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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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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.

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As good as your word

The appointment was for 3:00 pm. We had diligently cleared an area to work and prepared our electric bills for the past year. This was the preface to a scheduled 3:00 appointment with a solar panel salesman who had energetically petitioned for an appointment to discuss the feasibility of solar panels for our home.

We observed 3:00, 3:30, 4:00 and 4:30 come and go, with the salesman failing to appear. From my standpoint, it was an opportunity to save some time. So far, I have yet to see the practicality of solar panels, especially because of the cost and the fact that our electric bills were the lowest I’ve seen in many years.

Ultimately, that’s not the point. Having spent the majority of my career in sales (with the hiatus in the classroom as the only exception – and aren’t I selling knowledge and learning?), I can safely say that I never no-showed an appointment. That’s not to say that I felt confident of the legitimacy in all my appointments, but I would never think of not appearing.

This is a sad commentary, on the integrity of the representative and maybe that of the company and/or its products. If you believe strongly enough in a product to make it available through door-to-door canvassing, you must have some conviction of its value. And there’s the fact that he neglected to secure a phone number when he set the appointment a week ago.

Any of the usual situations could have been in effect. He may have been ill. He may have had a sick family member or two. He may have gotten delayed on a previous appointment. He may have been run over by a road runner. But my best guess is that many have lost the professionalism that I feel is crucial to a viable sales career.

We’ll ultimately see if he shows up again or not. And if you want to make the case that his brand of salesmanship suggests large numbers for negligible chances of success, I understand that as well. No matter your conclusion, I maintain that we are only as good as our words. Telling someone, anyone that I will be somewhere at a certain time is tantamount to a promise. And breaking promises is a habit that I simply can’t support, for myself or those whom I am fortunate enough to educate. Shalom.

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Gathering rosebuds

If gathering rosebuds doesn’t sound familiar, I invoked the first line in a poem by 17th century poet Robert Herrick. He suggests, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” in addition to other important wisdom.

Several times per week, I spend some time wondering how much time I spend doing things that are entirely frugal or sensible. These activities are the result of many years of needing to save money, simply because there was no choice.

It now occurs to me that I do many of these out of habit rather than necessity. This process takes many forms. When I get close to the end of any of the cosmetic or cleaning items that I use, I always transfer the last few inches or ounces to another bottle of the same product, rather than lose a few days of use. In the kitchen, I will perform the same type of miserliness, using the last stalk of celery or last mushroom when those items may have been more properly discarded.

This is a lesson in the fragility of life and the imperative to live each day as it is made available. There is no secret to the reality that I have already spent more years on earth than I likely have in my future. And so, it seems to be time to enjoy my life with greater freedom rather than by maintaining unnecessary habits.

Translated into everyday life, if I want to buy a pair of shoes that are not within my normal guidelines for work or weekends, I buy them. If I want to add a few blue streaks into my hair, I do so. and if I feel like buying a brand new flavor of coffee to try, I buy it.

Make no mistake. By no means am I suggesting that you abandon everything that resembles care and conscience, spending money recklessly. My bills are paid and my responsibilities are all satisfied. But I firmly believe that without sounding morbid, I must do what makes me happy while I still have a clear mind and the resources to do so. Tomorrows are guaranteed to no-one and I am living life as if today is the last one, just in case that may be true.

Or in the words of Mr. Herrick,  And this same flower that smiles today, Tomorrow will be dying. Shalom.

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Seizing the moment

Now and then I encounter someone to whom I disclose that I’ve written two books and have two more in the works. They often look at me with a combination of appreciation and embarrassment. When I ask for an explanation of the expression, I am usually told something similar to, “I could never do that.”

As a writer and educator, my response is almost always the same: You could if you want to badly enough. As you might expect, the excuses are plentiful. I don’t have the time, patience or clarity to assemble a book. No-one would read it. I don’t know if what I have to say is important enough to create a book.

There is absolutely no magic associated with becoming an author, provided that your expectations are reasonable. At no time did I ever expect to find my work on the New York Times bestseller list, nor did I anticipate becoming wealthy from my books. If those are your plans, you need either to have a powerful story to tell or the ability to handle disappointment.

What you can’t predict prior to the actual publication of a book is the sense of satisfaction to be gained from the process. A member of my family who was a World War II hero and successful businessman decided that he and the world would benefit from the telling of his life’s story. He followed it up with additional thoughts that he accumulated after the publication of the first.

The book was filled with spelling and grammatical errors. While I wasn’t trying to find them, my training as an editor made it difficult not to notice. But the very important point is that he proceeded with the telling of his tale and I salute him for having done so.

If you read this and entertain ideas of writing something, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you do it. Do it for the satisfaction to be gained. Do it for the sake of imparting something to someone or many others. Because all of our life experiences are unique, all of our stories are specific and valuable. If your writing journey is anything like mine, you will soon find that there is a vast quantity of learning to be done through the process of writing, by you and your readers. And in the words of my very wise son who coaches me for any 5k races that I undertake, it’s simply a matter of one foot in front of the other. Shalom.



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Meet me for lunch

For reasons that I haven’t quite determined, I often think about the person with whom I would have lunch if it could be anyone in the world, past or present. Although there doesn’t seem to be any immediate benefit from the exercise, the long-term gains are significant.

Time and space are irrelevant to this activity and as a result, at the top of my list would be my mom who died many years ago. To be sure, the downside of this lunch would be that it would end and that I would be required to lose her again. The second challenge would be to estimate what I would ask her and what her responses might be.

Some of the others on my list include Leonard Bernstein, Steve Jobs, Mahatma Gandhi and John Lennon – who changed the world in their own spheres. My best guess is that all of them would have wisdom or information that I would deem valuable and available nowhere else.

No, I don’t recommend that you expend any significant amount of time in fantasy, imagining the conversations that you would have with the person whom you would most like to meet. But I do suggest that it’s a worthwhile endeavor, for these reasons.

Sometimes we postpone or delete meetings with those who are still within our worlds, for reasons justifiable or otherwise. We’re too busy, we’ve been told no the last time we asked, it’s the wrong time of year, etc. If someone is in your world whom you treasure or respect, make the effort to connect. Because life is uncertain at best, your chances of meeting that person may be more limited than you know.

The possibility always exists that you may be responsible for an action that will powerfully impact the other person. That human may treasure the fact that you were thinking about them. You may be the exact person to answer a question or listen to a story that they need to tell. Under no circumstances do I have any dreams of making significant impact on the universe I inhabit. But I do like the fact that my invitation to lunch (or coffee, or dinner) has the potential to brighten the day of another. Shalom.

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Sharing seasons

Every year at this time, I begin to recall holiday celebrations of my childhood. Christmas was never observed in my home, entirely because of religious preferences. In spite of that condition, I remember perennially asking my dad for a Christmas day, although the answer (that I’m sure I anticipated) was always no.

There was never any question as to who made the rules in our house. Knowing that, I realized that it would have been a waste of time to ask my mom for a second opinion. He was also the one who refused to let me have jeans, always wanted my hair to be cut very short and expected my grades to be consistently above average.

While it never occurred to me then, as I ponder all of those edicts now, I am grateful for the consistency and specific directions of my youth. Many of the discipline issues that I encounter as an educator are a result of blurry areas of reasonability and a lack of predictable standards.

We always had food on the table, a warm and comfortable home and clothes on our backs, even though they may not have been the clothing of our choice. In addition to those material advantages, we also clearly understood the differences between right and wrong.

You never talk back to a parent. You always clear the table after a meal. You do your homework prior to watching television, a reality made difficult by the fact that the family television room was where I slept. We didn’t have weekly or monthly allowances, we knew to come in when it got dark and it never would have occurred to me to disrespect a teacher or any other adult.

While my parents weren’t religious observant, I now appreciate the fact that we weren’t going to observe the religion of anyone else. Gifts were seldom presented, at holidays or otherwise, but I now realize that this was due to some tight financial conditions. Nonetheless, the gifts I received communicated that  I was loved and cherished, a feeling that is not intrinsic to the modern-day cell phones or tablets.

No, I wouldn’t trade my youth for that of today. The clear understanding of right and wrong, good and bad and acceptable or otherwise were the definitions of my upbringing. If many of the kids I teach don’t display that type of clarity, I completely understand and work toward the development of their fundamental integrity. Shalom.

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Suck it up

One of the realities that I’ve been embracing recently concerns blame. It’s much easier and more convenient to blame others for those events that occur in our lives, making us victims rather than participants. While I am not suggesting that we take responsibility for everything that takes place in our worlds, it’s much wiser to take some instead of none.

Obviously, we’re not creators of national disasters, weather, crimes or political bluster. But when we look at our individual worlds, it’s easy to understand how uncomplicated it is to assign blame to those around us rather than being analytical or realistic to accept that we are in fact the cause.

Here’s an example. You’re beginning to feel that your partner is dumping on you about issues large and small. It’s quite easy to issue statements such as, “You’re grumpy,” or “You’re resistant to reason” or a variety of other accusations. In addition to alleviating any chance of feeling guilty, you also get the opportunity to feel victimized. The reality is that being a victim is toxic, to you and those who love you.

No, I am not suggesting that you withhold any information about your feelings or reactions. As an educator, I am fully aware of the value of asking questions in the classroom. “Are you having a bad day?” “Is something going on that you would like to discuss?” “Did someone say something to hurt your feelings?”

In the adult world, that type of behavior is much more productive than holding others liable for misunderstanding. My goal is to ask, “Did I sound angry or unhappy?” “Did we get off to a bad start today?” or “I’m sorry if I was impatient.”

To be sure, asking those questions and making thoughtful statements is sometimes very difficult. But if the liability or joy of any specific situation is shared rather than dramatically characterized, life becomes much more enjoyable. This is a work in progress for many of us but as is the case with so many of our growth events, the consequences are well worth the effort. Shalom.