because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

Buzz Champion: Guest Post by Kelly K.

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Kelly K.

My guest blogger today is Kelly K. Kelly has a zillion blogs. Just kidding. Sort of. But seriously, she writes a lot.

Dances with Chaos is where she shares the good, bad, and chaotic about her life. There’s Writing with Chaos where she responds to prompts from Write on Edge.

Kelly’s other blog, I Survived the Mean Girls, is a site for individuals who feel bullied and alone to see many have been there, survived it, and that it is possible to be stronger because of it. Guest submissions make that site work, so if you are interested in writing something for Kelly K. please contact her. You can also follow that blog at @OstracizedTeens.

In real life, Kelly K. has been beyond helpful to me. When I had my meltdown, Kelly K. was there. She is an amazing “fryber” (my made-up word for a cyber-friend) and a fearless writer devoted to expressing herself in as many ways as possible. Her twitter handle is @danceswithchaos. Feel free to subscribe to all her blogs and follow her. I know I do.

• • •
Buzz Champion

Knots twisted my stomach as I stood in front of the class. All eyes focused forward.

On me.

On our teacher.

“Start whenever you’re ready, Kelly,” Mr. Wicks told me, patiently waiting.

“One,” I said, confident. The beginning was easy.

“Two.” He answered quickly.

“Three.”

“Four.”

“Five.” I stared at him, blocking out the rest of my fourth grade class.

“Six.”

“Buzz.” I grinned. I knew better than to fail this early.

He smiled back. “Eight.”

“Nine.”

“Ten.”

“Buzz.” I smiled again.

“Twelve.”

“Thirteen.”

“Buzz.”

Of course, he wouldn’t freeze on the first one. “Fifteen.”

“Sixteen.”

“Buzz.” Would today be the day I finally triumphed?

“Eighteen.”

My palms grew sweaty again, just like several minutes earlier when I’d faced the last classmate standing – finally taking him down to win the title for our class: Buzz Champion.

The numbers climbed and our pace slowed. On each turn, I frantically ran through the lists of Buzz numbers: multiples of seven, numbers with seven in it, matching double digits like fifty-five.

“Eighty-five?” My answers became hesitant, my knowledge of anything past seven times twelve no longer committed to memory.

“Eighty-six.”

“Buzz.” What was the next multiple of seven?

“Buzz.”

What number were we on now? “Eighty-nine?”

“Ninety.”

“Ninety-one…”

He smiled but didn’t speak and I knew.

I had failed. Again.

Mr. Wicks turned and shook my hand. “Congratulations, Kelly.”

He clapped his hands, directing his applause at me.

The class joined in.

I turned to face them, spying looks of awe for battling so high.

I smiled.

I’d get him next time.

• • •

I never beat Mr. Wicks in Buzz, but I did manage to last past one hundred a few times.

I was undefeated in my class for the year.

Mr. Wicks was unique. He was fun and engaging.

He played games like Buzz to make multiplication interesting.

He made you want to please him.

Mr. Wicks saw I thrived on a challenge, and he gave it to me. He never let me win. He wore his pride in my attempts as though I had won.

I was only ten years old, but mourned for the class behind me, because he left our school to become vice-principal at another.

I mourned for all students, because he wouldn’t teach anymore.

As I learned his fate and we turned in our textbooks, he pulled the piece of paper off the wall where it had hung all year long, accumulating names.

“You won more than anyone else. Would you like to keep this, Kelly?”

I reached for the paper, donning a proud smile at how often my name appeared. “Yes.”

I still have it today.

And every time I look at it I grin, remembering the little girl who believed she could defeat her teacher at Buzz.

And I want to thank him.

Buzz Champion -- 1987

In which subject did you kick butt while you were in school? Do you have any weird old elementary school mementos that you keep around?

• • •

If you have writing chops and are interested in submitting a teacher memory, write about one teacher you had and explain how that person helped you (or really screwed things up for you), as well as the life lesson you took away from the interaction.

Essays should be around 700-800 words.

Interested but have questions? Email me!

My information is under the Contact Me tab.

Substitute Preacher by Zach Sparer #twits

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Zach Sparer. Isn

Today’s guest blogger is Zach Sparer. I first met Zach in 1999 as a student in my 11th grade English class. He was in 5th period. I remember this because I was pregnant, and I usually hurled right before 5th period.

Zach always came to class. And he quickly stood out as an outstanding thinker and writer. His papers were flawless. His thought-process was sophisticated. I started to wonder what he would be when he grew up.

Zach watched me gain 65 pounds, and we have stayed in touch since 1999 — which some people might think is weird. Maybe it is. But whether he likes it or not, he’s pretty much stuck with me.

You can read Zach’s blog Faux Outrage HERE. Here’s his teacher memory.

• • •

Substitute Preacher

Nobody asked for my opinion, but I eventually decided that she deserved some time off.

Ms. Jacobson was pregnant after all, and pregnant women should not be required to teach fifth period English. In fact, I came to realize, pregnant women should not be required to teach any period of English. Or anything else for that matter. For a brief time, pregnant women should be entirely devoid of periods.

They should also say goodbye to: colons, ampersands, and Oxford commas. They should take a semester off — or a trimester, at the very least.

Nobody asked for my opinion, but it was settled: She should leave.

And so she did leave, in the same unremarkable way that every important person in your life leaves: quietly, the syncopation of careful footsteps echoing like a heartbeat muffled by the floorboards.

Twenty-four hours later, there was a stranger standing in front of the classroom.

• • •

The man before us wore a red scarf and was enveloped in a dark brown tweed jacket devoid, amazingly, of professorial patches on each elbow. I immediately begin to wonder whether he was disappointed that New York state law prevented him from smoking a pipe in a high school classroom. I learned that he was there to teach us F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby, among other lessons, but realized rather quickly that his outfit and demeanor were not the result of an elaborate plan to introduce and discuss the social cultures of East Egg vs. West Egg.

We paused, mouths agape.

Who was this guy?

Suddenly, it became clear what was (or wasn’t) going to happen. The students in the classroom, looking bored as usual in their tiny metal chairs, came to an immediate, telepathic understanding: This was not going to work. No one discussed the plan — there was nothing to be discussed — and nobody winked, smirked, nodded, or passed a note.

We just knew.

Looking back, our banding together so quickly was actually a beautiful moment. Pushed together between those off-beige, pockmarked concrete walls sat the girls who never picked up a pencil off the ground in their lives and the Jocks who bought them wine coolers, the Nerds and Geeks who argued about which group encompassed the other, the kids struggling with learning disabilities and the Goths who struggled with most everything else, the Motorheads, the Motor-mouths, and Chameleons — like myself — who happily blended into the background.

We quickly recognized our substitute teacher as a bitter, spiteful man. He monopolized classroom time with personal tales of woe, of his past rejections — in love and in life and in publishing — uncomfortable stories not normally shared with still-developing high school students. He sprinkled in what were to be understood an episodes of personal triumph, but we could tell that he didn’t believe his own hype. More importantly, we could tell that what he did believe was that he was superior to the substitute teacher responsibilities that he was expected to carry out, and that he felt he had been dealt a bad hand, in life and every fifth period Monday through Friday.

Throughout his tenure (a word, thankfully, I am using to mean “period during which something is held” as opposed to “status of holding one’s position on a permanent basis”), he had an unnerving habit where he would make a negative example of certain students in the classroom. He denied those deemed unworthy the right to speak up or to ask questions. He broke up groups of friends and allowed others to remain. He didn’t play favorites; rather, he played Whack-A-Mole with the young adults he felt were not worthy of dignity or confidence.

He thought that he was too good for us.

One day, he sent two of my peers to the principal’s office. They had been tossed aside because they did not show appropriate reverence to our substitute preacher. They had spoken out of turn. They were non-believers, heretics.

A few minutes after they were sent out, our “leader” began to speculate about the quality of their home lives. The students tossed from the classroom were hardly my friends, but at that moment, they were my brother and sister. I sat there shaking my head slowly, and then faster, and then not at all.

I was listening to a grown man — someone hired to inspire — ridicule his students behind their backs, in front of their peers.

I was done blending in.

My hand was raised, high in the air.

Floating.

What was it doing there, I wondered?

He was wondering, too.

“I don’t understand why you’re talking about those people. They’re not even here.”

“Why should I stop?”

“Because that’s the way I was brought up.”

He froze.

The chameleon, no longer camouflaged, seemed to have startled him.

There was a long, sweet pause.

The tension that day in the classroom eventually subsided and, a few weeks later, the congregants of fifth period English were reintroduced to a less barfy, more maternal version of Ms. Jacobson.

Time has a way of passing.

• • •

While I am uneasy with the tidy conclusion that this short-lived experience in the classroom changed my life in a truly fundamental way, I do believe that publicly speaking out that day, against a person in a position of authority, helped shape my perspective of what it means to be engaged in a functioning, polite society.

Though I am loathe to overstate the importance of this singular event, this substitute teacher — a “negative experience” by all accounts — did help me realize that the social hierarchies and classes we are crammed into (e.g., “teacher,” “student”) are not by themselves sufficiently descriptive. We are so much more — or less, as they case may be — than mere titles suggest.

I guess I learned a little bit about The Great Gatsby after all.

Got any substitute teacher stories to share?

• • •

If you have writing chops and are interested in submitting a piece of writing for #TWITS: Teachers Who I Think Scored / Teachers Who I Think Sucked, write a specific memory about one teacher you had and explain how that person helped you (or really screwed things up for you), as well as the life lesson you took away from the interaction. Essays should be around 700-800 words.

Interested but have questions? Email me!

My information is under the Contact Me tab.

L'il Miss Attitude

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Every year, I study my new class rosters and practice saying the names aloud so I don’t sound like a total dork on the first day.

One year, I was feeling pretty good until I came to one particular name.

T-a.

I didn’t know what to do with it.

I mean, I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. I tried a lot of different combinations.

Tee-ah? Tee-ay? Tah? Tay?

I had no idea. I figured the best thing to do would be to just admit defeat and ask the student to pronounce his or her name in class.

The first day of class came.

New students filed in and gravitated to the seats they liked the best. Some near the front, others farther back.

I introduced myself and began taking attendance, reading down the list, changing “James” to “Jim” and “Richard” to “Rick.” I even had the foresight to ask the student whose last name was Montague what he liked to be called. A good-looking chap in a baseball cap smiled at me and said, “Adam.” His name had appeared as “Bartholomew” on the roster. I didn’t want to embarrass him because his parents had made a bad choice 19 years earlier. Turns out, he went by his middle name.

Finally, I hit the dreaded name.

“Okay,” I said, “I am not sure how to properly pronounce this name, so I’m wondering if there is a person with the last name of Dinkens here today.”

The room was silent.

“Nobody here with the last name of Dinkens?” I repeated.

Someone clucked her tongue. “That’s me,” said a girl with her chin tilted up at a hard angle.

“I wasn’t sure how to pronounce your name, so I thought you could help me out,” I said.

“Why don’tchu try it?” L’il Miss Attitude asked, crossing her arms across her black and white striped tee shirt.

“Okay,” I said, “Is it Tee-ah?”

The girl made a sound like she had been annoyed with me since the moment I was born.

“Lord,” she said, “Don’t you know the dash ain’t silent? It’s TaDASHa.”

Silence swirled around me noisily. It was the first day of class. I had to set the tone, properly. I wasn’t mad at this girl, but I could not allow her to disrespect me, not right out of the gate. Seventeen billion thoughts on how to handle the situation occurred to me simultaneously ranging in severity.

While I was leaning toward a good old-fashioned paddling, I chose a stern voice.

“Are you a first year student here, Tadasha?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Tadasha said, chewing on her thumbnail.

“And is this your very first class on campus today?”

“Yeah.”

“And do you have a full-time schedule?”

“Yeah.”

“And how many other classes do you have today?”

“Three,” Tadasha snipped.

“And you are telling me no one has ever mispronounced or struggled with the pronunciation of your name in your entire life?”

“Bitch, where I live people know me.”

I thought my head was going to blow off my shoulders. Did I hear wrong or did a student in my classroom just call me a bitch? I felt like I was on some kind of bad reality TV show, you know the type where someone eventually jumps out as things escalate and tells the unsuspecting victim that he’s been punked? Except the clock kept ticking and no one seemed to be coming to my rescue, and I didn’t see any cameras. I had to do something.

Everyone was staring at me.

“Okay Tadasha,” I started, while moving to sit on top of my large iron desk. “Here are a few things for you to consider as you move through the rest of your day. First, I predict that this exact interaction is going to happen to you three more times today. And when you address the person who mispronounces your name — because it will be mispronounced — it would be wise for you to not address that person with profanity.” I looked my student in the eye: “Calling someone a ‘bitch’ is rarely the appropriate way to address another person whether in a classroom on a college campus or in life.”

Tadasha was silent.

Everyone turned to look at her.

Suddenly I realized I was playing a weird verbal tennis match, and I had obviously smacked the ball over to her side of the net.

Everyone was waiting to see if she was going to make a mad dash to return it.

She didn’t, so I kept going.

Full. Court. Press.

“Also, just so you know, you have an unusual name. The hyphen — or dash — as you called it, is generally silent. We don’t usually pronounce it. People may know you in the part of the world where you have lived for the last 18 or so years, but no one knows you on this campus, so if you want to have positive interactions today I recommend that you be kind. Try to have a sense of humor. No one wants to hurt you. On the first day, your teachers are just trying to figure out who is who. That’s all I was trying to do.”

Tadasha was glaring at me.

“Last, we have not started off well today, so I would suggest that you head down to the Registrar right now and get yourself enrolled in another section of Comp-101.”

Tadasha gathered her purse and her books and walked out of the class with her head held high.

She never came back, and I never saw her again.

I often wonder if Tadasha made it through the day. The week. The semester. If she graduated at all. I wonder about her hard edges. About how she had made it so far yet knew so little about how to interact with other people. Was she just scared? Did I blow it? Did I do her a favor? Or did I ruin her?

Who do you wonder about from your past? What do you imagine that person is doing now?

*names have been changed for obvious reasons

Back in 1985

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Me & my BFF's circa 1985. I'm the one in blue with the green lei.

In my last post, I wrote about my nephew Alec’s recent high school graduation.

As I sat waiting inside the local college field house, miles away from the actual school my nephew attended, I couldn’t help but think about my own graduation in 1985.

First, I have to admit that I have absolutely no recollection of who spoke at my high school graduation. (My sincere apologies, Mr. or Ms. Graduation Speaker. I am sure you were very good.)

I do remember sitting in my white cap and gown. (The boys wore red.)

I remember looking at my fabulous white high-heeled pumps and thinking about my tan. My tan was very important to me, as tans were to many of us back in the mid-1980s. We were not a very serious bunch. I mean, we were serious but in an 1980s kind of way. Which was not very serious. Yeah, we were going to college – but we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. At all. Maybe that was just me. But seriously, I don’t think so.

Where my nephew’s graduating class was focused, we were distinctly goofy. Of course some of us were more self-propelled than others, but as a class, we were more about fun. I may be making this up but I kind of remember someone pretending to trip and possibly even staging a fall as he walked to get his diploma. I wore a green lei around my neck during the graduation ceremony. On two separate occasions, the vice principal told me to remove it (and I did), but I slipped it back on before I walked across the stage for hand-shaking and hugs.

In 1985, I was more interested in the social interactions that high school had to offer than its academic challenges. I joined the “fun” clubs. I was a cheerleader. I danced and rode horses. I also got a lot of detentions; I even managed to earn myself a 3-day in-school suspension. Hell, I wore blue to graduation when we were clearly instructed to wear white or light colors. As a group, we did a lot of pushing the proverbial envelope.

In contrast, my nephew and his peers seemed pretty serious.

Maybe they have to be.

Given the current economic prognosis, they can’t afford to mess around the way we did in the decadent 80s.

I mean, it’s good to be thinking of more than just developing “a great base tan.”

The night of Alec’s graduation, as we celebrated his accomplishments with pizza and watermelon, I was surprised by how content Alec was to just hang out with his family. He played his ukulele, chatted with his grandparents, sat outside on a chunky patio chair with the men, their voices blending together in a low hum.

He seemed unfazed that he was leaving for camp the next day. He said he wasn’t too worried because he knew he would be able to keep in touch with his closest friends.

Immediately after my high school graduation, my clan of Best Friends Forever (The “BFF’s”) gathered in a parking lot to sip champagne from plastic glasses, and I remember feeling a tremendous sense of relief and freedom.

Along with a side order of sadness.

Because I really didn’t think I was going to see any of my them ever again.

Let’s forget for a moment that the 1980s featured a lot of apocalyptic songs which suggested that we were all going to die in a nuclear war. (Think of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” “I Would Die 4 U” or Rush’s “Distant Early Warning”; Genesis’ “Domino” of  Modern English’s romantic ballad “I’ll Stop The World and Melt with You.” Oh and Nena, the chick who brought us “99 Red Balloons.”)

Seriously. I didn’t think we were going to make it to our 10 year reunion.

But on a less morbid level, there were no cellphones back in 1985. No Facebook or Twitter. No texting.

I remember smiling big but feeling internally frantic. I could feel change on my skin as sure as I had felt the sun baking my shoulders for all those weeks leading up to graduation. Just like my nephew, I packed my duffel bag and trunk and headed off to (same) summer camp where I planned to work for 8 weeks as a counselor. Unlike my nephew, I felt loss in my bones.

I imagined myself standing in line waiting to use a dormitory payphone. But I knew I would never have enough quarters to call my friends as much as I would like. I also knew that even if I called, the odds were, they would not be around.

I knew I would have to find new people, and that I would have to work to make new friends. But I also accepted this as the natural order of things: growing up meant breaking bonds to form new ones.

After speaking with several graduates of the class of 2011, I realized that they are less sad than we were. With the advent of social media, friends need never disconnect from one another. Unless a person wants to become invisible, it is absolutely possible to remain in touch with one’s friends from high school. On a daily basis.

It remains to be seen if all this connection will be a blessing or a curse. I wonder if today’s students will remain perpetual teenagers, clinging to their childhood friendships, finding it difficult to move on and forge fresh bonds with new people, or if they will plunge into adulthood, embracing new opportunities while maintaining constant contact with old friends from back in the day.

As I watched graduates from the class of 2011 pose for photographs, then stop to text someone, thumbs a-blazing, I thought about what graduation really meant for me.

I was able to go to college and start fresh.

I made a conscious choice to stop being “the flirty girl” and reinvent myself as “the studious girl.” Would such a transformation have been possible if I had people from high school constantly reminding me of my flakiness? About how dumb I was in math? About the time I spilled the bong water? Or the time I started cheering “Block That Kick” when our team had possession of the football?

Is it possible to move forward and evolve when people are urging you to look back and stay the same?

What do you remember about your high school graduation? How do you think social media will impact future generations?



A Commencement Speech by Alec Jacobson

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Recently, my super cool, crazy smart nephew was selected by his peers to deliver the commencement speech at his high school graduation which took place this past Sunday, June 25, 2011.

Our entire family was beyond overjoyed, and we joked that we would all need to wear Depends because, in real life, Alec is pee-in-your-pants funny! It is my understanding that during his last week of school, Alec wore some crazy stuff: weird retro sneakers; a hat with a pocket on it; a sleeveless, neon green pinny with the word “RUN” on it printed in hot pink. He was also spotted carrying a teenie-tiny, little Buzz Lightyear backpack, the kind of bag a little boy might tote to school on his first day of kindergarten. (It is also my understanding that everyone thought that his outfits and accessories were “off the chain.”)

I couldn’t wait to hear what Alec would say when he addressed the Class of 2011!

Here is what Alec said.

(NOTE: I edited Alec’s speech a bit for the sake of brevity. Please know Alec did all the niceties. He thanked the student officers, his teachers from kindergarten through twelfth grade, his parents, his siblings, and all the people who voted for him to speak. He also named specific individuals and rather than run around town getting written consent forms from everyone he mentioned, I simply omitted these specific references and kept things general.)

Alec post graduation, 2011

Good afternoon everyone.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Alec Jacobson.

When I found out that I was going to be speaking at graduation, it was actually quite anti-climactic.

I was sitting by myself in The Commons during homeroom, waiting for first period Gym to start, when I heard Mr. W. come on the announcements and say: “And congratulations to Alex Jacobson for being elected to speak at graduation.”

You can imagine that after I heard that I was pretty befuddled because:

a) I was trying to play the word “SPEAKER” on “Words with Friends”;

b) I never in a million years thought I would have enough friends to vote for me to speak; and

c) there was literally nobody in The Commons to whom I could turn and share my excitement.

So it was just me, my contained bliss, and a tad bit of rage due to W’s mispronunciation of my name.

But I got over it.

I alerted my mother of the news via text only to have her respond in all caps with: “OMG! OMG! Who are you?! Probably not my son.”

And then my sister texted me, “Congrats! You’re amazing.”

Never in my life would I have expected to be here.

Just a few weeks ago, I sat at the Senior Banquet when it hit me that we’re actually finished with high school. I remember looking around, and taking everything in, and I realized that we LOOK all grown up. Four years ago, all of us looked feeble, immature and — to be honest — awkward. I mean, I was just a short little red-head, a “ginger,” with very few friends. But now, we are adults.

We are old.

I may or may not still have red hair, but wow, we are a good-looking class.

More importantly, look at how far we have come.

For us, the future is bright.

The reality is that most of our high school years will be a blur. Sure, we’ll remember our good friends, our favorite teachers. We’ll remember our prom dates and those countless sectional titles that the boys’ and girls’ teams brought home. But the reality is that these events did not define us as a class. It is the people who have made this class truly one of a kind.

When looking at our class, many people define us by our intelligence. Sure, it is pretty incredible having students attending Harvard and Princeton and Yale. And nine going to Cornell. And while that is super impressive, the more defining aspect of our class is our diversity. We have people going to music school, business school, art school. Pre med majors, pre-law majors, and math majors. Future doctors, lawyers and CEOs right in this room seated before us. Because the truth is that this class is not only one of the most intelligent in our school’s history, but also one of the most unique.

For us, however, high school is just the beginning. It may seem like the end and, sure, it is the end of a remarkable four years. More importantly, this graduation marks a new beginning to our young lives. After all, I am giving a commencement speech, and the word “commence” means to begin.

I know it is sad, looking around right now and realizing that this may be the last time we are all together as a single, unified group. Tomorrow morning, I personally, will be going to camp for the entire summer, so to many of you, this is my goodbye. But I hate leaving things on a somber note, so I want you all to know that not only will I be back, but we’ll all be back: to make sure that our four years of high school aren’t just that blur. So I guess this isn’t truly goodbye, but an “until we meet again.”

In the meantime, go out and do something fun. Do something great with your summer and whatever lies ahead. For those of you who haven’t already seen it, watch the movie Into the Wild and tell me with a straight face that you don’t immediately want to immerse yourself in nature and discover your true self.

And like Mark Twain said: “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.” Don’t rely on others to teach you things. Discover them yourselves because now we are on our own and the future lies in nobody’s hands but ours. Right now, we may think  “these are the best days ever,” but they won’t be. We have so much more to do.

So go on out, Class of 2011, and live large.

Because as my friend penned in my yearbook: “Doesn’t everybody deserve to live large?

Alec’s friend touched on the elusive American Dream when he asked: “Doesn’t everybody deserve to live large?”

It’s a great question.

An affluent district that has been relatively untouched by the recession, I saw students fortunate to have such amazingly strong foundations. They have been able to concentrate on academic excellence. They have been able to focus on homework rather than having to work to help their parents make ends meet. They have lived in homes –  nice ones with green lawns. They have had pets to cuddle and closets filled with the right clothes. Many have taken expensive vacations abroad. They have not gone to bed hungry. They have gone to bed in their own beds.  As I looked around, I was strangely struck by how wealthy the school district in which I reside truly is. Not only in terms of fiscal resources, but in the fact that students are, for the most part, emotionally well supported.

Precious few have to tiptoe nervously in a world of instability.

And that is a blessing I am not sure they even realized.

When the Class President spoke, she quipped to parents in the audience that they needn’t fret about losing touch with their children because everyone is simply a text or Skype away.

This implied the ownership of laptops and/or cellphones.

No one batted an eyelash.

Of course these students have laptops and cell phones and unlimited calling plans.

It is implied that these students are going to live large.

For these students, the future is bright.

But I think about other students graduating from other districts, too — where the American Dream appears to have dried up. Where students are starting out in a slump. And as Dr. Seuss noted in Oh, the Places You’ll Go, “Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.” I imagine Alec’s optimistic message was perhaps, a little different from other commencement speeches held around the country where the concept of graduation as a new beginning is something being met with less optimism and more uncertainty.

My nephew wrote a great speech which he delivered beautifully — and with a fair bit of self-deprecating humor.

His peers voted him “Most Likely To Become President.”

We know Alec is ready to fly.

My only wish would be for everyone to have that same opportunity to live large.

What wise words would you offer the graduating class of 2011? And do you think everyone deserves to live large?

Lessons From School Picture Day

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A few weeks back Leanne Shirtliffe (Ironic Mom), Clay Morgan (EduClaytion) and Keenie Beanie came up with a brilliant horrifying idea. To go digging back through old school yearbooks and encourage other bloggers to post pictures of ourselves on our pages, along with a little write-up. They would call it:

I wanted to participate in Leanne’s, Clay’s and Keanie Beanie’s brain fart child, but I was saddened to realized I had actually scribbled all over my face in nearly every picture. Think I’m kidding? I’m not. This is my Senior picture.

Worst. Picture. Ever.

I was really into the Grateful Dead at the time. Please note my fancy spelling of the Dead, my little rose at the top of my picture, and my penned in peace-sign earrings.

I did find one picture in that same yearbook that stood out to me.

It was the picture taken for Senior Superlatives, a tradition at my high school. Members of the Senior class voted for their choice of male and female representatives in 12 different categories like Best Looking, Best Dressed, Most Friendly, Most Artistic, Most Athletic, Most Musical… you get the idea. (I wonder if they still do that.)

Scroll down to see what I got.

Monsieur Flirt and I were on-again, off-again friends during high school. During this picture, I think we were off. Yeah, definitely off. The week prior he had intentionally backed into my tan Plymouth Volaré as we waited at a red light. Honestly, he just lightly tapped the front bumper of my car with his rear bumper. Problem was my mother was also in the front seat of the car, and she did not think the whole “bumper cars” thing was very funny. She was pretty pissed.

She also has no recall of this incident at all.

Anyway, the day for photos came and Monsieur Flirt and I weren’t really friendly. I think he might have punched me that week. Or maybe he was mean to one of my friends. I don’t know. All I know is that the student photographer kept saying, “Get into a more flirtatious pose!” And neither one of us could muster it. I mean, we just couldn’t. Could there be stronger body language that says: I do not want to be in a picture with this person? But our relentless, young photographer was on assignment and kept making suggestions like, “Why don’t you dip her?” and “Why don’t you pretend to kiss?” Horrifying.

Finally, Monsieur Flirt and I decided to go with the back-to-back thing. Actually, I don’t think it was really a decision. As you can see from Monsieur Flirt’s face, if Photo Dude wanted a picture, that was what he was going to get.

When the yearbook came out days before graduation, I stared at that photograph for a long time. I thought about the words: Class Flirt. I did not think of myself as a person who “made advances.” I did not consider myself a vamp or a vixen or a seductress. But it made me realize that a lot of other people saw me that way. I mean, they voted for me. The idea made me squirmy.

I didn’t like it very much.

The idea stayed with me as I headed off to college. So did I completely reinvent myself? No. I am still a little coquette. I still bat my eyelashes and wear high-heeled shoes. I still chat it up with the boys. But I’m not interested in giving anyone a “come hither” look nor am I interested in stringing anyone along. That is not a sport in which I like to dabble.

These days, I’ve got Hubby. And Monkey is my photographer. He calls the shots. He holds the camera and tells me to be myself. And so I am. In pictures and in life. I still enjoy a fabulous double entendre, which is probably why I have a thing for The Bard. But there is so much more to me. There always was.

Photo taken by Monkey at age 11.

If you want to participate in School Picture Day, it’s not too late! Read the instructions here. Then post a picture, write a little somethin’-somethin’ (or just leave a caption) and go check out the school photos of some other bloggers like Clay Morgan and IronicMom and KeenieBeanie. If you posted a photo on your blog, please include a link in the comment section. I promise to visit. Even if you don’t do it today. I figure you have the rest of the week. For the purposes of my blog, it is School Picture Week! 😉


Locked and Partially Loaded for Fall 2011

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Look at all the out of print books. Sigh.

I recently found out what I’m teaching next fall.

I am elated.

It is the perfect schedule.

Then I went online to select my books.

The books that I have been using for the last four years.

Only two of the three of them were there.

My reader – the collection of essays upon which I have come to rely – is now out of print, so I will have to reinvent the wheel.

Hurgenflurgenshlurgen.

Women will understand this: this is akin to how we feel when we go into the store and find out that our favorite lipstick – the one that looks perfect on us, the one we have used for years, the one that helps to create our signature look – has been discontinued. Guys, I don’t know. This must be what it is like when your sports event has been preempted for A Sex in the City marathon and both your DVR and your computer are broken. So you can never see the game. Actually, I don’t know what this is like for guys. Maybe it’s like when they stop making your favorite hot sauce.

You get my point, though, right?

Immediately after I learned that my book was out of print, I received a lovely, gentle reminder that book orders are due as soon as humanly possible.

Right now, I’m in desperation mode.

I might chew off someone’s arm.

Part of me is considering not using a reader at all and just book-marking all the amazing blogs here in the blogosphere and having my students read them and respond to them. Perhaps use them as writing prompts.

It would definitely save my students a boatload of money.

And it would eliminate those annoying beginning of the year conversations:

Me: Where is your book?

Student: My financial aid hasn’t come in so I haven’t been able to buy some of my books.

Me: How about a pen? Where is your pen?

Student: Yeah. I didn’t have the money.

This conversation generally transpires while the bookless student is gripping the newest and most uber-expensive cell phone, leaving me to think: You manage to shell out $80 a month for that, right? The smartphone you can afford? But not my book? Yeah, you are goin’ places.

But this is just my desperation talking.

Because, you know, I have to revise my entire syllabus.

Which, in truth, isn’t the worst thing.

It’s good to freshen things up and shake things around once in a while.

Because no matter what materials I end up using, there are things that always remain the same.

I may be delusional, but (I think) most of my former students will tell you that I give off the vibe that I find them endlessly fascinating. Which, by the way, is true. They will probably tell you that I give them solid feedback and that I am willing to help them. Day or night. The reality is, I am good to them as long as they do not heckle me.

Because I am the show.

Yeah, yeah, I can run a writing workshop. I can create interactive activities for them. But if students want to excel in my class, they need, first and foremost, to have a good sense of humor. After all, I’m working my butt off to provide them with culturally relevant, fresh material. But my show only runs three days a week, so they’d better not miss my routine. Once they are invested, I expect them to work their tails off to try to impress me with their thinking and writing. I want to see those synapses a-firin’. Because nobody sees my show for free.

I was not a cheerleader in high school for nothing. I was in training. I was a gymnast and a dancer and I even danced (briefly) for money on a hydraulic lift. (Don’t ask.) I performed in plays throughout my life and, in graduate school, I got up on stage to sing. Why? Because secretly I wanted to be Stevie Nicks. Because I was honing my craft – learning how to deliver my lines, to speak with authority, with presence, with passion, with humor, with humility. I was learning to be fearless,  – so my students would,  one day, dare I say it, actually want to do things for me.

That sounds dirty.

I don’t mean like that, you pervs.

I mean students can tell when a teacher has prepared; they can tell which teachers genuinely care about what their students have to say, which teachers value their words, which teachers are working to give their students the skills they need to succeed in the future. And when students feel this, they generally want to please.

So my beloved book of essays is out of print.

It’ll be okay.

Things are looking good right now.

I’ve checked things out and my room for the fall does not have a pole in the middle of it, like the classroom I had last year.

Don’t get me wrong, the pole was fun. For a while.

But “obstructed view” is never the seat you would want at a kick-ass concert.

In this room, every seat’s a good seat.

Can’t wait to shake my groove thing.

So for now, I don’t rightly know exactly what I’m doing in the Fall of 2011.

I can only say with confidence, that the show will go on.

And now that I think about it, if I’m shaking things up, it’s probably time to get a new lipstick.

I’ve been wearing Malt for way too long.

The Giver: Is It A Happy Ending?

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The magic in Lois Lowry’s The Giver occurs in Chapter 19 as the main character, the soon-to-be twelve-year-old, Jonas, realizes that everything is not as it seems in his seemingly idyllic community.

Up until Chapter 19, my l’il dude had been feeling really good about the community in which the characters lived their daily lives. He believed everyone lived in total equity. He loved how everything was shared communally, how everything was controlled by “the Elders,” right down to the vocations people were given, the people they were matched up to marry, and the children they received to raise. I think he was ready to up and move there.

Monkey didn’t seem to catch that individual identity had gone the way of 8-track cassette tapes, that no one had any emotions at all, and everyone was essentially just like everyone else.

In Chapter 19, Jonas makes a major discovery. The process of “release,” which is mentioned throughout the book, is nothing more than lethal injection. Needless to say, Jonas is horrified as he watches a video of his own father, a caregiver, performing the procedure on an otherwise healthy infant.

Monkey’s teacher asked the students to please keep the pace with fellow classmates for this book and asked them not to read ahead – something that was exceedingly difficult for my voracious reader.

I promised him there was a reason.

And then one day from the couch, I heard Monkey’s voice “Holy. Guacamole.”

I knew he had reached Chapter 19.

Sitting up, Monkey looked at me. “So…so…so… so… so if they kill people there must be other things that they do that don’t discuss, like who removes the bodies and what do they do with them? There must be tons of secret stuff that goes on.” He paused for a moment, “There are always helicopters flying overhead. I never thought about it. But maybe they are more about surveillance than transportation.”

He was putting things together, making connections. The synapses were firing.

“This book is creeping me out!” he exclaimed and then disappeared behind the couch again to continue reading.

A few nights after Monkey had finished reading The Giver, my son announced, at dinner, there had been a very lively discussion about the end of the book. Apparently, Mrs. English Teacher had asked her students the penultimate question: Do you think The Giver has a happy ending?

Best. Question. Ever.

Monkey reported that some of his peers thought the book had a very happy ending, that Jonas had successfully escaped from his community on his bicycle with Gabriel, a sick infant that his family had been caring for.  They justified their answers by saying they knew it was a happy ending because at the very end, Jonas was on a sled with Gabriel, and they were preparing to slide down into a cozy looking village where there were lights. Monkey said those students felt confident that Jonas and the baby were going to be able to survive in this new community called Elsewhere.

I held my breath.

Because that interpretation is soooooo not it.

Nervously, I asked my son if he agreed that The Giver had ended happily.

Monkey chewed his chicken about fifty times, then swallowed. Finally, he shook his head. “Not at all,” he said, adding that he thought that it was pretty much impossible for it to be a happy ending given that the vision Jonas had of his idyllic community was way too similar to a vision that the Giver had shown Jonas earlier in the book.

Monkey said, “Jonas was probably hallucinating and kinda holding onto one last bit of hope before he and the baby froze to death.”

Wow, if my Monkey was gruesome in his analysis, I didn’t really care.

He was spot on.

I asked my son if he had spoken up and stated his alternate interpretation of the ending and he said that he had. He said other students agreed with him, but a lot of people argued that Jonas had made it out and that he and the baby were going to be fine.

“Some people can’t face the truth,” said Monkey, sounding way too mature making me want him to go upstairs and re-read every book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.

Whether or not all the kids agreed about the ending was not the issue for me. I was just happy that my son had turned the corner and gotten from the novel what I believe readers are supposed to get, the concept of dystopia. From the way he explained it, Monkey’s teacher facilitated an amazing discussion about culture and government, people and lies and truth, when people need to know things and when it might be in their best interest not to know things. I was so grateful that this discussion took place in a classroom with a responsible teacher there to facilitate things.

And while every teacher wants her students to have that epiphany about the literature, the reality is that folks will always have different interpretations of the ending of certain books and, frankly, that’s what makes those books delicious. In The Giver, one’s understanding is truly based on his intellectual and emotional willingness to accept that things are not always what they seem.

What makes The Giver a classic is that it is often the first piece of real literature that students read which allows them to look critically at our own government – which can be scary for kids. It forces them to ask uncomfortable questions: Has there ever been a time when our government has knowingly lied to us? Are there justifiable reasons for our leaders to withhold the whole truth?

As I washed the post-dinner dishes that night, I was happy that Monkey’s class had a great discussion and, from the way it was reported to me, none of the students were told how to think or what the “right answer” was. They were, instead, instructed to look to the literature to find the answers and then left to squirm in their own uncertainty, which can be a very good thing.

What’s got you squirming?

Tweet this Twit @RASJacobson

Guest Post by Eric Rumsey: A Wanna-Be Teacher Bubbles From The Back-Burner

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Today’s guest post is by Eric Rumsey from the blog I Swear We’re Not Crazy. Some of you may know of him as Bob the Builder. After all, that’s his handle. But Eric has been hiding his true identity. Like any superhero who works all day cleverly disguised as the Average Joe, Eric toils away secretly waiting for the time when his superpowers can emerge. You see, Eric wants to be a teacher. But, somehow, life got in the away of his dreams. In my mind, Eric’s dream has simply been deferred. I like to think, one day, he is going to get that classroom. Lord knows, we need more teachers who sound like he does. And with a family chock-full of educators, he definitely knows, it ain’t all wine and roses.

Photo by Eric Rumsey: "Bridge To a Dream"

For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a teacher. I still do. I think, at first, it was because I would have summers off. More recently I’ve realized it’s because I have a need to fill young people’s heads with knowledge. Here I sit, in my tiny, cave-like office, contemplating just where it is that I went wrong and why I’m not a teacher. There were many factors involved both in my wanting to be a teacher and the reality of me, at this moment in my life, not being a teacher.

The high school years: Where I learned to love teaching.

I had just come from a small clique-y school where I was terrorized for 2.5 years in junior high. I had the chance to start fresh. My freshman year was fairly typical. Nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary, no new ideas for what I wanted to be when I grew up. My sophomore year, two things changed: One was the second worst English teacher I’ve ever had. The other was the best math teacher I have ever had.

My English teacher gave me a C for a children’s story project we had to write and illustrate. At the time, I was babysitting my neighbor’s twins, so I wrote the story about them. They loved it. She hated it. Looking back, I don’t give a damn what she thought.

My math teacher was the best. She got through the haze and the bull to my core. She made me work harder than I ever have before. If her hair hadn’t already been grey, it would have been after a year of dealing with me and my crap. She finally got so sick of me not showing my work that she had me come up in front of the whole class. She put this huge equation on the board and said to me, “If you can do that in you head, you don’t have to show your work for the rest of the year.” Minutes later, she said: “You son of a bitch. I can’t believe you got it right”.

That was the first time I really connected with a teacher.

My senior year, I applied to colleges and universities with excellent teaching programs. It’s the only thing I wanted to do. I had no aspirations to be rich, powerful, or famous. I wanted to teach, dammit!

The college years. Or where things went wrong.

Suddenly I was a second year student, married, with kid #1 on the way, and I was going to change the world by teaching Environmental Science. A few years later, I was eligible to graduate with my Earth Science degree, yet I still had not finished my teaching classes. I now had two kids, a wife who was bartending, working until 3AM to support us while I attended school and worked part-time at various programs. I thought I could just graduate, put off getting my teaching certificate for a year or so, and work to buy us a house.

Working to Live.

Seven years and two jobs later, I’m still dreaming of teaching. I’ve worked as a surveyor and a town planner. Seven years that I’ve put my desire to be a teacher on the back burner. Seven years that I’ve watched my brother, his wife, and my parents grow closer as they spend their summers together at the lake, while I’ve worked my tail off. Seven years of trying to pound planning information into my clients’ heads. Sometimes I pretend I’m teaching them; however, it’s not the same.

Who says teaching isn’t a drug?

To get my “fix,” I’ve been coaching soccer. I have watched my soccer team grow from young kids who had almost no idea which end of a round ball to kick, to brilliant, smart, calculating pre-teens who kick butt and take names. Through them, I get the satisfaction of seeing their eyes light up with excitement as the concepts I have been coaching them finally all come together and they score those winning goals.

I also have two wonderful kids who a voracious learners. It is because of their desire to learn that we have taken some wonderful trips over the years, all in an effort to encourage their desire to learn.

Inspiration and reflection.

So what is it that has kept a simmering pot on the back burner these last seven years? Is it my dad – who is a teacher of kids at risk, those in danger of dropping out – and the brilliant things he’s accomplished? Is it my kids and their desire to learn? Is it my family, most of whom are teachers, or work in schools in some capacity? Is it my soccer team that actually wants to learn what it is that I can teach them? Is it the excellent teachers I’ve had over the years? Is it the crappy teachers I’ve had who make me pledge to NEVER be like them?

I’d like to think it’s all these things and so much more. I am confident that, at some point, I will go back to school and complete my certification courses, leave this tiny, cave-like office, and become a sculptor of minds. I have this feeling that I’ve left something undone. Like I’m unfinished, sitting here wishing I could be in a classroom full of kids making them love to learn like I do.

What The Huh?

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This one comes to me from a College-Instructor-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, for reasons that shall become obvious. It is hilarious and awful all at the same time.

To: My Professor
Subject: Droped

Dear Professor:

I appologiz for not being in class the last and past week. But there is alot of stress put on me by other classes i can’t find myself a way to get to school on time for ur class. I know the matirial and everything is starting to let up. So i ask u to plez let me bake into the class. i promis to show up for the rest of the classes 🙁

Sincerely,
Goin’ Nowhere Fast

Nice, huh.

In this horrendous wonderful day and age, where we can reach out and touch someone via text or email, college educators receive hellish quality correspondence like this all of the time.

All. Of. The. Time.

The lucky recipient of this email told me that this piece of correspondence – which arrived via email – was the first time he’d had contact with the student, and it came after his student had missed 12 out of 19 classes, two unit tests, and one quiz. 

So think about it? How would you respond to an email like this?

Is this what we have come to with all of our short-cuts and abbreviations? Do teachers at the college level have to respond to emails and texts filled with errors like this?

Do you feel sorry for the kid? I mean, he just wants “bake into the class.”

Or would you just say nothing? Because the student has already been withdrawn and, clearly, he is already fried.

I sometimes wonder if parents know that their kids are communicating with their college professors like this.  Seems we have to teach our children about how – sometimes – it is necessary to use different language to communicate to different audiences. About when it is appropriate to abbreviate and when it is necessary to use a more formal tone, proper grammar, and a spell checker. About when to use and refrain from using emoticons. According to Tim Elmore, today’s “screenagers” don’t get it. Or they get something else than us “old folks.”

Crosby, Stills and Nash sang: “Teach your children well.” Are we confusing our kids with all this “texting”? Or do teachers just need to loosen up and accept that the times  (and the language) are a-changing?