Saturday, October 9, 2010

Thank you!

Tomorrow is 10-10-10 and I will be 65. I think it is time to say "thank you" for the many and varied gifts I have received and none too soon, I say.

Through the years I have had many gifts from friends, relatives, family, students and educators. Today, although it is not about the classroom I write, I would like to thank them for the real "classroom" where I have learned, hopefully, to be a happier and more fulfilled person.

My mother was a professional educator in every way. I thank her for the model she gave me and my brother about teaching and connecting with students. From her we learned to appreciate the custodian and the superintendent, the students and the parents, the football coach and the band director. We learned the value of Friday night lights and a packed gym in January. She showed us that real teaching often happens after dismissal and real caring comes from attending solemnities required of community members.

My father taught me common sense. And patience. And forgiveness.

Of course, I have to thank all the teachers along the way. Mrs. Ortiz taught me not to lie. Mrs. Pittard read the Hardy Boys to us every day after lunch. Miss Parks taught me to write about what I know and Miss Smith taught me to be myself. Madame Brackett opened my dreams to French. Mr. Bertrand taught me confidence. Wherever they are now, I hope they know I have carried them with me all these years.

Three friends in high school helped me feel less isolated--Mary Jean Fitzpatrick, Julie Joffray and Cheryl Horecker. I dated twice in high school, neither remarkable but Bill Turkington is still the nicest person you can know. Everyone knows about my crush on Jon Swanson and no February 13 goes by that I don't think of him and hope he is well. He was "dreamy" and now he's bald. I would probably still be tongue-tied if I met him.

College friends like Patty Shelton were important and tragic. We parted ways over a boy. How stupid of us but how typical of us. She arranged for my first date with my first real sweetheart--Peter Torgrimson. Wherever he is today, I apologize for not understanding your subtleties. A mistake I rued for some time. But not today. It would have never worked.

Memphis and students who taught me how to be a minority. How to deal with racist slurs and intolerance and Dr. King who gave me the example to share with my students. To the class of 1971 at Southside High School, I thank you. Vicki Collins, wherever you are, I hope you got that job life guarding!

Three ex-husbands and California. My roommates on S. 10th--thanks for the party, continuous and gay! My brother had an especially nice time. They introduced me to Yosemite. For that I am and always will be grateful. It is my spiritual home and I was fortunate to work there with Charmaine Gerecke and Dianne Mueller. Two wonderful women who helped me put Viet Nam behind me and look to nature for my life.

From there to Missouri. I would not have survived the next few years without the friendship of Pat Stokely and, in turn, her family. She made me watch the evening news again and taught me about small town intolerance. She was a true friend. And a great cook! Thank you for many, many happy memories and to John Brown for being a beautiful dog!

Those three husbands all turned out to be flukes. I was much too young to consider that I wanted to stay in a relationship with one person for any length of time. But I do thank Bob Polack for my son and for the long Jungian fest that was our marriage. Despite it all, I think I explored a lot of my own self in those few years and was rewarded for my pain and suffering. My marriage now is much richer for the earlier mistakes. I am thankful for lessons learned in no other way which make me more capable and willing to share and grow with one person.

To the Metzgers, the Bains and the Weltmans--my other families. You each, in turn, have given me a "home" when I felt I had none. I regret that time and distance now keep us parted. But you and your children have touched me deeply in the richest of ways and I carry those treasures always.

Affton--Mary, Jane, Karen, Marilyn, Renee, Sandy and Gay--sisters and mentors. You have forgiven me in my frustration many times. You have offered me a helping hand, a shoulder to lean on, an angel to walk with me, advice and comfort, and the acknowledgment that I was a good teacher and person. From my heart I thank you for those years and the continued blessings of your presence.

As for today--Stella, Mercedes, Erika--new sisters, companions along the way. Betty Van Rees, wherever you are, you need to come back to us. Mandy Horton for teaching me new ways of helping kids and Linda Pelli for spiritual guidance.

The families I have known along my way--the Blasburgs, Derek especially, the Dierkers, the Jasons (who are hosting my birthday party tonight). Thank you for supporting me and believing in me as someone who could lead your children to higher ground.

As for all the students, going all the way back to 1967, you have been amazing gifts. Each of you came wrapped in significant ways and you challenged me to take you in other directions. I am proud to say we had a great journey together.

Last for my husband and children--who goes through life with so many blessings? All of us but do we ever stop to say thanks? I want the people of my life to know this because many of them I will never see again. For those I see daily, thanks is always there. My husband Nick is the best gift I have ever received. My St. Louis family knows what we two went through to pull our lives together. Wasn't easy. John, my oldest, is a constant reminder that I can have a positive influence and I do have a legacy in him. He is my joy. My step-children are frequent reminders that starting over at 50 was not such a bad idea after all. I love them dearly. We have had a lot of fun "growing up."

And so tomorrow I celebrate 65 years as a visitor here, gathering up the goodies I can and trying not to be tempted to do something foolish. I only hope I have many more people to thank before this ends. I would welcome the lessons and gifts!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Small is Better

Good Morning! I have just about finished my New York Times, but my husband just shared with me Thomas Friedman's column "We're No. 1(1)!" In the article Friedman relates that Newsweek's poll places the United States as number 11 of the best countries in the world. Number one is Finland, and in descending order: Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, Luxembourg, Norway, Canada, Netherlands, Japan, Denmark. Do you see a pattern? Categories used to rank these countries are: education, health, quality of life, economic dynamism, and political environment.

Friedman makes the point that until we return to the values of the greatest generation (my mother and father's generation--the ones that won a more compelling war (we were defending ourselves, not being the aggressors) we will continue to not make the top five of that list. I would like to offer my reasons for our lost situation.

Small is better. Smaller communities, smaller schools, smaller religious places, smaller downtowns, smaller industries, smaller transportation, smaller farms, smaller stores, smaller, smaller, smaller. Today we are lost in a vast and wickedly expanding world that will not and does not slow down for anything or anyone. Words like "development" and "SUV" are a genuine part of our mindset.

I am best acquainted with the school situation. I have contended for all of my teaching career that smaller schools were the answer. I began in Memphis in a high school with an enrollment of almost 2000. I moved to a high school in Missouri with a population of over 1500. Finally, I taught in a school in St. Louis with a population of 700 and one of 400. Only in the last two schools did I know all the faces I saw in the passing period. I knew the teachers from the industrial arts area in the back of the building to the math teachers at the upper end of the hall way. I knew the modern language teachers, the science teachers. I even knew teachers in other buildings in the district. Imagine being able to call on a teacher in the third grade for help with a student whose family she had known long before me. Can you imagine that? In every other school I have been part of, I have known only those teachers on my planning period and that was because we all ended up having to go to the bathroom at the same time every day. My principals in those smaller schools also knew me. They knew what went on in my room and whenever there was a problem, they personally came to me and gave me every opportunity to address the issue, and because they knew me well, they defused any situation long before it became an issue. I appreciated that.

Today I teach in another "mega" school. I have been there five years and still cannot recognize teachers and what they teach. I have served on committees, have been at social functions, been to sporting events and visited the planning area, and still I don't know many, if not the majority, of them. Heck, I don't even know all of the people in my department! What does that do for me and my students? What does that do for students and their families?

It is the same in our communities. Do we know the neighbors? Do we have neighborhood block parties? Do we visit one another in times of grief or loss? Do we go to funerals? Do we visit the sick? Do we take dinner to a shut-in neighbor? Who do we know at church besides the people who regularly sit in the pew with us or in front of us? Do we know the people who go to a different service, earlier or later than us? Does our grocer know us? Does our postal carrier know us? Can we name the people at our bank who know us or whom we know? I carry dozens of business cards, but have no recollection of the face that goes with the card. I just know to ask for that person-if that person still works at that branch or for that business.

I know it is nearly impossible to take back the time and reduce our situations. The recession might actually be good for that, but I doubt we will learn. I envy people who live and thrive in small towns. But small towns are drying up. When Wal-Mart moves in or Lowe's, people gravitate toward the big box store leaving the small business owners on main street to die a torturous death. This death reflects the death of many a small system, like the family farm, the family business, the family.

We are quickly losing ground. We think we are better communicators because of the web, but mostly what we communicate to one another is gossip and innuendo. And it spreads like wildfire, worse than small town gossip. At least in a small town you knew who to avoid telling something to unless you wanted everyone to know it. On the web you have no idea where your thoughts are going. We believe whatever a stranger tells us and we never really open up a conversation with anyone we know for fear they will leave us alone and afraid.

So what is the answer? Small is better. Whatever chance we will have of being a great place to live, we have to have a better system of values. Wanting it all and having it all is really not a good way to live. It definitely leaves a lot of people out of the process. And that is the value we live by today. Surely we can find a way to regain ground with values that serve us better. Besides, I really would like to know all the faces I see in the passing period. They are the members of my "small town" and they should know we are together a community.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Paying Your Dues

This is the season for ludicrous! No, not the rap artist, but the beginning of the school year. All across America this week, last week, or next week, teachers will begin the hustle and bustle of getting back with students. “Sit and git” meetings for hours accompanied by committee meetings scheduled around tasty high carb “breakfasts” along with “lunch provided by ____,” will fill their hours. Maybe one of the days or maybe two of the days will be unimpeded for unpacking, putting away, writing lesson plans, getting material to the printer or Xerox, collaborating or not, department meetings for directions and instructional focus, and meeting with a mentor or mentee. Then comes open house where we distribute syllabi we will never get to teach and attend freshmen orientation for those ninth graders who probably don’t need the information we give them about discipline and expectations because one of our expectations is that they show up for orientation. See how that works?

I know that many of you reading this are not teachers. I know that many of you just simply don’t understand what the fuss is about. After all, this is a profession that requires a lot of preparation, application and assessment. We must spend time doing this before we see our first class on opening day. We must. But something you are probably not aware of (unless you were in one of my classes) is that between the last exam in the spring and the advent of fresh faces in the fall, we continue to work. We do. We always have and we always will. If you believe we go home and put our feet up and watch the world go by, you have been given very dubious information by a politician, probably a school board person or your local city council member, or someone who has never in his or her life been back to a classroom since they sat there and did as little work as possible. Because the real line in the sand gets drawn at negotiations time. It seems that all of you from the mayor down to the dog catcher would never have whatever you have were it not for the cadre of teachers you faced year after year until you either succeeded and graduated,or failed and dropped out. So this particular message is for all of you. Every last one of you.

In America every one of us gets an education. We make a very special effort to educate every child—no matter his or her creed or color, national status, or political affiliation. We teach anyone sitting in front of us and sometimes those not sitting in front of us. This is what happens in our democracy. Our founders believed in this principal without any consideration of an alternative. Our first schools were in the kitchen of a local wife who taught the very basics to village children. Then the boys went off to advanced education and the girls became wives. Then we discovered women knew something too, so they joined the young men and went off to advanced educations. Today they go off in droves every spring, hopefully more literate than when they first arrived in the classroom. And what becomes of the teachers they have left behind? We pack up for summer with multi-page “to do” lists for the classroom or the subject and hope to get that done before August.

We stay behind while our students move on. And that means all of you. You have moved on, but we are still here. We are still in that classroom—some of us years later—attempting to repeat our past successes and avoid the failures because we know the new faces need the education. In fact, we know better than almost anyone how much more important the education has become. We have seen first hand the changes, enormous changes, in the way America works, banks, lives, votes and thinks. We realize more than ever the importance of critical thinking skills, vocational skills, computer literacy, math skills and reading skills. We recognize the value of an educated electorate, which Jefferson warned us was the only way to preserve a democracy. So we labor on into the late afternoon, still at our desks, attempting to find a myriad of ways to reach each and every student sitting in front of us tomorrow.

Noble, huh? Passionate? Dedicated? Determined? Deliberate? Tragic? What? Tragic. How so? Because for every hour we sit there piecing together a valid learning moment, we receive less remuneration than most people with far less education and responsibility. Now before you kill your screen, think back to my opening. How did you get where you are? How did you obtain those skills? Who labored over much to get you to remember to complete an assignment, much less turn it in on time? Who called you on your recalcitrant behavior? Who didn’t write you up for your behavior, but instead kept you back for a few minutes at the end of class and spoke from the heart about better things from you and for you? Who got you into that vocational class or school? Who helped you with your college essay? Who? She or he sits today in that classroom long after you’ve been gone and long after her or his current classes are gone doing their best to bring their best to students on what might be their worst day. Who taught you and focused your teenage brain on the concept of negative numbers or explained and relentlessly pushed you to look words up in a dictionary when you couldn’t spell them? Who helped with extra study sessions for AP exams or IB exams? Who wrote that letter of recommendation that got you into that school or into that summer job? Who?

Many Americans right now are having trouble paying their mortgages, for their cars, for their children’s college tuitions, for food. Teachers are among them. And of all the people in trouble, I will argue that teachers should not be among them—ever! Our way of life in this democracy depends entirely on the lessons of the classroom. Nothing, and I am serious, nothing works without education. If you as a member of your community, wherever you are, imagine that you can get us to continue to “be there for the students,” you better think harder (remember we taught how to do that better). Education is withering on the vine because newer teachers see the changes and are not as certain as they once were about entering the profession. Older teachers are leaving at the bell and working “to contract” because they simply have no more to give to a situation that repeatedly treats them shabbily. And this is a universal truth across America.

You have forgotten us. When tax issues are discussed, no one wants to part with more money. No one wants to investigate where the tax dollars go. You can’t depend on local newspapers or television coverage. They don’t want to know any more than you do. But for all the advantages you had from our classrooms, for better or worse, you will begin to see more and more of the problems surface in education that have to do with teacher workloads and salaries. It’s coming to a school near you, if it isn’t there now. So do your homework. Go to board meetings. Visit schools. Get a sense of what is being asked and how teachers are being paid and treated. We are your greatest investment and we are your greatest obligation because, in the end, we have the greatest obligation of all—to educate you and yours.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Going Back and Leaving All This Behind

Summer has been wonderful! I have a new son-in-law and my step-daughter had a wonderful, beautiful wedding. As her first hospitality event (her major), she did wonderfully and her dad and I are very proud of her!! We spent too little time with our children in St. Louis, but they have busy lives and we were lucky to spend any time with them.

Now I turn myself in a new direction. School starts for teachers on Monday. What a blast! To sit and get for hours on end and hear all the best we have done and all the best we can do and try to believe some of it. I've been thinking lately that those of you who read this must think I am a very negative person and probably wonder why I don't get out of teaching. Well, I am not negative about students; it's the others that make my day endless. It's the state people who have no clues and the tax payers who think we have nothing to do all summer and leave school at three and spend our weekends on our boat.

I like teaching. This is my 43rd year and I still haven't worked out all the kinks. I want to do right by my students. I want to be prepared and I want to accept the challenges they present and take them past the place they call comfortable now. But the hurdles are many and the day is not long enough to make everyone happy. Nonetheless, I am back at it on Monday.

I am leaving behind a summer filled with reading. May I recommend Sarah's Key and Little Bee and any Lee Child you can find? Also lunch and dinner sometimes at the Cottage Grill here in Port St. Lucie? And may I recommend any black and white movie after 1934 and before 1955? There are also evenings sitting outside in the ocean breezes (no bugs) and enjoying a glass of something cold. It was enjoyable to sleep late, eat breakfast, have lunch and then dinner without rushing through any of those meals. I enjoyed emails and texting with friends and family. We took pictures and looked at beautiful plants and sunsets and children and laughed at funny moments--all without the weight of Monday morning on our shoulders.

I've had lots of time this summer to think. I think about Nicholas Kristof and the columns he writes in the NY Times; I think about my friend Renee who gives so much of herself to her profession; I think of my friend Mary who still wants to make a difference for students at Affton High School (somebody please thank her) and my friend Karen who solves all my math queries and always calls with the most interesting issues. I wonder at banks and their greed. I wonder at oil people and their insensitivity to the environment. I wonder about the two students who argued about global warming with me in a pub in England one night last spring. I wonder how they view the world now or if they still buy Glenn Beck's spin on things. I wonder at the wild west of Florida law and ethics. And I come to the conclusion sometimes that we simply must put one foot in front of the other and keep moving like Cormac McCarthy's protagonist in The Road, looking for sanctuary in an inhospitable and hostile environment in the hope that even if we don't make, our children will.

I am promising to you, dear reader, to be more timely this year. I may not always have something to say about teaching, but the broader picture is a classroom in a much more important educational program. I hope we can all learn something this year--something that makes the dark lighter, the burden easier and our love for each other and ourselves more significant.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Summer has brought new life for me. Since getting out in June I have helped create new flower beds, read through four, maybe five, new books, recreated our office space and gone to the movies. And already I dread August.

But, and that's a large size "but," I am concentrating on staying in the moment as much as I can. One of the great certainties I discovered this spring is that I must begin to retool for my eventual last day on the job. In fact, I realized that all of us must, sooner or later, retool for that first day of the rest of our lives.

I retired once in St. Louis. Mistake. Had we stuck it out, our life would have been drastically different from our life now. Better or worse? No doubt that cannot be determined. But every new experience is an opportunity for adventure. And I am definitely up for adventure. Which explains why retooling has now entered my vocabulary and mindset.

But retool to what? Here in our retirement community the ladies take water aerobics in early morning classes. They play bridge on Wednesdays and golf on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Anyone who knows me knows this is not my direction!

But my physical health requires certain limits. I can't hike the Pacific Crest Trail like I once wanted to do. I could finish several half-begun-and-better-off-never-finished novels. But I'll leave publishing to my students. (Derek Blasberg just published his first and it is marvelous!) The hiking I'll leave to Amy Compare who is religious about the natural world. (I wish she would discover Yosemite. She has no idea how beautiful mountains can be!) Former principals have become consultants, but if schools listened to me, there would be this radical shift in a paradigm so old and ingrained, it would be apocalyptic. Who's going to pay me for that advice?

So like everyone else who is faced with this conundrum, I must create my own map and direction. Just like life in the classroom, I have to get organized. I have to dig through "file cabinets" for old "lessons" and find new stimulus in them for me, the student. Probably the hardest teaching I will ever do now lies in front of me. The test is going to be a matter of life and death.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010


I know it's been some time since I last posted. School has a way of blocking out all light and life. It sucks up the energy that comes with each new day and dissipates all hope by sundown. We are asked to do more and more for less and less. In Florida the line has been drawn. What will teachers do with changes being sought after in the state legislature? How will any of us find our way through these really dark options? If you are sitting at home these days thinking that our job is all joy and sunshine, check out what is going on around the country with education. Who would want to be a teacher at these costs?

But I digress...I am bound for London tomorrow. I have been in love with English anything since I was a child. Tea, crumpets, Dickens, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Christie, Byron, Keats, Browning, Poets Corner, Westminster, Big Ben, Tower of London, Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and II, Charles, Diana, Camilla. I remember going to the drive-in as a five year old and watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. I collected every magazine picture and article I could find.

Why is this important? Because we all have dreams. We live our lives in such a way that some moment in time will find us celebrating the dream. We hope. We yearn. Then we go to college; we get jobs; we have children. We have money for mortgages and loans. We buy new winter coats and shoes which they outgrow at amazing rates. We manage a trip here or there but we never quite get to the dream. Well, some of us do. We have a head start with parents who teach us money management which is easy for them since they actually have it to manage and give it to us to manage as well. We never doubt that our family trip will be somewhere exotic, some port of call beyond the borders of our state, our country. We take it for granted. Yes, we do. But me? It happens tomorrow.

Not good with money and too generous to boot. But now it has happened and I am off. Who will I become on this trip? Will I become intoxicated with all things English? Will I forgive them their arrogance toward my Scottish heritage? Will I forgive them their arrogance against the Irish, the Indians, the Muslims, the Jews, the Afghans, the Americans? They do have a lot to answer for.

But in my fervor I will find joy and fulfillment as I look at the Magna Carta and the stones of Stonehenge. The shrine to St. Thomas a Becket at Canterbury where the pilgims stood--the wife of Bath, the yeoman, the knight. The spires of Westminster Abbey and the burial sites of so many names I know. The glorious Easter service of St. Paul's. The British Museum will not lose its charm for me. I am bound for home--the English part of me beckons and I will find more of myself than I knew. And that is the glory of dreams rendered real.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Chaos is winning.

I have just finished teaching Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Yesterday at the end of my power point I used the quote from the last page of the book when Ralph cries for "the loss of innocence, the darkness of man's heart and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy." And this morning I opened my New York Times.

We have not come very far, I would say, since the publication of that book. We are surrounded by children's loss of innocence. (How will the children of Haiti ever find sustenance and nurture after this? How will the children of the Congo ever feel safe and childlike again after rape and death?) And the loss of innocence is as close as the television, movie theatre, the living room couch.

As for the darkness of man's heart, well...look around. How much money does one CEO of Goldman Sachs or Bank of America need? How much partisanship does it take to risk the health and welfare of millions of people? On the other hand, how much money could build new schools, hire enough teachers, coaches and aides (notice I did not include administrators)to make a difference in children's lives? Test scores have robbed us of the opportunity to cast light into the darkest corners. We are too busy with high stakes testing to talk to children about basic right and wrong. We are strapped into the rocket that leads us to school grades and bonuses rather than to healthy, nurtured, character- driven children. We must test and test and test, and yet the results have nothing to do with the greater tests they will all meet as young adults and as new members of our communities. We have no fondness for stop now and talk about decision making. (It's not on the test.)

My mother, in studying for her Ph.D., did an analysis of values, attitudes and beliefs. She would discuss this with us at the dinner table. I came away with the notion that all teaching is based on this. You can take any literature you want or social situation, or moment in history and analyze it from those three perspectives. I suspect it would be true in science and math as well. And when you ask students to identify these three critical aspects in any situation, they begin to think and discover issues that had never before occurred to them.

I did this one year with a class of freshmen at Affton High School. They were reading Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. It was astounding to me the comments they made as a result of their analyses. But this was before high stakes testing. Those students went on to powerful opportunities in this country--the White House, state government, leadership in education and banking and even a few teachers.

But what do I accomplish now? It behooves me to say not as much as I would like. I curtail discussing ideas and move on to practical matters. In the novel we know that Piggy symbolizes intelligence, insight, thinking. And so with Golding and Ralph, I weep for "the fall through the air of the true, wise friend Piggy." I weep.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Memphis, Martin and Me

In 1967 I graduated from Southeast Missouri State College in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Most of the classmates I finished with would leave Cape and go north to St. Louis. Me? I went south to Memphis, Tennessee. My experiences there were the most deliberate and consuming in education I have ever had.

First there were my students. Out of the over 100 I saw everyday, only six were white. Interesting integration, I thought. My teaching was at South Side High School. We were the Scrappers because the year before our football team continued to play in a game where they lost forty something to nothing. Scrappers, indeed. In my classes I had cousins of Stax recording stars and street walkers. I had middle class black families, which was a surprise to me. I thought all blacks were poor. One assumption down. I had thieves and murderers. The police actually came to my door one day and arrested Alonzo right out of his desk. He had shot a woman on the bus. He always addressed me as "Miss." Absolutely polite and protective of me. What did that woman on the bus do to rouse him to shoot a gun at her? I discovered another way to conjugate "to be." And I discovered that black children did not "live" at home but "stayed" somewhere. Transience was ingrained in the language. Can you imagine a life so temporary as to refer to home as a place to "stay" rather than "live"? I never had.

Then there was the administration. Our principal was white and had a red neck. Really. He was also very red faced much of the time because he was frustrated by students and families who did not seem to understand his middle class approach to life. His assistant principal was a wonderful black man--Otto Lashley. He was a comfort to someone like me trying to learn the ways of a culture absolutely foreign. He and Mr. Edmunds. Perfect administrators working for a man and a system that had no clue what or where or how to get the job done. Memphis City Schools were a nightmare of organizational red tape. Every school taught from the same set of books regardless of the school population or needs. The text I used had an eleventh grade reading level. My students read, at best, at the fourth or fifth grade level.

So I became an interpreter of not only language but culture. The short story "Snake Dance" was impossible for my students because they had no idea what a "snake dance" was. So we pushed back the desks and joined with each other, hands on hips and "danced" around the room. I created small group grammar sessions and tried my best to convince them that they needed to learn standard English, different from what they would use at home or with family and friends often. I discovered that some of my students didn't need my help as much as others. So in the second year there we created honors classes. That was the year I took them to see Romeo and Juliet at the theatre.

I had never spent any time with a black person before. (My mother's maid Myrtle Gholson does not count. As a child I would never have asked her the questions I asked my students.) I was deprived physically and culturally. In my second year at South Side, I was the only white person in the room in every class, except when the Latin teacher's son was in my room. For the first time in my life, I was the only person of my ethnicity in a room. A very eye opening experience to say the least. So that is what it feels like to be the only one? I had to put ear drops in Donny's ears one day. I touched his head to tilt it to the side for the drops. (No teacher would be allowed to do this now.) And there it was. His hair was stiff and coarse. I admitted out loud to the class, before I realized what I was saying, that I had never done that before--felt a black person's hair. They giggled and then admitted to me that they had never felt a white person's hair. What a moment.

I sponsored the Y Teen volleyball team. Me--coach; you--player. That was how that went. At the end of the season, having come from a sports family, I thought it would be fun to have the girls over to my apartment for lunch and celebration. (No teacher would do this now either.) We ate sloppy joes (a white cultural treat they enjoyed) and chips and soda. They tried to teach me some dance moves. (White female failure--me.) Then their parents arrived and picked all the girls up. A knock at the door minutes after the last student and parent had left. My landlord. "We are asking you to leave. We don't do "'this,'" she informed me. I asked what "this" was. "We don't have colored in our apartments. You'll get your deposit back but you must be gone by the end of the month." Another assumption gone.

Then the morning in April came when the lights went out. Driving to school that day, I listened to Dr. King's speech from the day before. He had inspired such righteous anger in the garbage workers. Memphis was about to heat up. By the end of the day, I had no idea how hot it would get. My friend and I were at supper that evening when the news came that he had been shot and killed. By the next morning school was a mess. First we were called to a faculty meeting and told we would be escorted out by police at the end of the day. Then as soon as students arrived, their parents started pulling them out of class. The rumor was that black gangs were insisting that students stay home and they were going around to all the schools and clearing them out. Our students starting leaving around noon and by the last period of the day, we had 60 kids in the gym shooting hoops and sitting and talking.

We were escorted out only so far. Then we were on our own. I lived in the school neighborhood. As I drove home I was not necessarily nervous or fearful. But at a red light, a group of young black men starting yelling at me and for the first time in my life I heard the word "honky." I did not wait for the light to change.

I can't remember what happened after that day. The school year continued. I fell in love with a sailor who was deployed out east instead of Viet Nam. And at the airport one day waiting for his return, I talked with a young black man, a professional civil rights organizer. It was curious that he thought I needed to visit local eateries and have collards and neck bone.

I ate those in my younger years. I had been raised in the South right along with my students. I valued the foods that most of my students valued. I valued church and faith much the way my students did. I valued parents and my mother much the way my students did. I valued music and its spirit that lifts us when everything else is dark and desolate much the way my students did. Why had I ever felt the rift that divided us? Why had they and I been deprived of the knowledge of the common ground we shared? Generations of bigotry, rancor, ignorance, greed and illiteracy...we were all victims--Memphis, Martin and me.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


I have relaxed. The new year has found me far less stressed about their (students) energies for learning. Why I ever got in a knot about any of this I don't know. It may be fellow teachers. When I work closely with other faculty, I find myself too readily drawn into their unhappiness with students. Usually my relationships with the same students they fight with are rather benign and even friendly.

Take Charise. She is an attractive ninth grade girl who has found herself in classes she was never prepared for. Teachers last year gave little homework, little study skills, little practical approaches to learning so that this year she is in a hole at the end of first semester. But she talked with me this week. "I want to do better. I had no idea how to approach this year. But I do want to do better." Can't say no to that. However, I realize that this statement from her depends absolutely on our relationship. She has not made this announcement to any other teacher.

Then there is Jacob. I am protecting him from some district rules. He is almost homeless and where he sleeps some nights does not qualify him for my classroom. I can't lose this child. He is ever so smart and articulate at 14. He deserves none of the misfortune which has visited his family. I must be a shining light in this young person's life despite the extra burden. I worry if he gets lunch. If he has warm clothes. If he has a chance to do his homework for all of his classes. If he is troubled by his family situation. No one outside of one other teacher knows this truth.

Then there is Dale. How do I help this child? The smile that greets me every day in class is genuine, but behind it I fear great insecurity lurks. Dale cannot keep up with classmates as well as he should. Yet when we have study group, Dale never shows. What to do? Other teachers have written him off.

Then there is Alice. Beautiful, slender, vivacious, failure--except in our ROTC program. She has found her niche. How do I get her to value the rest of her day and recognize how important it is to her enjoyment of ROTC? We have talked--her tears were poignant and her concerns genuine. Family life has been very difficult but now is improving--parents are now working. She, too, has been written off by others.

And then there is John. He wants to succeed in the worst way. His father has made him take my class because he recognizes the value of the program I teach. He knows it is a way out of the cycle of poverty and illiteracy that he will become part of without a good education. But John has brought to my class almost no skills. He has spent the first eight years of school doing as little as possible and now the perfect educational storm has happened. How do I explain this to his well meaning parents?

Thousands of us have days like this. Thousands. And the children number in the hundreds of thousands. So I have come to the conclusion that the 3R's need one more. The R of Relationship. If I can maintain my relationships with these students, and more like them, I might reach a few. And maybe, the stress other colleagues experience will dissipate like mine if they see my example--thoughtful reflection on the really important part of teaching--relationships.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Why Don't She Write?

I borrowed that question from the film Dances With Wolves. Although I am not a pioneer headed out across the vast prairie of the Midwest, I sometimes feel that isolated and alone. Teaching can make a person extremely singular in vision.

This has been Christmas once again. As usual my tree went up after we got out for break. My cookies got baked Christmas Eve and our presents under the tree appeared at the same time. I sent out Christmas letters just before Santa's visit in the hopes that my friends would appreciate the events of our past year. I certainly enjoyed theirs. And in the midst of all that frivolity, I graded papers.

And that theme resonated throughout these past two weeks--grade papers, have a little Christmas, grade papers. Now I know that many teachers don't grade papers at holiday time. They successfully or unsuccessfully have a schedule that allows them some freedom from this during this optimum family time. Not me. I am doomed to always see those two weeks off as time to get some grading done.

So my comments here have been put on hold because the paper load is overwhelming. But, as you can see, I have one resolution for the new year. I will only work as hard as my students work. For years I think most teachers have worked twice as hard as their students. We overachieve in a thousand ways. They show up and ask "What are we doing today?" I think I will start answering that question with "What can you learn today about >>>>>> (fill in the empty space)? Their achievement will depend on them, rather than me. Jim Fay always says that it is not our job to motivate them. So the new year will find me waiting for them.

In the meantime, I have this weekend to finish grading essays exams, book reviews and re-grading essays. It will actually go fast as I have relaxed my standards a bit. After all if they wrote the perfect paper and completed the work as assigned, what would I do as a follow up? My job depends on their failure to act. Interesting dilemma....