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Fields of hope

Our current global pandemic has provided me with time to reflect on our world, both from a local and a much larger perspective. One of the images that I saw was that of a large field of flowerpots, each filled with a specific inhabitant of our planet.

While this may sound a bit strange at the outset, the pots are arranged by community. As I look through the student population section, I see rows and rows of seedlings, each with a tiny smiling face. Pots are closely spaced, not only for the sake of camaraderie, but also to benefit from the sustenance provided by the sprinklers and sunshine.

Moving from this small, pleasant community, I wander to the political pots. All of these faces are scowling, with the exception of a few good samaritans and dedicated public servants. Their faces are easily distinguishable from those of the children. They are larger, more wrinkled and sincerely unhappy. Because the negative expressions dominate, it’s easily concluded that the environment is not conducive to growth.

Another field of flowerpots discloses inhabitants who are demographically diverse. They are young and old faces that are all looking up, ostensibly for wisdom. Faces are of all colors, dimensions and sizes. Their demeanors range from expectant to excited to afraid to anticipatory. Pots are all the same size, indicative of the space that each one occupies within the community.

My conclusions are that we are able to gain a wide selection of data from those around us, just as we have the ability to influence them. As we share space, we share expectations, from viewpoints that are as diverse as our backgrounds and our faces.

Ultimately, I believe that it’s all about hope. Because most of us are looking up, we could be searching the symbolic warmth of the sun or the guidance we receive from God. We are all in this situation of virus and death as a large field of growing entities, relying on what is above and around us for strength. Shalom.

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The enchanted child

One of the most gratifying aspects of teaching is the process of identifying what strategies work best. Much of it is trial and error, but the majority is simple classroom common sense.

The most obvious indications of success are the responses I receive from my kids. Many of them, especially the youngest, will directly and descriptively say what they like or don’t like.

I like your nails. I like your hair. I like that you bring us candy. I like talking to you. I like listening to you. I think you’re smart.

It goes on from there. What they cannot articulate is that I feel it is imperative to speak to them as if they are intelligent human beings. They are. And the best proof of their understanding my respect for them is the enchanted child.

Virtually every day that I teach, I experience a magical child. This is usually a boy but now and then the magical child is a girl. It continues to amaze me that almost every class has one.

This child will tug on my sleeve or tap me on the arm. Next, he or she will ask a question or make an observation or volunteer information. In each case, the enchanted child will deliver a silent hug, the first of three or seven or twelve throughout the day. Child will express love or advise that I am the best substitute or best teacher in the world.

Somehow, it’s never occurred to me to ask why the student feels this way. During childhood years, the process of articulating many emotions is underdeveloped or completely absent. More importantly, I never want a student to feel pressured to justify feelings.

The most wonderful part is that I never know who the mystery pupil will be nor do I know what will cause him or her to materialize. By this time, I’m convinced that this is one student who transforms each morning from yesterday’s class to today’s.

It’s supernatural and fantasy and as pure fabrication as it sounds. But how else could multiple classrooms create so many princes and princesses? Shalom.

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Working as a community

At this moment, the world is in the grip of one of the most terrifying, life-changing events in our history – that of the Coronavirus. Large or small, young or old, we are all aware of its power and potential, for as much as any of us can anticipate how it will play out.

My school district and many others are now closed, at least for the next three weeks. Our children are receiving data from any and all possible sources, some reliable and some quite a bit less than trustworthy. As adults, we have an explicit and imposing responsibility to be judicious about what we are saying and to whom.

The neighborhood in which we live has one of those fashionable forums where various residents make comments or inquiries about subjects that are pertinent both locally and beyond. One of the presumably well-intentioned neighbors has just released her second tirade about how stupid we are to go shopping, eat in restaurants and horde our toilet paper. This is all at the expense, she says, of being able to intercept and prevent our contracting the virus.

While I find her remarks personally distasteful and entirely inappropriate, they are also extremely dangerous. Neither she nor many others have a substantial amount of truth available on the Coronavirus. We don’t know how it happened, how to protect ourselves from it and for how long we will need to be vulnerable to it. With all that in mind, why start browbeating your neighbors who are already under sufficient stress?

In other words, let’s be kind and supportive of our friends, family members and neighbors. Let’s avoid rumor and conjecture. We must also avoid dispensing advice, particularly when you are probably no better informed than most of us and have no authority to dictate behavior.

Stand by your neighbor and offer support whenever possible. Stop the pontificating and preaching. We are all concerned about our world and must work on protection and preparation, not insinuation and lecture. Our kids are listening. Shalom.

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If I could

If I could make huge changes to the ways with which we communicate in year 2020, I have numerous modifications that I would effect. For one, I would find a quick, convenient and thoroughly effective method for deleting spam. Having done a bit of research on this dreaded online curse, I’ve determined that the word comes directly from the pork product that we all know and love or hate.

This is a very costly habit that has been the scar on internet communications and dates back to 1978. If you believed that you could remember email without spam, you would have to trace back to then to find it missing.

On a daily basis, I question the realities of social media and whether they do greater good or bad. On the upside, many of us have found the means by which to connect to family members and friends who would otherwise be invisible. On the downside, we spend what I think is an inordinate amount of time checking on the newest and best posts from those in our network and outside of it.

Another downside is the endless supply of advertising, most of which is either unsolicited or irrelevant or both. It doesn’t matter which social media venue you choose – you can either find the best way to rotate your crops (a good one when you live in a big city) or 49 new and creative things to do with popsicle sticks.

All you need to do is display any interest, remote or immediate, in shoes. Suddenly, you’ll see every shoe manufacturer, retailer or distributor that has anything whatsoever to do with footwear. And it’s pervasive. You’ll see it on your email screen, social media and spam.

By this time, you’re probably shaking your head and saying, “Yeah, right. And you can do exactly what about this?”  I’m hoping that as we make huge leaps in our technology, we will find method by which we can ensure that we receive only that information that we want. Yes, I know. That’s restraint of trade and potentially anti-democracy. I’ll take my chances. But I can definitely do my part in unsubscribing, deleting and blocking as often as possible. Dreaming is good for the soul, after all. Shalom.

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Being mean

A prompt from my new book of writing suggestions that I find quite provocative invites me to write about the meanest thing anyone has ever said to me. It’s not a bit difficult to remember but what is more important is the fact that I can’t remember too many mean things in my past.

Years ago, I was one of those who thought they would find companionship or happiness or the love of my life by means of a dating site. This was one of those first meetings that took place in a French restaurant not far from downtown Denver. We had spoken several times and finally met.

The lunch was nondescript and my recollection (this was about twenty years ago) was that it ended quickly. As we walked out to our respective cars, this was the statement made by this entirely unimpressive gentleman: “I just want you to know that you misrepresented yourself. First of all, you’re not very attractive. Secondly, you said that you were slightly overweight when in fact you are seriously overweight.”

It’s easy to think of perfect responses, some of which don’t include obscenities. It’s pretty sad that I remember it as clearly as I do because the ultimate response would be to have forgotten what he said. As I remember, my answer was something along these lines: “It’s probably difficult to be as perfect as you think you are. Glad that we didn’t waste more time than a lunch.”

The prompt is quite a good one, primarily because it teaches us about words that hurt and the ability we have to deposit good into the universe rather than ugliness. From here, I’m of the opinion that he had a multitude of things that he could have said. “I don’t think that we are suited for each other. Thank you for your company – I don’t believe that I am the companion you are seeking.” There are probably twenty others.

When it’s possible, I believe that we all have the imperative to suppress meanness or reckless statements. This man neither considered nor cared about the effects his statement would have. Happily, I was successful at placing him in the past (except for his remarks) as quickly as his words deserved. Shalom.

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Unanswered questions

Are there protocols associated with sitting in a dental waiting room? If there are, they aren’t published for patients to observe. And no-one has ever notified me what they are.

Consequently, my writer mind wanders freely. The lady to my left has those large black rings planed in her earlobes. Are they designed to let you hang clothes to dry hands-free while you walk through Walmart? There’s no way to know and my best guess is that it wouldn’t be a good idea to ask her. She looks as though she would ponce without any specific provocation.

And what about the lady to my right? She was working on a crossword puzzle and I suspect it would be unseemly to ask if she needs help.

Another source of interest is the collection of dog toys and foods in an alcove adjacent to the hall leading to operatories. Are they also doing dental work on canines? There were none present to ask or observe wearing bibs or other dental contrivances.

When I finally spoke with the dentist, I asked him about the dog apparatus and he reported that they welcome service dogs to the facility but they must remain in the alcove for hygienic and other reasons. That makes sense. It’s easy to imagine reclining in a dental chair and having Fido wander in and jump on my lap.

The remainder of dental office protocols are to be found in my imagination. It’s obvious that you would never bring a sound device of any kind and blast your music preference for everyone in the building. I’ve never seen any inquire about the wait and, “Why is it taking so long” until the dentist or hygienist appears.

If you are at all like me, you have formidable respect for healthcare professionals such as doctors and dentists. This appreciation deletes the possibility of acting strangely in healthcare premises. But my imagination continues to operate, so much that I want to ask the benefits coordinator if the dentist asks her to remove her nose ring before he works on her teeth. My hope is that he doesn’t clean her nose ring with the same device as he uses to clean teeth.  Shalom.

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Thoughts to ponder

Many of us who seek profound conclusions about our lives find truth in reading books of all flavors. One such book that I’ve recently encountered suggests among other ideas that instead of fearing death, we are much better off living our lives as if death will be tomorrow.

Initially, this sounds negative or morbid. But the underlying message is that we must live each day wisely and fully in the event that we do die tomorrow. My best estimate is that we take tomorrows for granted, facilitating the postponement of important tasks and making assumptions about the future.

Having spent some time considering this recommendation, it now makes sense to me. For one, I hesitate saying something abrupt or unkind in the event that those words are the last someone will hear from me. And I find myself putting my worldly possessions in order so as to eliminate that responsibility for others.

In this instance, preparing and planning are entirely different processes. Isn’t it obvious that if today is the only day we have that’s guaranteed, we will make it as full and wonderful as possible? While I’m not planning to die, I am intentional about putting everything in order for that occurrence.

This line of thinking is not easily achieved. Sometimes we say words that are disrespectful or unpleasant out of anger and impatience. As I concluded long ago, words once uttered can never be recovered. And while procrastination is no longer acceptable, planning to accomplish big goals or hopes is mandatory rather than optional. If you want to visit Florence or Philadelphia or the Philippines, start saving for it now instead of creating a bucket list with little chance of it being emptied.

A colleague reported her sadness about having lost a close a close friend who died in her sleep the night before. There was no warning and no serious health conditions. This is an excellent example of why it’s critical to live each day with intention. Clint Eastwood (and others) have stated, “Tomorrow is promised to no-one.” Instead of fearing death, embrace its inevitability and maximize life. Shalom.

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The best days

It was 9:00 am and students began to drift into the classroom. Several groups formed to discuss the sad reality of having a substitute teacher for the day. One young man walked slowly and deliberately toward me.

“Hi,” he said. “I know that you’re our sub today. I just wanted you to know that I want you to have a very good day.” After regaining my grip on reality, I thanked and assured him I was certain that we would all have a totally great day.

Many times throughout the day, I looked up to find him standing next to me, for one reason or another. Some inquiries were legitimate requests for information. In other cases, I’m certain that all he was seeking was a smile or other form of acceptance.

Very often, I wish that I could see into my students’ heads to determine what they really need or want. Is it a vote of confidence? Is it information? Is it direction and guidance? Or is it simply the smile that says, “I value and treasure you as you are.” Maybe I should assume that it’s all of the above.

When it was time to go home, my student bravely approached and delivered a formidable hug and thank you. Returning the thanks, I notified him that he added substantially to my totally happy and rewarding day. It’s my standard procedure to use sophisticated language, regardless of age. If kids don’t understand a word, they will not hesitate to let me know.

Several other students came by to hug me and in each case, I thanked them for being part of a terrific class. It was clear that my young man defined and set the tone for our day. Maybe the lesson is to emulate his strategy. All I’ll need to do is notify my classes first thing in the morning that I’m going to do everything in my power to make today the best one they can experience. Happily, it’s true. Shalom.

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What not to do

Entering my eighteenth year of substitute teaching (with several breaks at full-time employment), it’s extremely simple to come up with those lessons that are crucially important to learn. Listen to your students. Provide life lessons as well as those contained in the curriculum. Ask for both sides of a story before accusing or punishing students involved in a dispute.

Something a bit more difficult is learning what not to do. Some of these are obvious, others not so much. The first is telling a group of children on the playground not to run. You may as well ask them to stop breathing or blinking their eyes. Walking is never a desirable option when running achieves the same outcome in half the time.

Second is not to waste your time requesting that students stop screaming (also on the playground). Try as I may, I can’t determine where the impulse to scream originates. But I’m beginning to believe that it’s contagious – once one student begins to scream, you can easily hear four or five or twenty more.

Another piece of advice is not to ask students to keep track of their clothing or other possessions. Recently I witnessed a child repeatedly removing his shoes and leaving them anywhere. It was personally amusing to notice that his socks didn’t match. Another student proceeded to drag a perfectly good jacket throughout the entire playground. Maybe he knows that he will outgrow it in a few minutes and it really won’t matter at all.

Another profound waste of time is to instruct students to look only at their own papers. This doesn’t mean that all kids are cheaters; it simply means that they all want to perform well on tests or other activities. If they believe that a neighbor’s work is superior in any way, there is little chance that they won’t sneak a peek.

Finally (and sadly), I never anticipate that a class of younger students (kinder, 1st and 2nd) will listen to instructions and get them right on my first attempt. Yesterday I had a class of 1st graders who were completing an activity on vowels followed by “r” and I must have issued the instructions eighteen times (there were 18 kids in the class). Who wants to listen to the teacher? Isn’t what my neighbor is doing more important than vowels? And so, I patiently repeat and repeat.

No-one ever suggested that the job was going to be easy. But as I continue to understand the lessons I must learn, frustration quickly dissipates. Shalom.



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For old times

As we look around us, we can easily identify many of our social conventions that are vanishing or completely gone. It’s been quite some time since I saw milk delivered. Rail traffic for humans has diminished considerably. And as I’ve previously lamented, much of our learning is on a screen rather than a printed page.

The good news is that the neighborhood watering hole (bar and grill, bar, saloon – pick one) is still alive and well in New Mexico. Its existence came as a total surprise. We read reviews for this venue before visiting for dinner but what we found far exceeded expectations.

Our welcoming moments were warm and genuine. The server was both kind and efficient. Beyond all of that, sitting in the bar vicinity afforded a glimpse of seven good ole boys who were loud, gregarious and seemed to be the type of regulars who were known by everyone in the establishment. We could catch pieces of their conversation but the only one that was loud and clear was the reference to a “certified lesbian.” Hmmmm.

One brave woman attempted to join them at the far end of the bar. She spoke briefly to the man adjacent to her but the encounter was short-lived. He was wearing the obligatory Kobe Bryant jersey but didn’t have a baseball cap that was sported by five other guys. Don’t know why that conversation ended but it didn’t seem to matter.

Since my growing up and college days in Chicago where such venues are plentiful, I haven’t experienced a neighborhood joint such as this. Most likely, it’s my tendencies toward nostalgia that caused me to appreciate it. The food was great, the beer was cold and I was treated as if I had been there every night for the last twenty years – God forbid.

If the regulars and the food weren’t sufficient, our server’s final remarks were the coup de grace. She said, “I’m so glad that you were here. Assuming I’ll see you soon, yes?” My answer was a resounding yes and I’m grateful for the chance to perpetuate what I deem an American institution. Here’s looking at ya! Shalom.