqualified every time I discuss a career change, my girl-power friend, my “I can call you at 4AM” friend, my nothing-like-me friend from college, and some recent additions. Friend Christmas. I am blessed.

Once in a while, someone comes along that transforms the entire scope and sequence of our lives. I’ve had a couple of these, too. People who snuck up on me when I didn’t know I needed them. When I looked back, radical changes had taken place. Nothing would ever be the same.

We all have one or two of these people if we listen very closely. A mentor, a professor, a boss, a student. Someone who makes us see life very differently, through another lens–someone who changes our paradigm forever. I would like to think that maybe, if I live a good life, I have not only been the beneficiary of this magic, but I create this magic too.

I think “Wow, I’m glad I met this person. I am inspired. I have vision!” Sometimes I fail to see that on their road, and the roads of others, I serve the exact same purpose. I fill the holes, inspire, serve a need. And occasionally, I change a life that radically myself. It’s never all about me. I am this person, too. We are all this person. It is a blessing and a responsibility.

And so, I must say, “How has my life touched the lives of others?” Have I made a difference, even to those who my life has touched in the slightest measure?

We connect. And we fly.

We connect. And we fly.

In the geometry of life–in those paths that cross and intersect, those concentric circles enclosing those we touch–our acquaintances, our innermost friends, our families, and eventually ourselves–to whom we owe the most and rarely indulge–am I making a difference?

Today, I will do better by those who my life touches in the slightest measure, because I am grateful for those who have blessed mine. I want to be a better person, to have vision, to be the person I should be.

Touching lives is what teachers do every single day.

We smile, we give a kind word, and often we carry someone through the sand without them ever being aware. And a mediocre life becomes great. The challenge is this. I must always being aware, because I never know the moment when we change someone’s life forever. Sometimes, I never even find out.

[Images: eldersabin.blogspot.com and marymoxongardens.com]


Getting an Early Start on Common Cores Using The Economist

I am reading my son’s school newsletter. It does an excellent job discussing the Common Cores. I know this because I use Common Cores all day myself. The school is calling for a 50/50 balance of literary and informational text. I support this because I am a serious professional nerd.  Literacy’s important.  I’m tired of people who can’t read a basic newspaper–which the American press has kindly reduced to a fifth grade level. I hear soon they’ll only be featuring world leaders with two-syllable last names that at least 75% of the American public can pronounce. Netanyahu, Fernandez de Kirchner and Berdimuhamedow will be banned from print media. Unless we act now. To paraphrase my beloved Tolstoy, who never did write much informational text and is therefore O-U-T–out in favor of better things, “How much Seuss does a man need?”

Banned Books

Banned Books

In honor of the transition to informational text, we read Shel Silverstein for the last time last night. That’s about 25% too much poetry. We’re way off our targets here, which can only hurt down the road. I’m packing up that nonsense to unpack the Common Cores. We’ll use my Economist, Foreign Policy, and Mother Earth News.

When Declan was born, I used to read op eds from The Wall Street Journal and articles from Sports Illustrated. Babies love this as long as you read with the right enthusiasm. Stories like “doping,” “scandal,” “end of the economic world as we know it,” have far better hooks than Yurtle the Turtle. The life-long skills they produce are invaluable.

He can now read stock reports even if they go into negative numbers–he’s not just accessing the literacy Common Cores, we’re reinforcing numeracy as well. That’s important. High school kids have lost the skills of memorizing basic math facts, and many stare mystified at an analog clock like it came straight out of science fiction. Numeracy is critical as well. Unless you’re The Boss.

I tell my students that they’re right, math isn’t important if they want to work in my business, because if they can’t calculate their paycheck, I get to pay them whatever I want. Heck, I might even pay them in gum.

“How many sticks of gum do I get this week, boss?”

“Well, if your wage is five sticks an hour and you worked fifteen hours…how many sticks should you get?” I say chomping on a wad and blowing a bubble, having underpaid Math Deprived Employee by two sticks. AND slammed him with a word problem just to illustrate my superiority in the Common Cores.

Common Core approved informational texts

Common Core approved informational texts

All this gets back to why it’s never too early to start promoting high-level informational text literacy. My son won’t learn how to rhyme, but he’ll build a darned good chicken coop. The article has pictures, so he will have art appreciation, too.

You can never read too much instructional material on permaculture and composting. I’ve made plenty of Learnist boards on informational subjects–I’m going to make him read those and answer a set of Socratic style questions, which I’ll provide for his whole kindergarten class in a lecture on career development.

I’ve sold the Seuss, hidden the Harry Potter, and sent out the Silverstein. Go Dog Go is gone, dawg, gone. Today, we’re going to analyze The Economist’s “Rough Guide to Hell.” (pictured above). Then, I’ll plug Hell into my GPS for a geography lesson sneaking 21st century skills tech skills in, too. You guessed it, more Common Cores.

We’re keeping the Dino encyclopedia, even though dinos are dead. Dead doesn’t send a good message, “Work hard and you can be extinct.” “No matter what you do, a giant meteor may wipe you out.” But it’s instructional, he likes it. It sends a grave warning about global warming (Science Common Cores) in addition to having very big words (instructional text literacy), so it can stay.

It’s 5AM. Declan just waltzed into the living room, “Mommy, I can’t sleep.” I said, “Come on, let’s get started tackling these Common Cores.” He took Fluffy the Sheep and ran back to bed. Which is probably just as well. I want him well rested for when the learning begins.



Ripping Chicken Carcasses for Luck

wishboneIt was lying on the counter.  A wishbone. A small, dried wishbone from the roasted chicken my mother sent over a couple of days before. My husband saved it and left it on the counter. There it sat–dried. Waiting for a wish. There was a list of things to wish. I could wish for the usual “health, wealth, happiness,” but there were so many aspects to those, and it was just a little wishbone. A little chicken wishbone. How much power could it have?  If it were a big turkey, yeah, maybe. It might have more power to get the job done, but just a little chicken wish? I didn’t want to spread it too thin and see it fail.

Health would be a good wish, knock on wood. I ‘m healthy, but I’ve been burning the candle at both ends. How would I know if the wish worked, though, or if I was just destined to stay healthy? Success in the new business–that wouldn’t be bad either.  That’s never easy–but again–the team and plan are wonderful, how could they do anything other than succeed? I don’t think they need the chicken bone. Happiness in life–I’m naturally happy, though life has thrown a curve ball now and again. You can’t hit a fast-pitched curve ball with a chicken bone. It would shatter. Waste of a wish.

What do I really need the wish for? Can I save it for later, or would it be too late? A chicken bone is very small. Easy to misplace.

I looked at the chicken bone. I picked it up. There is still a little piece of chicken hanging off to one side. The dog came sniffing. I pushed the bone out of her reach.  The thought of using it for luck…it didn’t seem to be a very lucky day for the chicken, who no doubt might have preferred counseling me in person than giving me a bone to snap.

“Listen,” it’d say.  “You’re a moron.  Dismantling my carcass, drying this bone then ripping it to shreds…how’s that going to bring you anything good?”

“Well…” I’d consider.

“You don’t even eat meat. You’re a vegetarian. You’re a leather-shoe wearing, chicken-cooking, bone-ripping vegetarian.” True enough. I’d never before been chastised by a chicken, but it made perfect sense.

Luck and happiness…they’re all what we make them. We decide we are happy and take advantage of every opportunity life hands us–that’s true luck. Health and wealth…entirely within our control. Treat yourself well, you will be as healthy as possible. Wealth is an artificial construct placed by society as a false value–true wealth is within the heart and soul–that abundant joy that multiplies in our investment in time, helping others, and giving generously of our gifts and love. Success–it is a combination of all of the above.

I conceded to the chicken. It was right. Vegetarians do not need to tear apart chicken bones to ensure greatness. Nor does society at large. We simply have to make that decision. Then act.

No, I Do Not Want To Play Zombie Brain Suckers–I’m Trying to Do Yoga

What happens when I find the yogi?

What happens when I find the yogi?

I’m up to my eyeballs in stress. So is everyone in the universe. It’s time for some yoga. I’m grateful that I’ve learned enough for a routine–it’s sort of like watching Cool Hand Luke but with fewer beatings…a chance to “get my mind right.”  Today, I am reminded that could do better in my yoga practice.

My friend is puts daily “yoga tips” on her LinkedIn and Facebook Pages. I appreciate the gentle reminder, “Are you going to do your yoga, or WHAT?” I have been trying, but I have a serious problem.

Yoga is impossible with kids and dogs. That’s why all the good yogis climb mountains to escape them.  The other day, I gave it the old college try. I had some music. I unrolled the mat when everyone in the house was busy doing their own thing, transfixed by screens or hobbies. But yoga is powerful–it calls out like “the force.”  Everyone knows the minute the yoga mat hits the floor, even if it is silent as a whisper. That, you see, is the perfect time to interrupt.

If I were a yogi on a mountain, no one could interrupt–it’s hard, far, and cold. That’s the idea. But they always find me.

“Mom, are you doing yoga again?” Declan was in the doorway. A nanosecond before he was three rooms away hypnotized by the computer.

“Yes, I’m doing yoga. Please go finish your show,” I entreated.

“Mom, yoga’s stupid. Let’s do karate. REAL karate, like Poe.” He followed this proclamation with two minutes of kung fu panda theatre, chopping at my knees. Finally, he left the room. I resumed.

“Mom, can you take apart these gears?” Standing on one foot, balancing in tree pose, I separated the gears.

“Mom, are you balancing?” I ignored him, focused only on my spot on the wall. “Mom!” He took just one little finger, touched it to my hip, and pushed. I tipped. “You’re not doing a good job.”

Remember my post about patience? Never to wish for it, because situations will appear that will require the practice of patience–usually very trying ones? The same is true for focus and inner peace.

The dog, not to be left out of the fun, joined. Soon, both boy and dog were lapping me in circles like a I was the center of a centrifuge.

“Mom yoga is very stupid and it makes me want to yell,” he announced.


“Because it’s stupid stuff.”

“Well, you’re going to be left behind on the road to enlightenment. Go watch your show.”

“You’re moving to Enlightenment?”

“No, it just comes.”

“When does it come?”

“In its own time. Go…watch…cartoons!”

Today, I figured I’d try again. Declan was safely installed in front of a screen rotting his brain cells. Poor parenting, good strategy. Poor parenting equals good yoga.

Secretly, I signed off of a chat, saying “I’m going to do yoga.” Then, quietly, I unrolled my mat. Yoga radar cannot be defeated by silence.

Woosh! “MOM! Are you doing YOGA?”


“Mom, do you want to play zombie brain suckers?”

Start the routine again. “Mom, I farted! Mom, I need a yoga hug. This is the yoga love position. Mom, let’s do dinosaur yoga. Mom, Mom. MOM!” I gave up. I laid down in savasana, the resting position, and tried to end my yoga right. Claudia said to do this to rest and avoid agitation. I was already agitated.

The boy left. Savasana isn’t very exciting. I relaxed. The yoga took over. Until… thump, thump, thump, POUNCE…a boy leapt through the air landing full-force on my abdomen. There is no contingency for this in yoga. I resorted to martial arts. A deflection.

I ended yoga beyond agitated, into the realm of angry and annoyed. Yoga isn’t supposed to annoy me. It’s supposed to bring me inner peace. I do not feel inner peace right now. I can only hope that if I keep getting disturbed and annoyed by this type of study that I will gain good karma and work toward inner peace, or that I will have an increasing tolerance for focus and patience in the end.

Otherwise, tomorrow, I’m going to start Googling famous yogis on mountains. I’m going to plug it into my GPS. Then I’m going to find a nice mountain, too.

[Image: AmazingSuperPowers.com ]