Saturday, October 31, 2009

Broken Heart

A few weeks ago, something sad happened to us.

Our oldest son, Devin, just had his heart broken for the first time.  He is a senior this year, anxiously waiting for college.  He is a responsible guy.  He makes his car payment with a job at O’Charley’s bussing tables.  Before that he did neighborhood yard work.  He’s a really good student – straight A’s this year.  He doesn’t have a curfew per se, but he comes home at a reasonable time, so there’s really no need. 

Devin has been ‘going out’ with the same beautiful woman (a young girl at the time they began dating) since sixth grade.  Six years.  That’s more than a lot of people stay married.  A lot more.  They had been together so long that their identities morphed.  I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but when people are together for a long time it happens.  Their friends and families always thought of them as a couple. 

She became a part of our family.  Summertimes when they were younger, if went out on the lake or went to a movie, we pretty much always counted on her coming along.  When making dinner I regularly had to ask if there were going to be four or five.  She would write these lengthy cute, silly, love notes we would find in his jeans before putting them into the wash.  Reams of them. When she sang, we went to their church.  Her concerts, recitals, birthday parties, graduation… we would always be there.  She would bring us presents when they returned from vacations.  We loved her. 

Devin was always so incredibly loyal.  He never looked at another girl, never thought about being with anyone else.  But she was heading off to college a year before him.  I guess what happened was natural.

When we think back on Dev’s years between 6th and 12th grade, we’ll always think of her.

So the other day, when Devin called from her house and asked us to meet him in the driveway, I knew something was up.  Heidi and I stood there as he pulled up and got out of his car.  He told us that she’d broken up with him and we all sort of fell into each other’s arms and cried.  It is one of those moments that will forever be etched into my mind.  We had our arms around each other, sort of swaying, Heidi and I trying to absorb some of his young misery.  The world as he knew it, his future, his dreams, came crashing in on him. His very identity had suddenly changed.  Now he was not part of a couple.  He was Devin.  Just Devin.

Breaking up these days is such a different phenomenon than it was just a few years ago.  There are leaks and suspicions raised by Facebook text and photos. Text messages that go back and forth that have to be interpreted, reinterpreted, every drop of meaning wrung out without an actual voice responding.  Changing ‘status’ on Facebook was another phase in the process I had never considered from, ‘in a relationship’ to ‘single’.  Who are her friends?  Who are his? 

Seeing him so incredibly sad was one of the hardest things I have had to bear.  His world had changed in a way that he had never before experienced.  A few weeks have passed and things have calmed down.  It’s possible that they may get back together.  Who knows?  I wouldn’t presume to know what is exactly the right thing.

But there are some positive aspects to this situation.  For one thing, Devin has had to find out who he really is, what he is like when he’s not part of a duo.  Of course he has been more introspective, but that couldn’t be all bad.  And, in some ways, he has opened up to us more about his feelings.  I can’t remember the last time I really held him, the last time he really cried in front of us, cried while we held each other tight.  It was a sad, but incredibly touching moment too.  That love and trust has been there all along, but I just hadn’t seen it for a while.  We circled up our proverbial wagons, thought about each other more, appreciated family.  We hadn’t shared the deep stuff for a while.  Now we know we can.  And that it’s more than just all right. It’s necessary.  It’s hard to be lonely, but he knows that he is not alone.  I think he knew that all along, but now it’s not just theoretical.

When he was in his deepest sorrow, he would ask, “What am I gonna do?”

And I could answer sincerely and meaningfully from experience with my own broken hearts, now so long ago and so far away, “You’re going to be OK, man.  Breathe in, breathe out.  One day at a time.  You will be OK.” 

I could put my arm around him and it wasn’t awkward.  It was necessary.  And I know that eventually he’ll be a better man because of this.  Maybe he’ll be more careful with other people’s feelings. Maybe he’ll figure out who he really is, and that he is a truly wonderful, worthy person in his own right, by his own self.  He’ll be able to look up and look out at the world in a way that he hasn’t since he has become a young adult. 

Families and friendships are about building shared experiences, the good and the bad.  The big memories stand out, right?  The birth of babies, coming of age, death of loved ones, crying until your head aches, laughing so hard that you pee.  They bind you together, make your relationships stronger.  It’s a blessing that life isn’t just full of happiness, because of the hard stuff we have the opportunity to really cherish each other and know we can count on each other.  Because of the difficult times, we know we can truly love. 

Saturday, October 24, 2009

She Always Knows

Today was a particularly long day.  Nothing unusual, just a lot going on.  It was an active day with students.  We had a lengthy meeting with teachers, among my best friends, along with Heidi – my best friend.  After school it was a solid 3 hours talking to my student teacher about a lesson she had done with our class and working on progress reports.  When I had gone into the building it was black-dark outside.  Cool and breezy.  When I left the building it was almost dark.  Warm and balmy.  There was a waxing crescent moon on the rise through swiftly moving clouds.  It was a beautiful day weather-wise, but I spent the daylight hours inside.


When I got into the car, I called Heidi.  It’s our ritual to exchange days on the cell phone on the way home.  Our son Devin works at O’Charley’s and we agreed to meet there for dinner.  It sounded great to me.


After we were all seated at our booth, in Dev’s favorite waitress’ section, a couple came in with a new baby.  I mean NEW baby.  This had to have been one of their first outings together.  The baby was beautiful in the way that brand new little ones are.  Perfect.  The parents were young – I’d guess late teens, maybe very early twenties.  The young man walked with his shoulders down.  He had about a 3 or 4 day growth of beard.  Big guy.  Mom was very pretty.  She still had a tummy from her recent delivery, but she was also glowing the way that new moms do.  Her cheeks were wet and her eyes were red-rimmed.  Sad tears.  The beautiful new baby slept.


We carried on with our usual family banter, making each other laugh, discussing our respective days, enjoying the food, talking shop, music (Colin’s passion), car stuff (Devin’s passion).  It felt so good to be together in this way.  The older our guys get, the harder it is to find this time.  The folks who work at O’Charley’s (hmmm not too many words with double apostrophes) like Dev, so there was good-natured teasing and chatter there.  It was friendly, fun, a good family time.


I wasn’t obsessing about the couple with the new baby, but they were seated in a booth quite near ours and directly opposite me.  We probably could have heard their conversation – if they had talked.  I don’t think they ever did.  When they ordered it was in whispers.  Mom kept crying.  Not boo-hooing, but quiet, desperate tears.  Dad had his head down, hair dangling, his big shoulders hunched as he ate. 


Heidi was sitting opposite me so she could not see the young couple much.  But she saw me seeing them.  We kept up our family business and chatter.  Colin was going to visit his girlfriend in Greenwood this weekend.  Devin was taking the ACT early Saturday morning.  A little of this, a little of that.  Nothing major but light.


The young mom ate very slowly.  She didn’t seem hungry.  Big guy ate everything on his plate.  No to-go box for him.  Still she cried those quiet tears.  I know it’s weird but I could hardly not feel their pain.  And there was pain.  It was unmistakable. 


We got an employee discount because Devin works at O’C’s.  So we left a big tip.  As we scooted out of the booth and headed to our cars, we came closer to the couple in the booth on our way out.  Sadness.  Heidi linked her arm into mine and gave it a squeeze.  She knew what I was thinking.  She always knows. 


“All you can do is pray for them,” she said quietly.  She always knows.


I hugged her and we held each other a little more tightly as we left the restaurant.  We kissed our goodbye as we had multiple cars there (I was coming from work, Devin had just finished his Thursday night shift at O’Charley’s and Heidi and Colin had come from home). 


The sad couple with their beautiful tiny one will slip from my memory, although not as quickly now that I’ve written about it.  But that little scene made me think.  There is a lot of pain around us.  I mean there is big pain as in wars, refugee camps, hunger, disease… the list does not end.  But that young couple was in pain too.  It wasn’t global but pain is pain. 


It was just one more reason for me to count my blessings, one more sign of how good my life is.  On the way home I thought of what really matters to me – much too much to write out now but for just that evening: Devin’s place in life, his job at O’C’s, his friendships, his smile and confidence.  Colin’s music, which he shares so enthusiastically, his wit, his politics, his smile.  Heidi’s brilliance, her beauty, her wisdom and how she knows the right thing to say and when to say it.  She always knows.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Last week I made a goof in my third grade classroom that was swiftly corrected by my young friend, Daquan.  I ask the kids to bring in at least one news article every month to share with the class.  It’s no real hardship.  We have a paper delivered to our classroom every day.  And most days, there is time to read around in it.  We also have these large public journals where the children and I record questions and observations, facts and amazements.  We have four journals: Culture, Science, Language and Math. 

Sharing news and journals is an important time for us.  These are some of the richest conversations we have in class.  All are teachers and learners.  It is an example of true inquiry.  Reports are made about the natural world, interesting math patterns the children discover, quirky language stories and other observations about our world.  It is a time for the children to be teachers.  It makes every day and every year different.

Today, for example, Sam showed us a photo of a pretty exchange student who stayed with them for a while.  She was from Bosnia.  He took the globe around to show us where that country is.  Sydney told of a girl who became paralyzed after eating tainted hamburger.  Daquan shared about a toad he and his brother found.  Amaryah showed us the band-aid where she got her flu shot yesterday.  I shared letters from the editor about Governor Sanford: two in favor of him resigning and one saying that the citizens of SC should let him do his job.  Emily shared a story from last week’s paper about Governor Sanford’s driver being pulled over for doing 80 in a 60 mph zone.  The video on the patrolman’s car showed him getting a handshake from the governor.  No ticket was given.  Mills shared a news story about a golfer in Beaufort who had his arm taken off by a gator.  Fortunately his friend retrieved the arm from inside the gator and it was reattached!  I also shared the results of a new study about the perils of drinking too much soda. 

We never know what will come up, but more often than not it is interesting.  It is one of the purest examples of inquiry during our day.  Some children participate a lot during this time.  Others sort of sit and let the conversations wash over them.  Usually around the end of each month, I must remind a few kids that the deadline is coming up so they don’t miss it. 

Daquan is not one of those who needs reminding.  He almost always has several news and journal articles to share each month.  Occasionally, children will wait until it is time to have our class meeting to rush over to the paper and look through it quickly and then ad lib when it is their turn to share.  It’s no big deal but it is a little annoying.  We can usually see right through this and I suggest that the child take the article home, read it over more carefully, perhaps with Mom or Dad, and then bring it back when they really know about it; when they can “speak from the heart” and not try to read it on the spot. 

One day last week, I saw Daquan scanning the paper when the clean-up music was already on.  I thought I’d busted him and said, perhaps a little too gruffly, “Hey Daquan, you know you are not supposed to do that.  You can’t just pull something randomly from the paper to present.”

“I’m not.  I know about this one.”

“Right,” I smirked.  “I can see you shuffling through the paper, Daquan.  You had lots of time to prepare something.  The clean-up music is already on.  Give it up.”

He stood up, held the newspaper and looked me square in the eye.  “You want some advice, Mr. O.?”

“What?” I said.

He straightened out the paper, folding it back into its proper shape before speaking.  “You shouldn’t accuse someone of something before you really know the situation.”  He paused.  Dramatic effect?  “I did read that story before.  I am ready to share it.  Just because you didn’t see me read it doesn’t mean I didn’t read it.  Know what I mean?”

I was instantly humbled.  “I am so sorry Daquan.  You are right.  I am wrong.”  He was not being a smart aleck or condescending, he was simply reacting as a friend, a friend who was wrongly accused.  He didn’t rub it in.  He saw I was genuinely sorry.

“Oh, that’s OK, man.”

Then I said something I often say, “Once again, the student becomes the teacher and the teacher becomes the student.”  He just smiled his beautiful smile and we went on with the class business.

When I was a kid, my mom used to ask me every day what I learned in school.  Usually I gave her the standard answer… some bland factoid.  When I ask my son Colin how his day went, he usually rattles off test scores he got back or talks about tests and quizzes he had to take.  If anyone asked me what I learned that day in school the one word answer would have been -  humility.  

Unfortunately, that is a lesson I have had to learn many times.  Fortunately, I have just the right teachers. 

Friday, October 9, 2009




When I was a kid, my best friend was Moe Owens.  He and his wife Cathy were actually friends of my folks.  They were around my parents’ age and for several years when I was coming up, the Owens’ were a big part of our lives.  Their son was a year older than me and very cool.  I spent about every other weekend at the Owens’.  They lived in Gary, Indiana.  We lived about 12 or 13 blocks away in Merrillville, close enough for me to walk.  In lots of ways Morris, his given name, was who I wanted to be when I grew up.  In some ways I hope that I have achieved that goal. 


He was quirky.  For one thing he smoked big old smelly cigars.  Those were the days when smokers smoked wherever they were.  If I came in the back door and couldn’t see whose cars were there, of course I knew when the Owens’ were over.  The smell of that cigar was his signature.  Although I grossed him out about that cigar whenever I could, in fact I loved it.  It was the smell of Moe.  When I was a really little guy, I would hug the Owens’ when I saw them.  I bathed in the smell of Moe and his cigar. 


Moe was a story-teller.  I think it bugged my mom sometimes because many of his stories were undoubtedly tall tales.  He wasn’t always forthcoming about which ones were true, which ones were exaggerated versions of truth and which ones were purely his wild imagination.  One of my favorites was about when he was in the Navy.  He had something to do with cooking on a big ship.  There was this arrogant officer who was harsh on the men.  To hear Moe tell it (and we did many times) this guy was a tyrant.  At some point he complained bitterly about the food.  You can probably guess the outcome.  Moe and the guys (supposedly) peed into a pot of whatever-it-was they were serving him.  Also predictable perhaps, the fussy officer complimented the cooks. 


Morris was an incredible mechanic.  His garage/workshop was impeccably clean.  There was not a speck of grease or dirt anywhere.  His tools were always lined up on hooks on walls and his toolbox looked like it came right off a Sears storeroom.  He never had to look for a tool.  Many of the tools were given to him by his dad.  Moe's father’s name was Schmidt.  Smitty.  I only met Smitty a few times but Moe loved him pure and simple.  I never knew any grown men who would say it as openly a Moe.  He loved his old man.  He wasn’t afraid to say it.  He told stories of the simple but effective lessons Smitty taught Moe and his brothers.  Like if Smitty ever found one of his boys’ tools left out or dirty he would just throw it away.  Moe said that it didn’t happen very often before they learned to put their tools away.  Clean.


When I was about 11 or 12 Smitty died.  He was the first person I ever knew who had passed away.  And while I never knew Smitty well, Morris was one of my best friends.  I had never seen a dead body before and I wasn’t looking forward to it, but I wanted to go to the funeral home.  For Moe.  To tell him how sad I was for him.  My folks said I didn’t have to go.  They understood.  It was sort of a grown up thing.  But I felt like I had to.  My brother Pat said he would go too, although I think he mainly wanted to see his first body. 


We dressed up in shirts and ties.  We were used to dressing up.  We attended a Catholic school.  I was a little worried.  I wasn’t sure what to say to Moe.  I’d never had to do anything like that before.  I asked my folks how to do this and my dad said not to fret about it.  My mom said that something would come to me.  How could I tell him how sorry I was?  It was as much about telling him how much he meant to me as it was about being sad for his dad dying. 


Pat and I went up to see Smitty in the open coffin.  “Would you look at that!” Pat spoke in a loud whisper.  “He looks just like he’s sleeping.”


“Shhh!  Keep it down,” I murmured.  Pat was mesmerized.  I had seen some people kneel down in front of the coffin before us so I got down on my knees.  It was scary and I was probably shaking a bit.  Pat knelt next to me.  Pat looked around and then reached up and touched Smitty’s hand.


“Cut that out, Pat!” I hissed. 


“Man, he’s all cold.  It’s like he’s been in the freezer or something.”


I got up to talk to Morris.  I found him in the back of the big room.  He was surrounded by his friends and family.  When he saw me he smiled his crooked smile.  “Well, Mr. Tim.  Thank you for coming.  I mighta guessed that you would.  How are you doin’?”  He was smoking a cigar.  Back in those days it was still acceptable to smoke in a funeral parlor.


Nervously, I walked up to him and stuck out my hand.  He put his cigar in an ashtray, stood up and stuck out his own.  We never really shook hands so the formality was weird.  “I’m sorry Mr. Owens,” I said lamely. 


“Thanks, Timmy.  That means a lot.”  It may have too, but it felt so weak.  Here was my buddy who had to have been in a world of hurt.


“The thing is, I never really knew Smitty,” I went on.  “But I knew how much you loved him.  And…” I searched for the right words.  “He must have been a great guy because YOU are such a great guy.  If he was your dad, he must have been really special.  The world is not as good as it was before Smitty died.  I’m so sorry.”  He reached out and embraced me.  We hadn’t hugged since I was a little boy.  I don’t know if he cried.  But I did.


As I grew older I didn’t see the Owens’ that much.  We moved out to Chesterton when I was a junior in high school. They moved the other direction, out to Chicago.  He met my high school girlfriend.  He and Cathy really liked her.  When I went to college and came home with Heidi, I couldn’t wait to introduce her to the Owens’.  Moe took me aside and said he knew that she was the one.  He was right, of course.


I ’89 my dad died.  He was pretty young and he died rather quickly.  My brother Dan and I arranged most of the funeral details.  The last time I saw Morris was at the funeral home.  I hadn’t seen him in a while.  His hair was a little grayer and his face noticeably more jowly.  He had been retired for a few years.  He and Cathy had moved to a small Kentucky town now and he spent much of his time in a VFW club drinking and smoking (I assume) and telling stories (for certain).  This time he greeted me with a hug.  When I saw him he was outside the funeral parlor (society had just begun to have sense about second-hand smoke) smoking a “light” cigarette.  He confessed that he wasn’t supposed to be smoking at all.  He’d already had a big heart attack.  He told me something like I had told him years earlier.  Did he remember or was it just the right thing to say?  “The world is not the same, Timmy.  It’s just not as good without Jack O’Keefe.”


He expressed his condolences the way good friends do, by being terribly sad himself.  Jack was one of his best friends too.  Life just wouldn’t be the same.  Moe was pretty old by that time and his health was declining.  I thought to myself as we parted that night that I would probably never see him again.  I was right.


Even though there were years where I never saw Cathy and Morris, every time we did catch up it was like we just talked the day before.  Every time I saw Moe there were new stories – or reworked old stories.  He always challenged my positions by playing the devil’s advocate whether on politics or religion.  Before I had ever really defined my attitudes or opinions, Morris argued or cajoled or in some way made me think deeper about important ideas.  If we did seem like we started to agree about something, he would cleverly change his mind to keep the argument going.  He made me see both sides of an issue. 


He was 40 years older than me, but that didn’t matter.  As much as anyone in my life, Moe shaped me.  With humor, stories, compassion, friendship.  When I was a kid he never talked down to me.  He always looked me right in the eye.  He never discounted my ideas – even when they probably made little sense.  He always welcomed me and treated me like his son.  Moe was more a part of my family than some of my own family members.  Everyone needs someone like Moe in their lives.  I’m blessed that for a long while, he was part of mine.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Best Day of My Life

This may sound silly but today a kid said, “This is like the BEST DAY OF MY LIFE.”  Truly.  I’d never heard him say that before, so it’s not like he is one who constantly speaks in superlatives (a trap I fall into occasionally). 


Interestingly, today was not so different from many days, although each day is unique.  We do have these wonderful caterpillars in our science area.  Tomato hornworms.  We’ve had them less than two weeks and they’ve grown from the size of a grain of rice to the size of my thumb.  Every day when we look at them we can’t believe how big they are and how fast they grow. We keep wondering how long it will be until they become cocoons.  They are bright green and tight-plump.  We have had fun cleaning out their frass (a scientific name for caterpillar poop) so we can tell when to transfer them to the next enclosure (when they stop frassing they will soon become cocoons).  But I don’t know if they are such a big deal to qualify this as the best day of someone’s life.


In writing workshop we are working on “living with our writer’s notebooks.”  We had a pretty long time to just write.  It felt free and unbridled.  The kids are writing whatever they want.  Some are writing memoirs, others songs and poems.  Some are writing science fiction fantasy, the most popular genre among my boys.  The little one who declared this his happiest day wrote a lot during workshop.  It may have been the most he’s ever written in that amount of time.  I didn’t get a chance to read it with him but I did congratulate him for being so focused.  But that alone couldn’t have been what made this his best day. 


Right before lunch the class next door came over and sang a song with us.  It is from a simple poem called “Love That Boy” by Walter Dean Meyers set to a standard blues progression.  My class has known the song for a while but our second grade friends just learned it.  And when they came over to our room this morning we were ready to sing.  Their teacher, Chris, played the song slower than we were used to so we followed their lead.  Over 40 voices singing this soulful blues song in one classroom.  Everyone was focused, every voice clear.  It sort of took my breath away.  Then Chris’ second graders sang an original song they had just written together.  It was fine.  My class could feel it.  I’m not sure that’s what made my friend’s day so special but it sure worked for me. 


After lunch, our student teacher, Tammy, led the kids in a pretty exciting measurement investigation.  They were all over the room, measuring and estimating and recording in cm and mm.  Afterwards they sat in a circle and Tammy led the debriefing.  It was fun and engaging, very social and active and there was a ton of learning going on.  I don’t know if it would contribute to someone’s best day… but it was pretty cool. 


Our next activity was cursive handwriting.  I know, I know, it sounds like the driest, most boring part of the day.  And it could have been.  We watched this cheesy video segment.  It’s thirty or forty years old.  The theme music is so late 60’s early 70’s musak.  But the kids have been chomping at the bit to learn cursive.  I’ve been writing on the board in my best cursive since the middle of last year so they could learn to read it and could become used to seeing me write that way.  Some have been writing their names in cursive off and on for a while, but this was our first official week, our first few cursive letters. 


We watched the first installment of the video on Wednesday.  The instructor on the tape (Virginia Henderson – who is totally ambidextrous and has scary-perfect handwriting) started the class off by teaching how to sit properly, how to tilt the paper and the correct way to hold the pencil.  She demonstrated her eerily perfect handwriting for us and had us make some letter-like cursive marks.  There was disappointment after the first segment.  Where was the cursive?  The kids were wondering, “Won’t we EVER learn to write in cursive?”


Today, the kids learned their first three letters: i, t and u.  After practicing these letters several times (while using the proper writing posture and holding the pencil correctly), Virginia taught us our first word.  You guessed it.  it.  You would have thought that it was gold.  The kids were joyful.  it.  There was no exploration involved, no inquiry.  It was that passive learning/direct teaching that I try to avoid.  No social interaction.  Just it.  it. 


It was after we collected the papers and were transitioning to our next project that we heard the little guy pronounce this his favorite day ever.  It occurred at one of the few really quiet times of the day.  You know those times. It just happens by chance. There is just a coincidental hush.  When you don’t mean to, but you speak into momentary silence and it seems like your voice is amplified.  Think Owen Meany for a moment.  He didn’t intend for his pronouncement to be as loud or as forceful as it was… but there it was. 


“This is like the BEST DAY OF MY LIFE!”  We all smiled and looked at each other.  There may have been a “Wow,” or a “Really?”  Then we headed off to computer lab to do research on our endangered animals project. 


Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see life, to live life, from the perspective of a young child?  Wouldn’t it be great to be so taken with learning something new that you could declare this the best day of your life?  I can’t remember the last best day of my life.  Was it the day our Colin was born?  In retrospect maybe.  But I was too worried about Heidi and the Caesarian she’d just gone through.  Was it moving to our new house?  There was too much work packing and unpacking that day and worrying about the mortgage was in the mix.  Devin’s adoption day? Moving to SC?  Our wedding day?  Graduating from college?  All of these were best days in retrospect.  They were all wonderful, life-changing events.  But when you are a grown-up the amazing and the wonderful are all mixed up with worries and pressures and angst. 


How wonderful to have the sweet innocence of a child who might see a school day, not so very different from most school days, as the best day of his life.







I think I may have finally discovered what I want to be when I grow up.  A child.