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.




Getting the Bird

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 8.56.06 AMI’m giving an exam. There’s a lot of human suffering–the kind that makes a kid have to go to the bathroom. One girl left to accomplish this task.

“Miss, there’s a bird.”

“Someone gave you the bird?” This is urban education, man. Toughen up.

“No. A bird.” Sure enough, there was a beautiful little bird flitting around the hallway, trying in vain to get out the window. It wasn’t going far, so intent at looking at the view outside, yet stuck in place by a pane of glass. Kinda reminded me of myself at times. I had to help.

I got a large plastic chip bowl–the kind of thing that clutters my classroom that I keep meaning to toss but I think, “hate to waste, maybe it’ll have some use.” Finally. It’s day had come. A colleague walked down the hall, seeing the bird and the chip bowl. “We should call maintenance.” I wasn’t sure how someone who fixes everything that breaks for me (my heroes) and who also bestowed upon my neighbor the Coveted Key To The Bathroom had any more training in bird catching than I did.

“No.” I said. “I got this.” My colleague went to prevent my class from cheating on my exam–a moot point, because they probably finished in the time it took me to get the chip bowl anyway.

Slowly, I snuck up on the little bird. He slipped over to the left, then the right, but not out of reach, and he never left the glass. It seemed to me that if a large, purple chip bowl was coming for me, I’d fly to the ceiling. Maybe he didn’t know that chip bowls and humans can’t fly. He was so intent–staring ahead, banging his head against the very thing that was hurting him–trapping him–holding him back and keeping him from being free. I stood still for a moment, and then slowly…put the bowl behind him a foot away.

“I know I can get out it in a minute…if I just…keep…at it.” So intent at breaking through…bang, bang, bang.

I put the chip bowl down on the glass. For just a moment bird did not move.

“Sorry, little bird…” I’d trapped his foot under the bowl. I picked up the bowl, just a millimeter, releasing his foot. The bird flittered inside. Bang…bang…bang… I had caught the bird. I’ve never caught a bird before. I’ve been given the bird, and once or twice I returned the favor, but I never caught one.

I realized something.

I was stuck.

“Hey!” I called out to my colleague. “I’m stuck. Dump a box and bring me a large piece of cardboard.” The clutter in my room was really starting to pay off. He came back with the bucket I use to clean out my fish tank.

“Not a bucket! Cardboard. I’m going to slip the cardboard under the bowl and make a lid. Then, I’ll take the bird outside.” He came back with someone’s posterboard. Sorry, to whoever’s project that was, but it served a higher purpose. Probably got you an A to begin with, but it saved a life as well.

I took the bird outside.

I released it. Such a simple act. I smiled. I watched the bird fly away. I hope his little foot doesn’t hurt too much.

How many times do we just…keep…at it. How many times do we bang our head against the glass, the wall, anything really, and keep ourselves from getting where we need to be? Probably more than we’re willing to admit.

Thank you, little bird, for the lesson. I hope I’ve helped. If I can ask just one thing in return–can you please tell your friends not to poop on my car? I’d appreciate it.

[image credit:]


“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.






Glitter, Garbage and Gratitude

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

I got an idea–I would use glitter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then, the mess crept in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll clean up the rest on Monday.

This is the single dandelion Declan found.

This is the single dandelion Declan found.