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One life

This morning delivered the news that someone was shot to death approximately two miles from my home. His name was not disclosed, and the event was reported before the weather and baseball scores, with the same amount of air time as they required.

To be sure, the loss of any life is sad news. My greater concern, however, is that such occasions have become so routine and common that we cease to notice or care.

Murders of high-profile, visible citizens are reported ad nauseum. We can easily recollect many, complete with ugly court scenes, declarations of innocence and so on. At the same time, we are inundated with news reports of those celebrities who have indulged in behaviors that compromise others such as sexual harassment.

Am I suggesting that we either shouldn’t report these crimes or that we should deliver extensive and detailed coverage of every murder? No, in both cases.

But somewhere we are falling short as a society if we fail to attach value to every life. Perhaps the news can be dispatched with the parenthetical of expressing condolences to the family involved for their loss. Maybe the answer is to humanize the victim – Mr. Blank was thirty-five years old, a resident of this city and is survived by a wife and two kids. He was a veteran who has been employed at the ABC Company as a pipefitter.

Let’s back up a bit. Without engaging in a second amendment debate, I wonder if it might be useful to add a note about the weapons involved. If this killing was the consequence of an illegally-secured handgun, it’s appropriate to say so. Let’s make it a social conscience lesson. Likewise, if the perpetrator was legally licensed for the possession of this weapon, so be it.

As one who will never get used to murders, I want to live in a society that is not blasé about them. My educating includes the message that all lives are special and important. We celebrate all holidays, birthdays and accomplishments. Don’t we send a conflicting message when we say “There was another shooting this morning in our town. The event took place at 2:00 am and the perpetrator is in custody.” Another life is lost. Refuse to be one of those who don’t care. Shalom.

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Easing the pain

We are all experiencing pain of one type or another during most of the days of our lives. This includes the physical aches or irritations and emotional or psychological pain. As a recipient of both, I often ponder methods of dealing with pain. At the same time, I attempt to identify strategies for helping with the agony of others.

Sadly, the older we become, the more difficult it is to alleviate those things that distress us. In the classroom, a cartoon-covered bandaid will magically eradicate tears and tenderness. But for the girl who is suddenly despondent because she hasn’t seen her brother in two years, the solutions are much more elusive.

One of my fiercest determinations is not to discuss any pain from which I am suffering. This includes physical and emotional burdens, large or small. There are two main reasons for this decision. The first is that talking about pain rarely alleviates it. Secondly, I know that many people share my sadness at discovering that someone they love is suffering. Put most concisely, why cause someone to feel sorrow because of my condition?

On the very bright side, I have discovered along my life’s path that asking others to relate their pain or unhappiness often brings them a form of relief. While telling me about your ache may not make the hurt go away, there is some sort of comfort associated with knowing that someone else cares. When one of my students reports a headache or stomach distress, I always say that I am sorry. They frequently look at me quizzically, asking why I’m sorry. My response is always that I am sorry that they are hurting.

Does this constitute hypocrisy that I don’t share my pain but I ask others to do so? I don’t think so. My pain is such that it will not go away. As a result, sharing it would be a daily event, difficult for all involved.

My conclusion is that empathy or sympathy are powerful resources when sincerely launched. Perhaps, if I tell you that I am so very sorry for your loss, that loss may be reduced, if only minutely. Trying to make major changes in the universe is much too large a task to undertake. But if I can let you know that I care about your distress, both of us will feel a bit enriched. Shalom.

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My best guess is that we are all guilty of the unfortunate habit of comparing ourselves to others on a variety of subjects. One example is this: Your house is bigger than mine. It must be worth more dollars. You have a larger portfolio than I do.

We can extend or shorten the comparisons as we see fit. Take the previous calculation to the end and you have made better financial decisions than I have. Stop at the first step and it’s much healthier. It deletes so much analysis paralysis and avoids unnecessary (and usually incorrect) conclusions.

This type of comparison process pervades much that we do and all that we are. Johnny gets better grades than Susie, so he must be smarter. Betty’s hair is longer than Barbara’s, so she must have a mother who spends more time with her. Myron’s nose is wider than Pedro’s. We do this all the time.

You might want to posit that many of the comparisons that we do are necessary or useful. When we weigh more than we did last year and the doctor flags it as a danger sign, we need to lose pounds. The same is potentially true for blood pressure, triglycerides and other numbers.

But what if we carry it to extremes? I’ll bet she makes more money than he does. Don’t you wonder why he has more kids than the couple down the block? How does he keep his lawn so manicured? He probably doesn’t work so he can devote his time to the yard.

While we are all guilty of some degree of harmless comparisons, many of those in which we indulge are toxic. For example, if I’ve spent the last hour, day, week or month comparing my assets to my neighbor’s, isn’t it likely that such calculation will impact my interaction with that neighbor? In the event that we never interact, it’s still a profound waste of time.

Two significant conclusions are the byproducts of this reflection. One is that we rarely have sufficient data to conduct realistic analysis. What if the house was inherited or a gift or purchased at an unusual discount?

More importantly, what difference do most of these comparisons make? Is my life enhanced in any way by reaching conclusions, most likely false, about someone else? Absolutely not. Life is unchanged, the world will continue revolving and the sun will rise and set. Seems to me that we can use this energy on much more productive endeavors. Shalom.

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Sometimes I wonder if there is some type of magic potion or elixir that I transport into a classroom. Because I can’t identify or quantify it, I can only observe its effects.

The downside is that the mixture results in the difficult students becoming more difficult. They will ignore, insult or try to intimidate, regardless of the consequences. This applies for all of the potential outcomes, immediate or promised.

As near as I can figure, the presence of a substitute will create more noise, disrespect and an inability to sit still. All of this has little or nothing to do with me, as it’s only because of this magic invisible formula I transport into the class.

On the other side of the magic is the best friend syndrome. Suddenly, I have a gaggle of girls (rarely, but occasionally boys) who want to know everything and anything about me.

How many kids to you have? How old are they and what are their names? What are the titles of your books? Where did you get your phone? How much did it cost? Where did you go to school? What is your husband’s name?

Add to this the need to sit close to me, the requirement to hold my hand and the request to join me for lunch. Keep in mind that these children are all in the same square feet, my classroom. We can finish the image with the addition of this: “Is it raining tacos,” “Do you know who Mohammed Ali is,” and “Am I on the good list or the bad list?” The best ones are “You need a hug” and “Are you coming back tomorrow?”

The magic potion situation is a daily phenomenon, except when I revisit a class. In that case, a different form of wizardry will manifest itself. Instead, the hugs are voluntary, the negative behavior is absent and I’m unlikely to raise my voice.

If I knew how to access this compound and bottle it, I could do phenomenal things in the world. My preference is to reproduce the good outcomes, sprinkling some of my fairy dust into traffic, the grocery store lines and anywhere else that people squabble.  In the meantime, however, I’ll just assume that displaying positive behavior will suffice. Shalom.

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Defining cool

Are we still allowed to be cool without dating ourselves or appearing to be unfamiliar with current vernacular? One might reason that my ongoing classroom presence would disclose such information. But it’s absolutely nowhere in the curriculum.

Let’s get one thing immediately out of the way. My life is not spent in fervent pursuit of cool-dom. Of course, I don’t want to be an antique. And as one who relies on language for my craft, it is vital to know what language is current and what’s not.

Several of my sixth graders refer to me as “savage.” While the term initially shocked me, I’ve learned that it’s a compliment. The words “tight,” “dirty” and “gay” have also taken on new (unusual) meanings.

But nowhere have I discovered the destination of cool. Some of my kids play math games that are cool. Consulting a list of synonyms for cool, I find over 400 of them, ranging from “beastly” (one that I have heard) to constipated overweight old lady, to coolio, to far out (sixties, seventies?). Also, on the list are immense, nasty, shiz, straight and many others.

It’s amusing to me that before we had the power of the Internet, we relied on friends, classmates, movies, television and music for the prevailing slang. There’s only one problem. Because the list also contains gnarly and bitchin’, both of which are seriously archaic, how accurate are the rest of the entries? As I tell my kids, it’s a bad idea to copy someone else’s math paper. You never know if the answers are correct or not.

With all that preface, I think I’ll create my own version of cool. It may work out to be something totally far-fetched like spinach or philodendron. But I’ll see how many times I need to introduce the word before I hear it coming back to me. It may be fun.

The other acceptable action is to use the word cool as I always have. Cool is doing the right thing. Cool is keeping promises. Cool is educating. Whether the word is socially savage or not, who’s to say? Shalom.

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Yesterday I began to think about success. It occurred to me to wonder if success is a term that has a generally accepted definition. One alternative is that we each have our own concept labeled success. It may or may not correspond to a generally held understanding. Another option is not to think of success at all or to assign that title or quality exclusively to others.

Who ponders the concept of succeeding as it applies to each of us? One possibility is that we measure success in dollars. The more money we make, the greater our success. Others of us may think of commercial success – we sell a million books, attract billions at the box office or perform hundreds of concerts per year.

If we don’t measure accomplishments, what’s left? The answer is the only explanation that makes sense, at least to me. Our successes are as individual as our genes, our upbringing and our highly specific tastes in everything. What that means is that I can’t define your success any more than I can tell you what makes you happy, what gives you joy or what to have for dinner.

My conclusion is that at least in my case, success has nothing to do with numbers, if it’s appropriate at all. Because I have two children who continue to make me proud, my feelings are that I have been a responsible and caring mother. Not living under a bridge or in a shelter suggests that my financial endeavors have been successful. Most of my days in the classroom result in learning. And having created a formidable body of written material indicates that I have learned to overcome writer’s block enough to throw words into paragraphs.

Finally, having one or two or three people who call me friend constitutes one of life’s most formidable feelings of a life with happiness and meaning. Perhaps seeking success in the first place is best left for entrepreneurs and rock stars. The possibility is that seeking success eliminates our pursuits of dreams much greater. Shalom

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Teaching the teacher

We adults probably need to become more like the kids whom we influence. Observing them can educate us more than we can ever hope to teach them.

For example, kids celebrate everything. Winning a game will illuminate and detonate a little girl to jump repeatedly up and down. And kids will happily allow someone to take a drink of water ahead of them in the spirit of teamwork and cooperation.

Young children have no boundaries, artificial or otherwise. They will wear any color or pattern with any other, with absolutely no regard for fashion standards. They treat all people the same, regardless of color, gender, size or language. If they see a fellow student struggling with a word or equation, most will offer to help.

Students always seek attention, more often positive than negative. If they get an “attaboy” or “attagirl,” that will always suffice. Many want to be helpers. The majority will rush to identify those who are breaking rules, often taking responsibility for correcting the transgressors.

We can learn unconditionality from our kids. We can also learn that it’s happy and fun to seek reasons for jubilation. By loaning someone a crayon that they urgently need, we see boundless compassion. By being punctual and orderly, we see the value of organization. And by learning to keep opinions until asked, we can learn respect. When one student sneezes (or I do), several students bless the sneeze. Can’t we all use more blessings?

Because I have one or two or five students per day who instruct me on what they always do, I have a new appreciation for continuity. At the same time, I teach that change, generally feared, is something to be understood and embraced. By doing so, I understand resiliency.

The most vital lesson we can learn is to ask for what we want or need. When hunger calls, we need to be forthcoming about satisfying a basic need. And when we need to be hugged, the best strategy is simply to ask. Shalom.

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Dear Mom

Although you have been gone from this world for many years, this is the first time that I have thought about and initiated a letter to you for Mother’s Day. While I have no fantasies about your being able to hear my words, I never stop seeking a method with which to communicate and a reason to reflect.

My belief is that you would be both pleased and disappointed with what the world has become. We have crimes that are new to our generation and world conflicts that are specific to this century and part of the last. Our rental and home prices are exorbitant, clothing styles have changed radically and our methods for completing all of the actions of life are different, occasionally for the better.

But if I could somehow tell you that people are fundamentally the same as they have always been, I would eagerly do so. We are often made aware of our fellow man completing acts of kindness for others simply for the sake of doing good. Our society is full of organizations that provide support to the homeless, indigent, those suffering from terminal illnesses and countless other causes and reasons for us to deposit good into the universe. And I am fortunate to experience all manner of kindness and generosity in my life.

From my standpoint, I have always sought to conduct my life in a manner that I learned from your examples and teaching. You taught the value of being kind to others, never living beyond my means, working hard for anything that I wanted and making the best of any and every situation that I face. As I observe my own children, I feel strongly that those lessons have been taught and understood.

If I could wish you a Mother’s Day, I would tell you that every day of my life reminds me of your wisdom and your absence. Instead, I make it a practice to appreciate and celebrate all those who are mothers. As I hope to bring honor and pride to that status I owe to my indescribably wonderful daughter and son, I am always grateful to you for your legacies. Shalom.

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One more step

Living in the present has its unique responsibilities. Countless writers and philosophers have warned us to seize the day, live each moment and not waste our time on empty fantasies.

For as much as I adhere to the idea of fully living life, I think that we can do better. My definition of this is taking an extra step. Paying it forward is a version of this but I aspire to a more personal and specific form of giving.

Doing just enough is insufficient. Perhaps an assortment of examples will best explain what I mean.

My son recently visited Chicago to meet a friend and attend a Chicago Cubs/Colorado Rockies baseball game. It would have been enough to send a photo of Wrigley Field. But he did more by sending a picture from a local landmark and another of the Rockies entering the field.

My daughter always exceeds the definition of sufficiency. She’ll send videos and breathtaking photos of my grandchildren, often wearing the clothes that I sent or capturing unique, memorable slices of time.

On a daily basis, I am the recipient of the next step in the form of early morning coffee. My car is often given a full tank of gas and I am never allowed to carry a basket of laundry up the stairs.

In my world, I spend time trying to exceed what’s required or expected of me. That’s why I bring candy and craft supplies to my school kids. And it’s why I’ll buy a favorite bread, vegetable or dessert when they aren’t part of the shopping list.

We all have opportunities to take an extra step in all of our settings. It can be baking something for co-worker, shoveling snow from a neighbor’s driveway or making certain to be early for appointments.

Most of the extraordinary steps don’t cost a cent. To me, the most important ones are anonymous and complete surprises. When you spend that much less time gratifying your needs and more in embellishing the lives of others, the sense of joy is immeasurable. Shalom.

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Energy and persistence conquer all things.  Benjamin Franklin

Having just experienced a serious personal disappointment, it somehow occurred to me to employ a technique that was popular during my years in sales. It was the Benjamin Franklin close. On one side of a page you list all of the whys; on the other side, you list all of the why nots. By the time you have finished the list, the whys are predicted to outweigh the why nots. With that foundation, I found the quote from Mr. Franklin most timely.

My approach to handling this crisis consisted of modifying the close technique. On the one side, I’ve compiled the down sides of what happened. Opposite that, I’m working on all of the upsides to my status.

The details of the situation are less important here than the methodology employed to overcome it.

Persistence is on the plus side of my list. My life has been characterized by it and I see that the best way to accomplish what I seek is to continue doing what I do. Energy is another of my assets. While I experience fatigue in the same way that others do, I have fewer than five sick days in my entire career and I have never no-showed a responsibility to which I have committed. It seems clear that I need to remain energetic and anticipate positive results.

The more I reflect, the more reasons I discover to rise above my setback. One of the most powerful is that of support. With the advantage of a robust family cheering section, I need only ask for reinforcements and I receive more than I could imagine.

Beyond that, I have all of the skills, professional and personal, with which I began the day. While I am forever in the process of expanding and enhancing those attributes, they have allowed me to succeed in a variety of settings and overcome some serious roadblocks.

The lesson becomes eminently clear: by continuing along the paths I have chosen, I will prevail and find ways to recover. As I frequently teach young people, situations only become problems when you don’t have to tools to eliminate them. Shalom.