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What’s behind you doesn’t matter

Admittedly, I probably look at the rearview mirror in my car more often than many people. Why I do this is not entirely obvious. Some of it is habit and some of it falls under my definition of being a defensive driver.

Under no circumstances do I jeopardize my view of the road in front of me. But knowing what is behind me is good and bad. On the upside, I can see emergency vehicles that are approaching and for which I need to clear a path. On the downside, it results in my seeing tailgaters, weavers and people behind me doing all kinds of things in their cars.

Tuesday night was an excellent example. The lady behind me appeared to be yelling nonstop at someone behind or next to her in the car. She paid no attention to traffic movement and remained at an intersection quite a bit too long after the light turned green. Afterward, she far exceeded the posted speed limit and dashed in and out between cars. She didn’t bother with staying in her lane or using signals, continuing to yell at her passengers.

On most days, our highways are filled with crazies, some behind, some aside and some ahead of me. My husband, who spent some time driving in Italy, often reminds me that what’s behind you doesn’t matter. According to him, the process of driving is quite a bit different than in the States. Maybe this is a metaphor for life as well as driving.

Inevitably, I have absolutely no control over other drivers, regardless of where they are with respect to me. In the same sense, what’s happened in the past is equally incapable of modification.

While I’m aware of the caveat about forgetting the past condemning us to repeat it, some events and people are quite worthy of remaining in the past. Grudges are things that we need to drop. Jealousy is toxic and injures everyone involved. And resentment is something that can have no possible positive outcomes.

Maybe my husband is correct, with qualifications. Learning, respect and compassion are derived from the teachings we derive from our parents, teachers and others. But dwelling in the last day, last year or last decade makes the view of that which is ahead of us virtually impossible. Shalom.

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The art of educating

Imagine receiving a blank canvas and set of watercolors, complete with brushes. You will be evaluated and graded by the images you create but have no guidelines whatsoever. And you have only a few hours to produce your masterpiece. This is the opportunity I face.

Some days, in some times, some students will simply refuse to behave properly and cooperate. Last week was one of those days. The student was flagged by the teacher as someone with a behavior chart and for the three hours I was in her presence she never failed to live down to those expectations. In case you’re wondering, I didn’t alert her to the fact that I knew she was flagged.

If we educators feel that we have superpowers to modify the way students operate, we don’t. Problem students often bring their unique problems to school, primarily because there is no alternative. Most of the time, the regular teachers know those issues, but I rarely do.

Happily, several situations spontaneously materialize. Classmates will elaborate on the habits of Problem Student Girl, wanting to explain her actions without ever justifying them. Sometimes, because Problem Student Girl has no traction with me, she’ll modify her attitude. In the worst cases, I will enlist one of the behavior modification tools that were left for me. These include loss of recess, moving her clip to the area on a board that is labeled “poor choices,” or a recommendation to call her home.

It’s never personal. There are most likely no steps that I could have taken differently for Problem Student Girl to be Model Child. All of the other students will observe how I respond to her, maybe to see what they can do to disrupt. More often, they overperform and overconform, as if to compensate for her.

.One choice is to leave the canvas untouched. Another is to glance at the works of others (proved there are others) for some ideas. The best option will always be to create from the heart. If you love trees, paint trees. If you love animals, draw animals. No matter what you select, it must be sincere and the best image you can illustrate. In this case, patience and a display of concern will usually work.

This is my responsibility as a conscientious educator. While I probably don’t have many options to create large impressions, my assumption is that any one of them can be lasting. Our kids (ideally) get only one shot at kindergarten, fourth or any other grade. As the artist or facilitator or counselor or whatever title I attach to myself, I must deliver the same care to Problem Student Girl as I do to any other student. As the day ends, I hope that the image I present to her is as unique as her needs. Shalom.

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A somewhat unusual occurrence took place in my fourth-grade class. One of my students asked where I was born and after securing that information, he went on to ask a number of other questions about my family and me. That exchange resulted in my telling the class of my mom’s death when I was in high school and one young man advised that his mother had died when he was four.

Admittedly, this is an unusual situation and my only response was to look him in the eye and disclose that I was truly sorry. The lesson here is that many of us experience loss and we must remain sensitive to the fact that others are often recovering from losses of which we are unaware.

It’s true that most often, our young people are sad or upset about something that we consider minor. Sometimes it’s a pencil, sometimes an eraser or sometimes a poem or essay. But we are incapable of understanding exactly how a misplaced item may be affecting that child. If it was a pencil that Grandma gave Johnny for his birthday, the pencil has extraordinary value. If something was won from a contest in the school, it automatically has major significance.

We have all lost someone or something that represented a meaningful part of our lives. How long ago that loss occurred may or may not be significant. If you believe that time heals all wounds, you have a penchant for believing in cliché or you underestimate some of our pain.

All of this is to say that we must remain conscious of the fact that the world around us has likely experienced losses that are equal to or greater than or own. Measuring said events and their impact is meaningless particularly because we all experience, react to and recover from loss in different ways and by various calendars.

Maybe this fourth grader felt that he could trust me by imparting the fact that his mother had passed away. Or maybe he discloses that reality to many people. Regardless of the details, I will remain compassionate to his sadness and that of others around me. Shalom.

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If you are anything like me, you have a difficult time putting aside your busy life to relax. Three or four days per week, I spend some time in a classroom,  a pursuit that requires my full attention and concentration. On an average of two to three days per week, I find myself completing some freelance work or maximizing my opportunities to secure new assignments.

On those days when I have no tasks to complete, I discover that I continue to find efforts to occupy my time. Sometimes that consists of cleaning a closet, regardless of the fact that I’ve cleaned said closet at least three times in the last three months. Sometimes it’s reorganizing my office, a space that consists exclusively of my possessions that were already in logical and accessible places.

What all of this means is that some of us find it difficult to do nothing unless it somehow resembles work. Be certain that I earned a semblance of retirement. My first full-time, permanent position happened in 1969 and except for a few months following my final job, I have worked nonstop since that time.

It appears to me that the problem is not a lack of endeavors on which I can spend my time but that I have spent so long doing work that it’s nearly impossible not to do something productive. Is that my version of the Protestant work ethic – work hard, thrift and efficiency? In other words, you will be doing that which you are “supposed to” do. Or is it the voice of my dad saying, “You’re lazy and always will be,” a voice that should have been silenced long ago.

Happily, I think that I’m just a person who derives satisfaction and gratification from building, creating and completing. So far, I don’t see that this has produced any negative consequences. Life is happy and without significant stress. My family brings me unequalled pleasure and I’m not missing anything that I can identify. Most importantly, I agree with a fifth-grade teacher whom I met recently. He said that he had been teaching for four years but had never had a day of “going to work.”

And so, if I am unable to stare at a wall and watch the world go on without me, so be it. When I am no longer part of that world, I hope that others will remember me as someone who always wanted to contribute more. Shalom.

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Keeping promises

For this, the 300th of my blogs, it made sense to me to elaborate on a subject that means more to me than many others. It relates to keeping promises and fulfilling obligations. Among the many cultural trends that I observe, the failure of many to do what they say they are going to do leaves me frustrated and worried.

Here’s an example. Not long after we moved to New Mexico, we spent some time with a young man who was very charming and persuasive. Because of him and his enthusiasm, we were moved to make a major investment in our home. Among the other commitments he made to us, he assured me that I would receive part of his recent shipment of Kona coffee, something I truly love. My cupboard is still devoid of Kona.

From a different organization, we were promised a refund for our warehouse club membership as a demonstration of good faith from our purchase of another home improvement. This was right around Christmas time and we continue to wait for our check.

Why is it that people don’t believe that their assurances are as binding as their reputations? Prefacing the guarantee of something with “promise” or not doesn’t make a commitment any more or less sacrosanct. If I tell a client that I will have an edit done by tomorrow, he or she will receive it tomorrow if it requires my staying up all night to furnish it.

Is doing what we say we will do a vanishing habit? Can we tell our children that they will receive this or that and fail to have the item materialize? Absolutely not. When I tell a class that they will have pencils or candy by the end of the day, you and they can be certain that they will.

Don’t promise me something that you can’t provide. It’s a much better idea to indicate you’ll try or that you’ll make every attempt. In the event that the pledge is incomplete, I will believe that you have tried. We must keep our words. If those words are lies, ultimately so are we. Shalom.

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Cries for help

Watching a group of fifth graders struggling with math, I wonder if it’s possible to over-teach. Some teachers leave instructions not to assist students with their calculations and I always wonder why.

One of my students today has labeled herself as ADHD, offering it as an explanation for her challenges with fractions. For those unfamiliar with that acronym, it represents Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity disorder. The manifestations of it are difficulties with paying attention, hyperactivity, lack of focus and interrupting others. According to the scientists, it can last for years or be lifelong.

Is it better to watch kids such as this ADHD student hit intellectual brick walls or offer some direction and support? There are at least two distinct methods of analyzing the subject.

Sometimes these ADHD students use the acronym as an excuse rather than an explanation. What exactly does tagging yourself with initials have to do with desire to learn and determination to focus?

Because I seldom get to know any of my students on a long-term basis, I don’t observe all of their behavior. Maybe said child really doesn’t have ADHD. What if she’s intellectually lazy and the teacher doesn’t want me to feed that laziness by providing too much information?

This argument reminds me of the concept of loving a child too much. Is it possible to do so? And in this case, isn’t there a way to end of the frustration of a struggling student without prolonging a habit or doing too much teaching?

Ultimately, I adhere to the teachers’ guidelines by my definition of not providing answers to problems. But if I am to function as an educator, my mission is to educate, not to observe.

Encouragement, suggestion, commendation and compliments are all part of the education process. Great educators don’t provide answers – they furnish methodologies and fundamentals with which to find those solutions. More importantly, they assure students that they are fully equipped to find their intellectual footing. Shalom.

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Music in my soul

Too many years ago, due to the crowd with which I was associated and a deep love for music, I decided to learn how to play the guitar. As I remember, by virtue of a tax refund or by purchasing it a few dollars per week, I was finally the proud owner of a classical guitar.

Because folk music was so popular, I took several lessons at the Old Town (Chicago) School of Folk Music. Ten years later, I was living in San Diego and pursued two courses in classical guitar. While Segovia had nothing to fear from my accomplishments, I was very proud to do what I did.

The guitar is still with me, lonely and unappreciated in the corner of my office. Rheumatoid arthritis makes it impossible to play chords and my musical endeavors are limited to vocal ones. As recently as last night, I began to wonder what lesson is to be derived from being unable to do something I loved.

There are no obvious answers. But because of my guitar background, I have a profound reverence for guitarists who craft magical musical melodies. While I’ve thought about other instruments, very few don’t include some level of manual dexterity.

Beyond observation and camaraderie, I remain an educator. Now and then I accept music teacher assignments and enjoy helping young people create and immerse themselves in music. And as in the case of so many abilities lost and saved, I remain grateful for what I can still accomplish.

For now, I am capable of an occasional 5k, singing as part of a professional choral ensemble and cooking a festive meal.  A number of people around the globe call on me for editing. So many who are around me have fewer capabilities and depend on others for essential activities of daily living.

And so, my lesson is that of gratitude instead of the sorrow of loss. One day, my guitar will find a new home with someone who can retrieve the memories and secrets it preserves. Shalom.

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Watching our garden in extremely high (hazardous) wind, I am touched and amazed at the strength and stamina of our flowers. We have marigolds, geraniums and several other types of blooms that refuse to surrender their petals and hang on as if their lives depended on it. In fact, I suppose they do.

As I watch them, I remember being aware of the wide variety of people whom I have seen lately. Each of them was buying flowers of some sort. Young people, older people, female people and male people were all approaching the cash register to purchase various types of flora.

At that time and now, I find it intriguing that everyone wants to appreciate beauty, particularly the natural type. Never do I see people purchasing artificial flowers with the energy and intent with which they have been buying flowers these last few weeks.

Of course, there is a moral to all of this. We all need beauty in our lives. If it’s pink, orange, red, lavender, purple or white – beauty makes our lives smooth, meaningful and placid. It’s found in the way we decorate our homes and our bodies. It’s why some decide to turn their vehicles into masterpieces or monuments. And it’s why many dedicate themselves (ourselves) to the integration and creation of beautiful music.

To my knowledge, I haven’t seen any studies on the physical reaction of human bodies to the perception of magnificence, whatever the type. We can all relate to the effect that music has on us, just as we are fulfilled and enhanced by the appreciation of fine art. And so, why should it surprise me or anyone else that people of all shapes and flavors surround themselves with the beauty of nature?

We all have the opportunity to contribute to the quality of the world that surrounds us, if only by paying attention to our gardens. It’s a better option than road rage, dumping trash on the street and breaking into someone else’s home.

Nurture your garden and watch how your life blossoms. Shalom.

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Good taste

It was breakfast at a familiar restaurant where we have enjoyed numerous meals. We were seated in a somewhat reserved area and prepared to enjoy a meal. Not long thereafter, a man was seated just behind me and he was joined by a younger man a few minutes later.

None of this was exceptional until the third young man arrived. This was the trigger for man number one to launch a diatribe that lasted throughout our meal.

He spoke in a loud voice (there was no other indication that he was hard of hearing) and went on an on and on pointing out everything that he could identify that was wrong with someone who apparently was one of his staff.

The recollection of a manager in my past undoubtedly occurred to me. But beyond that, this very unpleasant human was totally unrestricted in his castigation of the younger man. He (the employee) was accused of being an alcoholic, was told that he was sloppy in his appearance, was unsuccessful in hiring and training staff and had violated a confidence by discussing company business with an uninvolved third party.

Why did I hear all this? Unquestionably, I had no choice in the matter. Our conversation was nearly impossible due to the booming boor voice in the rear. Among other reactions, I felt very bad for the man who was listening to all of this criticism.

Several things are wrong here. For one, lower your voice so that the entire room doesn’t need to listen to your insults. Another reality is that he had not one pleasant thing to say to the man next to him. I believe in you; you’re going to be successful; you have great potential; let’s see what we can do to focus on your many strengths and the difficulties you’re having will vanish.

While I’m not involved in any of this except by proximity, I was required to listen to it. It occurred to me thereafter that had my dad been present, he might well have said, “Hey look, creep. Why not take your nastiness someplace where I don’t have to listen to it.” Dad was pretty direct.

Of course, I didn’t say anything at all. But we all have something to learn about not airing grievances where anyone and everyone can hear. The recipient of his abuse certainly deserved some privacy. And I can watch R movies if I want to listen to endless swear words. Give us all a break. Shalom.

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What is it about writing assignments that causes otherwise verbal students to freeze? As we all know, some of us have strengths in math, some in art, some in technology and some in to be determined.

It’s always my personal challenge to identify those students who are writers. They express joy at the opportunity to articulate feelings and thoughts. They do whatever is necessary to prepare for the adventure.

Others will do everything imaginable to dodge the activity. I don’t have a pencil. I don’t know what to write about. It’s too noisy in here. It’s too cold. And in a few rare cases, I don’t like to write.

My observations suggest that too many would-be writers are halted because of fears of something. It may be fear of misspelling. Or it may be insecurity about a lack of words to communicate a finely developed thought.

Sometimes, the excuses are more sophisticated. In spite of about 200 books in the classroom, one pair of girls couldn’t find anything worth reading and then reviewing. As a result, there was their “legitimate” reason not to write several sentences.

But it’s not always bad news. Occasionally, I’ll have a student ask if he or she can write more sentences than requested. And sometimes, I’ll have a student say that she or he is writing a book, and can I help publish said book.

It becomes clear that our responsibility as leaders is to promote any and all forms of self-expression, no matter what shape, size or color they take. Needless to say, I’m not likely to include proficiency at video games or social media participation.

Spelling doesn’t matter and neither does having five sentences. (I learned from one class that their teacher said that paragraphs need to contain five sentences – I’ve never heard that before.) What matters is recognizing that you have something to say that is unique, important and exclusively yours. With those conditions met, writing can be sufficient in itself or as a starting point for many great accomplishments. Shalom.