Gather ye rosebuds

As I have probably mentioned in the recent past, my wonderful brother passed away in October and I have been scurrying around, working on settling his estate. He didn’t have assets in the billionaire range, but he had enough to have lasted him for a number of years.

Something I remember telling him when we talked about his legacy was that he ought to enjoy his nest egg and his retirement while he was still healthy enough to do so. He traveled occasionally to Oregon for the Shakespeare festivals and to Chicago to visit a treasured uncle. But he never saw Europe and probably missed at least half of the United States.

The point of all this is to do whatever it is that you want to do while you have the ability to do so. The same goes for buying those things that will make you happy. It seems that he followed my advice in small ways. He had more computers and watches than any one person could use in several lifetimes. But he died way too soon, leaving many journeys undone.

This experience has taught me important lessons about my life and how I want to spend these last years. While I care deeply about my substitute teaching, I no longer work the four or five days per week that I did before. Instead, I tell myself that one or two days per week will be enough. In spite of the fact that we have a huge shortage of teachers in my district, my presence or absence won’t impact that shortage in any significant way and I tell myself that my comfort and health have priority.

If you’ve waited all your life for a fast car and you have the money to buy it, do so. If you’ve always wanted to visit Hong Kong, book your reservation as soon as possible. We have learned so much from this pandemic, the most significant lesson of which is that life is uncertain and unpredictable at best.

As Robert Herrick stated in, To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

Shalom.

Asking questions

Sometimes I wonder why I resort to the Socratic method of asking questions while I am teaching. It makes perfect sense to me. You want students to think, use any form of reasoning, and provide an answer.

When that doesn’t work and I finish chuckling to myself, I continue to wonder why asking questions isn’t more productive. Have we fostered laziness and the need to be spoon-fed the learning that we impart? The alternative is that I’m asking the wrong questions.

Here’s a good example. A student asks if she can sit in the back of the room (out of my sight), on the floor, to work online. I ask why and the response is that Mrs. So-and-So allows it. That may be true but you haven’t answered the question.

Or there’s this. I tell the class to do a specific activity for thirty minutes and then do some other specific activity. As if immune to the sound of my voice, one by one, students approach me and inquire as to what they are to do next.

Maybe, we’re just not listening to each other and it’s that simple. Depending on the person and the source of information, we tend to tune everything or some things completely out of our consciousness. My husband never hears television commercials. I don’t know how he accomplishes it, but we can be watching a program, I comment on the commercial, and he has no idea what I mean.

Every now and then, I ask a student what he or she is doing. You might believe that the answers are straightforward and uncomplicated. But I get information that is totally irrelevant. Someone changed my profile. Can I go to the restroom? The girl next to me is drawing instead of doing her spelling. Is that really what you’re doing? Is that how you answer questions?

My guess is that they get away with this behavior at home where parents may or may not be listening. As Dr. Ruth so eloquently states, we have two ears and one mouth so we do twice as much listening as we do talking. And so, I will continue to ask questions. Shalom.

Givens

With as much time as I spend in the classroom, I expect that I would hear the word “given” as often as I remember hearing it while growing up. Maybe the word is out of circulation. It’s also possible that I used it in those grades that were advanced from those I teach.

The lesson is that the concept of a “given” is entirely unknown to elementary school students and maybe their parents. It used to be a given that you would go to school each day in clean clothes, with hair combed, shoes tied, and homework completed. No matter what grade or age, those were all givens to me.

It appears that these aren’t givens any more. Yes, I realize that we are still in the midst of a pandemic where many have lost their jobs and are living on meager amounts of money. But it’s commonplace for me to experience kids with dirty hair that is entirely messy. Either I tie a student’s shoes or observe them untied, every day. You might be tempted to say, “Oh, that’s just kids,” but I’m talking about a frequent lack of attention to basic givens. And based on the brand names of the clothing they wear and the cars I see in the parking lots, these are most likely not poor families.

This makes more sense when you compare this type of preparation (or non-preparation) to a little boy I’ll call Caleb. From the first time I saw him, he was perfectly groomed and dressed, with an attitude to match. Each time he needed my input or assistance, he would proudly approach and show what he had done. His smile burned through his face mask and his eyes were brilliant from the knowledge that he was treasured. If I never teach another child, Caleb will always be the one who made all of my teaching years worthwhile. Apparently, his parents were familiar with what was important to the school experience.

Ten feet away were two students who consistently made enough noise to disturb the rest of the class. One of them had to tap his marker repeatedly and sing to himself until I had to ask him to stop. Being quiet and inobtrusive was a given in my life, along with not pushing or shoving.

One of these days, I’m going to ask my students if they know a definition of given that doesn’t relate to the word give. They may know about “understood” or “assumed.” Until then, I’ll wonder if given pertains to higher math and philosophy or it’s just gotten to be unfashionable. Shalom.

Look

One of the best parts of spring is the opportunity to resume my outside time in the sun. In a state that brags about 300 days of sunshine per year, I never complain about that much sun and find it a priority to spend at least an hour in the back yard when I’m not teaching.

My most recent solitude also enabled me to resume my conversations with God. No, I don’t talk out loud to God and I don’t hear God’s voice but I do become aware of God’s presence in the thoughts that occur to me in solitary moments. The most recent journey concerned the subject of sight.

This was reinforced by the recent Academy Award nominee, The Sound of Metal, in which the principal actor lost his hearing. My interpretation suggests that his hearing ultimately had less importance than it did early in the film. Beyond that, I began to think about the importance of our senses and the need to protect them with all of our strength.

I’m not sure why I think often about losing my sight. While I wear corrective lenses and have for some time, I am always extremely careful about not taking any risks with regard to my eyes. More importantly, I am paying attention to everything around me, physically and intellectually.

We are daily inundated with the sights (and sounds) of our world. As we age, we become more and more sophisticated at filtering things out of our sight but I suggest that we need to see more, not less.

When I am shopping, I am always cognizant of those around me. Today, I had a chance to ask a man in motion if he wanted to go ahead of me in line. A short time later, I asked a store employee if she wanted my cart immediately, instead of my putting it in the cart corral where she would have to retrieve it. In the past several days, one of my neighbors was pleased and touched by a man in line ahead of her family who paid for the family’s lunch.

And now I am looking more, paying more attention to the visions around me, and watching the children in my classroom as closely as possible. Again, I am not worried about losing my sight. But I want to make certain that I absorb as many of the sights worth seeing, for all the time that I have available to see what’s important to see in my word. Shalom.

How old are you?

Every now and then I find myself in a classroom with a group of unusually curious students. One student or another will ask me how old I am and I assume it’s because of my gray hair more than any other characteristic. My usual response is 115, just to see what kind of reaction I get. When they look at me in amazement, I clarify that I’m not really 115 but I immediately ask if they have ever heard that it’s not good manners to ask a lady her age.

Some have and some haven’t. But now they can all say that they have heard the statement and I have created a small but important learning moment. We usually have a discussion thereafter and I try to ask why my age was important in the first place.

Getting an answer to that question is much more difficult. In some cases, I’m guessing that it’s because their usual teacher is a young man or woman and I am an immediate contrast. In others, it’s a question of finding out if I behave more like a grandparent than a teacher. No matter what the reason for the inquiry, I always reflect on what we are doing as a society to dismiss older people in deference to their younger counterparts.

At no time do they wonder if I am agile enough or alert enough to do my job. But the question coincides with my realization that few of my students think of substitute teachers as real teachers. Whenever I ask who thinks that I am a teacher, I never get more than half of the class to state that they believe I am.

Maybe it’s a stereotype, especially with younger students, that teachers are young men or women. Or maybe it’s an attempt to know me better. No matter what the reason, I don’t think that I ever teach with the warning that I am a senior citizen and I never make excuses that I am too old to do something. But it’s probably a good idea for us not to jump to conclusions about anyone based on hair color. My hair began turning gray in my forties. Let’s begin to make assessments about people according to who they are rather than our preconceived ideas. Shalom.

Rights and responsibilities

Sitting in another teacher’s classroom, I can’t help but notice a couple things. The first is that she has “Treassure Chest” on her whiteboard. The second is the word “thursday.” Most of us are aware that treasure has only one s and that Thursday should be capitalized.

Do I have more or less options in this case as an educator? Or, on a wider level, do we have the right, responsibility, or imperative to make changes when we see incorrect information and have an opportunity to correct it?

The only reasonable answer I see is that it depends on the situation. My best estimate is that if we’re in a classroom where we’re influencing young, impressionable brains, we need to be correct. But if I walk over to the whiteboard and change the teacher’s spelling, the class will see her error. Maybe they will wonder if I have the right or authority to fix it. And when the teacher returns to the classroom, she will probably notice that the change has been made. In this case, the first graders won’t be influenced one way or another and I will be leaving the board as is.

On a slightly different note, one of our local politicians is running an ad where he refers to “seniors’ lifes.” Every time I hear the word, I wince; I am certain that he is saying lifes and not lives. There is nothing I can do to fix it. But please don’t ask me not to notice either the ad or the misspellings I frequently see online or on television. My training and profession as a writer require accuracy and I simply can’t turn it on and off.

If you ask me not to correct you, your spelling, or your pronunciation, I won’t. If you want my input, under no circumstances will I provide it in a manner that is condescending or embarrassing to either of us. But please know this: the language that we use in America is rich, diverse, descriptive, and full of history. Consequently, I will preserve and protect it for as long as I have the ability to think clearly. Shalom.

Feeding others

What do you think of when you hear the name, Oklahoma? Oil? Dust Bowl? Sooners? 1995 bombing of Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building? All of these are legitimate responses.

Sunday I was touched by a story out of Oklahoma that had nothing to do with any of these subjects. It seems that a restaurant in Miami, OK made a terrific decision to create a meal wall for those who wanted to donate meals for the locals who were in greatest need. The donors were concerned about those hit hardest by the pandemic.

The concept was quite simple. Neighbors who wanted top help paid for one or more meals and left the receipts on a wall. When someone needed a meal, he or she would take the receipt and appreciate the generosity that allowed a meal that had been prepaid.

Happily, the project took off with remarkable success. Other restaurants in the area followed the example, impacting numerous deserving residents. And I thought and think that it was a project well worth publicizing.

This is an idea that is so simple, yet so very powerful. While many of us would love to imitate what was done, it really does take a village. Maybe, if one or two or ten of us contact a restaurant owner we know, we can make this happen in our communities. I have one in mind and hope to get the opportunity to create a wall in my vicinity. Maybe you can do the same. Shalom.

Fear

One of the most invigorating and inspirational experiences I’ve had lately resulted from my presence in an art classroom for a day. It occurred to me that unlike adults who have preconceived ideas about their skills and limitations, children just don’t.

The best example is made clear when you ask kinder and first grade classes to watch a video and draw pictures of sub sandwiches. Not one student will say, “I’m terrible at art,” or “I can’t do it – I can’t draw.” In all cases, students jumped in and did their best. Some of them were quite creative. All were done enthusiastically and without restraint, until I got to the fifth graders. Here the story was somewhat different. Some students did their best and created art; in others, the students checked out, to disturb the class or decide to do nothing at all. Perhaps the fear of failure was the cause. They never said a word.

We have so much to learn from the younger students! And I am at the top of the list of those who can benefit from their lessons. For as long as I can recollect, I have told myself that I have no artistic abilities. My entire history has been one of living down to that expectation. No matter where or when, I have avoided any activities involving crayons, charcoal, oils, or watercolors.

It may be a question of practicing what I preach to confess this lack of effort. As someone who is forever encouraging would-be writers to enable themselves to write, maybe I have non-painted myself into a corner.

In my effort to justify, I have forever reminded myself that I am a writer and being one is more than enough in terms of artistic efforts. Maybe it’s not. Maybe I could have or still could derive some enjoyment from drawing, painting, sketching, or sculpting. It must be either fear of failing or fear of succeeding that has kept me from trying.

And so, my message is the same – if you want to do something, do it. Saying, “I can’t” remains the weakest of excuses because you really can. Shalom.

From one day to the next

To illustrate the variations and mutations of substitute teaching, the differences between Thursday’s kindergarteners and Friday’s fifth graders are huge. One might reasonably expect that the kindergarteners would be tamer than the students who are within weeks of entering middle school. That’s absolutely incorrect.

Thursday’s kids were generally compliant. Two of them, however, required most of my attention for the majority of the day. While their behavior couldn’t be described as criminal or worthy of juvenile hall, they were stubborn, disrespectful, and unpredictable. By the end of the day I was exhausted and almost out of patience.

By comparison, the fifth graders were more fun than I’ve had lately. They were helpful, funny, kind, and absolutely enjoyable. We had no discipline issues and I didn’t have to deliver one syllable of reprimand.

There really is no simple explanation. It’s not about demographics. In the case of the kinder class, these were kids who appeared to come from comfortable, new, and nice homes. The neighborhood for the fifth graders is much more heterogeneous, suggesting that they are potentially less privileged.

The mistake that I obviously made was that of having expectations. By no means would I have predicted that fifth grade would be so rewarding and entertaining. Once their teacher arrived, she was as serious and rigid an educator as I have lately experienced. This may have some connection to their laughter and freestyle that I witnessed.

Ultimately, it’s a lesson for life. You really don’t know what you’re going to get until you get there. I’m just grateful that I have the flexibility and understanding to have handled both situations. Shalom.

Making things happen

You’ve decided that you are going to be a writer. Or you want to be an architect, a painter, a musician, or a sculptor. If you were asked what is the first thing you need to begin, what would you say?

It’s not the canvas, musical instrument, or word processing software – it’s the resolution that you will do your best and celebrate the outcome, whatever it is. I can’t count the number of people who have told me that they would love to write books as I have done. In each case, I have refrained from asking what has prevented him or her from doing so. Instead, I have chosen to say, “I’m sure that you can do it if you have something you want to say and you want it badly enough.” And that is the key component.

While you don’t necessarily need heart to complete some types of endeavors, you do need it for works of creativity. In other words, half-hearted attempts will likely result in a work that is not representative of you or that could be improved with more time and greater dedication.

These thoughts are not designed to be a test or lecture or training event. But it’s always a good idea to devise a scope of work and create a plan to execute. If you don’t know where you are going, it’s likely that you will never arrive at any destination at all.

You’re the only one who can prevent you from succeeding at any creative endeavor. Silence the small voices in your head that say, “You’re not good enough,” or “You’re not talented enough,” or you simply don’t have what it takes to create. It’s probably a good bet that you can easily talk yourself out of anything else that you hope to accomplish. And it’s just as good a bet that the naysayers and skeptics believe that they are incapable of doing something special and want that to be true of others. Shalom.