People in high places must be reading this blog. A few weeks ago I wrote about the idiocy of one-size-fits-all, standardized, #2 pencil testing and specifically mentioned the newly installed PARCC tests. Don’t worry about what the acronym stands for. I spent over 30 years in education dizzied by all the acronyms spewed out every few years that didn’t really mean anything. Anyway, newspapers reported recently that the frequency of the parcc tests (there, I’m going to deCap it) will be severely reduced next year. See, I have some power.
But enough about tests. I want to describe an inspiring alternative teachers can implement to counter the deadening effect of filling in bubbles. I witnessed this at Fremd High School a few weeks ago, the school where I taught, the school that’s been hosting Writers Week these past 20 years, five days in which writers from around the country converge on our campus to read and discuss their work. And students look forward to the week all year.
As a sort of adjunct to that week, current coordinators of Writers Week, Gina and Russ, had a genuinely inspiring idea: Write Nite. On a Thursday evening in late May, when most teachers are wiped out and are more concerned with finding the tops of their desks than motivating young folks, Gina and Russ organized a stellar event of friendly games and exercises in the library, all designed to showcase student and faculty writing. A haiku tournament, a story battle, sing-offs, and a non-writing element that didn’t hurt in packing the place: pizza. For nearly three hours, the room was buzzing. Over writing.
If you’re a teacher and want details about the activities, my good pal, Gary Anderson, wrote about it on his BLOG.
I’m not sure how much “learning” happened at Write Nite, in terms of objective measurements. But I know the results will be far reaching. I witnessed a true sense of camaraderie and community, along with a hearty appreciation for language, word play, and argument.
Here’s a test question for you. “If on this night in the library, you had dropped in some random student from anywhere in the country, and also dropped in a different random student into a testing center that allegedly measured reading comprehension or vocab or writing, which one would be more likely later to pick up a book or a pen on his or her own?” I wish you could have been there that night to witness the power of that obvious answer.
I’m reading David McCullough’s fascinating biography, The Wright Brothers. The Wright children were allowed to stay home from school if they had good reason, and reading a book sometimes was reason enough. Orville says, “…the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always encouragement to intellectual curiosity.” The parents didn’t need to identify and quantify and measure the worth of what to most people is an obvious educational pursuit. And their two boys, Wilbur and Orville, didn’t do too poorly for themselves as a result.
17 May 2015 headline in Chicago Tribune: “Suburban district urges students to take test.” The article reports that 90% of students at Rolling Meadows High School in District 214, did not take the newly installed PARCC tests, based on the Common Core. That’s a capital Common, which strikes me as ironic. The Illinois Board of Education is not happy and could, according to authorities at District 214, take away IHSA eligibility. Not sure if this is a real threat from Illinois or if the district is huffing and puffing.
I happened to be at Rolling Meadows High School last week, speaking to their creative writing classes. I talked to one of the teachers there, who explained that students did not ditch on the big testing day. Instead, all of them showed up on time, marched to the testing center, waited to be handed a test, then 90% of them politely returned the test, saying something along the lines of, “I prefer not to.” They waited to be dismissed, and when they were, they filed out in an orderly manner.
Someone teach me how to do a backflip right now. I’ve been waiting decades for this sort of rebellion. I’ve been rebelling quietly for years, mostly in the form of not paying attention at meetings that hyped new district or state testing standards, or something like that. If I’d paid more attention, I could be more specific. I knew that the meeting agenda would be replaced by a different agenda in a few years, with a new set of revolving administrators, who would spout the importance of new data points and aims.
Here’s an example of the absurdity. One year, every teacher in every discipline was supposed to highlight math. As in, how many times does Huck Finn board his raft? We all nodded, hid away in our classrooms, and shut the door.
I always had the urge after these meetings to stroll the neighborhoods around the school and shout to the taxpayers, “Do you know how your money was spent today?” When we could have been in classrooms, teaching, we instead integrated objectives for the 17th time, discussed data, listened to some highly paid expert telling us the worth of things we were already doing. Then we’d have to write down how we were going to implement the practices that we were already doing.
More absurdity. On the first day of school, teachers meet in the auditorium to learn about new tardy regulations and how we must use pink slips this year and not yellow ones for discipline referrals, and on and on. This is usually followed by a pep talk, which we all need by then. One year, the principal pulled out a note from a former student. The student wanted everyone to know how well the school had prepared him for, well, for so many things. A glowing letter full of gratitude and praise. In the next breath, the letter put aside, the principal outlined the changes we needed to implement in the upcoming year. Whoa, hold on a sec…the letter, that kid, what we did, ten years ago, it was, it changed his life, maybe what we’ve been doing is okay, better than okay, maybe we’re on the right track.
Which brings to mind this remarkable truth: teachers are never asked by school administrators what they think. As in, How do you think we could raise test scores? What are we already doing to encourage curiosity? What are the most effective ways to engage students? Do you think we should keep the yellow referral slips?
I’m kidding of course about the yellow slips. Pink are better. But I’m not kidding. Teachers should be consulted also about the mundane day-to-day procedures. We know which rules will rankle students. We know the stupidity of banning Halloween costumes because two or three students the previous year went too far. We know that students will not value a “Pride” award if it’s not linked to some particular behavior. We know we know we know, yet we’re never consulted. Everything is decided top down, which is especially true of the latest round of government tests.
If you want to know how we got to now, read Ken Robinson’s latest book, Creative Schools. Not only does he trace the path of standardization from Reagan to Bush II to Obama, arguing convincingly that all the tests have not achieved their intended results, but he offers solid, particular, evidence-based alternative methods that schools can follow to inspire reflection and curiosity, and in turn, achieve higher scores.
My fifth-grade nephew, once terrified by the prospect of days of testing—this in just third grade; why are we doing this to kids?—recently came home and joked that he and a friend would soon have to take the PARCC tests. But no longer cowed by the pressure of a meaningless test, he and the friend reversed the acronym. They would not opt out of the test, as those high-schoolers at Rolling Meadows did last week. But they would be taking, they said, the CCRAP tests.
I’m teaching a Beatles class! I still can’t quite believe, that twice a week, I get to meet with about 40 students at a local community college to teach a Beatles class. Co-teach actually. With author and good pal, Greg Herriges, a founding member of the 70s band Athanor, who is suddenly garnering attention for reissues and new songs, which is remarkable and beyond exciting. You can find info on Greg and his band/books at Herriges.net. What reminded me to finally post something about the class was this Chicago Tribune article that ran today: Beatlemania. The article was also picked up by an international Beatles fan site: Beatlesnews.com. So Paul and Ringo should be reading about us any minute now. To give you some idea of what we do in class, here’s what we recently covered. We devoted an entire class period, about two and a half hours, to the theme of Place. We first analyzed Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey poem, his reverential ode to this peaceful locale in nature he once visited five years prior. Then we read Billy Collins’s parody of Tintern; maybe parody is too strong a word, but his take is much lighter, which provided some relief to Wordsworth’s gravely serious tone. Then we discussed Bruce Springsteen’s My City of Ruins, which became an anthem for NY after 9/11. We finished with a lively discussion of Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane. Finally, we had students write their own short poems about the place where they grew up. Are you jealous? I’m teaching the class and I’m feeling a little of that. Maybe not quite jealousy. But a feeling of contentment washes over me fairly frequently as the music pours out of these concert speakers we have in class. Before I started teaching the class, I worried that this immersion would dull the music in some way. But the contrary has happened. Slowing down to read each line of Eleanor Rigby or Revolution has only infused the songs with a newness that rekindles my fascination with the magic that is the Beatles. The Tribune article mentions a story that I read in class on our Sergeant Pepper’s day. It’s actually an excerpt from a novel I hope to publish soon (soon is a relative term in publishing; my soon does not resemble theirs in any way.) Anyway (did you see how any way became Anyway? Reminds me of the Beatles song, It Won’t Be Long: “It won’t be long…till you belong to me.)…Anyway, a while ago, the same Chicago Tribune ran that excerpt in their Printers Row Sunday supplement, and they’re offering for sale a collection of the stories they’ve printed these past several months. It’s a pretty impressive list of authors, and I’m honored to be part of that. You can find the collection here: Short Stories from Printers Row. Or you can read the excerpt if you sign up for the Beatles class next term. How lucky am I.
I don’t recall how this came up, but in class today I told students I was a hobosexual.
Wait, you say. In class? Didn’t you retire? Well, I took over for a maternity leave in the fall and now am in the middle of a second one. I guess I need a tutorial on how to actually retire. I’ll elaborate next time on how it feels to work when I don’t need to work.
But yes, I am a hobosexual. It’s a term I created several years ago when I first heard about metrosexuals, referring to heterosexual men who are meticulous in their grooming and who dress with a certain pizazz. You know, the guys who spend the equivalent of a car payment on a pair of jeans. The guys who enjoy shopping for scarves and silk shirts and cologne. I am the opposite of this. I am a hobosexual. The guy who hates shopping and grabs whatever t-shirt happens to be on top of the pile in the dresser drawer. The guy who wears gym shoes for nearly any occasion. The guy who owns a single sports jacket that I wear for both school open houses and funerals.
I’m not proud to be a hobosexual, and a part of me envies guys who can pull off the metro look. But I don’t think I can do it. My head is too big, my legs are too short, my posture is too stooped. Granted, I’m not as pathetic as I once was. Marriage saved me from looking like a homeless person. To offer one example, when I was a kid, guys commonly wore high, striped athletic socks. It wasn’t uncommon for me, even as a young man, to pull two unmatched striped socks and wear them with shorts, which I’m sure were equally hideous. (Imagine tight and too short.) Having daughters who have not inherited my high style has helped too. On my birthdays, they sometimes present me with shirts or pants or, god help me, sandals, that will push my boundaries. And I try. At times, I try. But I feel like an imposter. And so self-conscious. Like I’m betraying some core personality trait.
The reason I’ve mentioned the term in class over the years? I like the term. I think it’s apt. I think it’s a word that could catch on and perhaps provide consolation to other hobosexuals out there. You don’t need to be ashamed anymore. Come out of the closet—because there’s nothing worth wearing in there anyway.
I told my students about my mission to spread the word, encouraging them to start using it. Savvy as they are, they said, Well, why don’t you just tweet about it? They were not shocked that I hadn’t thought of this. They were shocked that I have a Twitter account, and within seconds, one of them tweeted about my hobo ways.
Right now in my word processing program, that squiggly red line appears under hobosexual to indicate a misspelling. Pass this post along, spread the word, and together, maybe we can erase that unstylish red line.
It might take a while, but I really need to find an old photograph.
My thoughts on the annual National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) in Las Vegas this past weekend.
As you stroll from one end of the main strip to the other, which requires about an hour because of the maddening array of escalators and crosswalks, here’s what you might see:
(1) people dressed in shabby costumes, such as Sesame Street’s Ernie and Bert, for no apparent reason. They’re not collecting money or promoting a show or posing for a photo. They’re just standing there. Sometimes they talk to friends, which I’m pretty sure is against union rules for this kind of job. I was a little disappointed by the unprofessionalism. And I’m still wondering about their purpose. (An aging and bloated Elvis and Marilyn were particularly distressing.)
(2) Short, tee-shirted Mexican men, sometimes women, flicking nudie cards with phone numbers at you. If you tried to straddle the curb to avoid them, they’d reach behind and still flick away. The premise, I think, is that you’d call the number, and the woman on the card would show up in your hotel room. With a burly guard in tow, I’m sure. Actually, I’m not sure because I can’t begin to imagine the transaction, the precautions, the niceties (So, how you doin’? Been doing this long?). With each flick of these cards, I thought, Really?
(3) Cashmere-coat-wearing, slick-haired men with their own upscale nudie cards, promising limo pickups to and from strips clubs where the same transactions would presumably occur. Really?
(4) Young girls with skin-tight dresses balancing on 8-inch heels, usually on the arm of some man. Going clubbing, I presume, whatever that entails. Is there some sort of height restriction at these clubs, which would explain the stilettos?
(5) Older women with skin tight dresses and tight faces balancing on their high heels.
(6) Homeless men sleeping on sidewalks or sitting with cardboard signs begging for help.
(7) Street performers, some of them quite good (an electric cello duo playing Beatles medleys), others embarrassingly bad (an accordion-playing girl with a scratchy voice who was actually sweet and who appeared lonely and who would later make you feel awful for not placing a buck in her case that held about 75 cents).
(8) Spray-paint artists, one guy with about 25 cans mesmerizing the crowd with his rushed spraying, followed by meticulous scratches with his metal scraper.
(9) Babies in strollers at midnight, pushed along by parents…going where?
(10) Magnificent hotels, reminding you of rat pack days and those guys strolling this same strip when what they saw must have seemed more glamorous than crass.
Inside, slot machines with too many windows had catchy names like Cougar-Licious, Mystical Unicorn, Jumping Jalapenos, Gold Fish, Jaguar Princess, and Renoir Riches (for the visiting French artist gambler?). Here’s an amusing thought: someone had to sit at some desk and think up these names and build a theme around them. When I was younger, I imagined players with arms outstretched in celebration over three lemons in a row, which seems quaint now and complex enough, but the faces playing the slots were grim and weary and bored. They didn’t even get to pull a lever; they pressed a button, which doesn’t take as long to bet. I put a $10 bill in a Superman machine, hoping the gambling gods would reward my obsession with DC comics, but the money disappeared in a short leap. I did consider playing a live game with a real dealer or with that guy with the wooden hockey-like stick who raked in chips, but I couldn’t figure out how to play and shuffled away feeling stupid.
I did go see Love, the show featuring Beatles music, which was weird and wonderful and amazing. It felt like a 90-minute dream.
After each NCTE, I travel home with two overwhelming impulses. One, I feel inspired, but since I now have no classroom to return to, I’m not sure what to do with this feeling. Two, I feel radical, because as keynote presenter Sir Ken Robinson argued, education requires not evolution (because it’s a broken system) but revolution. At each session, heads nod and teachers mutter, Yes, this is how to get kids excited, this is how schools should be run. They will return to their schools and implement what they can, but much of their energy will be splintered by the demands of a school system that values data over true learning, which can’t always be measured of course by a test score. And the demands become harder and harder to ignore (I spent a career ignoring them) and more and more deadening.
I was fortunate enough to present at two sessions with buddy Gary Anderson and several other talented teachers from around the country, and I hope something we said will be useful on Monday. That’s a pretty good yardstick, I think. If you can (and want to) implement an idea the next day, the idea probably has merit.
From left: Amy Rasmussen, Me, Sir Ken Robinson, Leslie Healy, Gary Anderson.
SIR KEN ROBINSON
Nothing I write here will do Robinson justice, so I will include a Ted talk link below, and I’ll list a few ideas I remember.
1. Education today (and for the last 150 years, which in itself is quite revealing) values CONFORMITY, COMPLIANCE, and LINEARITY.
2. We have to move away from the idea that all children are the same. Every child in front of you is on a unique journey.
3. ADHD is a subjective diagnosis. Forty years ago, no one was ADHD because the diagnosis didn’t exist. Maybe kids today are bored or are suffering from the condition called childhood.
4. You can teach people to be creative. (For more on this, read his book, The Element, which I devoured on the plane.)
5. Math and science are necessary but not sufficient.
6. CEOs prize people who can adapt, but schools don’t teach or encourage this.
7. More money is being spent on prisons than on education. (I may be off on this one. He may have said within a given span of years. I’m not sure.)
8. Teaching is an art form, not a delivery system.
9. Teaching needs to be less like an engineering model and more like an agricultural one. Teachers provide climate control. They provide a nurturing climate in which everyone has a chance to thrive in his or her own way.
I’d like to believe that I was one of those teachers who provided a nurturing climate (though I can think of examples to the contrary). One year I had a talented singer / guitar player, who wasn’t shy about playing for class. He wasn’t the most diligent student, so I made a deal one time. Instead of writing an essay about Huck Finn, maybe he could write a song and sing it for the class. He did, and everyone loved it, and I was able to manufacture some grade for his efforts. The next year, when assigned an essay by his English teacher, he asked if he could write a song instead, and the teacher laughed at him. We all had a good laugh over it, in fact. I didn’t fault the teacher for demanding an actual essay. He needed that skill as well. And I don’t think he fell behind because he didn’t write the essay for me. Kids are resilient and adaptive, and they need to learn to adjust to the demands of different teachers and bosses. It was a good lesson for him. Years later though, I was sad to learn that he wasn’t playing much or singing. He was trying to earn a living selling real estate, not a job he was passionate about. Which makes me speculate, as Sir Ken Robinson does: what would happen if schools began to value diversity more than conformity, compliance and linearity? Good teachers of course value this diversity. If only they didn’t have to battle with a system that vaunts test scores above all else, at the expense of curiosity and wonder.
Teachers should have tip jars on their desks. If a class goes particularly well, students can file past at the end and drop in their extra change. An average class—the teacher just doing his job—dislodges not a single dime. Not sure what to do about a truly awful class. Maybe students can drop in slips of paper with tips for improvement. “Yeah, Mr. R, maybe make sure everything is plugged in before trying to use the projector.”
Can you imagine the uproar over a tip jar? First of all, I’m kidding, this clarification intended for those who create uproar and who have no sense of humor. Second, I’m not kidding, about the uproar. Teachers lately have become such targets of wrath because—well, I’m not quite sure; the reasons change, but the whiners usually sound to me like spoiled children. “I don’t have the summer off, why does she get the summer off, I never get anything.” Allow me to whine back for a minute. “Why can’t I have my own office? I have to share an office with ten other teachers. And if I want to take a few minutes off, I can’t just close my door or hide in some cubicle or cancel class. (shift to less whiny voice now) I have to be there, I have to be ON. There’s no coasting. OK, some of my colleagues coast, but no one likes them, and yeah, I agree, we shouldn’t protect them. But the great majority of us work hard, work long, some of us even spend our own money on supplies, and for us, this is more than a job, it’s a service, we serve, and when we do it well, monetary concerns and summer schedules shrink in importance. When you see your sons and daughters slinging on their backpacks and know they will be in good hands for that day, what’s that worth to you? Huh, what’s it worth, buddy?”
Actually, most teachers don’t need a tip jar because the job requires constant self-reflection. A second period class with the same lesson plan as first period will already be different. We’re constantly adjusting, fixing, tweaking, twisting and shouting (dancing, that is, figuratively speaking). Which is why good teachers hate meetings about fixing and tweaking, led by people who haven’t been in the classroom in years, because good teachers already reflect, every class period. Tip jar unnecessary.
All this is a roundabout way of thanking my students this past quarter. I was a long-term sub for a maternity leave that ended on Friday, and they tipped me generously. For you literal readers, there was no actual jar, but there was a cake and cookies and a song and cards and an illustration. You can spend an entire year with a class and because both teacher and class are winding down at the same time, a sense of inevitability pervades, along with final exams, so seldom do teachers see cakes and cards of appreciation. While leaving mid-year is strange and a little jarring, I do especially appreciate the sweet gestures of thanks.
Thanks, everyone. I will miss you.
Card for Mr. Romano. Illustration by Joe, with names covered. The drawing looks to me like some movie star from the 80s. If you happen to see what I see, please comment. I've been racking my brain trying to match the face with a name. I think he used to play a lot of cops.
This is day two of retirement and I’m not quite sure what to think. Knowing I will be subbing for a maternity leave in the fall has helped. I’m not a weeping wreck. I’m not euphoric either, though to not have to worry on a Sunday night about ironing a shirt or making a lunch or creating a lesson plan feels pretty good right now. I wouldn’t say I’m excited either. If anything, a little sad, knowing that the students I had will not be replaced by a new sea of faces, all with their own stories and talents and quirks. That might be the best part of teaching, witnessing the unfolding of all those personalities.
I had to clean my classroom this week. I can’t really explain why, but I left one poster up. It didn’t have any special significance. I just didn’t want to take down the very last one. I’ll leave that to someone else.
My last class baked me cupcakes and gave me a card, and when they filed out, I figured I’d sit alone and reflect for a few minutes, which is fairly common on the last day of any year. But the teacher who will replace me came to copy files, and then a student who graduated last week came in to talk. Down the hall in my office, another teacher was already moving into my empty desk. I was grateful for all the flurry, which made the last hour or so seem ordinary.
In 31 years:
Miles driven to and from school: 282,100.
Days taught: 5,642.
Hours taught: 45,136.
Number of students taught: 3,875.
Of those, a pleasure to have in class: 3,860.
Papers graded: I can’t begin to guess, but it’s probably about two dozen phone books.
One of the nicest parts of retiring is the kindness of colleagues and students. I got cards, baked goods, scrapbooks. Yesterday morning on my deck, I read the notes my students wrote to me on the last full day of school. Laughter and tears sprang easily. I am a lucky man. And most grateful.
I feel as if this entry doesn’t match the gravity of the last week of 31 years, but for now, it’ll have to suffice. Peace, love, and understanding.
On Friday, I strolled into the gym at 7:15 a.m. to get ready for graduation practice. I would be reciting names and needed to practice. I flitted around the mostly empty 750 folding chairs, asking the early arrivers how to pronounce a few names that I knew would be torturous on the tongue. I saw in their eyes relief that they’d be graduating soon, but also apprehension—about leaving their safe circles and about the uncertainty of tomorrow. I assured one student that her anxiety was normal, that she’d miss this place a little that first week of college but that high school would soon become a dim memory.
Do you remember your last week? I remember feeling privileged because we got to depart a week early. I walked into one teacher’s class to say goodbye and already felt superior to the suckers who had to endure a few more lectures. On graduation night, I marched from my seat to the pit to play my trumpet with concert band one last time. After, we drove to a beach on Lake Michigan, where, out of character, I downed a few beers. Later that night, my friends insisted I was making out with a girl I’d always liked, but I didn’t remember and was never sure if they were pulling my leg, which could be why I’ve never been much of a drinker because I don’t want to miss out.
On Thursday, seniors had their traditional brunch at a posh banquet hall, where they heard teacher Mike Bruce deliver an inspiring farewell and watched Fremd’s version of the recent lip-dub phenomenon, coordinated by teacher Gina Enk, who should be given some kind of teacher of the universe award. As students filed out, seniors asked Bruce and Enk and me to sign their yearbooks and pose for pictures with them. It was one of those moments when you scratch your head and think, Who has a better job than we do?
On Wednesday, in class, I had shipping labels ready for each student with my yearbook wishes printed on them. This was the most efficient method of signing yearbooks I’ve ever used and wished I’d have thought of this earlier. Then I passed out blank half sheets so they could write “yearbook” comments to me. I plan to bind these at Kinko’s and then read them on a lawn chair on the first sunny day once school lets out in a week.
Since Wednesday was seniors’ last school day, I wanted to leave them with parting words, for which I’m always at a loss. I wrote them a note instead, which I’ve pasted below.
To All AP Classes,
On the last day of school, I’m compelled to impart jewels of wisdom that you can carry with you for the rest of your rich, long lives, but words always fail me. I’m not a big-moment kind of guy. Every moment is important, isn’t it? Sure, some may be more memorable than others, but even the everyday exchanges have a texture all their own. I’m probably merely justifying my paucity of profundity. See what I did just there. Used big words to make it seem like I was saying something profound. But wisdom comes in simplicity.
So what simple wisdom can I impart? What secrets can I unveil? Not much, I’m afraid. If I haven’t said anything during the entire school year worth filing away, I don’t think I’m going to be any more successful on the last day. You will discover your own truths, your own wisdom, much of which you have already found and shared, and I for one am grateful for your generosity.
As for highlights of the year, all of mine involve moments when you were front and center and shared your creativity and insights. Thanks for your hard work, for your enthusiasm, for your award-winning role-plays, for your willingness to abandon your usual decorum during demonstrations, for laughing at my lame jokes, and for much much more.
As I ride off into the sunset—a stupid metaphor for a boy who grew up in the city and who lived most of his adult life in suburban neighborhoods covered in asphalt and concrete—I think about what I will miss most. And that’s you, of course. Being in the classroom, exchanging ideas. There’s nothing else quite like that. Believe it or not, you will miss this too once you’re finished with college. But I will also miss the chance to begin anew each year. Because each August brings with it opportunity, one more chance to get it right, to do it better. And the only way to arrive at better—in school, in marriage, in parenthood, in whatever—is to embrace risk. Following the safest route leads to ruts and fear and gastrointestinal concerns. I said I’d send you off to discover your own truths and sneaked in one of my own, didn’t I? Sorry. Sometimes I can’t help myself.
Throughout the year I’ve been reflecting on our time together in a blog I keep for posterity. If interested, you can access this at tonyromanoauthor.com. A few of you have already stumbled across my site and graciously commented from time to time, but I didn’t want to broadcast the blog for fear that it might make you too self-conscious.
Feel free to keep in touch. On my site. On Facebook, after you graduate. On Twitter, though I rarely check that. On whatever new app emerges that will unite people from places distant. Then shut down, put away the stupid cell phone, and hug the person next to you—provided that person in not an IRS agent who is auditing you; or a cop pulling you over for speeding; or the old lady in the grocery store with the babushka on her head who sneers at you for taking too long to unload your cart, though she might actually need human contact. Enough. You’ll know who to hug.
And do good.
I’m still rifling through filing cabinets, recycling, seeing the bottom of each drawer finally, and finding treasures along the way. One of the best: a file marked “letters” that includes notes and cards I’ve received over the years from students. I’ve only read a few—they’re quite touching—but I intend to spend my first day of summer vacation on my deck under the sun reading the rest. If this sounds like an old man thing to do, so be it.
This week we had a talent show/ slash / show-and-tell session, which was inspiring. I have classes full of talented and driven students, devoted to their music, their art, their families, their volunteer work, and much more. We’ve spent a whole school year together, and I feel as if we’ve just scratched the surface. There’s so much more to their lives than I see in 50 minutes. I try to find ways during the year to allow those talents to flourish in my class, but I see how much more I can do.
Each day I awarded prizes to the students who took the greatest risks or put forth the greatest effort, and the prizes, of course, consisted of found items from my filing cabinets. My Freud action figure was the first prize to go! (Believe it or not, I have an extra that I’ll keep.)
Here’s a close-up of one of the prizes, a cover of a literary magazine my students created during my mustachioed days.
In fact, I found several photos of me with the old mustache, which makes me feel not only old but a little foolish that I’d kept it for decades. (When I finally came how one day shaven, after a family golf outing in which a cousin wore a skirt for 18 holes in exchange for me shaving, my one daughter tore out of the house screaming, “Noooo.” She’d never seen me without. And when I visited my parents that weekend, they didn’t even notice. They never said a word.) When I showed the photos to students, they laughed a little too hard. I suppose some things should remain buried.