because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

Sure, I’ll Write You A Recommendation…

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Mr. Stephenson circa 1980s

In 11th grade, I needed three stellar recommendations that I could send off with my college applications. I felt confident that I would receive solid letters from two of my former English teachers, but then I was kinda stuck. There was no way I could ask any of my math teachers. I mean, I enjoyed Geometry, but I wasn’t necessarily good at it, and my Algebra teacher had retired.

Finally, I decided to ask my French teacher. I’d been in his class for two years. I was reasonably interested in the material (kinda); I liked him a lot (that should count for something, right?); I did my homework (sometimes); and I tried not to laugh too much. Yes, I decided, Monsieur Stephenson would be the perfect person to write me the outstanding recommendation that I was seeking.

You can imagine how shocked I was when he flat out said no.

“Think about your performance in my class,” he said. “Do you give 100% ? Do you take everything seriously? Do you show me that you want to be here? Do you do anything extra?” He pushed his hair back with the palm of his hand and sat up straight in his chair. “Think about the answers to those questions and then you’ll understand why I can’t write you a letter.”

He did not say he was sorry.

Fast forward 25 years, and here it is, recommendation letter writing season and my former students are returning to me, sometimes three semesters after I’ve had them as students. Like frantic homing pigeons who have been lost for an awful long time, they ask me to write them all kinds of letters –  to get into four year colleges, to enter the military, to give to potential employers – so I find myself thinking of Monsieur Stephenson a lot.

Mr. Stephenson in the 1980s

When Monsieur refused me that day, he gave me a big dose of reality. It is not enough to simply show up: A person must do more than make a good impression. Many of my former students think that because they liked me – that because I was kind to them and they passed my class – that they are entitled to strong letters of recommendation, but the best letters of recommendation are not just about “passing the course,” but about work ethic and character, growth and potential.

I am grateful to Monsieur Stephenson for refusing me, as I see his wisdom in holding up the mirror before me and having me take a good hard look at myself and my choices. I understand that his mediocre letter could have prevented me from getting into the college of my choice. Students need to think carefully and be direct in asking any potential letter writer if that person can produce a strong letter of recommendation on their behalf. If a student cannot find a professor or teacher, they may have to get creative and look to coaches, neighbors, religious leaders, perhaps someone who has witnessed their involvement in community service.

I learned more than just French from Monsieur Stevenson: I learned to be selective about whom I agree to write letters of recommendation. They are time consuming endeavors; labors of love.

Having said that, I am happy to write one for you – if you deserve it.

Anybody refuse to write you a letter of recommendation? How’d you take it?

A Day Of Community Spirit

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This year, our temple invited members from synagogues from all over the area to join in a huge community celebration. While rabbis and daddies manned the grills outside to make sure that the laws of kashrut were being observed,  students and parents enjoyed instrumental and vocal performances, saw their children dance to Israeli music, and act in little plays. Afterward, everyone spilled out to a buffet lunch on our first really gorgeous blue-sky, green-grass day.

Girls enjoying the day

Before the kids in this video went inside to perform, I asked permission to videotape them. They are clearly a tight bunch; performing together does that to people. When I asked one of the kids how he felt about the year coming to an end he said, “It’s been a great year. Once we understood and accepted everyone’s different personalities, we could just focus on working together to make something cool.”

So on that day, I served burgers, offering seeded and unseeded rolls (there were also hot dogs and vegetarian alternatives), and my son got a little recognition for having stellar attendance. It felt good to come together as a community. The youngest children played simple games (the kind that involve ping-pong balls and spoons and a lot of running) while older kids played tag, teenagers lounged in the courtyard, and adults stood and chatted nearby. A gentle breeze blew. Not a bad way to end May.

When is the last time you did something that touched your spirit?

I Can't Believe I'm Sharing My Hair Guy

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Every few months, I have my hair highlighted at isobel, a chic little salon located at 796 South Clinton Avenue in Rochester, New York. isobel is truly one of the best kept secrets in town because, Owner, Michael Livernash, and stylist Stephanie Hernandez run the place with a level of personal attention not found in many other salons these days where one person may wash your hair, another may do the cut, while a third person might step in to finish. Not so at isobel where Michael and Stephanie work together to make every client feel special.

That said, I’m a little stingy about sharing Michael. First of all, I’m a bad sharer. I like the attention Michael gives me; I eat it up like the needy, little housewife that I am. I am pretty sure Michael gives all his clients this same level of attention; he seems to know everything about all of us. He sure as hell knows everything about me. He knows I want to look like Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker, and he gets me pretty dang close (hair-wise). He laughs at my dorky jokes, but he also answers my questions seriously – when I have them.

Being a twit, I have been toying with trying this Brazilian Keratin Treatment that I’ve been hearing so much about. It’s a pricey procedure that takes several hours and, if done incorrectly, can result in serious damage. A naturally curly-haired girl, I recent saw a Tyra Banks Show where a woman with serious frizz tried the procedure and the results were nothing short of miraculous. She went from hair that was unable to be combed to smooth, shiny locks that obeyed. I asked Michael about it.

Before My Hair Appointment

He explained that it is actually a pretty cool technology, but there are two different kinds of product: one that contains formaldehyde, a serious toxin associated with all kinds of cancers (you know, they embalm dead bodies with that stuff), and another product that doesn’t contain formaldehyde.

Michael said in either case the “keratin penetrates the hair improving and repairing the quality of the hair from the inside.”

“So should I do it? I asked, uncertain.

“You have great curls. Why do you want to get rid of them?”

After Michael's Magic

You see, this is why I love Michael. Not only does he color my hair perfectly, but he says all the right things, too.

For now I am content to have Michael color and straighten my hair once every two months. It’s nice to know I have a choice. It’s even nicer to know I have Michael.

How many of you have used this Brazilian Hair Straightening Process? And what do you think?

Ode to Mark Kelly: The Man Who Helped Me Accept Chaos

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It was my third week at Metairie Park Country Day School and I could barely distinguish the administration building from the science building. I didn’t know where the nearest bathroom was, who to call about the broken desk in my classroom, or how to make the copier stop jamming.

For the first two weeks I called him Jeff. By the time I got it straight, I realized that Mark Kelly was not the technology guy; neither was he the Athletic Director. He was the Middle School Principal, and he’d come to the English office to pay me a visit, to see how I was doing, if I needed anything. How nice, I thought, how friendly the folks are around these parts. Little did I know that he was out to get me. Little did I know that I’d come face to face with the meanest practical joker east of the Mississippi. I made the mistake of sounding secure.

Mark Kelly

“Everything is great,” I said, trying to sound confident.

“Have you been to the Lower School?” he asked.

“Been there.” I said, feigning a yawn.

“What about the library?”

“Pu-leeze,” I lied.

“So you know what you’re doing?” he said, raising his eyebrow. “You have it all together?”

I nodded my head, snapped my fingers two times for effect, and headed off to class.  Later, after school ended and I had erased the blackboard, reorganized the desks in a circle, and collected my mail, I returned to the English office. I saw it from all the way across the room; my desk had been cleared. Everything was gone.

When I realized the gravity of the situation, I gasped aloud: “My grade book!” It held all my students’ grades, all my attendance records.  I think I vomited a little in my mouth.

Sitting behind me, looking calm, was Mr. Kelly.  He smiled, arms crossed over his chest.  “So, you’ve really got it all together…”

“Where is it?  What have you done with it?!” I squeaked.

“It’s around,” he said coolly.

Suffice it to say that Mr. Kelly sent me on quite a scavenger hunt. During my journey, I located the Lower School atrium, the Upper School attendance office, the library – and I met fabulous folks all along the way. In the end, it turned out that Mr. Kelly had stashed all my goods in an empty file cabinet drawer right there in the English office, about two steps away from my desk. I pulled all my belongings out of the drawer, unharmed, and set about reorganizing. Mr. Kelly gurgled and chortled behind me.

Truth be told, I miss the way Mark Kelly batted me around the way some giant cat might play with a mouse or a bird. I miss hearing his booming laugh behind me at school plays; I miss his multi-colored Tabasco ties; I miss his wit, his charm, his teasing, and his teaching. Mark put a little bounce in my step. He taught me to stay on my toes.  He taught me never to brag about being done with something early. He taught me how order in the world is artificial and how easy it is to lose control. He made me explore, go out and meet people, go into unfamiliar territory, and find answers. It is so easy to get stuck in our own little comfort zones.

Mark has been working as Head of School at Annunciation Orthodox School in Houston, Texas for the last 14 years. I like to think that this little Grasshopper has become like her master and that I instill in my students the same thrill for exploration and the same joy at being slightly off- center.

When is the last time someone made you feel a little off balance – in a good way?

Proud Not To Be A Texan

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After much debate, the Texas State Board of Education passed new high school textbook standards that recast U.S. history from the point of view of a conservative movement.

The AP reports on the 9-5 vote by the Republican-dominated board:

The partisan board has amended or watered down the teaching of the civil rights movement, slavery, America’s relationship with the U.N. and hundreds of other items. … They dictate how political events and figures will be taught to some 4.8 million schoolchildren in Texas … for the next decade.

The new standards state that students must “discuss alternatives regarding long-term entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, given the decreasing worker to retiree ratio.” Another clause says students must “describe the causes and key organizations and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schafly, (best known as an opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment – which has yet to be adopted), the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the National Rifle Association.”

In the video below, note how Republican board member Cynthia Dunbar begins the meeting on Friday May 21, 2010. She says (amongst many other things that made my jaw drop), “I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the Savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses. Whether we look to the first charter of Virginia, or the charter of New England … the same objective is present: a Christian land governed by Christian principles,” she says.

Call me crazy, but if people want their children to be “governed by Christian principles,” they might consider sending their children to private Christian schools, from which there are many to choose. But we are talking about public education here. Public schools have always served as the place where children of all races, classes and religious beliefs meet up to learn skills that will help them become productive members of our society. Christian principles non-withstanding, these new curriculum requirements in Texas are so slanted to the right, they seem to actively discourage critical thinking skills.

My ethnically diverse neighborhood in Western, New York is home to Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists and atheists. Personally, I was surprised that Ms. Dunbar was allowed the begin the school board meeting with this kind of invocation, as I always thought that Thomas Jefferson strongly advocated a separation of Church and State. I guess in Texas that baby was tossed out with the bathwater, too.

If life were a playground game of “Mother, May I,” it would seem that the Texas Board of Education has just taken one giant leap towards revisionist history. A good educator can work with any kind of textbook (even without a textbook), but it is difficult when such strong bias is presented as Truth to students who simply don’t know to ask about the other sides(s) to these complex issues.

On an up-note, in this miserable economy, I guess it’s a good time to be a textbook writer.

What do you think about the textbook decision in Texas?

Ringtones Adults Aren't Supposed To Hear

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Texting & the rocket summer, originally uploaded by racheocity.

As a general rule, unless someone has an Individualized Educational Plan, I require students to turn off all electronics for the 50 minutes they are in my class. iPods and MP3 Players? Off. Laptops? Off. Cellphones? I don’t even want them on vibrate as I find the buzz distracting. No one has ever balked; however, this past fall I did have a weird experience that caused me to learn about something new in the ever-evolving world of technology.

In this one particular classroom, students generally sat in straight lines facing front: Not my favorite configuration, but we didn’t have many options in our tiny, sterile, windowless space. One day, for no apparent reason, several students looked sharply to the opposite side of the room at the exact same moment while other students covered their ears. Thinking nothing of it, I simply continued my lesson. After class, a most loyal student told me about The Mosquito Ringtone, a tone specifically designed to ring at a decibel that is not easily detected by adult ears. This student also told me that some students use it to cheat.

Apparently, British inventor, Howard Stapleton discovered an ultra high frequency that drives away teens much like a dog whistle affects dogs. His idea was to use his invention to keep teenagers from loitering outside of shops at night, thus making the area around his storefront uncomfortable for loitering teens while leaving the money-spending adult customers unaffected.

As stated in the website for Mosquito Ringtones:

… teens from the inventor’s hometown caught on to what the company was doing and decided to put turn the idea into something they could use. They took the ultra sonic frequency and converted into to a cell phone ringtone which they aptly named “Teen Buzz.”… The ringtone caught on like wildfire in the UK and quickly spread throughout the reaches of the Internet to teens everywhere. Teens learned they could hear each others phones ringing at school but their teachers couldn’t.

Initially skeptical, I was amazed when tried the hearing test experiment with my 10 year-old son and learned that I simply could not hear certain tones beyond a certain frequency. I kept saying, “Can you really hear something?” and he kept saying, “Yes, I can hear it. Now can you turn it off!” I thought I had great hearing! Sheesh! Since that day, I have remained ever-vigilant in class, relying on my eyes as well as my ears. Students are clever and always a step ahead when it comes to technology – especially when it comes to finding a way to use it to cut corners or keep up with their important social lives!

I must admit, I have been waiting for a similar incident to occur. It hasn’t (yet), but at least now I am prepared.

Have you come across this technology in your life? What do you think about it?

The Blessing of Broken Dishes

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Fiestaware, originally uploaded by Choconancy1.

For years, I worked as a Professional Organizer, helping people declutter their little messes. I learned a lot on that little job. I saw how things could represent people and discovered that people could be connected to the strangest things: pantyhose, flip-flops, even mismatched drinking glasses.

I’m not the most sentimental gal, but I collect Fiestaware. The brightly colored pieces make putting the dishes away less of a chore and more of a joy. One or two of the pieces are from my grandmother’s own collection and, though I rarely eat from them, I like opening my doors to my cabinet and seeing them there all nestled in amongst the rest of the pieces. Since she passed away, these few bowls have served as a daily special reminder of our connectedness.

A few years ago, a shelf that held a lot of my beautiful Fiestaware collection caved in and I found myself desperately trying to catch the dishes as they fell, rainbows-colored disks crashing around me. Strangely, in that instant, I remembered all the smashing and crashing in my life. Broken teacups and broken hearts. I realized that when things break, a person has to make choices.

Initially, I wanted to try to Super-glue the smithereens together and attempt to make imperfect things perfect again, but I learned long ago perfection is temporary, at best. I briefly considered taking the busted up pieces and trying to make some kind of mosaic out of all the funky colors and sharp edges, but who has time for that, really? Eventually, I shrugged my shoulders, got my broom and old green dustpan, swept everything up, vacuumed for good measure, and threw all the pieces-parts into the garbage. Not everything can be saved.

by turkeychik at flickr.com

I quickly remembered that I am blessed with good health, a strong family, and good friends. I reminded myself that stuff, while we often like to surround ourselves with it, is just filler.

After I cried a little, I decided I was like an ant whose home had just been knocked over by an unforeseen storm. And everyone knows what ants do; they rebuild. So I pretended that my collection had been cosmically revised and started collecting again. Losing my chartreuse platter was a bummer, but my grandmother’s pieces were spared and, for that, I was grateful.

Over time, I’ve practiced patience, continued collecting, slowly rebuilding. For my 40th birthday a few years ago, several friends bought me a few vintage pieces of Fiestaware; one piece was even chartreuse! Joy can be found in the strangest of places. Who would have thought I’d find so much in my daily dishes?

To what physical items are you connected?


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Lessons From Mrs. Church

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Mrs. Church stands in the far right of the back row.

I loved Mrs. Church, my 2nd grade teacher, from the very first day of school. Among other things, she taught a unit on Hawaii where we made grass skirts and learned songs about “going to a hukilau”: I still know the words. She let us sample real sugar cane and poi, each of us dipping our fingers into the community bowl with our two fingers. Lord knows where she got the stuff. She wore crazy, clunky necklaces that epitomized the 1970s – owls with big eyes, huge butterflies, giant yellow flowers. She wore two-piece, polyester, polka-dotted pantsuits, and her ragged-edged haircut made it appear she did the job herself at home.

Mrs. Church literally had my back, and she rescued me when a certain twit who sat at the desk directly behind me decided that it would be fun to cut my hair with his dull-bladed scissors. She must have read his mind because I barely felt the tug of his hands on the back of my head when she called out, “Mr. So-and-So, you may bring those scissors up to my desk now.”

She encouraged me to write and revise, and – eventually – to enter a writing contest held at our local library the spring of my 2nd grade year. I don’t know if I won or not (probably not), but I remember the way she made me feel: like I could do anything.

Please share a memory of one of your favorite teachers. What did he/she do that makes you remember him/her all these years later?

The prompt was to write about a favorite mentor in under 500 words. I wrote about this when my blog was very new, and I had very few followers. I’d love to honor my old teacher, a woman I think about nearly every day.

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What's So Cool About Boys Who Sew?

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5th grade boy sews David Crosby puppet

I know three smart, funny, semi-rambunctious 5th grade boys who have taken to sewing. One has been embroidering, another has been knitting, and the other created a stuffed puppet as part of a biographical research project where he chose to study singer/songwriter David Crosby of the classic rock group, Crosby, Stills and Nash. The puppet resembles Crosby as he appears these days: complete with long gray locks, tie-dye t-shirt and jeans. Sewing “Stuffed Crosby” was no small undertaking, but with a few quick lessons from his mother, this l’il dude learned how to work a sewing machine. And he enjoyed it!

These boys are not weirdos: They all love their video games, have excellent social skills, and plenty of friends. Each of these boys knows how to get down and dirty. One of these boys is downright crazy. That said, each of these kids has recently learned that sewing – whether it be by hand or by machine – can be relaxing and the results rewarding.

Boy Sewing

I know lately everyone is talking about the obesity epidemic in the United States so everyone has their kids in a million after school run & jump activities. Personally, I’m thrilled to see these boys taking a little time to develop a slightly different skills set: patience, precision, concentration, and the ability to sit in one place for an extended period of time without a gaming device in hand.

Perseverance is potentially the most important quality for any successful working professional, athlete, or individual. Most well known breakthroughs in life have been attributed to perseverance alone. In life, as in sewing, sometimes things go wrong and things get all knotted up. In those moments, one has to persevere – move beyond the frustration – by developing different strategies.  For these boys, the outcomes have been wonderful pieces of art, but each has also discovered a new creative outlet.

Who knows? Maybe they might start patching the holes in their jeans. Now that would be something!

Is it Okay to Just be Okay?

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Fente d’assaut, originally uploaded by n.vasse.

Today my son participated in his first fencing tournament. He’s been taking lessons in Saber at the Rochester Fencing Club for just under a year and, I must confess, I still can’t tell who scores. Even when the judge is there officiating, I can’t tell who has won the point. My son tries to teach me about the parry and repost and a host of other things with fancy names that I can’t seem to retain. I don’t know what my problem is because I want to understand it, but I just can’t. It’s not that I’m not trying to understand. It just seems like everything is beyond my aptitude. Meanwhile, my 10 year-old understands everything and seems to pick things up easily and by osmosis.

Trying to understand something but not being able to was humbling and it reminded me that not everyone is going to understand the message I am trying to deliver to them. No matter how hard I try, no matter how many visuals I include, whether my class is web-enhanced or not, some of my students still are just not going to get it.

My son didn’t win the tournament, but he did win a few matches. Most importantly, he is willing to keep trying. He was not broken down by the experience of losing. He wasn’t discouraged. He was actually inspired to be better the next time. I guess in some ways I am like an Intro Level Saber teacher; I provide my students with the basics, and some of them will excel and some will be okay. Others will be lousy, and the least inspired of the bunch will drop out.

It is rather awful to not be able to understand something. Frustrating, for sure. And while I suppose it is not the end of the world to not be able to “get it” when it comes to fencing, I am having a hard time convincing myself that it is acceptable for some students to never move beyond a basic skills set when it comes to reading and writing.

Is it okay to just be okay?