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.

In pursuit of normal

Every now and then, I think about what might constitute a state of being normal. It’s pretty clear that most of us have sought a status of normalcy, in one realm or another. We want normal body temperatures. We want our weather to be normal because the alternative is generally unpleasant.

Beyond that, exactly what is a definition of normal? What I’m thinking is that aspiring to normalcy is exactly the same as aspiring to mediocrity or being average. Think of it this way. If someone described you as normal, how would that feel? Yawn? Hmmm? A suggestion that you are totally lacking in excitement?

I’m suggesting that most of us have spent too much time seeking a normal life. It feels like we consider ourselves okay or acceptable if we don’t do anything out of the ordinary that may take normal from our characteristics.

As with many of the attributes that we have been taught to achieve, I submit that this one is totally not worth pursuing. No, I don’t want to be considered abnormal, paranormal, subnormal, or anything similar. But I seek to take chances, try things that I hadn’t previously tried, and work toward those goals that may seem unattainable or not consistent with my age or background.

Let me provide an example. It was not until I had completed a rewarding career in healthcare and financial services that I attempted an identity as a writer and author. Maybe it was because I hadn’t thought of it. Or maybe it was because I had previously believed that being a writer or author was something outside my comfort area or abilities. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Thirteen years later, I have published three books and I am working on a fourth and fifth.

And so, as a parent, grandparent, and educator, it is most unlikely that I will ever suggest to a child to be normal. From here, that seems like guiding toward average. The only goals that are worth attaining are those outside the average or mid-range. Think big, think great, think extraordinary. Leave the concept of normal to 98.6 degrees. Shalom.

From one day to the next

To illustrate the variations and mutations of substitute teaching, the differences between Thursday’s kindergarteners and Friday’s fifth graders are huge. One might reasonably expect that the kindergarteners would be tamer than the students who are within weeks of entering middle school. That’s absolutely incorrect.

Thursday’s kids were generally compliant. Two of them, however, required most of my attention for the majority of the day. While their behavior couldn’t be described as criminal or worthy of juvenile hall, they were stubborn, disrespectful, and unpredictable. By the end of the day I was exhausted and almost out of patience.

By comparison, the fifth graders were more fun than I’ve had lately. They were helpful, funny, kind, and absolutely enjoyable. We had no discipline issues and I didn’t have to deliver one syllable of reprimand.

There really is no simple explanation. It’s not about demographics. In the case of the kinder class, these were kids who appeared to come from comfortable, new, and nice homes. The neighborhood for the fifth graders is much more heterogeneous, suggesting that they are potentially less privileged.

The mistake that I obviously made was that of having expectations. By no means would I have predicted that fifth grade would be so rewarding and entertaining. Once their teacher arrived, she was as serious and rigid an educator as I have lately experienced. This may have some connection to their laughter and freestyle that I witnessed.

Ultimately, it’s a lesson for life. You really don’t know what you’re going to get until you get there. I’m just grateful that I have the flexibility and understanding to have handled both situations. 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.

Growth

While I can’t put my finger on the exact reasons, I can usually determine immediately if my class is well-behaved and welcoming. Maybe it’s the way some students will say hi or wave at me when I enter. Or maybe it’s the response I get when I say, “Hello everyone!”

In some ways, I’m inclined to believe that it is the nature of my greeting that sets the tone. Another alternative is that the majority of my students are inherently kind and once they see that I’m of the same persuasion, they behave accordingly. Most likely, it’s both.

Monday was a great example. My duty began at 12:30 and when I entered the classroom, third graders were staring at their Chromebooks. The lady watching them introduced me and three or four students waved a greeting. We engaged in brief conversation and as always, I have one or two students determined to provide directions for the rest of the day’s events.

But it’s all done with small voices and large kindness. My best guess is that they have a good teacher. Some of it may have to do with my practice of saying “please” and “thank you,” as well as speaking with them intelligently and with respect.

More than anything else, it’s about expectations. No matter what grade what school, what time of day, I always anticipate cooperation. Through the years, I have also discovered that complete silence is nearly impossible to accomplish.

And so, I have broadened my areas of reasonability and have learned to accept a level of murmurs. While some of us require absolute silence, others of us can function otherwise. Somehow, it all comes back to growth. If we want our kids to grow we just can’t stifle them in their growing processes.

Somewhere, somehow, I must be doing something right. My students ask me to be their regular substitute and to return as soon as possible. I couldn’t ask for anything more. 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.

Making days good

This morning I was awakened to a series of happy occurrences. For one, a check that I normally get on the second Wednesday of the month arrived a day early. That coincides nicely with a planned trip to a nearby village that is a Mecca for holiday shopping.

In addition, I received another 5-star rating for my book, Two papas, a tale of impossible Holocaust survival. Admittedly, ratings increase sales of the book. More importantly, it verifies that my book has reached the people for whom it was intended and it was well-received.

A few moments ago, I discovered an item of clothing that I had purchased as a gift but have accidentally been wearing. Now I can return it to the person for whom it was intended.

Admittedly, all of these events are small in scale and residual importance. But it makes sense to me that if we are diligent about finding those small realizations, we have immense power to make our lives happy. Does all this make our pains any less intense? Maybe. Do we do anything to achieve world peace and tranquility? Maybe, one small step at a time.

My recommendation is to identify and celebrate as many happenings as are available to you. We have the ability, if not the imperative, to make as much around us as positive as possible. Celebrate the sunshine after a day of huge winds and gloom. Celebrate the gifts of family, stability, and peace of mind. If we address ourselves to finding what is good, we simply have no time for negativity and depression. 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.