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.


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]


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]

Can a Man Marry a Man? A Five-Year Old’s Position on Marriage Equality

"I have two mommies. I know where the apostrophe goes."

“I have two mommies. I know where the apostrophe goes.”

“Mom,” Declan said

“Yes?” I replied

“Can a man marry another man?” (Declan)

“Yes.” (Mom)

“Would they love each other?” (Declan)

“Yes.” (Mom)

“Can they have kids?” (Declan)

“Yes.” (Mom)

“But then there’d be two Dads.” (Declan)

“Yes.” (Mom)

“How would they get the baby? Babies come from moms’ bellies. Would it come from dads’ bellies?” (Declan)

“No, they would adopt. Or they would raise a child who didn’t have a mom or dad like you do. And they would love that child.” (Mom)

“Okay.  I don’t want to marry a guy.” (Declan)

“You can marry a girl. You can marry anyone you want as long as you love the person, and just pick one person out of the world.” (Mom)

“I don’t want to marry anyone.” (Declan)

“Why?” (Mom)

“Because I’m going to be a paleontologist, not a husband. Paleontologists don’t get married. They dig up dinosaur bones. And I have two best friends. One is a boy. One is a girl. It’s tough to choose.” (Declan)

“Paleontologists can get married. Whoever you marry goes with you when you move. If you  get married, who would you marry?” (Mom)

“PALEONTOLOGISTS DON’T GET MARRIED! THEY DIG UP DINOSAUR BONES! And I’m taking the dog with me to my paleontologist tent…Can I marry you, Mommy?” (Declan)

Now that, I fear, is an entirely different issue. “No. I am already married to Daddy. You can only marry one person.” (Mom)

“Can two moms have a baby?” (Declan)

“Yes.” (Mom)

“How would you know which mom you needed if you sick? Would one be called ‘Daddy?'” (Declan)

“They would both love you the same and help you if you were sick. Some families call one mom ‘Mom’ and the other ‘Mommy.’ Then you know.” (Mom)

“I’d like TWO moms AND two dads.” (Declan).

“That, would be an awful lot of people to tell you to clean your room.” (Mom)

“Paleontologists don’t clean their room. They dig for dinosaur bones.” (Declan) I think he wants to follow that with “Are you stupid? Do you not understand the words coming out of my mouth?” But lucky for him and his life expectancy, which still has a lot remaining, he does not. Instead he just informs me, “I’m going to leave my room a mess. Even if I have two moms and a grandma.”

End of story.

[Image credit: New Yorker Magazine, May 2, 2011]



Don’t Ban Dodgeball–Ban Life: Why Banning Everything Is Just Plain Silly

Screen Shot 2013-03-28 at 5.53.52 PM“Quick, come here,” my husband said. I thought there was an emergency.

“They’re banning dodgeball.”

“That’s not new,” I replied. “A school in Massachusetts did it last year or the year before. ‘Hurts self-esteem.'”

“No, they say it’s because of bullying,” he said.  I am struggling with this. I’m struggling with the resurgence of the attacks on dodgeball under the guise of bullying. We are going too far.

I struggle with banning dodgeball because I, myself, was bullied playing basketball. There were a couple of girls in particular who were very mean–always told me to get the water, advised me that I’d never get off the bench, and never ceased to find an opportunity to make me look bad in front of the team. No one has ever banned basketball. My self-esteem was deeply wounded, but I plugged on, learning valuable skills like dedication, team building, strategy, and empathy. My skills in coaching–and even teaching, I suspect–trace back to these episodes. I learned to keep moving forward in spite of obstacles, and I learned that it wasn’t the talent or the prodigy I wanted on my team or in my classroom–it was the plugger. The one who would do anything to succeed.

Maybe that approach was wrong. In retrospect, I should have started a campaign to ban basketball–being picked last, having to endure bullies, and having to get the water–all hurtful. And yet I played.

Better than banning basketball and dodgeball, I’m wondering if it might be more feasible to ban all situations where bullies lurk.

First off, I’d like to ban work. I’ve worked in several jobs in three careers and only one where there was no bully. In fact, adults in the world of work are some of the most vicious bullies around. The world of education is not excluded.

After we ban work, let’s ban all competitions where someone has the potential to be picked last or lose. The nerd always gets picked last, and that’s psychological bullying. Losing repetitively at athletics–that’s no good either. I’m not going to watch the beginning of The Bad News Bears anymore. All high school and college sports with cuts will be on my list have banned…anyone who has ever been cut from a team has felt the deep pain of cuts. Sometimes, they never recover.

If if the issue isn’t bullying but “unsafe sports” or “sports with human targets” we should eliminate baseball, most definitely. I’m trying to mentally count the number of balls and bats with which I’ve been hit as a batter and a catcher. If we ban sports where there is risk of injury, lets add on all martial arts, football, basketball, and soccer, too.. If we ban games that aren’t politically correct or hurt self-esteem, add chess to that list–how can we allow people to lose constantly while they are having their men killed? We have a zero-tolerance for violence–heck, my friend’s son got the Army men confiscated from his birthday cupcakes at school just the other day.

While we’re on the subject, I think dating should go–every second someone cooler than you is getting the girl or guy, and getting dumped hurts. It really affects self-esteem.

The bottom line?

Why this singling out of dodgeball under parameters that would ban most life activities were they applied equitably across the board?

I never stand for bullying, but if we ban every location and situation where we might be bullied the nation would shut down. If we really think this through, we’ll find that it’s our views on education, creating a positive climate, and encouraging a healthy competitive environment that must evolve. Banning things never teaches the true lessons that need to be taught. It’s the easy way out.

Let’s rethink–not only dodgeball–but how we approach creating a positive climate for ourselves, our students, and our communities. Let’s stop indicting our schools, because schools are not where the majority of bullies lie. They lie in life. If we ban everything, the bullies win. Let’s start with our own inner circles–work, families, communities, churches, and get rid of the word “bullying,” replacing it with “creating a positive climate.” If we do, I’ll bet we won’t need to ban dodgeball, basketball, chess, work, or any activity. We will be too focused on making the world a better place.

[image: fecrecpark.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]


Be a Simple Man

I was running the other day—disobeying myself since I’m taking a short hiatus from running, but I promised myself “just a quick mile.” Of course it’s never quick or a mile. Somewhere around mile five a song kicked in.  Not even sure how it made my playlist, because it’s certainly not a running song. But every time I hear it, it takes me back to another world.

I remember the first time I heard it—heard, not just listened. I really heard the words.

I was in the North End of Hartford near the “Wayless Convenience Store.” I loved that name. I wasn’t sure if the prices were lower, the layout was bad, whether they had an unfriendly staff, or perhaps it was inconvenient to get shot shortcutting through that particular neighborhood–dangerous at the time–rather than investing the time to go all the way around.

Screen Shot 2013-02-12 at 5.56.46 AMIt was the kind of neighborhood I frequented often working on the road—complete with noodle shops, Jamaican food, gang members with Rottweilers, gunshots popping off in the distance. I’d give an upward nod to the Blue Guys and Red Guys on their respective corners; half were in wheelchairs because they succumbed to violence–Hartford was tough at the time. They probably didn’t have the money to go to Good Guy Shooting School. Only good guys shoot straight—I know this from watching Walker, Texas Ranger. Bad guys can’t hit the side of a barn with a 50 caliber at point-blank range. That’s why I was never particularly terrified at shots in the distance. I just imagined they were firecrackers.

I would walk the block or two rather than drive my branded corporate Ford into the neighborhoods.  No one responded well to branded corporate Fords, though a young-looking white girl with a clipboard seemed too out-of-place to shoot. A curiosity. Everyone always asked me if I was a social worker. Or a cop.

I’d say, “No. Insurance. I need Mr. So-and-So to make sure he’s okay. And bring him a check.” That was invariably the start of a fine relationship. If I tried to speak in the language at hand–even better. I met a lot of good people that way. No one really wants to live in a tough neighborhood–the neighborhood where the bus routes keep you in and keep the Other Half politely away so they don’t have to see how people must live to survive–they can eat dinner peacefully in front of the news and speculate about the need for welfare reform. The neighborhood with the school with the leaky roof that no one cares to fix where teachers don’t really want to teach if they can possibly get a job at the Other School. The project doors that never close right–it’s 120 degrees in the summer and 150 in the winter, because the heat cranks high as you put it, even with the windows cracked and the doors half-open. They’d like to be somewhere else, too. They’re pretending the gunshots are fireworks just the same as me.

But that was the setting when I heard that song. It came on WHCN out of Hartford, one of our last indie radio stations at the time, which we loved because we’d blow out of our new corporate careers on a Friday and go to Hawaiian Shirt Friday, my friend and I.  I had a crush on the DJ. He liked my friend. That’s generally the way things worked through most of my teens and twenties. It’s all water under the bridge now. We had fun.

The song came on. I listened.  And when I hear it now, it still stays a while.

The beauty of that song, the simplicity. The words.  They remind me every time that the only thing that matters is love, simplicity, honesty, truth. That a lot of our problems are of our own manufacture. Relationship problems, business problems, problems with life–Skynyrd says it well, “Troubles will come–they will pass.”

Funny–these reminders come in every shape, size, and form. A butterfly. A friend’s book. A conversation. A Pad Thai dinner. A single word email. And sometimes, when you least expect it, even a Southern Rock band.