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Starting over

Fifty-five years ago today, my Mom left this world for the next one. At the time, my family and I were overwhelmed by the grief and loss, realizing that no-one could or would ever replace her. Today, I realize for the first time that there was something symbolic about her dying on the last day of the year.

While I have done my share of holiday, New Year’s celebrations, somehow it has never been acceptable for me to treat the end of the year as a joyous event. But I now understand that the beginning and the end are inextricably connected. It’s clear that December 31 was to be the final day of my Mom’s suffering and sadness. Today, I recognize that it was an opportunity to begin a new year with its own challenges and victories.

By no means do I intend this to be a message of sadness and mourning. I miss her every day of my life and I am certain that I will always do so. But if she were here to guide and teach, I am certain that her message would be to live life fully and with as much happiness as I could generate and experience.

And so, my lesson is to make this last day of the year an opportunity to begin something tomorrow that is new and more wonderful than anything that preceded it. If you want to learn how to speak Italian, do it, without preparing yourself for the failure that is inherent to statements such as, “I’m terrible at foreign languages.” If you love to sing, find a choral ensemble near you and join. If you want to visit New Zealand and you have the means to make it happen, do so.

Each new day effectively deletes the last one and the same is true for years. If 2019 was personally disastrous or unhappy, make it a point to make 2020 twice as good. We have the power to control a great portion of our destinies and it’s a tremendous waste to recreate the sadness of our past with no hope of improving life.

Her memory will always be for a blessing. Shalom.

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Closure

Approaching the end of this year, I think about the word closure and reflect upon the many ways in which we seek closure. Unfortunately, I’m thinking that we look for closure for negative or unsavory events more than positive ones. This seems to be true especially with respect to relationships.

In my experience, I have found the need to terminate romantic relationships more by action than inaction. But I don’t think that this is true of many of us. How many times have you waited for a phone call (yes, our cell phones do make calls), email, text or face-to-face visit that doesn’t materialize? While I think of many of these as gutless, I also conclude that many people just don’t have the ability to close relationships or romances.

We find the imperative to reach closure while on the road. People cut other people off and wind up being run off the road. Worse yet, we hear of participants getting out of their cars and having some form of battle. From my standpoint, the best form of closure is seeing an offending vehicle pulled over by a local police officer.

My suggestion to you is that the end of the year is an ideal time for closure. If that type of resolution is not what you seek, find another way to seal interactions with others. If I think of all the people I’ve known professionally and personally, I remember many of their names but it was the lack of good-bye or best of luck that finalized relationships.

True friends don’t need formal closure. I do believe, however, that we can all do a better job of maintaining the relationships that matter without trusting to the other person to perpetuate communication. In three cases, I maintain important connections with those whom I met within business situations. But many, regrettably, have been lost to the past for their lack of responding to my invitations to maintain contact.

Valuable people are worth keeping without waiting for them to extend themselves. Take the moment to send a note or create a meeting of some kind. Closures belong at the end of a fiscal year, not in terms of people. Resolutions, while popular at this time of year, are generally a waste of time and if we treat people with casual interaction, these are the resources that can never be re-established. And to all of my readers near and far, I wish the happiest, healthiest and most prosperous of new year. Shalom.

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Joy

Listening to holiday music, it occurs to me that not everyone finds this a time to celebrate. There are many reasons why this isn’t a happy season for some. It may be the first year without a loved one. Or it may be that circumstances separate people from those who mean the most. But having witnessed a large quantity of kind gestures, it seems that the best way to create a happy time is to give of yourself.

Maybe it’s a little late to volunteer somewhere such as a soup kitchen or shelter, but it’s a good thought to try. Most of the collections for children’s toys and coats have been completed but I suspect that some of them are still nearby. And there is always the simple reality of delivering kindness to your fellow man and woman.

Yesterday, I witnessed a couple paying for a senior citizen’s purchases. He was ahead of them in line and was wearing a World War II veterans cap so we know he must have been in his 90s. The gentleman silently paid for the bill, enabling the veteran to deliver a wide, grateful smile. Because I was there to see it all, I thanked the gentleman for his service and received another big smile.

Let someone into your lane on the road. Allow someone to go ahead of you in a shopping line. Deliver cookies to your neighbors. If you haven’t greeted your friends old and new with a holiday greeting, send an e-card or holiday email. If you see someone eating alone in a restaurant, invite him or her to join you. While you’re at it, make certain that you remember your server with something extra because he or she is required to work on this holiday.

For every interaction that you experience with a neighbor or stranger, there is an opportunity to improve that person’s holiday. As someone who is immensely grateful for my happy life and beautiful family, I always do what I can to honor and appreciate others. Maybe you can do the same. Shalom.

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Before and after

Before we moved to New Mexico, I believed that –

The state was a huge desert.

There were more Indian reservations than unoccupied land.

We would be as isolated from our neighbors as we were in Colorado.

The school district would be less welcoming than in Colorado.

The student population would be primarily disadvantaged.

Albuquerque is a small town compared to those in which I have lived.

There would be no significant traffic.

 

One year later, I am pleased and delighted to discover that –

This is a diverse state full of mountains, hills, trees and magnificent sunsets.

There are a number of Indian reservations but traditional residential                    communities dominate.

Our neighbors have been friendly, communicative and eager to help.

The school district in which I teach is filled with friendly, committed staff.

Many of the schools in which I teach are in advantaged neighborhoods.

Albuquerque is still a smaller town than Denver or San Diego. But it is rich             in history, extraordinary restaurants and diverse cultures.

The traffic is substantial but manageable.

We have one of the highest crime rates in the country but our neighborhood is watchful and vigilant.

 

The Land of Enchantment is a wonderful, place that invites guests and new residents. My new musical endeavor is gratifying and enjoyable. And because snow here is a rarity, I awake almost every morning to brilliant blue skies and a lack of precipitation. The lesson, as always, is that visiting a place can never fully disclose its beauty. Shalom and the happiest of holidays, regardless of what you celebrate.

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Critical thinking

When did common sense stop being common? If I’m in the classroom, especially K through 2, I can see that logic and linear thinking might be a challenge. But as I will demonstrate later, it’s not entirely missing. For adults, the obvious is often unavailable.

Here’s an example. Coming home on one of our busiest highways, I was alert enough to see a pickup truck doing about 45 miles per hour in a 75 zone. Checking for distress, I notice a young woman energetically engaged in a phone conversation – so much so that she slowed down to an unsafe speed. How does that make sense?

Equally ridiculous is the young man (also in a pickup truck) who is texting with both hands while driving down the busy street close to our home. Although the 40 mph speed limit is posted at multiple locations, the man (and many others) elect to drive at 50 or 60, still engaged in texting.

While I’m not seeking examples of illogical thinking, there’s enough of it that I don’t need to look too far. During the busy holiday season, why would you use a grocery store cart and leave it in the center of an adjacent parking space so that no-one can use that space? Why would you park in the middle of the street to retrieve your mail? And why would you pick a fight with me in the post office after I pointed out that there were four people in the line waiting for the US mail kiosk for which you were searching?

Maybe I’m confusing common sense with common decency. Or maybe I’m really talking about the inevitable golden rule – doing unto others what you would like to be done to you.

And then, there is the ray of hope from an unexpected source. As I searched for the right exit in an unfamiliar school, a young man asked if he could help. He appeared to be second or third grade age to whom it was important that I find my path. When I thanked him for his assistance, he smiled broadly and replied that I was quite welcome. It seems that we really are teaching the right things in school in terms of kindness. Shalom.

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Heroism

The skills that I observe on a daily basis from the dedicated and compassionate professionals around me are always exceptional. What’s most magical is that no-one sees what they do unless they spend time in the classroom.

My most recent encounter was in a special education kindergarten class. One child is visibly autistic but amiable and sweet. Teachers and education assistants are quiet, soft-spoken and thoroughly kind. They enforce those rules that are basic and survival driven. Otherwise, this child plays and operates in the room without interference.

What’s more compelling is the behavior toward a very difficult girl who is missing part of her brain. She is oblivious to rules and what constitutes doing the right thing. In spite of this condition, she is clever at devising methods to be disruptive and boisterous. While I didn’t hear any of her undesirable language, I am told that she has enough obscenities in her vocabulary to make most folks blush.

Teachers must think totally outside the parameters of traditional learning in order to manage her. She is told to do the curriculum that other children do, with emphasis that she can’t proceed to other tasks until the mandatory ones are completed. But it’s done with such patience that I am completely in awe.

As parents, we have all experienced our frustrations and anxieties about helping our children evolve into responsible, intelligent adults. The best of us can’t possibly aspire to the talents of many special education and general education educators.

With all my heart and soul, I am grateful for the heroism displayed by our armed forces, police officers and firefighters. They prioritize the welfare of the general public with all of their actions and sacrifices. But we must add these educators to that list, because of their ability to deliver education to those who won’t be educated, discipline to those who can’t comply and love to all they touch. Shalom.

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Thank a teacher

Do you remember when you learned how to play, “Rock, Paper, Scissors?” How about “Ring Around the Rosy?” In spite of the fact that today’s elementary school students now encounter cell phones, tablets, Internet and social media, some customs  (happily) don’t change.

It’s nearly impossible to see kids acquiring the habits or expressions that we had as children. As I watch and adhere to curriculum for all grades, I primarily observe the traditional subjects. We do math, reading, history, writing, science and specials such as art, music and physical education.

But I’ll continue to explore the non-traditional learning. Much of it is derived simply by observation. First and second graders who see fourth and fifth graders play tag soon learn the rules. The same is true for unacceptable actions such as kicking, slapping and punching.

Where do they learn kindness? Every day, I watch one or two or more students displaying extreme care and gentle actions toward each other. My best (charitable) guess is that some is experienced and emulated at home. But having seen and spoken with many parents, some of the positive behavior must be acquired elsewhere.

This includes helping a fallen classmate get on his or her feet. It’s also sharing food with someone who has none. My favorite is when one child is crying and two or three rally to provide comfort.

For the rest of the positive, compassionate gestures, thank teachers. The teachers are the ones who receive and deliver hugs, all day and every day. We appreciate gifts large and small, rudimentary and sophisticated. We congratulate and celebrate all accomplishments. And we love all of our students enough to teach them how to play musical chairs, heads up Seven-Up and hangman.

One could easily make the case that the informal, non-subject learning is the method by which young people grow into responsible, loving adults. As I play my part in this process, I am ever grateful for an opportunity to demonstrate the power of kindness. Shalom.

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Greetings of the season

Amid all of the acts of kindness, charity and goodwill that we observe during this and all holiday seasons, I find myself having more cautious reactions than normally to the holiday hype. The best example I can muster at this point is Black Friday, a holiday that was endlessly publicized for weeks before and after it took place. While I understand that people love bargains and want to buy something special for someone special, I find myself impatient with the endless advertising.

After Black Friday, we had Cyber Monday and Green Monday. While I’ve never measured the amount of advertising per television program as it compares to actual program content, I would wager that it is close to equal. Before and after programming, we have every organization in our world advertising for the holidays, including insurance companies, car dealers, loan sharks and wig stores.

Please be assured that my frustration has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that this is not my holiday. By no means do I want the celebrations to end nor do I feel that people ought to treat those who don’t celebrate Christmas any differently than the rest of the population. But don’t you think that I have the right to wish someone (anyone?) a Seasons’ Greetings or Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas if I so choose?

Some people feel very strongly that those two expressions must be replaced with Merry Christmas or the entire spirit of Christmas is violated. Before I object, I admit that my perspective is impacted by the fact that I don’t celebrate the religious aspect of Christmas. But I do have the right to choose my words of greeting or seasonal best wishes.

In any case, for fear of sounding like the ultimate bah humbug curmudgeon, I have just finished wrapping what seem like mounds of packages and completing a stack of holiday cards to friends and family. What I suppose that I am requesting is good taste, both in advertising and everyday courtesy. If you choose the holiday season as a political or religious discrimination venue, it doesn’t matter what religion you follow – you’re tasteless. And on the other side of the equation, I am just fine with any kind greeting that you may send my way. Shalom.

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Nobility

One of the many lessons I’ve learned in the classroom is the power of helpers. Every day that I teach, I have one or two or more students who immediately present themselves for designation as my assistants.

This doesn’t include having them teach or enforce discipline. In some cases, I have the rules of enforcement squad who will work toward establishing order. The jobs they complete include such tasks as line leader, attendance sheet runners and IT helpers who are adept at in-class technology.

What’s magical, however, is what happens to kids once they are able to help. The rowdiest of children become docile and pleasant when they are instructed to be role models. This translates to words such as “leaders” or “captains” or “assistants.”

And those students who are always helpers will remind me whenever I see them of their elevated status. In some ways, this dynamic is no different than the rest of life. Some of seek to be better, smarter, more successful, wealthier, happier or some other advanced position. Some don’t, I realize, and unless I am instructing them and they are in my space, I have no jurisdiction. It’s very rare, inside or outside the classroom, that we encounter those who aspire to mediocrity.

Often I wonder what part of our brains is responsible for distinction. Is there a genetic, still small voice that urges us to do more and improve? If that’s the case, where is that voice in the case of under-achievers and criminals?

My best guess is that there will always be that student who wants to occupy a noble distinction. As an educator, my job is to remind students that they all have the potential to do or be whatever they choose. If enabling them as helpers contributes to that growth, I have succeeded at establishing the first step.

Friday was popcorn day and my sweetest, most devoted pupil rushes to advise that he left his popcorn money in class when he left for recess. After I confirmed that he didn’t need any popcorn money, I escorted him to the classroom. He thanked me profusely and ran to secure his treasure. Ten minutes later, he returned from the popcorn vendor, walked up to me and wordlessly handed me one of his two bags of popcorn. Somehow, I think I must have done something right. Shalom.

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It’s a matter of choice

Whenever possible, I find ways to provide opportunities for those around me to make choices. Not only does it make my life less decision-laden, but also it signals to others that my opinion is not the only one that is important. Often these are not serious, life-changing decisions. Would you rather have beef or chicken for dinner? Would you prefer restaurant A or B?

This is extremely important in the classroom where the decisions impacting children are generally made by others. It’s time to get up. It’s time to go to bed. Now we’re going to do math or science or physical education.

While adult life consists of many mandatory acts such as getting an education or training, getting a job, finding places to live, etc., we adults make other numerous daily decisions. My opinion is that this requires practice and acquired expertise.

It wouldn’t be fair for me to require difficult choices of my students. That would include such subjects as curriculum or reading material. Some books are part of board of education guidelines but I enjoy being with students in the library where they can explore new subjects, learn different blocks of information or simply journey the exciting path of reading for pleasure.

My choice-making strategy doesn’t render me a renegade educator. Here’s how it works: It’s Fun Friday. Do you want to have self-directed activities, computer time or craft-making? Would you rather use crayons or markers or colored pencils?

Not surprisingly, I get copious positive reactions from my students. In a few cases, they want to remind me what they normally do in this time slot. Straying from the familiar is sometimes difficult. In others, they celebrate the occasion to exercise free will.

Our mission should be to prepare our young people for their roles in adult civilization, without stress. Causing them to choose between parents or places to live goes far beyond what they are able to handle. But little choices facilitate big ones, especially if they are between two rewards. Shalom.