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Posts from November 2011

Thanksgiving 2011

It’s Thanksgiving, but we’re having pizza and beer for dinner. Tomorrow we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving. Do I need to be surrounded by family to prove that I have what to be thankful for? And do I have to serve the requisite main course and sides and desserts (okay, the apple pie is ready for consumption tonight) and conversation-round-the-table about what we’re thankful for to make this a thankful day for me?

My boyfriend/partner is getting the pizzas. It will take him at least an hour at the frozen pizza section in the supermarket to pick out just the right pizzas. Luckily they close early today. On pizza and beer Fridays we always have two frozen pizzas: one veggie and one mucho cheese-o. But he will take his time thinking about which pizzas I would prefer tonight. The decision will be made by him making experienced-based assumptions about my taste buds today, not definites about himself.

It is the two of us, and Poops, everyone else is in absentia.

My older daughter is at college on the other coast. But the ticket cost is not the reason why she won’t be here. No, she’s there celebrating with her boyfriend and friends. And I am thankful and grateful that she has found a place where she is happy and people with whom she finds herself blossoming. I’ll never forget the mother stomach-lump that developed in an instant when her first grade teacher told me that she never smiles in class. And she has always been a solemn child. The curse of the bookworm, perhaps? Her happiness, from whatever distance, is to rejoice in.

And my younger daughter. Well, it’s her fault that we’re having Turkey Day tomorrow and not today. A friend invited her to celebrate Thanksgiving with her family. Maybe they feel sorry for her that we’re divorced and her father is not around and that it’s just Kenny and me here on this family celebration day, or maybe they are thankful that their daughter has such a wonderful friend. I decided that Thanksgiving should be more about her happiness and gratitude to two women and the homes they make and make her feel comfortable in rather than sticking to the calendar (besides, we don’t watch football and we don’t Black Friday shop), so she’s with her friend’s family today and us tomorrow.

And my mother down in retirementland is going to the movies and then for a non-turkey dinner with a couple that doesn’t make her feel like the lonely widow. The holidays really are the hardest for her; there doesn’t seem to be a before and after, just a before, with my father—and the way it should be, not this being alone business.

My brother. A bit of aggravation there just to make sure that the subterranean theme of how families can be dangerous to one’s health is maintained even if Thanksgiving is not; he did not invite us to his family’s Thanksgiving Day repast. Granted, they’re five hours away, but I used to do the drive, even when it took nine hours in only-stop traffic. That is until I decided one year that I’ll wait for my invitation rather than invite myself. So here I sit, at home and not in Thanksgiving Day traffic since the invite never came.

Thanksgiving. Yes, I’m thankful that the people in my life seem happy and well-adjusted and purposeful. And me, I’m happy that I’m not stressed about cooking, because what kind of pressure can I have doing it a day late?

And I’m also thankful that at 50 (or 49 twice in a row) I feel healthy, I feel wise, I feel pretty, and I feel.

Happiness and Thanks to You All!

Teaching to the Test

When I started teaching a few years ago I didn’t understand what the veteran teachers meant when they said that things had changed, that the joy of teaching had left when the focus on testing and data came in thanks to No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Now I know. And it’s not making me a happy teacher, parent or citizen.

For quite a while all was well, I was teaching the things that were required of me, and they made sense, there’s no question about that, and I developed creative lessons that I thought encouraged my students to think, and to understand the material and the world we live in. And all seemed well. I thought I was helping send young men and women out into the world who had respect for punctuation and the thesaurus, and who thought that books were not just for nerds and teachers.

Hoops were put in front of us, and we leaped (or is it leapt) through them. Time was spent filling out charts about test scores and types of assessments given rather than lesson planning or grading. But that was okay, it wasn’t too onerous.  Yet.

But now, now I fear that the times have a’ changed.

Now the value of my teaching (and my value itself since this will be linked to my job evaluation) will be measured in test results. It’s not just talk; it will be the reality, my reality. So you tell me, do I spend time talking about racism and have my students write about what it feels like to have experienced or observed prejudice, or do I do an extra handout to ensure that every student in my class knows all the rules of the comma so that their grades on assessments are high enough to indicate that I’m a highly effective teacher? Do I skip discussing suicide when we read Romeo and Juliet so that we can perfect our ability to spot a metaphor when we read one?

Somewhere someone said something about putting the ills or the failings of society on teachers. That wasn’t far off. How can you expect us to overcome indifference at home and personal—for whatever reason? And how do we overcome exhaustion and hunger and stress? Another handout on semi-colons won’t do it. And learning difficulties, they cannot be overcome with a seat in the front and a large-print handout. And language difficulties? How do you bridge the language gap in a child who has been in this country for only a few years? Is it fair to expect all students to know English like a native speaker ASAP so they can pass the test and you can show that you’re an effective teacher? And yet I am not even minimally instructed how to teach non-native speakers. And don’t tell the native speakers that we just might need to s  l  o  w   d  o  w  n  until we all understand at the same level.  

I’m not saying that effectively teaching my subject is not my job and my mission, but for goodness’ sake, why judge what I do through standards that don’t reach what needs to be done—and what is the true purpose of education, which is to educate and not just to instruct.

And, you know, not every kid will click with and learn from every teacher. And not every kid gets every subject. And that shouldn’t mean that I’m a bad teacher. It just means that you can’t test away personality. Yes, sure, there are all sorts of ways to differentiate learning and scaffold learning and teach it different ways with different tools, but, honestly, not everyone is good at everything. I remember reading somewhere about, I’m pretty sure it was Dr. Seuss, giving advice to parents. He said that he was glad when he got out of school because he no longer needed to spend time on things he wasn’t good at, and that he could finally focus on only those things he wanted to focus on—and that he was good at.

Tests. What about kids who are defiant? They know that how they do on most of these “big” tests does not reflect on them, but rather on their teacher and school. And what about kids who don’t test well? And what about—what about teaching with passion and learning with passion?

And what about parents? Aren’t they first and foremost responsible for their children and the nurturing of their children and encouraging their children and teaching them to value and respect themselves and their future by going to school and doing well? The other day in the New York Times Tom Friedman noted that, “There’s no question that a great teacher can make a huge difference in a student’s achievement, and we need to recruit, train and reward more such teachers. But here’s what some new studies are also showing: We need better parents. Parents more focused on their children’s education can also make a huge difference in a student’s achievement.” (The study he referred to is from the Program for International Student Assessment, PISA, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.) Seems amazing that this counts as news. Or is it more of the ole “buck doesn’t stop here” idea, where blame is always placed on someone else.

I send out information on students’ progress and grades to their parents on a regular basis. Except for the one mother whose daughter has an A and always thanks me for letting her know how her daughter is doing (which I appreciate so very much), I only hear from a couple of parents. And generally, it’s to find fault with me. Darling said that he handed in the assignment, but you didn’t mark it. Can Sweetheart hand in the work late? Honeybun said that you told him that he can’t hand in the work. Sweetness said that she didn’t do the work because the instructions weren’t clear. Unfortunately, all too rare is the, “Thanks for letting me know. I will talk to him about doing his work.” That really would help my work.

And maybe, just maybe, people at the top of the education chain need to realize that they are not the only ones who want the best for our students. After all, we spend our days with kids and we spend far too much out-of-class time thinking about our students and how to reach them. Is it fair to say that only a test can show what we bring to the desk?

What did I teach today?

Amongst the “things” that I taught, I hope that I also modeled what it is to be an effective speaker and listener, to be an expert in my subject, to be compassionate, to be firm, and to be analytical.

No child should be left behind, that’s for sure. But this reliance on the test effectively insults and demeans teachers and students, alike, by putting all learning down to a few circles on a piece of paper.

Pick the most appropriate response. Education is primarily the responsibility of: a. Administrators; b. Bureaucrats; c. Parents; d. Students; e. Teachers

Oh, and no, you cannot pick more than one response; and no, you cannot explain your answer. But you do have as much time as you need.

Why Do I Talk to My Mother?

Sometimes when I hear the Vaudevillesque ringtone I set for my mother’s calls I roll my eyes, press “Quiet,” and continue with my life. At other times, before the “answer phone call” instinct evolves into reflection and a pass on answering, I answer the call. And then, after the starter wave of information about her day, I wonder how I let myself be tricked again.

It’s not that I don’t get along with my mother or even that I dislike her, but I’m tired of the “world-revolves around your mother” conversations that we have. Sure, there’s the occasional “So how are you?” and “How are the girls?” but if I venture into an answer beyond “Fine,” I find her attention span diminished. She’s bored hearing my response or, and this is worse considering that her life and mine have never had anything in common, she’s done it/knows it/anticipated it, whatever “it” may be, from her place in sunny Florida.

I have learned that I need to accept that these calls are about her, they are not about me—that time has passed. I know that I’m not a young woman first stepping out on her own who needs all the concern and compassion she can get from her mother to shore herself up against the cruel, cruel world, but, seriously, isn’t my mother supposed to care more about me than the chicken she got at Costco that she’ll freeze in individual servings for when she’s in the mood for chicken?

Her loneliness is understandable. My father passed away almost two years ago. She went from having my father by her side to listen to her every critique for fifty-four years to having her distracted daughter via cellphone. One thing is clear: my father was more patient than I had ever imagined because, surely, she has not recently discovered the need to digest her day’s minutiae in talk. No, this must be a habit that she has transferred from my father to me. Before his passing, her calls had the endless detail of things of absolutely no importance, but the calls and the details weren’t endless, and, on occasion, there was a point. I had received the pearls that were gleaned after going through the mire with my father. Besides, she didn’t have as much time to chat since she needed to keep my father entertained with her non-stop talk show.

All that aside, there’s just so far compassion can take you when you hear the deliberations taken to go or not to go to tennis, and then to go or not to go out with “the girls” (who are all in their 70’s and 80’s) for breakfast after tennis. And to hear for the unknownth time that friend A doesn’t dress as nicely as she does, and that friend B thinks that restaurant A is good but she knows that it is not. Yes, I know, my life isn’t a fount of excitement, but at least I generally have a sense of audience and refrain from providing ad infinitum details ad infinitum times.

Unfortunately, I generally check out of our phone calls; I just can’t take the tone and substance of those conversations. Really? Does it matter? And that makes me feel bad. But I just can’t bring myself to focus on her monologue; it needs an accompaniment, like TV viewing needs food.

Maybe the point is that I had hoped that at some point from the time I became aware of her conversational limitations (at about fifteen) to now to have found more to my mother than she has revealed. But I have not. Is that why her calls are so hard on me? She is the sum of the details, and I need to accept that and stop expecting: voila, your philosopher-mother is on the line.

She is who she is—and she does a darn good job at being who she is. No, she is the best at it. No one does it better.

So here’s to you mom: You are who you are, fully. And I apologize for not having valued you before. Maybe at some point you’ll pause and I can tell you that. And if not, I will try, I will, to honor you for who you are—in all your glorious detailing. But maybe during shorter phone calls.

It's Cold

Is this the gloom of winter descending upon me?

It’s dark when I get up. It’s dark when I go to work. The chill air means that only my hands and face feel air unfiltered by layers of clothing, even it if it’s just the shared air of indoors. And it’s dark when I go to sleep, which is generally the case since I have always been an early-to-sleep-er, but of late it’s so early that a mere two months ago it would have been considered naptime.

And it’s been gray, so very gray. I didn’t realize how much the gloom could be gloomy; I used to think that it was lovely, but I see now that it seeps in with it a sense of isolation. Windows are closed. Doors are closed. But perspective is not closed.

I can’t let the cave take over since I am still of this world. This lousy, gray, gloomy world that I generally appreciate, or believe will get better—for us all. But not today. No. Today I’m letting the sadness descend. People are mean. People are cruel. People have egos. And I’m just tired of thinking about them. Curious, isn’t it, how people think they should be heeded when they heed not others. Who made your truth the only truth?

You want to keep your head in the sand, go ahead, just leave the rest of us alone so we can deal maturely with the horrible ways we have dealt poorly with the earth.

You don’t believe in abortion. Fine, don’t have one. Hey, guys, not sure if this applies to you anyway.

And do us all a favor, if you don’t like government, don’t become a politician, and don’t work for the government in any capacity, and don’t take money from the government. Is it necessary to always be a hypocrite just because you can?

And all of you terrorists—yes, if their purpose is to instill terror, then they are terrorists—why not let the rest of us use our words to try to solve the problems you have created and exacerbated instead of you continually lobbing your bombs and killing killing killing—just because you can. WooHoo! You killed another person. What did that get you? Do you really feel better? Do you really feel that the world is a better place now that you have forced death over life?

And you know what, I'm tired of the GOP candidates no longer bothering to attempt to impersonate an empathetic person, and I'm disgusted by people who think, heck, it's okay if you sexually harassed a woman--is it really anyone's business? YES IT IS. Stop protecting people who deserve no protection. What is with this society and its twisted desire to always protect those who have all the protection at the expense of everyone else--those they harassed and those they raped and those they demeaned. What kind of moral compass do we have? Where is it pointing? 

And ignoring the rape of boys to protect a game and a name? Unfathomable and unconscionable. And let me say, I am glad that Penn State lost on Saturday. I know, it's petty, but so be it--so be me. Don't these people care about anything but themselves and their careers? Hollow are they all. 

But my daughters are doing their homework. And my partner is studying. And my mother probably had chicken for dinner and will call to tell me about it. And my dog is waiting for just one more doggy treat for the night. And me. I feel tears. I’m tired. I haven’t even touched on the things that I have to deal with at work. The things that make me ache in empathy, and the things which cause me pain and tension and stress.

We’re such phonies, aren’t we? Pretending to care when all we hope to do is get home safely at the end of the day, without harming anyone or being harmed by anyone. (Did I mention my not getting home safely a few weeks ago when a man, who had obviously been abusing substances, side-swipped me?) Or are we the result of the hurts that we experience personally or from feeling the pain of others and by the time you reach 50 it’s just too much, too too much. We don’t become inured, we become inundated.

We can't help it, can we, to reach out--and to be reached for. But we are not an Atlas carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, for we are part of the world. With endurance, may we become an opening in the gloom.

Finally, A Benefit of Being Fifty

I tend to think of myself as a big mouth, but it’s more because I will interrupt people to make funny—to me and some of them—off-hand comments, and not so much because I spew my opinions to all, loudly and incessantly, as do some big-time big mouths.

So a few weeks ago, at the break-the-fast meal at a friend’s house, I touched on the power of being a fifty-year-old woman and how it related to my bigmouthedness. There was a man, Sergei, who stated that the high-tech pioneers in Israel in the 80’s were all Russians. I said, no, they weren’t. He restated his point. And I, I said that no, they were not Russian; rather, they were Israelis who had come out of the technology development departments in the military. He countered by saying they were Russians, since the Russians who immigrated to Israel had either been engineers or musicians, ha ha ha. I let it go, and from there other things came up and the discussion leapfrogged about.

And then another man, talking of the wonder of the US and how anyone can succeed if he/she tries (he even quoted, Lenin about picking up opportunity in the street, as a nod to Sergei), told of the success story of his parent’s non-English-speaking gardener who went on to become a successful non-English-speaking landscape company owner with a house probably bigger than his parent’s. And I said that I don’t think that that should be the only gauge of success in our country and that it’s not so easy to find other types of success—or even that kind. He, should I say, works for the government and while he has travelled the world has not tried to start a business or seek a pathless path for himself.

Not much by way of groundbreaking in the conversation department, but for me, these two mini-conversations were important. Generally, when the boys speak ‘round the table, their statements stand as if they know what they’re talking about, and generally, they state, I nod, and the conversation goes on. But I wasn’t in the mood to just let them slide through with pronouncements; I know or surmise a thing or two myself. Or maybe I realized that to speak up you don’t have to be bolstered by reams of data because no one at a dinner party has prepared as if for a press briefing. We know what we know.

And I know that the trapdoor under my seat will not open and send me into the blazing furnace in the basement if I say something that I feel or infer or think because that is enough support. Yes, my mind and feelings and connections are enough. Most people only back up their assertions with a single sentence of “evidence” anyway; and that evidence is often something someone read somewhere, and that’s generally an opinion anyway.

I like to think that my newfound bigmouthedness stems from the wisdom of age. And that wisdom is twofold. First, I feel that I know things, and in the scale of knowledge people have, I know more than some on some things, and less on others, but I have a range of knowledge and understanding of which I am proud. Second, I’m fifty and, it seems, my mouth has overridden my shy self-consciousness.

Is wisdom knowing that you don’t need to know it all to say something? Or is it knowing that it is better to speak than to remain silent? Or is it in knowing that thoughts have as much validity as facts? Or is it that experience, or living life, has taught me that experience, or living life, trumps any degree from any school, and any job, no matter how high-powered or high-paying? Is wisdom of age the true equalizer?