Category Archives: School

Toward something good

photo thanks to Smadar at morguefile.com

photo thanks to Smadar at morguefile.com

When I stopped teaching, it felt like I was dying. The sight of math books, grammar DVD’s, or anything school related undid me. The label that told me who I was (teacher) wasn’t going to exist anymore. I would picture my sons, looking up at me as I led an assembly, and burst into tears. How could I quit before I ever got to teach one of them? How could I take away something they were proud of?

The months that followed were an excruciating relief. Relief because I badly needed rest. Excruciating because on the way to getting it, I realized things. My kids didn’t really care that I quit teaching. Turns out their pride in my accomplishments was a happy smile in a day, not a sustaining factor in their lives. They liked my improved availability.

Although I had put in hundreds of hours to non-teaching related helps to the school, nothing fell apart when I left. My students had enjoyed my classes, but no one’s education came to a grinding halt. That something I was an integral part of could be okay without me was “totally new information.”

I knew that I had been slowly bleeding to death trying to do it all. I didn’t know that with the best of intentions, I was choosing to die. Or that no one had really asked me to. I thought I was special to the people at the blood bank. I never realized that they accepted what I had to give because I was standing in the line to give it. That they weren’t even marking gold stars by my name for donor of the month. When I left, the blood supply did not even hiccup. Life went on.

A friend teaches kindergarten. If a someone’s mother has a baby, if chicks hatch, or something important happens, they make a poster. They always put “BIG NEWS,” at the top, and then tell you whatever it is. As I rested my body and spirit (something in my case that should have been done years earlier) this was all very big news to me. At first it made me feel small and depressed. With no official employment, not only did I no longer matter, but I had never mattered. (This is what it felt like.) The thing that I felt as vocation  and claimed as identity, teaching and school involvement, was gone. I was left facing the fact that I had not been as important to the picture as I thought I was.

An invaluable gift came wrapped in these painful discoveries. I found permission to rest and permission to wait. I wanted to write, but I was hesitant to go rushing off to join the hubbub of facebook likes and incessant small talk. I intentionally stayed back from the maddening crowds and focused on what I could learn in quiet, without promotions, recommendations, or commendations. (I would have been okay with some of that but since it wasn’t available I learned to make do. :)  )

I didn’t quit teaching five years ago to be noble. I quit because I couldn’t function anymore. Some days I miss it. More days, I’m glad. All the grief I felt then at walking away from something has  grown into the firm conviction that I was only ever walking towards something. Perhaps this is one of life’s secrets, that a little honest effort will suffice to keep the boat on course. We journey on a wide and forgiving river nudged gently along toward the good, when we know it and when we don’t.

Ash Wednesday’s Transportation

Ash Wednesday, by Carl Spitzweg, 1855-1860.

Ash Wednesday, by Carl Spitzweg, 1855-1860.

I have embarked upon a death by degrees. If I could work in an unheated laundry in the early morning hours with my hands raw from the scrubbing, or make cheese to sell with the milk I had squeezed by hand from the last drips of every neighbour’s cow for five miles, if I was doing something along those lines for my children’s education, I imagine a sense of pride would accompany my labours. Instead, I am nailed to a car for a very extended Lent.

If points A, B, and C, lie on a crooked line, we live at point B, with three of the children requiring taxi service to C, and the child of a thousand activities requiring taxi service to A. By week’s end, the chilly laundress and the determined cheese maker both have something in their hands that proves what they have accomplished. By the sweat of their brow they have obtained their children’s education. While it is true that my children could not attend their places of study without transportation, at the end of every single week, there is nothing to prove that I have done anything. My back aches a bit, my right leg is stiff, my toes at times numb, but only the laundress can decry her chapped hands. It’s not quite the same to say you’re achy because you went from B to C to B to A to B too many times this week.

An early Ash Wednesday is catching me up short. The cold of mid-February amplifies the monotony of duties and begs the question of their meaning. I am hesitant to hope for Lent’s promise. Afraid to believe that Easter will dawn in so short a time. Soon the weather station will have to invent a synonym for polar vortex to keep things interesting. Many days are cloudy, but not all. I went out the other day to almost brilliant sunshine. I turned my face to the sun as I walked and pulled the scarf away from my skin so that light could touch more of me.

Perhaps Lent in deep winter is good. Perhaps the effort it takes to believe on cloudy days that the light will come back builds something for which we have no proof. On Ash Wednesday we bow as a claim that what we bow to is bigger than our moods, disappointments, or even our dreams. Faith needn’t be felt at all times. Ash Wednesday accepts it wrestled to the ground, hogtied, and held by a large rock drug from the backyard. Bags of cat litter would also suffice. Light was and is and will be whether we see it or not. A thousand clouds of dull grey today, but tomorrow the sun will tear once again with ferocious glory through the skies.

We may need to jerry rig this year’s Easter dresses with battery powered sections of an electric blanket, but we’ve got forty days to sort it out. Ashes to remind us from whence we came. Ashes to pull us silently up, out of our forgetting and into a grand awareness of Divine transportation. Tirelessly ferrying us from B to A to B to C and back to B again while we learn our lessons largely oblivious to the driver.

Unheeding of thank you’s neglect, Ash Wednesday comes. With Love’s arms open wide, we are invited to march toward Easter’s hope.

Letter from The Optimist’s Mother

This year's school photo. Updated photo available upon request.

Hearty rejection of  unneeded (ergo all) advice a key platform

To Board of Directors, Optimist Club International

Dear Directors,

I would like to submit my son’s name for consideration as the next International President. He lacks many of the traits one might expect in a president (ambition, will to succeed, proactive problem solving) but this is in fact what makes him so perfect for the position. I don’t expect he’ll get much done, but I can guarantee that he’ll be able to speak at length about the possibilities of what could be done. And this is my point.

There’s not so much optimism as practicality in the person who works hard, plans ahead, and expects to achieve a goal. Far more exemplary of pure optimism is the person who plans nothing, does as little as possible (preferably at the last minute) and yet remains unalterably carefree, gently nestled in visions of the future’s bright and shining promise. My son is this latter model of a man and then some.

In truth of fact, if you were to pass him up, I am thinking of recommending him for use at a University. Someone somewhere is always doing a study of something. Sooner or later, they’re going to need a person such as my son to run through simulated interrogations, possibly a mock detention camp. While I would estimate his survival time under actual imprisonment to be somewhere around the thirty second mark, in a controlled experiment involving no physical pain, I would place his ability to withstand all manner of death threats in the number of decades. From experience, I can tell you the effect of warnings, ultimatums, and predictions of doom on his psyche is mathematically precisely zero. Explanations of cause and effect, biographical data from similar young men, personal life stories, the uninviting nature of certain outcomes, not to mention hot and smoky eternal quarters, all fail to permeate the most optimistic disposition you could possibly imagine. But will it be the Universities or you who snatch him first?

Recently, my son achieved an extremely high mark on an assignment which he had completed against his wishes. In the same course, he achieved a somewhat distasteful mark on the exam. Unlike the assignment, he was permitted to pursue his preferred style of low impact preparations for the exam.

Comparing your assignment mark, do you think, I asked him, that your lack of preparedness may have negatively impacted your exam results?

No, he said thoughtfully. I’m actually not sure how that happened. I think I did a good job. I really don’t quite understand it.

He went about his business (I think it involved tapping something repeatedly) cheerfully unweighted by past regrets of which there were none.

I share this little anecdote to underscore that in the spirit of the hopeless romantic, if you are looking for a true blue, dyed in the wool, flag waving (unless there is a watching option) optimist, I’ve got your man.

Sincerely,

The Optimist’s Mother

Irritation and Invitation spelled: s h a r i n g

A Group of Children Playing at 'Tug of War' in a Domestic Interior by Harry Brooker, 1891

A Group of Children Playing at ‘Tug of War’ in a Domestic Interior
by Harry Brooker, 1891

I wanted my Phys. Ed. classes to skate this month. An outdoor rink maintained by the township was available. As precaution only, I drove over to check the ice the morning of our first skate. To my surprise,  a foot of uncleared snow covered the rink. The township office said the man who cleared the ice only worked evenings and he’d been tied up the night before.

Was there anything else? Did I need to reserve the ice?

No, I said. No one will be there in the middle of the day. We’ll be gone by 3.

I called my husband . . . My father-in-law’s house and snow blower were nearby. I’d changed my mind about the usefulness of snow blowers. Was there any way he could leave work and come show me how to use one?

Helpful husband came. My lesson lasted two minutes. I had to do the whole rink twice, but I made it to the school in time to eat my lunch and load up kids. I was pleased with myself, a little tired, but pleased. On the way over I noted that the only child in the required helmet category who had forgotten theirs was mine.

We pulled into the parking lot to see hockey nets at either end of the rink. Three young men in their early twenties were on the ice just starting a hockey game. I might have been speechless at the irony (there was no way they’d be playing hockey right now if I hadn’t spend my morning getting the ice ready for them) but I had a cars full of excited skaters eager to lace on their skates and get started.

Negotiations were a little tense at first. Appealing to the generous side of sunshine starved strangers (just arrived to enjoy the warmest winter day in weeks) is not an easy sell. They bent a little. I bent. They bent. I felt like I’d walked into a remedial course on sharing. My first skaters were weak enough I knew we didn’t need the whole rink. I marked a middle line and we shared the ice with the hoodie lads. They got the ice to themselves when we drove to swap group one with group two. Hoodie hockey men agreed to give us the rink to ourselves for the older group.

It’s no wonder people fight over countries and resources. For a few minutes, I almost couldn’t see my way through to sharing a rectangle of ice on a glorious winter day. By the time we parted ways, we were new friends thanking each other.

Sharing is a terrible thing. Who knows why we tell our children to do it. Sharing means you don’t get everything exactly the way you want it. Worse, you have to admit that other people are as valuable and deserving of happiness as you are. Nasty stuff that.

And cheers to the hoodie men for making it work.

Team Sports

Baseball, by Henry Sandham, published by L. Prang and Co. between 1861-1897

Baseball, by Henry Sandham, published by L. Prang and Co. between 1861-1897

I’m jaded these days about North American athletics. They’re expensive and require significant time commitments. The possibilities for a kid from outside the system to play sports are shrinking. My love of sport has been largely set aside with my worries that as a culture we’ve highjacked it’s value and replaced it with something shiny that we don’t need, not to mention something that puts a major roadblock in the way of the family dinner.

When my son was in grade eight, we attended his first band concert. “Music is important,” said the director at the end, “because it teaches you that the whole is more important than the individual.” A lot of dark things have defended themselves with similar sounding statements. But it may be that little good has ever been accomplished without it. My brother worries that the concept of teamwork is becoming foreign for a generation of athletes raised to celebrate their individual achievements with group achievements a secondary consideration.

I have never coached a basketball team like the one I did this year. Of eleven players, one had played on a team before, one could dribble with more than one hand, two could shoot at a rate higher than 1/5. Few understood anything about the rules beyond putting the ball in the hoop and dribbling to move with the ball. They wore jeans to every practice. Not all of them could tie their shoes. Most could handle losing a group drill without leaving the gym humiliated and furious. None were in good physical condition or very interested in becoming so. All were on the team because the team was the gym class and at the end there was a tournament day.

I’ve never gone to a competition with lower criteria for success. Yet I don’t know how many times I have felt as convinced about the value of athletics. We sustained eight losses and one victory, but my eyes filled with tears more than once as I was reminded about the power of sports to do very good things.

Maybe I question clubs and travelling squads, but rag tag groups of people learning to bring their best for a common purpose is something to cheer about. Working together is the cornerstone of human existence. With great effort and patience, on a team we discover what it is to pass through a tiny gate to which sacrifice for another is the only key to the door. Ours own interests surrendered, we become something greater than we realize.

There is a difference between a kid in a t-shirt shooting baskets and the 4 foot player afraid of the charging opposition but standing their ground for the team. We witness in the latter something noble and our spirits soar. In sports, as in life, our moments of greatness depend on our willingness to be a team. Simple sometimes unobserved acts of sacrifice in which are hidden our potential for magnificence.

Defeating Dragons

Slaying Goliath, by Peter Paul Rubens. 1616.

Slaying Goliath, by Peter Paul Rubens. 1616.

Hate is a scary thing. I don’t know if most people are afraid of it, but I am. Hate hangs heavy in dark places like a towel sopping wet on the line. Seemingly like Thompson’s hound of heaven, hate haunts down the narrow back alleys. Waits to find us unawares. Stalks us with intent.

To escape it is no small feat. Victory is rarely won in a single battle. Hatred is a tempting response to hatred. Many of us, therefore, know both sides of the monster rather better than we wished.

Like love, there are lesser forms of hate. One of my children “hates” one of their siblings right now. Most everything said sibling does is cause for disgust. I don’t think child A hates child B. I think they love them but feel so terribly insecure about themselves that they need to put another person down. It isn’t hate yet, but unchecked it has the seeds to grow a bumper crop.

I listened once to a mother explain to me how strongly she felt about violence. She could not tolerate it to the extent that were someone to enter her home, she could not imagine attacking them to protect her children. I, on the other hand, can imagine without any effort attempts to inflict as much bodily harm on said intruder as possible with whatever frying pan, steak knife, or cat was handy. This may reflect primordial instinct and a parent’s duty to protect (I think it does) but in my case at least, even the idea of this kind of danger taps into a rage against threat that is not all good.

Most of us have our own supply of hate. The never ending news feeds  encourage it’s close cousin, terror. In our rising fear we borrow liberally from a great bank of hate. With so much danger all around, hate (like State Farm insurance) is something we can never have too much of.

The following occurred in my presence. I share because it begs the question.

 

A boy not mine. Deeply wounded. Deeply troubled.

A girl. Smaller. Younger. Upset because the boy has called her an idiot.

Me. Sighing. Boy breathes rage. Nothing can be done but this is not the time to say that.

Say something loving, I offer, not at all sure of myself.

The girl hesitates the walks to the boy.

You  hurt my feelings, she said softly.

What? interrupted the boy loudly.

You hurt my feelings, she said. But I forgive you.

Ok, said the boy.

The girl walked away. The boy followed her.

Hey, he said. He tapped her on the shoulder. Hey, what did I do that hurt your feelings?

You called me an idiot, she said.

For a second he looked confused. Then he tapped her on the shoulder again.

Hey, he said. I’m sorry I said that. Then he followed her across the room and said sorry two more times. For the rest of the class, there was no rage.

Rewarding Risk

What my idea of a robot would look like.

My idea of what a robot should look like.

I was obligated to attend a Lego Robotics tournament all day on Saturday. I confess my viewing of the practice runs for the teams of Boy two and Girl one left me less than enthusiastic. Someone had to explain to me when the Lego robot finished maneuvering whether things went well or not. Since I didn’t get it, I assumed the kids didn’t either.

My fantasies for freezing rain or a last minute illness didn’t materialize, but the kids’ excitement was catching. By the time we got there, it seemed like a nice day. Their eagerness (and my plans to leave them and only watch for the afternoon) had unScrooged me.

To my surprise, the afternoon I thought would be long, proceeded to unfold as a series of revelations to my traditionally low tech self.

Revelation #1:  The place was teaming with grade 4 – 8 kids (including mine) who understood most of what was happening.

Revelation #2: The pedigree of judges and referees giving their time to the event was nothing to sneeze at. People with all kinds of engineering degrees, employed in some of the most prestigious companies in Canada, were there convinced that my kids (and a few others) were the future of Canada’s ability to innovate.

Revelation #3: Nobody there was interested in grooming cookie cutter kids. (One of my biggest frustrations with education today is that inadvertently or not, much of it is designed to spit out kids who don’t think, risk or try new things.) First Lego League (not something I was previously familiar with) is out to reward risk taking, innovation, teamwork . . .

Here’s the list of the core values that teams were marked and rewarded for understanding and exemplifying:

*We are a team.

*We do the work to find solutions with guidance from our coaches and mentors.

*We know our coaches and mentors don’t have all the answers; we learn together.

*We honor the spirit of friendly competition.

*What we discover is more important than what we win.

*We share our experiences with others.

*We display Gracious Professionalism® and Coopertition® in everything we do.

*We have FUN!

(For more on First Lego League, see  http://www.firstlegoleague.org/mission/corevalues#sthash.Z7mZlLR4.dpuf)

 

Revelation # 4: Waiting for the judging results, they cranked up the music and invited the kids to dance. Seventy five or so geeky kids spontaneously dancing (or forming trains with kids they don’t know) to Cotton Eyed Joe and YMCA is a pretty refreshing thing to watch.

Revelation #5: The world is a big place. Some really good things are happening. I stopped short of a one man standing ovation when one of the extremely accomplished speakers commiserated with the kids about failing, starting over, and not understanding why something wasn’t working. How great is that? When a successful adult talks shop with ten year old’s like they’re colleagues in the big world of innovation and design? When someone teaches by example that failed attempts are merely steps on the road to discovery?

Bake Sale

 

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About a week ago around bedtime, Boy two became desperate for me to call his friend’s mother. It wasn’t clear what I should say, only that I should call her. Oh and sign the paper. The paper has the boy’s phone number on it. Now do you get it? he wanted to know.

Not exactly, I said.

We’re doing a bake sale to raise money to ship boxes to kids for Christmas. Someone else will fill them. You’re signing that you’re ok with the bake sale. Mrs. V says you have to sign.

I signed.

The next night at bedtime he again became desperate for me to pick up a phone.

But what am I calling to say? I said exasperated.

About the bake sale, he said a little exasperated himself.

But I don’t know anything about it, except you’re doing it to raise money for the Christmas box shipping fees.

We’re not doing it for that any more. We changed our minds. We’re raising money for The Angel Tree. And we want to do it at the general store. Now can you call her?

I agreed to call the next night on condition he answer important questions like when was the bake sale?

He wasn’t sure.

Who was baking?

Only them. Mrs. V. said they had to take care of things themselves.

What were they making?

He wasn’t sure but could I buy chocolate chips?

When were they baking?

Just call his mom and then you’ll know all the answers.

So the other mom is organizing the bake sale?

No mom, I already told you. Mrs. V says we have to do everything ourselves.

The General Store was more flexible than I was. We stopped by so Boy two could ask permission to do the bake sale on their porch for an unspecified time on an unspecified day. No problem, they said. Angel Tree is a great cause. As soon as you make a sign, we’ll post it and start telling people about it.

Boy two called his friend to work things out. They settled on the friend might or might not be coming over the next day to bake. I broke down and called the other mom. We managed to confirm a date and time. She’s donating some pies. I’m donating some muffins and letting the boys use our kitchen.

Boy two spent last night happily working on a sign. If you’re curious, the bake sale is Saturday afternoon. In addition to pies and muffins, Boy two is doing some bread loaves in the bread machine. The boys are making cookies together and Boy two is cutting up packages of carrot sticks. They’re going in plastic bags labeled, “Halloween Recovery Packages.”

In advance of curious customers, we have also upgraded the explanation of The Angel Tree fund from, “I have no idea but they might be at the mall,” to “an organization that gives Christmas gifts to kids whose parents are in prison.”

Slobergas

Public_Domain_Dog_Drawing

Sometimes I worry that I will run out of things to write about. I keep lists. When I get an idea or something happens, I write it down. But I when I write about the last thing on the list I wonder what will happen the next day. What if I wake up and there is nothing left to say? Could I get a job writing story problems for math textbooks? I don’t know. Is it not logically inevitable that I will come to the place that is the end of anything new?

And then came Slobergas.

It always means something when the kids get out of the car without me making them close their books. Usually it means they’re hungry. Sometimes it means they have a mission. Last week they had a mission, and his name was Slobergas.

Slobergas is a stray dog (loosely defined as a dog that strays). I’m sure Slobergas has an owner and a proper name, but what Slobergas clearly loves is a good wander. Daily, he wanders over to the school and says hello, saunters around the playground and the parking lot. Teachers apparently aren’t wild about him. The kids think he drools a lot, has a particular kind of smell, and would make an excellent mascot.

A child (named “not mine”) took Slobergas’s two great attractions together and won the playground debates that settled on the dog’s name. Obviously none of them can spell, but they insist that spelling of a proper name is up to the namer and not subject to the normal rules of spelling. Hence, “Slobergas,” not “Slobbergas.”

It was my child that insisted a campaign was in order. That’s why they even knew we had arrived home or bothered to get out of the car that day. They had posters to make, pictures to draw, even a poem to write about the school dog, Slobergas. Not just a dog, but Slobergas, a dog worthy of being a mascot. Every school should have a mascot and Slobergas should be ours says Boy two. The boy who makes pulling teeth with pliers seem like a dream job rather than get him to focus on school work after hours, happily spent hours revising, perfecting, and directing the mascot efforts. The next morning on the way to school, he remained in a dreamy euphoria.

“I really like doing campaigns and stuff. Trying to change things and get people to vote. I’m really happy about Slobergas,” he said.

And really, so am I. Slobergas isn’t something I created. Beautiful, silly, delightful things are everywhere. It’s not my job to make them up, just the work of a lifetime to keep noticing them. And sometimes, to write down what I see.

On the way to school

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Girl #1 is rambling about the King of England. Something or other she learned at school from Mrs. V. who, it is repeated with reverence, absolutely loves history.

Girl #2:  I’m getting the idea that Mrs. V. really knows a lot. Like even more than mom

Girl #1 concerned: I don’t know. I think might both know a lot but they know a lot about different things

Girl #2: Yeah, like about God and stuff

Girl #1: No, everybody knows about God. It’s like they both know a lot about some things. Like Mrs. V. knows a lot about history and social studies, and . . .

Girl #2: So maybe they know the same as each other but more than Miss Sipple.

Girl #1 (a little taken aback): Oh no, she says with emphasis, Miss Sipple knows a  lot. She knows all kinds of things. But she teaches very small children. Sooooo, she has to take everything she knows and take down to really tiny little details so the little kids can get it. See what I mean.

Girl #2 Yeah, so she’s really smart but she has to make it so they can understand it

Girl #1 Exactly

 

I tune out while the conversation turns back to the King in England, and all that has been learned thus far from the beloved and admired Mrs. V. Somewhere I tune in again . . .

Girl #1  So anyway, the King and England wanted to fight New York.

Girl #2 Is that like called World War I or something?

Girl #1 Actually, it might have just been New York fighting New York

Boy #2 from the far back:  It’s called the War of 1812

Girl #1  Actually, I’m pretty sure it was New York trying to keep New York, maybe from England.

Boy #3 Then that’s the United States becoming a country. It’s called the Civil War.

Girl #1 Anyway, the point is that there were people in New York who wanted to be loyal to the King and that made other people really mad. They wanted to like lock them up in jail and be mean to them and stuff, but they weren’t bad people. They were good people and they loved the King.

 

Well, Dorothy, I say to myself. You aren’t in Kansas anymore. The traitors of your childhood are the heroes of your children’s. Your book loving son who spews facts about the quiet needed for beer brewing and all manner of odd things learned from his books doesn’t differentiate accurately between American wars, revolutionary, civil, or otherwise.

But that’s ok. My nine year old says that even though Mrs. V. knows some things I don’t, there are some things I know that she doesn’t. This bodes well for both of us.