Incognito No More

It’s Saturday, around noon.  Nancy, Sarah, and I are sitting in the train station in Stamford, early as usual, though this time I was the one who had suggested leaving extra time in case there was traffic.  We’re sitting in a row of seats along the wall of the main lobby. It’s too soon to wait on the platform. We’re headed to Boston. Each of us is wearing the blue t-shirt that identifies our purpose. One Night.  One Goal. Stop Suicide. I used to be self-conscious about having the word suicide on my chest. I didn’t like that people instantly knew something very personal about me or my family. Now, though, I’ve lived with that as part of my identity for ten years.  I wear it a little more naturally.  

Through the double doors to my left, I see a tall man and a small child striding toward us.  They are holding hands. Both are wearing bright red capes. The tall man has on a full Superman outfit, blue boots, shiny blue tights, blue shirt with a giant S on his chest.  The small child has a lightning bolt flashing across his shirt instead of the S. Perhaps he’s Super Flash. Neither shows a hint of embarrassment. Nor do they abide by Superman’s usual tendency toward an understated or incognito public persona.  I watch them as they meander casually through the station, purchasing tickets at the kiosk, buying snacks at the newsstand. I try to catch a glimpse of what Superman eats. No luck. They draw a few stares and chuckles, but seem unfazed. I lean back, guessing my t-shirt won’t draw much attention.

A few moments later I see a tall, slender man who looks to be about my age walk through the same double doors.  He’s wearing sweats and running shoes and a familiar blue t-shirt. I can tell two things immediately: I don’t know him, but I do know something personal about him.  As he strides closer to us, he smiles, nods, and gives us a thumbs-up signal. He knows something about us.  

He plops down in the seat next to mine.  “Headed to Boston, too?” he asks. He knows the answer of course.  We’re wearing the same uniform. 

“Yeah.  It’s our first time doing the Overnight.  You?”

“My first time, too. I hope my feet hold up.”

“We’ve done a lot of community walks, but we’ve never been able to make it to one of the overnights. Did you lose someone in your family?”

“No, a fellow I work with died by suicide in February.  I saw an announcement about the walk, and we got some people from the office together to form a team.  How ‘bout you?”

“Our daughter died ten years ago.  Her best friend lives in Boston now, and she asked if we wanted to come up and walk this year.”

“Oh, I’m really sorry.”

“Well, the walks make us feel like we’re doing something constructive. It’s great that you and your friends formed a team.” 

We exchanged stories for the next half hour, newly acquainted, newly linked members of a club no one joins willingly, walking our way out of the shadows.

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Art Influencing Life

It’s the last day of April.  That means that it’s the last day of the Student Slice of Life Challenge.  We’ve had a much larger group of students participating this year. In fact there have been 674 posts on our school’s blog site.  I wish there had been more than 970 comments. And I really wish there hadn’t been so many that were “I know, right?” kind of comments.  Still, last year we had 145 posts and 338 comments. We’re headed in the right direction.

This year the thing that struck me was something I had not expected.  I expected that some of the stories would be short. I expected that some might not fit my definition of a slice.  I expected that there would be slices that were very unedited. I expected that I would be surprised by the voices that emerged.  I expected that I would learn a lot more about the outer and inner lives of these slicers. What I did not expect was that the writing might actually impact the actions of those slicers.  

Here are some of the lines that began to stir my brain.  

I am going to run the 5k, which is 3.1 miles. You may say that you never expected me to run in a race like that, but frankly, I didn’t expect myself to either. I don’t consider myself the most athletic person, but this will be pretty fun. It IS pretty good exercise. Anyway, I’m kinda nervous.

After I run it, I will make a slice about the actual race!

That’s example one, a kid who doesn’t think of herself as much of an athlete, but suddenly she’s running in a 5-K race this April.  Here’s another.

First you should know I very scared of heights. We were one staircase in and I already wanted to back down. My mom told me if  I want to go down she’ll come with me but I decided I wanted to achieve something today.

Starting to see something?  A girl who’s afraid of heights, but suddenly she’s spinning up the spiral stairs to the top of a lighthouse.  Here’s another.

I wouldn’t pet those.” My dad said. “Of course he said that,” I thought to myself. When we got out of the car, my mom, Alex and I walked to the donkey. Two teenage girls were petting him. When they left, I started petting it. Out of all the years we’ve been going to St. John, I’ve never pet a donkey.  It’s mane was very dirty and I was afraid he was going to bite me but he was very nice. He was so cute too!

A kid on vacation who could have easily stayed in the car or taken her father’s advice, decides to approach a donkey.  A writer has to know how a donkey’s mane actually feels, after all. 

And then there was this:

But before our friend could answer, there was another loud boom.  Now we knew something bad was happening, not just a transistor or something.  Everyone started to rush down from the bleachers and the police told us to head down the street away from the race.  My mom picked me up and I was crying. My mom was holding Alex’s hand and told Alex to hold Ben’s hand and to NOT let go.  We were surrounded by people all rushing and yelling and the air had a really bad smell. We got separated from our friends and didn’t know where they went.

I had read a book aloud (a book I’d just received as a Slice of Life reward).  The book was about Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. It was an inspiring story, a story of a triumph over prejudice.  I thought it would be uplifting. Instead, it had triggered a terrifying memory for one of my students.

She didn’t run away from it, though, she ran right into it, and wrote what she probably didn’t want to remember.  Her father had been running in the Boston Marathon in 2013. She had been in the bleachers at the finish line, when a bomb went off.  She wrote about the confusion, the chaos, the fear, and the eventual reunion.

As we entered this month, I expected these slicers to pay attention to the moments in their lives, looking for small stories in their day, and many did just that. What I didn’t expect from this writing challenge was that it might lead kids to do braver things.  As I sat at home, slightly envious as I read entries from their exotic April vacations, I became aware of something else:  The way their writing was influencing their lives. I began to sense  determination.  These writer were pushing themselves to live “slice-worthy” moments.

I didn’t see that coming.

The Blunders of the Avid Reader

One of my students wrote a slice this week about her younger brother.  They were riding in the car, and he unintentionally cracked them up. He had been reading a story, and his mom asked him about it.   With great enthusiasm, he proceeded to tell them about the adventures of THO-MAZ. He used the name many times in his retelling, and at first the family was puzzled by the strange name, but as they listened, it slowly dawned on them that the young reader had never seen a name where the TH sound was just pronounced as a T,  and the AS at the end actually sounded more like the word “us.” They stifled giggles until they were worried about doing damage to internal organs, and then tried to politely enlighten their young reader about the odd spelling of the name Thomas.

Reading this, I was, of course, eager to chime in with three generations of similar stories  from my family.  First there was my mom, who read a lot of mysteries and melodramas as a child.  She was telling her mother how sad some of these stories were, because the young heroes and heroines were often having to come to the rescue of some innocent child who had been “myzled.”  That was how she pronounced it to her mother, that is. Her mom was a bit puzzled by this myzled thing, so she asked if she could see one of the books. “Ahhh,” she said when she saw the word.  “That word is pronounced a little differently. You can break it into two parts. The first is pronounced ‘miss’ and the second is pronounced ‘led.’ Together it becomes the word misled.”  Enlightenment for my mom.

As a kid, my favorite book was The Baseball Life of Mickey Mantle.  I read the book about ten times between 3rd grade and 6th grade. I’m not sure what year it was in that sequence, but I distinctly remember describing to my mother an incredible home run that Mickey hit.  It might have gone clear out of Yankee Stadium had it not hit the “fay-kade.”  

“Excuse me?  What exactly is the ‘fay-kade’?” my mom asked.

“Oh, it’s this kind of like fancy trim that goes along the top edge of the stadium.”

My mom’s eyebrows rose, and then a knowing look spread across her face.  She smiled. “I believe we pronounce that ‘fuh-sod.’ Is it spelled f-a-c-a-d-e?”

Sheepish look on son’s face.  “Um, yeah.”

My daughter was a big reader, too, but she had a bit more confidence in her own way of seeing things.  In a conversation when she was about ten or eleven, she mentioned a time when someone in a story was eating a “woffer.”  I knew immediately what she was trying to say, so I stepped in to save her from future embarrassment.

“Uhh, Emma, that’s actually pronounced Way-fur.  Like it’s called a Nilla Wafer.”

“Well,” she said matter-of-factly, “I prefer to call them ‘woffers.’”

There you have it.  I guess you could say that one of the few benefits of being “my-zled” by the crazy English non-phonetic language is that at least we get stories from our blunders.

Now, I think I’ll go have a Kit-Kat. I’m wild for those crispy “woffers.” 

To-Do Today

Today was a day for puttering, but it took an unexpected turn.  In my typical non-linear style, I had gone from walking the dogs to picking up after the dogs, to a trip to the bank, and then the cleaners, which reminded me that I needed to stop at the hardware store for something to deal with our ant invasion (Sarah thinks I should be more tolerant).  As an homage to John Mulaney, I signed up for a rewards card at the hardware store, where I also remembered that I should get a new paint brush.  

Next, feeling like I might be getting a bit too productive, I returned home to make a to-do list on my iPad.  This allowed me to check off several already-completed items and reminded me that I had several more things to do.  Wisely, I added, “read and grade American Revolution papers.” This gave me renewed motivation for my other tasks. I checked my email, resent a recommendation for a student who’s moving, dropped off a package at the post office, and then rounded up the tools (a screwdriver) and removed the storm door that we don’t feel we need anymore.  Then I painted the shingles (finally) which we had had replaced in the fall.

Now it was time to rake out the flower beds.  Could’ve sworn I’d done that in the fall. In the midst of my speed raking between two bushes, I uncovered something that looked like feathers.  With one more sweep, I discovered it was not feathers but fur. I heard a squeak, looked more closely, and saw that the squeakers were in some sort of nest.  Curled head to tail were four or five brownish babies. I believe they were bunnies. I didn’t wait to investigate further. I quickly re-covered them.

I did this so quickly that I’m not entirely sure about my motivation.  Was I afraid to see if I’d hurt them with the rake? They didn’t really look offended.  Was I concerned for my own safety? I knew it was risky to get between a baby and an irate mother.  I’ve seen the terrifying killer rabbit in Monty Python’s Holy Grail enough times to have great respect.  Was I nervous that it might be a sin to disturb a bunny during a holy week?  Or was I perhaps just looking for a reason to stop raking?

I decided, in any case, that it was still okay to check off “raking” on my to-do list. I added “bunny preservation,” and immediately checked it off.

The Thin Silence

This past Saturday was a day to think about legacy.  Nancy and I woke at 6:00 and headed north toward Albany.  Her uncle had passed away in December at the age of 95, and her cousins had postponed the memorial until more people could attend.  It was worth the wait.

Her uncle had been a man of substance and character.  I loved hearing the remembrances from one of his sons and one of his grandsons.  Most impressive, though, were the words of a minister who had known him through many years.  What I particularly loved in that eulogy was the way the minister artfully celebrated silence.

My wife’s uncle was not a showy man.  He was not loud. He rarely took the spotlight or raised his voice, but that didn’t mean he lacked passion.  The minister referred to a story of Elijah in the bible, where Elijah expects to encounter God in a mighty wind, a terrible earthquake, or the subsequent fire.  He expects to be awed by power. Instead, he finds his epiphany in the “thin silence” that follows. To the minister there was much to glean from this line. It seemed to speak also of the people in the world who don’t dazzle or overpower, but who quietly lead a good life.  That was my wife’s uncle Norm. Neither pious nor pedantic, neither pushy nor possessive, he was practical, peaceful, and sometimes poetic.

The minister also told a story that put that quiet power in another light.  Norm spent a lot of time in the Adirondacks on the shores of Lake Champlain. When people visited, he loved to show them a place along the shore where a huge ledge had been carved in the granite hillside.  Along the ledge, ran a train track, and Norm loved to let people guess how the rock had been cut without destroying the picturesque hillside.

It hadn’t been done with hammer, chisel or even dynamite.  Instead, it had been done with water. Quietly. On a winter’s day, the engineers had drilled holes in the side of the mountain.  They had filled these holes with water. Then they had waited. In the thin silence that followed, the water had frozen, and in that moment of freezing, the water had expanded, quietly, but with its own kind of power.

And cleaved a granite mountain.  

Norm loved that story, and I loved the way it fit his life.  I didn’t know the man well, but from the little I knew, he was both humble and powerful.  He led by example.

In my classroom, I often ask the class to leave a space after someone finishes reading a piece of writing.  I’ve never thought of it as leaving a space to find God, but I’ve come to believe that understanding often settles into us in that space, that pause.  Now, I see it in a new way. That thin space is also the way of honoring the quiet ones, the ones who don’t blurt their wisdom, but let it seep in…and sometimes rock their world like only still water can.

Give the man some privacy

I don’t really have a story, but I do have something on my mind.  I read a book this weekend, one that seemed so perfect for reading to my class. It was on a topic that connected to our study of the American Revolution.  It included famous figures and private figures, heroes and spies.  I was pretty pumped,  until, when I was about 3 quarters of the way through the book, I happened to check the back flap and noticed that the author was also a host on a morning television show.  This surprised me, and I have to admit it concerned me a bit.  It’s not necessarily a reason to drop a book, but it did make me curious and a little nervous. So, I googled this author/tv host, and found more than I wanted to discover about his views.  

I learned that he had said that one problem with America was that we “keep marrying other species and ethnics. Swedes have pure genes, because they marry other Swedes. Finns marry other Finns, so they have a pure society. In America, we marry everybody — we marry Italians and Irish.”   Well, guilty as charged on that mixing thing, but apparently my family is also messing up his Swedish purity thing. I’m part Swedish, but my dad married a non-Swede who is Jewish (gasp), and I married someone who is Irish. Yikes.  We’re doomed.  

I kept reading.  

Author/host also said this in a discussion about terrorism on U.S. soil:  “It wasn’t just one person, it was one religion. Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.” This is not the kind of statement that I want to be reading from an author who claims to know something about history.  Umm, sir, I think I’ve heard stories about a group of people in this country who wore hoods and white sheets and bombed churches and lynched people.  I’m pretty sure they weren’t Muslim. I would call them terrorists, though. And I think they liked to say things about “pure genes,” too. Just sayin’.

Finally, I know there are a lot of different views on immigration policies, but when it comes to separating kids from parents, I find it hard to justify that policy.  Apparently I was missing an important point about those kids, though. Here’s the quote from that same author/host/historian:  “And these are not — like it or not, these aren’t our kids. Show them compassion, but it’s not like he’s doing this to the people of Idaho or Texas.” I’m glad he clarified the situation.

So, I decided that no matter how interesting the book about spies during the American Revolution, I think I’m going to pass on sharing it with my class.  I’ve read great literature by people whose politics I didn’t share, but this book wasn’t great literature, and even if it were, that wouldn’t mean I should promote it in my classroom.  It’s not an accident that I’m not mentioning the author in this post. He deserves some privacy.

We March into April

It’s the last slice of March.  I’m looking back on a month of words, over 25,000 (I counted yesterday as a way of procrastinating…and perhaps as a way of congratulating myself).  I’ve written a lot about my distant past, and some about my more recent past, but the entries I like the most are the ones about this year’s class, so I think I’ll end with another one of those recollections.

The last two days I’ve had recess moments that made me smile.  On Thursday, just after math, when everyone scurries to get ready for that burst from the doorway into the cool freshness of recess, I asked, “Would anyone be willing to stay in today to help me plan for our new student?”  This was probably not the best way to angle it, but I needn’t have worried. Twelve hands flew into the air. That was actually too many. I wasn’t anticipating that problem. I decided to take the “I’m thinking of a number” approach, and was able to narrow it to four helpers.  We headed out with the rest of the class and then walked back via the art room.

The whole time we walked, these four kids were sharing ideas about what needed to be done to prepare.  I would have to take care of the myriad supplies, like journals, folders, assignment book, etc., but they noted the things around the room that would need adjusting. “He has to be on the lunch count,”  “You should put him on the bathroom sign out,” “He needs a reading bin,” and “Did you make a sticker for one of the chairs?”

“This is exactly why I wanted your help,” I said.  I took note of all of the details.

When we got to the room, one of the kids said, “I’ve been thinking about the tables, and I don’t think we need to use a fifth table.”  This intrigued me. We have four main tables in our room. Each one seats six, which is great when you have 24 students. We would now have 25, so it looked like we would need to expand.  But Mary had a better idea. Since our tables are hexagons, made by pushing two trapezoids together, she suggested pulling apart one hexagon so that one trapezoid could hold four people and the other could accommodate the usual three.  At first I couldn’t understand her idea. This was higher spatial relations work than my little head could follow. She proceeded to show me the new arrangement. We all agreed that it would be really nice to not have to use up our work table.

We used the rest of the time to sketch out the sign.  They decided it would be nice to say “Welcome to the HIvE,” and then have bees flying all around.  They laid out the words, found a template for the bees, ran off copies, and headed for lunch.

Later that night I got an email.  It was Mary. She had two more thoughts about the welcome.  “I was thinking that we should tell him about fire drills and lockdowns.  He might not know about that. Also, I think we should probably wear name tags for a few days.”

I am blessed this year that I have several students who could competently stand in for me if I were absent.

welcome sign

The second recess moment happened the next day.  Doing things at the last minute, as usual, four other teachers and I decided we needed to meet with the potential Student Slice of Lifers at recess.  This was the day after our students’ first performance of their big musical. That was Thursday’s school assembly. On this night (Friday), they’d perform for their families in the evening.  They were not exactly tuned in to the school time that stood in between. I can’t say that I blame them. Still, since Monday would be April first, we really needed to get our kids set up on the school’s blog so that they could post.  We had some nitty gritty explaining to do as well. I worried that the timing was going to be hard. The kids were tired after months of rehearsing for the play. The idea of entering a new marathon, and one with considerably less glory at the end, seemed like it would not appeal to many kids.

I asked my class how many people thought they would like to try the Slice of Life Challenge.  We had been preparing for several weeks, making lists and doing morning quick writes, but I had also assured them that this was voluntary.  Now, in the moment of truth, I wasn’t sure how many would still find the challenge appealing. Sixteen kids raised their hands! Last year I had five.  I made sure they understood that our meeting would take place during recess. Still, sixteen hands stayed up.

An hour later, after math, when we stood on the doorstep of recess, I wondered if some would reconsider.  A few did, but 13 came with me to the computer lab, and joined another 25 from other classes. My colleagues and I  gave our introduction, complete with warnings about the difficulties and assurances of the personal rewards. We mentioned how important it would be to comment on other people’s writing, and how much each writer would value the comments they received on their own writing.  The excitement warmed my heart on an otherwise low-energy day.

So, this is my last entry in the March marathon, but it also marks the start of another march into the April challenge.  I’m going to do everything I can to support these kids who sacrifice recess for the opportunity to write their stories.