Watching People Not Suck: Moments of Kindness Pile Up Into a Movement for 2014

“We’re out of meat.”

That normally doesn’t affect me. It was the last day of the year. Vegetarians don’t ring in the new year with dead creatures, but meat makes the others happy. I like to make others happy. Being unable to wave my magic wand and procure meat, I got in the car and went to the store. I tucked the Visa gift card into the pocket with my phone. It was a gift from a friend whom we’d been blessed enough to help. I was touched by his letter reminding me that kindness is a continual circle. I’ve received so much–I am humbled to give what I can. In his case, I didn’t think we’d given enough. I guess that’s often the case with helping.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 7.53.05 AMUsually, on a day like New Year’s Eve, the store is crazy, carts crashing around like demolition derby. This time something seemed different. There were a million carts–it looked like the GW during rush hour, but the store was not the same. People were acting–nice. Like it was they’d all vacationed in Colorado and weren’t standing in Rhode Island. They were all smiling so pleasantly. I sniffed for incense. None.

“You first…” I’ve never heard that in the store. The air was ringing with “you firsts” as people picked up bags of kale and organic things I can’t pronounce. I got some kale, too. It reminded me I really should call my friend in Colorado. I haven’t seen her in a while.

I headed for the meat counter. There was a bit of a wait. I checked my email, dropping the Visa card to the ground.

“Excuse me. I think this is yours.” A smiling lady with bags of kale handed me a Visa gift card. Two Visa gift cards in one week. Fabulous! I realized it was mine. She’d rushed from the kale aisle to make sure I didn’t lose it. And she smiled. That never happens in a store. People find a spare twenty and it’s off to the races.

The meat guy smiled, people let people go first at the counter, and people waved me through the coffee. Was there a wine tasting going on? Everyone was so elated to be alive. Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 7.53.26 AMI passed the cheese samples, smiling at the Robustotasted normal. I looked around. No mushroom samples anywhere in sight.

Time to check out. The line was long but still smiling. Everyone put their kale and organic things I couldn’t pronounce on the belt in turn. They talked to each other instead of using the constipation face doing the old “New England ignore.”  It was a sight to behold–lines crowded with New Englanders on one of the busiest store days of the year and only kindness and love abounded. Not one single solitary person with constipation. And everyone intending to eat their vegetables. A tear rolled down my cheek. I put my stuff on the belt. I was ready to go.

Until I noticed the person behind me. She had one thing. “Sorry,” I said, I should have noticed you.”

“It’s okay.” It was a long wait for just piece of dead animal.

I took her roast off the belt. She looked surprised. I wanted to say, “Your roast is safe with me. I’m going after the kale.” Instead I joined in the spirit of communal love. “You have to go first. You only have one thing.” She smiled. Now we were all smiling, even though none of us vacationed in Colorado or ever found the mushroom samples near the cheese. I enjoyed paying forward the smallest act of consideration.

There’s plenty of kindness in the region, but it’s rare to see it coalesce into a bubble of human goodness so large it spills out into the parking lot. “You first,” people were waving. No one in Rhode Island does that unless they’re waving you through the outside lane of a four-lane road where the inside lane’s about to crush you. There were Rhode Islanders driving with respect even as I passed the parking lot to the Dunkin Donuts and the liquor store. That never happens. We’re the worst driving state in the union. Everyone knows if you’re going to get into an accident, it’s going to be in the parking lot of Dunkin Donuts. “Must get my coffee now…” But even there–people parked between the lines and waited for each other to go… I paused a moment to enjoy the perfection of the universe. Meanwhile, I let someone out of her space. Enjoy now–it won’t last forever. 

Or maybe it will if each and every one of us eats our kale and leaves the New England constipation face at home joining the “You First” moment, making it into a movement for 2014.

I don’t make resolutions. I’m getting old. I break them and the years whiz by so fast I hardly have time to break the first set before it’s time to make a new bunch to break. But if I did, I’d make 2014 the year of “You First,” because if everyone says that to everyone, at some point we’ll all be put to the front of the line. With love and kindness.


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It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Chaos

Screen Shot 2013-12-20 at 5.17.48 AMFriday. TGIF. The last day…before Christmas break. The world is rejoicing. We…just…have…to…survive…today.

I brought the gifts I made for my advisory students yesterday. Getting a jump on Christmas, like most of America. I forgot two boys’ things. A “Worst Teacher in the Universe” move. They forgave me. Today, I’ll earn redemption. I have their gifts here.

The kids started Christmas early, too. There were bags, boxes, bangles and bows. Santa hats and shirts. I’ll wear my Santa hat today.

Today, they’ll be wandering the halls with more wrappings, stuffed animals, glitter and ribbons. We, like mini Scrooges, will attempt to keep order.

Chaos will reign supreme. They’ll go to their parties, they’ll hug their friends. Some will rejoice, others will cry. Christmas is not fun for everyone, you know. Homelessness, divorce, difficult family situations, the economy…it wears on kids who know today will be the last day that they see their best friends…on whom they hang for support…for nearly two weeks. Teachers, too.

The halls will jingle, parties will fade. Students, cracked upon candy and pizza, will get on busses that bring them to their lives.

And I hope they will have a Merry Christmas.


Today, You’d Be a Sex Offender

I’m having a nice night with my husband. We’re sitting on the couch watching Grease, one Screen Shot 2013-11-11 at 6.23.16 PMof the best movies of all time. Couch movie watching is the pinnacle of good nights when you have a mutant six-year old who doesn’t go to sleep.



“I need a pen for my dinosaur activity book.” You need a swift kick in the….

“You need to be in BED!” And so it goes, until I resign myself to the fact that most fun nights will be spent watching various Discovery docudramas about gold mining or the Civil War Extravaganza on the History Channel until the boy turns 18. But tonight, we’re in for a treat. A good old Rated G wholesome family favorite. I remember when Grease first came out.

Turns out, Grease isn’t wholesome at all! I’m horrified.  I could never show this film in school today…There’s so much wrong…society would never stand for this!  First off,  the T-Birds mooned the camera during the dance. That’d get them a lifetime as a registered sex offenders in this day and age. The kid spiked school punch. That’s a hefty prison sentence Screen Shot 2013-11-11 at 6.21.41 PMunder the Rhode Island social host law. The dance host hit on the girl–he’d be a guest of the state for statutory rape, and there are about a million cases of bullying, harassment, and conduct unbecoming.

If I take off my “sitting nicely with my husband” hat and put on my research hat, I’d estimate the majority of that town would be in some form of detention or incarceration. There’d be no one left to… drag race at the end! Another violation of the law! They’d lose their licenses. Not to mention the shop teacher who went to the drag race to support her students. Inconceivable today. She’d never teach again.

Screen Shot 2013-11-11 at 6.18.05 PMThat’s just the legal side of the movie. The moral side is worse. I spend my career trying to convince kids that being healthy, kind, and intellectual is cool, and our Grease protagonist Danny finally came around by the end of the movie–wearing his letterman’s sweater after working hard in track. It’s just the type of thing we want from out students. It’s hard to letter in track. I know. I have two letters earned by entering every race in which nobody else enrolled. That was a lot of mileage.

Instead of getting props for that letter, Sandy went bad and everyone celebrated. What kind of moral victory is that? How did I miss this? Where’s Tipper Gore when you need her? I’m not sure.

At least the boy fell asleep and I got to finish watching an old favorite without talking about dinosaurs anymore.

My, how times change. I wonder… are we better off in our zero tolerance society or should we be waxing nostalgic for these times?  They sure looked fun…


[image:,, Paramount Pictures]

Why You Should Buy Your Kids Whatever They Want

“MOM! Brittany’s got a gaming system!” Declan came running into the room. Here’s the part in the conversation where I’m supposed to be indignant.

“Yeah. She has a gaming system.”

“Why don’t I have a gaming system?”

“This is America, kid. You want to keep up with the neighbors, get a job and buy one.” There’s a Soviet joke that says that in America, you work hard to keep up w the Jones. If the Jones get a Caddy, you work hard and buy one. Equality.

In the Soviet Union if you want to stay on par with the Ivanovs and they get a Caddy, you sneak over and smash it. Voila. Equality.

I think the boy’s missing the essence of my political allegory, though.

“Brittany’s older than you. She can have a gaming system.”  Actually, I’m considering getting a gaming system for Christmas. There are several reasons for this, the first of which is that Declan keeps asking for things I don’t want in the house. He wants videos of which I don’t approve–cartoons that make kids fresh. He also wants a cat, of which I do approve. The dog disagrees.

“Too bad for YOU, Mommy. I’m skipping you. I’m asking Santa.” He wiggles his face and rear end in what I detect to be the touchdown dance of a kid who’s never watched football. I say that Santa passes his checklist by me. The boy doesn’t believe this. Santa is magic. He overrules moms and dogs.

The real reason I want to get a gaming system is that it’s something really cool I can take away. I’m running out of things that get his attention when I’m mad.

I’ve never had a gaming system. My dad got pong off the back of a truck, but I never had an Atari or Nintendo like my brother. When my mom punished me, she sent me to my room. I loved my room. All I wanted to do was read anyway. It was a victory. You can’t take literacy away from a kid. That’s why it’s important to embrace commercialism that can removed in the unfortunate case of punishment.

Last night, I discovered that Declan didn’t just make a pen mustache. “Mom, it’s my favorite pen mustache. I’m a man.”  He also used the Bic pen to draw his favorite alphabet letters across the screen of my iMac.

“Why did you do that?” Apparently, he “needed to write the letter F.”

“Big boys don’t write the letter F on things!” Except various walls, bathrooms, and subway stations. “You’re not big enough to share my computer!” I took it away. Already, he’s found other things to do. He’s not suffering enough. He’s happy as a clam ignoring my instructions to please pick up his puzzle pieces. So, I have to dig deeper for a punishment. Today, I might go to the farm without him. But if I had a gaming system to take away…that would be magic. Threatening to change the password on the computer worked for two months of behavior inspiration.

That is why I’m considering abandoning my attempts reduce material goods and joining the rest of the hypercommercialized West in buying everything the kid wants. I think it’s a great parenting strategy. I won’t have to teach about love, respect, deliberateness, and listening the first time, and I’ll no longer wonder if he needs ADHD meds. I’ll simply have more stuff to take away.



Why Study History?

I found the following question on Quora. I had to answer.

Why do schools teach history instead of something more practical? When and why did the governments across the world decide to add history as a subject And why does it have to be history instead of some other social science like political science or sociology?

For me, I can’t separate those areas to begin with–I never know where dividing line between the disciplines start and finish. In real life nothing lives in isolation. Neither should it in my teaching.

This was my answer:

Yesterday, a student posed a question. It was a good question about a (insert random country here) location about which no student cared. I said, “That’s a good question.”

I told a few stories, and posed a few questions for them to discuss. We made some analogies that ranged from a fight in the cafeteria, to a broken treaty between the State of Connecticut and the Mashantucket Pequots, Japanese internment camps in America, the present-day situation in Israel, decolonization in the world and the effects of hegemony on various immigration patterns… by the time we wove the tale, we had discussed several seemingly unrelated places over a period of a couple thousand years, integrating some key themes and players.

We touched upon things. We related things, we analyzed some questions. Before class ended, I’d sketched graphs and charts on the board–even one had a limit on it, which I introduced as such. “Stick with me…this is college math…what does this mean?”

The subject of what we should teach–which subjects are the most practical–is an important one. It’s not what is taught, it’s how it’s taught and with what goal. History, done well, integrates with all other subjects, sparks curiosity, and helps students to research, analyze, posit, predict, solve, and speak out.

As an undergrad, one of the greatest lessons I learned was from a conversation with Dr. Larry Hudson–a British professor of American history of African descent. His take on the American Revolution was certainly not the one I’d heard in every American textbook–could history be…open to interpretation? That’s no small realization for an 18-year-old. Call that historiography, or research analysis… it’s all in what you do with it.

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 5.52.10 AMThe second valuable lesson I learned was from a mentor in grad school, Dr. Bob Cvornyek. He researched everything from chain gangs to labor to…baseball. When I tell students “I know a man who gets paid to write about baseball,” it’s a whole new game. History becomes something that motivates them. “You can study anything as long as you back it up.”

Through history they learn to integrate material, conduct and present research, identify quality sources, create, debate… any number of skills you’d be grateful to have in a quality employee, successful entrepreneur, or even interesting person on the street.

History, done well, isn’t about dead guys. It’s really the key to life.



Work Less. Smile.

“I don’t know if I can do this anymore,” she said. “I can’t teach first graders to sit for 180 days. I don’t even have time for my own kids.”

Do you feel this way?

Here’s two from my playbook: “I just corrected two hundred fifty packets and didn’t cook dinner.” And, “I’ll play in five minutes. I just have to finish this.”

Teaching has the highest burnout of all careers. Higher than emergency responders and doctors.

It’s hard. We set expectations for ourselves. The system sets expectations, too. Kids expect instant results–ironic, because they don’t always give me their stuff instantly. I’ve set a high bar—one I could easily meet if I agreed to work 24 hours a day.

The problem is, I no longer do. I’m learning this lesson slowly, but surely.

In a prior career, I worked hard. It wasn’t my job. I ended up doing a lot of translating. I’ll say “translating,” but what I mean is communicating. I hack through languages with all the skill and fluency of someone moving to the United States barely speaking English.  I love languages, so, I give people my respect, and in the process I can usually solve the issue.

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 7.47.58 AM“Hello, may I help you?” I answered my phone, hearing a synchronized slam two cubes over, indicating someone blind-transferred the call to me. It was really their call.

“Hola. Necesito hablar con alguien…” I took the call, helped, and moved on.

Problem was, once the floodgates opened, it happened more and more.  I took calls in every language–some I spoke, most I didn’t.

These were the days before Google translate. I’d call the AT&T center.  A translator would conference in the parties, calls ranging from $2–$4/minute. First, I had to be able to identify the language. I was working with dialects of Spanish, Mandarin vs. Cantonese, Cape Verdian, Portuguese, Italian, Vietnamese, Thai, Cape Verdean, Cambodian, Ukrainian, Albanian, Armenian, Romanian, Polish, Laotian, Hindi, Gujarati, and once in a while Japanese. Recognizing the cadence, rhythm, and indicators of a languages, the ethnicity of the last name–that’s doable for me. The hard part–telling people to hang on for the translator. In their language.

All of this takes time and skill.

Meanwhile, my own stack of work….growing…morphing into a monster I couldn’t control….cascading off my desk…threatening to crush my very existence.

“Send the call to Casey, she speaks…”


My work wasn’t getting done but I was “being a team player.” This happens in teaching.

While taking others’ calls, I’d ask for help. “If Joe Smith calls, ask him…” Instead, I’d return to a pile of pink message slips. I was doing two jobs. I wasn’t getting help.

I decided to ask for a raise, bringing the logsheet of the calls I’d taken, showing the value of the services I provided.

“I’ve saved you tons of cash. Let’s split the difference.” Even “the difference” was a lot.

Laughter. Serious laughter. Comedy Central laughter. Watching Comedy Central while drunk laughter.

“Nice one, Casey. No. Get back to work.”

“Okay, but I’m no longer providing this service. I need to focus on my work.”

From that point on, I “wasn’t a team player.”

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 7.44.34 AMThis happens in teaching. We overextend. We want to help for the good of the school–to be a team player. We do too much. We join committees, sponsor clubs, we never say “no” when asked to contribute, whether it’s in terms of time, talent, or treasure.

“It’s just one night.” The problem is the nights, meetings, planning sessions, after school trainings, and things add up. Sure, it’s going to be a great training session–I really want to participate. But the choice becomes two hours every day after school for a week or seeing my own boy. In the past, I’d chosen work because it was important, even though it was on my time. This year, I choose my family, hobbies, and me.

That’s not a bad thing. That’s the part that has to sink in for the majority of dedicated teachers.

Teachers overextend. Families feel neglected, relationships suffer, we get sick. A day can’t be 30 hours in it no matter how much coffee we drink.  When we cut back to “realistic” and “human,” we feel we’re not doing our best. This Lifehacker article, “Don’t Be A Work Hero,” got me thinking. Read it. Ruminate.

I decided to be human this year. I chose to do one thing for school this year–something I love, tech.

This decision feels pretty good. I notice a difference in mindset already. And by the end of the year, I hope my students, family, and friends will, too.


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I’m Not Looking for The Yes Man

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 6.01.58 AM“Tell me how you liked the book.” We sat in the professor’s parlor–about ten or twelve of us, a small history cohort. The professor was an old-style academic from the Midwest, who had completed his masters’ degree at the university where I’d been an undergraduate. He held class in his parlor, like Socrates would have done. With coffee, not hemlock.

“Well, I thought the insight he showed into the presidents was very intriguing,” said one student. He went on to outline the amazing revelations he received from the book in unabridged detail. I was confused. Did he accidentally read the Bible?

“It was good,” said another. “I thought last week’s was better, but I enjoyed it.” No further details.

We went around the circle, a few saying little or even passing on their turn, a solid handful giving adulations. Others shifting in their seats.

“And what about you, Dawn?” I hesitated. I had a very different experience with this book.


“Um,” I looked around the room. Half a dozen pens and notebooks were at the ready, as they tended to be in graduate school before we had laptops and iPads. “I thought this was the worst book I’ve ever read.”


“Go on,” the professor said, his face without emotion. It was too late to put the top back on the can of worms. I continued.

“Well,” I said, “The author doesn’t seem to have any academic credentials in this field–I researched him–but that’s not my issue. I might’ve still enjoyed it.” I looked around the room. The one kid seemed ready to revolt. To throw tomatoes. I looked for tomatoes in his hands. Relief–just a pen. And a notebook. With angry notes.

I bent down and extrapolated the offending manuscript from my bag.

“Look,” I said leafing through the circled text and notes in the margin. “Spelling errors. Editing errors, and I’m not sure this event,” I opened to the page, “ever happened,” noting one historical event in question.

“Also, what’s his thesis?  I couldn’t find it….he spoke in vague terms. I couldn’t nail it down. My mind drifted. Sorry. I just didn’t like this book.” I listed a couple of others I did like, historians that gave me deep insights into the dead presidents.

Silence. Pause.

“Congratulations. You got the answer!” he exclaimed. “THIS…is a good example of a really bad book.” The professor excoriated the book for us all. “Sometimes you need to look at the worst of the worst to appreciate the best.” We’d just learned a lesson as historians.

It’s true for life as well.


I do this to my students. I give them a passage, video, or assignment that requires they examine something that stinks worse than a grocery bag of meat forgotten in the trunk of a car in July. I let them debate, argue, and kiss up. Then, I lay on the truth. Sometimes, a kid stands up for his or her belief in the face of everyone else “loving” the passage to seek my approval. That’s the kid who’s going to get through the system and be great.

You see, it’s not about a bunch of minions reading my assignments, and obeying my instructions. It’s about developing keen minds and confidence where students research, connect the dots, and refuse to be the yes man. And can back it up. These are the students who will innovate and iterate the solutions for the future. If you don’t give them things with flaws to examine, then they don’t see anything that needs to be interpreted or fixed.

“A good example of a bad book.”

That was one of the most valuable lessons I learned in school.