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Walk a mile

Think about the most basic or mundane activities of your life. These can include such endeavors as taking a shower, eating a turkey sandwich or walking around the block (or the acreage).

While the variables for each of these are somewhat limited, the manner in which we conduct them can be subject to unlimited modifications or interpretations. Those variations become more pronounced when we leave the pedestrian and consider the more unusual or profound.

Take for example the Grand Canyon. Fortunately, man has done comparatively little to profane its magnificence. As someone who has hiked to its bottom, I can attest to its size and variety of hues and textures. But if you ask me my feelings about the Grand Canyon, you’ll hear responses including massive, exquisite and evidence of God’s creation.

Ask fifty others and you’ll hear at least that many reactions, ranging from, “a big hole,” to “enormous,” to “spectacular,” and so on. The same disparity will be true of Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone National Park, New York City and the Palace at Versailles.

In most cases, our life’s journeys can and will impact our impressions. All of this is to say that no single opinion is right or wrong. If you try to persuade me that the horrible, unspeakable tragedies of Dachau or Auschwitz did not occur, we are likely to fight. But in most cases, your opinion or reactions are legitimately yours and not subject to scrutiny or evaluation.

Not being judgmental is tough but essential. We don’t completely know the lives or events of those who voice preferences or dislikes. Accordingly, we have no right to form conclusions about those feelings. Likewise, others have no legitimacy in passing judgment on our views or responses.

Quite a few years ago, we listened to a song that reminded us to walk a mile in the shoes of others. From a logical (and health) standpoint, that doesn’t sound realistic. Instead, a dedication to refraining from forming pronouncements will be advantageous for all concerned. Shalom.

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Sitting in the backyard, watching the plants, shrubs and trees, I am entirely intrigued by the remarkable strength of my surroundings. The wind is blowing with fierceness and while entire sections of plants (stems, branches, etc.) are moving, the leaves remain firmly attached to their parent support structure.

When you approach any one of these plants, each individual leaf or petal is easily removed, for whatever reason. But the wind isn’t sufficient reason to change their positions. The lesson concerns strength through adversity, no matter your size, genetics or species.

In the same sense, I don’t know what birds weigh (never having had the desire or opportunity to weigh a live bird) but they never break the branches upon which they land. Likewise, birds big and small land on the bird feeder, often without causing it to move at all.

Somehow it seems to me that as creatures of nature (and God), we are meant to withstand serious shocks or disruptions without any damage to our exteriors or interiors. This may include large or small injuries, most of which, it seems, seem to heal within a very short time.

In the same way, we resilient humans find methods by which to recover from the most devastating blows – loss of loved ones, broken hearts, career disappointments, tragedies or similar catastrophes. True, we all have different methods of recovering from these losses. In the best of examples, we do so without turning to addictions or lashing out toward others.

The intricacies and subtleties of the world around us never cease to inspire and educate. As my plants remain hardy through rain, wind and attack from other creatures, we as humans consistently prevail over hardships that our lives encounter. Maybe we are as hummingbirds, landing gently on our source of nourishment, fluttering and being thoroughly careful to avoid any danger that can threaten our serenity. Shalom.

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By the book

Did we really believe that there would be rules or guidelines or “normal” in the teaching profession? To believe so is not to have spent any time in a classroom.

While there are copious curriculum guidelines, district rules and protocols that are school-specific, none of these have any bearing on the way that a day in the classroom takes place. The obvious variable is the children whom we educate, protect, direct and hug.

My most recent example is a first-grade class of special needs children. With 19 students at unique academic, social and emotional needs, responding to each of them as needed becomes a full-time and frequently exasperating process.

Little boy Nicholas remembers me from a previous visit and repeatedly approaches me for hugs. He is spontaneous, unpredictable and often oblivious to what is expected of him. The special needs teacher advises me that he has brain damage and epilepsy.

On the other side of the special needs spectrum is little boy Reynolds. He talks incessantly, cries for little reason and does anything and everything to call attention to himself.

And then we have Joaquin who is determined to do exactly opposite of that which is requested of him. When other students line up for recess, he squats and faces the wall, arms in the defensive mode.

Other students are closer to the nebulous concept of obedience. When going to recess, three or four say goodbye and hug me. And out of nowhere, Reynolds bursts out, “I love you.”

None of the teaching directives or rubrics prepare you for the heart component of teaching. Allowing the students to get to know you as a person generates greater compliance and a bond that teaching reading, writing and arithmetic by the book doesn’t produce.

If I am paying sufficient attention, students clearly articulate wordlessly what they need most. It may be affection, recognition, information or simple acceptance. But it’s never about me. You can be certain that as far as my class knows, I never have a headache, joint pain, stress or conflict. Happily, I deliver whatever is needed, teaching and learning at the same time, in the same space. Shalom.

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Air beasts

What is it about air travel that converts normal people into somewhat belligerent beasts? My first guess is the anxiety that some articulate but many more experience, simply because they are traveling at 30-something thousand feet. Few will survive a plane crash and most of us imagine it happening each time we fly.

The other phenomenon I observe is that everyone in an airport is in a hurry. Having run from one concourse to another in order to make a connection, I understand that version of rushing. But many of the people in and around airports have no reason to scurry and swear at others they know and don’t know.

This is one of my favorite examples. Plane pulls into gate and pilot defeats the seat belt light. Ninety-nine percent of the passengers stand, in spite of the fact that the front of the plane passengers will require five or ten minutes to reach the jetway. Most of the people on the plane can’t go anywhere anytime soon.

At this point, people turn into demons. Several days ago, I went to retrieve my bag that a fellow passenger had placed in the overhead compartment two row behind me. Struggling to access the bag, a tall blonde woman equipped with a snarly face watched me, offering no help. When I finally extricated the bag and placed it on the floor, she unemotionally uttered, “That’s my foot.” She managed to add a dirty look.

From my standpoint, travel is stressful enough without unhelpful, attitudinous fellow travelers. My preference is to surrender a seat or offer assistance. The reality as I see it is that we all have somewhere to be, either on a rush basis or some time in the future. While it doesn’t necessitate considerable effort to accommodate other travelers, it does improve the attitudes and state of mind of everyone involved.

This is clearly a model for the rest of life. Traveling through a grocery store, medical clinic, hair salon or airport, some distinct effort is required to emanate nastiness. With less effort and more positive consequences, the decision to improve our world is a good one. Shalom.

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If I am very lucky, I have one student a day whom I can identify and empower for his or her kindness, attitude, cooperation or all of the above. This was one of those blissfully special days that remind me of my mission and blessings as an educator.

He was a tiny, effervescent and thoroughly obedient little man. We’ll call him Jesse. For my whole day with him, he required no correction or discipline, remaining quiet and attentive.

At approximately 1:45 pm, I called him to my desk and told him in a small and private voice that he was absolutely special. We looked each other in the eyes and I went on to advise him that he was smart, kind and had everything it takes to be anyone he wants to be.

Jesse confided that he wanted to be a ninja, to which I responded that he would be the best ninja there could ever be. Within the next two hours, he returned to me at least three times, advising that he also wanted to be a football player and for no apparent reason at all, other than to maintain our connection.

While I individualize my attention and work to connect with every child on one level or another, this one was extraordinary. Whether it was the words used, the tone of my voice or the look on my face, he knew how special he was and is.

This day in kindergarten, I had the time to let kids use my construction paper and stickers to create whatever their imaginations may produce. We had castles and crowns, dinosaurs and dragons, farms and families.

Early in the project, I indicated that the more paper and stickers they used, the lighter my bag would be to carry to my car. At least one little girl remembered that statement. As we were cleaning up, she scurried around, assuring me that she was working toward making my bag as light as possible.

But the best gesture was one last visit from Jesse. As he and his class prepared to go to the gym, he stopped one more time to see me. He handed me a sticker of a bus, saying nothing but putting it in my hand. After I thanked him profusely, I attached the bus to my writing sheet, and he went on his way.

No amount of money, accolades or appreciation could compensate me more than the bus or the look in Jesse’s eyes. Two or three sentences may well have improved his day, his semester or his life. Reading, writing and arithmetic remain vital to growth and becoming responsible, functioning adults. But believe that if every educator finds and enables one Jesse each day, we will all make immeasurable contributions and receive indescribable gifts to ourselves. Shalom.

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Why we are here

How has your day been so far? Are you having a good day? These were the questions from a very intelligent, respectful and sweet second grader. He returned to my desk, three or four times, to share his math problems and bubbling charisma.

In the same building, I interacted with two teachers who were at the opposite end of the kindness spectrum. Having initiated conversations with both, I received single syllable or abruptly issued responses. Did I present myself the same way to adults and children? Absolutely yes.

The difference is more than an age discrepancy. It’s Friday to all concerned, complete with the end of week sigh of relief and anticipation of two days with family and without responsibilities.

My guess is that kids receive others with few if any qualifications. They give of themselves with no expectation or necessity for receiving anything in return. The young man was kind, helpful and interested in improving the world, one human at a time. The teachers, by comparison, were both more interested in their cell phones than they were in communicating with me.

Maybe we have our priorities maladjusted. In our very technical world, we need to stop and think about the people who surround us instead of the images in our devices.

There are many obvious variables. The teachers may have had difficult days that my second grader can’t (and doesn’t need to) imagine. Second grader had the advantage of loving parents kissing him goodbye for the day and when they collected him in the afternoon.

On the brighter side, I encountered one more teacher who was cheerful, appreciative and extremely cordial at the very end of the day. She redefined the culture of that school and enthusiastically thanked me for working with and encouraging her students in my art class. Maybe she didn’t have a challenge-filled day. Or maybe she was simply that educator who spread congeniality all over as if it were peanut butter. It was, like so many others, a happy day. Shalom.

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Above and beyond

Tuesday was a day that appeared to be unexceptional. Because I wasn’t teaching, I could sleep in until 7:00, enjoy my coffee and commune with my stationary bicycle. The end of the day included a rehearsal with my civic chorus, something that always inspires. And then I received the email that defined and enriched my day.

Several days ago, I sent a note to a client for whom I had recently completed some work on a retirement living community program with which she was involved. After thinking further about the program, I sent her a brief email that included some observations about the community that she serves.

While it wasn’t a major undertaking, I was happy to add something of interest, with no hope of compensation or recognition. The email I received included profuse thanks for my gesture. Sending and receiving a response required a total of thirty seconds on each person’s part but I was fully gratified by her appreciation.

The point is that we frequently have options to go beyond what is expected or needed. If we choose to exercise those options, they can represent wonderful moments for everyone involved. Whether it’s from the editing desk, the classroom or the local grocery store, doing something or anything beyond the routine can take on major significance.

This is an intriguing concept for me. It doesn’t mean that if I am asked to compose something of 300 words that I write 400. No, it takes the form of sending suggestions for other points that might be included or perhaps another perspective that can be added. In the school setting, it may be making myself available to a busy administrator who has a large school and many faculty positions to fill.

Clearly, it takes some effort and focus to do anything beyond that which is requested. But based on the data received from my client when I spent the time to add something to her campaign, I will persist in my search for opportunities. At the very least, I can hope that I made the job of my client a bit easier by my contribution. Shalom.

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The real deal

It’s approximately 1:20 pm and students will be released at 1:55. They are all buried in their Chromebooks and except for an occasional outburst from a renegade Chromebook or a whisper, the room is quiet.

As a leader, educator and role model, I have no immediate tasks to perform. My function is to prevent chaos, disruption and unprescribed fun.

While I prefer those settings where I can interact with students, that’s not an option today. My time in class amounts to one hour of supervision. So what should I be doing other than deterring noise? While some of my colleagues may use laptops for personal business, read books or text their loved ones, it’s not right. At the same time, I’m not going to practice math, read the dictionary or immerse myself in meditation.

Instead, I’ll let the fourth graders see me write. Very often, they will ask what I’m writing, and I’ll disclose that I have a blog or that I am working on my next book.

In other words, emulating their teacher must be by intention and example. And it can’t be casual or half-hearted, sending a distinct message that education isn’t taking place if their usual teacher isn’t present.

Sadly, I believe that cavalier attitudes about learning have disastrous results. When parents don’t show up for events, don’t ask their children about homework and don’t attend teacher conferences, kids get clear messages that education is unimportant.

Likewise, if I don’t enforce the rules, don’t confirm that work is being done and generally don’t assume responsibilities for educating, I may as well be herding sheep.

By no means do I consider myself the quintessential educator or source of scholarly wisdom. But I do perform my work quite sincerely and hope to be remembered for that focus. Shalom.

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Seeking peace

On Saturday, April 27, 2019, a man walked into a Chabad synagogue in Poway, California with an AR-15 and shot four people, killing one and injuring the other three. At approximately the same time, I walked into an Indian jewelry store in Taos, New Mexico. While these two events seem to have nothing in common, I feel strongly that they do.

The owner of the store was having a lively conversation with two men, both of whom had disclosed having spent some time in the Middle East, in different capacities. This owner proudly disclosed that he was a Palestinian and very enthusiastic about his heritage and background. After the two men left, I walked around the store and noticed some of the extraordinary jewelry it featured.

Timidly, I asked the owner if he had an objection to selling his jewelry to a Zionist, asking in a humorous, reluctant manner. He smiled broadly and answered that he had no problems with that idea, and we chatted briefly about the Middle East and areas that we had both traveled.

As I purchased an opal/silver Star of David, we agreed that there were methods by which peace could be achieved in the Middle East, through peaceful negotiation and friendly cooperation. Clearly this was an oversimplification to conflicts that have been waging for many centuries. But as we left the store, I felt certain that I had acquired a Palestinian friend who shared my desire for a lasting peace in the Israeli/Palestinian geography.

The irony between this interaction and the hatred displayed in Poway is obvious. In the New Mexico setting, two adult, educated people were able to understand their differences and believe that these differences did not prohibit friendship. To the west, one self-empowered man bypassed understanding and negotiation, deciding that it was his life’s mission to exterminate Jews as soon and as often as possible.

Thankfully, I was in the southwestern jewelry store and not the synagogue in California. In the first, I had an opportunity for peaceful interaction; in the second, I could have been a victim. Appropriately, as I left the store, I smiled at my vendor and said my best goodbye – Shalom.

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Those of us who are fortunate derive inspiration from a copious selection of sources. Some are compelled to create from the site of scenery, human interactions or historic events. Today I had the indescribable illumination of observing a galaxy of birds doing what birds always do.

Many of us take our flighty feathered acquaintances for granted. At times, they become nuisances, either by their noise or their deposits to our windows or sidewalks. But I had no sounds to compete with theirs and only the ability to observe their habits as a source of beauty and creative thoughts.

We would be fortunate to have the characteristics of birds. They travel at will, sometimes for short hops and others for long distances. On some occasions, you can hear certain birds repetitively chirping a distinct pattern of sounds. It makes one wonder if they are conveying a message to the world, expressing information about their whereabouts or simply broadcasting a bird version of happiness and serenity.

Happily, many of our bird species are free from poachers or trophy hunters. They glide along, pausing to eat or drink and electing to move alone or with a group. And for those of us who envy their freedom, we imagine a world that is free of boundaries, deadlines, taxes, nosy neighbors and needless violence.

For my part, I imagine a life of singing where and when my spirit was provoked to do so. Movement is without constraint or rules – we can fly without speed limits, stop signs or road construction to obstruct our paths. And as someone who knows relatively little about birds, I can suppose that the vastest majority of flying critters are able to persist without analysis or clinical studies.

As a mere human, I can appreciate flight, song and social or asocial behavior as represented by my feathered creatures. My best guess is that few will have as many years on and off the earth as I have enjoyed, maybe representing the tradeoffs for absolute freedom. No matter – we have much to learn from the birds who broadcast their songs and provide the beauty attained by watching them in flight. Shalom.