Enriched

Coyote pups

Four Coyote Pups by Den. Colorado. nature 80020CC BY

As sixth grade ended, my teacher recommended me for a summer enrichment camp.

“You’ll love it,” she said. “Every day for two weeks, you’ll get to study drama, writing, and photography.”

I desperately wanted to go.

When I brought the paperwork home to my dad, he frowned.

“I don’t think so,” he told me.

“But, Daddy, it’s a special thing. You have to be invited by your teacher and I get to study drama and writing. It’s going to be so much fun. I can even ride the summer school bus to get there every day—please, Daddy?”

“It costs, you know.” He sounded tired.

The attendance fee, I think, was twenty-five dollars. Maybe thirty. It didn’t seem like a lot to me, but I knew Daddy worried about bills. My mother had ongoing medical expenses; my sister and I took weekly allergy shots. I knew not to bother Daddy when he sat at the table with the checkbook—I wouldn’t go near the kitchen at all, for then he wore a worse frown than the one he was wearing now.

No point in pressing him. I went to my bedroom, shut the door, and cried.

Later that day, or maybe the next, Grandma called. After chatting awhile with my father about news, how our all of our relatives were in their little North Carolina hometown and how everybody was there in Virginia, she asked to talk to me.

Daddy handed me the phone. It had a long cord—really long. From its wall mount, the phone cord reached the floor. It would stretch from the kitchen down the hall to my room, where I could sit on my bed and talk in private.

“Hi, Grandma.”

“Hello, Dear,” she said, the warmth of it like June sunlight bursting through a break in the clouds.  “I just wanted to hear your voice.”

My tears welled again. “I miss you.”

“Is something the matter?”

I told her all about the camp, about Daddy saying no because of the cost.

“How much is it?”

I told her.

“I’ll pay for it,” she said, uncharacteristically crisp. I could almost see the lift of her chin, the flash in her blue eyes. “I believe children should have the chance to do some things they really want to do.”

“Thank you,” I sniffled into the phone.

“Let me talk to your Daddy.”

And so it was that I went to the summer camp on the benevolence of my greatest advocate, Grandma.

Riding the bus with high school kids having to attend summer school in order to pass their grades was an adventure unto itself, but beyond that, camp was a laboratory of creativity.

I encountered pantomime for the first time, communicating story with the body, without words. I wasn’t especially good at it but some of my fellow campers—aged eleven, twelve, thirteen—were astonishing. One boy mimed being closed in by a shrinking box so well that the box was virtually visible. I watched, holding my breath, enthralled.

The drama teachers grouped us into fours, gave the groups four words, and challenged us with writing cohesive skits with these four words embedded in dialogue. My group’s words were—to the best of my memory—lion, clock, heart, flies. We were timed on the writing of the skit and the rehearsal of it, including the creation of minimalist props out of construction paper. My group, with me as scribe, wrote a farcical story of a doctor having to treat a patient who was attacked by a lion and who got away by throwing a clock at it, to which the Groucho Marx-esque doctor remarks: “My, how time flies!”

We entitled it “Dr. Heartbeat, Dr. Heartbeat” after a TV series that none of us really knew much about except that it seemed weird and therefore perfect: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. 

We performed last for our fellow campers, to a standing ovation and teachers wiping their tears at our over-the-top slapstick antics. Yours Truly played the hapless doctor.

We studied fairy tales; we wrote and illustrated our own, to be “published” in laminated books we could keep. I wrote “The Littlest Mermaid,” having long been captivated by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Ages before Disney brought us red-headed Ariel, my pink-haired mermaid battled jealous bullies. When I wrote The other mermaids hated her, the writing teacher said, “Hate is a strong, terrible word. Do you think it belongs in a story for children?”

I revised: The other mermaids didn’t like her. 

Ever since, I’ve thought about the power of one word, and when is right or not right to use it. And audience. And whether children should be shielded from the word hate, and when are fairy tales just for children?

In photography class, we campers built cameras from shoe boxes, learning about light leaks and timed exposures. I was able to produce a picture of a basset hound (they don’t move a lot) and my classmate sitting in a tree. The teacher explained that we were “photojournalists”—we’d write about the process of building and using our cameras, what worked, what didn’t, and why. He then encouraged us to write stories about the images we took and developed.

For a final writing adventure, the writing teachers invited us to look through a stack of glossy, full-page photographs. I chose two: One of a single coyote standing in a canyon, the other of four little coyote pups. I was taken by the animals’ beauty and the warm, reddish colors of the rocks.

Trouble was, I knew nothing of coyotes beyond the Road Runner cartoons. The animals in these photos were unexpectedly magnificent.

Thus began my first real foray into research. It began with place: Where do coyotes live? I needed to know. At home that night, I cracked open a dusty encyclopedia from the bottom shelf of the living room bookcase. After poring over the coyote entry, I chose Pueblo, Colorado, for my coyotes’ home. And having learned, somberly, that man is the coyotes’ worst enemy, I had an idea for a plot: Survival. After the mother or the father coyote is shot, the mate takes the pups on a journey to a new home. I also encountered the word ravenous for the first time . . . and when my teachers asked me to read my story for the gathering of families at the program on the last day of camp, I mispronounced it, saying that the coyotes ate ra-VEEN-yus-ly. “I wish I’d heard you read it aloud first,” a teacher apologized. “It’s RA-ven-ous-ly.”

Alas. Reader’s vocabulary.

It was decades and decades ago, but the richness of the camp is with me still: Every day an adventure, with something to discover, to explore, to synthesize into something new; an extension of myself, what I love, who I am. A wealth of learning compounded with interest, over time.

That Grandma made possible, because she believed it was important, even necessary. I later learned how much she wanted to take piano lessons as a child and her family couldn’t afford it. A charitable young preacher’s wife eventually taught her how to play.

And, ever the angel wielding the sword on my behalf, Grandma was willing to take a piercing in return; she sent me to the camp even though she knew it would shorten the time I’d spent at her house that summer.

Because, for some investments, the payoff is incalculable. Grandma understood this.

And even then I understood that I was, in so many ways, enriched beyond measure.

That kid

Legos

Legos. qrevolutionCC BY

I woke up thinking of him today.

Don’t know why.

Maybe it’s because another school year just ended and memories are flowing thick and deep, like they always do.

Maybe something subconsciously reminded me of the collective sigh of relief when he finished elementary school and moved on a few years ago.

I am not sure.

But here he is again, so clear in my mind.

He arrived every morning long before the school doors were open, jumping, running on the sidewalks, talking to himself, singing. Staff spent the first few hours of each day trying to calm him down.

My first real encounter with him came in third grade when I, as the literacy coach, worked out of the room across from his classroom. In better moments, he’d appear without warning in my room: “What do you do in here?”

“I plan reading and writing lessons. Sometimes I have reading groups in here. Want to read with me?”

“Naw,” he said, wide-eyed, shaking his head emphatically, bouncing back to his room just as the teacher realized he’d left.

In the worst moments, the teacher came to enlist my help.

“I need a breather,” she said once, gray-faced. “I can’t do anything with him today. Can you please just stay in the room for a few minutes?”

So I stepped in. Everyone was seated, working on something, except . . . that kid. He was standing by a classmate’s desk. Taking things off of it.

“Stop it!” she kept saying.

“What’s going on?” I asked her.

“He’s taking all my supplies that I’m trying to use for this project,” said the exasperated girl.

Leaning down to his eye level, I addressed that kid: “Did you ask her permission to borrow her supplies?”

He snorted and flounced away from me. He kept grabbing pens and markers.

Firmly accentuating every word, I said: “Leave her things alone. If they aren’t yours, do not touch them without permission.”

At this moment, I realized the whole class had stopped working to watch.

He didn’t return the items. Instead, he marched to his desk, took out a wrinkled piece of notebook paper, wrote a word on it, and waved it around in the air:

Bitch

I took odd satisfaction in his spelling the word correctly.

Just then his teacher returned from her “breather.” In fractions of a second, she absorbed the scene. She was livid. The rest is a blur, her ushering that kid out of the room while the others bent quietly back to their work.

He wrote me a note of apology while doing his time in the assistant principal’s office. Delivered it to me himself, later that day.

He’d drawn flowers all over it.

That was the beginning of my being his “safe place.” When he couldn’t function in the classroom setting, his teacher sent him over to me for a few minutes, until he was able to return. One day was especially bad; I cannot remember the details of his actions. His teacher, red-faced and teary-eyed, escorted him over and immediately returned to the rest of her class.

Pacing back and forth like a caged animal, his eyes suddenly landed on the Legos on a table in the wet area of the room. Without a word, he sat at the table, and, block after block, immersed himself in building.

Presently his teacher came back, and on seeing this, turned to me. Turned on me, actually:

“Why are you rewarding his behavior like this? Why should he disrupt the class completely and get to come over here and play?” This teacher, usually so mild-mannered and nurturing, was angry to the point of visibly shaking.

Caught off guard, I took a step back. “I didn’t think of it as a reward, or even playing. He’s decompressing—this seems to be exactly what he needs.”

She stared at me for a long minute. Then she turned to that kid and said, “Are you ready to come back to class?”

He got up without a word and followed her.

Many more times that year he came, played with the Legos for a little while, and went calmly back to class.

I learned, talking to him, listening to him, that his mind functioned in overdrive. Warp speed. Hyper-curious. He asked questions other students didn’t think to, without reservation. He noticed minute details that others, adults included, frequently did not.

Such as, seeing me walking toward him in the hallway: “Hey, Mrs. Haley! Where are you going? What’s wrong with your hip?”

“What?”

“Your hip. One’s higher than the other.”

I looked at his earnest face, stunned. He was right; a touch of scoliosis left one hip slightly higher than the other, which plagues me every time I have to buy pants or jeans, making sure the one side is long enough.

He was also a math whiz. Scored high on his tests. Reading, not so much. He did decide to read with me a time or two. I later watched him work hard on his reading test, but there were too many things vying for his fractured attention; too many choices, too many strategies to remember.

But he tried.

And then he went on to middle school.

One day, at the end of another school year, I was walking through the parking lot with boxes to place in my car when I heard, “HEY, MRS. HALEY!”

—That voice!

A human projectile came from nowhere and threw its arms around me, tight.

That kid.

“Hey!” I said. “It’s you! How are you?”

“Good!” he said. “How’s that hip?”

That kid.

That rare kid, with rare insight and gifts that many may never see.

Woke up thinking of him today.

God, please let him make it.

Tell me something good

Don't believe everything

Image: John D. Fisher, street photographer. CC BY-SA

When I found this photo of a man reading the newspaper, I noted that his pet pelican has grabbed a corner. I imagined the bird saying to the man, somewhat dryly as it peers at the page, Tell me something good.

It just so happens that a teacher colleague recently wore a shirt to school bearing these same words. Tell me something good.

“Well,” I said to her, “This is something good: Summer’s almost here.”

She laughed. At the time she was was returning her end-of-grade testing materials. “I hope people tell me something good all day.”

I began to think about how different a day could be if people continually heard something good from others.

Vacation’s almost here.

The test is over.

I enjoy working with my colleagues.

I admire your work.

I found twenty dollars in the pocket of a coat I was about to throw out!

Systems and society can make us pretty acclimated to the negative. Deficits, grievances, outrageous behavior, all that’s broken, all that’s not working. Things that beat down rather than build up.

But good stuff’s always happening out there.

All the time, everywhere.

A stranger stopped to change my tire this morning. He was tired, on his way home from working the night shift, but he said that being able to help someone is a blessing. 

I got a well-written thank you note from a young person.

Another Triple Crown winner!

It’s all about hope, really. A reminder that there’s much to keep striving for in the hard grind of life. And that it’s worth it.

Tell me something good.

Please.

New

New

The new year sparks contemplation of the word new.  

So the year is new, but what else? Monday still follows Sunday, January still follows December. The days roll into each other without any notable variance. Today looks almost exactly like yesterday; it’s still winter, still below freezing, and my dogs still do not want to stay outside more than the necessary few minutes. The holidays are ending and work is resuming, as they always do. None of this is new.

As I sought to apply new to something today—since the usual and very regular passing of time really should not count—I got the mental image of the word new on a dictionary page. This led me to do something paradoxical: I moved a chair over to one of my bookcases, pulled down a heavy volume, blew off the dust (alas!), and snapped the above photo of the definition in The New Century Dictionary. 

I say paradoxical because that dictionary, despite its title, is hardly new. It was published in 1952. The original copyright is 1927.

The dictionary and the definition are old indeed. I know there are better, far more concise definitions of new in online dictionaries now.

Why, then, turn to something so old to examine the meaning of new?

Well, first of all, I needed an image for this post and that’s the one that came to mind.

And I love old books, old things in general. Any vintage artifact holds great appeal to me, mostly because of the invisible layers of story wrapped around it. I never tire of stories of long ago. I am endlessly fascinated by how people survived and how resourceful they were, often with so little.

In fact, resourceful was nearly my chosen word for 2018, because of this definition on Dictionary.com:

able to deal skillfully and promptly with new situations, difficulties, etc.

And this one, at LearnersDictionary.com:

able to deal well with new or difficult situations and to find solutions to problems.

Resourceful seemed well-suited to my role as educator, instructional coach, and for life as a whole, really.

Then I realized that the thing that stood out to me in both of these definitions of the worthy word resourceful, aside from its emphasis on excellent problem-solving, is that one word, new. Coping with new and difficult situations.

Suddenly resourceful, for all its allure, was overshadowed. Do you remember the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy explained the demise of the Wicked Witch of the West? “Please sir, we’ve done what you told us. We brought you the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. We melted her!” To which the Wizard replies (one of my favorite lines): “Oh, you liquidated her, eh? Very resourceful!” But remember Dorothy’s intent: When she threw that bucket of water on the Witch she was saving the Scarecrow, who was on fire. She didn’t mean to melt the Witch, or even think Hmmm, what would happen if I doused the Witch with water?

Resourceful, yes—in saving the Scarecrow. Dorothy’s use of the water was intentional. It implies thinking and quick action to solve a problem. Resourceful in her mission of getting rid of the Witch? No. That was a stroke of amazing luck.

I really wanted to write this post about being resourceful for my fellow educators who often work with so little, in adverse situations, to encourage all of us to be more mindful, intentional, and creative with what we have to reach intended outcomes, when it occurred to me that something else is needed before any of this can happen.

Something different from anything preceding, something only lately or now seen,  encountered, experienced, or used for the first time . . .

Something new, in the face of the same old same old.

If you look back at the photo for this post, you’ll see the morning light spilling across the old dictionary page, illuminating the word new.

And that’s exactly what is needed. Not new things or resources themselves, but light. Seeing things, situations, people in a new light.

My wish for students is that they see their learning in a new light, with excitement, with inspiration. For that to occur, their teachers, my colleagues and I, must see our work with new excitement and inspiration, pushing past layers of compliance, of going through the motions, of saying We can’t, because . . . .

Think of variations of new: renew, anew. Newness is generated. It is created. It starts with really seeing, then taking a step, even just one, out of the comfort zone, to see what will happen, what might actually change. For the better.

Whoever you are, whatever you do, new starts within you and moves outward. One ray of light, one spark at a time . . . keep it up, and there’s no telling how far the light will travel, and how much more will become new. We can’t change people (ever tried?). We can’t always change situations. Some old things will remain, and sometimes that’s good, for every new thing that comes along isn’t. But we can have new perspective, new vision, new vigor, new approaches. All of these are within our own power. A true and valuable new is both possible and attainable, if we aspire to it. If we dare.

That is my prayer for this new year, that we make it truly new.

Of candy, ice, & equity

Candy throwing

The throwing candy tradition. Lars PloughmannCC BY-SA

And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school.

-Shakespeare, As You Like It

Reading these lines for the first time as a college student, I smiled in recognition of Shakespeare’s schoolboy. In less than twenty words, The Bard encapsulated the drudgery of the school experience and the subsequent aversion of countless children since the dawn of education itself. I thought of my young self’s occasional feigned stomachaches and the heaviness of my own feet on the pavement en route to school. I doubt I had a “shining morning face” – especially since my mother sometimes grabbed a used dishcloth to wipe it while I recoiled from the sourness.

As an educator living over four centuries after Shakespeare nailed this image, I sigh. Two thoughts weigh in my mind: Why school is still drudgery for so many, and how the rich get richer.

In Shakespeare’s time, of course, only the boys of wealthy families went to school; girls in these families were tutored at home. If parents had money, their kids got the education, the wealth of knowledge, to be the next leaders and shapers of society. While all children in America today have access to education, they aren’t all at the same place when they begin school. We know this. I heard it said best at at a district Title I meeting years ago by the keynote speaker, an esteemed professor from a nearby university: “The problem is systemic. Systems are designed as if all children are standing on the same starting line” – he showed a slide bearing a line with little dots along it, even a few ahead of it – “when the truth is that many are starting from far behind.” He clicked, and little dots appeared at varying distances below the “starting line.” Many alarmingly below.

I looked at those dots below that line. I knew some of those children, how terribly much ground they had to cover just to be at the beginning place, while their classmates surged onward, clearing bars being raised ever higher. I knew the truth of the professor’s words. I nodded as he went on to challenge curriculum and practices, admiring his boldness. Although he didn’t name it, he was essentially pointing out the Matthew Effect in reading – those who had already acquired foundational literacy skills versus those who hadn’t, that “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.” Thereby hangs the achievement gap, that bane of many a teacher’s, school’s, and district’s existence.

It’s like a homecoming parade. Everyone turns out to cheer for the football team as the marching band sets the pace, followed by fire trucks blaring loud enough to wake the dead (side note – recall that chilling scene in Mr. Holland’s Opus?).  At my sons’ high school parades, I stood, hands shielding my ears, as people on the floats tossed handfuls of candy to the children lining the roadside. I watched the children who were closest, the ones who were strongest or most agile, scramble out to grab the candy as it fell. The ones farther back couldn’t get there in time. Over and over the scene repeated, unless a parent or a larger sibling got out there with the kids who couldn’t reach the candy. 

The parade rolls on, the beat keeps going, there are smiles and celebrations all around, but all things are not really equitable.

The chidren creep unwillingly to school often because access to the learning is not designed for them, in the ways that they learn, but for their stronger, more agile classmates. Or because it’s boring. Or because the teacher, with a sense of desperation borne of increasing expectations and evaluations, is tossing the lessons, the standards, in a catch-as-catch-can attempt. Some kids get it, some don’t. What about the child who’s already had plenty of this “candy” and is ready for something more? 

Drudgery, indeed – for everyone. To the point that teachers might creep unwillingly to school. Or leave the profession.

In recalling the professor’s words about “systemic issues”: Systemic change is slow. Glacial, I once heard it described, implying millimeters at a time. Agonizingly slow. But the truth is that glaciers actually flow – they mold themselves to the land and even shape the land, reforming it, as they go. 

Where does the momentum begin?

On the first day of my college math education course, the instructor eyed me carefully.

“You look scared to be here,” she observed.

“Math’s never been my thing,” I replied, with an attempted smile. Deep in my memory lay the words of my geometry teacher, who had attended the high school play in which I performed a lively comic relief role: I didn’t think you had it in you. My performance in her class had been poor; I couldn’t “catch the candy” and eventually transferred out before I flunked it.

My instructor pursed her lips. I swear I saw a twinkle in her eye.

She ended up pulling me into a group to present on the course and the college at a local event – we had shirts made with the words “Cutie Pi.”

The teacher – to this day, one of my favorites – turned my dread of the content into an experience, into something unexpectedly fun. She acknowledged and eliminated my barriers. Met me where I was and propelled me forward. 

One of her greatest statements: “The parents of the kids you’ll teach are not hiding their best kids at home. They’re sending you the best that they have.”

They don’t all start at the same place, nor will they all achieve at the same rate, but they can and will achieve. Systems compare students to one another; teachers must see each child’s strengths and weaknesses. Systems do not move children; teachers do.  Teachers, not the curriculum, are the architects and engineers of student learning, creatively building bridges between the child and the standards, finding the entry points and scaffolding.  Bit by precious bit, the ponderous glacier keeps moving because teachers are the gravity, the one absolute, magnetic force, whenever they make the sweet stuff – the love of learning, the desire for it – the real goal, with every child getting a true taste of it. 

 

Committing assumicide

Through the window

Through the window sepia. Jo NaylorCC BY

Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.
Isaac Asimov

This quote brings a little girl to mind.

She shows up in my classroom early for her reading intervention group. I am hunkered over my laptop fighting with a SMART Board activity I’ve created on word families.

“Hello,” I say, without looking up, frowning at my screen and the uncooperative technology. “Come have a seat. The others will be here in a few minutes.”

She sits right next to me, a small warmth at my elbow. “What are you doing?”

I sigh. “Trying to fix this activity for your group to play – it will be fun. Something’s not right, though. I’m trying to figure it out.”

She watches while I attempt to cut a word from one side to paste on the other. Unsuccessfully.

Even as I fight the program, I wonder what she is thinking.

She struggles terribly in all academic areas, an ESL student with processing issues beyond the language barrier. She is soon to be tested for disabilities.

“What is that line in the middle?” she asks.

“It’s a dual screen – two screens instead of one.”

“Oh. You are trying to move this word to here?” She points from one side of the screen to the other.

“Yes. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” I say in exasperation. I glance at the clock – I should have caught this problem sooner! “I’m going to have to quit now – I’m out of time. Your group will have to do something else instead.”

Without removing her eyes from the laptop, my student reaches over, clicks on the obstinate word, then drags and drops it on the other side.

“There,” she says, matter-of-factly.

I stare at her. “How did you know that? Have you seen a SMART Notebook before?”

She shrugs, laughing at my expression. “No. Just a try.”

The group was able to play the interactive word game. That day my little girl was a much more willing participant, with considerably more confidence.

The outcome could have been quite different. In my frustration, it would have been easy to answer her questions with Oh, never mind. It’s too hard. I could have thought, There’s not much need of my explaining. You won’t understand.

Had I done so, I would never have known that she had this ability, that she could “see” what to do with the new software when I couldn’t.

I would have committed assumicide.

It happens every day.

Teachers assume that students who struggle in academic areas struggle in all things – and thereby limit the students further. Although the thought may never be verbalized, it lurks in the mind: They can’t do that . . . so surely they can’t do this . . . .

A friend of my family was born with cerebral palsy. His father was an avid golfer who decided early on that he would treat his son as if he didn’t have the disability. As soon as the boy was big enough, his father started teaching him the game.

I have often wondered how many eyebrows were raised at the time: What is that man doing? His child can barely walk or dress himself – why in the world would he teach him something requiring as much precision as golf? That boy will never be able to hit the ball! I wondered if some people may have been angry over the injustice.

If so, they eventually learned that they’d committed egregious assumicide.

The boy grew up living and breathing golf. He remains a local expert on the game with a room full of trophies won in multiple tournaments, long after his father had passed away.

Yes, that’s right – a room full of trophies in a precise game like golf, when the two halves of his body don’t work together for him to climb stairs and his hands shake when holding a cup so that it can only be partially filled, lest he spill the contents.

When I needed a fast P.E. credit one summer to complete my teaching degree, the only thing available, to my great chagrin, was golf – and this extraordinary man coached me through it. I have page after page of his painstakingly handwritten notes and drawings on “the fundamentals of golf.”

When I was growing up, my parents had the In the Wind album with Peter, Paul and Mary singing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” As a child, I loved the three-part harmony and haunting lyrics:

How many times can a man turn his head

And pretend that he just doesn’t see? 

Maybe it’s not always a matter of not seeing, but seeing wrongly – seeing the deficits, not the potential.

For the teacher, what isn’t working too often overshadows what might. Sometimes we see but don’t act because we don’t know what to do, or because we believe our efforts won’t matter. We assume we are defeated before we begin. Sometimes our focus just isn’t where it needs to be when worry, exhaustion, fear, discomfort, directives, even the need for self-preservation and validation, occlude our vision. Sometimes it’s hard, in the throes of teaching – and of living – to stop and breathe, to listen, to see, to let go when we’re so focused on whatever it is we are trying to make happen. Accordingly, we close more doors than we open – for ourselves as well as for others.

We assume, and something dies.

I decided at the end of eleventh grade that I wanted to go to college. Higher education wasn’t talked about at my home, wasn’t encouraged. The general expectation is that I would keep taking courses like business typing (which I bombed, miserably) to become a secretary.

I needed to take several college prep courses in twelfth grade even to apply for college, and the college prep English teacher wouldn’t let me in his class.

He had the reputation for being the hardest teacher in the school. He reluctantly met with me, frowning over my transcripts. “You haven’t taken the prerequisites for this class or demonstrated that you can handle this caliber of work,” he commented, handing the transcripts back.

“Y-yes, sir, I know,” I answered, trembling. “I hadn’t planned to go to college until now.”

He eyed me over the rim of his glasses. Piercing blue, absolutely no-nonsense eyes.

“Tell me why I should let you into my class.”

“I’ll work hard. I can do it,” I said.

He sort of snorted. “A lot of students before you thought they could do it, too, and transferred out of my class, even when they had prepared for it.”

“Please.” It was all I knew to say.

He shook his head. “I am doing this against my better judgment,” he grumbled, and signed my special permission form.

That year I encountered the great poets, studied sonnets, wrote so much about the spider in Robert Frost’s “Design” that my teacher noted at the end of my interpretation: Exhaustive analysis! I memorized and recited – in Middle English – the first thirty-four lines of Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. I hung on my teacher’s every word about London during the time of the Black Death; his descriptions were so vivid that the images remain clear in my mind to this day. For my final paper I wrote about the function of King Claudius in Hamlet – and when our teacher announced that four students tied for the highest score on the paper, I was one of the four.

He returned my paper on the last day with this comment: “For someone who had to have a special conference to get in this class, you have done remarkably well. You have surpassed expectations.”

All of which leads me to believe that the First Commandment of teaching should be Thou shalt not commit assumicide.

Perhaps it may even need to be the First Commandment of humanity.

slice-of-life_individual

Signals

signals

Untitled. abarndwellerCC-BY

The Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, in “To A Louse: On seeing one on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church”:  O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us…

I have often pondered that idea, people needing to see themselves as others see them. To see myself as others see me. What a frightening prospect. Certainly the power to see ourselves as others see us would free us from many a blunder … one would hope.

The lines spark a question I pose to myself and teacher colleagues: What signals are we unwittingly sending to students?

Years ago, I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach. I thought I would try it, almost reluctantly, as I needed a job and my own children were still in school. I wasn’t thinking of teaching as a calling or whether or not I was cut out for it. I took a temporary position, fifth grade remediation in reading and math, with some trepidation.

“I am not sure what to do,” I confessed to the hiring principal. “I don’t know if I can really help the kids.”

She smiled. “Just love them. The rest will come.”

Here goes, I thought on Day One, as I stepped into a classroom where kids milled about, working collaboratively on math. It’s sink or swim.

From across the room, a boy saw me standing in the doorway. He didn’t know me, didn’t know why I was there, but he shot across the room through the throng of his classmates to throw his arms around me.

That was my induction to being a public educator.

A child, sinking fast, clung to me like I was a life preserver. Perhaps he perceived, instantly, that we were in – or out – of the same boat. It was sink or swim for both of us.

In this classroom, I watched the boy try his hardest to swim. He struggled academically. He struggled with controlling his impulses. He struggled socioeconomically – he wore the same heavy black ski jacket every day, even when the weather was hot. He was chastised by his teacher for every infraction, great or small. The teacher – widely respected by colleagues – was clearly suffering from burnout,  undoubtedly tired of swimming herself. Whether or not she intended it, she sent a signal: Do not approach me or question me.

Do we, as teachers, send a signal – with  or without words – that we are safe harbors or treacherous ground?

I remembered a teacher of my own. She stayed in a constant state of frustration with our geometry class, once giving me detention for leaving paper in my desk despite my impassioned protest that I hadn’t done it. Math wasn’t my strong suit and I sank to the point of dropping the course, as I had all the math credits I needed to graduate. Later that year I landed a role in the school play and this teacher came to watch it. As people congratulated me backstage after the performance, this teacher stepped forward:

“Well,” she said, “I never would have believed you had it in you.”

You decide: Would I have ever been successful in her class?

One last note on my little friend back in the fifth grade: He went on to graduate.

On his behalf, I thank all those teachers who were, along the way, safe harbors for him.

Reflect: What messages do you send to others, verbally and non-verbally, about their value? Think of the teachers you had: Were they repellents to the learning in their classrooms, or were they encouragers? Were they the treacherous ground or the safe harbors? Write. Find a viable preserver when you need to. Rest a for bit. Then keep on swimming, mindful of those who are swimming so hard, so close by.