The Dissed Dead Guys: Respect Them on President’s Day, Too

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No. Not George C. Scott as Scrooge. It’s President Martin Van Buren

Happy President’s Day. It’s one of those holidays I don’t complain about because I’m sitting here drinking coffee knowing in a half hour I’ll still drinking coffee instead of going to work. I love work, mind you–teaching obscure things to teens is a cool job. They never know when they might need a fact about a dead guy to impress people at a cocktail party later in life.

Today, instead of teaching teens, I’ll share with the nation. It’s President’s Day. It seems America does not know its leaders. Buzzfeed’s Adam Davis proved this by subjecting a roomful of coworkers to ridicule when they couldn’t correctly name ten dead presidents from official portraits. Only Ford and Adams fared well. After all, Ford fell down the stairs so much he ended up honorary co-founder of Comedy Central, and Adams was a Founding Father–he gave us things like the Alien and Sedition Acts, where criticizing the government could–and did–get you locked up. Good for me he’s not around to read this.

President Tyler playing Cratchit to Fillmore's Scrooge.

President Tyler playing Cratchit to Fillmore’s Scrooge.

This President’s Day–which America knows is the best time of year to buy a car and go shopping at the mall–we must do something more. Let’s remember the presidents that make you say, “Who?” They did something to make this nation great, too. Or at least avoid getting it wiped off the map. It’s their holiday, too.

Give a shout out to the eighth president, Martin Van Buren–the first President who spoke English as a second language. I bet someone’d try to deport him today or demand his birth certificate. He presided over the Panic of 1837, a pretty big depression caused by unregulated banks going crazy with lending at the same time as unemployment rose and monopolies formed. Déjà vous? The nation was indignant as the price of cotton fell and cost of slaves increased. Businesses folded, and there wasn’t a thing President “Van Ruin,” could do.

William Henry Harrison took over for Van Ruin. He didn’t wear a coat at his inauguration, being a native of Virginia where coats aren’t necessary. He died of pneumonia about a month later. In the days before internet, that’s not even time enough for a political cartoon to travel the nation. #firstworldproblems. The primary lesson here–“Your mom was right! Wear a coat. And your face really will freeze like that!”

John Tyler, #10, tried to shore up the banking crisis by demanding a national bank. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson had fought this fight when the nation formed. Tyler’s dad, incidentally, was Jefferson’s college roommate. A national bank? To regulate fiscal policies? Speak no more! John Tyler became the first sitting president to be impeached–not over a girl, but over his use of the veto. His party wouldn’t nominate him for a second term. He went back to Virginia, serving on the Confederate Congress and overseeing his plantation. Tyler was one of twelve US presidents who owned slaves, and one of eight who owned them while in office.

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Millard Fillmore. A pretty good guy.

Millard Fillmore tried to solve the growing slave-free conflict in the United States with the Compromise of 1850, giving us the Fugitive Slave Act and keeping the balance of free and slave states equal. This was important, because without an equal number of votes on either side, no one could impede progress, which is in the Congressional job description.

James Buchanan took sides, however, secretly supporting South Carolina’s succession and the Dred Scott case where the enslaved Scott sued for his freedom, stating that he’d been taken into a free state, therefore, was free. The Court said it was a moot point. Scott couldn’t sue because slaves were property, not people. Tensions rising, Buchanan never took a stand, leaving that to Abraham Lincoln, making Lincoln’s job really, really difficult.

Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote but became President in an election worse than Bush-Gore. Mark Twain supported Hayes, who was an upright, moral guy who started the White House Easter egg hunt. Hayes stated he’d appoint people to jobs based on merit, not political connections, making everyone mad. But everyone was bound to be mad anyway–the Civil War just ended. Hayes tried to be fair and balanced even though FOX news wasn’t invented yet. He tried to heal the nation’s wounds by removing federal troops from the South, redirecting a couple to squash Great Railroad Strike of 1877 in Virginia and Maryland, where workers demanding to be paid a living wage took a few bullets for the team.

And finally, who can forget Chester Arthur, #21, who rose through the New York political machine to become a reformer. Arthur surprised the nation by signing the Pendleton Act which legally required jobs to be given according to merit not patronage. I wonder if he’d known the Chinese civil service exam had done this centuries earlier. With one stroke of his pen, Arthur guaranteed he’d never be invited to a DC dinner party again.

These are just a few of the presidents we don’t fully appreciate. They don’t have a used car sale in their honor. Think of them. Think of Harding, who had a sex-scandal while in office, or Hoover, who tried his best during the Depression, and all he got was a vacuum named after him.

Give these men–yes, no women–homage. Do something in their honor, today.

Me, I think I’ll vacuum like a good woman who won’t be president. Hoover has inspired me, and the house needs cleaning. Enjoy your President’s Day, America!


[credits: inspiration today goes to Buzzfeed and to this Time article “Fail to the Chief” which inspired my reflection on these great men buried in history books no one reads.]




Buy Donuts: Kids Hate Flaxseed Muffins

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 8.00.16 PMAs it happens, I was too lazy to make flaxseed muffins.

Our advisory has breakfast on Fridays. We take turns bringing in “food,” a.k.a donuts. I make jokes that there’s no police academy nearby, eat healthy food. I promise vats of scotch-oats or flaxseed muffins when it’s my turn. But, as adults wearing many hats are wont to do, I got lazy. I sat on my organic food-loving behind. I didn’t make flaxseed muffins.

I decided I to give my customers what they want. Donuts.

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 7.58.18 PM“A dozen donuts, please, and a large coffee.” Donut man disappeared to bake each of the 12 donuts I requested. Or perhaps he had to finish growing and grinding the wheat. The man behind me in line began to shift his weight and the woman behind him looked at her watch. Twice. Because the person behind the counter moves just a little bit faster when you look twice.

I felt bad. There are days I’m the one checking the watch twice and the person in front of me, who seems to have a simple order, is ordering 27 different things all specially crafted and custom grown.

I shouldn’t go out for coffee when I’m running late. It’s the universe telling me to be patient. Or drink less coffee. Or leave earlier. Or to stop being a jerk.

But I use it as exercise in meditation and peace. As Donut Man mixed the batter for my last donut, I began to feel guilty. Both about feeding my students crap, and for holding up the great American workforce.

“Sorry to be that idiot ordering eighty-five things when you’re running late for work.” The woman looked up. I explained. “I’m getting my class donuts. I wanted to bake them flaxseed muffins. Healthier.”

She smiled–said how good those muffins would’ve been and kids need more people who care. I didn’t think I cared very much, feeding them processed flour and sugar before six other people had to teach them. I thanked her anyway.

“I remember those years,” she told me. “My daughter’s a teacher now. I remember the only time we knew what was going on with each other was during family dinner. We stopped everything. No phones. We had dinner and asked how each other’s day was. Too many families have to rush, work, and kids pop things in microwave. That’s why they eat poorly.”

I was about to say that they eat poorly because they have teachers who feed them donuts, but now I’m feeling guiltier that I don’t have enough sit down family dinners than I am about the donuts. We used to sit down to dinner together, too, with no phones. Cell phones weren’t invented, and no friends would dare call during The Dinner Hour. But then high school came and everyone went their own way for activities.

By then, microwaves had been invented. And so we, too, popped something in. Had I known how cutting edge we were, both on the microwave front and in destroying the family dinner, I might’ve been proud. Instead, I turned out to be an adult who taught kids it was okay to have donuts for breakfast.

Instead of caving to the guilt, I finished my conversation, thanked Donut Guy for the donuts and coffee thoughtfully prepared, and wished watch lady a great Friday. I was glad for the pleasant conversation. I left with a smile, entered my car with a smile, and entered class–with a smile. And donuts. It was nice connecting in the middle of the pre-work rush.

Sometimes all we need is a connection. A smile that says, “I’m glad you’re here” instead of rushing around in life. It makes a difference. Connecting is the magic that holds the universe together. Sometimes I forget–whether it’s a family dinner, a group of kids grateful for someone who cared enough to pollute them with donuts, or a smile in the coffee line, but it’s the critical glue. Without glue, things fall apart.

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Skip the Cards and Bards on Valentine’s Day

photo 3Valentine’s Day’s insane. The American Consumer Greed Association adopted it as the official holiday to support Hallmark writers through the doldrums between Christmas and Easter, and that season where it’s just a tad early to start stocking for Halloween.

“I know! Let’s celebrate…love.” Yes, St. Valentine was a real person, beheaded around 270 AD. He may, in fact, have been two people–not that the Roman Empire didn’t already have enough people to crucify and behead, but historians just aren’t sure.

The Roman Catholic Church wasn’t that sure. It stopped the veneration of the saint in 1969, either because there was enough LSD to render human love unnecessary, or because enough doubt existed as to whether the real deal was a dude who married a couple in the Christian rite in direct violation of the policies of Rome, or a photo 2-1the Bishop of Terni, who also met his maker without a single card or box of chocolates. I imagine that image would make a great card.

According to CNN, the average person will spend $130.97 on Valentine’s Day this year, and the nation will collectively consume $1.9B in flowers and $1.6B of candy. Most of that will be in my school today causing your kids to bounce themselves off the walls like the type of old-school ping-pong machine they’ve never seen, then they’ll marvel over who got the most flowers in the senior fundraiser. I never get any except maybe a broken one. Some kid says “Miss, this one’s broken. You can have it.” Thanks.

Still, I love Valentine’s Day, despite the fact that I feel more like Gandhi or Mandela making and keeping peace between teens sword fighting with carnations. I don’t have time to celebrate love, which historians think was created by Geoffrey Chaucer, anyway. He wrote a poem linking Beheaded Monk’s Day with courtly love in 1375. He needed something to do after The Plague. The title, “The Parliament of Fowls” totally makes me want to buy a card. If Chaucer were in my class I’d’ve said, “Edit title. Awful!”

Today, I’ll tell the kids all that, especially the fact that (one of) St. Valentine’s skull(s) is actually on display in Rome. They’ll like that. That skull should be on the cards, not hearts–a great idea for marketing to goths an teens with angst, which represent the lion’s part of the market share.

But if you’re just not in the mood this Feb. 14th, there are actually six days you might choose to celebrate your Valentine, according to Each of the possible St. Valentine’s has a feast day, a date of martyrdom, and there’s a separate day or two recognized by the Eastern Orthodox Church due to schisms and differences in the calendar year and such.

photo 1So, the bottom line is this: If you’re broke today, unmotivated, or have been jilted, there’s hope for you.

I always celebrated the day with my good friend in high school. Maybe she did it out of pity because I was always single. Translation: no one liked me. All the cute guys liked her. It’s life in high school if you’re not a one-percenter.  We converted it into a day of friendship, and if I look hard enough, I can probably still find the hand-made t-shirts and cards. It always made me smile. I loved it.

And you know what? Despite the corporate greed and the fact that those chocolates in the heart boxes don’t taste very good, I have fun on Valentine’s Day. I’ll bring my students some donuts and take my family out to pizza. All the good restaurants are booked with people trying to impress people, and I don’t have a reservation. Pizza it is.

I really do like Valentine’s Day, or at least the spirit it represents. I think about you. My friends. My family. The potential to spread love and kindness throughout the world. I think of the beauty in the universe, now covered with snow. The stars in the sky, the icicles holding on for dear life. The beauty…the love…the magic…It’s all around us. That’s what is deserving of a holiday.

No matter how many bad writers Hallmark employs, it can never compete with that.

For a Bad Time, Invite Me

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 6.35.40 AMThey call it “The Curse.” Kids started begging me not to attend their games. Me! Their one fan. We didn’t get a lot of fans in those days because we’re regional and we didn’t win.

“Casey! You’re cursed. Don’t come, it’s a big game.” I began to test “The Curse” with baseball games. I’d pass by. Dropped ball. I’d stay home. Victory. I’d hide behind a tree. Triple play–other team. I’d stay away, home runs.

The Curse applied to basketball, too. Ever the skeptic, I tested it again. Sure enough, if I went, more turnovers than an Italian bakery. I collected more and more data–as anyone in education knows, the more data the better. Sadly, my scientific study proved The Curse real.

Little did I know The Curse extends to other things, like trips and events. Invite me–your event will be canceled, postponed or a disaster. The Curse controls weather, too. Hurricanes and snowstorms may seem like acts of God, but if I’m on your roster, they’re not. They’re The Curse. One event figured this out and said, “Sorry, stay home.” They’re lucky they caught it in time. Their event was global. If I’d gone for real, world peace would’ve been off the table for good.

Today I was supposed to participate in an awesome event, so the National Weather Service predicted several feet of snow in a radius of 1000 yards around my car. The event’s 35 minutes from me if I speed and seven days away if every Rhode Islander suddenly gets their bread, milk, and Dunkin Donuts coffee in the storm. Rhode Islanders can’t drive on a good day, let alone snow.

The event is called Choose2Matter. The point is this: Kids think school sucks. School sucks because it “doesn’t matter.” I surveyed about 50 of my students both before and after listening to parts of Seth Godin’s and Sir Ken Robinson’s TEDx. Exactly two told me “School’s awesome. Especially this class.” My future Yes Men. The rest wanted something more from their education. They wanted “it to connect–to matter.” They cited “Genius Hour” as the thing that “made it real.” Genius Hour’s based on Google’s concept that downtime makes for productive ideas. Creativity generates value. Employees get 20% of their time to work on whatever they want–provided it could potentially benefit Google. Gmail was created this way.

Good idea! I squashed five days of work into four and cleared the slate on Fridays. They’re actually doing 20% more work–not Google’s intent. But heck, I’m in education. I can bastardize anything I want as long as I mix in some math.

Kids love it. Much more than I thought. They work outside of class. “We can use this in real life!” Kids doing extra work? For no additional credit? Hmmm… Could be onto something here.

“Hey, Kid! Why wait four years before you make your ideas real?” Showing students they have the power to convert knowledge to action–that’s magic.

School matters when we make it matter. Choose2Matter asks this, “What breaks your heart?” Kids solve those problems. When kids matter, they’ll change the world.

Turns out, adults will, too. We want to feel we’re not replaceable cogs, easily retrofit with the next guy down the road. When we matter, we transform things, too.

“There aren’t many history jobs out there these days…You’re lucky to have one,” someone said to me.

I should’ve replied, “You’re wrong. There’s only one of me out there these days…They’re lucky to have me.” Maybe if I’d said stuff like that earlier in life, I could have converted “The Curse” into “Magic.”

That’s what I want for my kids.

Still, there’s no denying the weather. The event’s postponed. I’ll be teaching tomorrow, so I can’t go. I’m disappointed. Anytime kids stay up praying there won’t be a snow day, a snow day’s a sad thing. Don’t worry, guys, you still matter. You’ll matter tomorrow, the show must go on.

Here’s the secret–you’ll matter for the rest of your life, too. Maybe a little snow makes everyone all the more determined to make a difference when the work starts tomorrow? Maybe it’s not a curse after all.

Maybe–just maybe–it’s the start of magic.



I’ll Never Be Beautiful

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 5.39.36 AMI’m looking at everyone’s profile pictures. They’re all rock stars with awesome pictures–pictures of hair blowing in slow-mo, light hitting unblemished faces in just the right way. Pictures of scaling Mount Everest. Pictures of scuba diving, standing in front of race cars, meeting Clint Eastwood…

My picture, for years, was me on a rock wall with Declan. I didn’t have a rock star picture, so I picked a picture of a Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 5.45.50 AMrock instead. One that looked intentional, like I left my rock star picture at home because I was cool.  It was far enough away to hide my imperfections–slightly bigger than a spec, yet not big enough to pick me out of a police lineup. Certainly not big enough to see that don’t photograph well. That I wasn’t beautiful.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m okay with average. I have redeeming qualities even if my picture isn’t beautiful. Even if I don’t radiate “superstar.” I’m an okay human being. A human being, however, who really did need a better profile picture.

“Please send a professional head shot…” I guess The Rock didn’t work. Try hard to look passable at least, professional at best if supermodel’s off the table. I picked a happy day. I smiled at my iPhone. Click. Done.

It’s me. And it’s real.

The other day, my students hijacked my class for their Genius Hour project. It’s a Design Your Own Project that connects their passions with a spirit of entrepreneurship and a quest to save the world. These students transformed a buzzword–bullying– into a multimedia presentation that gave me goosebumps. At the end, I thought, “How can we let what another says define us? Why am I not “beautiful?” Because someone told me in high school? Because they nicknamed me ‘Ultragorgon’ after our unit on Greek mythology, wrote it in my yearbook, weren’t nice, and a quarter century later I like myself just fine but the idea that I could be beautiful never crossed my mind? Why does a fifteen-year old girl feel like a slut because someone said she was on Facebook or Twitter? Why would a kid shut down in the face of taunting rather than say “I’m awesome,” and walk on by? Transcend? Why would a teen say, “My life has no value? I want to die.”

Teens say adults say, “Don’t worry about it, ignore them.” Then we, the adults, go about our real adult business, stressing because people aren’t nice to us, office politics stabs us in the back, or the clerk at the grocery store gave us The Eye. And that sets the tone for our day. But that’s different. We are in the real world where life really matters.

Head Shot for BioI tell the teens they’re amazing, and I’m sorry that every individual in the universe doesn’t always agree, but they have this group of friends right here, now, and they must first love themselves regardless of what the world thinks. They must learn to deal with “crappy people.” They must know they are great.

These are important lessons to preach. And even more important to practice. After watching their presentation, I decided I’m pretty darned good at the preaching part, but the practice…I’ll improve.

Oh, and by the way, I really like my picture. It is, indeed, beautiful.

Ageless: Lessons from the Horror of Pep Rally

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Pep rally day at school. Screaming teens with faces painted for war, and someone’s got a fog horn I just can’t catch. All day…The type of day teachers dread. Earplugs for everyone.

I think this day keeps me young.

“What are you WEARING, Miss?” My shirt’s not the required yellow. Standing near the Black and Golds, it’s clearly neon green. Students forgive, adults laugh. The kind of laugh you laugh when you meet a truly stupid person and you’re trying to keep it all in. One spits coffee on his shoes and asks If I’m color blind. No. Just stupid. Or perhaps I’m just getting old.

The signs are there. I take pills out of jars and rearrange them so I don’t forget, yet still find myself asking, “Did I take that?” I set an alarm. The alarm interrupts something uninterruptable, I don’t stop what I’m doing. I forget.

“Maybe you should get one of those things that say ‘Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday…” said my husband and next-door teaching neighbor.

“The one in the senior citizen section?” Nope.

There are other signs I may be getting old. When I pull my hair back there are five silver threads. Not exactly a streak. Five individuals standing out in the crowd. An allegory, perhaps.

“Miss, want me to paint your face?” Most  have chosen against doing their work in favor of pep rally prep–facepainting brushes with black, gold, and glitter. What moron actually assigns work three classes before pep rally? Teachers who are getting old, that’s who. I used to put work aside and make peppy signs with them.

“Sure…Paint my class year…” There are a lot of “’17’s” on faces. Fitting in with the crowd keeps me young.

“What’s your class year?”

“’89.” I sing our chant, “We’re so great, we’re so fine, we’re the Class of ’89.”

“I889?” She looks at me. She’s serious. Students do this every year. “Were you alive when…”

“No. 1989.” She paints me a nice 19-89 on two cheeks with black paint and gold glitter. I’m ready to pep.

I hand out earplugs to my colleagues and go downstairs.

One looks at my face. “That was the year I was born.” This starts a conversation where I realize I’m a generation older than my coworkers. Ancient. That much closer to death. I’ve never really felt my age. Time simply passed. Birthdays arrived. I got a new cake.

There are people in life who seem old and people who don’t. I posted a picture on social media. A friend chimed in. “Hey, that was the year I was born.”  Now, she’ll start to discuss things like knitting and quilting with me.

When I go home, I look in the mirror and scrub off the indictment of old. Glitter goes down the drain, I see my face and smile. Ageless. More than just a number. A few decades earned–the type of decades that give me the experience to be less dumb and to make better decisions, not the type of decades where I my reflection grumbles I’ve led a hard life.

I’ve lived well, I’ve done good things, I’ve helped others, eaten freakishly healthy food, and tried to make the universe a better place. I like myself just fine.

Even though I’m old, and for a brief moment confess I watched the pep rally line dance and thought, “Oh my God, what’s gotten into kids these days…”  But I caught myself doing it, clapped, smiled, and gave my students a thumbs up. They’re young and having fun. Best to let them do so, because before they know it, they’ll be a generation older than everyone around them, looking into the mirror, wondering if they are old.

Hopefully, they’ll have lived a good life and be young at heart, too.




Death of the Five-Paragraph Essay

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 10.17.21 PMThey looked at me. “How long’s this gotta be?” It was the midterm essay.

“As long as it takes to be informative. And interesting–don’t put me to sleep…I only write zeroes when I’m asleep.” Actually, it’s a puddle of drool.

“How many paragraphs?” We train them to write paragraphs and fill in circle tests. I hate the five-paragraph essay. What if I need six? Or forty-two? Or one? I have a piece of Russian literature that has a twelve-paged paragraph, so no one better ask the followup “How long’s a paragraph?”

Yet someone does. I walk over to some boxes and open one. It contains a five-foot blank scroll. I hold up the scroll. “About this long. Want to read?”

One kid comes up. “Miss, it’s empty!”

“It is. There is no secret ingredient.” When Lao Tsu’s busy, I quote Kung Fu Panda.

“Here’s the thing. I write a lot. I know a lot of big words. If I use all my big words in a paragraph will you read it?”

“No,” said one engaged listener, “It’ll suck.”

“Great feedback.” Never ask kids. They’ll tell you. “Well, I used to research academic material…things only five people in the world cared about. When we met, we’d high-five each other and have a good old time…But nobody read my stuff. Ever. Now, I write differently. From the heart. No showing off. No big words without a reason. No extra paragraphs. I even use…sentence fragments. And you know what? People read it. What’s that tell you?”

“Writers suck?”

“No. It tells you that if you want people to read your stuff, you have to write for them in a way they want to read. Who goes online and reads five-paragraph essays?” No hands. “Then why are you writing them?”  I assure them there will be consequences if they say I said never to write five-paragraph essays.

“The point is, write for your audience. I learned the hard way. I took a beating learning this. Just do it. Write what you love in a way you’d want to read.” Everyone decides that the prompts are, in fact, halfway decent, and they get started. I put away the scroll.

I hear a kid mumble how he hates f-ing five-paragraph essays. I tell him to find some better f-words for his piece before I find a hundred or two for him to incorporate.

They write. And they don’t look that miserable after all.