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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.
“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. “You’ve really got it all together…” He smiled, arms crossed over his chest.
“Where is it?” I squeaked. “What have you done with it?!”
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’s so easy to get stuck in our own little comfort zones.
Mark worked as Head of School at Annunciation Orthodox School in Houston, Texas for many 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?
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 30 years.
Here it is, recommendation letter writing season, the time when former students return to me, sometimes many 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 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 can’t 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 Stephenson: 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?
Today, I worked with a student who needed assistance with an essay. Intelligent and conscientious, this woman — let’s call her Alecia — makes thoughtful comments regarding the assigned reading material; however, because she writes the way she speaks – in urban English — her writing hasn’t been earning top-notch grades from her professor.
“I be askin’ him what he wants me to do,” she said. “He told me come here.’”
Together, we’re working to get her to recognize some of her most common grammar errors.
“I be writing like this my whole life!” She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. “Gettin’ good grades, too. How come nobody teach me this?”
When she expressed frustration about not being able to consistently catch her grammar errors, I encouraged her to be gentle with herself. “You’re learning a second language.” I told her. “That doesn’t happen overnight,” I said. “It’s going to take practice.”
In our instant-gratification world, we want to be good at everything today.
But it takes time to learn new skills.
And people are creatures of habit.
We learn something, do it for a while, and it becomes second nature.
We can unlearn a behavior or a habit, but it takes time. The longer we behave a certain way, the longer it takes to change that pattern or habit or behavior.
Unlearning is hard.
But it is possible.
Over the last few semesters, Alecia has been developing her book smarts.
Meanwhile, after living in an insulated bubble for my entire adult life, with only minimal exposure to people from outside my predominantly white, suburban community – I’ve been developing my life skills.
Over the last year, I’ve learned:
1) It’s possible to live alone.For the first time in decades, I’m making my own decisions about everything: how I want to live, where I want to live, what I want to do for fun, the type of people with whom I want to associate. A homebody by nature, it’s really lonely without having anyone to come home to. I need to get a cat.
2) It’s necessary to make new friends. When my marriage ended, nearly all of my friendships died. One woman with whom I’d had a 45-year relationship actually shouted at me when I cried about being separated.
“You’re going to have to figure out a way to be happy and stop complaining about how hard it is to be alone,” she hollered. “No one wants to hear about this anymore.”
It was a clarifying moment. There was no “I love you” or “I’m here for you” or “This sucks” or “What do you need?” or “You’re not alone.” I was crushed, and had to realize that – despite out long history – that person was not a supportive friend. So I’m meeting new people by participating in activities that I enjoy. I joined a divorce support group, several art groups, and I’ve invited people over to my place to play old-fashioned board games, to paint, and to talk. It takes a long time to develop intimate friendships, but I’m doing it.
3) I’m not conventional. Conventional people have jobs they attend mostly Monday thru Friday from 9-5 or any other combination that equals a minimum of 40 hours per week. They have a certain number of weeks of vacation days each year. They marry and have 2-3 children. They look for happiness in things and enjoy shopping and accumulating stuff like computers, cars, homes, and cell phones. They are born in one country and remain in that country their entire lives. They own many televisions and use them regularly. They say things like “Be realistic” a lot. They don’t question authority and believe in doing things the way they’ve always been done. They criticize people who are different. What can I say? I have minimalist values. I don’t believe in big corporations or big government, and I can’t bear the idea of doing the same thing every day. Being unconventional means having the courage to stand up for myself. It means doing out of the ordinary things and, oftentimes, going against social norms.
4) It’s important to invest in myself. Somewhere along the way, I stopped doing things for myself. I became the person who did the shopping and the laundry and the cooking and the cleaning – and I stopped writing and reading and painting and riding horses and playing on swing-sets. I also stopped laughing. I’m trying to connect with the person that I was long ago. She’s in there. Somewhere.
5) Having feelings is normal. For over two decades, I lived with a person who was unable to express love, sorrow or pain. Unwilling to cry, he physically left the room whenever I tried to discuss an emotional issue. He often called me “crazy” when I showed even the slightest bit of anger or sadness. With the help of a great therapist, I’ve learned that I’m not crazy. I’m a whole person who feels things deeply.
As far as I’m concerned, Alecia and I are both warriors: learning how to take what has happened to us, good or bad, think about it, and learn to improve from it.
What unlearning have you done lately? What new idea/practice are you incorporating into your daily life?
Tomorrow, my eldest niece will graduate from high school. And in August, she’ll head off to college. Unlike her brothers who chose campuses closer to home, Miss Thang will be flying further away from the nest.
Today, I’m sharing one of the essays Audrey authored during her college application process. Because tomorrow, we’ll celebrate her: the person she is and the person she’s becoming. My niece knows who she is. Tenacious, kind, funny and smart: I’m excited for her to strap on her invisible wings and take them for a spin. Can’t wait to see where she lands.
I am from high expectations and never giving up. From surging on the canal path and running in circles.
From a box of Nike spikes, sweaty locker rooms, a blue and gold uniform and eleven varsity letters.
I am from “suicide sprints” and layup lines. From dropping balls and picking them up again.
From “Eat the hills for breakfast!” and “Keep your head up!”
I am from going out of my way, from hard work. From camaraderie, spirit, and supporting my teammates.
I am from ten summers at sleep-away camp. From fearlessly leaving home, a wee thing toting a humongous duffel bag.
I am from broadening my world, from making new friends, from unplugging from technology, and connecting with nature. From waterskiing and tetherball.
I am from giving back. In song and dance and conversation. I am from conflict resolution, positivity, and motivation. I am a hand, a shoulder, and an ear.
I am from bell-ringing on winter nights, from lugging boxes of books to children who have none, from making bracelets with broken souls.
I am from long nights of studying at my kitchen island. From Multiplication Fast Facts in 3rd grade to Logs and Limits. From Phospholipids and Buffers and Titrations.
I am from High Honor Roll. From parents with great genes. From brothers who showed me the way.
After seeing my name in the newspaper for academics and sports, people have told me, “You’re the whole package.”
Whatever that means, I’m not sure.
What I know is that I am from tutus and jazz shoes.
From getting dirty and meeting new people.
From the love of learning and the love of the game.
From playing hard and winning trophies, but not being afraid to lose.
I am from taking risks.
I know where I am from.
These are my roots.
What no one knows is that I have this box of wings that I’m ready to try.
tweet us @rasjacobson & @audjacobson
What’s essays do you remember being assigned to write? Where are you from?
NOTE: I helped Audrey back in October by providing her with the “Where I’m From” meme when she was in the throes of essay writing, but all the words are her own. Thanks to Jenny Hansen for sharing her piece and to Sharla Lovelace for inspiring Jenny. If you go HERE, you will see this exercise is based on a poem by George Ella Lyon called “Where I’m From,” and if you’d like to try it yourself, the original link is there.
Click HERE for details on how you can enter to win a $25 gift card.
I’m fortunate because my son still really likes to read at 13 years old.
Looking at Gigi’s list was like traveling back in time.
I remember when Tech discovered The Big Book of Boy Stuff. His friend Matt gave it to him for 8th birthday. He read it over and over and over again.
(Like so many times that I started to worry something was wrong with him.)
After I finished reading Gigi’s list, I knew I had to compile a list of my own. After today, Tech is officially a middle school graduate.
I know teenage boys are all over the place when it comes to reading comprehension.
Please understand I’m sharing these titles not to brag about my son’s reading ability but because I realize it’s challenging to find books for tween-age and teenage boys.
Books sit quietly on tables. They’re unassuming, and they have to be awesomesauce to compete with the obvious appeal of all that technology which tries to lure them away. In the summer, it’s even more challenging to get kids to read as tweens and teens become increasingly social, wanting to spend all their time with friends and less of their time with their noses in books.
The following titles represent multiple books as each is part of a series. Each book is a minimum of 300 pages and dystopian in theme. What can I say? That’s what floats my kid’s boat.
I know this list might not look very impressive, but it’s actually pay dirt. If your child likes the first book in one of these series, run and get him the next book! (I think the G.O.N.E. series has 6 books! That oughta last a summer, right?)
What books have your tweenage & teenage boys devoured more quickly than a bag of Doritos? What titles do you remember reading as a teen?
NOTE: If you have boys ages 6-12, be sure to check out Gigi’s post HERE. She also did one for girls ages 6-9. You can read that HERE. Also, if you aren’t following Gigi at KludgyMom, what’s wrong with you?
The instructor, Jay Donovan, will introduce techniques for safer web surfing, keeping your address & phone number offline, reducing the chances of your accounts being hacked, better ways to hide behind a pen name, and more.
I’m prepared for Jay to wag his bony cyber-finger at me. I’m prepared to shudder in fear when he tells me how vulnerable I really am.
I mean, I have a bunch of email accounts and a blog. And like most bloggers, I have several ways to be reached online. I’ve got my Twitter and my Instagram and my two Facebook pages. I’m on Pinterest and LinkedIn and Behance. I could go on.
The point is, you see how wired I am, yes?
But I’m committed to learning about how to be safely social on the Internet while keeping my personal information private.
Jay has been helping me with a lot of stuff for a while now, and I really trust him. A geek since before geeks were cool, he’s done it all: from remotely debugging the Internet connection for a US aircraft carrier deployed to *somewhere classified* to being responsible for the servers and networks for one of the largest Internet sites in the world. He’s trained as a Certified Ethical Hacker (yes, really!) and always uses his geeky powers for good. When he’s not neck deep in wires and computer parts, you’ll find him hanging out on Twitter as @jaytechdad.
For just $40, you can be part of the class and the conversation taking place this Thursday, April 25th from 8:00 pm – 11:00 pm, EST.
In the comments below, ask any questions (serious or wonky) about me or his dad; about life as an only child; about 13-year-old boys; anything technology related, like what to do when your iPhone freezes up; or anything else you’ve got rattling around in your head.
But let’s keep this rated PG okay? Pervy questions will be deleted for being pervy.
You have until 8/12 to ask Tech a question, and then I will force ask Tech to respond to your questions in a guest post before he returns to school in September.
I don’t know what I’m more excited for: your questions or his answers. I have a feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good night no matter how you slice this pizza, it’s going to be delicious. Unless there are anchovies. Because anchovies ruin an otherwise perfectly good pizza.
At the end of May, I was honored by the English/Philosophy Department at Monroe Community College when I was awarded Adjunct of the Year.
I didn’t expect the award to be a big deal — more symbolic than anything — so when I sauntered into the English Department on the designated day and the predetermined time, I was sort of surprised to be greeted by two Adjunct Coordinators and my Department Chair. They had plans.
First, one of the Adjunct Coordinators, Keith Jay, made a little speech about my service to the College.
Honestly, it was like my wedding.
I barely heard him. I saw his mouth moving, but my brain was all: Whaaaat?
Keith handed me a certificate.
Honestly, the certificate would have been enough!
But then they gave me flowers.
And then my Department Chair handed me an envelope with ninety-six bazillion dollars.
Keith asked me to follow him into the hall.
(At that point, I would have followed him anywhere.)
“Your nameplate will eventually be there.” Keith pointed to a hook on an otherwise empty wall. “The plaque is at the engraver’s now.”
I followed Keith back into the English office where he picked up a white glove.
Because I am a dork, I thought: Oh, this is it. This is the part where I get hazed.
I’m not kidding.
I thought I was going to have to clean out the English office, or perhaps the supply closet where everyone goes to get pens and pads of paper and markers and chalk. It can get pretty messy in there, especially around the end of the semester. I seriously thought someone was going to make me pass a “white glove” test.
(What’s wrong with me?)
The other adjunct coordinator, Professor Yulanda McKinney, pushed a black box into my hands.
Nestled inside layers of white silk was a crystal prism.
“Put this on before you pick it up.” Keith said, handing me the glove. “You don’t want to get fingerprints all over it.”
As I lifted the prism out of the box with my gloved hand, I saw it had been engraved with my name on it.
And I was overwhelmed.
Because I realized no one was going to haze me Yulanda and Keith and Cathy and all the people in my department view me as a colleague.
I may not have my own office or full-time hours, but the people with whom I work respect what I do.
Which is an awesome feeling.
So I was filled with gratitude.
Not long after I received this award, I had a dream. I was on a ship with a bunch of my students. I turned around to call to them, but no words came out of my mouth. A voice told me to leave them behind, that they would be okay.
Two years ago, Tech and I found ourselves parked in a part of Rochester that we don’t usually frequent. A voracious reader, there was a particular title he wanted to read and only one library actually had it in all of Rochester. And that library was downtown. He was hell-bent on getting it, and he knew that I would not rush to pay for a copy at the local bookstore.
So we went on a wee road-trip.
After he checked out the book with his library card, I suggested he check out their YA section.
After two minutes, Tech returned with a frown.
“This is the worst library ever,” he declared. “There are no books.”
He dragged me over to the YA area, and it was true; the selection was dismal.
“Where are all the kids’ books?” he asked the librarian sitting nearby.
She looked at Tech and told him honestly that sometimes people checked out books from the library and didn’t return them.
“You mean people steal them?” Tech was outraged.
“Some kids don’t have books at home, so they take them from here.” The librarian explained. “Once our books are gone, we don’t have the resources to replace them. And of course, some books just get lost.”
Tech Support tilted his head, trying to wrap his brain around the concept that not all children have shelves filled with books in their homes, the way he does.
In the car, Tech Support made an announcement.
“I want to collect books and give them to kids so they can have books at home,” he said. “Can I do that for my bar mitzvah?”
“Sure,” I said as I screwed around with the CD player.
“Will you help me?” he demanded. “Seriously?”
I looked at my son’s eyes in the rear view mirror.
Tech has always been a collector. When he was younger, it was coins and LEGOs and Webkinz frogs. Later, he fell in love with mechanical pencils and magnets and rubber bands. He has a green bowl filled with origami stars and shelves filled with all kinds of weird stuff.
When my son gets an idea in his head, there is no stopping him.
I called the contact person. We did a little back and forth, and then it happened: a miracle disguised as an email.
I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the RocRead program taking place in the Rochester City School District. Children read a book, write an essay on it, and once they hand it in, they get an incentive/prize.
So far, students have read 14,000 books through this program.
The details are being worked out right now – but the preliminary plan for Monday, April 30th is to have an event in the library of one of the schools to announce that every child present will receive a book as part of RocRead – with your son present to distribute books.
How does this sound?
How did it sound?
It sounded like someone took a cup of totally cool and mixed it with three pounds of awesome.
The following Monday, Tech sat in the front seat of my Honda and I drove to school #41 in a car stuffed from floor to ceiling with books which we had sorted by grade level. When we found school #41, Tech borrowed a cart, loaded it up with boxes, and zigzagged his way back into the school.
The principal appeared. She greeted my son with a hug, and we all headed downstairs to the library. The custodian materialized with the cart and told us she would bring everything to the library on the service elevator. While Tech chatted it up with the librarian, the custodian appeared and I scattered books across two long tables until both surfaces were covered.
And then they came. Wearing uniform red shirts and khaki pants, the children sat crisscross-applesauce. The school librarian introduced Tech and asked him to speak to the students. I was certain he was going to freeze up. We had not prepared for that kind of thing. He did not know how to speak in front of…
…but there he was.
Explaining why he had started the book collection.
And when the librarian announced that each student was going to get to take home two books from Tech’s collection, the kids bounced up and down and cheered.
As the kindergarteners walked around the tables, Tech encouraged them to shift the books around and not to only look at the top layer. Once the children made their selections, they returned to their designated areas on the floor and another group came up.
I have to tell you, it was a beautiful sight.
They were all reading!
Or trying to.
Some silently. Some aloud. Some to each other.
The local television crews were there. Tech was interviewed three times, and even though he really wanted to downplay his role, he went along with whatever the people asked him to do.
I always knew that there would come a day that I would look at my son — the person who carries 50% of my DNA — and see him as the person he might become.
On that day, I saw my son as a person who doesn’t just have the potential to do good things, but as a person who is already doing them.
And I was amazed.
Because up until then, I just thought he was the boy who forgot his coat in his locker.
The kid who left his water bottle at fencing practice.
The dude who still needed to be reminded to brush his teeth.
But on that day, I saw my son as other people see him.
I realized that he likes to help other people.
And not because I told him to help people.
But because he really likes to.
On that day, I thought about the way he used to put together his elaborate LEGO sets, and I realized his tenaciousness was all about creating a person who would sets his sights on a goal and then surpass that goal.
My son is not finished.
Just today he asked, “What should I do next?”
I shrugged, confident he will figure it out.
Because that’s what he does.
This year, my son reminded me that individuals can repair the world.
I almost forgot.
How do your children inspire you? Have you ever done a community service project with your family? If so, what kinds of things have you found the most rewarding?
Nearly 13 years ago, I was very pregnant. And as my 9th grade English class watched a scene from the film To Kill A Mockingbird, I got all weepy. It was a scene in which Atticus, the perfect father, sits on his front porch swing, instructing his daughter, Scout, about something or other, and it occurred to me in that moment – in a very real way – that soon I would be a parent, instructing my own child about life, its soft places and its hard edges.
I started to sob.
How would I ever do it?
Atticus had all the answers.
He had the right words.
Even after the movie ended and somebody had turned the lights on, I kept sniffling while conspicuously chomping on potato chips.
Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but I had a soft spot for one of my freshmen boys and, as my shoulders heaved and I wept hysterically, he pondered aloud:
“I wonder what she needs more: tissues or a salt lick?”
I choked on my snot.
Class ended, and I went to the bathroom to pee pull myself together.
As a parent, I’ve always channeled Atticus. A defender of justice, he fought for it even if he knew he would be beaten in the end.
Atticus argued for big principles like equality and duty, but he never lost sight of the fact that, in the end, it’s human beings and their choices that make equality stand or fall.
And he tried to instill the values in which he believed in his children.
These days, I watch my son and his friends walk to school, and I swear they come home taller each afternoon.
Lord, give me strength because his questions are becoming harder.
And I am no Atticus Finch.
As I look outside my window this morning, I’d like everything to stay. The trees are undulating softly, and the light reflecting off the leaves is making me squint. Right now, everything is green with possibility. The sun fills me with hope and reminds me of the goodness to come.
Is there a particular scene from a movie that stays with you? That you associate with a time in your life? That has helped you to parent?