Monday, November 23, 2015

Protectors.

Last week, when Islamic militants executed a series of attacks throughout Paris, I thought of a picture I have in my house.  It is an old sepia-toned picture of the Eiffel Tower that my uncle took after helping liberate that city from the Nazis in late August of 1944.  The picture is beautiful, the tower standing out amid a mix of fog and an eerie, spectral light.  Looking at that picture gives me hope that our nation and our world can once again defeat a growing evil.

My uncle Raymond was a soldier.  I know very little about his time serving this country in our Armed Forces.  He didn't talk about it much, not to my father and certainly not to the little kid I was when I knew him.  I think he stormed the beaches at Normandy.  I know he was shot and wounded in battle.  I remember a picture of him standing at the end of a dock on a lake in some foreign country, mountains in the background, wearing a cleanly pressed uniform and leaning on a cane.  In that picture he looks like the American soldier you would see on a propaganda poster of the Second World War.  He is handsome, and young.  He radiates bravery.

I knew him many years after he served, through the eyes of a little kid.  I remember him buying us ice creams.  I remember how cool I thought it was that he worked for John Deere, as I played with the model tractors he brought as presents.  I remember how he always got up early when visiting and cooked Jimmy Dean breakfast sausages and eggs.  I remember his holiday visits, the way he would give us a smack on the backside as we headed off to bed.  I remember him as a kind and joyful man who always seemed to smile a lot.  In my eyes he was an uncle rather than a soldier.

I wonder how much his experiences as a soldier haunted him, or simply influenced his decisions once he was back in civilian life.  I wonder if his nearly obsessive love of Mozart and Bach was motivated by a desire to again find beauty in the world after witnessing the horrors of war.  He used to love taking walks, and I remember distinctly that even as a kid I noticed the distant look he would sometime get walking along.  I wonder what he was thinking about.  I know from stories my father has told me that when my uncle returned from war, he walked around his childhood home and turned each picture of himself face down.  He could not bear to look at himself after what he had been called upon to do.  He made that sacrifice to provide the rest of us our freedoms.  

With all this spinning around in my head, I opened my classroom door the other day to see one of my former students dressed in uniform, a newly fledged Marine.  He graduated last year, and just completed boot camp.  He stood before me, hair closely cropped, hands clasped behind his back, having completed the first step toward doing what he always knew he would.  I want to introduce him to you. 

I met Pat Byrne as a student in my senior English class.  Like many kids not headed off to four-year colleges, his grades struggled.  Unlike most of those kids, he led our class discussions and was actively engaged in every topic we covered.  He knew the success of class depended on people contributing, so he contributed.  That is Pat.  While he did not always look out for the best interest of his own grade, he did always look out for the best interest of the class.  There were countless days he carried that class on his shoulders.

Last year when I asked Pat about becoming a Marine, he spoke of wolves and sheep.  Bad guys are wolves; innocent people are sheep.  Pat is a sheepdog.  He is genetically wired to protect.  He believes that there are evil people in this world and innocent people, there are good things that happen and bad things that happen.  It is black and white for him, crystal clear.  Many of the conversations I have had with him revolve around that stark dichotomy and his place in it.  He often stopped to talk with our main office secretary - a wonderful woman who lost her husband a few years ago - perhaps because he wanted to protect her from loneliness.  He asks about my sons every time we speak, because he wants to protect them from the bad guys.    

Pat tells me that he always knew he wanted to serve.  "It was a calling," he explains, "to serve something larger."  The simplicity with which he says that leaves me with the feeling that I am speaking with someone who has had decades to figure out his convictions.  

I don't know very much about my uncle's time in battle.  Nor do I know what Pat Byrne will face.  I do know they both felt compelled to join the fight, and embraced an instinct to protect.  In my life as a civilian, I can only imagine and admire what it takes to give action to such stirrings.  My Uncle Raymond helped build the foundations of a world where my children are free to play outside, to ride their bikes around the neighborhood, to laugh carelessly and frequently without fear.  Pat Byrne has committed to taking the next watch so that world may continue.  I owe them both my gratitude, my respect, and most of all my attention.  I think about them often.  

I look at that photo of the Eiffel Tower, and doubt this type of evil ever goes away for good.  It morphs, it relocates, it changes; I am not sure we will ever be free of it.  It has found its way back to the city my uncle helped chase it from more than seventy years ago.  But, I know it will not win.  I believe good will prevail just as it has done in the past.  My uncle's example taught me that when I was young.  Pat helps me have faith in it now.  

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Ben Franklin Run the Bridge 10k

The night before.

I put my well-worn Bialetti espresso maker on the stove and stand there waiting for it to brew.  I run through a mental checklist for the morning: espresso, Cliff bar, beet juice, banana, water.  I peek under the lid to see if it is brewing yet.  I fidget.

I run through a mental checklist for the morning: shorts, socks, shoes, number, shirt, pins, watch, spare clothes.  I lift the top of the Bialetti to see if it is brewing yet; it is not.  I walk back to my bedroom.

I double check the four safety pins, adjust the laces on my shoes for no good reason.  Socks...check, shorts...check, t-shirt...check, bib number...check, Garmin...check.

I go back out to the kitchen, stare at the espresso cup, a gift from my sons with the Philly skyline painted around it.  I turn the cup so the Ben Franklin Bridge is facing me.  I stare at the bridge.  Tomorrow is race day.

The morning of. 

The day starts off well: great temperature, free parking, and actual bathrooms.

The span of the Ben Franklin Bridge I have driven so many times is beautiful.  Standing just after the tollbooths and looking up, I am surrounded by thousands of people who woke up early to test themselves, to prove something, to see how they measure up.

Some people are wearing singlets declaring their connection to a local running club, others wear colorful tights and headbands declaring their total independence.  One man is pushing his disabled son in a wheelchair, while another carries an American flag in remembrance of his fallen brothers.  People are running to celebrate anniversaries, weightloss, and friendships.  Others are running so the demons of addiction won't be able to catch them again.  Some run for the fun of it, the challenge of it, the discipline of it, the hell of it.

Standing there, staring at the start that heads straight uphill, I can't wait for the gun.  It is race day, and I am a sucker for the electricity of a start line.

The race. 

I soak up the ambiance for the first half a mile.  I look at Philly in the distance, the Battleship New Jersey down to my left, the cables holding up the highway I am running across.  Then, I go into race mode.

I focus on the next quarter mile, the next person ahead of me.  I push to keep up with a group that I feel pulling away.  I try to surge the corners, try to ignore the feelings in my chest and legs.  I push aside the doubts that hit at the three-mile mark, wondering if I have blown it all on the bridge.  I try not to think too much.

Before I know it I am turning into Campbell's Field, feeling the outfield grass with all its forgiving softness beneath my feet, trying to duck across the line before the next minute clicks over on the clock.

The rewards.

Immediately, my quads tighten up, hinting at the misery I will face muddling through a Monday in a haze of fatigue and soreness.

But the rest is wonderful.  I down a bottle of water, devour a Tastycake Cookie Bar, grab a free coffee, and then sit with my wife and stretch.  We smile at each other, talking about the days before we had two kids, when we did this all the time.  We wonder out loud if we will ever run this race with our boys, and smile at the thought.

The only mental checklist is of what we will be eating the rest of the day: Whole Foods pizza (Mediterranean and Spinach/Ricotta), Chipotle Burritos, Long Trail Limbo IPA and DuClaw Sweet Baby Jesus, Chocolate and Vanilla Peanut Butter Ripple Ice Cream, a bit of our kids' Halloween candy.

The morning after.

Monday.  I feel like a zombie.  Fatigue strains my quads and strangles my thinking.  I put my Bialetti on the stove and make an espresso.  A double.  I am relaxed while it brews.

I think of how good it feels to have accomplished a hard race.  I think of the Wednesday night group runs that are becoming a more consistent part of my training, and look forward to pulling out my hat and gloves, headlamp and windbreaker.

After a long break from racing, I feel like a runner again.  I turn the espresso cup so the image of the Ben Franklin Bridge is facing me, and start planning my next race.


Friday, October 9, 2015

Shots Fired

Last Thursday another kid loaded up with guns walked into a place of learning, and killed.

So, the gun debate is back in the media again.  I suppose that is good.  Better control of guns in a country with far too many gun deaths seems like a good idea to me.  I believe in background checks, semi-automatic weapons bans, waiting periods.  I am not sure what the point of a handgun is other than shooting people.  I think even our forefathers would agree that the guns out there today are not the single-shot muzzle loaders they considered when framing The Constitution.  If they could travel through time, I think they would tilt their heads to the side in disbelief, and say The Second Amendment was never meant to protect those guns.  But, gun control is not the solution to the problem.  A good idea, yes.  A solution, I don't think so.

The conversation about mental health care is back in our national consciousness again as well.  No doubt that is a good thing.  We have all seen the history of mental illness, often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, that runs through the profiles of so many of these shooters.  I am sure most reasonable people would agree that it is a good idea to restrict the mentally ill's access to weapons.  That is not really my point either, however.

My point is this: the epidemic of school shootings our country faces, the concern that lingers in the back of my head each day as I send my two young sons to school, the fear that is stirred each time the school where I teach practices a lockdown drill designed to prepare for an active shooter, won't be remedied by legislation.  The problem is too big, and the people who understand it best are not really involved in the solution.  The people who understand the root of the problem best are kids.

These shootings are aberrations, the most extreme responses to an epidemic far more wide spread than these isolated incidents indicate.  For every kid who goes into a school firing bullets at innocent classmates, there are hundreds who have imagined doing so.  For every kid who has imagined shooting his classmates, there are thousands who have felt untargeted desperation and rage.  Anyone of those kids could be a pre-cursor to a tragedy.  Yet each day, kids tweet messages of hate, and humiliate each other on anonymous message boards; they laugh at behavior they think is different, and watch as a fellow student eats by himself each day.  

Because of that, this problem cannot and will not be fixed by law makers, school response planning committees, or the heartfelt words of our nation's President.  None of that can fix the problem.  Kids are going to have to fix this.  My sons and my students are going to have to fix it.  Our nation's children must set this right.

I am in no way condoning the actions of these shooters; they are unforgivable atrocities.  We must do more, however, than demonize them as so many people have during their formative years.  We need to take a good hard look at what we allow kids to say, and the impact of those words.  We need to ask what our kids are doing to find their struggling peers and make them feel welcome.  We need to call them out for their anti-social behavior, and challenge them to change.

Why them?  Because in the overwhelming majority of shooter profiles we can hear stories of social isolation, cruelty, humiliation, and relentless torment.  I have written before, and spoken often with my students, about my own experience being tormented by other kids during those early teenage years.  Navigating junior high school as a doughy kid taking tap dancing lessons wasn't super easy, but I was lucky.  There was no social media then, no cell phones, and the comments were silent for a good many hours each day.  My tormentors were not around for the holidays.  Their words did not tuck me into bed each night whispering hate through a screen.

I have told my students again about my nephew: a wonderful, inquisitive, funny young boy who is on the Asperger's spectrum, whose Korean heritage makes him look different than his peers, who has struggled with his speech.  He is still young, but already he comes home crying.  Already he is the focus of the worst parts of his little classmates' natures.  

All of my students nod along in understanding when I talk about this.  They have all experienced it.  Some have been the victims, some the perpetrators.  All have been silent witnesses.

So we must forever stop excusing their anti-social and hate filled speech because "kids will be kids."  We must make our children see the world through the eyes of a kid who feels different from everyone else, who feels alone, who feels as if life has little value.  We need to make them see the power they have to make that kid feel accepted.  We need to show them the simple power behind inclusion and a kind word.  We need to pull their faces out of phones and force them to once again look each other in the eye, and scan the room for the kid who needs some form of human connection.

Kids are the answer.  If you know one, maybe you could pass this on for me.  Tweet it out to them.  Text it.  Print it and deliver it by hand.  Talk to them.  Maybe this can be a starting point for conversations where we explain the rules to this brave new world where anyone can say anything at any time and have an avid, if not rabid, audience.

Kids are on the front lines of this war.  Let’s make sure kids are heading off to school armed with a watchful eye, empathy, kindness, and understanding.  Perhaps then we can prevent them from heading to school loaded down with anger, loneliness, and guns.  


Saturday, September 26, 2015

Why I Keep Running

As another school year has begun, my students have again seen me running.  Some have spotted me in their neighborhoods after school, while others have seen me on the track in the early morning before the first bell.  Several have talked about their shared love of running; more have asked, with a mix of confusion and disgust in their eyes, why I would do such a thing.  Here are some of the reasons.  

I run because running is simple.  In an increasingly complex world, there is something beautiful about a pursuit you can do anywhere.  All you need is shoes and open space.

I run because it relieves stress.  On those days when my thoughts swirl around my head like a giant storm cell growing on the horizon - all lightning and rumble - running takes the charge out of the air.   It allows me to think more clearly and rationally.  Running is my prescription drug: 3-10 miles per day until symptoms subside.

I run because Wards Bakery makes an amazing chocolate-frosted creme-filled donut, and Lawson's Finest Liquids makes an amazing IPA.  A close friend of mine bakes the most delicious pies I have ever tasted; a woman at work feeds me a steady supply of spectacular homemade biscotti; my wife's chocolate chip cookies are so good I eat them by the handful.  Creeping up on forty years old, I know that is a recipe for a big gut and poor health.  Running is like a vaccine against getting fat.  A couple of extra donuts in Ocean City are balanced out by a few extra miles on the boards.  The new craft brewery we discovered on our trip to Vermont is mitigated by a few extra hill repeats.

I run because it is my time to think.  As the miles roll beneath my feet, I think about my grandfather who passed so many years ago, and update him on the events of my life.  I have imaginary rants directed at people I feel have wronged me in some way, freeing myself from the burden of carrying that anger any farther.  It is on the roads and trails that I plan my best lessons for my students, compose first drafts of love notes to my wife, and remember who I need to thank.

I run because it puts each day's little challenges in proper perspective and teaches me discipline.  As I age, the miles get a tiny bit more challenging each year.  It reminds me that sometimes Nike is right and you just have to do it; sometimes doing it isn't easy or fun.  Running four miles in a driving wet snow makes packing the kids lunches seem pretty simple.  Climbing a thousand feet on rocky trails makes helping my third-grader practice multiplication seem like a nice chance to relax.

I run because I need to be outside.  People were never meant to spend their days moving from one climate controlled environment to another grimacing at the heat, or the rain, or the blustering cold.  We were meant to test ourselves against the elements.  We were meant to chase things down, and if that is no longer prey, then I will make it a PR, or my running partner, or the next speed limit sign, or my sanity.

I run because racing through a warm rain, or splashing through shoe-sucking mud still feels just as good as it did when I was ten.

I run because I used to weigh 235 pounds, and I don't want to go back, because I used to chain smoke, because I used to drink too much.  I run because it lets me zone out, and gets me away from my iPhone.  I run because my sons are watching me, and learning from my example.  I run so I can see the leaves change color, and also hear them crunch beneath my feet.  I run because I love the smell of fall, and the smell of the first fire someone has lit against the chill I feel in my fingers and my face as I run by.  I run because it releases endorphins.   I run so that when I experience loss, I will already be versed in the art of suffering.  And enduring.  And overcoming.  So that when I experience joy, I have some quiet moments to really soak it all in.

Running is a simple endeavor in a complex world.  I run simply because I need to.


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Commencement Speech 2015

I am lucky that as a teacher the structure of my year demands a time of reflection each June and a time of reinvention each September.  This year, commencement speeches became part of that process.  All of my seniors had to deliver ten minute long commencement speeches as their final assessment.  What they came up with was amazing; they spoke eloquently about experiences they have had and the lessons we all can learn from them.  Here is the speech I delivered to them at the conclusion of that project.    

I graduated from high school twenty-one years ago.  That is longer than all of you have been alive in this world.  Still, I remember that heady mix of emotions that comes from leaving the life you have known behind and taking a big bold step out into the world.  On graduation day, I sat in the sun with thoughts of a brilliant career ahead of me -- as a Broadway star.  A lot has changed over the two decades since I sat on my high school’s football field in that silly square hat.

There are so many things I have learned in those twenty years.  I have learned that play is at least as important as work.  I have learned that being outside is better than being in.  I have learned that running hard works much better than drinking hard to relieve that pressure that builds inside your chest.  I have learned that I like small get-togethers better than big parties, produce better than processed foods, and silence better than social media.  I have learned that people don’t care about what I do or what I wear nearly as much as I thought they did.  I have learned that clothes don’t define people, and they are a whole lot cheaper second hand. I have learned that if you tell the truth all the time you can’t really lose your way.  I have learned that people past a certain age who make racist, sexist, or homophobic jokes are assholes.  I have learned not to laugh politely at their jokes.  I have learned to be kinder.  I have learned to show my love more.  I have learned that caring is not weakness, and neither is asking for help.  Twenty years of learning.  The list could go on for days. 

But, we don’t have days.  So, I want to express to you just a few of the things I wish I had known that June day in 1994.  These are the things I would tell my eighteen-year-old self if I saw him today.  And, I do.  I see bits of him in every single one of you.  So here it is. 

The first is the simplest; it may also be the most important.  You are human.  If you try to be super-human you will fail.  You won’t get perfect grades.  You can’t be the perfect friend, and child, and sibling, and student, and athlete, and partner all at once.  Sometimes you have to prioritize and choose.  You will let people down.  Humans are not invincible, we are not perfect.  We are guided not only by our brains, our ideals, and our sense of justice, but also by our emotions, our biases, and our fears.  My wish for you on graduation day is that you realize that, and cut yourself a little slack.   Shake off the unreasonable expectations of your teachers and coaches, and yes, even parents.  Accept your flaws and shortcomings as part of life, and don’t waste time trying to hide them.  Talk about them, and watch all the heads nodding along in recognition and understanding. 

Second, I want to present a slightly different take on my normal Friday speech: Don't drink to excess.  Don't do drugs.  Don't hang out with people who do those things.  You will notice all that has changed is the addition of "to excess."  I enjoy sharing a beer with a friend, or a drinking glass of wine with dinner.  But, nothing good comes out of getting wasted.  When you drink, you need to have clear limits for yourself.  College will really test your ability to hold to those limits.

Hear me when I say waking early with a clear head, going for a run, and studying is far more rewarding than sleeping a restless boozy sleep until mid-day and skipping class.  Drinking too much clouds your judgement, and often exaggerates the worst parts of your personality.  Rather than interacting with friends as yourself, you do so with a wall between you, an unspoken acknowledgement that drinking makes you more fun, more interesting, more likable.  It doesn't.  It makes you more obnoxious, more dangerous, more thoughtless and selfish.  Drinking too much leads to bad decisions and an erosion of self-worth.  There is nothing wrong with sharing a couple of beers with your friends.  But know this: people who push you to drink to excess are using you.  Maybe they are using you as entertainment, maybe they hope to use you for sex, maybe they are using you in order to feel better about themselves: insecure and lost.

I didn’t drink in high school and when I got to college it was everywhere.  I thought it was everyone.  I used it to seem cool.  I used it to hide my insecurities.  I used it to fit in where I didn’t belong in the first place, getting obliterated in sticky frat house basements.  I used it all the time, and it almost derailed me. 

Somewhere on campus there will be interesting people doing interesting things.  Maybe they will be having a couple of beers in the process, maybe nothing at all.  Maybe they are planning a protest, or working on the school paper.  Maybe they are reading poetry, or looking at art, or watching live music.  Maybe they are planning a road trip, or yes studying.  These people are filled with interesting ideas, confidence, and self-worth.  Find them.  Be one of them. 

Elsewhere on campus will be largely unhappy insecure people shot-gunning beers, and drinking with a vengeance.  You will know them because they talk about beer pong with greater enthusiasm than literature or love.  The guys generally act like stooges.  The girls all hate themselves.  Stay away from those people.  People who drink that hard haven't found anything to care about yet.  They are emotionally undeveloped.  They are sad and weak.  

Don’t waste your time on them, because time passes too quickly.  I see that now that I am thirty-nine.  I have watched the eight years since my first son was born rocket by in a flash like some sci-fi time warp or wormhole.  One minute he was sleeping in the bend of my elbow and the next he is riding his bike alone to his friend’s house, already loosed from my grip.  It seems each cycle of the seasons passes faster than the last.  I have watched close friends bury their parents, and watched my own parents age.  I have looked at my wife as she sleeps and felt awash in my inability to ever convey how much I love her in one short lifetime.  I have listened to the laughter of my sons and longed to linger there in that moment forever, to stop time from passing.  

But I can't.  Death is coming for me, just as he is coming for every one of you.  We must work quickly and with purpose.  We must live each day urgently, and deliberately.  We must crowd our days with laughter, and vocalize our love.  Most of all we must do what we know inside we are meant to do; we must take the gift our forefathers gave us and PURSUE HAPPINESS.  

The realization that life, even when it is relatively long, is still incredibly short need not start some doomsday clock in your head taunting you with every click of every diminishing second.  Instead, it can give you permission.  If we are all racing toward death, decisions matter a fair bit less than we may think.  Major in pre-med or art.  Work long hours or don't.   Change the variables all you want, the equation still works out the same.  So, if you know inside what you want to be doing, if you have something that stirs your emotions and excites you, or when the time comes that you do, pursue it.  Fight for it.  Don’t push it down because it doesn’t make enough sense or enough money.  Ignore what everyone else says.  There is not enough time to please them all.  Remember that careers are just a part of life, and they often rest along a time/money continuum.  The more hours you are willing to work, the more money you can make.  The less you make, the more free time you have.  Figure out what you want that balance to be, make sure you leave enough time for the rest of your life.  As everyone counsels you about majors and careers, don’t forget what you want out of the rest of your days. 

In that time, travel.  Take road trips, study abroad, fill your summers with exploration and adventure.  After my first three years of teaching, I was offered tenure.  That meant security, money to pay bills, a pension, health care.  By all conventional standards, I had made it.  But, my girlfriend and I were not ready to be locked into one place.  So we quit.  We passed on the offer of tenured positions, placed our letters of resignation on our principal’s desk and told our parents we were going to move to Italy for a while. 

People told us we were nuts.  People implied we were letting them down.  People told us about how expensive it is to pay doctor’s bills without good healthcare.  People told us how difficult a job market it was.  People told us you can’t just quit a good job and move away.  But, quit we did.  We spent six months tutoring, substitute teaching, and delivering pizzas for Dominoes.  We worked any hours we could get at jobs we hated so we could fund our trip.  Then we celebrated the holidays with our families and flew to Italy for the best six months of our lives. 

We learned Italian.  We stared in awe at Michelangelo’s Pietá, and his Sistine Chapel.  We went to the opera, and became regulars at tiny corner cafes in the small towns of Lucca and Itri.  We wrote letters, took pictures, and sketched the stone bridges of Venice.  We skied in the Dolomites, climbed to the top of the Duomo in Florence, and learned how to make ravioli from scratch.  Then on a hillside in Tuscany, overlooking mountains and olive groves, we got engaged.  If, as my father kept telling me might happen, I was never gainfully employed again it would have been worth it.  But the bigger point is, I did get another job.  I knew that taking a detour did not have to mean hitting a dead end.  I did not listen to the wisdom of those around me, and instead went out and had experiences that made me wiser in my own right. 

The essence of what I want to communicate to you is best explained through my tattoo.  Where the Wild Things Are tells the story of Max, a kid filled with turmoil and inner confusion.  The book opens with him tormenting his dog, chasing him with a fork.  Behind him on the wall hangs a picture he has drawn of one of the monsters he feels inside.  But he does not run away from those monsters.  Instead, he takes a boat right to the place where they live, confronts them head on, and “tames them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.”  He faces his inner demons unflinchingly and becomes their King.  That is the hope I have for all of you.
 
The banner on my tattoo reproduces a line from the book right after Max has tamed the Wild Things; it is his command.  "Let the wild rumpus start," he says.  A rumpus is a noisy, confused, or often disruptive commotion.  It is an uproar, a disturbance.  That is life.  It is messy and confusing and at times unsettling.  It is filled with things unknown and far beyond your control.  But, that is the magic of it.  Those moments when you are forced out of your comfort zone, when you encounter something totally new and unique to your experience are the greatest moments.  They are the ones that define you and let you appreciate calmer waters and a gentle breeze.  Like Max, embrace that.

The line reads "Let the wild rumpus start," implying an invitation to the chaos.  Bring it on, the line seems to say.  I am ready.  I can handle it.  Like Max, you have within you whatever it takes to tame the Wild Things in your own life, to control them and use them to your advantage.  You are ready, and you can handle it.  Throw yourself into it with all you are, knowing that just like him you will arrive safely home at the end.

Thank you for all of the work you have done this year.  Thank you for the speeches you have given over the past two weeks, and all that they have taught me.  Thank you for reaffirming my faith in this profession with your honesty, integrity and determination.  You have made a middle-aged English teacher very happy. 

I wish you all confidence and happiness.  I wish you all success, by whatever definition you create for yourself.

Congratulations. 


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

PARCC Spelled Backwards is CCRAP

As a teacher I have been very frustrated by the disruptions caused by the new wave of state-mandated tests.  Here is a piece I wrote for the Courier Post about my observations as a teacher and as a parent of a kid who is slated to take his first round of these tests next year.  He will be nine.

I hope you will take a moment to read what I have written.

PARCC Gives No Time to Learn

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Beautiful Funerals

I talk to my grandpa all the time.  Life is busy and there are lapses, but all over the landscape of my life there are markers, triggers that remind me to reach out and get back in touch.  Doughnut holes.  Baseball.  Firetrucks.  Laughter.  I rarely go very long without filling him in, and topics range from my family to the bleak outlook for the Phillies this year.  As a lifelong Cubs fan, he can understand my frustrations better than most.

Just the other day, while playing Go Fish with my two sons, I laughed with him about all the times he brazenly cheated me at cards while we sat with a box of White Hen Popems at his kitchen table.  He always feigned innocence, shocked indignation at my suggestion that he was cheating, before bursting into laughter.  I am sure he gets a kick out of seeing me do the same to my boys.

I have told him about the time my oldest son played with his fireman's hat, his wide eyed stare as I told him about his great-grandpa pulling people from burning buildings.  I have told him about what it is like watching my own parents with my kids, and the many similarities I see to my childhood visits with him.  I have relayed accounts of classes when my students have left me full of awe and inspiration, and my disgust with recent standardized tests.  I share with him all the moments when I am the father or husband or friend I aspire to be, and all the moments when I fall far short.

He died twenty-one years ago.  I was seventeen.

Now, at thirty-eight, two of my closest friends have buried a parent in the past year.  My wife's uncle just buried his wife this past Friday.  All three died too early.  All three have left an ocean of grief, and everyone involved must swim against the riptide of loss.  Over time all must make their way through the rough crashing surf, fight for footing on sodden and shifting sands, and eventually stand again on solid ground.  Everyone is trying, yet I have watched those I love get pulled under a few times since the storm began.  Sometimes they really struggle to get back to the surface, but they always do.  I am sure there are times when grief seems to be all there is in the face of their new and permanent absences.  It seems that way, but grief is not the whole story.

Some people say that their loved one has died.  Stopped living.  There are no positive connotations to the word death; it is a word that speaks of finality and absence.  In definitive and painful ways, that is accurate, yet I keep talking to my grandpa.  He influences my decisions, and listens to my fears.  He has an active role in my life.  After three funerals this year I can attest to the fact that there are positive qualities to the end of a life.  Beneath the tragedy of it all, there is beauty.  Beside the agony, there is affirmation of life itself.

Funerals are beautiful in the closeness they create between those trying to cope.  People who have been scattered by busy lives, families spread across the country, all come back together and re-connect.  The fabric of conversations, woven around stories of the person we are burying, help tie us back together.  There is something beautiful in such a stark reminder that our time here is short, and we must capitalize on every moment.  We embrace people we have not seen in months.  We tell everyone we value how much we love them.

For years, I always used some version of the word loss to talk about death.  That word made sense to me.  I had no real confidence in my understanding of what happened after people left this life, so in my eyes we had lost them.  I knew they were gone, but I did not know where.  Yet, here I am thirty-eight years old talking to my dead grandpa.  If I am doing that, I must believe he is somewhere; I must believe he is watching over me and my life.  He can't be totally lost if somehow I know where to find him every time I have something to say.

So, I have settled now on passed.  I believe that our loved ones have passed from this life to another place.  I hope it is as beautiful as imagination can make it.  Beyond that, they have passed so much on to the rest of us.  That is my consolation as I enter an age when death has become a reality.  As I have written before, we have a very limited number of days and there is no getting around the eventual end we all must face.

I did not know her well, but I see my friend's mom in her own laughter, in the boundless joy of her son who hug-tackles my own son whenever they see each other.  I see my friend's father in his own strongly held beliefs, his stubborn and admirable nature.  I think of his father when we share a beer, just like I did with his dad sitting in their backyard celebrating another of his grandkids' birthdays.  The other day my son ran around wearing a pirate hat from one of my wife's aunt's famous theme parties.  He spoke pirate and laughed hysterically and for a moment embodied her joyful spirit.

My thoughts are with all of them as they struggle with this change.  I wish those who have passed peace, and those who remain the solace of all that still remains with them.

Despite a cold start to the day, the sun is hot this afternoon and the air smells of spring.  Tulips are popping up and the landscape hints of green.  It is all beginning anew.  Tonight, when I go outside to get the coals going on the grill I will touch base again with my grandpa.  I want to tell him about the game of "Calvinball" my sons made up in the front yard today.  I want to tell him about the dinner I cooked for his daughter last night to celebrate her birthday.

Twenty-one years and, as much as I miss him, he has not missed a thing.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Phones Part II: No Place to Hide

When I was growing up, I got picked on a lot.  I mean, look at those clothes.  Yes, that is skin you are seeing through that mesh midriff. Not cool.  Not tough.

Kids started small, calling me Crater Face because of the marks left by chicken pocks, Strikeout King because I couldn't hit a baseball in Little League.  By junior high, performing arts had become my solution for a near total lack of athletic talent, and with that came harsher nicknames. Pussy. Fairy. Faggot.  I vividly remember sitting in a History class, mindlessly copying notes, when a kid one row over and one seat back started poking the butt of my jeans with a ruler.  "You like that?" he hissed, "You like that you little faggot?"

Like many typical bullies, the kids who went after me were relentless.  Like many typical kids who get teased, I was resilient.  I was also lucky.  I had no cell phone or computer, no Facebook or Twitter, Yik Yak or Burnbook.  This meant I could leave the torment at the final corner of my walk home, when I turned toward the safety of my neighborhood and my family.  At home, none of that could find me.

As a teacher today, I hear lots of stories from kids who are not as fortunate.  The most recent comes courtesy of a new app called Burnbook - a bit of social media meant to tap into adolescents' mean streaks.  According to the description on the App Store, this gem allows you to "join a community to anonymously post pictures and text."  You can "selectively blur parts of photos," it goes on,"to hide those not so flattering moments.  Save memorable moments to your device using the one-tap screenshot counter."  If you grew up in the age of cellphones, you know what all of that means.  If not, let me explain.

Keep in mind the app's name comes from the movie Mean Girls, in which teenage girls write hateful and hurtful things about their peers in what they call a "burnbook."  Most kids have seen that movie; they know exactly what to do with the new app.

For some kids, being able to "anonymously post pictures and text" means being able to publicly bully and humiliate other kids while hiding in the shadows themselves.  Behind an anonymous keyboard, these kids tap out the words they would never utter in public.  Blurring out those "not so flattering moments" means blurring your own face out of a compromising picture while still exposing someone else.  "Using the one-tap screenshot counter" means being able to instantly save to your phone the picture or text you see on the screen.  See a naked picture of a girl you know, maliciously posted by her angry ex-boyfriend, and in an instant it is yours to keep.  Forever.  Think about that in the hands of a mean-spirited kid.  Snap an embarrassing picture, and broadcast it everywhere.  Make a racist or homophobic joke and share it with the world.  All anonymously.

Read on to the rating provided by the App Store, and you will see that the app is rated 17+ for "Frequent/Intense Alcohol, Tobacco, or Drug Use References; Frequent/Intense Profanity; Frequent/Intense Sexual Content or Nudity," just to name a few.  I had no idea those ratings were even there, and I bet there are a lot of parents who don't know either.  Burnbook is just one example, but similar things are happening on more mainstream social media like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter as well.  I see it in high school students, but think about all the elementary school kids with iPhones. 

It's not just calling you names between classes any more.  Secrets told to someone in confidence, or intimate moments shared in private, can become the next update on the phones of an entire student body in seconds.  Now, with cellphones always at the ready, bullies can call you fat right as you step out of your own shower, naked and insecure.  They scream their insults from your lap as you sit at your family's dinner table.  A little bird chirps hate from atop your pillow as you go to sleep, and is there waiting when you wake up.  Phones are the monsters from which some kids simply can't hide.

I believe social media can be a wonderful way for kids to feel connected to others and share their thoughts and observations about the world.  Kids tweet messages of kindness all the time, hilarious jokes, support for those struggling.  I also know the descent into hatred, cruelty, and humiliation can be a swift one.

This reinforces my belief that parents need to be meticulous in our supervision, and kids need to be transparent in their use.  It will help to talk about what to do if they come across stuff like this.  Kids need specific plans, because some of the media they see will be disturbing and adult in its most negative connotations.  It will help if we regularly review the content of our kids' phones, not behind their backs but with them, because they will know about the next new app, or the next humiliating post long before we do.   It involves listening carefully when they talk to us and reading up on the apps they are using.  It means watching over our kids as carefully in the online world as we do in the real one.  They need guidance amid a scary and ever shifting technological landscape.

There will always be bullies saying mean things to other kids.  Let's make it so there are places they can get away from it by limiting the use of phones.  If you saw someone threatening your daughter or telling her she is stupid and ugly, you would protect her.  If you witnessed someone harassing your son, you would not let that person into your home or invite him on a family trip.  When we don't talk about their online activity, when we allow phones at dinner tables and vacations, we risk doing just that.

What would be lost if your family set aside phone-free hours?  What text messages could not wait until the next day?  What tweets could not wait for the next time you needed a little bathroom reading?  What would happen if you did not update your status for a night, or a day, or an entire vacation?

What could be gained by putting your phones away?  I have written before about my own experience cutting down on phone use in an attempt to live more deliberately.  With our phones turned off, maybe we could talk about the punk who spews hate all over the playground and how to stand up to him.  Maybe we could talk about ways to practice kindness.  Maybe we can reclaim our homes as places where our kids can feel totally safe, where they can make their way through the awkwardness of youth and practice being themselves.  We can give them a place of sanctuary.  We can give them time for their imaginations to explore.  We can give them a space free from the pressures of what others think.

Everyday when I went home I could be the karate kid, without anyone making fun of that headband.  I could be the cool guy racing his car along the streets of my imagination.  I could throw on my favorite hat (yep, that one) and disappear into a good book.  I could totally be myself.

I was not cool, but I felt cool.  I was not tough, but I felt tough.




Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Phones, Part 1: Silent Students and Solitary Socialization

A couple of weeks ago, I ended my last period class about six minutes early.  I don't remember why I ended class early that day, but I remember it was sunny and bright in that classroom when I relinquished those few minutes right before the end of the school day.  As host to thirty seniors, I prepared for the deluge of sound, the voices I thought would fill the room.  There were prom dates and prom houses to sort out. College applications were in full swing, and some acceptance letters had begun to trickle in.  Athletes were preparing for games, and aspiring actors for the play.  There were parties to plan, relationships that had formed or ended that week, outfits to analyze, television shows to talk about.  After a full day of classes I was sure everyone was dying to kick back and talk.

What I got was silence.

I am not implying that they all whispered to each other with reserve, trying to keep their thoughts from drifting over to my desk and my ears.  I am not talking about polite conversation respectful of their neighbors' desires to hear themselves think.  I am talking about funereal silence.  Dead silence.  Pin-drop silence.

Almost immediately, the phones came out.  Soundlessly, and in total isolation, nearly everyone thumbed their way around screens while the seconds and then minutes ticked by.  I figured it must just be a common reaction of a smartphone generation: free time meant a quick check into Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and Vine, before looking up and talking with friends and classmates about all the amazing things bouncing around inside of them, eighteen years old with the wide world waiting.  The remainder of the period went by and, with thirty high school seniors in a room, I don't think anyone uttered a single word. 

So finally, with about a minute left, I asked them.  I asked what they were looking at, why they were looking at it.  I got a list of the apps I expected but virtually no reasons explaining why they turned to phones rather than the person in the seat next to them.  "Did you find out anything important from any of it?"  No, they all agreed.  "Do you enjoy it?"  Not really, most of them conceded.

The paradox of anti-social social-networking. 

A lot of senior English is based on discussion, yet time and again our conversations have faltered and fizzled out.  I tried giving points for participation, calling on quiet students, pleading with them, sometimes forcing them to talk.  My students' hesitance to speak was a puzzle I could not solve. 

Then on our recent mid-year evaluation I asked a question about their involvement in class discussions.  To my surprise many of them spoke of apprehension and anxiety.  So many who remain quiet in class expressed a fear of being wrong, of failing to express their thoughts correctly, of being intimidated by speaking in front of other people.  "I am just really shy," they wrote.  "I am just not comfortable speaking in front of others."  There was a resignation in these responses that worried me, an acceptance that they are just not people who speak up.  I have a theory of why that might be. 

We are out of practice speaking to and with others. In line at the food store the other day I took a look around, and what I saw was weird isolation and silence just like my classroom that day.  Nearly everyone waiting in line was looking at or talking on a phone.  Even in situations when people do talk with each other - restaurants and family dinner tables, airplanes, locker rooms - people are more and more frequently dividing their attention.   We text between statements, read emails while nodding along to other peoples' stories.  We turn to our phones to fill every silence.

We are sacrificing a great deal in exchange for our voyeuristic forays into Facebook, and careful tracking of Kanye West's most recent tweets.  Simple conversation may be the greatest cost, the process of looking at people, speaking with them, and seeing in their faces acknowledgement of a shared experience.  Short, seemingly unimportant conversations are where we build the foundation of human interaction. 

When we put our phones away we open ourselves to eye contact and a quick hello from strangers which leads to conversations about the weather or the Phillies or something just as trivial.  The content of the conversations is not important, but the connection is.  There is a basic kinship with those around us.  These quick chance encounters reinforce how much we all have in common, build a sense of community, encourage a concern for the rest of society.  Last week, picking up pizza in a snow storm, I talked with two other guys about the seemingly permanent winter.  We laughed together and shook our heads together.  We acknowledged each other with eye-contact and attention.  "Take care," one guy said as he walked back out into the world.  There is meaning in that.

I teach kids on the verge of adulthood, and inside of them there are untold depths of emotion, belief, insight, and aspiration.  But, I am afraid they are losing the ability to express what roams around inside them in any way other than texts and tweets.  I worry that they have spent so much time looking at phones, and so little time engaged in informal conversation that they have lost a necessary skill or at least gotten really rusty.  Like tigers in a zoo, their thoughts pace back and forth inside the cage so accustomed to imprisonment that they no longer yearn for escape, happy now with a more limited life.

So.  I reject the claims that attempt to explain away their silence.  I don't care that speaking makes them uncomfortable.  I don't care that they blush when they speak, or stutter, or that their thoughts come out in a muddled mess when they voice them.  I don't care that many aspire to enter a field of study or a career path that they think does not require speaking in front of others.  What I care about is what they have to say, and the absolute obligation to say it. 

I want my students to speak in front of others in their daily lives of classrooms and practice fields, dances and dinner tables.  I want them to look people in the eye and voice what they think, because conversation can expand horizons.  I want kids to vocally support those they believe are doing the right thing, and openly oppose those doing wrong.  I want them to say hello to strangers simply because they are people.  Bonds are formed through friendly greetings, discussions, and debates.  People are defined by what they have to say and when they choose to say it. 

This is a war, and we must all become foot soldiers.  We must all show kids growing up in this brave new world the importance of simple face-to-face conversation. We all need to lift our eyes from our phones and examine the world around us, engage others in our communal effort to make sense of this world.  Demonstrate the power of a voice by standing up to a racist or homophobic joke, saying with force and eloquence why it is not funny.  Empower our kids to vocalize what their limits are when someone tries to push them into uncomfortable situations.  Share the stories of moments you felt joy or sadness, and see in the eyes of others that they have felt that way too. See how similar we all are.  Connect, instead of just being connected.

Spring is coming, and some day soon with a warm breeze blowing in through our classroom windows I am going to give those seniors a few minutes.  Those minutes will be both a gift and a challenge, a break and an exercise in humanity.  I hope they take it.  I hope they fight the compulsion to pull out a phone and instead look someone in the eyes.  I hope they talk about prom, their excitement and apprehension at leaving this place at the end of the year, their dreams and aspirations.  Or just about the weather. 

I hope their voices fight each other to be heard.  I hope the sound is deafening and drowns out the silence.  I hope it spills out the window and into the spring air sending notice to the world that they are here, they have something to say, and they will be heard. 

 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Pond Hockey


Pond hockey is a simple game.  Wait for the lake to freeze, find a bunch of guys willing to put on ice hockey skates, buy some Advil and a bunch of extra pucks for all the shots we will miss, and play.  Those of you who have played know what I am talking about.  For those who don't, I am talking about a slip in time that lets you be a kid again.  I am talking about the reality of time travel. 

The excitement surrounding pond hockey begins early in the day, the first time one of us goes out and measures the ice.  Drill in hand we drive the bit into the frozen surface of the lake hoping like children that it won't give too soon, that we will feel at least four inches of resistance before hitting water.  We are dying to send out the text telling everyone that the ice is thick enough to skate, that the game is on. 

Once the news is out, we feel ourselves getting more and more distracted as the day goes on, maybe cutting corners on some task at work or reading a bedtime story a bit more quickly than usual.  By the time we are sitting on the ice lacing up skates, we are bursting with the same enthusiasm we see in the kids we are now raising, the ones we are out on the ice with most of the time.  Through a series of very cold winters, our sons and daughters have come to love the ice just as we do.  But these are the games reserved just for us. 

When we arrive, we race through the snow with our sticks and skates in hand, slipping our way down the icy path.  We are a ragtag bunch in sweatshirts and sweatpants, the occasional hockey jersey of some player traded away long ago.  We adjust the straps on our shin guards, holding them on our legs with a few turns of hockey tape, the Velcro worn out years ago.  We blow on our fingers as we try to lace up our skates in single digit temperatures.  It feels just like it did when we were teenagers and before.  We do everything quickly, not to beat the cold but to get out onto the ice that much more quickly.  When we first stride out and start skating around with a puck, we are transported.  Time shifts backwards, and we are kids again. 

With that comes a recklessness most of us left behind years ago.  We skate hard despite the rust we are shaking off all over the ice.  There is no checking, but no shortage of friendly bumps.  One guy needs to get his knee drained after taking a hard fall a couple of weeks ago; it looks like a rotten grapefruit.  Naturally, he is postponing the procedure until the ice melts.  This same guy completes a thorough warm-up routine at home before heading out onto the ice to protect his hip replacement.  Another plays with a brace to protect his newly repaired quad tendon, a brace he recently bent in a game.  Everyone is sore, and bruised, and scraped.  I am pretty sure at least a couple of us have been concussed.  No one is the athlete he once was, but we play like we are teenagers again. 

There is little we won't do to make it so we can get a game.  We have used shovels, and brooms, and a particularly effective rubber squeegee to clear the ice between efforts.  We have run snow blowers across the frozen lake, and followed behind with hoses connected to hot water heaters and threaded through basement windows.  One guy took a bunch of PVC pipe and built a hand-held Zamboni that attaches to a hose to help spread the water more evenly.  We have been out there in groups, and pairs, and alone prepping the ice.  We have filled small cracks by hand with snow and water, packing down our patchwork with a puck.  We have poured bottles of water we should have been drinking into expansion cracks to fill the gaps.  Hoses have frozen.  Hands and feet have frozen.  Temperatures have been so cold that the water coming out of the hose froze in ripples on the ice before it could finish spreading out. 

We have rescheduled business meetings, dates with our wives, trips to the store.  We have postponed countless meals, and chores, and bedtimes.  We have played past the point of exhaustion and then called for a quick game to five.  We have played four-on-four with goalies, and one-on-one without any goals at all.  Six weeks of ice in a row this year, and I am not sure any of us really wants Spring to arrive. 

One guy, who owns a construction company, has brought out a set of diesel-powered highway lights the last couple of years.  After getting the kids to bed, we head out for another hour or two under the lights.  I can hear that diesel generator fire up and see the glow of the lights from my house down the road.  I don't think I can explain to someone who has not been there the sheer beauty of that scene, driving across the dam and seeing that pool of bright white light, the silvery sheen of fresh ice.  I have stood and stared at the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo's David; I have seen the Mona Lisa.  They come close.

After a game, sitting on porch furniture pulled out atop the frozen lake, we share a few beers.  Despite storing them in coolers to insulate them against the arctic cold, we typically wind up sipping slushies as the post game chill descends.  The addition of drinks is the only thing that separates this from the pond hockey of our childhoods; the conversation is the same we had as kids.  It starts with verbal highlight reels: excited accounts of goals we scored, the perfect cross-ice pass, collective groans in response to the memory of the hardest falls.  We laugh about the open net shot sent sailing wide, or some penalty-worthy hack.  Listen to the words, the unbridled enthusiasm, and you are transported twenty or thirty years into the past.  We are just kids talking about a game. 

Eventually, with steam rising off of us and up into the frigid night air, the talk moves to our kids and our jobs, retirement savings and investments.  Huddled around an open fire, we make the transition back into adulthood.  Slowly we remember that our lives now include dependents and mortgages, ailing parents and daughters who date.  The frozen surface of our lake has hosted conversations about the tragedy of burying a parent, and the importance of realizing how little time we all have.  We have discussed the tricky balance of work and the rest of life.  We have voiced our hopes for the education of our children.  We have debated local politics, and lamented the gradual break down of our aging bodies.  Our conversations, sitting there after a game, become unequivocally adult.  We all have moments when we wonder how we became such grown-ups. 

That is the only time we remember how old we are, when the conversation turns to the responsibilities we all have.  The rest of the hours we spend preparing and playing we are time travelers, kids basking in the wonder of winter and the magic of water turned to ice. 

I know my neighbors better than I did before, or likely ever would have without the ice.  I have learned more about their jobs, their families, and their finances.  I have heard stories of some pretty rough times, and reflections about lives sailing along smoothly.  Hockey is like that.  Missed opportunities, cheap shots, and hard falls balanced against the smooth glide of a perfectly passed puck, the satisfying click of hitting another guy's blade, the celebration of a goal. 

The ice will melt this week, and Spring will slowly start to emerge.  Like a little kid, I will sulk a bit as I put away my skates.  But, like a little kid, I will look forward to next year and all the years to come.  Next year, when the lake freezes, men one year older will lace up and let the magic of pond hockey once again take us back to our youth. 




Sunday, January 11, 2015

28,740.1

Happy New Year everyone.  I only have 14,583 days to live. 

According to the most generous statistics I could find, the average life span for a human born in the developed world is 78.74 years.  That is 28,740.1 days.  Think about that for a second.  30,000 miles on a car is pretty close to a new car.  30,000 dollars in a retirement account will leave you destitute.  30,000 people is the population of a small town.  30,000 words is the length of the average young adult novel.  To travel 30,000 feet would not even take you six miles from your home.  30,000 days is about all most people get; I have already lived 14,157 of mine. 

I came across that fact while reading a book called The Humans.  When the character stated it, it was like I had just been knocked sideways out of my chair.  Incredulously, I pulled out my iPhone to check the math on the calculator and stared at the bleak truth.  Then for quite some time I just sat there.  That is a tiny little number.  Sure, I am a healthy guy.  I hope to outstrip that number, but either way, it is not a lot of time.  In my mind there are only two possible responses to staring directly at that number, and I have experienced both.  The first is crushing despair in which you allow yourself to consider the temporal blink your life really is.  The other, and the only viable choice is to self-assess, make deliberate choices, and live with the urgency people normally reserve for house fires.

So, I started with my phone.  I am not a fan of being bossed around, but here I am like one of Pavlov's dogs every time it dings or rings or beeps.  A recent study has revealed that the average person with a smartphone spends ninety minutes a day calling, texting, tweeting, and surfing the web.  Do a little multiplication and that is 1,423.5 days.  That is almost five percent of your time here on earth. 

I put new batteries into my watches.  I had stopped wearing a watch because the clock was right there on the lock screen of my phone.  But how many times have you looked at your phone for the time and gotten pulled in by a text, email, or app?  Used correctly, my phone is remarkable and helpful.  I like being able to send a quick text, having a camera with me everywhere I go, and finding my way with GPS when I make a wrong turn.  Used incorrectly it is burdensome.  It is exhausting having something constantly prodding for your attention and demanding more of your time, forcing you to respond that instant and do things you had not set out to do. 

I want to be deliberate with my money and purchases as well.  When my wife and I decide we need to buy something, we try to get it used. Most of my clothes are from second-hand stores. Many of our Christmas presents, including our son's favorite, were previously owned. This simple process of tracking down quality used items rather than buying new brings me a great deal of happiness.  I look at the world my kids will inherit and know that I am reducing my carbon footprint and helping keep useable goods out of a landfill. I am saving hundreds of dollars that can be spent instead on experiences like travel, concerts, museums, and charity. I am sending a message to my students who may not be able to afford the newest fashions that it does not matter, that it is not about clothes.  I am breaking the grip of materialism and choosing what I want to give my money to.

Next is my house.  We are purging our house aggressively and with great joy.  To give you an idea of the scope of this, I have already driven more than five packed carloads of stuff to donation centers and the local dump.  Something as simple as getting dressed is easier because everything in my closet is something I actually like, and I can see it all.  My kids have toys they actually play with, and a place to put them away.  The old forgotten toys are now in the hands of kids for whom they are new and exciting.  Every time I take a bag out of the house I feel freer.  There is a great TED Talk called "Less Stuff, More Happiness" by Graham Hill that talks about ruthlessly editing your life, culling out some of the stuff that bogs us down.  We are going through every drawer and every shelf and freeing ourselves of the burden of all that stuff.  Imagine a house filled only with your favorite things.  Imagine the lightness of owning only what you need. 

One of the biggest immediate results of these changes is that I am not telling my kids to hold on quite as frequently.  For any parents reading this, think about that.  Childhood is fleeting and utterly beautiful.  We all know this, but we don't always respect it.  Right now, my sons want to share with me every single thing that excites them.  Too often, I respond by sending the message that it is not important to me to share that moment.  Don't get me wrong, some of what they want to share is mind-numbingly boring.  I can only pretend to be a ninja for so long.  But, I want to be deliberate about those choices.  Is what I am doing worth what I might miss?  For how many years will they turn to me with such excitement?  How many times will I be able to really watch and listen to their laughter?  Do I want to respond to an email or their excitement?  These are deliberate choices.

Phones and stuff in my house are just the start.  Making deliberate choices about who I spend time with, how I interact with people, how I use all of my limited time matters.   I want to be connected to people in meaningful ways so I have been writing hand-written letters, and receiving the most thoughtful and amazing responses.  I am giving people I speak with my full attention.  I am thinking more carefully about my classroom, my lessons, and the students I am so fortunate to teach.  I am trying very hard to smile more. 

The clock is running and it is running fast.  We are being chased by Death, and he is going to catch us.  For all of us, it will be sooner than we like.  We must find the wasted moments and cut them out like a cancer.  With the time we have here, we must be deliberate in what we do. 

14,582 to go.  Tick tock.  Tick tock.