Rookies

I had an email conversation with a very generous parent this week. Her kind words at the end of our second week of distance learning reminded me of words from another parent many years ago. They were words that got me through a challenging time.

In my first year of teaching, I was given the gift of a magical class. I remember Lou, the school psychologist running through the list of kids, and saying things like, “Oh, that’s a VERY nice kid,” and “Oh, super family, so supportive,” and then, of course, there was this one: “Oh, well, if you ever don’t feel up to teaching, S. will gladly take over for the day…and do a pretty great job.” And Lou was right. A brand new, 24-year-old (I believe that’s one year before the male brain actually matures to the level of an 18-year-old female), could not have landed in a better environment for learning, for his own learning, that is.

Somewhere around the second week of school, a bad thing happened, and then a good thing happened. First, the bad thing. C’s mom somehow got wind of the fact that her daughter’s teacher really didn’t know what the heck he was doing. He had student taught in 5th and 1st grade and long-term subbed in kindergarten (really only 3 weeks, but let’s call it long-term on the resume). None of those experiences involved the first weeks of school, the establishing of routines, discussions of expectations, rules, consequences, hopes, dreams, rituals, etc. Nope. I knew nothing of that. College rituals really don’t go over well in 4th grade. Anyway, C’s mom somehow found out that I was virtually incompetent…being brand new at this job. She asked my principal to move her daughter. My principal said no, but he didn’t mean no; he meant not yet. He invited C’s mom to observe in the classroom. She took him up on the offer. She spent the entire day in my classroom. I could write a whole story about that day, but I won’t do it now. I remember her sitting in the back of the room at one point, reading a magazine, while I tried to run a group activity that involved kids reading different articles at five different tables and then sharing them. I hadn’t intended that the kids climb on the tables, but J. and J. both decided that would be fun. I hadn’t had the discussion about how we don’t do that when a parent is sitting in the back of the room evaluating the competence of the teacher. Note to self, next year. It was chaos. C’s mom was not impressed.

The next day, the principal informed me, in a fairly gentle way, that C would be moving to another class. I was crushed. It had only been two weeks, but I liked C. She was a sweet kid. She had friends in the class, and she seemed to really like school. It’s not easy to be a first year teacher, but try being a first year teacher and answering a kid who asks, “Why is C. moving to another class?”

We were down to 19, and I had visions of a domino effect. What if every parent figured out that I didn’t know what I was doing? What if the whole class slowly dissolved and I was left by myself?

Two days later came the other event. It was before school. I don’t remember the day of the week. The principal came into my room and shut the door. It felt ominous. “This is it,” I thought, the snowball is rolling.

He smiled, though. “I’ve got a question for you. How would you feel about getting a new student?” I hesitated.

‘I know it’s kind of awkward, but there’s a student in another class, and the parent is very unhappy with how the year has started. She would really like her daughter to move. I told her that the most likely move would be into your class.”

“And? How did she react to that?”

“She was delighted. She said that’s what she was hoping for. She wanted someone young who was willing to try new things. I said she would be very happy, then.”

The next morning L. entered my class. She was quiet, but smiled easily, and had a twinkle in her eye. She had been new at the end of the previous year and didn’t have many friends, but as I mentioned, I had perhaps the nicest group of kids ever assembled in a room. She fit right in.

That year, I had heard a presentation by this young hotshot writing expert named Lucy Calkins. She had talked about something called a writers’ workshop. I had definitely not had any experience with that in my student teaching, but I had been in a writing workshop in high school. I knew how they ran. I was willing to give it a try. L. was a natural for writers’ workshop. She drew pictures, invented characters, and then made up incredible stories that she wrote in picture book form. She wrote during writer’s workshop. She wrote during snack. She wrote at home. I remember one of her adventure stories featured a cinnamon sugar shaker who doubled as a detective.

L’s mom came to the first parent conference that year and said, “Moving L. was the best decision I ever made.”

I thanked her and told her how much I appreciated having someone actually move INTO my class.

“We were all new once,” she said. “You can’t be young and experienced at the same time. I sort of guessed that you would be figuring things out over the course of the year.”

That year, I got by, and maybe even thrived, partly because of that generous spirit on the part of the kids and their parents. Not generous in giving gifts, but generous in being patient with my missteps, failed experiments, and impractical ideas. They gave me confidence. They knew that after two weeks, and even after two months, I was not going to be smooth or seasoned. They also seemed to know, though, that if I felt supported, that if I was allowed to try, I might do some really good things.

Yesterday, when a parent had the audacity to say, “You’re really handling this distance learning so smoothly, and E. is really loving all the great ways you’re finding to keep them engaged,” I had to laugh. The truth was, I was muddling along like that rookie teacher from so many years ago. I was trying, but anyone could tell I was new, and green.

But that was very generous of you to say, and it sure makes the experimenting a whole lot less stressful.

A First World Problem

Okay, I’m risking offending someone, and it’s probably not worth it for such a trivial problem, but it’s kind of late, and I don’t have anything else planned, and it’s on my mind, and it’s not like it’s the kind of rant that’s going to keep me or anyone else up at night.  So, I’m going for it.

Wait. No.  

Hold on.  I’m not going to vent and judge.  It’s too easy, and frankly there’s too much of that going on.  One of my fellow blogger/slicers wrote a very serious and sincere post yesterday about listening.  In her case this listening had a much more important function. It was listening for the purposes of unmuffling the voices in our society that get ignored or that don’t feel they can express their deepest truths.

I need to listen, too.  In my case, this listening will really just be a tiny exercise in tolerance or understanding. I will try to listen. I will try to  express my question in a way that does not show my bias. Of course, you know from my first paragraph that I have a bias, but I’m going to try to will it away.

I actually do want to understand.  Here’s my question: When a person at my school sends a congratulatory note to someone else in the school, and they send it to the whole staff, everyone sees it.  I know that’s not a question, but it’s leading to one. We all see that the person did something remarkable or had something happen in their life that was important, worthy of celebration. I understand that. I think that’s a great thing for a community to celebrate, and I’m grateful that I work in a community that cares so much about each other.  I also understand why we, as individuals, would then want to echo that congratulation. We, too, want to tell the person, the individual, that we’re happy for their achievement, milestone, joyous occasion.

What I want to understand is why so many people use “Reply All” when they send their own congratulations to the individual? 

I know that it requires an extra step to write to the individual. The note was sent to our Staff group.  Reply Sender doesn’t help. That would go back to the person who announced the accomplishment.  Reply All is just easier than writing a new email to the individual. Okay. Is that the reason, though?  Is there also the thought that maybe it’s only after seeing the same email twelve times that some people actually see it at a time when they have a moment to respond? So, each Reply All is like a gentle nudge to the rest of the staff?  

If there is more to it than I am understanding, I would welcome more insight.  Maybe this has to do with my introversion? I prefer the private comment over the public? I’m not really sure.

I’m wondering if anyone has found a work-around that would allow people to do something quickly that wouldn’t require everyone else to see the same post so many times.  This thought occurred to me. What if the person who was being celebrated wrote a quick, “Thank you!” as a Reply All? Would that be presumptuous? If that was the custom,  then everyone could reply to that “Thank you” and no one else would have to read those individual notes of congratulation. Has this already occurred to everyone, and I’m just late to the party?  Has there already been a study that shows that when Reply All is deployed, more people actually participate?  

I know.  I’m overthinking.  I know, the irony is that the time it took me to write this is probably 100 times longer than all of the Reply Alls that I’ve had to deal with this year. 

I think I’ll go to sleep now.  I am deeply sorry everybody, for wasting all of this time.  I only published this because I want to understand… and because I’m on Day 27 of this challenge, and because it’s a Friday,  and because frankly the well is running dry. Happy weekend to All. No need to Reply.

Stop Me if I’ve Told You This…

Okay, stop me if I’ve told you this one before.   One time, we were sitting in the kitchen, and Emma was telling us —

Stop.

What?

Stop.  You’ve told me this one before.

Oh. You can tell already? Okay, well that was actually just an expression.  It’s like a way of entering into storytelling mode.

I know, but, I literally know this story by heart, and it’s not that funny, so please, just stop.

Really?  But it’s such a good little slice of life from when you were little.

Yeah, I know, and I was so cute.

Well, you were.  And you were funny.

Not on purpose.

I know, but it was one of those, “Kids say the funniest things moments.”

Still, you tell it all the time. Don’t you know any better stories?

No, but if you really know it so well, why don’t you tell it.

Okay, fine, but I’m gonna tell it a lot faster than you tell it.

Go ahead, I wanna hear it the way you remember it. 

I DON’T remember it.  I just remember hearing it…a LOT.

Go, then, just tell it.  I’ll be a good listener.

Fine.  So we were having dinner, and–

Right, in the kitchen, yeah, the old kitchen, when we had the table that was up against that wa–

Could you please let me tell it?  I’m just gonna get this over with.  So we were having dinner at the old kitchen table that was right where these cabinets are.  Emma was sitting in that cabinet.

What?  She wasn’t in a cab–

I know, I’m kidding–

Ha! See, you’re still funny.

Right, so she was sitting at the kitchen table where this cabinet is right now.  And she was talking about her ballet teacher.

That’s right.  Natasha. The one with the thick accent.

Hey, I’m telling the story.  So she was talking about her ballet teacher, Natasha.  And she was talking about how hard it was to understand her and we asked why and she —

Wait, this isn’t going to work, because you haven’t really given the background.  You have to tell about how you were in nursery school at the JCC.

Why do I have to say that?

Because, that makes the ending make sense.  Otherwise, the punch line won’t really make sense.  People won’t understand why you said Rosh Hashannah.

Dad, it’s just us.  Who does this have to make sense to?

No, it’s just that, for a story to make sense, sometimes you have to give the background.  Someday, who knows, you might be telling someone this story, and you’ll want them to appreciate the ending.

Fine.  Okay. I was in nursery school at the JCC in Bridgeport, and we were learning a lot about Jewish traditions and holidays and heroes.  Okay? Are you satisfied? There’s your background. Now, can I get on with the rest of this stupid story?

Yes.  Proceed.  I think it will work much better now that they know that.

Okay.  So Emma was talking about Natasha, and she was saying it was frustrating because she couldn’t understand half of Natasha’s directions.  So Mom asked why she couldn’t understand her —

Actually, I think I was the one who asked, because Mom would have known about Natasha’s accent.  Mom was the one who always picked Emma up from that dance class.

All right, whatever.  That is completely irrelevant to anything in the story.

Well, I’m just going for accuracy. 

I think you just want to be in the story.  Okay, so YOU, not Mom, asked Emma why she couldn’t understand Natasha.  And Emma said it was because she was from Russia, and–

Yeah.  Yeah. This is great.  And you said….

And then I interrupted her (I wonder where I get THAT from), and I said, “No, Emma, it’s not RUSSIA, it’s ROSH HASHANAH.” 

Yeah, but you said it with a really serious voice, like you were a teacher.  And then we all cracked up.

Except for me, I’ll bet. 

Actually Emma didn’t laugh either, as I recall.  She didn’t really appreciate being corrected by anyone, especially her little sister. But the adults definitely laughed.

Adults are weird. 

Soon

The cold air and the accompanying breeze said, “Not yet,” but the sunshine, the forsythia blooms, and the about-to-burst buds on the magnolias said, “Soon.”

Yesterday’s rain still clung to the grass and glazed the road as Farley and I headed out this morning.  This time of year you can still see far into the woods in one part of our walk. The trees hadn’t borne their leaves and the vines hadn’t obscured the view.  I scanned the woods for deer, wondering how Farley might react if he spied one. I didn’t spot any. We didn’t see many humans, either, which was okay. 

Part of my brain ran through the day to come, planning what I’d say in the meetings with kids.  The other part relished the in-between feel of the day. Yesterday a pathetic whimper of snow fell from the sky, followed by hours of rain.  It felt like a cusp day. It felt like a Monday. Today the possibilities seemed to be winning. 

As we rounded the last corner and headed up the street, our neighbor’s driveway caught my eye.  It made me stop. Glowing red in the sunlight, it drew me past our house. I had to see what was tricking my eye. The neighbors, quite elderly, weren’t home, still taking refuge on a secluded beach in Florida, but their old maple had been busy last night.  Inspired by the rain and the breeze, and maybe the sense of possibilities, it had decided to lay out a perfect red carpet, celebrating their return.

I couldn’t bear to tell the tree that Nancy had talked to the old couple yesterday by phone. They’ve decided not to return for a few more weeks.

I know.  They said they’d be back this week,  And you did such a beautiful job. Here. I’ll take a picture.  They’ll appreciate the thought and the effort. And don’t worry.  They’re coming back soon. Soon.

Do they really need to be a breed?

This will not be a real slice of life, so much as a collection of thin slices that have absolutely no social or educational value. I suppose if you were trying really hard, you could possibly see a metaphor, but it isn’t really there. So, don’t bother.

First, we have always gotten rescue dogs, and they have always been of mixed heritage. With our first “mongrelle” (as my friend Pat’s daughter had once thought the name of an actual breed), we tired of having people ask us what kind of dog she was, so we invented a breed. She had a real affinity for that rare delicacy known as the milk bone, so whenever someone would ask us what she was, we would say, “Oh, she’s an American Biscuit Hound.” Nancy eventually developed an entire Westminster Dog Show description, “The American Biscuit Hound is an exuberant if mentally challenged dog, known for its distinctive head bump which houses the cranial nugget. Though lacking in any sense of smell, The American Biscuit Hound nonetheless can sense a crunchy treat with its keen sixth sense. This is The American Biscuit Hound, Number 64.”

The name went over very well. We sometimes didn’t let on that this was not really an official breed. We liked to imagine the people hustling home to look it up in the Encyclopedia of Dogs (the Internet hadn’t been invented yet) . “Would it be under American or Biscuit?”

Our next do had a similar appearance but a far different personality. His special skills and markings made him easily named, though it was only when we saw another dog show featuring the PBGB, or Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen, that we realized what we had on our hands. Boo had come from North Carolina, or so we’d been told. He had a penchant for de-stuffing pillows, sofa cushions, and of course his own toys. He was an almost all-black dog, but had this very nice feathering of brown on his hind legs and backside. He became known to us as a Shepherd-butted Southern Batting Hound, affectionately known at the dog shows, though , as an SB-SBH. This one fooled a lot of people. We liked that, because really, why must we always ask about a dog’s lineage and background. Can’t we just appreciate him for his handsome sweet self?

When Boo was 7, McGee joined the family. He traveled all the way from a rescue organization in Arkansas. It seemed like destiny that he would end up in Connecticut, land of stony soil, because his absolute favorite puppy activity was digging up rocks in our backyard. After a few months, our yard resembled the surface of the moon. The little boy next door, similarly industrious, used to come over to play with McGee, but invariably ended up creating rock piles all over our yard. McGee always sported the tell-tale brown nose of a hard working rock miner. I did not love having a yard full of potholes, but this preoccupation did allow us to find our answer to “And what kind of dog is he?” Though it seemed fitting, we dismissed “A Mr. Potato Head Dog.” Everyone would nod in understanding when they saw his ill-matched body parts, but no one would be fooled. Instead we decided he was clearly a Little Rock Terrier.

Now, we have a new puppy. You might have seen him on Instagram, where he is becoming quite a sensation. He, too, is of uncertain heritage, and thus in need of an official tag for that obligatory question. He’s still only 4 months old, so his true personality and features may still be latent. For now, though, owing to his over-sized feet and his love of human contact, we’re testing this name: the Paddle-Pawed Snuggle Hound.

In case you missed my shameless advertising in my last post, here’s a way to follow Farley, the first Paddle-Pawed Snuggle Hound on Instagram. You’ll find him cuddlling with someone @farls.barkley

You're Welcome

Okay, world. I may not be the most attentive person when it comes to minding the puppy in our house. It’s true, I was in the room “watching” Farley when he chewed up one of Sarah’s AllBirds.

Okay, yes, it’s true, I ignored Farley’s insistent whacking at the “I Need to Go Out” bells that hang from our back door, and only looked up when I heard the steady flow of puppy pee on our family room carpet.

All right, I was outside keeping an eye on him when he slipped behind the azalea to “do his business” in private. Okay, okay, I know, I should have kept him from eating a branch off the azalea and then taking a few nibbles from that “business” he had just produced. I get it, I’m not really fit to dog sit.

But here’s the thing. Today I showed tremendous alertness, speed, and dexterity as I raced into the dining room, dove under the table, and with the dexterity of a surgeon, extracted the Notorious RBG doll that Sarah got for Christmas this year from the jaws of our mischievous and apparently Alt-Right puppy this afternoon.

On the off chance that it is some kind of voodoo doll, I have to apologize to Justice Ginsburg. The trip from the couch to the floor inside the mouth of a lumbering and perpetually hungry puppy must have been harrowing. But you seem to be fine. The lace on your collar seems unharmed, and your hair is still pulled back into its perfect bun. I sincerely apologize.

And to you America, I say, “You’re welcome.”

Influencing

It’s a busy time at my house these days. My wife and I are both working at home. My daughter has been working full time, but her office has just gone down to “emergency only” cases. This is a good thing for several reasons. I won’t get into the public health reasons. The big reason this is a good thing is that our new puppy, Farley, has been bugging us incessantly to get a phone.

Not to worry, we are holding off at this point. However, he’s very cute and has these things called “puppy dog eyes.” You may have heard this term used metaphorically in reference to some humans, but Farley LITERALLY has puppy dog eyes. So, there’s really no telling how long we can hold off on the request.

At this point, we’re trying to satisfy his thirst for social interaction by taking him on frequent walks. This, however, gets back to that public health thing. Farley has no concept of social distancing. I have tried to explain it to him. I’ve said it slowly. I’ve had my wife, who is fluent in Doggish, try to explain it. No luck. Puppy dog eyes. Our walks then, lead to frustration for all parties. Farley veers toward all humans, who he senses could really use a dose of puppy. We vainly tug back on his leash, hoping that the humans will not fall prey to his animal magnetism. These tug of wars are good exercise for all involved, but they are unsatisfying. The humans, already starved for interaction, sometimes look at us as though we’re hogging the puppy. The puppy looks at us with, you guessed it, puppy dog eyes.

So, faced with this problem, we did the only thing that really seemed prudent and considerate toward our fellow humans.

Today Sarah helped Farley set up an Instagram account.

He lied about his age, of course, but let’s face it, all the kids do that these days. He promised to be polite whenever possible. His first two posts were selfies. I suspect that it will be quite a while before he takes any artsy shots of the landscape, the fire hydrants, or the terrier next door (an older woman who at this point finds him VERY immature). No, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be selfie-centered postings.

Within a few hours he had developed a modest but burgeoning following. My family, of course is a bit competitive about its influencing power, This seemed to bring out a bit of a personality change in me.

I immediately claimed victory. Of the first 25 followers, most unbiased polls showed that I was the biggest influencer in the family. I am a big influencer. In fact, I may be the best influencer in the world. I’m a stupendous influencer.

Sarah countered with typical elitist intellectual distortions, showing that ten of the people had gone to college with her. So? Does that make them special? I went to college. I did very well. She added that 8 more worked with her, either at camp or in her current job. Debatable. I noted that my sister and brother-in-law were both following. “Umm, I think that must have come from Mom’s Facebook post.” Always she throws the Facebook tampering at me. “Oh, yeah, well, look at that one. Right there, that’s the best man from my wedding. Now that’s clearly my influence. No denying it. I’m a very big influencer. ”

Sarah rudely points out that he, too, probably saw my wife’s post. “So actually, Dad, I’m happy to report that you were responsible for exactly one of the 27 followers.”

“Oh, nice of you to acknowledge that. Who was it? “

“Umm. That would be you. You, are the only follower that was brought to to Farley’s account by you.”

Well, she is just a bad reporter, probably from the failing New York Times. And that was a bad report. A disgrace. So, faced with all this phony data, this fake news, I have made it my mission to make my dog more famous to show my influencering prowess.

I’m not quite sure how I’ll do it, but if you want to watch the impressive meteoric rise in his followings, you could go to Instagram and simply search @farls.barkley and if you feel like it, you can click follow. Please. Please. His paws are bigger than my hands.