28 April 2012

Our Endless Numbered Days

I’ve felt for a while now that the beginning of the New Year, happening in the midst of the winter season, seems a bit out of place. I don’t suppose I really thought of its odd timing prior to working for a year at a Hebrew day school in Tucson. I enjoyed learning about those ancient, but new-to-me, holidays and rituals as part of my job there. And of course, one of those holidays was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, which falls in mid- to late September, just as the desert finally begins to cool off, the long, hot summer finally drawing to a close. The director of the school mentioned that the timing of the new Judaic year’s beginning, right at the change of season, always felt more natural to him than the Gregorian calendar.

But regardless of when the new year begins, the fact remains that we continue to cross our endless numbered days off the calendar. Even those days which seem too dull and unmemorable to amount to much count against our time, unfortunately.

I hadn’t been thinking of the urgency of our lives as of late, I suppose because I’ve been too busy doing other things, just as I’d expect you’ve been too.

But this weekend I saw a friend from high school – someone I doubt I’ve seen since graduation night. I didn’t expect to see him; he happened to be at the same event as me, so there was that element of surprise. And of course, it was nice to catch up, brief as it was. He’d recently lost his mother to that most destructive of diseases, Alzheimer’s. Our conversation reminded me of the urgency of, and the limitations of our lives here together, in part because of his loss, but also because of the time that had passed since our last chat, some two and a half decades prior.

It just so happened that the day before, another friend, also from many years ago, posted a photo of a temporary tattoo she received from author, NPR contributor and personal hero of mine, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who was visiting the school where my friend works. The tattoo reads: Make the most of your time here.

I can’t help but believe that this is a message for me to both receive and to share. To make a little extra effort, each day at least, to savor a moment, to establish a connection, to create a memory: to make the most of our time here.

So what are you waiting for?

Carpe diem

27 April 2012

[ this moment ]

[ this moment ] - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. (Homage to Soule Mama)

23 April 2012

World Book Night 2012

I drove home tonight with the sun roof open and a cool almost-a-summer-evening breeze wafting through the car. A sliver of a fingernail moon was smiling down on me, and I had to smile when I glanced at the empty box on the passenger seat next to me.

Tonight I was an Official Book Giver. Thirty copies of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones had been in that box just forty or so minutes earlier. My task tonight, on World Book Night, was to give away these books to anyone who wanted one, and especially to people who might not regularly pick up a book to read. At first, I had somewhat of a dilemma deciding on a location. And then I settled upon Whiskey Row, our little city’s main drag.

Whiskey Row used to be more notorious, with nothing but bars lining the street. Today there are more art galleries and boutiques than bars, but on most evenings you can bet on an encounter with a colorful personality there.

But before arriving at the Row, I decided to stop for a coffee, not quite sure how this April evening might wind up, temperature-wise, and completely unsure of how long it might take to give away thirty books. And while in the drive-through, it dawned on me that I could start right now. I didn’t have to wait until I got to Whiskey Row. So I gave my first book to the barista who seemed perplexed and grateful all at once. She had at least heard of The Lovely Bones.

I parked in front of the Palace, first opened in 1877 and claiming to be Arizona’s most well-known frontier saloon. I organized my box of books and stepped out onto the sidewalk with a smile.

People are skeptical. People are reluctant. And that’s okay, I am the same way. When a stranger tries to stop me on the street and wants me to take some form of literature, I am extremely wary. Some people refused to make eye contact with me. Others waved me off with a “No, thank you.”

Others wanted to know what the book is about. And that’s when I realized that the topic of The Lovely Bones isn’t exactly an easy one to just blurt out to strangers.

“It’s about a young girl who is raped and murdered,” I would begin.

Sometimes their eyes would open wider. One heavily tatted woman, at this point interjected, “Cool. I’ll read it.”

I would continue, “and she’s still able to watch her family, and to see how they cope…”

Then I would stop and tell them about World Book Night, and how the goal is to get people interested in reading again.

Usually by then most people realized that I wasn’t peddling some sort of religious blarney, and they’d take the book.

The odd thing was that I found myself thanking them for taking the books, instead of the other way around, although most did acknowledge it. I think most were too puzzled to think of it. After all, when was the last time, in our there’s-a-sucker-born-every-minute, everyone-and-everything-is-a-commodity, heavily marketed society, that a stranger gave you freely something that you might actually enjoy?

The last book I gave away was to a woman who took the time to read the list of books on the back cover: all 30 titles that were being given away tonight. I think she was impressed with that list – I know I am. In fact, I’m thinking that a lot of those titles will occupy my summer reading list.

What a cool idea, though, to share the love of reading. I hope to be a Book Giver again next April 23. Why April 23? Happy Birthday Shakespeare and Cervantes!

22 April 2012

Cogs in the Machine

This past week was AIMS testing week for the elementary grades. In order to allow students to focus on the tests, neither of my daughters had any homework this week. And for the first time ever, their after-school activities this week reminded me of my own elementary school days.

I can remember coming home from school, having a snack, and tuning into to an episode or two of Gilligan’s Island. Then maybe I’d practice piano or flute for a bit before heading outside to play. Or maybe I’d read a book or pretend for a while. I really don’t recall having much homework as a kid, or really even that much in high school.

I certainly could have applied myself more in those days, studying important topics and reviewing notes. Learning how to study would have been an excellent skill to acquire. But somehow, school was pretty easy for me. I liked school – both the learning and the social aspect. I never felt burned out or tired from what I was asked to do. And I feel like I’m an educated, critical-thinking person.

A typical weekday afternoon in our house involves racing home from school so that Madeleine can lay out her books on the table, and begin her nightly ritual. She usually starts by plugging away at endless math problems, moves on to the weekly four-page spelling packet, and then practicing violin. She’ll take a break for dinner and a shower, and and then finish up anything not yet done before heading to bed. Madeleine works hard in school all day, only to come home to face more schoolwork. I ask myself why this cycle exists.

But this week we didn’t race home from school. The girls enjoyed a leisurely snack while we talked about the day at school. The girls played outside with their cousin, something they usually only have time for on the weekends. Instead of being lethargic during dinner, they came back inside hungry and sweaty and excited about their afternoon adventures. The contrast was striking.

There’s an anti-homework movement here in America as of late, and surprisingly, it’s not coming from the students but from their parents. There’s a tiny part of me that wants to dismiss this movement as more indulgence from this already overly lenient generation who have also bequeathed obesity and financial irresponsibility as their major contributions to society. But after three-quarters of a year as a middle school parent, I have to say that they’ve got a point. Books like Alfie Kohn’s The Homework Myth and films like Race to Nowhere make serious points worth examining further. People like to complain about and place blame on public schools, but there is very little discussion about the lack of creativity and pointless competition in our schools, and why we feel compelled to perpetuate tasks (like homework) that have been scientifically proven to have little value, and in fact, have negative effects. Of course, these issues all stem from our worship of the Almighty Test Score – don’t get me started on that topic.

It’s disheartening to put your kids to bed each night knowing that their tomorrow will be no different from today, with school or school work occupying eight to twelve hours of their day. There is no time for TV, and I’m honestly okay with that. There’s not much on TV that would be worth watching. But there is also no time for outside play or pleasure reading. There is no time for creative pursuits or crafts. There is no time for playing with friends. Usually on the weekend Madeleine spends time reading books assigned to her for language arts and it seems at least each month there is some big project. We squeeze in some family activities, but honestly I do not know how parents manage all this when their kids are involved in organized sports and other activities.

She does learn a lot and finds some of these projects fun. But a lot of it seems like busy work and drudgery to her too. For several months, homework ended in tears more nights than it didn’t. There has to be some kind of balance, some kind of time allowance that permits kids to be kids while they are kids. They’re going to have to work their entire adult lives, so when else will they have time to play?

As a teacher, I’ve re-evaluated and completely revamped my own personal philosophy regarding homework since I became a parent. I give my students five options, from which they choose two assignments, which are due two weeks later. Every two weeks I repeat the process with different choices each time. I can’t tell you how many parents thank me and express gratitude for the way I structure this. And I even have students tell me that they miss my homework assignments after they leave my class. My homework assignments seem to offer my students several things that are really important: choice in which tasks to complete, ample time for completion, clear expectations (understandable to both parents and students), and creativity.

Other parents have told me that sixth grade is the worst in terms of the homework overload. So we’ll push through the next five weeks and hope that the summer rejuvenates and refreshes all of us enough to face school again in August with smiles and energy. I’ve tried talking with Madeleine’s teachers this year, but they seem perplexed when I mention that the quantity of homework seems excessive. Their solution was to allow her to do fewer problems, but the amount assigned remains the same. I didn’t really understand how this might be fair to the other students, especially to those whose parents aren’t as vocal. I don’t mean for this to appear that I am slamming them or their techniques – they feel great pressure to have their students perform at high levels on tests, and our society firmly believes that practice makes perfect. And with teacher evaluations being tied to student test scores beginning next year in Arizona, this pressure will only intensify.

What perplexes me most about this situation is how to change it. And really, homework is just a small symptom of a much wider problem – homework is what I see as a parent, but the issues are all intertwined and fraught with such complexity. How can we parents start a revolution, when even I – as an insider in the ‘business’ – don’t know where to begin? If we, as parents, try to buck the system, it seems that our kids face the brunt in terms of lower grades, which as we all know can impact their future. How do we revamp the whole system in order to better prepare this generation for leadership, creative problem solving, and responsibility, so that they can become more than just cogs in a machine? How do we begin?

20 April 2012

[ this moment ]

[ this moment ] - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. (Homage to Soule Mama)

13 April 2012

[ this moment ]

[ this moment ] - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. (Homage to Soule Mama)

08 April 2012

Intrinsically Yours

I recently had a conversation with a mother who is concerned about her daughter’s experiences at school with mean girls. You know, mean girls: the scourge of the middle grades and beyond. Perhaps from a need to build themselves up, these mean girls seek to tear others down, hoping to place themselves upon a pedestal made from the broken backs of others. They’re a wily bunch, traveling in packs like wild dogs and just as cruel and exacting in their ferocity.

As the mother of two girls, I’m terrified of them. Let me clarify that. I am not personally afraid of them. I know that I can take them on, all swagger and rage in my momma bear persona if need be. But I won’t do that, because taking on the mean girls is no longer my fight, thankfully. I know all too well the damage they can inflict upon a girl’s developing psyche, i.e., my girls’ psyches. Like most women my age, I think back to Little House on the Prairie and that quintessential mean girl: Nellie Olsen. But Nellie is likely tame compared to the mean girls of today.

What scares me is that like so many other battles kids have to face, they generally face this one alone. Their own shaky self-worth is pitted against a small clique wielding its power far beyond the playground. Yet, as cruel as they can seem to their peers, they are also masters of duplicity, who shape-shift into sweetness and light when necessary or advantageous.

And so, how do we, as a society, train our girls to combat this enemy? This enemy, who is as much us as we are them?

I think the answer lies in teaching our girls to listen to and to value their intrinsic worth. So often, it seems that we praise our children for extrinsic manifestations: grades, awards, medals, and other tangible proof that they have merit by society’s standards. But what about teaching them to calibrate their own personal meters of self-worth? To encourage them to pursue activities that allow them to feel good about themselves, regardless of the the points earned, the time on the clock, or the evidence of whatever our flavor-of-the-month society deems valuable?

It occurs to me that many of the pursuits that interest me as an adult fall into this category of intrinsically worthy. I run, not because I will win any races, but because I like how three miles feels: like an accomplishment, even at my turtle pace. I do yoga because it clears the chatter in my mind, including those mean girl demons that still, somehow, sometimes, reside within. I spend time outdoors because nature heals and restores my spirit. And I write because it’s one creative pursuit that makes me feel exceptional, even if I choose not to share it with others. And I think a lot of women get the same positive energies from a wide variety of activities that allow them to be creative and active by striving towards personal goals that are both public and private.

In my youth, I tried some sports, but I was without much natural grace, and was therefore pretty mediocre. Plus, that domain seemed to belong to my siblings and not to me. I tried music, which I enjoyed, but which was more work for me than I was willing to do. I could never quite make it to the elusive First Chair. I don’t think I realized at the time that I could play just for my own enjoyment. It took me a long time to find niches that felt right for me. The more that we can find ways to encourage our daughters to engage in activities that don’t require judgment and winner / loser brackets – those extrinsically valued rewards that our culture esteems so highly – the stronger these girls will become. The more ready they will be to face those mean girls – those who lurk on the playgrounds as well as within – and to perhaps encourage them to show their softer side. Not everything need be a competition with a single alpha female triumphing over the rest.

But I have to ask myself: How did I get to this point? How did I become comfortable in my own skin? It was certainly a long journey for me. I know that it isn’t the mere passage of time that guided me to my own personal satisfaction with myself. But I can’t really pinpoint what occurred or when. Is it the wisdom imparted by experiences I’ve had that make my life at forty-three years so much more bearable than it was at thirteen? Am I just better skilled at seeking out those who are like-minded and at resisting the vortex of those mean girls who, yes, I still encounter among my colleagues? And how do we adults help create a new social value, where competition is replaced by community?

I don’t know the answers to these questions any more than my daughters would if I asked them. And just as there are aspects of parenting that I do without much thought, there are others that I do very deliberately, like limiting my daughters’ exposure to media that promotes images of women that are not only unrealistic but utterly unattainable without a troupe of professional Photoshop artists.

There is a beauty that comes from within, from a sense of poise and confidence that is innate at our beginnings and which it is possible to regain from resilience and the conviction that, yes, you are worthy. Intrinsically and beautifully worthy. And it is that worth that we need to help our daughters reclaim, and not reclaim for them, for that defeats the purpose altogether. It should be our wish that each girl blaze her own unique path, and along the way, seek out those glimmers that lead to her own personal, intrinsic happiness.

07 April 2012

[ this moment ]

[ this moment ] - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. (Homage to Soule Mama)