because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

The Gift of Off-Center

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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.

Realizing 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 Mark Kelly. He smiled, arms crossed over his chest.

“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.

Mr. Kelly 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.

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? What’s the best practical joke someone ever pulled on you? Or you pulled on someone else?

Toni Flores: A Woman Who Opened Minds

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I first met Professor Toni Flores as a student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. I was told by an upper-class student, “You have to take Toni,” and so I found myself in Professor Flores’ Introduction to Women Studies class which was filled with many first-year William Smith students. (The class might have even been called “Our Bodies, Ourselves” as that was our major textbook.) In her class we discussed things I’d never thought about before: sex and gender, the history of motherhood, feminism and the abortion debate, date rape. She challenged nearly every assumption I’d brought to college and turned it on its head.

Professor Flores in 1980s

As the weeks passed, I had the opportunity to get to know Professor Flores and she asked if I had any interest in babysitting for her, then, two young sons. I remember feeling terribly flattered that this woman, this icon, this goddess with long black hair, could have chosen anyone to watch her children – but she chose me. I felt this responsibility, this honor, as I arrived at Toni’s house. Her house was a little dark inside, but it was immediately obvious to me that her house epitomized her. Everything felt casual. Comfortable. There were no areas that were “off-limits” to the kids. There were artifacts – treasures – from her numerous trips to Mexico scattered about, blankets and lots of throw pillows. And books and books and books.

Professor Flores, late 1990s

At some point, during one of my visits with her children, I remember being in her kitchen (probably getting somebody a snack) and noticing a long line of ants marching directly from Toni’s sugar bowl in the cupboard, down the wall, across the floor and out a wee crack in the far wall.

When she arrived home after her meeting, I thought she might want to know about the bug situation, so I showed her the ants. Unfazed, and – true to her spirit – she crouched down over the little guys and watched them intensely for more than a few minutes. I remember looking at her, studying her, and seeing her smile. I remember the creases around her mouth, the joy she found in watching those little ants. She was able to find so much happiness in the little things. She was who I wanted to be when I grew up.

During my four years at college, she helped me with many things – personal things – but it is that little moment in her kitchen that I cling to.  Toni Flores, Professor of Women’s Studies and American Studies, died on November 3, 1997, after battling a long illness. Toni wasn’t horrified by life, any of it. She was amused by it, mostly. And I have tried to take that lesson from her.

Who was your favorite teacher, and what do you remember about him/her?

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?