Another Year Over, a New One Just Begun

Well, it’s a new year; time for resolutions, reflections and  reality.  By that I mean that the holidays, which began at the end of November with Thanksgivvukah, are officially over;  and it is time to look ahead.   It was a wonderful month and a half from the end of November until the beginning of January-family, food and fun, in that order and lots of it.  But now the new year is upon us.

I have learned, over the past fifty-two years, to take things one day at a time while keeping my eye on all the opportunities that each day presents.  I try, really, really hard, to live in the present and enjoy every minute that I have.  I see enough around me to know not to take any of it for granted- my physical health, my mental  abilities, my fortunate circumstances, my wonderful family.  I wake up every day and stretch, happy to be able to stand on my own two feet and do so with pleasure.  Although the holidays, filled with lovely and fun times, are over, my reality is pretty darn good; so when I hear or say the phrase “back to reality” I am more than okay with that.

So on to resolutions…. I do have some of the usual ones. I will stop some of my bad habits (not naming any of them here in public, just admitting I have one or two that need stopping); I will maintain my energy and patience with the challenging bunch of bananas I call my kindergarten class, no matter what they and their families launch at me; I will share my time with, and make donations to,  groups that support people less fortunate that I am.  But I have a few additional resolutions as well. 

For one, I will continue and put more focus on the fight to save public education in this country.  Parents and teachers, a growing grassroots group of us, are engaged in a fight for children and for the future of public education.  I have been and will continue to share and disseminate information on the campaign to destroy access to learning for every child that is being waged by corporations and at best, misguided politicians.  Look for a separate posting soon on the topic.

 I will get back into working out and exercising with more regularity. I know, everyone says that.  And, like everyone, I will probably only do so consistently for a few months and then slack off.  Still, I have to put that one on the list. 

 I will read more literature.  I have been dedicating a lot of my time to inane activity on the internet and my iphone: Hanging with strangers, Dice with strangers, Scramble with strangers..all a nice distraction from the stresses of everyday. But they take time from reading- an act which enriches me while I escape reality. I have a constant and constantly-growing pile of books next to my bed. I reach for them at night when I am too tired to remember what I read; and so what happens is that I read the same page over and over again.  I used to love sitting and reading- I want to love it again.

 There are more “resolutions” but I won’t bore you with them.

 As for reflections…where I am, where I came from, where the heck am I going?  Well, at the moment I began writing this entry, I was 28,000 feet above sea level, heading to a 90th birthday party for my aunt in Tucson, Arizona. It was a family reunion to boot, and included family members I had never met who flew  in from all over the world. I planned to  re-connect with college friends and former colleagues as well, since this is the first time I had returned to the Old Pueblo in many years.  I am now once again at 28,000 feet, on the way home from said reunion and celebration, and am still digesting it all.  It was really nice to be back in the desert, visiting places I had not been for a long time; hugging college buddies I had all but given up for lost, and spending some quality time with the family. 

 As for the rest of the year and the rest of my life, I have exciting and interesting plans.  We are hosting a wedding celebration for my daughter and son-in-law at our home. It promises to be a delightful and happy coming together of two families and many groups of friends to fête the young couple, as well as ourselves. We are planning a few fairly local ski experiences, hopefully with a couple of our kids as well as with friends, and two big trips in Spring and Summer- one to Florida to visit hubby’s brother and family; and the other a foray to Spain to explore our daughter and son-in-law’s temporariy adopted country.  I intend to keep writing and taking photos to document my thoughts, sights and experiences. And there are business and investment opportunities shaping up to help us into and through our retirement years, which although still a ways off, loom ever closer. 

 This time of year, full of reflection and attempts to ward off sun-deprivation-inspired gloominess, lends itself to pondering and pontificating.  Snowbound, or at least, cold and dark bound, I spend more time thinking about both past and future.  I know, “best-laid plans” and all that, but in my opinion, it is better to have goals, hopes and dreams to reach for than to just let it all happen and deal with the consequences.

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“A Clean House…

…is a sign of a wasted life.”  This is one of the those refrigerator magnets that you see at some random time in your life that sticks with you forever.  You say, YEAH! EXACTLY! and use it to justify your actions for the rest of your life.  Well, at least I do. 

I will make this perfectly clear: I hate to clean.  I love a clean house, and clutter makes me itch, but I hate to clean.  I know people, friends, who say they love to clean- it’s therapeutic and the reward is wonderful.  To them I say:

a)I feel that way about cooking

b)I am happy you found something rewarding to do with your time

c) Feel free to come over to my house any time and get your therapy on. I will cook you something delicious.  As long as you clean the kitchen when I am done.

I think what gets me, if I have to analyze it which if you know me you know I do in fact have to analyze it, is the tedium.  It’s boring.  I can put on music to drown out the deadliness of it, and it does help a bit. But mostly while I clean, I ponder how bored I am, how many other fun and interesting things I could be doing with my time, how it is unfair that I am cleaning up other people’s messes, and how five minutes after I am done it will be dirty again. 

I am not sure how and when cleaning the house became my responsibility- probably around the time we had children, and I did a stay-at-home stint, and took on most of the cleaning.  Somehow, though, when I went back to working full-time, the fairly even division of housework did not magically redevelop.  In fact, I now had five people making messes and just one little old tired me to deal with it.   I have a wonderful husband who can do all kinds of things, but apparently he either hates to clean as much as I do, or he is just “too busy.”  In his defense, he has told me to get someone to clean the house; we can afford to have someone come a couple of times a month, it’s true. And I have tried.  Many times. But I always wind up letting the house-cleaners go after just a few days.  I am not a white-glove tester but if I’m paying someone, I want the house really clean.  If not, well, I can do just as well with no help, thank you very much. 

Lest you think I was ever good at cleaning, I wasn’t.  As a teenager, my room was an absolute hazard. You risked life and limb walking in my tiny room.  At least you risked your feet and ankles, and on a really bad day, even your knees.  You could probably swim across the crap in my room at some point.  And it wasn’t until we moved a few times and I learned to purge unnecessary stuff ,that we became clutter-free; except for kids toys. And clothes. And books. And…but that is just temporary clutter that gets better as the kids get older, and keep their crap in their rooms. Which you could sometimes swim across. Hm…

Now the main issue in our house is pet hair.  Shedding animals make for a constant flow of fur and dander.  It’s everywhere, and most of us need allergy medication on a daily basis in order to deal with it.  If I could have someone come in once or twice a month and vacuum and dust and wipe and wash, it would be so much nicer around here.  Aw, maybe I will give it another shot.  It’s been a while since I fired anyone.

smudge josie 2011 1

callie on the shelf

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Marriage Timeline

Today marks thirty three years that we have been married.  As I ponder this large and growing number of years, even visiting the place where it all began (Cunningham Park in Queens) in a fit of nostalgia, I think it fitting to put it all in perspective.   There have been so many journeys, side trips, roller-coaster rides, surprises, challenges, adventures- it might take another thirty three years to write about it all.  So here is a synopsis, a timeline,  a rundown, an abridged version of our little slice of history. 

1979

I am a senior in high school.  It is January- the year is marching past, and I am beginning to gel my plans for aprés-graduation life.  I plan to head out west to find my fortune or at least the next part of my trip.  A friend invites me over one evening, and there is her boyfriend with a friend of his.  Good looking, ice-blue eyes, gorgeous smile, sweet words; and we make plans for a date.  He arrives on his motorcycle and off we zoom.  We stay up night after night for weeks chatting.  I mention things I would like to do and he makes them happen- my first ride in a convertible (he borrowed one from a friend); my first drive-in movie (one of the last drive-ins in New York and he found it); my first road trip (on the motorcycle down to North Carolina). He claims love at first sight; it takes me a while to reciprocate as I have plans that do not include a boyfriend, independent cuss that I am.   The school year ends, he attends my graduation, he promises to follow me out to Arizona, and weeks later he rides that Yamaha 650 across the country, arriving with second degree sunburn after taking his shirt off because of the desert heat.  A month later, on my eighteen birthday in September, he asks for my hand.  I know I have found a good one, and I say yes.  Our announcement to friends and family is met with everything from scorn to eye-rolling to doom-saying.   Few people are supporting this plan.   He takes me home to Iowa to meet the family and friends there; it goes badly.  We are truly on our own, against the world.

1980

It is August.  He takes off for home to meet up with his siblings and drive on to New York.   I fly back east to get ready for our wedding.  We have chosen a park in Queens as our “venue”; my brothers get there an hour early to rake a path in the leaves; my dad has arranged for a friend of his who is in training as a Baptist minister to officiate; my parents, not dealing well with the idea of a potluck in the park, have reserved a room in  a restaurant for our small party of forty after the ceremony.  We do not make alternative plans in case of rain. We do not book a hotel room for our wedding night.  We do not care about anything except beginning our life as husband and wife.  Thankfully it does not rain, and after driving around Long Island for hours in our wedding clothes looking for a hotel room (it was the weekend of the Democratic National Convention and there is not a room to be had), we find a place to spend our honeymoon night.  None of it matters. It is the best wedding we have ever attended.  We spend our honeymoon on the Amtrak to Iowa, then fly home to Tucson, where we both work crappy jobs while taking college courses. 

1981-1987

We are broke; dead poor, and choosing between paying rent or buying food week by week.  And yet, we are so happy and in love.  We manage to have fun with no money; after all we are eighteen and twenty one, and people that age know how to have fun.  Over the next several years, I graduate and he starts a construction company.  I am teaching and he is getting up at 4 a.m. to pour hot tar on roofs in the desert heat.  We learn to ski, do lots of hiking, jump into last minute road trips overnight to the beach in San Diego, or head down to the wild, empty beaches of Mexico for fun in the sun. He builds our first house at the base of a mountain when I am only twenty three and he twenty six.  We begin to plan a family.  We do a stint as foster parents and then, in 1987, I become pregnant with twins.

 1987-1989

Just after my wedding, my mother went to a party where there was a psychic taking turns doing readings with each of the guests. My mother shows him  a photo of me and he says that my twenty-sixth year is going to be a big one.  Wherever he is, I would like to say: holy guacamole are you good!  During the year that I am twenty six, I give birth to the twins, graduate with a master’s degree while teaching full time, and publish my first chapter in a professional book.  Whew.  When the girls are thirteen months old, I become pregnant again.  Our son is born, and we are now a complete family.  We go through growing pains, my hubby and I, as we adjust to the new reality.  Things get tough, seemingly impossible to surmount, but somehow we make it through. 

1990-1999

The summer that I was pregnant with our son was a brutal one, weather-wise.  It hit 100 degrees in May and stayed there until after his birth at the end of September. After ten years in the desert, I’m done.  I swear I won’t spend another season of hell.  During the time that I am off as a teacher, there is nothing to do but sit in the water-cooled house or drive around in the air conditioned car or walk around the air-conditioned mall.  It is dreadful that I, who love the outdoors, cannot enjoy it due to the overheated summer months. I develop skin cancer; the doctor says to stay out of the sun.  In the desert??  We talk and it comes out that hubby has never liked the desert.  He misses the four seasons, the varied landscapes, the choices of things to do and the proximity to get somewhere without driving for eight hours. We make plans to move back to the east coast.  It is not easy and it does not go as planned, but we sell everything and take off back east with three babies under the age of two, no jobs, no home, nothing but hope and optimism.  It’s good to be young.    

We make it work.  We get jobs to pay the bills and he begins his business in the city.  The girls begin kindergarten in the city schools and I see nothing has changed since I went through. We move to Westchester; hubby finds us a house, or project, to move into.  We stay several years, and then move onto the next place, further up the road.  Our kids enjoy life in the suburbs, attend a fantastic public school system that offers academic, arts and sports options any kids could enjoy.  We make new friends and hubby’s business does well.

2000-2012

The kids grow up.  They do so whether you like it or not. We grow with them, changing as they change, re-configuring our relationship with each other, with our families, with our friends. Hubby’s business goes through feast or famine stages.   We enjoy camping and skiing and walking around the city with the kids; cheap entertainment is the name of the game.  We rarely get a babysitter and go out or go away for a weekend.  Grandma watches the kids when we ask, but we don’t ask often and it is not because we have no money (although we don’t). It is because we love our little family and we love our time together and we know it is not going to last forever. We manage a couple  of big family vacations during this period. The kids all graduate from high school; begin their life journeys.  We rename our house “Empty Nest Bar and Grille” and begin to reconnect as a couple and to rediscover ourselves as individuals. It is not always easy or smooth;  but it is good.  We have made it to and through our twenty fifth anniversary, which we celebrated with a big party.  Some of the original wedding attendants showed up and it was joyous.  We look back and I think, well we sure showed those naysayers back in 1980!  We restart our adventures in real estate, moving into a fixer-upper and making plans for the future.

 2013

And here we are.  Today is our thirty-third anniversary.  Hubby is working overtime to get ready to go to Martha’s Vineyard for a week of relaxation and celebration.  Two of the kids are coming to join us there, and I cannot wait to spend time together.  It is becoming rare to have all five of us in the same place at the same time; something I struggle to accept. I’m working on it.   So tonight, we will raise a glass and toast ourselves, our journey to this point and our hopes and dreams for the future.  Cheers to us!

 P.S.

If you want a clue on what I think made it work all these years, see my post from our last year’s anniversary.  

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August Schizophrenia

I know it is only the beginning of August and we do not start school until September 9th this year, and don’t think I am not relaxing and milking every second of my 72-day weekend, by any means.  But it is always this time of the year when I begin to think about, and get a teensy bit excited about, the coming school year. I start searching for new ideas online, begin reading or re-reading professional literature to enrich and focus my year, and write tentative plans, strategies, activities, unit webs, etc.   I am really beginning to look forward to teaching kindergarten in just a few weeks. Or wait, maybe I am beginning to look forward to teaching fourth grade in just a few weeks.   

At the end of last year, I was informed by my principal that it was very likely we would lose a section of kindergarten due to low enrollment, leaving one of us three kindergarten teachers without a class and precipitating some changes in grade-level assignments through the school.  Even though I have moved grades already five times in the fifteen years I have been in my current school ( fifth to first to third to fifth to kindergarten) and also changed classrooms seven times, I was the chosen one.  I won’t get into how I feel about that.  I am a professional; and I am certified to teach nursery through sixth grade; and I know that in New York City, grade level changes happen pretty much every year or two.   I know that if I have to make the change, I will rock fourth grade and enjoy doing it.  I just wish I knew for sure; we are waiting to see if there are seven new kindergarten kids registering before the beginning of the year.  I will literally get a call at anytime now letting me know which grade I will be teaching. And even that could change at the last minute, up until the first day of school.  So I am thinking about both grades, planning for both grades, and feeling decidedly up-in-the-air about it all.

I love teaching kindergarten.  Everything is new to the kids; and I mean everything.  How to listen,how to share,  how to line up, how to know when you have to use the bathroom so you ask before it is too late.  The academic goals are only one part of kindergarten, and I love that.  It is like being in a room full of puppies and kittens, who are learning about being part of a larger community, and learning about learning, and learning how to learn, and just plain old learning.  It takes energy of the physical kind, the patience of a saint, the ability to organize chaos, mitigate circumstances and ameliorate issues, and the willingness to guide newbies into becoming part of the fabric of school.   It takes sympathy, empathy, intelligence,  emotional maturity, enthusiasm, optimism, cheerfulness, vigor and endurance, to do it well.   The responsibility is huge:  this is the child’s first year of school and you can either help her love it or hate it.  I firmly believe that the emotions a child attaches to school during the very first year last the entire twelve or more years of education ahead.  I truly believe that this is probably the most important work of a kindergarten teacher, followed closely by the social and academic aspects.   Ideally, kindergarten embraces every child who walks through the door, no matter the family and background and language experiences, and helps that child become the best he can be.  Kindergarten, with its high highs and low lows, its tears and joy (which sometimes occur at the same time), its surprises and challenges , is unrivaled in its sheer volume of…everything.   It’s a huge year, the beginning of it all, and of all the grades, kindergarten  probably is the most all encompassing and significant year to teachers, students and families .  I think you get how I feel.

Will I love fourth grade? I have no doubt that I will.  It is the only elementary grade I have not yet taught, and I had a premonition that one day it would happen.    Now that it has (maybe), I have begun to ponder what it will entail.  In the old days, fourth grade was the grade that everyone wanted to teach.  The age of the children is a perfect mix of primary and intermediate developmental levels.  The kids still want to please and be loved by the teacher; lots of things are still new and exciting; friendships are still developing and in flux, allowing lots of social learning to occur that will form the future ability of each child to interact in society.  Fourth graders are eager about their growing independence while critically assessing the opinions of others.  They are still cooperative but learning to embrace competitive aspects of school.  They are resilient, but beginning to exhibit sensitivity to criticism and can become more easily discouraged.   They are concrete learners and tend to be more realistic than in prior years. They worry and can become anxious.  They are moving into “middle childhood”; it is a transition year.  Very cool.  

Now fourth grade has become the “testing” grade.   The children take hours worth of high-stakes tests throughout the year, and the scores for each class are published online and in newspapers, putting pressure on both the children and their teachers to “perform.”   Most teachers do not want to teach fourth grade due to this focus.  I see it as a challenge. 

I do not teach to a test.  I never have,  and I am not planning to begin now, after thirty years of working with children.  I help children learn the necessary skills, and I make sure they know and can apply them well.  I do this through constant, ongoing and pervasive assessment of their learning.  It is a seamless part of our day, as I watch, question, and record each child’s ability to complete tasks, and then adjust my instruction.  This is good teaching. I don’t need a state test to tell me how the kids are doing, and while I know that these tests are here to stay (unfortunately) for a while, I refuse to bend or bow to the pressure to get kids to reach for a number on tests that do absolutely nothing to help them on their educational journey.  In fact, I believe these tests are at best punitive and at worst criminally abusive to children, making them sit for seventy five to ninety minutes at a time over several days, speed reading passages and answering obscure, purposely confusing questions; or solving impossibly inane and bewildering math problems by writing detailed explanations of their thinking, without allowing them time to actually think.    I also believe they cause an incredible amount of stress, and turn children off to school and learning.  So I won’t be party to that, if I should wind up teaching fourth grade.  I look forward to the nine-year-old’s ability to read, write, respond, create, critique, find solutions and apply the Habits of Mind of successful learners.  I look forward to watching them make the transition to the next level of childhood development and I am determined to find joy in every single day.

And so, as I enjoy the wonderful waning summer warmth, getting things done around the house, visiting with friends, watching the hummingbirds swarm the feeders to fatten up for their long flight south, spending time doing things I will not have time to do once the school year begins, I allow that little germ of teacher-thought to sneak in and it brings a smile to my face. Even after all these years, I get butterflies in my stomach as I think about another September.  The summer that this spark does not occur will be the year I plan to retire. I swore to myself I would never be that teacher who is just counting the years until she can get the most return for the future.  I am there for the kids, and as long as I still feel that way, I will spend August getting emotionally and mentally ready for another year.  Round 31!

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Volunteering

There is a book out there, The Origins of Virtue, that controversially pinpoints generosity and altruism as directly correlated with cellular, DNA-level survival needs.  The author, Matt Ridley, argues that our cooperative instincts may have evolved as part of natural selfish behavior–by exchanging favors we can benefit ourselves as well as others.   It is interesting to ponder why some people seem to be so full of the desire to help others while some people live their entire lives for their own or their family’s benefit.  There are people that, no matter how cash-poor they are, give generously of their time and resources to others that need help, and people that have more money than they could spend in three lifetimes that cannot be bothered.  Of course there are also very generous philanthropists.  I know, I spend too much time thinking about inane and uselessly trivial things.  Can’t help it.  Whatever the reason,  my husband, my kids and I all enjoy spending time, energy and money to aid people we do not personally know.  It just feels right.

Last Friday morning, I left my  home at the sunrise hour of 6:30 to trek to Rye Playland for an event created by TommieCares Organization: a day at the beach with physically and developmentally disabled children.  When we gathered at the meeting place, the volunteers, ranging in age from ten to sixty and covering a representative New York diversity, quickly became a cohesive group.  Our blue t-shirts and the organization’s black leader shirts, gave us an instant feeling of belonging and comeraderie.  As we waited for instructions, many of us introduced ourselves to each other and asked the usual questions: how did you get connected to TommieCares? Have you done this before? Do you live around here or did you have to travel far to get here?  In this way, we eschewed very quickly the awkwardness of strangers for the warm feeling of new friends and family. 

The first thing I volunteered for in the set-up time before the kids arrived was to carry canoes from the truck to the water.  I know a thing or two about canoes, and I figured that the couple of dozen of us who headed over to the parking lot would make short work of this assignment and be ready for the next.  What I didn’t know was that the “canoes” fit ten people, were over twenty feet long, and weighed nearly four hundred pounds each.  They had to be lifted up and over the straps holding them to the trailer, and then walked several hundred yards around a building, down a few steps, through some zigzag fencing and then across the sand to the water.  Thank goodness there were only two of them.  When it came time to return them to the truck at the end of the event, I made sure I was busy doing something else.  I know my limits.

Once the children arrived with their families, it was time to check them in and await my “buddy” assignment.  I was happy to meet my nine-year-old girl, who came with her mother and three younger siblings.  She made a bee-line for the water, and it was all I could do to keep up with her.  On the beach, the organization had set up stations: kayaking, paddle boarding, canoeing, swimming, an obstacle course and lots of toys.  I coaxed my buddy towards the vests and helmets and managed to get them on her, and then talked her into a kayak ride.  Her mother nervously shadowed us, trying to keep her other three in tow.  After I gave her my “credentials” and shared some personal information about my own children, she relaxed and left us to take the others to the water.  I saw her watching like a protective mommy hawk as I helped her daughter onto the kayak, where two trained volunteers held her and rowed her around for a short time.  My buddy was rowing with an oar by the time they came back.  After her little excursion, she was done with boats and spent the next two hours with me playing in the water.  She enjoyed sitting, pretending to swim, and throwing water at me.  We made a sand castle and wrote her name in the sand and walked around in the calm Long Island Sound, trying to stay cool.  Did I mention that it was almost 100 degrees that day?  This was right in the middle of our heat wave and it was more than a bit brutal trying to have fun and stay hydrated.

At the end of the morning, each child was given a medal for participation and the families left to use their free passes to spend the day at the Playland amusement park.  There were hugs, smiles, appreciation, and applause for the participants and volunteers.  Once the kids were gone, clean-up time began.  I busied myself collecting and storing helmets and vests, sand toys, banners and signs and beach wheel chairs.  I glanced over towards the canoes and felt relief that they seemed to have enough very strong-looking help. I guess word got out about the canoes.

In spite of the intense heat of the day, when even being in the water offered little relief, I left with a feeling of satisfaction, glad that I had spent my morning this way.  As I searched for some of the photos of the day on their website, I noticed that TommieCares is planning a pool day in August for the same group of kids at Tibbets Brook Pool complex.  You bet I signed right up.

Here’s a little history and etymology of “volunteering”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volunteering

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A Teaching Timeline (Warning: extra long post!)

1983

I am a twenty-one year old, fresh out of college with three months of substitute teaching and one semester of student teaching under my very loose belt.  Other than babysitting when I was twelve, this is the sum total of my experience with kids when I stand in front of my first class of third graders.   I quiver in my sneakers as they look expectantly up at me waiting for instructions.  They know what to expect better than me, after all they have been in school for three years already.  They are the experts on what is supposed to happen; I am the novice.  Even though they don’t seem to realize this, thankfully, I feel it in every cell in my body.  They are waiting for me to tell them what to do, I think in terror; I have no idea what to tell them to do!   Finally I just begin to speak.  I tell them a bit about myself and how happy I am to be their teacher this year. I ask them to tell me about themselves and they open up like a tidal wave.  Once they start talking, I can’t get them to stop.  I realize quickly that I have to eventually get them doing something else, but for now I am just relieved that they are doing something.  And I listen.  Their stories of their little lives are so interesting! They live in a barrio in Tucson, lots of poverty, drugs, neglect, hunger, fighting;  but they are also scrappy, street-smart; and I recognize and identify with that and we fall in love.  We have a hell of a year.  It turns out they love to learn anything new- my biggest problem that year is managing all that they want to do.  I follow their leads and as they come up with project after project, researching and creating, reading and writing, making and solving problems.  We write a newspaper every week on topics of interest to us.  We write and present plays, learn about and enjoy a Thanksgiving feast complete with turkey and trimmings, write letters to local politicians on issues that bother us, take the public bus every week to the public library to use our new cards to take out books.  We dance, sing, play games, have really deep and caring morning meetings, make daily goals for ourselves and check in several times a day to adjust them and assess them.  These meetings include my bringing the list of skills we need to cover and learn and master, and negotiating with the kids when and how we will do this.  I meet with individuals, small groups, pairs of partners.  We are in chairs, on the counter tops, under the tables. People walk in to speak to me and cannot find me as I am in some corner sitting on the floor having really engaging conferences with my eight-year olds. I am constantly assessing their growth and knowledge and adjusting my expectations and lessons.  

For the next seven years, I grow, they grow and things only get better.  I have one really tough year when my first graders (I moved grades several times that first seven years) were such a mess, they didn’t learn a thing.  That year, I had an elective mute, a fetal alcohol syndrome student, a sexually abused little boy, two students who were alingual (or could not communicate in either English or their native Spanish), a little monster who destroyed my classroom on the first day of school and continued to do so until he was transferred to a different teacher, at least one physically abused child, and eighteen other little ones who couldn’t sit still.   I own that I couldn’t reach and teach them, and wish I could have that group now so I could make sure they get the skills they need to succeed, now that I have the skills I need.  That is what it means to develop the craft of teaching- reflecting on what works and what doesn’t work, and gathering a “bag of tricks” or a repetoire of strategies to insure student learning.  Over that seven years, I completed a Master’s Degree and gave birth to twins and a third baby.  All by the time I was 28.  To say that I changed as a teacher over that time is an understatement. To say that I became truly the professional educator who knew and understood kids, and could match them with resources and instruction to ensure their striving to meet expectations is more accurate.  During that time, there were objectives for each grade level- a list of skills they were required to master.  I had the complete freedom to design curriculum and assessments to meet the objectives. Each year they took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills as a formal assessment to check up on their growth.  It was taken for 45 minutes a day over three days and included reading and math tests.  It was incidental to our daily work and learning.  I did no test prep at all, other than to be a cheerleader and tell them to do their best.  Looking back, I see what an incredible experience that was for me, and for my students.  My first class of kids, who now turn thirty-eight (!) are mostly parents, working and raising their own families. The ones that I hear from or about through the grapevine have become adults I am proud to have taught.

1993

I am teaching first grade, back on the east coast.  My students live in a wealthy suburb of New York City, Westchester County, but they are an anomaly.  They live in abject poverty, with parents who do not speak English and are working two and three jobs to pay rent and buy food.  Their parents are mostly illiterate in any language and although they fear school, they respect and support teachers without question.   I am having a ball, working with these little ones and watching them learn to read and write in two languages, meeting and exceeding grade level expectations.  I have lots of freedom to design curriculum and assess the children; I work hard, they work hard and we all learn.  But there are rumblings from above.  New terminology is being thrown around: standards and standard-based learning; high-stakes testing, and later in this period, the effects of the 1983 study A Nation at Risk are coming to the forefront in the poorly nicknamed No Child Left Behind act.  By the end of the 90’s there is state testing in grades 4 and 8 that create a backwash of panic and test prep.  Our students performed poorly on the new tests, and everyone now, including the custodians and secretaries, are taking ability-level groups and reams of copied worksheets and practicing with the students to prepare them for the tests. Although I am teaching early childhood, our faculty meetings now consist of discussions about how the lower grade teachers can support test prep by incorporating verbal and writing activities designed to prepare those students for the fourth grade test.  Results are being published in the newspapers, and real estate values are affected.  Teachers are being bullied into spending more time in test prep, and social studies and science, as well as music and art, all but disappear in our low-performing district.  I fight for the kids at faculty meetings; continue to attend conferences, workshops and book studies on teaching and learning; and take suggestions to my colleagues, the principals and superintendents;  then close my door and teach the way I know kids learn.  I earn a reputation as a troublemaker, and grow weary of trying to protect my students from what I believe is at best a waste of their time and at worst, permanently damaging.  When I began teaching, I swore an oath to myself: I would never do to any of my students anything I would not want done to my own children, nor anything that was done to my friends and family who had poor experiences in school.  I was losing sleep and struggling with my conscience, and after many years, I left that district and went to heaven on earth- a district whose administrators verbally stated, and backed up with practice, that they shared my vision for kids.

2003

I have been in my new district for several years.  I have moved grade levels a couple of times, and found joy in each experience.  I am able to share creative ideas with colleagues, and listen to theirs.  Our kids perform well enough on the state tests to allow us some freedom to negotiate curriculum and be the professional educators that we are, although we are expected and encouraged to teach the same units and information at each grade level in all four elementary schools across the district.  We, as colleagues, do not always agree on what works, but generally there is respect at our meetings; the administration mostly loves and appreciates what we do.  We work hard, the kids work hard and everyone grows and learns.  But there are new rumblings.  The federal government is watching now.  They are closely monitoring our high-stakes test scores and leaning on the state for improved scores and more testing.  No Child Left  Behind is taking affect in a big way and two things are happening in schools: either they are bending to the mandates or they are protesting.  Those that protest receive reprimands, sanctions, threats.  Parents are mostly unaware at this point of the snowball charging down the mountain, gathering speed and ammo and headed directly at their children and teachers.  Teachers who sound alarms are being talked about as lazy or crazy or worse.  We begin to feel pressure, even in our high-performing district, that we are not doing enough to raise test scores.  I fight for the kids at faculty meetings; continue to attend conferences, workshops and book studies on teaching and learning; and take suggestions to my colleagues, the principals and superintendents;  then close my door and teach the way I know kids learn (sound familiar?).    But it gets harder for me to buffer and protect the kids.  My principal complains each year that I am not giving her enough “4’s”, or exceed-level test scores.  I tell her I teach children, not tests.  She asks for compromise; I ask if she would say that if her own children were in my class.  She moves me to kindergarten, which is wonderful by me. It’s the last bastion of joy in school, but I see the writing on the wall: for how long? I have to justify play time, I have to follow scripted programs, I have to do constant formal assessments and report results.

 2013

The new APPR, or teacher evaluation system, kicks in.  It is a new instrument, and my evaluation is suddenly 40% based on student test scores and 60% based on administration, including a second unannounced formal observation.  But wait, kindergarten does not do state testing.  Oh yes they do now.  All of this happened between September and June of this school year.  The federal government has made it clear that unless states and their districts jump through the mandate hoops, they will lose all of their federal funding.  Everything is putting the cart before the horse, as those at the top say we have no more time to waste planning and making sure we are doing the right thing for kids.  Committees and task forces are formed at the state level and do not include a single educator or school administrator.  State Regent Board of Education members throw up their hands at public meetings and blame the governor.  Parents are finally wide awake and worried, now that their children are taking tests over six days for 75-90 minutes a session.  They are writing letters, attending protests, joining groups like Opt-Out; pulling their children out of public school. It is an unmitigated disaster.  I, who have always been a strong public education supporter, believe that if my children were in school right now, I would take them out and either home-school or private school them.   Classrooms in poverty stricken areas still have no materials to help the children learn, and the teachers are burning out even faster than before as their jobs and pensions and retirements are being held ransom to get these at-risk children to pass the tests.  I still smile at my students every day and make every day special; I believe that some other teachers I work with also do this, but lots of them are folding to the pressure and becoming frighteningly robotic in their systematic teaching.  Children do not smile as much inside the building, although they still find fun and happiness wherever they can, being kids.  Things are dismal and getting worse, and the only thing the State Regents gave me in response to my query about what I can do to bring change in the insanity is to wait it out.  I have less than ten years of teaching ahead of me and I can only hope things get better before I retire.

I am aware that I look back on some of the early years of teaching with nostalgia.  By no means was it all rosy and by no means were states and districts making the best decisions for kids even then.  But they had not yet crawled so far up our ahems and tied our wings and micro-managed our days.  Gone is any semblance of professional trust in educators; apparently we are all lazy, shiftless, cheating, lying, stealing, selfish kid-haters.  Gone is any leverage for teachers to make decisions about their students’ learning based on ongoing, informal assessments.  Gone is all the evidence of developmental stages a la Piaget,  of multiple intelligences a la Howard Gardner, of learning styles and teaching styles.  We are in a new age of “one size fits all or else.”  It’s a brave new world;  I’m still fighting, but I’m more than a bit worried.

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Little Things Make Me Happy

My life is anything but simple. And I won’t deny that I like it that way. When someone asks me “how are you?” my pat answer is busy, busy, busy. Even with the kids grown and gone, my time and schedule are full, sometimes to the point of out of control. So I am not what you would call a simple person, because I love and crave change, noise, social events, action and adventure. However, living in the woods now, out of sight of the nearest neighbor, is a pleasure for those rare quiet times in the rocking chair on the front porch with coffee mug or wine glass in hand. In spite of my reputation for vibrating audibly when I’m out doing my thing, there are many, many little things in my life that make me happy and put a smile on my face.

Hummingbirds are the first thing that come to mind. For most of my adult life, I have had a fascination with these minuscule, busy, buzzy creatures. When I lived out in the Arizona desert, hummingbird sightings were anything but unusual. Less common was my thrilling experience actually touching and holding these miraculous tiny treasures. Three times! Not many people can say that…The first time, one flew into the house through an open door. It was terrified and beating itself against a window trying to escape. I came up and cupped it in my hands and took it outside. When I opened my hands, it just sat there for a moment before zooming off. I like to think it was enjoying being close to me as much as I was enjoying holding it. Most likely, it was just taking a moment to regroup after realizing it was still alive and free again. Another time, I stepped outside my door and one just came up and landed on my shirt. I froze until it realized that I wasn’t a giant flower, and then took off. The third time, I rescued one that had hit a window trying to get at a flower pot on the inside. It was quivering in the grass when I picked it up and then it flew away. I can sit and watch my hummingbird feeder for quite a long stretch of time, and when I hear the loud buzz that warns of an approach, the smile grows on my face even before I catch my glimpse.
hummingbird feeder 3

Flowers, both in the garden and in vases around the house always brighten my day. Something about the riot of color and the gorgeous arrangements just do it for me. This is nature at its most impressive “look what I can do”, all dolled up and showing off. This could be hereditary; my tante Kitty in Amsterdam filled the house with fresh cut beauty from the local Bloemenmarkt. When I was a teenager and spending the summer with her, one of my jobs was to go to the flower market each Friday morning and negotiate to make the most magnificent bouquets for the cheapest price.

Babies of all kinds, human and animal, draw out an involuntary awwwwwwww and a pouty lip and a silly look on my face. I am a sucker for big eyes and tiny toes or paws. I want to stop, touch, play, watch, engage, anything to keep the little cutey nearby. And nothing, on the whole planet, can make me happier than listening to and watching an infant have a good long belly laugh. Their entire bodies are just a bundle of unbridled joy. Who could resist?

The beach makes me feel almost primal. The sound, smell, sight and power of the ocean has an emotional impact on me that “happy” does not begin to describe. Standing at the edge of the shore, with the waves trying to drag me in, or diving through them like a seal, or sitting and watching the sunset with dancing orange and purple layers over the horizon- I feel a deep contentment, like coming home.

Certain odors also make put an involuntary smile on my face. Coffee, anything citrus, baby powder, Australian Gold sunscreen lotion, sauteed garlic or onions ( in fact, many food odors, but then you all know if you have been reading that I love food), my Aunt Hindy/Oma’s kitchen- all tickle my olfactory sense and create a feeling of positive emotion.

Material things don’t usually make me happy. I went, in my early life, without most of them and it helped put those “things” in perspective. They don’t matter. But every once in a while, a thing will make me want to hold it, own it, display it, use it. Most recently it is a coffee mug from a non-existent coffee shop from a soap opera that I have been watching off and on for thirty years. I found it online, and I just wanted it. So I bought myself (and my friend and fellow-soap watcher) one, and it makes me cheerful in its whimsy. A bit embarrassed (it effectively outs me as a soap opera watcher) , but cheerful, nonetheless. I love certain things that I own- some of my clothes, shoes, furniture, etc. And they even make me happy to look at them or wear them. And someone I know and love will call me out if I don’t publicly admit that a new sports car is fun to have too. But that is really happy with a lowercase h; not exactly what I am getting at here.

The moral of this blog post is, I guess, find what makes you happy and surround yourself with it. Remember to look at it (or smell, taste or touch it) and savor the joy it brings. Life is too short, stressed, busy, and full- if you do not make time to notice something that is positive every day, you are truly missing out.

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I’d Like a Small Cup of Brain Cells, Light and Sweet, Please

Coffee! I mean a small coffee… Darn it, it happened again! This blog entry could also be called “Growing Older Phenomena #492”. One of the most annoying things about getting on in age (I hate that phrase, but it applies more and more on a daily basis) is how my memory is spotty and getting spottier by the minute. It’s weird too, because I can remember conversations word for word that happened five years ago, and what I ordered for lunch yesterday, but not the names of the people my husband just introduced me to. For the fourth time. Really, how many times can you get away with, “I’m sorry, I’m really bad with names”? Words come and go; and not even obscure words either. Sometimes I cannot finish a sentence that should end with something like “miso soup” just because I can’t come up with it as the sentence is already coming out of my mouth and the image is clearly in my head. Sometimes, the wrong word will come out of my mouth (“We just chose the miso soup for the house; it’s a beautiful light brown”) and I won’t even notice until the person with whom I am speaking looks at me funny. It’s truly bizarre. And scary. And embarrassing.

It’s getting so bad, I have downloaded several apps onto my smartphone and put them in a folder I call “Brain Train”. These apps are supposed to be challenges and games that improve skills like focus, memory, language, problem solving, attention, flexibility, visual spatial ability, IQ, creativity, concentration, executive function (what the hell is that??) and even will-power. All that for free and in five minutes a day. I should be good for a while… if I remember to play every day.

I have my own way of organizing all the scheduled events in my life. I mostly keep them in my head, and up until recently, this has worked well. I would like to blame the fact that I am juggling a lot of balls as far as claims on my time are concerned. After all, I teach in a public school, which means I have regularly scheduled meetings and lots of surprise ones; I teach as an adjunct professor, which means that my schedule or class location can change as often as every few weeks; hubby and I take ballroom dancing classes, which also have to be scheduled each week; and I have tons of other things to do, places to go and people to see. But I no longer have kids at home to impact my schedule with sports and doctor appointments and “play dates”. So in reality, it should be a bit easier to remember the events in my life.

But I am finding it more and more embarrassing when I space out a planned meeting at school, or am late for a dentist appointment I forgot about, in spite of the reminder phone call, email and text message; even more so because I work with some young people who are highly addicted to organization and calendars to the point of being ridiculously anal about recording and color-coding their plans (you know who you are and don’t make fun of me and refer to this blog posting when we go back to work in September. Remember one day, you too will be old and forgetful- mark my words well, young grasshopper). And so I have started to write all of these things down. I write them in my plan book, record them on my phone calendar, or on a birthday calendar to inform me of upcoming special days for my loved ones, and on an app that sends me reminders and encouraging messages like Dream Live Love, and on notes to myself that look just like post-its all over the desktop of my computer. Then I forget to check them. Oy.

I will admit that sometimes I forget on purpose. For example, if you catch me off-guard and ask me how old I am, I have to actually do the math before I answer. If I meet someone I don’t like, I am not beyond forgetting them completely as soon as we part, and having them remind me next time that we have met before. But these are not a real problem.

I have a lot to look forward to. My mother, who is twenty five years older than me and we all know how damned fast the last twenty five years went, forgets entire conversations from one day to the next. She still functions completely in her life, and is healthy and happy; but it takes all of my patience when she tells me a whole story with four-part harmony that I already heard yesterday. And quite possibly the day before or the week before or all of the above. I already tell my kids that when (not if) I start doing that, they should give me a signal of some kind that means “you already said that, possibly many times”. I promise not to deny it or get mad.

I have been through all the fear related to this issue and attempts to stop/change/fix it that I am sure many women my age go through: Do I have early onset Alzheimer’s or dementia?? Is this a result of some of my youthful adventures/experimentations/indiscretions?? (All of which I will deny, by the way) If I take this daily cocktail of resveratrol, gingko biloba, ginseng, Omega 3, vitamin B and ginger, will it help?? I have come to believe that, unfortunately, forgetting is part of the aging process- like accepting the dreaded phrase “middle-aged” and finally agreeing to color my graying hair. I just got off of the phone with my mother who is a bit distraught that she, at seventy-six years old, has just been given a card from the NYC DFTA (Department for the Aged). She said that the term “senior citizen” doesn’t sound so bad anymore. Yep, a lot to look forward to.

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Growing Older Phenomena #351

Your children, all of them, in a very short period of time, make life-course altering decisions- and here is the phenomena: you survive! Not only do you survive, but the amazing thing is that while their lives are moving in new and sometimes scary directions  (scary to a mom who has, after all, spent her and their lives together protecting them, cleaning up their messes, and administering first aid both physical and emotional), your life does not change much at all!  Sure, you lose some sleep, sprout a few more grays, add yet another wrinkle; but in reality your day-to-day continues on in the directions that you are choosing.  In fact, and I find this startling, no one out in public even knows that earthshaking things are going on in your family.  It’s all new to me, this idea that my kids can, will, and do make choices and it has nothing to do with me!  Truly now, I am the mother of adult children and the transition/break is complete.  It’s a very, very odd feeling.

As I progress through life stages, things keep hitting me in the face.  I think I have it together relatively well;  at each stage of my journey  I have always felt that way with confidence. And then WHAM, something unexpected happens and I feel broadsided, t-boned.  It’s like walking through a maze in complete darkness and hitting a turn, literally.  Sure, looking back I can think “hello, Captain Obvious” but that is the crystal clear vision of hindsight, a wonderful gift of boy am I dumb, who knew?

 When I was a teenager, I had it all together all right: I knew I was going to graduate from high school, move out west and start my life’s adventures with little connection to my past.  WHAM- out of no where this guy shows up and he is stubborn! He insists on joining me on my journey.  Sharp right turn…  In my twenties, I had it all together too: I would be a teacher, own a house, have a couple of babies. WHAM- how about three babies in a year and a half, and a move back to the east coast with no jobs, money or place to live.  Sharp left turn…Raising children while teaching full-time became my next stage.  Our focus as a family was to really create a GREAT family- fun, adventure, learning, time together, family first.  We did it, and we did it well.  WHAM -the darn kids grew up, went off and did exactly as we taught them to do: be independent, find your own way and start your own version/vision of life.

I have not written on this blog for a long time due to the fact that I was kind of afraid to do so.  Afraid to say out loud, in public, indelibly and forever on the internet, that I was freaking out a bit about the rapidity of the changes and the drastic-ness of it all.  That I was in a transition and a breaking of the path I was on and heading in new directions.  But wait, once again, it is not me that is going through all of these changes; so why does it feel as if I am? I thought I was in Stage 3 already- the empty nest, the kids on their own and us adjusting to being a couple again.  Little did I know that this was a years-long transition and that the break was not yet complete, the way it feels now.

Don’t get me wrong please- I am not unhappy or regretful. I merely find myself, once again, pondering and reflecting on where I am, where I came from, where I might be going next.  One thing I have learned is to add the “might” in the last part of that sentence.  You truly never, ever, ever know what is going to happen and where it will take you.  I have learned to fasten my seatbelt and hang on, because I am not really walking through a maze in pitch darkness, I am really on a rollercoaster plunging and twisting and turning in the pitch darkness.  Wheeeeee.   All along my way, I have sought out role models- people who have already been where I am headed and can offer some support, advice, hand-holding, sympathy, empathy; some  been-there-done-that-and-you-do-survive.  I admire them, listen carefully to them, take what gems I can from them, and then double-check my seatbelt.

I am a very fortunate woman.  I have three amazing adult children that I guided in the beginnings of their paths, an amazing man to accompany me on my journey,  and true friends who stand beside me as I careen through my days.  I am in the third decade in my chosen profession; starting new hobbies; and finding more adventures to enjoy.   All I can say is: hang on!

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Spring Break ’13

Yeah, I’m not going to Cancun and winding up on “Teachers Go Wild” so don’t get too excited.  In fact, it is going to be one of those stay-cations, where I spend it catching up with neglected stuff.  I love my whirlwind life, but it causes me to let certain things go way too long.  Those things would fall under “not as much of a priority” on my to-do list, and I think it would probably be an interesting exercise to consider what those would be in my life as compared to someone else’s.  I will also be spending this five-day weekend doing things I cannot do when I am in full throttle, even though they are a priority.

On my first day off, I had an appointment for an oil change for my car at 7:00 a.m. (which turned out to be a $2000 repair job due to a broken exhaust pipe and new rear brakes. )  That is just a teeny bit early for a vacation day, I agree.  But I also had a 9:30 appointment at the hair salon for a badly needed remodel, and a lunch date for the birthday of a good friend (although I did not remember it was her birthday and just thought we were having lunch.  Sometimes my memory is a victim of my whirlwind- did I feel like a horse’s ass….),  and grocery shopping, cleaning, preparing for a craft for the entire kindergarten for the week we return, and errands to do.  Day 1 of the vacation…exhausting.

Today is Day 2.  I woke up at 7:45 for an 8:00 dentist appointment, and the only reason I slept so late is that one of the cats kept us up all night playing with something outside our bedroom door and I was too lazy to get up and throw her down the basement stairs and close the door.  I am going to visit with a dear friend in the city who is just out of the hospital, and am planning to cook a meal or two for her and her children.  Somewhere in the middle, I have to go to the paint store to purchase paint for the new bathroom and pick up free fabric samples for the kindergarten activity, do more errands and more cleaning, and get ready for the arrival of one of the girls and her bf and my mom on Friday.

 Day 3, Friday- a friend and former colleague who is thoroughly enjoying her retirement, is coming to lunch.  That gives me all morning to get stuff done.  Once she is here, we will chat the afternoon away; until mom shows up around 3 and then I have to cook a large meal so that when my daughter and her beau show up after struggling through traffic on I-95 from D.C. and arriving around 1 a.m., there will be a full meal waiting.

Saturday, we are heading north to New Hampshire to spend the Easter weekend with our other daughter and her boyfriend.  And his parents, and twenty-five of their closest friends who have no where to go and will join our “orphan” Easter celebration.  (We used to do an “orphan” Thanksgiving in Tucson before kids, and I am happy that she is continuing the tradition of opening up a celebration to those who live too far from home) I will be lugging a twelve pound ham, the makings for mac-n-cheese for thirty, Passover goodies that I never sent, and a variety of other items, up the coast.  We will spend Saturday night in Portsmouth, bar-hopping with the twenty-somethings, after dropping Grandma off at the hotel.  She will enjoy her one Buttery Nipple shot and that will be it for her.

And then Sunday, Easter, it is time to cook up a storm and have a feast.  We will miss our son, who is toiling away to finish up his college semester- start strong finish strong, son!  We will leave most of the clean-up to the young’uns as we have to drive back to New York and get up for work on Monday. 

I have a feeling I will need to go back to work so I can recover from having time off.

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