Only Bullies Give Wedgies

Declan is fighting me. I’m supposed to be the bad guy from a show he loves. He has it choreographed to the last detail.

“Side kick me, Mommy.” That’s something you don’t hear a six-year old say often. I aim for the stomach.

“Woosh,” he says. He angles. Pretty impressive.

“Kick me again.” I try. He angles. I’m getting real-person impressed, having flashbacks to learning to angle and evade in my martial arts studies, back when I discovered martial arts wasn’t really about kicking and breaking stuff, it was about avoiding the fight completely. And doing peaceful things, like meditating and arranging flowers.

Eventually, he breaks through, and starts punching me for real, because that’s what good guys do. I throw a knee. He punches it. He punches my arm. That little kid hurts. I explain, “We’re playing. Mommy doesn’t want to hurt you. We’re not really punching.”

“Throw me across the room, Mommy.” I pick him up a little and put him straight down. He throws himself ten feet–a Hollywood stunt man.

He gets up, “You can’t defeat me that easy!” Who’s trying to defeat anyone? I’m just trying to drink my tea. In a superhero flurry, he races over and punches me again.

“Punch me, Mommy! In the stomach. Like this!” It’s a good punch. I lose a little bit of breath.

“You don’t have to show me. I told you, we’re not really punching people.”

“It’s what the bad guy does!” I can take no more.

Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 5.32.30 AM“Does the bad guy do THIS?” I pick him up and give him a very big wedgie.

He laughs. Then he stops.

He looks at me. Deeply. Like I’ve made a mama joke or insulted his dog.

“Mommy. You can’t do that. You can’t give wedgies. That…is bullying.”

I kneel down. “What do you mean?”

“Bullies give wedgies. You can’t do that. Bullying is mean. You shouldn’t be a bully.”

“Where did you learn that?” I ask.

“School. Bullies are bad.” He holds my gaze. He is teaching me.

I want to explain bullies don’t usually give wedgies. To tell him bullies sometimes punch and hit, but more often they’re subtle, insidious, hard to recognize until they’ve already infiltrated the soul, done their psychological damage. Made us feel we have little value. And because of that, we need to be strong. To know our own self-worth, and to refuse to let the outside world hit us with the resistance that makes us believe what they say–makes us stop short of being great.

I want to teach him that bullies can be people we don’t know on the schoolyard, but more often they’re people in our inner circles. People we thought were on our side. And most of all, they can be ourselves. We hit ourselves the hardest. That’s the truth.

But I don’t teach that lesson, because he breaks the gaze. With a flurry of activity, he’s a superhero again. I don’t give any more wedgies. I throw him across the room, as he requests, and to drink my tea. That’s what bad guys do when they lose.



Drugs Are Illegal. Reform’s Scary. Coffee Fixes the World.

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 4.45.17 PMI want to have coffee with a friend. We struggle to squeeze it in.

“How about two Fridays from now?” Why can’t we get our calendars to stop fighting so we can drink coffee? Eventually, one calendar wins. Coffee arrives.

What starts as coffee with a good friend ends as vision. Always does. Soon, note pads, pens, Macs, iPhones and iPads clutter the table, pushing our freakishly healthy foods aside.

Usually when two or more teachers are in the room, venting begins. Bitching even. Everyone opens the valve a little. My husband doesn’t understand this. He wonders why teachers bitch. He hates it. He won’t go to “teacher things.”

“It’s not bitching,” I explain, “It’s ‘looking for solutions.'” Sure, there are People Who Bitch. They’re the ones speaking negatively about others–students, colleagues, and leadership. When good teachers gather, it’s not bitching. It’s seeking answers for real problems. When the fixes are out of reach, there’s frustration. Especially when frustration takes good people down.

“I’ll never go back into the classroom,” I hear it more and more. “I can’t do all this testing and stuff.” People go into leadership, guidance, or whatever because, they say, they’re “done with the classroom.” Others–good people–jump into those roles to save the world, finding windmills to fight on that side of the fence, too.

“This isn’t for me. I’m no good. Didn’t realize it would be this way–I wanted to change lives, not tabulate test scores.” That was roughly the quote I got from someone leaving the profession–literally, box in hand. Midyear.

Good teachers fear tests and evals. Sure, accountability’s in every profession. Can we do it better though? I heard Steve Blank talk at last year’s Business Innovation Factory conference. “Fire the idea, not the person,” he said.

Steve Blank is a pretty smart guy. As one of Forbes Magazine’s “30 Most Influential People in Tech,” he’s not only written textbooks on how startups should be created and grown, he even changed the way the National Science Foundation spends money to align with the systems of successful entrepreneurs–systems he invented.

Anyone who changes the way government spends money has the ear of this lowly teacher.

His thoughts were simple. Sometimes you need to fire the idea, not the person, he said. Run the numbers without blame. Then fix the problems.

Getting rid of judgment helps people be objective and take risks. Risks produce results. Taking risks in education can get a person low scores, though, so there’s fear.

Fear about things real or imagined shuts good people down.

Fear does not produce vision.

Fear is conquered by vision.

Vision, luckily, is found in a cup of coffee with a friend. It pours out our hearts into the vortices swirling throughout the mugs into reality. All the little things mixing and colliding in the swirls…that’s the vision. Every sip, gulp, cup waiting for a sip–vision. Leaving the cup on the counter to go cold is missing the possibilities–so easy to do when rushing around. Steam goes uncaptured into the universe. Vision lost.

But sitting with my friend, vision pushes aside inconsequential girl talk. It says things like, “Sounds like you might consider,” and “That happens to me. I’ve tried…” or “I notice you write a lot about this, but I’d really like to read it if you wrote this…” or “I’d buy that idea…”

Every single time I meet Vision Friend, I leave with a dozen working plans. On a good day, I have pages of notes. On a crazy day, we’ve got blogs, businesses, books, and concepts racing around the room trying to get to the finish line first so we might convert them to reality.

Vision conquers fear. And accountability defeats complacency. Inaction. Inertia. This is why vision needs company. It needs someone to say, “Hey, you told me you were going to….how’s that going?”

Otherwise, we’re tempted to “forget” we promised to do something, and vision dies. Vision often requires courage, support, and the swirly things in a cup of coffee to produce results. Follow-through. Reality.

I know vision’s in the room when my heart leaps just a bit and the notepad comes out. The more I surround myself with friends who make my heart leap just a bit and pages fill on notepad, the better I become. I want to be better. And I want to make other people feel that they are better for having known me.

It’s a simple goal. One I hope I can meet. I think I can, if I have just one more cup of coffee…with my good friend.


My “vision” friend, Alicia, blogs here: WriteSolutions under the tag “Student Learning Is No Accident.”

Appreciation of Appreciation

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.18.36 AMLast night was our second parent night. I feel honored when families take the time to come see me. Anyone drives a couple of towns to pay respects to a child’s education is someone for whom I’m very grateful. Many can’t come–parents who work or care for others, or have to put little, little children to bed. I try not to bring Declan to night events. It’s tempting disaster taking him out that late in the evening–I appreciate brave parents who bring little children even more. It’s a real effort.

It’s why schools have to make every event for families productive–not just five minutes of face time that could better be served with Face Time, but events that build the community and climate of the school. At our school, we’re starting to get more and more of these types of events–things that generate buzz and bring everyone together. Schools that do this well report amazing things. I don’t know what the stats are in terms of test scores and such but the climate and happiness factor increase exponentially–the weight is taken off the parent, the school, and the student–it’s shared equally. A three-legged stool never falls. A pogo stick does.

“Before I go,” said one mom, “I just wanted to take the time to thank you. Elementary teachers receive a lot of appreciation. High school teachers do not. I really appreciate what you do.” She handed me a gift card for coffee with a fancy sticky note that expressed her sincere appreciation. I was so touched–she was right. This appreciation will Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.19.18 AMwarm my soul long after the duration of the coffee. Gifts are not part of the high school culture, so much so, I nearly ruined my son’s gift giving experience by not preparing to give gifts in his elementary school.

In high schools, we don’t always take the time to properly express appreciation. I have one colleague who makes it part of an exercise for students to write thank you cards to any teacher they want. I get some of these cards, and feel like I’m winning the lottery. We should make appreciation a measured data point on standardized tests. If appreciation was a test score, I bet we would put it right the curricula. Truth is, we could all use a bit more practice on this one.  I think of the times I’ve failed to appreciate my family, colleagues, friends, or even the hard work I do myself. If it were measured on my evaluation, I’d learn to get it right.

One day, I read this James Altucher post, where he discusses how he saved the global economy with chocolate. I’ll admit, that’s a tall order. I had doubts. Turns out, he stood outside the stock market exchange giving out chocolate during the market crash. There was a decided lack of morale during that period where everyone wondered if financial life as they knew it would end–I remember it well, because I was wondering the same thing, just far away, so I he didn’t give me a chocolate bar.

I decided I’d steal the idea with very little attribution. I distributed Hershey bars on the Ides of March–the day a person is most likely to be stabbed in the back by someone–life, a good friend, The Man. Could chocolate raise morale in education–the field with the highest burnout rate in the nation? It did. I saw people I didn’t even know I still worked with. I reconnected. We smiled. I got hugs. Turns out it’s not about chocolate or coffee–I’d have felt the same glow in my soul if that mom said what she said and handed me a post it note alone. Or even nothing. It’s about appreciation. Gratitude. Taking the time to recognize the work, life, humanness of the person on the other side of the conversation rather than rushing through the paces in an overloaded day so we can go home, get some sleep, and rush through tomorrow.

It’s not easy. But it needs to be said once in a while. I really appreciate the parents who entrust me with their kids–even if it’s just because we all need a break from our own. I appreciate the chance to make a difference in a single life, or in education in general. I appreciate that somehow, somewhere in the universe, there’s someone doing something great in life, and that I got a chance to be a part of it. And I appreciate those who did it for me.

Most of all, I appreciate my family and friends who put up with this, because a teacher’s work, no matter what the pundits say, is never done.


Using Your Head: Not the Same As Getting Hit

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 6.17.39 AM“You box?” asked my friend.

“Boxing” is a specific art. I can’t say I box. Do I own boxing gear? Full contact safety stuff with a gag reflex mouthpiece, “get bashed in the head” Olympic headgear, and 14-ounce gloves because I don’t need the full pound? Yes. I own boxing gear. I’m trying to give it away. I don’t need it anymore.

I sparred as full contact as I could when I was able. My opponent always survived. For me, sparring was a chance to use my head–if only to protect the wall behind me. Fixing walls is hard. If the dent’s small, it’s not so bad–just patch it up. Matching the paint is a whole different matter. It’s never exact. Bigger holes are much harder. Better to keep the wall whole or it’ll be more work for me.

I confessed I don’t “box” box. It’s an art best left for those tougher than me. I’ve knocked myself out before, I don’t need to step in a ring and let someone else do it. Good fighters get angry–fired up. I’m calm. I’d rather shake hands with someone than punch him out. Japanese sword was better for me. I still got hit in the head, but first I got to meditate.

I’ve fought in and won competitions though.  A lot of times I won because there was no one fighting in my bracket. I guess girls don’t want to stand in a square and get duke it out. I got trophies just for breathing. 19th century swordsman Yamoaka Tesshu, one of my favorites, called this “The sword of no sword.” To win a fight without fighting is the ultimate victory. He was known for stranding challengers on islands, saying, “Oh, I forgot my sword…back in a minute.” It worked pretty well for him. He lived.

When I did fight, it was all very simple. No smoke and mirrors. No “wax on-wax off.” Step back, side kick. Point.  My opponents were serious. How could something that simple cost them the match? They got mad–they were highly rated. I was not–I competed for fun. I repeated the strategy–it worked. Angle, side kick, point. Something a first-grader would do. Why does everything have to be complex? Why can’t it be fun?

Regarding real life fights, someone much older and wiser advised, “If you get into a real fight, you’ll never use this stuff anyway. Better to keep both feet on the ground. And run.” 

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 6.19.42 AMRun. That’s a strategy I like. It served me well in the day. I like to think mankind is good, but truth is, there are bad guys out there. I used to live in the bottom floor of a house near the psych ward, not too far from the jail in Rochester, New York. Once in a while the criminally insane waiting at the bus stop in front of my window would rattle on the front door. I learned to leave the shades open and twirl my French knife in the air. I don’t think I looked menacing, though. I think I looked equally crazy standing there in the living room hacking up an air turkey that wasn’t there. I suppose I could have glared into their souls and said, “Vegetarians–that’s how we roll,” or if I were a better actor, “I ate the last one that touched my door.”

Running’s effective when the insane finally catch up. When a guy gets out a car with no pants on–in Rochester, where the windchill is a million below rendering man’s best friend a popsicle in five seconds flat–something’s not right.  Running is nothing short of perfect.

“He who lives to run away, lives to run another day.” Tesshu had it right. No fight’s a good fight. He had wits. I had run.

I’m old now. I know the best way to deal with an opponent isn’t to avoid fighting him–it’s not to have one at all. Abraham Lincoln was a master at this. He kept his friends close and his enemies closer. If you hated Lincoln, he’d give you a job. You’d love him before long. If Lincoln were a boxer, he’d show up, touch gloves, and take you to lunch instead.

I’ve watched a lot of fights in my careers–people fighting others, fighting policy, fighting the workplace bully, and fighting themselves. I’ve been in some of those fights, and I’ve done a lot of running. I don’t like to fight and running isn’t always the right choice.

“Not fighting” doesn’t mean being a doormat, either. There’s a fine line between fighting in vain and challenging a wrong, standing up for oneself. There’s an equally subtle distinction between ignoring and outflanking. But sometimes a person has to be willing to step in the ring.  As I get older, I have few hits to the head left in me. So, I work on my strategy and try a little harder not to protect the wall.

Finding the Vegan Worcestershire Sauce

2043_AnniesNaturals_P-300x300I was at a large store. I don’t often go if I can avoid it. So many boxes, and bags, all that extra wasted packaging. I prefer to go to the farm and get a carrot. But there are some things the farm doesn’t have, like King Arthur Bread Flour and vegan Worcestershire sauce. Besides, the farm is blanketed in snow. There are no carrots in the winter, only eggs and meat. And farms don’t grow vegan Worcestershire sauce.

Even living the simple life, there are things I can’t make. I’ll never completely live the dream of ridding myself of bottles, boxes, and bags. I’m resigned to the fact that being a food extremist is just too–extreme. I’ll bring my iced tea in mason jars and get locally roasted coffee. I’ll rid myself of processed sugar and look with disdain at grocery carts filled with Captain Crunch, for a moment allowing my feeling of superiority decrease my overall daily dose of karma. Who’s better, really? I’m at the big store with everyone else hunting down a product no one can identify or spell. I have to ask a helpful employee.

“I know you probably don’t use this every day. You can make up an answer if you don’t know…” I say to the friendly employee sweeping up a mess in aisle 5,430. I phrase the question to give him an out should he not know. “Would you happen to know where I can find vegan Worcestershire sauce?”

He blinks two times. I continue, “Do you know where either the regular condiment aisle is or where the vegetarian stuff might be?” He blinks at me. He furrows his brow. Just when I think he might give me directions to the store where people like me usually go for things no one but second-generation hippies and world-saving sustainability nuts can identify, he speaks.

“Oh, I never make up answers. I always tell the truth. God will bless you that way. The truth will set you free. It’s done so for me,” he says. He pauses. Good. If anyone can guide me to the vegan Worcestershire sauce, it’s the Almighty. You might not think vegan Worcestershire sauce is worth the hunt, but it’s very helpful in soups, dressings, and stews.

“Go down this aisle. Look through these products here.” He waves his hand back and forth over the aisle. I look. “If it’s not there, check on the other side. Then follow the helpful green arrows to the next aisle. Check there…” Great. Vegan Worcestershire sauce is close by. Right around the corner. I start to thank him and go.

But he’s not done. “If it’s not there, look up. You’ll see another green arrow that’ll take you to the next aisle over. Follow that one and look on both sides until you find it. If you don’t, check the green arrow at the end of that row and then…”

Is he busting my prepackaged canned beans? He’s sending me row by row through the megastore. This happened to me once in Boston. I was running late for my sister’s concert.

“Yeah, it’s close by,” said the Bostonian. “Go to the end of the block. Take a left. Then, go to the end of that block and hang anotha left. Go down to the end-a that street. Take a left. When you get to the stop sign, take a left. You’ll be the-a.”

We did. Four lefts. A perfect block. Right back where we started. I wasn’t falling for that trick again.

I smiled and thanked him. He God blessed me, looking deep into my soul through my eyes. As quickly as if I’d never seen him, his gaze broke away. He continued sweeping aisle 5430. And just like that, the connection was broken.

I never did find the vegan Worcestershire sauce. The soups, dressings, and stews will have to do without. But I didn’t get sent down the wrong road this time–a lesson in and of itself. There are lots of things we think we need in life. Like vegan Worcestershire sauce. They’re superfluous. Clutter.

The important thing is staying on the right road, even in the face of distraction.

I succeeded. For once.

A Practical Proverb

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it determines the course of your life.” –Proverbs 4:23

This verse was posted in a New Year’s message in which I was tagged. I know it’s a Bible verse, but I’m going to calligraphy it all nice and big and put it in my classroom somewhere visible. People need this advice at eighteen rather than forty-something.
I’ll explain to students it isn’t merely about romance–it’s barely about that at all. It’s about following our path, our passions…every moment of our lives.
We feel our passions, we ignore them. I’ll point out the many ways we’ve refused to be put into boxes this year–and how bringing that thought process into real life leads to victories…
Finally, I’ll remind them this truth is my story too–everyone’s story, really…we’re all traveling the same path…when we follow the heart in all things, the path goes much more easily. When we do not, we struggle through the brush without a machete until we come upon it once again.
It’s that simple–for all of us…I never know why we insist on making it difficult.

Underwear Ninja Learns Zen

Screen Shot 2014-01-02 at 6.45.07 AMHe was standing in the living room, dressed in his best Fruit of the Looms. Seems the holes in guys’ underwear make a convenient location to holster a sword. He drew it with intention, staring me down swinging impressively.

It’s tough to get sword training in these parts. “Where’d you learn that?” I asked.

“Percy Jackson. Mom, can I see your swords?” He knew I had them. He’d been asking for a while. I put him off, telling him he had to be good, had to clean his room, had to achieve world peace…The real reason I delayed was his love of swords. He’s been swinging the plastic one he won at the fair for three months–it was the prize they give the kid who doesn’t win a prize–perfect for him. My real swords–not so much. I was afraid he’d find them.

I retrieved the gun case with the swords. He followed me. Big mistake. He now knew where they were stashed.

The swords, once perfect, were damaged in The Great Flood nearly four years ago. The case had wicked the tiniest bit of water and my beloved katana and it’s friend the iaito–the training sword–rusted in parts. I was sad. I’d spent years drawing them, in the process drawing out the story of my life searching for inner peace, only once slicing my foot in a moment of inattention. They were a part of me as much as my best friend.

Exhausted from rescuing what could be saved in the flood, then tossing an entire floor’s worth living, I dried them the best I could and mourned their damage, promising I’d restore them to their glory. Then I lost myself in life.

Swords are like friends–not so much a piece of metal but a piece of the soul. Practicing Japanese sword is practicing meditation–looking for something better in oneself in the part of the mind that only quiet and meditation can unlock. It’s the opposite of what The Boy thinks it is. It’s calm, peaceful, and done right puts me in another place. How ironic to equate peace with an instrument of killing–but that’s the point entirely. True strength is never in the power to wound. It’s the power to hold that power in hand, and instead show compassion.

Looking at the rust on the sword, I consider that the power to use compassion must be practiced too. It gets rusty. Maybe I’ll leave the blemish on the swords as a reminder.

“Woah…” Declan said, finally being granted access to my swords.

“Don’t touch. It’s not polite. It’s dangerous.” I said. That’s enough etiquette for now.

“Let me see!” I showed him the blades, named the parts, and told him it’s important to take care of things, pointing out the rust. The damage wasn’t as bad as I recalled.

No time for nostalgia or catching up with old friends–only a six-year old ready to see something cut in two. “Pull it out. Quick. Like THIS.” He whipped his plastic sword through the air and started to twirl.

“There is no twirling in Japanese sword,” I said.

“Percy Jackson does it. And so does Kung Fu Panda.” If only I’d had these instructors, I could twirl. Maybe I’d be a better human being.

I decided to draw. A good swordsman can practice in a phone booth. I’d been trained in lots of spaces. Big swings, tight areas, working on space, timing, awareness…Sure, it’s been years. And it’s a live blade. And I lack coordination. What the heck. Why not?

“Move back.” The boy listened the first time, rare in these parts, suspecting there’d be action. I drew. No blood. Comes back quickly enough, I guess.

“Faster!” Why not? Faster indeed. I drew from one knee, then swung.

“Don’t cut the ceiling.” A vote of confidence from my husband. I drew again. Whoosh. I got the sound back–the sound of the air being sliced in two. There’s no clang in Japanese swordsmanship like in the movies. No samurai wants to damage a sword. It’s a quick one, two, three with three possible endings. You die, I die, or more likely, we both die, which is Screen Shot 2014-01-02 at 6.44.09 AMprecisely why no one wanted to fight, and why many swordsmen, such as Miyamoto Musashi, retired in contemplation, having survived combat. I’ve noticed that about people who have faced death or simply overcome genuine personal struggle. They have this aura around them–the contemplative spirit–a true generosity and selflessness that’s difficult to attain without going through something in life. They are at peace with the struggle in their soul.

“Wowwww!” Declan seemed impressed. He inched closer. “Let me see the other one!” I showed him the iaito and drew it a few times.  It, like me, was tired. It was time for it to rest.

“Now,” I said. “Don’t find and touch Mommy’s swords. Can I trust you?”

“No,” he said. He was dead honest. “I’m going to find them like the marshmallows.”

This morning he helped me put away dishes pushing the chair to the counter. “I can climb, Mom. It’s how I find all the stuff you hide. I found the marshmallows this morning.” He wagged his finger at me. “Boy, you hid them good.” I think it was a compliment.

I don’t need him finding swords.

“I mean it.” I bluff. “I’ll throw them away. They won’t be here anymore.” I head toward the door.

“Throw away your swords?”

“Yup. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

My bluff works. He semi-promises, which means I have 24 hours to get a lock for the case.

“Someday, these will be yours.” His eyes widen. “Just not today.”

“When?” he jumps up and down.

“When you are ready to learn the lessons they teach. He walks away thinking of Percy Jackson, and I of Miyamoto Musashi, each in our own worlds contemplating the lessons we are equipped to understand.

And no one has been cut in two.