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.

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.

Rights and responsibilities

Sitting in another teacher’s classroom, I can’t help but notice a couple things. The first is that she has “Treassure Chest” on her whiteboard. The second is the word “thursday.” Most of us are aware that treasure has only one s and that Thursday should be capitalized.

Do I have more or less options in this case as an educator? Or, on a wider level, do we have the right, responsibility, or imperative to make changes when we see incorrect information and have an opportunity to correct it?

The only reasonable answer I see is that it depends on the situation. My best estimate is that if we’re in a classroom where we’re influencing young, impressionable brains, we need to be correct. But if I walk over to the whiteboard and change the teacher’s spelling, the class will see her error. Maybe they will wonder if I have the right or authority to fix it. And when the teacher returns to the classroom, she will probably notice that the change has been made. In this case, the first graders won’t be influenced one way or another and I will be leaving the board as is.

On a slightly different note, one of our local politicians is running an ad where he refers to “seniors’ lifes.” Every time I hear the word, I wince; I am certain that he is saying lifes and not lives. There is nothing I can do to fix it. But please don’t ask me not to notice either the ad or the misspellings I frequently see online or on television. My training and profession as a writer require accuracy and I simply can’t turn it on and off.

If you ask me not to correct you, your spelling, or your pronunciation, I won’t. If you want my input, under no circumstances will I provide it in a manner that is condescending or embarrassing to either of us. But please know this: the language that we use in America is rich, diverse, descriptive, and full of history. Consequently, I will preserve and protect it for as long as I have the ability to think clearly. Shalom.

Followers and leaders

One of the warnings that we began receiving when we were very young was to maintain control, no matter what the situation. We were told and have told our offspring to control instincts, desires, actions, and virtually everything else. Pondering this reality, I have begun to wonder exactly what advantages ensue from being in control.

My best guess is that I am thinking about this business of control because of some upcoming events. Beginning tomorrow, I am working in a teaching assignment where I function not as the teacher in charge of the class’s direction and teaching but as the co-worker who assists the class teacher. This is a teacher who is quite decisive and I have mixed feelings about being the second player in this situation.

Initially, this may seem to be a perfect environment for a substitute teacher. There are no lesson plans to follow, no need to supervise kids at recess or in the cafeteria. But I am feeling that this may be my challenge because of this anomalous imperative to be in control.

My reputation is not at stake, nor is my self-esteem. What I do see, however, is that there are times when the control that we have always sought is not really as important as it has always seemed. By accepting this assignment, I have tacitly subscribed to the protocols and situation that exists. My job is to make it right.

And so, I have an opportunity to learn something about assisting rather than directing, supporting rather than directing, and deferring to the one who is the designated leader. It sounds pretty simple; the only complication is the fact that it’s uncharted territory for me. We’ll just have to suck it up and let someone else be in charge. Doing that should be more than enough. 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.

Smile

One of the most unfortunate consequences of the pandemic and the need to wear masks is the fact that we can’t see each other smile when we need smiles the most. Whether it’s in a grocery store, pharmacy, service station, medical facility, or any other public venue, we are seeing each other without others being able to see us smile.

We have options. Though it may look a bit silly, quickly pull down a mask, deliver a smile to someone who needs it, and return the mask to its proper position. When you are in a car where the mask isn’t compulsory, smile at drivers or walkers or bicyclists who look as if they could use a little brightness in their days.

The other alternative, one that doesn’t have the ability to transmit toxic vapors, is to smile through your actions. What does this mean? Say thank you to those who deliver good service, kindness, and courtesy. Ask those around you if they need assistance if they appear to be having difficulties of one type or another. Relinquish the right of way on the road to someone who can benefit from your kindness.

Yesterday, while leaving our cabin in the mountains to pick up dinner, we encountered a collection of deer who were peacefully grazing by the road. A young family – husband, wife, and two small children – were appreciating the deer and their ability to interact with them in close proximity. We approached slowly, making certain that the deer had crossed the road before we proceeded. The mother in the group was obviously touched by the ability to get this close to nature. She smiled broadly and I gave her a thumbs up, letting her know that I shared her enthusiasm.

It’s easy to smile without those smiles being seen. Your eyes will communicate for you, almost as much as the kindness that you deliver when you are able to do so. And realistically, smiling feels quite a bit better than the alternative. Shalom.

Beauty in darkness

It’s approximately 52 degrees, not a cold front but not the balmy weather we have recently enjoyed. The winds are howling, probably in excess of 50 miles per hour. And if I look carefully, I can see tiny spots of blue that are quickly obscured by the dark clouds.

We are accustomed to equating beautiful weather with sunshine, blue skies, and gentle breezes. This is especially true when on vacation, as we are now. But the more I think about it,the more it becomes my challenge and responsibility to find the beauty in otherwise gloomy conditions.

Ultimately, we make have the ability to identify our own definitions of beauty in our surroundings. For one, the wind and rain that I am seeing today will make the sunshine and brightness to follow that much more brilliant. Beyond that, we must derive happiness and security from the world we’re living, rather than the temperatures and wind we are experiencing.

I’m beginning to believe that it’s senseless and a waste of time to complain about the weather. We can’t fix it, we can’t order only good conditions, and the contrast is a good thing. My life is a gift that I am able to continue enjoying. Among my blessings are a pair of unbelievably kind and thoughtful offspring, a marriage that is secure and happy, grandchildren who are bright and inquisitive, and a world that is (now) one of democracy and freedom.

With all of that considered, what can be the problem with some clouds and wind? It will go away when it is time to do so. In the meantime, it feels so much better to celebrate life’s gifts than to whine about the weather. Maybe it’s more beautiful than we thought. 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.