Monday, November 28, 2011

Crying, Part 1

I am reposting a story from a few years ago. I didn't have any comments on it at the time (and may not now), but perhaps there are a few of you who might see it for the first time.

I sent my mom a copy of this story years ago when it was new. She dutifully filed it in a big envelope marked MEMENTOS. A few of these envelopes fell into my charge and I reread this little story. It is rather long so I'll post it in two sections.

Crying - part 1

I learned a lot in second grade. I learned how to ride a bike. A two-wheeler. It was a hand-me-down. It went to my big brother John first, then to Pat. Finally to me. I painted it so it sort of looked like new.

I learned how to sing. I was in the second grade choir for a couple of months.

I learned how to shoot a basketball into a ten-foot goal. The real deal.

I also learned how to play the clarinet. At least I was beginning to learn. My mom told me that all the girls went for clarinet players. At the time I thought girls were yucky so that didn’t have much bearing on my ambitions as a musician.

I learned a lot about human nature that year. I was quiet in second grade. I was a good student. I was afraid not to be.

My brothers and I went to Saints Peter and Paul Elementary School. It was a big Catholic school in Merrillville, Indiana, just outside of Gary. We may have had a Gary mailing address back then. I was born in 1957, so I was in the second grade in 1964 and 1965. It was a strange time in our history. JFK was assassinated the year before. The US was becoming involved in Vietnam. The Beatles were just beginning to be huge.

Sister Rachael Marie was my second grade teacher. She was not a big woman but she was a terror to me. There were some tough kids in that school but everyone was afraid of her. Beginning in second grade, I was one of those children.

Sister Rachael Marie pulled hair for talking out of turn and slapped faces when boys forgot their ties or the girls forgot their beanies. Sister Rachael Marie tipped over desks if they were too messy to suit her. She would accompany the tipping with shouting and in-your-face intensity. One could miss a lot of recess time for having a messy desk.

Sister Rachael Marie knew how to make kids cry. It was kind of her specialty. It was harder to make some kids cry than others. Me? I cried when she just gave me the evil eye for forgetting an assignment. I was easy. I was rarely hit, rarely had my hair pulled and I learned quickly to keep my desk clean. I cried quickly as a way of defending myself. Sister seemed to go easier on you if you could bring on the water works.

My friend James was a boy who would not cry easily. I had seen him slide into second base on the asphalt playground, ripping his trousers and skinning his knee, thigh and hip. I mean I could actually see him bleeding through his tattered pants. I would have been bawling at the sight of my own blood let alone the pain. Not James. He was tough. He was also safe at the base.

James was cool too. He had shoes that you could slip on with no laces. His hair was considerably longer than the rest of the boys. He had a brother in the public school junior high who was into the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. James’ brother was kicked out of Peter and Paul, I never knew the reason. That’s why he went to Merrillville Jr. High.

James usually had his hair slicked back. This bothered Sister Rachael Marie. She ridiculed him about his hair. She questioned how his family could even send him to a Catholic school looking like that. She tried to embarrass him by saying that he looked like a girl. James didn’t care what she thought. That must have been what really bothered her about him. I thought James was cool. I wanted to be like him. We played together at school and once he even came over to my house. Nowadays we would call that a play date.

His brother wore Brylcream in his hair. Brylcream is the equivalent to today’s styling gel. Sister called it grease and thought it was disgraceful. Sister despised him and often picked on him. He didn’t care.

James was likable. We all sort of looked up to him. He was a nice kid. He was tough. He was my neighbor in school, that is, we sat next to each other.

There was this time when Sister was walking up and down the aisles while we were busy doing seatwork. She had the most beautiful cursive handwriting I had ever seen. She even offered to give my father handwriting lessons after he sent in a written excuse for my having missed school once.

On that day, Sister Rachael Marie stopped by my desk. She sniffed. “What on earth is that smell?” she demanded. She glanced at me accusingly. I shrugged my innocence, getting ready to cry if she interrogated me any further. Body language was the best strategy with Sister. Words often got you into trouble.

She looked to her right. James looked up shrugging innocently. She bent over him and sniffed again. She turned to me. I shuddered. Then she snapped back to James. “It’s you!” she shrieked, grabbing James by the neck. He dropped the fat black pencil he was holding onto the floor. That pencil, with its chewed end just rolled down the aisle.

“What did you put in your hair?” Each of her words made me cower lower in my seat. He didn’t speak. “Answer me!” she yelled.

“Bacon grease, Sister,” James choked out. “I’m sorry.”

“What on earth were you thinking? To the office!” By this time she had jerked him out of his seat by the ear. James winced in pain as he rose to his feet. But he did not cry. That boy had a high threshold of pain. I would have been blubbering like a baby and begging for forgiveness, for release. He simply wouldn’t or couldn’t cry. Then she pulled his hair...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Day The Leaves Fell

Last Wednesday I had some surgery. Nothing too major, but enough so that I would be out of school for a spell. My students know more than some of them want to know about inguinal hernias I’m afraid. But you know – we must seize any opportunity to teach. It is what makes one year different from the next, right?

So that Wednesday morning when I was fasting and awaiting my noon admittance, I arose quite early. My biological clock is set for 5 AM during the school year and I rarely sleep into the alarm. I had some time to kill since Heidi was taking me to the health center, and she was very busy preparing for a big conference this weekend, I struck out on my own. I did not even take the dog.

It was an overcast day. The light was diffused, the perfect kind of day for taking pictures. The fall colors were just at their peak. It was balmy, gusty, beautiful. Most of the other adults in the neighborhood were at work. Since it was the week before Thanksgiving, no one was playing hooky except us pre-op people and the few retirees in our hood.

I took the camera and just set out to see what I could see. Now Heidi and I walk through the road in our neighborhood almost every day. But because I was all by myself, I walked through woods, cut across corners, tromped through the meadow, I trespassed. The world was just so beautiful that day. It was actually one of the most beautiful days I remember in a long time. It’s easy to find summer days pretty. There is a certain amount of laziness that goes along with the warm weather and the sunrises and sunsets are so full of southern summer haze that they are irresistible. The occasional snow in winter is worthy of many photo opportunities as well. It’s just so different. Spring flowers, with all the pollen, are also breathtaking. There is not much prettier than dogwood flowers – at least in my opinion.

But this fall day was so incredible because it was the day that the leaves fell. And I was there to watch and be a part of it. And I was alone with the world in a way that I hadn’t been in a long while. It was just what the doctor ordered.

I played this game when I was a kid. I just called it leaf. It was a game of solitaire. Every fall I tried to catch at least 10 leaves legitimately falling from trees. It wasn’t fair to shake the tree or toss leaves up in the air and catch them again. I set myself a goal of catching 10 leaves as they naturally fell to the ground. It is a way of guaranteeing that you are in a place where you will be a little uninhibited, somewhat unguarded. It is a means of assuring that you will be outdoors when leaves are falling. Not working. Not playing or conversing with others. This is a game between nature and me. And I always win - even when I lose.

It’s not that hard; you just have to be in the right place at the right time. Of course it looks goofy if you’re an adult standing around under trees, looking up at the sky, waiting for a breeze to stir the leaves. And catching them can be kind of tricky because if you take your eyes off them as they sail by, you miss them. And depending on the kind of leaf, they can be unpredictable. Some of the almond shaped ones spin sideways as they fall making them torpedo forward. Now the larger oak leaves are easier to predict, but they often stay aloft for a while making it easy to trip and fall as you gaze up and follow them anticipating their decent. I admit that I fell twice on Wednesday morning but it was in some tallish meadow grass. No harm done.

I had already caught six or eight leaves on different days so far this fall. A couple in NC where my mom lives. A few down here on walks with Heidi. A couple at school when we were eating our lunch outside on clear warm fall days. But this day? The day the leaves fell? I caught 10 more. Just because I could.

And while I didn’t pay bills or write curriculum, while I didn’t have a personal or professional conversation, while I was playing hooky from the classroom, a little stressed about the anesthesia and recovery to come, I took a long walk in our woods and through our neighborhood catching leaves. The leaves were easy that day. They showered down in great brilliant miniature storms. There were swirling iridescent tornadoes of leaves on that walk and no one was there to see them but me. It made me wonder at all of the times just like this that I miss. There are a million "important" things to do. I always feel a little behind. But on the day the leaves fell, nothing was more important than being outside in that meadow, in those woods and under those trees.

I didn’t do anything with the leaves after catching them. I just looked closely and wondered at the beauty of our creation. Then I let them drop from my hand.

Of all the leaves in this big old world

there are none exactly like the ones I caught

on their way to the ground

spinning, spiraling, swirling

so softly – with no sound

and no peace quite so right

as on that day I found

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Poor Letter X

I feel a little sorry for the letter X. Of course it’s as well known as its more popular brothers and sisters, but poor old X just doesn’t have much of a home.

I was flipping through my mom’s dictionary the other day. She’s into this word game with her friend Joanne. It’s called Quiddler. It’s sort of like Scrabble, but you play with cards. Anyway, you declare words and lay down cards when you have them and your opponent can check your words to see if they indeed exist.

My mom said there is a word xi. Now my mom has taught me the art of speaking with authority as a way to convince someone of your accuracy (even when you could be bluffing). Because I am on to her game, I had to look up the word to be sure myself. Sure enough, xi is a real word. According to Webster’s, not only is xi the 14th letter of the Greek alphabet (I should have known that I suppose but I was never in a fraternity), it is also an unstable element of the baryon family existing in negative and neutral charged states, with masses respectively 2585 and 2572 times the mass of an electron.

And that’s the thing about X, most of the words are so obscure that no one ever uses them. Oh sure, you’ve got x-ray and its derivatives (x-ray astronomy, x-ray diffraction, etc.) which account for 9 of the X words. And you’ve got your xylophone, the percussion instrument made of different sized wooden bars. It’s a very pretty sounding instrument, we had one when we were kids. But all of the rest of the X words are almost never really used in conversation – unless you’re some kind of scientist I suppose. But without x-ray and xylophone, what would we even be able to put on the picture alphabet cards in our early childhood classrooms? And when you read the definition of many of the X words, you have to look up even more words in those definitions to understand them. That's not really fair.

When was the last time you used xanthic in casual speech? It has a red squiggly line under it for goodness sakes. Doesn’t my Mac realize that xanthic means of, relating to, or tending toward a yellow color? Or how about xanthrochroi? (Another squiggly red line, by the way.) It’s a noun meaning white persons having light hair and fair skin. Could you possibly see xanthrochroi on an alphabet card in a Kindergarten classroom? Believe me, that is one of the only likely contenders for the ABC cards compared to the rest of the X’s.

I am not sure that X should even have regular letter status. It’s more like a letter-territory than a letter-state. Or maybe a letter-district, as in the District of Columbia. It is certainly there holding down the 24th spot in the alphabet, but is it really a letter? I mean even Rhode Island has people in it. When I counted, X only started 84 different words and some of them are sort of cheating words like Xe (for the element Xenon – that’s an abbreviation, right?) and xingmarked with the letter X. Those are not even really definitions. And X-mas (probably the third most commonly used “word” for X) is only a lazy person’s (or non-Christian’s) way of writing Christmas. And Xerox is really a proper noun like Kleenex or Tampax (hey, 2 more words with x’s), but it had to make it into the dictionary because there just are so few X’s. They have to put something on those one-and-one-quarter pages.

So here’s a little quiz for you. I’ll give you 5 words with definitions. See how many you can match up.

(A) – xeric (B) – xiphosuran (C) – xylan

(D) - xylophagous (E) – xylotomous

1. 1) 1) feeding on or in wood

2. 2) 2) a yellow gummy pentosan, abundantly present in plant cell walls

3. 3) 3) any of an order of arthropods, comprising the horseshoe crabs and extinct related forms

4. 4) 4) requiring only a small amount of moisture

5. 5) 5) capable of boring or cutting wood.

I guess we’re so used to having those precious 26 that it would seem silly to demote poor old X just because it really doesn’t have many members. Thank goodness for xylophone and x-ray. But just think how cool it would be to have 25 REAL letters in the alphabet. 25 is a perfect square (5 x 5). It’s a quarter of a hundred. Everyone can remember 25. It’d be like having the 50 states. I’m just saying.

(A) = 4 (B) = 3 (C) = 2 (D) = 1 (E) = 5

Sunday, November 6, 2011


I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable of joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. – Hiam Ginott –

I was walking around in our computer lab at school while my third grade students were taking a standardized test on the computers. It was a really hard test. Math. If the kids did well on a few problems, it took them to a higher level - sets of problems that were way over their heads. I think there was around 50 problems altogether. It is the kind of situation that is frustrating at best and could easily make you crazy.

The concentration among the children was amazing. Breathtaking really, considering what we were asking them to do. What I was asking them to do. While there were a few audible sighs, a lot of stretching and looking around to relieve eye stress, no one whined. No one complained. No one fussed or questioned why they had to go through this.

I wrote about this before, and I continue to be humbled by the trust kids have in teachers.

Day after day we give them exercises and projects. We teach them algorithms and facts. We ask them to read the stories that we choose and to write how we want them to write. They go by our schedule, use the restroom and go to lunch and recess when we say. We ask them to be quiet at certain times, and then insist they share what they are thinking with the group.

When I reflect on it my plans, no matter how open-ended and full of choice – are still THE plans for the day. “Boys and girls, it’s time to clean up… Let’s get our Charlotte’s Web books out and meet up front… Don’t forget to write down your homework… You guys, I need your attention…”

That must be the rhythm. Someone must be in charge. But there is a level of trust from kids that is so complete. It’s true for parents too. No one gets to choose me as his or her child’s teacher. They take who they get. I was lucky in that our sons were in the classrooms of our best friends, teachers we knew to be professional, caring individuals. But my kids’ parents don’t know me from Adam when their child ends up in room 104.

So here we were in this somewhat ridiculous testing situation, with the kids working so hard, pushing a boulder up a hill as Sisyphus did, only to have it roll to the bottom again when they got challenging questions correct. When we reached the room afterwards it was just a normal day to them. Can we read The Wizard of Oz? How much time before lunch? Can we publish some of our memoirs?” They were all just fine. I didn’t make a big deal of it, we just forged ahead and taught and learned and talked and shared as we always do.

It was another reminder of how much power teachers have in the day-to-day lives of kids. I try very hard to keep that trust in mind and never take it for granted.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Notes to the Teacher

I am not out of school very often. I take a couple days off every few years to go to a conference. It is rejuvenating. I took a personal day last year when my brother Dan came into town on a Friday. But other than those, I don’t remember taking a day off school. For years.

I am not tooting my own horn. I have been blessed with good health. I have been able to schedule doctor visits after school and during vacations. I had a pretty serious health scare summer before last, but I didn’t have to miss any school.

For one thing, writing substitute plans is a pain. I don’t really teach from textbooks, so I can’t just say to turn the page in the teacher’s edition (you know, the book with all the answers) and do what comes next. It’s fairly hands on, the way we teach and learn at my school. There are lots of conversations and lots of exploration and sharing out. It is a challenge to get that kind of thing down in writing for a sub.

I get an occasional cold or sinus infection, but I cover the symptoms and tough it out. I’m not a tough guy; it’s just that it’s not all that easy on the class – and definitely not that easy on me.

But the other day I went to NC to see my mom who has not been feeling that great. It turned out that she had an important doctor’s appointment on Monday and I wanted to be there with her for it. So, I arranged for a substitute and discussed it with my intern, Trina. I called school around 10:30 from my mom’s and the secretary put me through to the room. I talked to the children on the speakerphone. It was fun and I felt good knowing that the kids were in good humor and in good hands.

When I got to school the next morning I was earlier than usual. I hadn’t slept great the night before and so I was in a bit of a haze. The room was tidy. The chairs were still up on the tables so the custodian could vacuum effectively. Even my own table, usually messy, was tidied up. It was good to be back.

There, right where I usually sit, was a pile of notes the children had written to me while I was gone. OK, it wasn’t on the lesson plans, but as I sat down to read, I could tell that it was time well spent…

I hope that your mother is feeling better! I really miss you today but you are probably helping your mother right now... I give you good wishes for your mother… It’s not the same in this classroom without you. I really hope that your mom feels better. It’s important to you so it’s important to me… I know what you must be feeling. I’ve felt that way before… I really miss you a lot. When you get back, let us know how your mom is doing, OK? I don’t think O-Ball [our homemade version of dodge ball/capture the flag] will be as fun as it is with you. I miss you so much that I think I want to cry… If your ma feels better then I know you will feel better… I missed you today and I want you to come back soon. Trick-or-Treat, smell my ____ What comes next?... We missed you today, a lot! I think it’s OK that you were out because your mother is sick. I don’t want to leave you at the end of this year. We love you sooooo much!... I missed you a lot. And I wish you were here. It is sad that you’re gone but you’ll be back tomorrow and I’ll see you again, but I miss you!... I miss you soooo much. I want you to come back. You’re a good son but I can’t handle one more day without you…

Almost every one of these little notes was signed with the most important word of all.


And, I think they meant it. I certainly love them. And they know it. No one was sucking up. They were sincere.

You know, not every day is an awesome day. There are afternoons after school when I am plum worn out. I get cross sometimes. And demanding. And sarcastic. I have my faults. We all do. But I always feel like a lucky guy to be doing just what I am doing. Who else gets to hang around and think deeply about real important stuff with a big old group of best friends?

I am blessed. And I am loved.