Know you can

On Sunday, I will keep a promise to myself by accomplishing a task. Any way I approach it, the task will be a difficult one, the details of which are less significant than my decision to complete it. Because I have time to prepare, I think about those actions that we take that require more of “I can” than “I think I can.”

When I think about all of those people whom I consider my heroes, they are such because of their unwillingness to be defeated. By no means am I comparing myself to those who are my heroes – there is little chance that I will ever be able to change the world in a significant way. But I derive strength from those who did not say, “I think I can” instead of “I will.”

On a regular basis, I tell my students not to try to do something. Trying suggests the opportunity to fail. Instead, I tell them to complete or fix or accomplish something. Don’t try to do your math. Complete your math and just think about how good you’ll feel when you do.

The attitude with which we approach a challenge determines our ability to accomplish it. This is true in every aspect of life, whether it be a college degree, having a child, or learning complex materials. When I began my first book, I never told myself that I thought I could write a book. Instead, I decided that I would do so, regardless of the road blocks that I might encounter along the way.

And so, when it gets difficult to add words and pages to my next book, I remind myself that I am the only one who can do it. I also remember that I am the only one whom I want to do it, due to my commitment to the subject and my preparation to cover it.

Don’t try to do something. Approach it with the express decision to complete it. My best guess is that it will make the entire process easier and infinitely more enjoyable. Shalom.

Tail wagging the dog

Every now and then, I wonder how many of my actions are the direct result of the actions of others. Someone cuts you off on the road. Does that impact the way you drive or do you ignore it and proceed? As a writer, someone insults your work. Does that cause you to respond accordingly or do raise the price of what you’ve done?

Some of this is obvious. We all heard the warning from our parents – if everyone jumped off a certain cliff, does that mean it’s okay or smart for you to do the same? But I would suggest that we need to be cognizant of how we are impacted by the words or deeds or others and make certain that our own actions are consistent with who we are.

Here’s a good example. Some days, a classroom is full of rambunctious kids. I’m confident in saying that it’s not because of me or my teaching methods. Certain kids simply act out more than others and a large percentage of it is copying behavior of classmates.

What is the right response? I can’t yell or single out one or two kids to put them on time out. Responding in anger or frustration just can’t happen, particularly because there are students who  didn’t act poorly and shouldn’t suffer for the behavior of others.

And so, the good teacher remains calm, walks up to the offenders, quietly suggests that they return to their seats, and congratulates the non-participants for their decisions not to get involved in poor behavior. In most cases, the class returns to normal and the offenders are clear that they are rewarded for good decisions, not bad ones.

Retaliation is never acceptable. You took my parking space so I’m going to bust out your windows. In addition to that being a criminal act, it simply doesn’t make sense. My preference is to respond to unkindness with kindness.

Whenever possible, I will smile at a driver who chooses to snarl at me for whatever reason. I’ll do the same to someone who barges ahead of me to get a seat in a restaurant. Surprisingly, the lack of nastiness on my part is gratifying and satisfying – dispensing ugly behavior never feels good. Shalom.

Curiosity

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.  Albert Einstein

Observing a student asking questions is the best and most obvious method to determine a child’s curiosity. Presenting information in a classroom, we can always see who’s interested, whose mind has wandered, and which young person is seeking more enlightenment. At the end of any lesson, I ask if there are any questions. It’s always the brightest and most curious who will want to know more.

One of the realities of the classroom is that lessons are often quite structured and linear. That doesn’t mean that neither the teacher nor the student is without an occasion to elaborate. Here’s how that looks (or should look).

We are discussing dinosaurs. There is a substantial amount of factual information about dinosaurs, when they lived, where they lived, what they ate, etc. But because most children are fascinated by their ancient predecessors, it’s a perfect chance to promote curiosity.

How about creating a class dinosaur? We can build it, color it, name it, and make it a permanent resident of this room. Or you can each create your own personal dinosaur. We’ll get all of the materials needed to make it exactly what you want. While we’re at it, let’s give him or her some special powers. Can we teach your dinosaur to clean your room? Or can we have her help Mom with the dishes? What color(s) should the dinosaur be? What kind of skin? Because it’s your own special creation, you have no boundaries at all.

It doesn’t need to be dinosaurs. It can be a plant, a platypus, or a playground that we use to generate and amplify curiosity. Without it, we’re all destined to be carbon copies of each other. The curiosity we foster creates new inventions, the best of literature, music, and art. But what’s more important than that, is that our kids need to realize that they have no limits – that their minds are as vast as the universe that they seek to understand. Shalom.

You are special

Most days that I am in the classroom, I identify at least one student who can benefit from a little bit of extra attention. My role as an educator is to dedicate my time to each of my students and I do everything in my power to do so. But with a class of 14 special education students, spending considerable time with each child is more difficult than usual.

Friday was no exception. My student was a young man, probably five or six, who was well-groomed and unusually polite. In comparison to some of the students who were yelling for no reason and kicking fellow students, he was a tremendous relief.

Somewhere in the middle of the day, I took a moment to tell him that he was special. As of that moment, he never left my side. He dragged a chair next to my desk and asked me to assist him in every project that we had. When we went to recess, he repeatedly asked me to watch him perform some act of agility or expertise. And most significantly, he asked to use my special purple pen, probably because it was mine and allowed him to have one more form of proximity to him.

If I made one extraordinary student feel empowered or extraordinary or simply happy for one day, I am elated. He confirmed my profession and my commitment. Based on the hugs and appreciation I received from other students in the class, I did not sacrifice their status by singling out my one young man.

It is unusual to find someone who does not relish the feeling of being considered special. Because this is easier to accomplish in the context of a classroom, I utilize every opportunity to bestow the special status as often as possible. And so it goes for the rest of us. When we make our loved ones, our clients, our friends, and our neighbors feel that they have improved our lives in large and small ways, we create magic, both for ourselves and others. If you are at all like me, you can never have too much magic. Shalom.

Educator

Some of the very bad news for me in this pandemic is the fact that the schools are virtual only and I do not have the ability to be in the classroom. If there is good news, it is that I have more time for reading, contemplation, and problem-solving. Within that time spent, I have had the good fortune to read Tom Brokaw’s book, The Time of Our Lives. Mr. Brokaw dedicates a substantial amount of focus on the subject of education.

Educator is the title I wear with a vast amount of pride. Because I have as many opportunities as I choose to be in a classroom, I consider it a personal privilege and deadly serious responsibility. At the end of each day of teaching, I think about what went well and what didn’t, with an eye toward maximizing my effectiveness and the corresponding impacts on my students.

Mr. Brokaw goes into elaborate detail about the importance of education and I am gratified to discover that he considers it to be our country’s priority. He talks about a number of dedicated businessmen and women, as well as members of the general public who have stepped up to make major changes in the ways in which education is delivered where it is needed most.

Reading this makes me very happy about the outcomes that have been identified. At the same time, I wish that I had the resources to make the types and sizes of improvements that others have completed. In order for that to make sense, I must remain grateful for the chances that I have, with an eye toward maximizing my contributions.

All of us have the ability to improve the quality of education we deliver to our students. If there are bond initiatives to fund local school districts, it is our priority to support them. If there are places to donate books for students who might otherwise not have access to them, it is crucial to donate. Read to your kids, every day, whenever possible. Be generalized in the subject matter, from science to history, to math, to writing, to literature. Buying books as gifts is a thoughtful, constructive act. From my perspective, minutes reading a book rather than playing video games are vastly more worthwhile.

For as long as I have the physical strength to stand in front of a classroom and assist my students in identifying and realizing their potentials, I will continue to do so. Unfortunately, I don’t expect that my future will include the financial ability to make progress in communities or cities. But I remind myself that this situation is similar to many others. The size of the problem should only increase our energies directed toward solving it. Shalom.

To be a hero

Following up on the tribute to RBG, it occurred to me, both as a writer and an educator, to imagine what is required to be a hero. What I know about RBG is that she did not set out to be one but achieved that status nonetheless. Her biography tells us that she was committed to working for others, being honest to herself and the rest of the world, and doing what was right.

Let’s assume that you decide at an early age that you want to commit your life to doing good deeds for your world. In order to get there from here, you must first learn as much as you can. Sources of knowledge are family members, religious leaders, educators, and endless books of all types.

We make a mistake when we narrow research to a very small field. No matter the discipline, learn as much as you can about as many subjects as possible. My experience suggests that truly learned people have studied fields ranging from astronomy to zoology.

Defining the scope of your heroism is the next step. If you want to be a national or international icon, you will probably need to distinguish yourself in politics, scientific research, or global humanitarian achievements. If your definition of heroism is more local than global, you may want to focus your time and energy on matters within your immediate space. That may be your block, community, town, religious group, city, or state.

There are numerous ways to make yourself known for good works. Teaching is one choice. If you don’t have the credentials to teach, schools of all sorts always need volunteers. And if education isn’t in your heart, there are as many volunteer organizations as there are diseases, causes, or political inclinations.

And if you choose to be a hero to your child, grandchild, niece, or nephew, that’s a major responsibility in itself. Carefully choose the words you utter. Do everything possible not to insult those around you. The kids are listening and inclined to imitate what you say and do. When you are unpleasant, unpredictable, and unkind; these are the phrases and behaviors they receive.

Most likely, few people wake up and declare, “I am going to be a hero.” RBG certainly did not. That doesn’t mean that we can be reckless or accidental about the messages we transmit. You may never know when a man or woman will one day think of you as a hero. Shalom.

Goodbye, RBG

Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The world has just lost a giant, someone who changed the world forever and who will leave a legacy for all those who take the time to consider who she was and what she did. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has just died, a victim of pancreatic cancer who fought that disease with all of her might and endurance.

This quotation is as much a character statement as any I’ve seen about RBG, my personal hero. She fought prejudice, sexism and social injustice but did it in a way that encouraged others to join her.

Fighting as a sole patriot or trailblazer is clearly less effective than being a changemaker and one who encourages others to participate. Good managers realize that they can be most successful in leading others when they participate in processes. Autocrats and dictators generally don’t succeed, either in the corporate environment or anywhere else. We have notable exceptions throughout history, including Hitler, Stalin, and at least one of our current political figures.

But if we look at those figures in history who were most admired and followed, they were those who involved as much of the constituency as possible. JFK comes to mind, as do Mahatma Gandhi, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and others. All of these leaders have been venerated throughout history and my guess is that RBG will be as well.

If you’re not a fan of religious equality or elimination of sexism in the workplace, the legacy of RBG won’t be as significant to you as it is to the rest of us. But in addition to leading a life of discipline, foresight, responsibility, and wisdom, she will be remembered as a pioneer in both of those areas.

For my part, I can’t think of too many women who have distinguished themselves as she has. We need leaders of both sexes, those who have paved the way for little girls and boys who seek excellence and integrity. RBG, you will be missed but because of your efforts, those who follow will have clearer paths as well as a brilliant role model. Shalom.

What we waste

One of the frequent conversations in our household is the imperative to finish everything that is on your plate. From my standpoint, one should eat until hunger has been satisfied and the state of satisfaction has been reached. The other approach is that you are obligated to finish everything on your plate.

Is there one correct answer to this debate? The reasoning behind everything that is on your plate is that it is a crime to waste anything, be it food on your plate or leftovers in the refrigerator. My position is that the world isn’t negatively impacted by leaving some food when I have eaten as much as I want or need.

Here is the question that I offer to you. What truly constitutes waste? Is it leaving food on a plate or cooking enough for 45 when there are only two or three who are eating? What is the consequence of cooking too much? We deplete food sources and supplies but is this really harmful? My response is that it’s only harmful when others will not have the food they need as a direct result of our gluttony.

If we extrapolate a bit, how can we reduce waste of many of the resources to which we have access. For one, it seems to be a waste of gasoline to drive to a nearby location when walking is easily accomplished. From there, it seems to be a waste of resources when we use too many plastic bags and fail to recycle them. Likewise, paper bags can also be recycled if we spent the time and a small amount of effort.

Better yet, use the heavy duty bags that are available in large chains and grocery groups, eliminating the brown and skimpy plastic bags. In other words, it’s clear that a large component of waste is pure laziness or lack of concern for protecting and preserving our world. Somehow, it all amounts to doing the right thing for our planet and the smaller parts of it in which we reside. I’ll stick with my belief that the world isn’t harmed when I don’t finish what’s on my plate unless I have purchased and prepared too much food to help those who don’t have enough. Shalom.

Reprisal

Dictionary.com’s definition of reprisal is the following: (in warfare) retaliation against an enemy for injuries received, by the infliction of equal or greater injuries. It goes on to define, the forcible seizure of property or subjects in retaliation.

The research I have uncovered most recently in preparation for my next book has furnished the word reprisal. While the US is in disputes with various countries, we are not in the midst of a declared war. As a result, we don’t see or hear this word very often.

During World War II, one of the many reasons why Jews and other captives generally did not attempt escape or brutality toward captors was the fear of reprisal. When one captive hurt or killed a soldier, killing in retaliation would take place. One of the authors I’m reading (Martin Gilbert) estimates 1200 deaths of reprisal to one escapee or injured Nazi.

All of this causes me to wonder about what we do to others out of reprisal. Cutting someone off on the road who has tailgated you or done something similar surely constitutes reprisal. Refraining from writing to someone who hasn’t written or emailed you in some time is reprisal. Putting your child on timeout simply because you had a rough day and can’t handle his behavior is reprisal.

Someone hurting you doesn’t give you license to hurt anyone else. Yes, it’s pretty obvious that it is never acceptable to do intentional damage to someone. But the point is to examine our motives in terms of our actions toward others.

One of the countless truths I’ve learned from my husband is the wisdom of giving others the benefit of the doubt. If he hasn’t heard from someone, he speculates that the other person has been busy or ill. In all of our years together, I have never seen him get angry while driving, much less committing acts of reprisal. The example is an excellent one for all of us to follow.

These days, we have few occasions to worry about reprisal in terms of acts of war or violence. But retaliation and reprisal are probably more common than we realize. Once we consider the examples and symbols of reprisal throughout history, it becomes clear that injuring someone because someone injured you is simply unacceptable. Shalom.

Changes

Maybe because it’s been too long since I’ve been in the classroom, I have substantial time to dedicate to thinking. One of the observations that I have made as recently as today is that I have spent too much of my life avoiding changes large and small. When you avoid change simply for the sake of not making changes, it may be to your disadvantage.

Just because you’ve been doing something in a particular way for a certain number of years, it’s going to be an excellent idea to change it up. Yesterday I saw an article about a woman who has been feeding pigeons on her front lawn for the past many years, much to the chagrin of her neighbors who object to the noise and refuse. Maybe she ought to think about feeding hummingbirds (provided that they exist in her area) and do the world another type of contribution.

Imagine that you’ve been doing your grocery shopping at the same store for a long time. They know you there (maybe) and you know that you can usually get the items that you need without worrying about quantity or quality. But there’s a neighborhood co-op down the street that features products from local growers. Stop in there and you may be very pleasantly surprised at what they have to offer. In addition to that, you will be benefiting the local farmers who have had a rough summer due to the restaurant and school closures.

For my part, I’ve changed a few small things and was pleased about two conclusions. One is that the world as we know it continued to function without any disruption whatsoever. The second is that I felt some satisfaction about knowing that I wasn’t inappropriately fastened to a habit that had no merit whatsoever.

Throw some change into your life and see what happens. Depending on what you modify, no-one or everyone will notice. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about it but you. Except for such issues as yielding the right of way or paying bills, most of the modifications that you are able to make will be for the greater or smaller good. Shalom.