Back at School: Volunteering in an Elementary School


I should have known that I would stop volunteering at the garden when I finally bought gardening gloves. For more than six months I worked bare-handed or wore gloves from a box of cast-offs in the garden’s potting shed. Then, I got my own gloves. I wore them once and now they’re on the floor behind the driver’s seat in my car. I’m trying to decide if I should put them in the trunk, hidden and unneeded, or keep them where they are, a reminder that just because the gloves fit doesn’t mean I have to wear them.

My Wednesday mornings in the garden’s nursery were wonderful. The other volunteers were, generally, the right amount of interesting and talkative to make the morning feel like an outing among friends and not hours repotting plants in the heat. But I began to feel more of an outsider as the other volunteers would talk about their evolving plans for their gardens (or “land” as one referred to her acre) and their familiarity with different plants, while I was only fostering a lone bromeliad on the lanai and uncovering no desire to immerse myself in botany books. I remained a plant lover on a “looks beautiful” basis, not a “Latin name and uses” basis. I also began to wonder if my volunteer hours would be better spent directly helping others, rather than puttering around the garden so it could raise funds through the sale of potted plants. It seems that for me the right volunteer activity needs to effectively blend dedication to cause with personal fulfillment. A true give and get.

So, fun in the garden is out. Tutoring in an elementary school is in.

My Tuesday mid-days are now spent with 1st and 2nd graders in a high poverty school, helping out their teachers and them. Two weeks down. I feel of use there applying some skills, some compassion for the students, some empathy for the teachers, and lots of love being part of the village raising our children. And they are our children, because this isn’t about yours or mine, but about making each child feel valued.

I’m there to help with reading and writing, one-on-one or walking around the room helping whoever needs it at the moment. It is surprising, in a good way, how quickly I feel that I’m part of the group. In the first week, one girl was dismissive, as she had a right to be; after all, who is this new person in our classroom and why do I have to interact with her? This week, when I was at the door ready to leave, she came up and gave me a hug. Momentary mission-accomplished.

Not being the teacher in the classroom responsible for lessons and assessments is freeing. It is a distilled version of teaching, which, distilled even further, is an adult helping a child. Within the two hours I was there, I tied shoelaces, commented on drawings, enthused over sentences, and gave pep-talks on reading, oh, and permission to go to the in-class bathroom. Time well-spent. Experiences like this show me that I made the right move when I became a teacher mid-career (abandoning high-tech marketing writing), because one way my soul expresses itself is by reflecting back to children what is within. It also shows that retirement is the time to fully live that expression—in between a late breakfast and a swim in the pool.


Still Being Asked “What Do You Do?”


The “What do you do?” questions have not stopped being asked. And I’ve decided that it’s a good thing.

Last week I went to an event to meet other Jewish women who are members or potential members of an organization that helps women and girls. It was a glad-I-went event, where I met interesting, enthusiastic women and I’m excited to see where this will lead, regarding the organization’s work and my involvement. Besides the regular committee work, I also volunteered to help with their communications, after meeting with the director who bemoaned the poor grammar skills of people applying for content writing jobs.

I’ve gotten used to mainly meeting retired people who ask, “Where are you from?” so that when I was asked repeatedly, “What do you do?” I realized that I need to come up with a better answer. Saying that “I’m a retired teacher,” was met with confusion. It’s not just that I retired relatively young, it’s that people assume that being retired means that I don’t do anything, except lunch with the ladies and maintain my health (which are not bad in the big scheme of things). It seems wrong to them that I have opted out. Assumptions about retirement, and what people should do, abound even here in Retirementland (southern Florida).

Beyond the retirement part, I also realize that I don’t want to identify myself as a teacher. I enjoyed being a teacher and, in many ways, it saved me when I was going through my divorce and needed a job. It enabled me to have purpose, as well as financial and job security. Moreover, I’m a better person after having taught because it forced me to become more outgoing, compassionate, and thoughtful. So, I’m definitely thankful to teaching.

Continuing on the idea developed in previous blog posts that what I do for a living doesn’t define me, I realize that I need to come up with a better answer. Teaching was my last job. It was never a life goal; it was unintentional and, thankfully, it worked out for me. Ultimately, it was a way to make a living. (Imagine if you didn’t need the money from your job. Would you still do it? I probably would have lasted a few years as a teacher, but not as long as I did.) But even if it had been my only career and I fully identified as a teacher, shouldn’t I imagine myself in another way—not job-as-identity—as I embark on this next phase(s?) of life? Isn’t that what retirement should mean?

Knock on wood, I live for another few decades, decades that would represent a significant portion of my life. They will probably be the most intentional years that I live. The major milestones are in my past: to go to college, to have a career, to get married, to buy a house, to raise wonderful children. Those accomplishments required that I focus outside of myself, while now I can focus on what I need, so that when I go to bed at night, I don’t berate myself for wasting another day. I’m hoping that my time going forward is a true expression of self. So far, besides when I’m wasting my time, I’ve been reading and writing, interacting with the people who are important to me, using my skills to help others, and learning new things (a lifelong learner, another definition of a teacher!). So, what does that make me? “I do what I need to do to feel good about myself by sharing my thoughts, and trying to make the world safer and more equitable.” Wordy. “I’m focused on self-expression and community betterment.” Pretentious. “I write and volunteer.” Devoid of meaning: what do those words mean in this context? Clearly, I’m still working on this, and that’s ok. I’m in no rush. Sometimes I really am using my time fully.

Winter Planter

For the past year, a good friend has toyed with the idea of joining an online dating site. The last time that she visited me we went on match.com and looked at other women’s profiles and men’s profiles, and then we composed her profile. Once she got home, though, she looked over the site again and decided that the men all looked old. She figured she’d go dancing instead.

This past week she contacted me about finally doing it. But when she found out that match.com costs $40 a month, she decided against it. A little later she said she’d join a free site. The next day she forwarded to me an article about friends who wrote each other’s profiles and asked if I would do that with her. Why not, I thought in a moment of positivity, feeling protected by the fact that I’m doing this more as a friend than as a woman who feels sidelined from the life of the world by sitting at home alone.  

I must say, our profiles show that we are both women of wit, intelligence, and compassion. They are also, I hope, STOP signs to those 50-year-old men who have not learned that they need to wear their shirts in their profile pictures (even if they still have muscles), or who don’t understand that women don’t want to be revered for being the vessel of their longing, and certainly DEAD END signs to those men who, in the more than 30 years they should have been interacting with women as equals, still don’t get that we are not their mothers and that we don’t want to coddle their egos, we would much rather play snarky-comment ping pong.  

Regardless of what happens on the dating end, her describing me in my profile as being “good at friendship” made this exercise absolutely worthwhile. We know our friends and we know that we remain friends because we have things in common, and we have what to talk about, and we care about each other, but how often do we come out and say it? When I told a friend at work about what my other friend said in my profile, she commented that she’s glad that she doesn’t have to be on dating sites and, “Yes, you are good at friendship.” So I thank her, too. Which leads me to what this exercise has made so clear: the more mature we get, the more content we get, the more we realize that this is because of our friendships. They are not the side-car to our main-car: we are all riding in a van that somehow keeps expanding to add more seats.


All day I watch my students develop their friendships in between my lessons. There is nothing that most of these teens would rather do than talk (or text friends) or do the teen version of snarky-comment ping pong. And while their ability to go to “outside voices” talking within a nanosecond of my turning around to get a handout, I have come to understand that we all desperately need someone to hear us. Love. It can be grand, but it is not the staff of life. No, that is in the pleasure in presence that is captured in getting together for Sunday morning brunch or Shabbat dinner or in calls to California. Friendships are the yard, the garden, the field from which all else can develop be it love or creations or strength.

When I was their age, I overlooked how important friendships were; they were merely there as a backdrop until true love would come galloping in. So silly. So much wasted time misconstruing life.

But back to love. I don’t know if I want love. Or maybe what I don’t want is the version of love that I have lived through. I wonder if my fathoming the importance of friendships will enable me to create a more balanced love when/if it develops in my planter?

  Snow Dec 2013a

No Space in My Alcove of Humility

Tree outside my bedroom windowTree outside my bedroom window; losing leaves everyday.

Sometimes you get confirmation that what you are doing is right and you are strong enough to accept that gift for what it’s worth rather than crawl into your alcove of humility.

The other night, together with two people from my new synagogue, we led a creative writing session with some teenagers, all girls, in a transitional group home. We sat around the kitchen table (always the place to be) and did a free write, and read and discussed a poem, and then watched some music videos that they suggested. We also (shocker) snacked.

My confidence in my teaching ability in a classroom setting propelled me into this new setting with the confidence that I could conduct a lesson, but I was unsure if I could connect to the teens there or if I could get them to care about trying to express themselves in words on paper or out loud. I dreaded the curtness of antagonism and dismissiveness. Neither came. They immediately got to the free write that I used to get things started, and they kept at it long after one of the other leaders transitioned to doodles.

The girl who was sitting to my left was called out. She was taken by the police. The other girls got completely still, then they said something about her not having gone to school. 

Unexpectently, they wanted to share their free writes. One girl wanted to show off her rap, but then they all wanted to share. And they wanted us to share, which transitioned us into a group of people stumbling with expression, rather than a hierarchy of us and them.

Then, the girl sitting to my right left suddenly, overwhelmed, it seemed, with remembrances and feelings brought on by the thoughts she expressed in her free write. After that, the girl who had been so full of her own attitude, sat down next to me, where the other girl who had been overcome had been sitting. Such a little thing, such a powerful feeling of honest connectivity—at least that’s how I interpret it, and I’m sticking to that.

Then, as we read the poem, "Still I Rise," by Maya Angelou, I told them to focus on asking questions that the poem raises rather than to charge forward with finding clarity of meaning. One girl related how one of the stanzas perfectly reflected what she had experienced that day in court, having been made to feel that she had been “cut by eyes.” And for another the phrase, “I dance like I've got diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs?” made her think of sex abuse. I told them how I thought of that line as empowering women. Just goes to show that we are always students of each other’s minds and experiences. It also reminded her of a singer who sings about the abuse she suffered from her father, and so we segued into listening to those songs. We all acknowledged, without acknowledging, that writing is a powerful way to challenge the victim narrative.  

At the end of the session, each girl was eager to receive a journal and a pen. One girl wanted my pen that said “Trust Women,” and I was so happy to give it to her. I had cherished that pen, but now I cherish the thought of her having it—of her using it. Another girl wanted to keep the purple teacher pen that I had given to her because she likes purple. And so do I and we both smiled at the happiness of purple.

Then we left.

I will definitely be back next month. There will be different teens there dealing with the lives that they have been handed and which they have handed to themselves, and it might not be as fulfilling as this first time was, but that is not the point, the point is to keep showing up and trying to be a drop in a bucket. So I guess it is about humility, but a humility that comes from strength and not unease. 

Appreciating Teacher Appreciation Week

I know that it’s Teacher Appreciation Week because there’s free food at school. Last week, in preparation for the big event, we were feted with, as one colleague put it, mayonnaise-five-ways. Okay, there was pulled pork to go with the mayonnaise salads, but still it was a July 4th meal two months early. We’re professionals and sadly/gladly, we were pleased not to eat our Lean Cuisines and leftovers one day during our lunch half-hour. This week, so far we have had a lunchtime barbeque, donuts, cake on a stick, a Costco cookie, and coffee. (I must admit, coffee brought to me on a cart was quite the treat.) Not that I don’t mind all the food-based treats, but I wonder if there is another way to show appreciation for teachers besides with food?

Here are some ideas.

  1. Each and every student will say at least one nice thing to each of his/her teachers. A few suggestions popped into my head. “That was an interesting lesson, thank you.” “Now I get it, thank you.” “I’m sorry that I didn’t do a good job on the assignment, but I have redone it, without expecting a higher grade but just to show you what I am capable of and what you have taught me that I am capable of. Thank you” “You look lovely today, as always.” “You are the best teacher” (this can be said, without any irony or contradiction, to every teacher).
  2. Each and every parent, no teamwork here, must write a Thank You note to his or her children’s teachers—for every single teacher of every single child. To do this each parent must know the name of his/her child’s teachers, must know the subject the teacher teaches, and must know some specifics that can be mentioned in the note. This information could be gleaned from your child. Surely, writing the note is something all parents know how to do since they have told their children, on various occasions, to write Thank You notes.
  3. All parents and students will refrain from sending any emails that are thinly-disguised or not even vaguely-disguised rants at a teacher, and if any are sent, they will certainly not be CC-ed to assistant principals, principals, or superintendents. Honestly, you can assume that it is not the teacher’s fault that your child is failing, and it is not the teacher’s fault that your child is not doing his/her work and it is not the teacher’s fault that your child plagiarized a paper. Generally when a child is not doing his or her work, it's because things are not quite right at home--so parents, look to yourselves before you start blaming teachers.
  4. For the entire week, parents would need to help their children with their homework. Not to do it for them, but to sit there and explain  c a l m l y  what he didn’t get at school. And if, for whatever reason, he still doesn’t understand what you’re explaining ever-so-thoroughly and effectively, figure out another way of getting the idea across so that he can feel good about himself and his learning. For each of the week’s sessions you will never voice your frustration, nor will you express your frustration by leaving the room (other than to go to the bathroom), until the learning is done. At absolutely no point will you use the S-word (as in stupid) or the L-word (as in lazy).
  5. “If you can read, thank a teacher.” I’ve seen that bumper sticker—and I think it holds true. Every person in this country should acknowledge, in some way (see above and below) the positive impact that teacher’s have had on his/her life. (Yes, there are teachers who are not good, as there are parents who are not good, but who takes away a Mother’s Day Card from a mother or a Father’s Day card from a father? Positive thinking, we are positive-thinking.)
  6. For one week let us teachers teach without the dual requirement to entertain the masses. This is not stand-up comedy and this is not a sitcom. (Wait, it probably is a sitcom. Every single classroom could easily be the basis for a sitcom.) Grammar is not fun. Writing essays is not the most enjoyable of activities. SO WHAT! It needs to be done. There are skills that need to be mastered, and not just for tests that dumb-down, but for life that invites possibilities. Do it! Do your work. Yes, it’s called work—school work and home work. But if kids would try for just a moment to focus on the learning—on what the teacher has to teach—and not on the fact that they would rather be connected to some gadget, learning may occur.
  7. Pay a one-day babysitting fee for your child. Let’s assume a babysitter these days makes $11 an hour and a school day is 7.5 hours, so $82.50 would be owed for each student to be paid to a teachers’ fund at your child’s school. This money could then be used at the teachers’ discretion; of course, a professional community would be established to decide how to use the funds. Luxuries such as coffee machines, microwaves, refrigerators for teacher workrooms, or even “teacher chairs” that don’t look like they trickled down from the Principal’s Conference Room two principals ago could be considered.
  8. And one thing that did happen this week that I truly appreciated: students wrote nice thank you comments on paper apples and gave them out to teachers. Too bad that most had exactly the same comments so there was a hint of insincerity, and that mine had a misused contraction. But here, at least, there were no calories involved and there seemed to be an honest note of appreciation. THANK YOU STUDENTS!



The Education Philosophy of 0=50

“What does doing 0 work but getting a grade of 50 teach a child?” No, this is not a rhetorical question, neither is it a hypothetical one. It is a question that teachers across the country seem to be dealing with (well, maybe not across the country, but at least in Virginia and Colorado).

“Why would a student get a 50% on an assignment that he did not do?” is a better question. Or perhaps: “Why would a teacher be told/directed to give a student a 50% on an assignment that was assigned but which the student did not do?” From what I understand there are two main rationales.

One: not to damage the ego of a child because, you know, getting 0% for the 0% effort he put into his schoolwork would cause his self-confidence to plummet. This is as opposed to doing 100% of the work, and working hard at it, and getting a grade that makes him proud of the work he did—or at least aware that effort is rewarded, and that you learn and improve the more work you do. That, apparently, isn’t such a sound idea these days. Perhaps it is too much of a retro idea and education theorists and philosophers are all about continually re-inventing the education wheel.

Two: too many Ds and Fs look bad for a teacher and, more importantly, a school. What would the pie charts and the bar graphs and statistics look like if a school has too many students at the bottom end of the grade alphabet? No, that’s not good because then schools would have to worry about being labeled low performing or not improving student performance enough, which is worse, apparently, than actually figuring out why a student is not doing his work and working with him—so grade inflation is the way to prevent that. (I love the word “performance,” which is as appropriate as “are you still working” when you are eating in a restaurant. Shouldn’t the word be knowledge or understanding, you know, something related to the learning process; and in relation to the restaurant, shouldn’t it be “eating,” as in are you still eating that apple pie?)

“No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top,” in their efforts to raise the educational level of all students, sure have resulted in some skewed practices. I understand and fully support believing in every single child in this country and giving him or her the best education possible, but encouraging kids to be lazy seems to be faulty—or lazy—logic to me.  

I have taught high school freshmen who are stunned when they receive 0s. Seriously, they are upset and confused that I don’t give them credit just because they’re such wonderful and cute kids. Someone please tell me what real-world lesson this emulates that wouldn’t result in someone going to jail—or having resulted in having some really great coupons?

Why should 14-year-olds first be learning that work=grade or that there are consequences for their actions/inactions? Wouldn’t it be better, for all of us now and into the future, if we taught kids that they are as accountable for their grades as we the educators and the parents and the administrators and society are? 


Respect: To Be Given and To Be Expected

The other day I got an email from a counselor at school saying that a student of mine thinks that I am not nice to him. She suggested that I rectify this situation by having a one-on-one conversation with him asap. My response was one of those quickly written emails that we often come to regret, but in this case I have no regret for the quick-write and quick-send. I told her that I did have a tough talk with him that morning because he was supposed to have stayed after school with me a few days earlier to make up some work he missed while on vacation. I had told him that I would stay and wait for him. Not only did he not come, but two days later he still didn’t find it in himself to explain or apologize—and I demanded that he apologize to me, in a rather strong tone and with a mini-lecture thrown in.

There is just no way that I will be reprimanded for not over-coddling a teen’s ego. Seriously, at what point does a child need to stop listening only to his inner whiner and start learning that there are rules of decency that he needs to adhere to?

Another student told his mother that I yell at him. Besides the obvious fact that these kids have no conception of what a real yell is, they seem to equate a tough and forceful tone that is ever so slightly above the normal teacher tone as a yell. But I was having none of it. I told the mother that, yes, I have directed tough words at her son because he seems to think that making accents of different ethnic groups (his own included) is funny and is entertainment for the other immature boys in the class, and because I have forced him to throw out his green gum with which he likes to make bubbles during class.

Maybe I shouldn’t be teaching this age group. A number of teachers and people in the general public have told me that they could never teach freshman, but I enjoy them—up to a point. (Let me state unequivocally that the girls are not only mature, but they are well aware of the immaturity of the boys in their midst, and they are delightful.) At that point (I mean the point at which they are disrespectful and oblivious to some basic societal norms), I become a teacher whose lesson cannot possibly be evaluated by a bubble chart—it’s when I demand that they learn how to act and behave properly. It’s when I forget to modulate my tone and say what I think as if this child were my own child.

At what point do children lose the license to excuse their own bad behavior? And why, honestly, did they ever get that license in the first place?

It could be that I’m tough, as people have said, but I don’t see how expecting children to behave with respect to their elders and each other is tough or beyond a basic norm? Honestly, I’m tired of feeling that I’m doing something wrong when all that I am doing is trying to educate the whole child. Do parents really want their children to keep getting passes for work they don’t do and behavior that is reproachable? Sure, I admit that you can live a successful life even if you don’t understand Shakespeare, but what can you do if you don’t know what the word “courtesy” means?

I fear that the focus on teaching to the test and evaluating teachers based to a great degree on their student’s work will give too much power to children and lessen an understanding that they are to respect their elders and those who are trying to help them. It might come as a surprise to some, but not every child wants or knows how to do well, and kids know how to get back at someone they think has slighted them. A friend of mine teaches at the graduate school level and she has to deal with student evaluations which often read like mini-vendettas because they don’t like the amount of reading she has assigned and because there might not have been a syncing of personalities, not to mention disgruntled students who didn’t get an A.

Backing down and letting their behavior slide is not an option. I’d rather move right along to my Plan B career choice of working with the geriatric crowd than bend the understanding of respect that I was taught by example as a child.

We seem to be looking to other cultures for guidance on how to raise our children. We’re looking to China with Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, and France with Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman, and a mélange with How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting (From Argentina to Tanzania and Everywhere in Between) by Mei-Ling Hopgood, but how about we stick to what we were taught as children—or at least unearth some of the key lessons from our overworked minds. It might have been a different time, and yes, it might not have been the best of times, but weren’t there some basic guidelines that were imparted on us and which we have, perhaps, slacked off on imparting to the next generation? Why do we excuse our children from the things that were absolute bottom lines for us? I didn’t even know that you could turn in homework late until I was in graduate school.  

Fellow teachers talk about students who send, via email, requests for them to write letters of recommendation for colleges that are due in a day, and then not even receiving thank you letters from those students when they delayed their weekend grading to write the letters. Expectations, surely, are warped.

An I-whatever has become de rigueur for this generation. How about requiring behavior that reflects an understanding that the world is not all about “I” before the next purchase?


Words from some very wise men: "Teach Your Children," by Crosby Stills Nash and Young.

Teaching about the Holocaust

In the school where I teach, we read Night, Elie Wiesel’s first memoir of the Holocaust. For me, reading Night and having my students learn about the Holocaust amounts to a mission.  Other teachers, though, find it a pain, a bother. They don’t understand all of the terms, which, I guess, means that they don’t want to learn concepts that are alien to them. I’m pretty sure they won’t be excommunicated from any church which they don’t attend if they learn what Shabbos means or what Kabbalah refers to. It seems that they want to stick to analyzing characters in a neat way as opposed to this small plunk of vicious reality that cannot be analyzed for character development.

It is so utterly wrong that the one Jewish member on the team (or the one who identifies as Jewish) is the one who finds true purpose in this unit. After all, do I teach because children need to know how to identify a metaphor, or do I teach because children need the tools to think and express themselves? It is so very wrong that people think, apparently, that since it didn’t happen to their people then they don’t need to relate to it. Or, worse yet, perhaps because it’s too much for them—too depressing, too horrifying, too outside of any comfort zone—they rush through it to fulfill a requirement but no more.

Generally, there is a research component to this unit. I have found it difficult to oversee this project because most kids want to find a single website that will give them answers to the questions they need to consider, yet I, I can’t help it, I want them to take it  more seriously than the means to a grade. So this year I will try a different way to reach inside those teen walls of indifference. This year each student will be assigned an event or place, and then research it and—this is the change—read original source material from people who lived through “their” event. I’m hoping that these personal stories will bridge the gap between doing schoolwork and connecting to history.

At the same time, other teachers have decided that this year they are going to focus on German propaganda. They will focus on how the Nazis led the Germans to follow them, to believe them, to be captivated by their tales of how lovely it is to be us, Aryans, and how hateful it is to be them, the Jews, or anyone who does not look as we say they should or behave as we say they should or believe what we say they should. And that is good, but it feels wrong. Maybe they are right, since our focus is supposed to be on language and that, really, is what we teach. But really, doesn’t this make the students focus on the poor Germans who were manipulated by the evil Nazis. Where in this focus are the victims—the people who were defiled, tortured, shot, gassed by those who believed and those who were too cowardly to not believe? Where is space for the victims of the “mislead”? Will they learn that excuses are more powerful than actions?

I tell myself that any learning and thinking about what happened during the Holocaust is positive; that I should not think that there is anything wrong with their focus. And yet it makes me uncomfortable. Does it come down to these teachers not being Jewish and so not feeling, intrinsically, the honor/importance that they have been given to transmit this lesson to a generation of citizens of the world? Maybe I’m wrong. But it doesn’t feel that way.

How are we to ever get to “never again”—that violent acting out of group hatred or fear—if our teachers can’t put themselves in another person’s shoes, even if those shoes have been preserved in monstrous piles never to be forgotten?

 Shoes Auschwitz

Piles of shoes that belonged to prisoners killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Poland, wartime. — United States Holocaust Memorial Museum #0009 

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.

Teens of Today

At the end of my posts I generally come up with a conclusion. It feels right to tie things up, even if it’s with a question. I never know what the conclusion will be when I start, but I know that it will be there. That, in fact, is one of the reasons why I write—so I can figure out what I’m thinking or to develop the threads of consciousness into a coherent thought. But today’s post is different. Today I won’t even try for that ‘aha.’ Today I just want to present a few students who I observed recently.

Ned. When I was walking around the school on my way back to my classroom, I saw a student I had four years ago, when he was a freshman. I asked him how he was doing. He shrugged. Then I asked if he was going to graduate. He said he wasn’t sure, that he hadn’t been to school for a long time. To say that he looked high is an understatement. Mind you I am not someone with well-developed high sensors, but there was no mistaking it with Ned. It was deflating.

When I had Ned in the ninth grade when he was a mini-punk, but there was a sharp satiric sense that I tried to develop—to show him that he was appreciated for his wit and intelligence.

I saw his current English teacher later; she said that he had been dropped from school because it has been so long since he had been to school.

Dave. Today a select group of students gave presentations about the service projects that they had done as part of their graduation requirement. Dave was late. No, Dave was not late. Dave, in a tee shirt and shorts, came late to say that he can’t present because he couldn’t transfer his presentation to a CD. And no, he didn’t have a flash drive. So a student who was selected to advance to this final round didn’t care enough to problem-solve a PowerPoint presentation from computer A to computer B.

William. This student, who wore a suit and who managed to get his presentation in a format that could be used, had a very bad stutter. But the show went on. He stood there in front of the judges and a small audience and gave his presentation. And it was tough to hear how hard it was for him to speak. But it was also a powerful testament to himself and those around him that he had the confidence in himself to be himself and was recognized for that.

Yvonne. When she came to class today, after her presentation, she told me how nervous she had been. I told her that I had not noticed that and if so, it was understandable. Not only did she need to overcome her shyness, but her presentation focuses on her illness. She laid herself out there—talking about her disease, how it had been treated and where, and then how, a few years later, she went back to the hospital where she had been treated to entertain other sick children to give back what she had gotten.

Eleanor. This student talked about her project, which was to train a young autistic man for the Special Olympics. Her admiration for him was evident in both her presentation and the video she showed. Watching those five minutes of her interacting with him and other young people in a gym made me proud just to be there listening to her. The capacity for some people to give so much of themselves is a humbling experience for those of us who seem to always remain in our self-contained bubble. 

Jessica. And there was Jessica who was so bubbly that her presentation was less guided by her note cards than it was a ride along her personality. The enthusiasm she had for teaching children and for her future were palpable. She didn’t even seem to be impressed by the work she had done; she was riding on the sheer pleasure she seemed to freely give. 

And when I came home, I was confronted by my very own teen. My younger daughter slammed and locked her door in my face. I really hope that her in-public persona has not been ravaged by her teen anti-mommy angst.

I don’t know what this generation will be called by those who are older and think they are so wise, wise enough to think that they can confine a non-existent group of people into some kind of box, boxed in by their own expectations or failures. All I can say (shoot, I’m summing up) is that I wish every child could reach his or her ladder and that the only way to go is up—up into fulfillment, and up into health, and up into joy given and received.  

Generation Some-Random-Letter

The other day I came to the very disheartening realization that the end of endless wars or the end of periodic wars does not seem to be in the future for this “great” nation. That is if I can take what I see of my students and use them as a tiny sample of this generation and extrapolate into a giant generalization. Two anecdotes are, to me, very telling.

In the school’s career center the other day, my ninth graders were asked if they know what they want to do or be. Only a handful raised their hands. Army. Air Force. Marines. Lawyer. Doctor. Army. Dentist. Pediatrician. Notwithstanding the fact that only one girl (pediatrician) raised her hand, I was horrified that so many of the boys see the military as a career. Granted, in this area in northern Virginia there are a lot of military bases and the Pentagon and enough Department of’s for just about every retired military person to get a chance to retire from another government job, and I grew up in New York City where only those kids who were heading down the wrong path went into the military, I was horrified. As I said to a friend later, “the military-industrial complex has won.” I’m not completely naïve, I lived in Israel for a long time, I recognize the need—unfortunately—for a strong military. But the military being a career choice just strikes me as sad for them and sad for us as a nation.

So many times you hear people say that someone was lost until s/he went into the military which straightened her/him out. Such a sorry sentence for our country, for ourselves. Shouldn’t there be another avenue for the kids who don’t have a direction and are seemingly lost by the need to decide at 18 what they want to do with their lives—both if that kid can afford college and not? Why don’t we have service to country that doesn’t involve learning how to shoot a rifle and “defend” our way of life in far-flung deserts and shores? I know there has been talk of a national service, but there isn’t one. Even in Israel, many of the kids who don’t want to go into the infantry can teach or do social work, or some other service to the society. Why are those who in another time would have just followed in the family business or livelihood not aware that there are other “safe” careers other than supporting the never-ending wars? What came first, the never-ending wars or the need to have a large military that must be kept busy?

And then there are two of my students, who are seniors, who just got engaged to each other. He will continue the family job of going into the military and she will continue the family job of supporting her man in the military. But their getting engaged at 18 is not what stands out so much to me, rather it is her engagement ring. She wears distinctive clothes and jewelry often adorned with skeletons and skulls as well as her ubiquitous spiky collar around her neck. He has counter-culture messages on his tee-shirts and sweatshirts. And her engagement ring. Well, it has tiny diamonds. Why can’t the rebels really keep it up? Why are they relenting, why are they abandoning the rebellion to go with the flow? Why have they succumbed so quickly? Is that it? Up to 18 to rebel, and then get in line: join the military, get married, be a continuer and not a questioner.

It made me sad seeing the 9th graders’ responses and the engagement ring on the same day. Maybe I should be happy that they know what they want instead of bemoaning their cattleness, but I am not. I want “question authority,” and I don’t want it to be just us midlife women chanting to ourselves about feminism and against war. Obviously, we have failed. We have our lovely choir, but where is the audience?

I wanted to yell out—THINK, think for yourselves! Yes, you’re confused and you don’t know what you are good at and you want someone else to decide everything for you because it’s so much easier than being confused, but TRY to THINK for YOURSELF—you can do it! Don’t think that might is right! Don’t you read the papers—don’t you know that we are belligerent? That a soldier is a warrior before he is a peacemaker! Believe in yourself. But I didn’t. I sat there thinking of the members of the military who have been injured or killed, or will be. And I thought about those who send them into battle, whether they dither over it or take longer to decide what kind of cigar to chomp on than when to send troops into battle.

I thought life was about valuing life—each other’s—and not just the life of the nation. But perhaps this is what we deserve, after all we live in a country where a company has personhood and is, apparently, more important than an individual’s life. 

But at least I know there is a choir out there. Those of us in the choir must continue to raise our voices, otherwise we will be shufflers. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to bring my shoes in to get fixed, the heels are beginning to show slight signs of wear.

Friday Night, Alone

When I got home from work yesterday afternoon, there was no fourteen-year-old who greeted me by closing the door to her bedroom but then popping out a few minutes later to ask what’s to eat, nor was there a Maltese named Poops who jumped up and danced on his hind legs when he saw me. There was only the dining room table with its self-created collection of piles to greet me. It's his weekend with them both.

I unpacked the bag of groceries that I bought for my evening at home, trying to ignore the silence by turning on the radio. I put away the frozen pizza and the two bottles of beer. After I responded to some emails, I went into my daughter’s room, piled her clothes on a chair as I had done when I was her age instead of the floor mounds that she prefers, arranged her five pillows on her bed, lay down, and lifted up the remote for what would be hours of unending numbness. It’s not that my job is so hard that I need to unwind so intensely, perhaps it’s because I don’t watch tv other than those Friday nights (okay, the occasional Saturday night if I’ve been grading or on the computer for too long—I think I need a “life”) but it is time that enables me to detach from my mind. Perhaps this is how I meditate. Sometimes it gets hard to think and be aware.

So there I was, on a hot pink sheet for hours watching Say Yes to the Dress and House Hunters International. The thought of why it is always those two programs that I return to kept trying to break into my mindlessness. Is it because I like to see people so happy, so ready to step into another phase of their lives, that I want to become a voyeur? Is it that I wish that for myself and so I live vicariously through them? Maybe it’s a bit of both; maybe I’m anticipating more change. But it’s also that there is nothing else that I can settle my mind onto. I cannot watch the news or opinion shows because I’m tired of listening to people open and close their mouths repeatedly without saying anything. (I don’t ignore the news, I still read mine.) I know, I know, I’m sure some of my students say that about me [especially the ones who wrote “I hate this class” on my “What I Want to Do This Year” sign on the backboard before I ripped it off in a moment that combined hurt and bitchiness (no one was there to witness this act)]. And I can’t watch scripted programs because everything is so fake and contrived that I don’t see how I could ever have been compelled to watch so much falsity in writing and acting.

How bare can I make my life? Is that why I need to watch tv every once in a while? How much can my life, a life, revolve around one’s actions and thoughts and the people one encounters? Is that why we read and watch? Is that how we expand our circle if we need it to be larger than it is in reality? Or do we need to incorporate ideas and people and images that don’t always challenge us and demand attention from us on a personal level? Do I need the numbness because there are so many people I need to care about everyday that I need to just stop sometimes? In a week I have about 185 students, each is an individual who I need—want—to understand and reach, and who I care about. Maybe it is about the job. Maybe it’s more draining than I realized. I get up in front of my classes three times a day and on religious school days, four or six times a day. And each time I’m on stage; I need to sense the audience and project, and thrust my personality out so that it meshes with the instruction. Is that why I don’t watch dramas? Not because of the corny stories and plasticine acting, but because I have too many lives to care about that I cannot expand my heart anymore?

Is this about self-preservation? Do I need to return my thoughts and cares to myself instead of always extending them and sharing them? Do I need to come back to myself at the end of the week because if I didn’t there wouldn’t be anything to share the next week? When I walk, I think. When I read, I think. When I watch, I detach. Maybe it’s not as much of a time-waster as I thought.

Where’s the remote?

Bomb Scare

The other day there was a bomb scare at my school. That means that the entire school body of about 2,200 13- to 18-year-olds and 300 staff members had to evacuate the building as soon as the rather overbearing voice of the principal came over the PA system at about ten in the morning. We were simply told to leave our rooms immediately—we were not told why (I, of course, thought that they were springing a new kind of a drill on us and left all of my things in the room and told the kids to leave their things on the desks—we were in the middle of going over a quiz)—there was no indication of a bomb scare on the PA announcement. The kids were told not to look at their cell phones. (Sounds dumb because it is a dumb thing to say.) In the announcement the teachers were told to read our emails in a tone that seemed to indicate we were amiss for not having read them already. This last comment bothered me, and I said outloud, “I couldn’t read the email because I was busy teaching.” When I checked, I didn’t see an email. It turned out later, in the rumor mill, that the email was being sent as we were leaving the building.

Rumor has it that the amount of time from when the bomb scare was made known until we were evacuated from the building was about twenty to twenty-five minutes, because the principal, who has a virtual presence most of the time, had to be located. Me, in my naïveté, noted (before I heard the rumor) that it was good that he was finally there when he was needed.

In a huddle around the principal about ten minutes after going onto the football field, we were told that there had been a bomb threat and not to tell the kids—only to tell them that the school was being checked and cleared. Okay, so a helicopter is flying over-head (I finally made the connection as to why I had been hearing a helicopter while I was still teaching and not that it was some kind of drill or Obama is in town), the school population is evacuated far from the building with everyone in one area (unlike in a normal fire drill when we are allowed to leave from various exits and could be much closer to the school), and we are not allowed to tell the kids the truth? And what about establishing trust with our students?

A student of mine, who had been in my classroom when we were evacuated, asked me if it was a bomb scare as he had heard. To a colleague’s dismay, I responded, “Well, that’s a good thing to hear.” I know, dumb thing to say, but I didn’t want to say, “No.” I wanted him to realize it was right without saying it. She repeated the party line about the building being checked and then we will be able to go back in. And then, another colleague read aloud from her iPhone the email announcement that had come from the county about a bomb scare—the email that was being sent to parents and anyone on the e-mailing list—while the student stood there. Why and how did they think it would be okay not to just tell the truth to these teens?

We spent an hour and a half in the football field (I got a nice tan—it was, gloriously, an amazingly warm fall day) when the announcement came that we will be able to start letting the students go home, and then we, the teachers, would be able to go home too.

Being the eternal optimist that I am, the truster in the powers that be, and not having a lesson to have learned from, I had left everything, except my student roster and emergency info packet, including the orange emergency teacher vest, in my classroom—which was now off-limits. I got a lift home, then found the spare key in the busy-body neighbor’s apartment. At around three another email announcement was sent that said that the school had been cleared and we could come and get our things. As luck would have it, my parents came in that day to visit, so they drove me back to school to get my pocketbook, cellphone, computer and car.

There was a lovely, relaxed atmosphere around the school. Perhaps it was relief. Perhaps it was the joy of getting most of the day off—for students and teachers. Perhaps it was seeing that nothing bad had happened. Perhaps, too, it was because the students had been so wonderful and calm, with no (observed) inappropriate behavior—we spied what we thought was a spitting contest and one very in love/lust couple who kept inching closer to each other. Besides that I saw a Frisbee game and a round of duck-duck-goose. What a great group of kids. There was no need to babysit them or stand guard over them.

I feel sorry for the obviously damaged person who sent the bomb scare, because his (her) life has irrevocably changed. Rumor also had it that the bomb scare was tied to a football game and an intense school rivalry. Sounds like some kind of patriotism gone bad.

In a totally unrelated event, the other day I found that an unknown student of mine—as in a student who sits in my classroom and who I spend my time trying to reach and teach—drew a large swastika and wrote the words "Heil Hitler" on the back of a handout that I gave out. I kept it for a day, thinking that I would try to discover who did it, but then I decided that I don’t want it or to have to think about and ripped it up and threw it out. I had confronted a few kids and they said that they didn’t do it, that they hadn’t even seen it.

You just wonder.

And then I think about the boy, Derrion Albert, who was beaten to death in Chicago less than two weeks ago. And you wonder how is it that so many kids seem to get the messages they are given about bullying and respecting each other, but there are still those who go as untouched by the onslaught of positive messages. Yes, maybe their home lives are not positive. Maybe they don’t feel that the messages touch them. Perhaps they never felt that anyone cares about them.

And a student was talked to by my co-teacher the other day because he thought that because he is a senior in high school he is allowed to be rude to his teacher—me.

And my daughter’s friend, who was nominated as a homecoming princess—as a joke, what of her? Her "crime" from what I can see is that she is chubby, or rather not skinny.

And you just keep wondering.

What of the children who hear the message, but get derailed by those who don’t?
I’m thinking that I will do a short lesson on hate and respect and self-respect. But will the kid who drew swastika hear me? And will the kid who is so full of disdain for me and “the system” hear me? I guess it doesn’t matter—because I will not let them defeat me—or let them think that they can defeat those of us who care about more than the negativity that swills through them.

Are we giving them mixed messages? When we deny them information, are we respecting? Are they, some of them at least, responding to the mixed messages they receive by responding to the negative messages?

Lots of wondering to do.

A New School Year

To all of us heading back to school, whether as teachers or students (and perhaps parents of students, parents of teachers, and even friends of teachers and students), let’s take a moment to pause and remember why we go to school. It might be something that we have to do. It’s a job for teachers and considered a job by many students. But beneath that reality (cynical or not), we still get to spend hours a day learning, instructing, discussing, reading, thinking, growing, developing—is there a better way to spend our time?

May this year be a joyous one filled with learning and sharing experiences.

May this year be one filled with the joy of epiphanies and conquests.

May this year fill your life with joy.

What I’m Reading

I’ve read many books this summer. As goes with my mind, the books are deeply entrenched in me when I read them and poof! gone the moment I finish them. They inform and inspire me as I read them and then I move on. The reading of them is another experience in my life. I don’t remember every meal I’ve eaten and conversation I’ve had, so, too, with my reading material—it’s been absorbed into my system some stays, enriching the rest, and some goes. 

But right now I am in the midst of two books that point to the two ways my mind seems to be wandering of late. They are What Was Asked of Us: An Oral History of the Iraq War by the Soldiers Who Fought It by Trish Wood, and home safe by Elizabeth Berg.

One, as you can tell by the title, is a very tough-to-read book about what some soldiers have experienced in Iraq. The other is not; it is about a woman coming into herself after her husband dies. One I need to read because it is too horrible to think that “we” are fighting two wars, one since 2001 and the other since 2003, and yet my life is untouched and even my reading, except for some articles and the biographies that the Washington Post publishes when there have been enough deaths for a two-page spread.

I am determined to pass this reading onto my students. No, not just reading, I am determined to have them think outside of their boxes for a while. No, I am determined that they rise to their capability to think about the world they live in.

These wars have become the white noise behind the childhood of these kids (and our own “adult” lives); the seventeen-year olds I will be teaching would have been nine when the War in Afghanistan began and eleven when the Iraq War began. My assumption is that except for the kids who have a parent serving in Iraq or Afghanistan or the military (lots of military kids here, right down the road from the Pentagon and a number of bases) they are not very aware. Not only that, with all of the wars and sundry other things that the history teachers must cover in a year (my take on our history textbooks), they barely talk about Vietnam. So rather than read a novel that enables them to escape, which they surely know how to handle, I feel that we need to reach into the world we live in and consider it.

I’m not sure if I can blame them for their complacency when it’s us, the mature grown-ups, who have become complacent. Or have our experiences and observations made us not believe what Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

While there had been a time when I entertained visions of creating an NGO that changed people’s lives I have come to find that I am not so much of a doer. I feel bad about that, and no, no amount of wanting it is going to change my personality and I don’t care what all the self-help books say. But in my little classroom I am determined to do my part. It’s not possible that I have become an English teacher only to help kids master the comma and the thesis statement. There must always be a purpose behind a purpose. So, the woman with a master’s in conflict studies, is going to read and talk about war. And I’m excited about it.

Because the way to peace is to understand war.


The other day I sent an encourging email to a colleague in my class. I wasn't sure what she had been upset about that day, but it seemed to be something about her job being in limbo. After knowing her for two weeks I can say that she is one of the sweetest people I have ever met. Any wonder that she's a second grade teacher?

Whenever I arrive in the morning to campus, I walk from the parking lot to the classroom alone. How is it that on the day after I sent that email, we both got there at the same time and walked together to class? Talking the while time, with her explaining her job situation and how her now former principal was treating her poorly.

Have you had this kind of coincidence or whatever you want to call it (fate if you must) happen to you?

Two Days’ Worth of Enough Beads

•  Yes, evil teacher here because I accused a student of plagiarizing an essay. About three-quarters of his essay was word for word from an online essay. His mother, unfortunately, accused me of underestimating the intelligence of her child. She, unfortunately, believed her son when he told her, “NO, of course I did not plagiarize. The horrible, terrible teacher who has been yelling at me all year because I never stop talking in class or calling out or laughing in a stupid guffaw way or saying stupid things doesn’t like me.” Ugh. Two days of accusations against me, with stern notes to the assistant principal until under extreme pressure (torture?) the student admitted to the assistant principal that he did get “some” help from “someone.” I guess after an at-home council he admitted to more to Momsy because suddenly the mother apologized to me. Thanks, but it would have been nicer if you didn’t think I’m the evil teacher from Mathilda (Agatha Trunchbull,) and confronted your son and not me. 

•  Yesterday, after a colleague declined to help another colleague, after another colleague suddenly realized that he couldn’t help, I was asked to help. Of course I said yes. So, poof, there went my planning period. Well, it didn’t totally disappear, I just had to spend it supervising five students taking a final exam in the room of the teacher who had declined to help.

• Today, I was told by the head of the department that I need to sit in on a meeting for her for five to ten minutes, which is generally how long a regular teacher needs to sit in on these meetings. But today, of course, it was special, so instead of a diversion from my planning period, I got to sit in a meeting for 45 minutes about a girl I never met and will most likely will never meet when I finally said that I have to teach a class in five minutes (and I have to pee and eat something). They were oh, so gracious, in letting me leave—even though I had asked the person running the meeting before it started if I could leave after a first few minutes.

    o Just as I left the meeting, my department chair appeared. There was a sorry sorry sorry, and when she tried to catch up to me after talking to someone she ran on the knee that she had operated on two months ago, and then there was a “what do you want from Starbucks?” I am so hoping my thank you and sorry chai tea latte appears tomorrow morning.

• This might sound callous, it’s not, it’s just an expression of frustration or exhaustion or enough! Or maybe it’s just being selfish, which I think we all need once in a while. A close relative of my team teacher’s was killed in a car accident this past weekend, which means that he was physically absent and even more absent-even-when-present than usual. I do care, honestly, but I’m just tired of having to do more and tired of the help I’m supposed to have not helping me. And I need to work on this inter-personal relationship because next year we are slated to teach three classes again together. And maybe, too, the ache of his loss has also seeped into me.

Continue reading "Two Days’ Worth of Enough Beads" »

The Threads of a Life

So many threads to a life. So many threads interweaving with other threads. Some threads continue interweaving, some go in new directions, and sometimes we need to tie a knot in them to see where we are at the moment. That’s where I am right now, at the knot-tying stage, looking at some of the threads in my life.

The husband of my colleague, who was diagnosed with esophageal cancer about six weeks ago, died a little more than a week ago. Still in shock, her refrain, her complaint (if it can be called that) is that “it happened so fast.” Even so, a few days before he died they managed to arrange for their engaged daughter to get married in their backyard for a true blending of the bitter and the sweet into their lives. (May his memory be blessed.)

My wonderful student from last year who was supposed to have brain surgery in July was notified that, no, they cannot wait, and so she has already been operated on. I cannot tell you how hard it is to see a 15-year-old child need a wheelchair to get back to her room from just a few feet away. Sure, I saw her two days after her surgery, but there are some images that you don’t want to reconcile with the picture you have in your head of how a teenager is “supposed” to be, and how this lively, enthusiastic, intelligent, perfectionist always was—is.

I was invited to take part in the teaching of writing class that I interviewed for in March. Last night was the welcome dinner. It is fascinating to hear the ideas that other teachers have to excite, instruct and inspire their students to write. Why the creativity of teachers is not a thing more discussed is a wonder to me. We each need to make a 75-minute presentation; I heard the ideas of about half the teachers who will be taking the class (25 all together) and they were all so interesting and inspiring, for me both as a teacher and a parent. You have to wonder how it is that kids are missing out on the sparks that are coming their ways. What is it that they need? Or is the best that any teacher can expect in a year is to reach a few kids, and with that, to feel “mission accomplished” and not stress too much over those who did not have a spark-detector for her?

The assistant principal “raved” about how well I handled psycho mom in the parent-teacher conference the other day. Apparently the “can get defensive” label that I had been given has been replaced with “handles tough parents well.” I certainly like the sound of that more.

Older daughter is moving to California on Saturday, days before her 18th birthday. “Mixed emotions” could cover it, but what’s the mix if it changes all the time? I am certainly proud of her that she is going where she wants and is facing her future as opposed to acting like someone already worrying about retirement before she is even old enough to drink. There is a heavy feeling of hoping: hoping that I have been as good a mother to her as possible and that she is prepared and comfortable to become herself. She did get a letter from a professor the other day who called her brilliant, so on that side of things she seems to be doing well. She is, as I was, as unprepared for the minutiae of life, you know, cooking, cleaning and organizing, but I hope it will come when it needs to.

I will be moving on June 1st. The settlement on the house is to be mid-June. There are countable numbers of days until the end of this ordeal. There really is a tunnel with two ends, for so long I thought it was a dead-end tunnel. I am imagining myself getting up in the morning from a bed and walking a few steps away to see my younger daughter sleeping comfortably in her room, and then walking over to the little terrace, which will become my outside thinking spot, for a few moments of clarity before heading into the shower. Yes, I can finally imagine a lightness to living, and not just dreading hearing heavy footsteps and a tape recorder and another demand for money or twisted interpretation of reality. Freedom. It’s coming.

I told the mediator that I will not pay the bill he sent me because he let ex-man insult me and he tried to pressure me to agree with him. He wrote back that he will cancel my bill, and he won’t have us back again to mediation. No kidding. It was for a really small amount, but I stood up and kept standing.

Today I will be meeting nasty lady lawyer to ensure that I get the full amount due to me from the sale of the house, and that I will not have to pay for his non-payment of the mortgage in the past few months. Soon, soon this will end.

And there is a 35-year-old man who keeps writing me lovely emails. And there is the lovely, laid-back South American scientist with whom I will eventually have a second date. The back, back burner idea of romance suits me. Pseudo-man contacted me again, ugh, and I told him, in between silent treatments, that I have moved on, and I have. I will not have anything to do with someone who is not good for me, or who I think will not be good for me. I am for me now, so how can I let someone in who is so obviously for himself?

A colleague will be 40 today. She’s feeling the life marker. Me, I’m feeling a different life marker, or marks of my life, and so happy to have a head that can finally look ahead and is not just stuck in the now.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, for helping me this past year. My strength has been your strength. You, readers, have no idea how invaluable it has been to me to know that people are reading about my struggles, and passing on to me encouragement and strength, not only through your words, but your presence too (for the non-commentators out there). Your presence has truly lifted me up as a prayer. May life be full of fulfillments for us all.

Parent-Teacher Conference

I was in the middle of writing this humorous slash ranting post about a parent-teacher-teacher-student-assistant principal conference I had the other day when I thought, hmm, the mother is a lawyer, the mother is irate, maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea to post this. Even though there is no way anyone could figure out who I am talking about, why tempt any issues. And so I switched gears; rather than write about what this particular student does to annoy her teachers who she does not like, or talk about how insulting the mother was to my colleague and me, I’ll skip right to the point that I think I was going to lead into.

Why do parents think that their attitude-rich, participation-free kids are any different in school than at home? Why do they think that their every interpretation of events in school is exact when they know that there have been evasions, half-truths, and even outright lies coming their way from said prodigy? Why do they think that we have to make their kids meet their expectations? And why do they belittle us when they expect so much from us?

Which reminds me of an incident I had this week with another student. He was mad that I apparently threw out his homework in my effort to derail his attempt to get his grade up. Yes, it seems that I did that to give him an undeserved zero because,it is clear, I do not like him. On day two of his contest of wills with me he looked through the folder where work goes if a student is absent on the day the materials are returned. Lo and behold, there it was. But with one little problem: there was no name on the paper. That must be my fault.

Why are we always to blame if something doesn’t go right? Why is my co-teacher blamed for her daughter not doing her work? And why am I told that I “should pick on someone your own size” if she knows that her daughter gets belligerent if criticism of any kind (and I mean “any”) comes her way? How come I have to figure out how to deal with this girl when both of her parents deal with her by yelling at her and buying her clothes? 

Seriously, I’m here to teach English, with some ethics lessons mixed in, but I am not their parent and I am not a therapist. And how the heck am I supposed to figure out how to handle the personalities of 125 kids when the parents can barely figure out their one or two or three children who they have had in their homes for years? Why can’t we go back to the good ole days of respecting teachers, bending our fragile children’s personalities to the teachers’ personalities, rather than trying to break the teacher down?

On the same day of my conference, another teacher was dealing with a student and parents who have escalated the “she can’t take this test because the final day to take it has passed” into a big dramatic scenario whereby the teacher is accused of doing something she did not do. (I know this because I was in her room at the time.) So now this teacher has to stress about her reputation and her relations with her students rather than to focus on preparing them for their exams.

Seriously, what is the world coming to? Since I started teaching four years ago I have found the vast majority of the teachers I have worked with or took classes with to be committed to teaching their students, and have cared about their students as people. We spend hours trying to come up with lessons that will excite and intrigue, and to get them to remember those things that don’t excite anyone but need to be remembered. Why is this not seen?

And this is the thanks we get. I shouldn’t focus on the few parents who are nasty to me in meetings or barely veiled condescending emails, but that seems to be the nature of human nature. I should focus on hearing what they have to say, see if there’s any validity, and then figure out how to improve. But honestly, what are they doing when they get home? Are they thinking about how to better discipline or instruct or guide their children or do they feel satisfied that they got a professional to jump through their hoops? We’re professionals for content, not raising kids—that’s the parents’ job. How about the blame game not being so one-sided? How about parents acknowledging their own lacking and seeing if something that they have done could have somehow, maybe, resulted in a child who is belligerent, disrespectful and entitled.

There is a difference between parenting and teaching, and parents need to understand that. And kids need to understand that, too.

Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week, except for the few goodies from my school, I received one bag of chocolates and a “thank you” card from one student. I will try try try not to let some parents get me down, and I will try to focus on my successes. But it’s darn hard when I’ve got nasty mom reverberating in my head and only the silence of barely uttered “thank you’s” from other parents.

Maybe next year on the syllabus in addition to paper and pencils I should write that students are required to come every day with a positive attitude and a desire to learn.

Watching Romeo and Juliet, or Parts of It

Since we will be reading Romeo and Juliet after spring break, I decided to have my classes watch a movie version before the break. I’m hoping that maybe if they see the movie first it will help them understand the lines better when we read the play. Which brings me to an interesting dilemma that I have had to face: in the movie version of the play that we watch (the Zeffirelli version) there are two murders (there are three in the play), two suicides, and about two seconds of Romeo’s butt and two seconds of Juliet’s breasts.

Why did I cover the barely naked and sincerely lovely bedroom scene but not the two murders and two suicides? And why did the religious boy in one class look down during the bedroom scene (that is supposed to be a balcony scene) for fear that I would slip and reveal a sliver of something but watch throughout the two very, very long sword fights?

Is this a sign of how silly or perverse our society is that it is okay to watch violence but we should not view the beauty of love and the human form? I’m not talking porn here, I’m talking of glimmers of “forbidden parts.” It seems to me that our society needs more adjusting than in the way we spend our money; we need to reconsider what we value—what should be valued. How could I fear getting emails from parents because of a momentary butt (a very lovely one at that, since I showed it last year) and not from three impalements and one dose of poison? Why was the intense intimacy between the newly-married Romeo and Juliet more fraught with possible repercussions for me than seeing Mercutio’s stab wound?

I so wish it weren’t so. I would so much prefer beauty over violence. Wouldn’t that be better for us all? Why protect their innocence from nudity but not from barbarity? Surely in these days when people are talking of domestic violence it would be better for kids to understand the difference between love and violence; moreover, they should be encouraged to groan at the sign of pain and look head-on to the unveiling of love. Maybe this year when we read the play I need to stress how the violence led to the destruction of Romeo and Juliet’s love. This year as we read the play maybe I should get the most aggressive boys to take turns being Romeo and not succumb to their desire to play Tybalt the aggressor.

Yes, this year I will counter the internal movie censor that I was with a different kind of censorship. This year I will try to not have the boys laugh at the effusive pronouncements of love—this year I will try to get them to see into themselves and to admit that to love is far more powerful than to succumb to tawdry threats and aggression. And the girls, they should see that tenderness and love makes one stronger, not weaker.