Saturday, February 28, 2009

Where I'm From

I posted a few weeks ago that I met George Ella Lyon.  She is an outstanding poet, writer, peace activist and singer.  I am sure that she has done many other things.  I had dinner with her so I know that she is also a wonderful conversationalist.  Years ago George Ella wrote a poem which has become quite well known called "Where I'm From".  I'll reprint it here because it's just so darned good...

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black and glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch Elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I'm from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I'm from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I'm from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I'm from Artemus and Billie's branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost 
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was 
a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments --
snapped before I budded --
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Since meeting George Ella and hearing her amazing stories I have written a few "Where I'm From" poems.  Many, many people have done this as well.  Some of her most powerful stories are simply the personal responses people have written to "Where I'm From".  So, here is one of mine.  It's personal.  If you don't know anything about me, it may not make too much sense.  It was fun to write and I intend on writing many more.  I think George Ella would like that.

I'm  from Ruck and Jack
and six brothers and sisters.
I am from teasing and laughing and never 
looking for a playmate.
I am from hot sand
on summertime barefeet
and glistening Lake Michigan waves.
I'm from sun bleached hair
and my little brother's smattering of 
From hand-me-downs and 
big pots of food.
I am from Catholic School and 
altar boys and six-day-a-week Mass.
I am from hymns and prayers said by heart.
I am from books passed lovingly into my hands
like treasure chests filled with gold.
I'm from groovy and cool and far out, man.
I'm from tie-dye shirts and big old bell bottom pants.
I'm from wooden music 
played on steel strings
with calloused finger tips.
I am from campfire nights and 
From starshine and treefrogs and minnows
at the water's edge. 
I am from the music of owls and mourning doves,
from the tapping of woodpeckers and 
the barking of squirrels.
I'm from the wind whipped whistling of too tall pines 
and the crackle rustle of sweetgum leaves.
I am from Heidi with
long straight hair and 
sparkling emerald eyes
and a beautiful freckled smile.
I am from boys grown to men
and a room full of best friends
year after year after year.

Thanks, George Ella.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

This I Believe

Last year by the end of the school year, the students in my class had become wonderful writers.  Exceptional.  They were already writing memoir, fiction, excellent responses to literature, pen pal letters, you name it.  They were very confident and competent writers.  

While listening to NPR, I was reminded of that great short little segment called "This I Believe".  I considered it an interesting challenge for my kids and myself.  So we read a few and listened to a few in the classroom (ahhh, the wonders of modern technology) and set about writing our own.  

First I asked the children to think of some things they were passionate about.  This threw a bunch of them.  PASSIONATE?  They couldn't get their minds around that.  We read and listened to a few more.  Some kids gave examples from their own minds and hearts.  I believe in making the world a cleaner place... standing up for justice... working as hard as I can... helping others... eating healthy foods...  The ideas kept coming.  As usual, they taught each other.

Most of them were masterpieces.  It was fitting that these were our last formal pieces of writing for the year.  I don't know if any of these children will ever go back to their "This I Believe" pieces, but at least they knew they were passionate about something and could write clearly about it.

So, here is my contribution to the collection of passion pieces.  This is what I believe...

I Believe in the Future
by Tim O'Keefe

Listening to the news or reading the paper can be pretty scary.  Neighbors killing neighbors in Kenya, thought to be one of the most peaceful nations in Africa.  Uprisings, kidnapping, suicide bombings, ethnic cleansing, genocide.

It seems that large groups of people can find anything to fight over - to kill over.  War.  The loss of innocence and the loss of innocents.

You believe in a different God, have a different holy book.  You interpret the same holy book differently.  Your skin is too dark, not dark enough.  You live in a land that belonged to our ancestors.  You live on land we want.  You speak the wrong language.  We want what you have.  

As I write this this I continue to have hope.  I have hope because I work with children.  In my third grade classroom we have African American children, Caucasians, mixed race kids, a child whose mom and dad were born in China.  In our class some children are naturally shorter, others quite tall for their age.  We encompass all the natural differences a group of 24 people should have.

In our small colorful community we celebrate differences.  When Tre comes in with a new hair style (this week it's corn rows, last week it was twists) we tell him how cool it looks.  When Semira wears different colorful ribbons in her hair she is told how pretty she is.  And she knows it's true.  When someone gets a new pair of shoes or wears something new there are compliments, even if it is a hand-me-down.  When we publish what we write for workshop, the hands shoot up with appreciations.

My young friends know something about human nature that many grownups seem not to understand; that we all need to be appreciated for who we are.  Purushotham has a really interesting accent and is a vegetarian.  Lisa's mom just got her American citizenship last year.  Jazz has the coolest, fluffiest hair.  Konnor and Max are Mormon.  Olivia and Amelia's parents are professional musicians.  All of this is well known in our community.  We love these things about each other.  We love each other.  And while we may not say it often, we know. We just know.  How could we not know?

Of course we don't always get along.  We have issues about sportsmanship and responsibility.  Sometimes we use bad words and hurtful language.  Sometimes we tattle when it isn't necessary.  It happens.  But kids are much better at some things than grownups. 

Years ago when a new class was coming up with our list of "Rules for Living and Learning Together" one little girl, Jordan, was listening very carefully.  We worked in committees.  Lots of rules were being suggested.  There were many NOs and DON'Ts as in NO HITTING, NO RUNNING IN SCHOOL and DON'T INTERRUPT.  

When we reassembled the class generated a very positive code.  Among our ways of living together were: *Do your best work.  *Share your knowledge.  *Be positive.  *Obey the adults in charge when it is reasonable.  It was a wonderful list.  It was the kind of code that could change the world if we could all abide by it.

Jordan raised her hand.  I already figured that we were finished with our list but she was insistent.  "I think we should add 'Apologize when you make a mistake'".  There was a pause as we all considered this.  I was awed by her simple but profound idea.  Of course we should apologize when we make mistakes.  Jordan was SO right.  To sincerely apologize is exactly what we should do when we harm someone.  

The rest of the class recognized this too. It was unanimous that "Apologize when you make a mistake" would be added to our list.  But Jordan put her hand up again.  

She looked a little uncertain as she spoke this time.  "And I think," she began, "that when someone says 'sorry' you need to accept their apology."

"Of course," I agreed.  In some ways Jordan's quiet words transformed our conversation from RULES to THE WAY TO LIVE A DECENT LIFE.  

I believe in the future because I work with children.  Children often know intuitively what is really important;how to get along, how to appreciate and value each other.  Children trust.  They care.  They think in ways many adults have forgotten.  It is my prayer that this generation of young people don't forget what they know so deeply and that we can learn the true value and dignity of human life through them.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Memories in a Coffee Cup

I was putting dishes away the other day when I broke a cup.  Luckily it wasn't all that special, just sort of a generic one we had picked up along the way.  Maybe it was one that someone left here unknowingly.  We have a cabinet that is crammed with mugs and cups.  They are usually what we use when we are not sitting down for dinner, if we want a cup of coffee or water or juice and it doesn't really matter if it matches anything.  I don't know anyone who has quite so many different kinds of cups.  When all the dishes are cleaned the cupboard is packed.  I regularly cleanse them by giving some away when we have collected just too many for them to fit safely.  I have gotten really good at nesting the smaller based ones into the larger ones.  It's a tight fit already and I know it's time to let some go again.  To some it may look trashy to have entire shelves devoted to mix-matched cups.  But most of our cups have the memory of a story or a person attached to them.

First there are the remaining mugs from Heidi's and my set of wedding dishes.  Lots of folks have a really fine set of dishes and silverware that they break out for special occasions.  You know, at Christmas or when the in-laws come over.  Fancy dinners.  We use our wedding dishes daily.  These are Heidi's favorite cups.  Whenever I get her that first morning cup of coffee and there are any of these mugs left in the cabinet I reach for one.  After having been married for 28 years (29 this August) several of these fine mugs have been lost to time.

Then there are cups and coffee mugs given as presents.  Being a teacher, I get coffee cups at most holidays.  I appreciate them too.  I haven't gotten a tie or cologne in years.  For Valentine's Day this year I got two big beautiful coffee mugs filled with chocolates (I told you before that I am rich).  They are large and hearty (as in covered with hearts).  The biggest one is large enough to hold the smaller one inside.  There are Christmas ones of course, with bears on sleds and winter scenes.  One is from my old second and third grade student Elaina.  She is one of the best writers I have ever known.  And such a passion for Civil Rights.  We were blessed to have her share that passion.  She was one of my most powerful teachers for those two years long ago and certainly one of the most enthusiastic teachers in that small classroom.

There are a few from Hawaii. Two are the flowered cups they used to give away free whenever you walked inside a Hilo Hattie store.  One is black with white sea turtles.  Of course these take me back to our beloved beach on the Kona side of the Big Island where we spent so much time with our boys when Heidi and I were doing consulting on the island.  We swam with these beautiful sea turtles , hung out with them on the beach, visited with brilliant teachers in their presence.  These mugs take me back to thinking up with Heidi and our time teaching together.  These mugs are beautiful laid back people, pineapples and mangos, palm trees and sand, manta rays, shells, black rocks, salt, incredible sunsets, Godlight, and yes, delicious coffee.

There is a white mug with red snow skis given to us by our first principal about 30 years ago, before we were married I think.  Sally Hale was more that just our principal, she was one of our best friends.  I haven't spoken with her in many years but when I use that coffee cup I think of her and I smile.  That mug used to be a pair.  I think we left one at my in-law's house.  We were such kids back then.

There are two from National Public Radio.  One has the logo from "A Prairie Home Companion".  When I pick it up I hear Garrison Keillor's voice and the opening theme..."Oh I hear that old piano from down the avenue..."  That cup is big enough to put your head in.

One I got from as a gift for presenting at an SCAEYC conference (South Carolina Association for the Education of Young Children).  It wasn't a paid gig (although I did get the mug and a tote bag).  The teachers were interested and engaged.  I presented at SCAEYC just after 9/11/01.  I had something else planned to present, but I ended up talking about the value of conversation in the classroom.  Real conversation.  I brought in some drawings and taped conversation of my second graders sharing about the bombing of the twin towers.  There was such power there.  I think almost everyone in the room cried when they heard the sadness, the simple brilliance and sweetness in the children's comments.  There isn't anything really special about the cup - it's the memory that matters.

When Devin was a baby at Christmas - 17 years ago - we went shopping at the mall together to buy a present for Heidi.  They had one of those kiosks where you could take a picture and have it plastered-pasted-Vulcan-mind-melded to a mug.  There is 9 month old Devin, leaning on the window in our old condo, the lake behind him, his bright blue eyes shining and a big old toothless grin on his face, wearing a white sleeper - the kind with the feet built right into the outfit.  We have another of those glued-on-picture-mugs when Colin was in first grade, Devin in third.  On that mug whose picture is scraped and worn at the edges, Colin has a gummy smile as he had lost his first upper tooth.  The boys have their arms around each other's shoulders in an embrace of brotherly love.

There is a cup for a small child, given to us as a present when we adopted Devin.  It is fancy.  It is English bone China.  It has pictures of rabbits playing in the snow, sledding, throwing snowballs, building a snowman.  I know it's silly, but it is my first pick if it is in the cabinet when I get my first morning cup.

There are two cups from a school fundraiser that show our guys artwork when they were young.  Devin's has a triangular house.  I remember that triangular house period but maybe I wouldn't if it weren't for that house on that cup.  Colin's is a very symmetrical star pattern.  They reflect who the boys were at that time.

I have a cup given to me by my first class of kids at the Center For Inquiry.  I had those students for two years.  They are in college now, but a caring mom snuck them out of the room and had them write their second grade names on the mug and then had it glazed.  The names are faded now, but not the memories of their faces...  Sana, Amanda, Brain, Richard, Thomas, the two Kyles, Caitlyn, Katy, Reginald, Zac, DeNeal, Tyler, Megan, Shelby, Lindsey, Robert.  Because of this cup I think of those second graders (now 19 and 20 years olds).  Along with their signatures is a crudely drawn apple and the words, "My Teacher, My Friend".

I know it's kind of goofy to write about coffee cups.  There are lots of collections we accumulate as we grow older, books, records, Christmas ornaments, photos.  Many of them bring back special memories, but the coffee cups in the cabinet caught my eye today and as I sip a cup of joe from an old one, the memories keep coming.  The collection of mixed up cups in a cabinet is just one of the many treasures we accumulate over the years.  At the ripe old age of 51, these little sets of memories are part of my blessings, part of why I am rich.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

An Extraordinary Teacher

My student teacher is pregnant. She is one of the coolest people I know. Wonderfully calm with kids. Open. Honest. Level-headed. Teresa is the kind of young woman I would like to teach my own kids.

She is so open with her pregnancy that when she got an ultrasound, one of those real modern, 3-D ones where you can sort of make out the facial features, we all scooted over to the science room next door to our classroom to check it out on the DVD player. She was so excited. The students and I were too.

The ultra sound tech had scanned all over the baby and we could look inside at the beating heart, the bones, the curled up beauty of the baby, safe in its wonderful sac of life. I’m sure it was something that none of my kids had seen before. (IT’S A BOY! with the little arrow was a subtle highlight - none of the kids noticed or mentioned it).

Today we measured around her tummy, right at the naval, for the second week in a row. One centimeter larger than last week. She led a nice discussion about how to graph her growth with the kids. “Should we make a line graph? A bar graph? How would a pie graph work?”

It is the kind of inquiry I could (obviously) never do with my kids – not that I wouldn’t. She talked about her weight – yes – her weight, and how much of it was the baby (about two pounds, as much as a large head of broccoli). It’s the kind of inquiry about real life that makes this a wonderful learning experience and her, a wonderful teacher.

It’s the kind of thing an older, more “mature” teacher probably wouldn’t do. While she has never taught before on her own, I can see something in her that I don’t see in many of the more “mature” teachers I have taught with in the past. There is a sparkle in her eyes, a genuine sincere interest in the children, that some teachers with a lifetime of experience never have. I have known older folks who retire from teaching and don’t ever seem to have that sparkle. I have gone to retirement parties for teachers who seemed to dread coming to work. For years.

Can you imagine going to work for years and thinking of your patients/clients/associates/students as people you have to just put up with? Can you imagine being a teacher of little kids and just putting in your time until you could retire? There are probably more of those teachers out there then you want to think about.

It is refreshing to be in the position to see a young teacher who will go out and change the world one child and one class at a time.

Shamsia - Leonard Pitts and Public Education

I went to a conference the other day right here in the Columbia, SC area. It was a great opportunity to think up with like-minded teachers. George Ella Lyon and Isoke Nia were the keynote speakers. They were wonderful in quite different ways. Isoke is confident, gregarious, funny. George Ella is quiet, deep, sincere. Both of them have real education in mind for kids. Both are story-tellers and the stories they told were the kind that truly make you think. Not just about teaching little kids, but about living in this crazy world.

Isoke was finishing her afternoon keynote in a hurry. Her plane was taking off soon and she had to abruptly finish her talk and rush out to catch it. Before she left, she had to read an important piece she found on the editorial page recently. She left the auditorium reading this piece. She was literally walking to the door and her ride to the airport with a wireless microphone still hilariously attached to her beautiful colorful African dress reading this piece by Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald. It is a brave and honest piece, one we must all be aware of, not just teachers. I have copied it here and have since attached a link to my blog with Leonard’s regular columns.

A story for women and girls.

Shamsia was walking with her sister when a man on a motorcycle pulled abreast of them. ''Are you going to school?'' he asked.

She was. And this was, by definition, an incendiary act in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where the Taliban is making a comeback and posters on walls warn, ``Don't Let Your Daughters Go to School.''

What happened next was monstrous. As recounted Jan. 14 by The New York Times, the man lifted the girl's burqa, exposing her face. Then he sprayed it with acid. In all, 15 girls and their teachers at the Mirwais School For Girls were targeted by six men on three motorcycles in the November attacks.

Seventeen-year-old Shamsia Husseini got it the worst, according to The Times. She was left with jagged scars on her face, and her vision was damaged.
The next day, the school stood empty.

And there the tale might rest, the girls and their teachers maimed, the school closed and dark, a sad story with a moral that speaks to the power of brutish thuggery to crush the things we dream. Instead, it has become a story with a moral that speaks to something else.

Shamsia, you see, is back in school. So are the vast majority of the other girls. This, after the headmaster held a meeting with parents and begged them to let their daughters return. When that was only modestly successful, he got local officials to promise the school greater police protection, a bus to transport the girls and a footbridge across the busy road. None of it has materialized, but the girls came back anyway.

Shamsia told reporter Dexter Filkins, ``My parents told me to keep coming to school even if I am killed. The people who did this to me don't want women to be educated. They want us to be stupid things.''

A story for girls and women.

Not that anyone in this country throws acid on girls trying to go to school. To the contrary, the secretary of state is a woman as are the governors of Alaska, Kansas and several other states, as is the anchor of the CBS Evening News, as is the chairman of Harpo Productions, Inc.

So your response to what happened in Afghanistan is likely to be amazement but also, distance. Here, the oppression of women is seldom as immediate -- or deadly -- as in less developed places, where girls are sold to pimps by their families, sentenced to be stoned for adultery, splashed with acid for daring to learn. Here, we speak of ''sexism,'' by which we mean the candidate who faced a double standard when she ran for office or the news anchor whose first-week reviews seemed to center on her legs or the athletes who were called names by the radio big mouth.

Which is not to diminish those things, but only to say they leave nobody maimed, they leave nobody dead.

But if there is a distance between what happened there and what happens here, it is just variations on a theme: the need to delimit the lives of women and girls, to say you may become this, but not that, go here, but not there, come this far, but no farther.

So this story for women and girls -- and for men and boys who want the fullness of life for them -- is offered as simple inspiration, a reminder to be defiant and courageous when others want them to be stupid things. The moral of the story could have been very different, after all. Shamsia could have hidden her scarred face at her home, could have folded down her personality and aspirations until she became the small, scared thing those vicious men tried to make her.

But the world those men knew is falling down around them. So instead, Shamsia went back to class. And each day, the school bustles with the activity of more girls than it was designed to hold.

It would be easy to think of this story as something so very far away from our own world, something that could never happen here. But it was in 1960 in New Orleans that a brave little six-year-old girl named Ruby Bridges walked a gauntlet every day for many days. White racists hurled insults and curses at her, threatened to poison her and filled her dreams with nightmares. She had to be accompanied to her school by armed federal marshals. She could not go to the bathroom in her school without being accompanied by a marshal who stood outside the bathroom door. White families boycotted the school and would not let their children go to a school that allowed Blacks. For that school year, Ruby was in a classroom of one student and one teacher. Because of her bravery, and the quiet acts of defiance and courage of many others, the system eventually changed. Not so long ago. Not so far away.

There are areas in the US where children receive an education far inferior to what they need and deserve. In some areas right here in South Carolina, children are expected to learn in crumbling, unsafe buildings with no heating or cooling and inferior antiquated books and no school supplies. In this “corridor of shame” teachers, parents and, most of all, children are struggling to get a decent education. The vast majority of these students are minority and very poor. These teachers make less money than other districts. Twice as many teachers are teaching subjects in which they have no special training. The high school drop out rate in these districts is as high as 2/3 of all students. This is right here. Right now.

We can look smugly at other countries and blame their problems on the abject poverty of the region, or oppressive regimes. We can read Shamsia’s story and think that it couldn’t happen here. But of course it has. Of course it does. It is not in the form of acid but it is happening. It is slower, quieter, more insidious.

Nothing is more important to our society than education. There is no freedom without education. Of course there will always be money for a bigger, faster, stronger army with technologically advanced weaponry and smarter bombs. Our country spends almost as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. By contrast, education only represents 2.3 percent of the federal government. 2.3%. Think about it.

Friday, February 6, 2009


If you have read through my blog at all you know how cool I think teaching is. I mean, I get to spend a lot of time with 22 really interesting people for five days a week. We learn from each other and we teach each other. There is a lot to teach as a second grade teacher. And believe me, a lot to learn. It’s not just facts that we’re learning either. A lot of what we do is figure out how to get along with other people, how to make ourselves better.

This week I got a note from a concerned parent. It was a sad note about how some of the kids in our class were calling her daughter names. The names hurt. I was surprised. I thought we knew better. When school started that day, I asked the three of them to come out into the hall with me.

I didn’t so much ask them what happened as I told them that I was disappointed and sad about what they had done. I told them that name-calling can sometimes hurt longer than physical pain. Sometimes it hurts a lot longer. I asked that they write a note to their folks and explain the situation.

Now, understand that I love these kids. I came at this conversation as a friend who cares about them not an angry tyrant who is bent on stamping out name-calling. When I asked if they had anything to say, one little guy said that he was, “just really, really sorry,” and, “it won’t happen again.” He looked me right in the eye and said, “Sorry, Mr. O.” All of them went down to her classroom and apologized and, I think, some asked her for forgiveness.

The next day I spoke to the little boy’s mom who said that he was going to come in and change out the rabbit cage. This was a way to make up for the time and energy I put into sorting this out and getting things straight. It would be a way of giving back some of that time as well as a way of him showing that he is really sorry. Sure enough, this morning they were there bright and early and cleaned out that rabbit’s cage, not an altogether pleasant task.

Another one of the name-callers had just published this pretty, peaceful little poem in class. I had asked her to tape her poetry up on the board and she read it to us. Afterward, as is our custom when we publish something original in the classroom, the hands shot up with many appreciations about her word choice and the peaceful feelings the poem left us with. I took her piece and placed it in the pile of papers to file in the kids writing folders.

Later in the day she asked where it was. When I told her she asked if she could copy it over. “Sure,” I said. “Do you want a copy to take home?” No, she wanted to give it to the little girl she made fun of to make up to her. Of course I gave it to her and she went right to that little one’s classroom to deliver her peace offering.

Love in the air
All through the night
Kindness, faith, trust.
Kindness is something in your heart
It is love all through the day.
Love is peace.
Friends and kindness is something
We’ll never forget.

Sometimes I am amazed – no – often I am amazed at the wonderful insight and wisdom of children. I mean, how many adults will look into each other’s eyes and sincerely apologize when they realize they made a mistake?

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if we adults could say we’re sorry and mean it? Wouldn’t it be great if when made mistakes we could admit it and ask for forgiveness?