Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Legal in Virginia

When you know it's right, it's right.

This morning after 16+ years together, Heidi and I went on down to the courthouse and got us a marriage license, and while there was no walk down the aisle, there were many wedding day smiles when the civil celebrant put it all to rest, as long as we both shall live.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bragging Rights

A few months ago my brother complained of hip pain that grew excruciating when he was forced to sit still, for example on airplanes (on which he traveled on all the time for work), for any length of time over a little while. "I know what it is," I said. "It's bursitis."

I was able to speak with such authority, not only because I'm a notorious know-it-all, but also because, I, too, had suffered from such pain. Regular readers might recall that back in May of 2012 I sought help from an acupuncturist for my malady. Back then, after a couple of months of semi-weekly treatment, I was pain-free. Recently, though, that hitch in my left-side giddy-up has returned and so I also returned for a little more spinning needle therapy today. Although my relief was not quite as immediate as last time, I am looking forward to a couple of 30 minute snoozes a week for the next month or so.

Oh? And when, a couple of days after that conversation, my mother called to check in with my brother about his own hip, he had been diagnosed and treated, and in response he spoke some of my favorite words:

"Tracey was right." 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Shipping News

The guy at the UPS store saw us coming: he burst out the door to help us with our burden of parcels and bags and boxes to be shipped. Once inside, though, it was him who seemed to be hyperventilating. "We'll get through this!" he said under his breath surveying the load now stacked neatly on the floor by the counter.

Our eyebrows were raised; we knew there was a lot to send, but this was a shipping store, wasn't it? And as nice and helpful as he was to us, he was a little testy with any new customers coming in the door, "It's going to be a few minutes," he informed them curtly.

Each box that was taped up, weighed, and labeled was a personal triumph, a huge weight off his shoulders and onto the pick-up pile. And when, 85 pounds later, at last I swiped my card and signed the slip to finalize the transaction, for a moment it seemed like he might vault the counter to give us a high five or something, so it was a little anti-climactic when he simply nodded and said, "Next customer?"

Sunday, December 28, 2014

There is a World Elsewhere

After eight crazy days of family, we dropped the last of our holiday guests at the airport this afternoon and decided to head downtown instead of home. There we entered a jolly throng of folks visiting the mall and its museums. The Nature's Best Photography exhibit was stunning as always, and there were several fun items on sale at the bustling National Gallery gift shop. Afterwards, a crescent moon shone bravely through the clouds and stop lights reflected red on the wet pavement of Constitution Avenue as we drove home in the gathering dusk, and it felt good to have rejoined the world.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Color of Time

Looking for a movie to entertain our diverse group, I found The Hustler on Netflix this afternoon, and sure enough it had something to hold the attention of each of us: Heidi's dad liked the pool playing; her mom liked Paul Newman; her brother was interested in watching a classic for the first time, and I got a kick out of seeing Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats. When it was all over, I flipped immediately to its sequel. I saw The Color of Money back in '86 when it came out, and I haven't seen it since. Back then, I considered it a Tom Cruise movie, of course, and Paul Newman seemed like a minor character who abandons Vincent in a temper tantrum.

Today, though, I was mostly interested in seeing how Fast Eddie fared in the 25 years following his hollow victory in Ames, and when it came down to that final showdown in Atlantic City, I was actually rooting for the old man. Sure, Tom Cruise and I are the same age, born just a few days apart, but both of us are much closer to Eddie Felson's age now. Funny how that happens.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Don't Let Me Interrupt

I was upstairs washing my face and cleaning up a little after dinner, and when I opened the door to go downstairs I heard raised voices below. Heidi, her brother, and parents were having a little argument about sex, the church, and marriage. "That's called fornication," Mark said forcefully, and all of a sudden? I didn't need to go downstairs anymore. So I tip-toed back into my room and quietly closed the door.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

What is Christmas?

This year our family holiday traditions were upended tail over tea kettle, and in the days leading up to Christmas there were several earnest and somewhat emotional discussions about how and when things should happen. In the end, like Charlie Brown's Christmas pageant, everything turned out just right. The truth is, with the spirit of the season and our abiding love for each other, we couldn't fail.

Merry Christmas everybody!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sounds Like Fun

We have only opened our stockings, but so far a big hit of this holiday has been the hand held sound effect machine that 9-year-old Richard got. With 16 options ranging from applause to farting it's entertaining on its own, but when we invented a little game where someone asks a question that must be answered by pressing one of the buttons, things got really hilarious.

Treat: Why is there something rather than nothing?
Richard: Bomb falling and exploding

Me: How do you feel about your brother?
Annabelle: Loud belching sound

And then she whipped out the tiny pink water pistol she got from her Christmas cracker aimed it at Richard and punched the sound of a weapon loading and firing.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Do You See What I See?

You do if you're looking at turducken. Which incidentally, as Bill observed, looks exactly like the roast beast they serve down in Whoville. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Prettiest Sight You'll See

I have been looking for the ideal location to string that extra set of mini LED lights since the 2-pack arrived a couple of weeks ago. The first one festoons the window behind my desk at school, and I like it so much there that it will continue to blink merrily all throughout the year. But the second set sat forlornly on the dining room table until last night, when it occurred to me that a table-top tree for the apartment our neighbor has so kindly lent my sister and her family would be the perfect place for it.

And that's what we did: there was a cute little balsam with colorful lights aglow waiting for them when they pulled in from Atlanta at 1:30 last night. The paper reindeer with the handprint antlers that Annabelle presented to me then was an instant tree-topper, and this morning we made ornaments from shrinky dinks. Sure, I've seen a lot of pretty trees this year, but this one? Is definitely in the top three.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Christmas Past

I am a freshman in college, thousands of miles from my family, feeling all alone in a tiny town in upstate New York. A high school buddy of my dad's is the principal of the local school, though, and sometimes I babysit for his three children. On this December night, after the kids are in bed, rather than study for exams as I should, I snap on the TV. Sitting in a family living room rather than surrounded by the cinder block walls of my dorm room seems so normal, that I can't resist. I don't need to turn the knob far to find what I want to watch-- John Denver and the Muppets are in the middle of a corny version of The Twelve Days of Christmas, and for the next hour Home seems a little closer.

When it's time to go home in a couple of weeks, I bring the soundtrack album with me, and over the next thirty-five years it becomes a family classic in all its goofy, sappy splendor, but the show itself is lost, never released to be viewed again...

Until tonight, that is. Last year I ordered a bootleg copy from some sketchy internet pirate, and although it didn't arrive in time for Christmas then, I have it now, and true it's blurry and quite dated, but I am not disappointed.

Saturday, December 20, 2014


I hung the last of the ornaments on the Christmas tree today, and as I worked, I took a moment to admire each one in our collection. It was with pleasure that I placed the hiking boot, the loon, the snow shoes, and all the curly white dogs. As I found a place of honor for both the pencil and the pen, I noted that there was no computer, phone, or tablet, and I knew then, in my curator's heart, that there never would be.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Sprung from Cages Out on Hwy 9

My breath was the only thing steaming as I waited in my 37 degrees car this evening. My battery was dead, but I knew it was coming (it's been a lazy cranker all week), and honestly? Things could have been much worse. As it was, I could see the bright lights of my warm classroom from where I was, and roadside assistance was on the way.

As I waited, I thought back to other car troubles in other times. In my early 20s, I lived at the beach and my brother, sister, and I drove a succession of beat-up Hondas and VWs. When they wouldn't start, we would get whichever of our friends were around to roll them onto the flat feeder road that ran parallel to the shore and while everyone pushed, one of us would sit in the driver's seat, pop the clutch, and floor the accelerator to get the engine running. Then, with a toot and a wave, the driver would speed off to charge the battery on the wide boulevards of our resort town. It felt like a magic trick every time.

I guess cars were less complicated then, and it seemed like everything else was, too.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

You Have Not Because You Ask Not

We were discussing the theme of a short memoir in reading class today. The basic plot line is that a dad takes his six children into a department store where they happen to be selling baby chicks. One of the kids utters the words we have all spoken, most of us more than once. "Can we get one, Dad?"

This dad says, "Sure."

The oldest brothers in the story look at each other in disbelief. "We can?!" one asks.

And then, when the half-dozen of them are bickering for picking rights, their dad tells them that they can each have one.

At this point, I always pause, and look out at the class. They are generally wide-eyed, because, they, like the kids in the memoir,


Later in the story, their mother is also incredulous that her husband would think such a thing was a good idea, and one of the chicks dies and the oldest brother offers to share his with his grieving little brother, but through it all, when asked what they take away from this tale, the students always come up with some version of It never hurts to ask. Like today, they offered my favorite yet: Expect the impossible! And they mean it in the best possible way.

And it is the charm of such childish optimism, especially at this time of year, that is one of the reasons I'm going back tomorrow. (But after that? I'm going to take a couple weeks off.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Old-fashioned Way

What advice to give a classroom full of sixth graders with brand new iPads?

Well... in addition to the pages of acceptable use guidelines and possible consequences for misuse (I had my group do charades), in the end the best guidance I could give was this:

If your iPad makes the job quicker and easier, then use it, but if not? Don't.

And so it was that in reply to several complaints that was inadequate for the current assignment needs, I finally held up one of the twenty-five volumes we have in the classroom in exasperation. "Try this! It's called dictionary dot BOOK!"

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Last Time for Everything

I changed into sweats and a hoodie when I got home from school today and then ran out to the grocery for a few things. At the register the cashier asked for my ID before scanning my six pack of beer.

It's been a while since that happened.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Sidewalks of Life

The list of classic childhood injuries is mercifully short if oft-repeated. Skinned knees and elbows, mosquito bites, stubbed toes, and crushed fingers top the list. As we grow older those maladies are replaced by pimples, paper cuts, sunburns, and hangovers; our earlier mishaps become nostalgic novelties. Later still, we are beset by those prosaic aches and pains accompanied by lingering suspicions of more serious indispositions.

Is this progression or digression? Hard to say, but I can tell you from personal experience today that it still hurts like hell to get your fingers closed in a door.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Found Poetry

A friend's daughter posted the following on Facebook:

I want to tell a something.

I am miss my older brother,

He is moving to heading to new Colorado in today, And He is time new a chapter of his life but he will learning more a adventure new a place like beautifully, A cold in there. And I hope He will be safety in the Colorado and I know that is dangerous is big road because of ice and snow as I am sure.
I want to thank you for long time you and I are taught know many years be though we are know each other a close big brother and little sister. And also I am always love him as my brother and I know he is good guy and good rough of man. He is always used care of me because I am his little sister.

My Brother,
I hope you be safety in new Colorado and I am sure you will love photography in there a lot as more and also hope you will see visit to us again. Merry Christmas.

The author is deaf, and so perhaps her writing is shaped by ASL, but regardless, I am captivated by both the powerful prose and the surprising syntax, and I find it quite beautiful.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

O, Christmas Tree

Each December the Lions Club takes over a little corner of a grocery store parking lot not far from our home. Staffed by friendly volunteers, they offer a nice selection of firs and balsams, and it is there that we usually find the perfect tree for us. Every year jolly men in parkas and boots assisted by pink-cheeked high school boys carry our find to the front of the lot, give it a nice fresh cut, bind it in plastic mesh, and tie it to the roof of our car.

This evening when we pulled up after a busy day of shopping and errands, we were greeted by a whole different staff, comprised mostly of teenaged girls in fuzzy pajamas, thermal shirts, down vests, and knit caps. Their leader was a woman of perhaps sixty with a bit of a harried air; she manned the electric saw as most of the girls chattered by the binder. As we waited to have our tree trunk trimmed, another customer called over to her. "I see you have a new crew here! Are they any good?" he asked with a wink.

She looked at the assembly maneuvering a Fraser fir toward the parking lot. "They're very," here she paused, "energetic," she finished diplomatically.

"We heard that!" The girls shouted back, and then they giggled as they hefted the tree onto the roof of the waiting car and neatly tied it in place.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Nothing You Dismay

In my years as a teacher, I have sat through many a school concert, and in general, I'm pretty impressed with what the music department at our school can do with a couple hundred novice, not to mention child, musicians.

In the last few years they have introduced short interludes played by small ensembles between acts.  It's a great concept; it gives the restless adolescent audience something to focus on as the crew resets the stage between the chorus, orchestra, and band portions of the show. These mini-numbers aren't always as strong; there a lot fewer musicians to bolster the performance, but it's impossible not to give the student musicians props for their effort.

Today I was delighted to hear a couple of former students, brothers, playing a french horn-trombone duet of O Tannenbaum, but it was the brassy, trumpet-tuba version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman that made me wish I had brought my phone along to record it...  And I mean this in the most affectionate way: it was so bad, it was awesome!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Gno Way!

A few days ago my nephew texted me a picture of his dinner.

Away at college, he had prepared the homemade sweet potato gnocchi that we made together while he was home for Thanksgiving-- how awesome is that?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


My students were doing some dictionary work for their weekly word study when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw one kid slam his finger onto the page and turn wide-eyed to his partner. "Is this even allowed in school?!" he demanded.

To be honest, that type of thing happens a lot-- students are forever looking up "inappropriate" words in the dictionary and pointing them out for the entertainment of those around them. What follows is usually a brief lecture on maturity from me, and today I took a deep breath in preparation as I walked over to the two boys huddled over the giant book opened before them.

"Granny!" read the first student. "An OLD LADY!"

"That's just rude!" replied his partner, and then slid his finger down the page to graph.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Junk Fair

Today was the day when I took my classes to the school book fair. Sponsored by the PTA, it has been an annual tradition at our school since before I started. My students are always so excited to go and check out the merch in the makeshift bookstore set up in the library that it truly makes me question the fall of brick and mortar commerce. It's never the books that they want most, though-- most of their crumpled bills and sweaty coins go for posters, bookmarks, pencils, and other novelties such as this year's big seller, the chocolate calculator. For four bucks you got a little box that had either a calculator made to resemble a chocolate bar or a chocolate bar made to resemble a calculator; I'm still not sure which.

Monday, December 8, 2014


I've noticed that my students this year are really good test-takers, and by that I mean they are very respectful of a testing environment, always quiet and quite serious. I don't mean that they are good at studying for tests, because they are not; preparing in advance for an assessment on specific material is still an emerging skill for most of them.

That's not entirely unexpected, though, managing a schedule of 7-8 different teachers is one of the ways middle school kicks it up a notch from elementary school. Unfortunately, they also seem to have another glaring weakness as well: so many times when I ask them to use their imagination they act as if their brains are breaking.

Just today in a mini-lesson on figurative language the question was "If the main character in your book was an animal what would he or she be and why?" I was astonished at how many students could not fathom how to approach this exercise. "There's no right or wrong answer," I told them, "as long as you can explain why." And that seemed to frustrate them even more.

PS Could it actually be 34 years since we lost John Lennon? Imagine that.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Fire Side Chats

"I just don't learn that way," a friend of mine said the other day when I was asking her, again, if she was listening to the podcast that is sweeping the nation, Serial.

So that was a no, but it was not a no I could really understand. Personally, I love the radio, and specifically, talk radio. In fact, I'm sure I listen to way more radio than I watch TV, which is a revelation to even me, as I type this.

My appreciation of the medium actually goes pretty far back; I have clear memories of being eleven and desperately trying to tune my AM radio through the static to find WOR from New York City. At 7 PM, the airwaves were usually pretty cooperative, despite the 70 miles separating me from the station. What did I want to hear, you wonder? The CBS Radio Mystery Hour, hosted by EG Marshall.

Oh, it was an acknowledged throw-back to the golden days of radio, but I couldn't get enough of the suspenseful audio drama. Later, I became a fan of Prairie Home Companion, also a nostalgia-fueled program. And these days? In addition to news, I love me some audiobooks and podcasts. And just tonight I heard a radio documentary on Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, who were, it seems, the first family of radio.

Of course, I was enthralled.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Well Played

Every middle school kid is fragile in some way, but some are a little more so than others. This year we have such a student; he had enough trouble in elementary school that we were all a little worried about how he might make the transition to sixth grade. So far, he's surprised everyone with how well he's doing. In fact, if I didn't know what to look out for, it probably wouldn't be on my radar screen at all.

Sure, he's a character; and when the other day he burst into homeroom in his usual state of disorganization and dishevelment and asked loudly for everyone's attention, he certainly had mine.

I watched carefully as the 12 other kids stopped talking and turned to face him with curiosity.

"I have a very important announcement!" he continued. "I... have... an... ocarina!!!!" Then he bowed slightly and headed toward his seat.

"No one cares if you have an ocarina!" snorted one of the other students.

I took a deep breath, but before I could address this unkind remark, the first kid turned to his classmate and replied, "Dude! Nobody cares if anybody has an ocarina. That's why it's funny!" Then he shrugged and sat down.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Free WiFi

I played a little soft jazz for my students this week as they circulated through the class sharing ideas for their next writing pieces. It was what I happened to have on play on my phone, and I figured it was unobjectionable enough.

I never would have predicted how popular it would be! In fact yesterday, at our voluntary, after-school study hall, which we call "homework club", several students requested that I put it on.

"It's so relaxing," said one.

"Yeah," added another, "we should call this the homework cafe!"

And indeed, they sat scattered around tables and in easy chairs, with books and lap tops, working diligently.

Heck! I was tempted to start serving warm drinks!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

No Scrubs

My mother always taught me to clean up as I cooked, but working in a professional kitchen rapidly disabused me of that good habit, and so I usually just pile my bowls, pots and pans at the edge of the sink and keep on cooking. At our house, I'm the chief cook and so rarely am I also the bottle-washer. There are times, though, when I am finished with our meal, and I look at that hefty stack by the sink, and just grab me a sponge or a dishrag and get to washing.

Tonight was one such night. As I scrubbed, my thoughts floated up with the soap bubbles and back to my first cooking job. It was in a little cafe with a cold case. We made fresh pasta on the premises and sandwiches to order, but the primary business was filling the case and catering. The backbone of the kitchen staff was Robert-- he made the pasta and supervised the clean up and prep staff which consisted of his sister, Reesa, and his brothers Richard and Seward.

Seward was actually the oldest sibling, but he was, as we described him back then, simple, and so he did all the dishes and mopped the floors. He was a cheerful guy with a huge grin, and his signature replies were, "I sure am!" or "You do, don't ya?" The owners had affectionately dubbed him "Monsieur," and everyone appreciated his sunny personality and more than tolerated his occasional foibles.

Once I was having a conversation with another cook, and as Seward came by, he mistakenly thought we were addressing him. He stopped, confused. "I'm not talking to you, Seward," I shook my head as I corrected him.

"Why?" he asked, crestfallen. "What'd I do!?"

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

That Bell Can't Be Unrung

Today my students and I were talking about the theme of immortality and whether living forever would really be all it's cracked up to. Our discussion was centered around Tuck Everlasting, but I asked the class to make connections to other books they knew.

Personally, I was thinking vampire, because there has never been a topic that made me wish for immortality less; Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer have convinced me of just how boring everlasting life would be.

My students were engaged in the conversation too-- they suggested Eragon and certain Greek gods. "Are elves immortal in the Lord of the Rings series or do they just live a long time?" someone asked.

"What about wizards in Harry Potter?" wondered another student.

"No way!" I said. "They kill each other all the time. Even Dumbledore dies," I shrugged.

"What???" the student cried. "Dumbledore dies?!!!!"

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Two for One

I stood idly arranging the contents of my grocery cart to fit on the belt as compactly as possible; perishables, cans, boxes, and bags all jigsawed neatly together. The order ahead of mine seemed to be taking a long time, and instead of wishing I was somewhere else, my attention was drawn to the animated conversation of two young women in the next line over. They had serendipitously run into each other here, and so they chattered about the recent holiday, cute nieces and nephews, work, mutual friends. One mentioned a certain yoga studio to the other, and her friend replied that she had been meaning to try it. "Oh you should!" The first woman said. "It's wonderful! I'm literally there all the time!"

At that I chuckled to my inner English teacher and recited a little poetry back to myself:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both 
And be one traveler, long I stood

Evidently the lady in the other line didn't have that quandary. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Another World

We had dinner with a friend of my mom's tonight. She's been a lobbyist in Washington for over 25 years, and although I don't always agree with her perspective, I really appreciate her sensibility. It's practical and on a level that I rarely have the opportunity to experience.

For example, when you're a teacher looking for a position, you have one maybe two interviews, usually around a cheap table in a make-shift conference room at the school where you're applying. Tonight Shannon told us the story of her nephew, a 23-year-old who refuses to eat much more than his childhood favorites. 

"If he applies for a job," she said, "and he's one of two finalists? I'm sorry, but if I take him to lunch and he orders chicken fingers? No way he's getting the job!"

Wait. What? They take job applicants to lunch?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Stuff It


Between Mom
And Tracey
And Bill (in opposition)
And Courtney (in absentia)

Now, therefore, it is hereby agreed as follows:


In this agreement the following terms shall have the following definitions:

"Tur" means turkey, a bird, poultry

"Duck"means duck, a water fowl, poultry

"en" means chicken, a bird, poultry


This agreement shall commence on the effective day and shall continue until completion, on or before December 25, 2014.


Each Party undertakes to each other Party to perform and fulfill on time the tasks assigned to it by the Steering Group and all other of its obligations under this Agreement.

THUS DONE AND PASSED in the County of Arlington on the 30th day November 2014 in the presence of the Witnesses.

Saturday, November 29, 2014


Five years ago I could hardly tear myself away from the book I was reading to enjoy our traditional Thanksgiving celebration. I took every opportunity I could to steal a few moments and return to the riveting tale of Katniss Everdeen and her battle to survive the Hunger Games. At the time, the series had not yet caught fire, and no one else I knew quite understood my minor obsession, and how hard it was knowing I had to wait until August to read the conclusion to the saga.

Since then, with the release of the movies such exquisite agony has practically become a November tradition. Last year we had to wait until now to see how the suspenseful conclusion of Catching Fire would be resolved, and now it won't be until November 20, 2015 that we will see how it all ends up.

It just seems so far away.

Friday, November 28, 2014

That Holiday Spirit

Steve and Eydie crooned merrily from the speakers as Kyle opened his Christmas gifts from us and his grandparents tonight. We were lucky enough to have him here for Thanksgiving, but we won't see him again until sometime in the new year, hence the early celebration.

He had sent out a three item wish list in October that screamed 14-year-old boy. Along with a couple of video games, there was a blue and black hooded coat with lots of zippers, brass buttons, and some kind of tails in the back. It was a replica from Assassin's Creed, another video game, and he was clearly pleased when he opened the package from Gary and Louise that contained it. 

We laughed the way adults do at things kids like that they find foolish, but none of our gentle ribbing could make him question his choice. "What is it even made of?" Heidi asked.

"Leather!" Kyle said with pride.

"That is not leather," Heidi told him. "It's more like pleather."

"No," Kyle insisted. "The description said it was made of some kind of leather; I think it was fox leather."

It seemed a shame that any animal should have lost its life for that garment, but it seemed highly unlikely that if any did, it was a fox. I was still trying to wrap my brain around it when Heidi replied. "Fox!? How did they spell it? F-a-u-x?"

"Yeah!" Said Kyle. "How'd you know?"

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thirty Hours a Day

I was talking to Treat about our family tradition of hanging out playing games and eating leftovers on the day after Thanksgiving. We agreed that it suited us much better than shopping. "My gosh," I said, looking at the time. "It's six o'clock right now. We could already be at the stores!"

"Black Friday," Treat shook his head,"it's the longest day of the year."

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

This Day

Fat wet snowflakes were falling as Annabelle, Richard and I stepped out of the house to give the dogs a potty break. Emily and Heidi were running errands; inside, Mom was cooking dinner; Courtney was baking pies; Bill and Jordan were tracking Riley and Treat's progress on their journey home. Soon we would all be together.

"Let's go for a little walk," I suggested.

"Really?" The kids asked.

"Sure, why not?" I shrugged. "There's a park right around the corner."

They both fairly danced through the snow and up the sidewalk, and the dogs and I trotted happily behind. At the corner, Annabelle turned to face me with pink cheeks. "This is the best day of my life!"

I put my free arm around her and gave her a little hug of agreement. As days go, it was definitely up there.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Little Goes a Long Way

Some kind soul at our school used the day before Thanksgiving break to have students fill out little cards telling who they were thankful for. I was touched to receive four, but one in particular stood out. It came from a student who struggles in my class. He does not complete homework or classwork, and his writing and quiz grades are low. It's frustrating to work with him sometimes because it's hard to tell if he is unwilling or unable.

The hectic day was over when I checked my box one last time before heading off for vacation. One last little red card was waiting there.

"I'm thankful for Ms. S," that student had written, "because she's so calm and nice."

And just like that? All my aggravation was gone.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Vacation Creep

Two day work week before Thanksgiving?
What's the point?
I'm ready for my break now!

[This comment scheduled to be re-posted with minor revisions in 4 weeks.]

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Proof that God Loves Us

For weeks now I've been on the hunt for a rare commodity: Gingerbread Stout. A limited release with terrific reviews, this beer sells out within thirty minutes around here. Twice I've busted out of work to try and snag a bottle or two, and twice I've been the recipient of a less than sympathetic snort when I asked if perhaps there was any left. Oh, I'm not sure I'll even like it, but by golly, I want to try it!

In the meantime, I have spent some extra time in beer stores, and I've found a few other interesting offerings, some of them equally appropriate for the season-- yes, I'm talking to you, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme Saison!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thanksgiving by the Letter

My sister group-texted us all this morning:

Annabelle is getting excited to see everyone!

And I replied: Me too!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Off the Clock

Courtesy of back-to-back field trip days and the upcoming short week, I was able to actually leave school at my contract time today. My plan was to run a few Thanksgiving errands, and as I pushed open the glass doors and stepped into the crisp 3 PM November sunshine there was a purposeful bounce in my step. "Have a good weekend!" I waved to the small group of students outside.

"Wait! What?" answered one. "Where are you going? Don't you have to work until, like, at least 5?"


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Get Out

Just yesterday I was talking to two colleagues about the prospects of administering yet one more universal test for yet one more data point. "Fortunately the pendulum seems to be swinging away from this insanity," I said.

"You know how education is," another teacher said. "This has been going on for, what, about ten years? It's going to be something new, soon."

"What do you think that will be?" asked the third of us.

There were shrugs all around, but at some point in the conversation we came up with what we thought was the exact opposite of the now in schools across our country. "Experiential education?" someone suggested. "Where the kids actually get to do things?"

We laughed, but it was definitely rueful. Back when this testing trend started, I never believed I'd be at a school or in a system where field trips were considered, at best, unnecessary, and at worst, detrimental, but that's definitely the climate I'm teaching in now. While every sixth grader is soon to have an iPad, our bus budget has been slashed so that if we want to take more than one trip a year, we will have to charge the students for transportation.

Today happened to be the day of our only field trip this year. We took the students to a local nature center where they participated in a program about energy. The visit involved walking through a community garden that had been winterized, and seeing the rescued raptors (a red-tailed hawk, great horned owl, and two barred owls). As we ate our lunch, chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and titmice flocked to the feeders just outside the window, and two deer grazed at the edge of the woods below us.

All the students showed some interest in what they were seeing and hearing about, but one girl in particular sought me out and sat next to me at lunch. She is a very nice kid, but often distracted and silly in my class. Her grades are mediocre and below, mostly because she doesn't get her work done. When you talk to her about it, she agrees good-naturedly to try to do better, but academic success seems like a low priority.

Today she was animated and engaged. She loved the raptors, was fascinated by the deer and the other birds, and had something relevant to say about every exhibit. As she chattered excitedly at lunch about everything we'd seen so far, I hardly recognized her as the child who usually sits so passively in my room.

Her test scores are low compared to those of her peers, and it's a cliche to point out that they don't tell the whole story. But that part of the story that data leaves untold may be best discovered away from the traditional classroom, and we'll never know what it is if we don't get out there.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

In Reply to a Former Student

Dear Ethan,

Sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you-- your letter has been sitting by my laptop for several weeks, but I have been waiting for a time when I had the time to compose (and revise!) a thoughtful reply.

First, I’m really pleased to hear that you are writing in your spare time, and it’s even better news that you feel passionate about it. You were reluctant to write much last year, but when you did, it was always interesting and creative. I’m curious about what made you start writing more in your spare time. What kind of things are you writing? I hope you’ll elaborate more on that in future letters.

You asked me about my thoughts on improvement, and so I decided to apply the question to something we have in common-- school. Our roles here are different, but to me, teaching and learning can never be mutually exclusive. No matter what I may be doing in my classroom, if my students are not learning, can I call my actions "teaching"? Even if I'm trying really, really, really hard to teach, without that learning thing, I'm not quite hitting the target, am I?

There’s an old joke that kind of explains what I mean:

Two guys are walking their dogs down the street and one guy says to the other, “Hey, did I tell you I taught my dog to whistle?”

“That’s amazing!” says his friend. “Let’s hear him do it!”

“I said I taught him,” the first man replied. “I didn’t say he learned.”

So what is teaching then? Where's the metaphor that best describes it? A proverb that is often mentioned is Teaching is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire. I kind of like the image of igniting that passion for learning in the hope that it will continue burning after you’re gone. It seems to put all the responsibility on the teacher, though. What’s the student’s role?

After some serious thought, the adage that I currently favor to explain my philosophy of teaching is this one: When the student is ready, the master will appear.

Public school teachers, though, can’t choose our students, and we can’t change them, either, so what do we do if they are not ready? With apologies to Batman, how can we be both the master they need and the master they deserve?

One way is to recognize that a master takes many forms. It may be a book or a poem, another student, a project, or an after-school activity. Even if we are not personally the masters they are ready for, we can help our students to find the masters they need by giving them lots of opportunities to think.

So, what about you, Ethan? Where do you fit in? You asked me how I thought you could improve, and here’s what I think: Start by being aware of all those opportunities; don’t dismiss anything as boring or irrelevant before you’ve given it a chance.

My advice to you is to be ready for the master in as many situations as you can.
Take Care,

Ms. S.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How 'bout That?

Each Monday my students take a skills quiz to assess the nuts and bolts of their writing, and to, well, practice test-taking in a formative, low stakes kind of a way. (But let's not get into that right now.)

This week they were asked to edit a short piece of writing for misused homonyms. The errors were underlined and students were supposed to substitute the write, er, right word. Most kids did fine, but there were some creative replies. For example, one part of the passage read, "Lets plant beans since they sprout quickly," and the little test-takers were tasked with replacing that lets with the correct contraction.

One student crossed out the lets all together and replaced it with How about we all grow beans...

Monday, November 17, 2014

Tails You Lose

"How was Philadelphia?" a co-worker asked me today while she was picking up her copies from the printer in my room, and before I could open my mouth to gush, she continued, "Because I HATE that city!"

My eyebrows were at attention, and I'm sure my surprise was evident.

"Oh, I know," she waved her hand, "there's gentrification, but I Market Street is sooo depressing! All those boarded up department stores? And, a homeless man actually whipped it out and peed on me... in. front. of. INDEPENDENCE HALL!"

I nodded and tried to say something. "We have friends who live over by Penn," she shrugged, "and, sure, it's nice..." she looked at me skeptically, "but not nice enough!"

"What about Reading Market?" I asked, thinking that no one could possibly complain about all that wonderful food.

"Oh my God, no!" she spat, "I hate the way it smells!" Then she laughed and walked toward the door with her printing. "I just don't like Philly," she finished.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Fall in Philadelphia

It was fun walking around Philadelphia today.  We went by several places I remember from my childhood-- the department stores we visited at Christmastime for their holiday windows, my dad's office building, and Independence Hall. As a city Philly is very agreeable: historic, compact, and flat, and it's narrow streets and old buildings gave it a welcoming warmth even in the November chill. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

City of Brotherly Love

And in the perfect ending to my stroll down memory lane, I find myself in Philadelphia for the weekend. I haven't visited this city for almost 40 years, but when I was a kid, we lived just across the Delaware River. Philly was a top field trip destination for all my school years from first to eighth grade, when we moved away.

When we put this trip on the calendar last spring, Heidi wanted to go to the highly rated vegan restaurant, Vedge, and I had one desire, to walk through the giant heart at The Franklin Institute. Today we did both, and neither one of us was disappointed.

Tomorrow? Reading Market, Independence Hall, Blackbird Pizza, Cesar Millan, and maybe even Jack's Bar are on the itinerary.

It's good to be back!

Friday, November 14, 2014


As I mentioned earlier in the week, my students are writing letters to their future selves. One of the choices they have to make is how far in the future they want to write. Almost all are within 10 years, and most don't go beyond high school. That makes sense to me-- they can't really imagine themselves much older than that.

One student is a bit of an outlier in more areas than this, and he chose to write to himself 40 years from now. "I hope you have a mansion," he said, "and that you still like video games, and I really, really, really hope you're not married."

His honesty was as poignant as it was amusing, but as he revised I suggested that he add more details about the person he is now. "Forty years is a long time," I said, "you probably won't remember much at all." As I spoke, I looked at the date on the blackboard and thought back 40 years myself.

The air practically shimmered like a flashback sequence on an old TV show as I recollected the details of those long-ago days. I was in 7th grade then. I can still name several of my teachers and describe my bedroom. I know who my friends were, which pets we had, and what our gym uniforms looked like. This last detail is seared into my mind, because it was that year that I broke my arm in PE just a day after winter break. Our uniforms were one piece, zip-up garments that were sewn to look like striped shirts over solid shorts. When I fell and broke my arm, the nurse splinted it making it impossible to remove my uniform. I was forced to pull on plaid pants over it, and my mother took me to the emergency room in that embarrassing outfit.

I shared the story of my fractured ulna with the class, and they were a very appreciative audience. "Wow!" said one little girl. "How do you remember all that? I can't even remember what happened last week!"

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Winter Come Early

The temperature drops sharply, and at the grocery store we move from the apple and pear part of the year to the clementines and bananas. Thankfully the rack is full of firewood and the closet full of down.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Have a Feels-like-Monday Wednesday

"Have a feels-like-Tuesday Thursday!" said the kids on the daily announcements this morning. Of course they were confused, but it's hard to blame them after two consecutive weeks of school on Monday, off on Tuesday, only to return for three days before the weekend. I forgive them because I know exactly what they meant, AND... they'll be right tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


In our little complex of less than 400 souls, three couples have had babies in the last week. Oh my! I thought after the third, what was going on last February?

Also this week, my students have been writing letters to themselves in the future. It is the culminating activity in a unit where they have written a lot to explore who they are now, and part of the assignment is to use that material and remind their future selves of who they are now. In general, they are very engaged in this task, and as they work, I overhear them chattering excitedly about what it will be like to open and read these letters. More than one student has asked me if I did this assignment when I was a kid. "No," I shake my head, "but I really wish I had!" They nod very sympathetically.

It would be pretty cool to have such a letter, but as consolation, I do have this blog. Certainly, it is a record of who I was for at least a few moments of every day over the past 5+ years. I don't read back over it that often, but when I do, it's... satisfying.

And informative; for example I read tonight that back in February? We were snowed in for several days around here. Mm hmm.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Remember Them

If you've seen Remember the Titans, perhaps you can imagine what it would be like to watch the last half-hour of the movie with the real Petey Jones and Julius Campbell sitting right behind you. 

I take that back-- you probably can't. It was thirty minutes of pure goosebumps and then another hour of laughter and a few tears when those two members of the famous 1971 team came to speak to students at our school in an event sponsored by the Tolerance Club. They answered every question the kids asked with honesty, grace, and yes, wisdom, about their time on the team, the loss of their friends, and the progress that they have seen our country make in race relations in the last 43 years. 

On the last point, both men expressed their delight at the diversity of the 33 students gathered in the library. "We've come a long way, and we have a way to go," Mr. Campbell told them, "but I'm not worried," he continued, "you all will change the world."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Not SAD at All

I heard earlier this week that there is a counterpart to seasonal affect disorder. Some people grow restless when the days lengthen and warm; they prefer the the slanting sun and long nights of winter. I recognized myself in this description and felt a little validated. I have always felt a little out of a place in our sun-worshipping culture.

I didn't realize how I have missed the crows until this evening their raucous cries filtered in through the windows. I stepped outside and looked up at the dark silhouettes shifting and darting through the darkening purple sky. Brisk air filled my lungs; it was not yet 5:00, but the sun had set. I was exhilarated.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

24 Little Hours

Yesterday was Heidi's birthday and I think she had a good one. She was showered with birthday love at home, and via mail, text, Facebook, and FaceTime.

One of her more goofy qualities is a total lack of time awareness. Oh, it can be a bit contentious when we're constantly running late, but it can be endearing, too. "How old am I?" she asked me in the morning.

"46," I told her.

She shook her head in surprise. "I could have sworn I was 45."

"You were," I assured her, "yesterday!"

Friday, November 7, 2014

Miller, Mann, and Edmunds

We saw Christopher Nolan's latest movie today, Interstellar. At 168 minutes, the concepts of gravity and time took on an authentic meaning, especially if you ask my butt. I really wanted to love it, too, but I came away with a jumble of feelings, among them being a bit dismissive of the paradox at the heart of the movie. Still, when I got home and clicked on a few reviews, I read that they filmed on location in the harsh landscape of Iceland. It was then that I realized that where they actually were never crossed my mind as I was watching; to me it was another planet. I guess I was pretty engaged, after all.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Like a Month Without an R

Sometimes I wonder if Josh even recognizes the people he lives with. Up until now, for his whole life, the only time he has ever spent with us has been during the summer and on weekends when we were off from school and focused on one of our favorite house guests. Where are those care-free people who fill their days with swimming, hiking, movie marathons, board games, road trips, and camp?

Those are always some fun times, and they must stand in stark contrast to these 7 AM to 6 PM days where dinner and a single hour of TV precede bedtime. Certainly, a bit of crankiness here and there is unavoidable. Fortunately, our good-natured boy seems to roll with it, especially since he is busy with other things, too.

And on those days when we all take a break, to go to the mountains, or to celebrate Heidi's birthday, we pick up the fun right where we left it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

An Observation

I don't think they really got me.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Tuition Check

We were talking with a younger colleague last evening before leaving school. This particular teacher was also a student at our school, back in the day, and although I did not teach her, I was a teacher there. "What year were you in sixth grade?" I asked her to remind me, and when she did, a litany of names rushed out. She smiled at each, remembering her friends and classmates.

Today it came up in conversation that another colleague was born in 1984, so she was in sixth grade the third year I taught it. It was funny comparing her with those kids then, and wondering what sort of adults they had become.

And so it goes, more and more frequently lately. My dental hygienist? She was in sixth grade fourteen years ago. The checker at the grocery? Maybe five. All those kids I've taught are making their way in the world... they are becoming the world.

Thank goodness their teachers did a good job.

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Secret Life

Dinner was finishing all on its own, and I was relaxing by the early November fire when an insistent buzzing drew my attention away from the Urban Farmer magazine on my lap. (I know, I know, I read it for the articles.) I considered ignoring the sound; a single housefly would not last 24 hours before perishing, but the drone became more frantic as the creature flew back and forth from the kitchen to the lamp over my shoulder.

Something there was about this buzz that made me think it could be no ordinary pest, and when I turned to examine it as bumped against the light shade, I saw that I was right. It was a honeybee. Perhaps she had hitched a ride on the last of the zinnias I had cut from the garden earlier, or maybe she was hidden in the tangled twists of the rosemary log we brought home for the fireplace. Whatever the case, the cold dark night beyond the window panes held no attraction for this tiny soul; all she wanted was the light and warmth of the bulb behind me, even though it held no real satisfaction for her.

Into the kitchen I went to fetch a plastic cup. The rounded form of the lampshade proved to be quite a challenge as I tried to capture the errant bee: there was no flat surface to trap her against. Soon she began to tire of eluding me, and she slowed but never quit. "Come here Sweetie," I whispered. After a couple of near misses, at last she paused long enough that a quick flick on the other side of the shade dropped her into my cup.

It was the copy of Urban Farmer itself that I used as a lid to keep her safely inside until I could open the front door. It was cold, yes, and she hesitated a moment and then flew back toward the door before finally heading off into the night.

I knew she could find her way back to the warmth of her sisters.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Playing Favorites

Thank you, November, for giving me back the hour that March stole last spring. I always liked you better.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


It's been a day of non-fiction around here. I'm hooked on the podcast by the producers of This American Life called Serial, the story of the murder of a high school student in Baltimore in 1999. Interesting people and a twisty narrative compellingly reported make the series addictive audio.

This afternoon we went to see Citizen Four, the Edward Snowden story, and while the movie didn't add much new information to the well-reported story, it did provide an opportunity to ponder the far reach of data gathering that our government is doing in the name of security, and the difference, as Snowden puts it,  between a country of rulers and the ruled and one of the elected and the electorate.

And now tonight our attention turns to Ken Burn's latest, The Roosevelts. Born of privilege, the three principals in this series were all champions of every day, working class Americans. They recognized a common humanity in us all.

"We love a great many things—" Theodore Roosevelt said, "birds and trees and books, and all things beautiful, and horses and rifles and children and hard work and the joy of life. We have great fireplaces, and in them the logs roar and crackle during the long winter evenings. The big piazza is for the hot, still afternoons of summer."

Friday, October 31, 2014

Trick or Treat

For many years our school did not allow students to come in costume on Halloween. Once you reach middle school, gone are the days of class parties and all-school parades; dressing up is no more than a distraction. If I thought about it 22 years ago, I may have found it a little sad, but traditions change as their participants grow older and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

These days, we have a new principal, and so our traditions have changed indeed. Notably, costumes are not only allowed, but they are encouraged (no full face masks or props in the shape of illicit items, please!) It's not so bad, really. Although Halloween is undeniably wilder than a normal day, it's kind of interesting to see how they dress. For although for most kids that age the attention of their peers is really the objective, their costume choices can be revealing. If you think about it, it's way better than a BuzzFeed quiz.

What Star Wars Character are you? Oh wait-- I know that black cape!

Would you be a happy clown or a scary clown? Duh!

You forget to wear your Halloween costume to school, so you

A) write the name of your favorite Frozen character on a piece of paper and tape it to your t-shirt
B) take a hat from your locker and borrow patterned gloves from your friend-- hey, it's better than nothing
C) shrug it off and say you're saving the good stuff for tonight

Then there was that cute boy in the red and white "Norway" sweat shirt. It had a few stains on it, and when I asked what he was, he sneezed several times before he could answer.

"Wait! Don't tell me!" I said as he sneezed again. "You are a...




"Serial sneezer!"

He laughed and headed for the tissue box.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Want Versus Need

I was in my room a-workin away today after school when first one, then another, and then another student came by to borrow a calculator, sign out a lap top, and record their word study words. Homework Club was being held across the hall, but I happened to have what these kids needed to get the job done, and I certainly didn't mind sharing.

A little while later a student in search of a quiet place to finish a test took a seat at one of my tables, and a seventh grader from my homeroom last year stopped by for a visit. In between all the action, I was able to get quite a bit of grading done.

At 3:30 the colleague who was supervising homework club brought the supplies back over and stowed them on the shelf where they belong. "It's so nice that the kids feel comfortable just coming over to your room," she said.

"Why wouldn't they?" I shrugged.

"Well, they don't all have you for a teacher," she answered. "They could be intimidated."

I nodded. I'd never really considered that.

"But when I told them not to bother you, they all said you wouldn't care."

They were right. When you're a public school teacher there are many annoying things competing for your time and attention, but when the kids need something to do their work?

It's never an inconvenience.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

As Opposed To

My students spent the first ten minutes of class today collaborating to make corrections on the weekly word part quiz. "No! Micro means small and macro means big," I heard as I circulated through the class.

I smiled with satisfaction. This was exactly the conversation I wanted to hear.

"So it should be micro orgasm not macro orgasm!"

I paused and pondered the message and considered my role in clarifying it.

"I mean organism," the student corrected himself.

Ah. That does make a difference.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Reasonable Doubt

I was out of school today for a couple of doctor appointments, and the sub I had sends email updates at the end of the day. I kind of like her initiative; on the plans I leave I always request a note detailing the day's events, and this way I get it right away.

I know from personal experience, both as a student AND a sub, that it's a hard job. I try to leave thorough plans with concrete, doable activities to make things go smoothly, but I know that doesn't always work. I try to find subs who work in our school regularly so they know the kids and the kids know them, but again, that is not always an option or even successful. I have lectured, scolded, and referred students upon my return, but as far as I can tell, that doesn't really improve things, either.

Kids and subs... it's a conundrum.

So some years ago I decided to let it go, or at least extend the benefit of the doubt to all parties. What happens with the sub stays with sub, or something like that. Never mind the hours I put in on my sub plans: let the sub take the credit when they love the lesson. And no matter how ridiculous the claim, "The sub said we didn't have to..." I'll shrug it off and let them know they have to now. Certainly, I express disappointment when informed of poor behavior, but in the grand scheme of things, it's 47 minutes.

Today, though, my sub informed me that my students shattered not one, but two Rubik's cubes that I keep in my classroom. "The pieces are in a tray on your desk," she wrote. "I'm so terribly sorry."

That doesn't sound accidental to me. I wonder what they'll tell me tomorrow.

Monday, October 27, 2014

20/20 Vision

October is Disability Awareness Month and so in response the Tolerance Club has planned a few consciousness-raising events. Last week we showed a video called I Have Tourettes but Tourettes Doesn't Have Me, a compelling portrayal of the lives of kids with this syndrome told in their own words.

This week we organized stations to help students experience what it might be visually impaired. The brailling machine was very popular and so were the goggles that simulate visual impairment, and our school system's mobility specialist was there, too, along with two students whose eyesight is weakened by albinism. Putting on a blindfold and using a white cane to navigate the familiar territory of our school's hallways was far and away the most engaging activity. 

Afterwards, the kids talked about the challenges they'd experienced, but it was all brought home by one of their classmate who reminded them that they could always take the blindfolds and goggles off. "Imagine what it's like for us," she said, "because we can't imagine what it's like to be you."

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Fringe Benefits

Big article in the NYTimes Magazine today asks the question, "What if Age is Nothing but a Mindset?" It seems like a sensible question, and the author puts forth quite a bit of evidence in support of the assertion that one's mental attitude can play a big role in aging.

In one study, researchers had their subjects, “make a psychological attempt to be the person they were 22 years ago,” and they provided them with props to help, including vintage clothing and furnishings, news reports, and movies. They even removed the mirrors to prevent distracting from the illusion, and at the end of the experiment, the participants tested higher on both the mental and physical assessments they had taken at the beginning.

I like these results! Consider that I have spent the last 20+ years teaching sixth grade and you will understand why. The world marches on, yes, but in room 275, almost everyone is always eleven or twelve, and there are no mirrors.

It's like a little fountain of youth, isn't it?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Misplaced Faith

While out and about on this beautiful fall weekend I saw the following message on a license plate frame: God favors me.


No fair.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A or P

It was 7:10 this morning when my eyes snapped open. Something was wrong. Uh, yeah, it was... school started in half an hour and no one in our house was up. It was a first in my teaching career-- I have never overslept once in the last 21+ years, but I was determined to make it on time. Heidi and I sped through our morning routines, skipping some steps, obviously, and I was out the door, with iced coffee and lunch, by 7:30, thereby avoiding another first: actually being late for school.

Special thanks goes to Heidi who graciously took one for the team and called a colleague to cover her homeroom so that she might be a little later than I was. I know how lucky I am; when I told the story to one of my friends at work, she said, "I'd have torn my husband up if he done that to me!" Hmm. Sobering. Thanks again, Heidi!

All day I wondered how this could have happened. We had forgotten our phone alarms, but I knew I turned the clock-radio alarm back on last night. This evening at 5:20 the mystery was solved when NPR came a-blaring down the stairs, just 12 hours too late.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sky Island

Josh was a little ways ahead of us and almost to the summit of Hawksbill Mountain when he stopped suddenly. "It smells like Maine up here," he called. He should know. We've been telling him to roll down his windows and smell the Maine since he was six. There's a place on the Turnpike just south of Portland where the balsams are so fragrant that it doesn't matter if you're going 70; you can always catch that quintessential scent.

I looked up to where Josh was standing and noticed a gnarly balsam just to his left. I pointed. "That explains it," I said, but that was really only half true. There just aren't too many of those trees here in Virginia. We climbed the rest of the way to the top and enjoyed the 360 degree view of Old Rag, the Appalachian Trail, and the fall color blanketing the hills and hollows below. On the way back down, I lingered more than a moment beneath that balsam before continuing on to the hardwoods below.

It turns out that we had hiked to a "sky island", a place where the altitude allows a totally different ecosystem. The boreal forest we passed through was actually a vestige of the ice age, a time when the climate there was much more similar to, say, Maine, today.  Too bad they didn't have any lobster on that island, too!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Scaredy Pooch

Perhaps it was the nail gun that the door repair guy used on Monday to refasten the trim. Maybe it was six cans of lemonade that exploded all over the dining room yesterday. Whatever the cause, our dog practically jumped out of her skin when I accidentally stepped on some bubble wrap this evening. She's had a rough week!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Nose Knows

Overheard in sixth grade:

Why do you smell like popcorn?

I don't! I smell like Doritoes.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Daily Dangers

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins went on record today about the 43 people removed from the Ebola watch list down there in Texas. Asking the public to treat them with dignity and respect after the ordeal they've been through, he spoke pointedly about the five children who will soon return to their schools after being quarantined.

“Middle schoolers are some of the most ferocious and scariest animals on the planet,” he said.

Really? That in comparison to Ebola?

I think I'm due some hazard pay.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Like the Corners of my Mind

On a walk to Roosevelt Island today, Heidi affectionately reminded Josh of all the funny foibles the two of them shared when he was just a wee tot. He forgot that the lyrics of  Poison Ivy, Late at night when you're sleepin, poison ivy comes a creepin, used to make him scream, but he remembered the Mimi Monster (Heidi's hand) and how it used to tickle him.

I have my own memories of little boys at Roosevelt Island; in fact I can't visit the place without thinking of my nephew Treat. When he was three I took him and his older brother down to Gravelly Point by the airport to watch the planes land, but the noise was so loud that it really freaked him out, and he burst into inconsolable tears. I scooped him up and, in attempt to salvage our outing, sped up the Parkway to Roosevelt Island for a little nature hike. 

All was going well until the first plane made its approach down the river and over our heads. Even though it was much higher up and not nearly as loud, Treat covered his ears and dropped to the ground screaming, only to be distracted by a half-eaten, sand-covered cherry cough drop which he promptly popped into his mouth.

When I told my sister about it she said, "At least he didn't lick the Metro window!" But that's another story.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Rise and Shine

When I was 9 I got a clock radio for Christmas. My mother was wisely nudging me in the direction of independence: she wanted me to start getting myself up for school. I'm sure that initiative was met with mixed results; I have never been a morning person, but I did love listening to that radio. I remember lying on my bed grooving to the tunes of 1972. And what a year it was to have a radio of one's own. Even now when I hear Heart of Gold, or Doctor My Eyes, or The Lion Sleeps Tonight, I feel a certain sense of ownership-- those were the songs I listened to on my radio.

Friday, October 17, 2014


This morning my reading class was examining a short memoir to identify its theme. The plot involved a half dozen chicks that a family purchased so that they would have fresh eggs, but when their chisckens matured, it turned out that they were all roosters. "What do you think the lesson of this story might be?" I asked.

"Get as much information as you can before you make a decision," someone offered.

"Don't count your eggs before they're laid?" another quipped.

I put their suggestions on the board and we tried to find a common idea. "How about never assume?" I said, and wrote it down. "Because you know what they say," I winked.

I knew they didn't know. I've taught this unit ten times, and not many sixth graders are familiar with the turn of phrase I was about  to introduce to them.

One student did raise his hand though. "Is it Never assume or you'll..." he paused. I thought he might have it. He continued, "maybe be wrong?"

I laughed. "You might," I said. "But there is a saying: Never assume or you'll make an," here I circled the first three letters of the word. "Out of you," I circled the fourth letter, and "me!" I circled the last two letters.

My students sat in stunned silence. Then minor chaos erupted as they got the old joke. "Oh man!" one boy hooted, "I love this class!"

Yep. That's all it takes to engage sixth graders. And you can bet they'll remember that lesson.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

You Know You're in Middle School When... hear the news that a couple of eighth grade boys ordered ghost peppers online and then brought them to school to fulfill the mutual dare to eat them. They were found writhing on the bathroom floor after puking up their breakfasts. Word has it that the nurse actually rubbed their bellies, therapeutically of course, while they waited for their parents to pick them up.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

On the Radio

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am an inveterate NPR listener. These days, if I'm not in the car, I usually catch the news online. Although I generally listen to our local broadcast, the internet makes it possible to hear programming from pretty much any station in the world.

So, some afternoons I tune into Maine Public Radio and pretend that when it's time to go home I'll be heading for a little cottage on the rocky coast. Wood smoke and salt will be in the air and seafood on the menu as October's early dark gathers.

Other times I listen to Minnesota Public Radio and imagine the autumn chill of the Boundary Waters, or perhaps the traffic lights on France or Normandale on the way to my mom's house where a cold beer and a warm dinner awaits.

And sometimes it's WABE in Atlanta that's on, so I can hear the local weather and news in my sister's part of the world and for just a moment pretend that she's 10 minutes away instead of 10 hours. 

Oh, the news these days so often seems full of trouble and woe, but the world's not quite so scary when you remember who else is out there.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

True Story

And then there was that turkey I saw today heading west on King Street. A hen with striking iron grey and ivory speckled plumage, she seemed resolute in her promenade up the sidewalk. I guess this would be a good time to think about leaving home if you were a turkey.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Quick Silver Lining

Mercury in retrograde it may well be, 'cause things continue to go awry here. After taking the day off to finally have the door repaired, the bell rang once and I answered to find a technician standing on the stoop to tell me that my repairman was delayed by car trouble, An hour later a second chime alerted me to another visitor; this time, the guy assigned to the job broke the bad news that because of the expected rain they were postponing until tomorrow.

The forecast is iffy, but I'll be here , fair or foul, also expecting the call from the appliance repairman with his bid on replacement parts for the ice maker and the dryer (that"s if he can find them). By then, my fragile hard drive may be backed up so that I can take my computer to the Genius Bar tomorrow evening. Maybe I can get that scheduler on the phone from the doctor's office who hasn't answered every time I've called for the last week. Oh, and there are assignments to grade, and online discussions to facilitate-- without the distraction of being at school, those chores will be way easier.

Plus, who knows what other fires I may be able to stamp out? Thanks, Mercury.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


The ice maker, the hot water heater, the dryer, and now the hard drive on our desktop computer, all have broken within the last two weeks. The handles on the lids to both the kettle grill and the slow cooker have also come undone, and it's almost to the point where I'm past overwhelmed and on to honestly curious about what could possibly be the next casualty.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

No Reminder Necessary

This time of year it seems like everywhere you drive there are signs notifying you that October is fire prevention month. I appreciate the reminder, but I don't really need it. Some of my most vivid memories of elementary school are focused on just that theme.

One day, when the air was crisp and the leaves brilliant against that amazing blue sky, you would arrive at school only to be greeted with the exciting information that there would be an assembly that day. At the designated time, each student would be directed to stand, lift your chair by the stiles, and line up. In that way we would file to the multi-purpose room and set our chairs down in neat rows, transforming the cafeteria to an auditorium. 

It was always a fireman in full regalia who would start the program for us. We learned to have a plan: feel the door before opening it, stay low, know where the exits were, and stop drop and roll if necessary. Then we saw a Disney movie made to emphasize those points. I can still remember the hush of the students when they turned the lights off, still see the autumn light filtering through the high slatted windows, still imagine the familiar figure of Walt Disney introducing the film, and still hear the authoritative voice of the narrator speaking to Donald Duck over the soft clickity-clacking of the 16 mm projector. 

It all seemed so important, so glorious and exhilarating. There we were, hundreds of souls in a congregation of our own creation, assembled with a common cause-- surviving a fire. 

Who could forget that?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Murphy's Conference

After eight years, I was feeling pretty confident that all my student-led conferences would go off without complication when I headed to school this morning. My homeroom kids were well-prepared; some had come in at lunch yesterday to finish up, but despite it being the first time for them to lead such a meeting, I knew that they were ready and able. I had carefully scheduled the times as well-- knowing that the allotted 20 minutes is often a little too short, I had limited the sign-up slots to 2 per hour. I had also put my interpreter requests in early; this year in addition to a couple of Spanish translations, I needed an Arabic and a Vietnamese interpreter as well, so I gave the office plenty of lead time. I was certain nothing could possibly go wrong.

I was right...

until about 10 AM. My Vietnamese family showed up, but there was no translator. When I checked with the main office, they told me none were available. Sometimes in a pinch, the student is willing to interpret for his parents, but this time, my student flapped his arms wildly and told me he really didn't know much of the language. Back at the office, they gave me the information for a telephone translation service we subscribe to, but when I tried to call from classroom phone, the long distance area code wouldn't go through. Fortunately, I had my mobile phone, and so we set it in the center of the table and spoke loudly and slowly, that is after I explained what we were doing to the person on the other end of the line. It went surprisingly well.

Later in the day, I had not one conference, but two, stretch to an hour and 20 minutes. The first parent spoke so fast and at such length that I never got a single one of my polite let's hurry this along strategies into the conversation. The second time we quadrupled our meeting was for a student who is really struggling, and I couldn't begrudge her or her mom a single second. 

And truthfully? The same must be said for every family I met with today. Their pride, questions, and concern all reminded me that every student is somebody's child, somebody's treasure. More often than not, they just want to make sure we are doing right by their kids. I get it.

It's a sloppy job, but some days I feel pretty good at it, and lucky to do it, too.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Building Community, Fostering Fellowship

Do: Add a cute little reference to that feline rascal well-known to all of the neighborhood on your new sidewalk sign reminding residents to check their speed. Bob the cat asks you to slow down.

Don't: Plan a staff picnic with yard games for the professional development day scheduled on a former holiday. It just kinda puts the hole in corn hole.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


Every quarter I do a little map-making activity with my reading class. When asked if he had any advice for young writers, Newbury award author Jack Gantos suggested the following:

The first tip is to get a good journal or small notebook—not too big as you want to be able to slip it into your back pocket. Then get a decent pen. Then I want you to draw a map of your house, or a map of your neighborhood, or map of your school and I want you to draw where everything funny, serious, insane, unexpected, heroic, lousy, triumphant and tragic took place. And then I want you to think about your life as the best material in the world, and each one of your small drawings where something interesting happened will be the opening material for your story.

And so we do. I share a map of the neighborhood where I lived from the ages of 4-10, and every student creates a map of someplace special to them. Having looked at over 200 maps, I've concluded that it's human nature to place your place in the middle of the action, and so every time we look at my map I make the joke that my house just happened to be at the center of the neighborhood, and probably the universe, too.

So I wasn't surprised today as I circulated through the room while the students worked to see that most of them had started in the center of their paper and worked outward, not surprised at all. That is until one student noticed my gaze. "What?" she asked.

"Nothing," I shrugged. "I like your map-- it's great!"

"Thanks!" she answered, "But did you see? My house really is the center of the neighborhood! All the other houses are around it."

"I did see that!" I told her. "What a coincidence!"

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Travel Arrangements

We were talking about field trip transportation at leadership team today. Forgive me if I'm repeating my dismay, but it really is appalling that there are no more buses available unless we charge the students for the ride. "We should call Uber," the person next to me whispered when administration encouraged us to consider the subway.

"Or maybe Schoober," I answered her. We laughed quietly as the conversation turned to cost analysis. Three hours for a rented school bus would be cheaper than taking 50 kids on the metro, and more convenient, too. 

"That's only if you have a full bus," someone pointed out.

Riding with a full bus? Looking around, that seemed unlikely, if you know what I mean.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Wait. What?

Today, here in Virginia, the time came when I could have risen from my desk, gone down the hall to get Heidi, and taken off for the courthouse to get a marriage license.

It didn't happen, today, but it could have. And it will.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

No! Just No

Sunday night already?

Oh, weekend, I had so much more hope in you.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Torch Has Passed

My dad was a big baseball fan, and so when I was growing up there was usually a game on in the background from April to October. Back then, if I watched at all, I associated the guys on the field with my dad or my uncles; Brooks Robinson? Tom Seaver? Reggie Jackson? To me, they were grown ups playing a grown up game. 

Later, when I had graduated from college and was living with my father again, the background became foreground, and we all became fans of the New York Mets. Those guys seemed more like older brothers, or cousins, and we celebrated right along with Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, and Keith Hernandez in 1986 when they won the World Series.

It's been years since I've followed baseball that closely, even though my town has been a MLB town for the last eleven years. People here love their baseball, and with both the Orioles and the Nationals in the playoffs, now seems like a good time to tune in. So tonight as I cooked dinner, I watched the Nats hang on to a tenuous one run lead into the top of the ninth. Oh, we're on pins and needles here, but all I can think about is when did the players get so young? Any one of them could have been a student in my class not so very long ago-- Ryan Zimmerman? 1996. Stephen Strasberg? 2000. That cute Anthony Rendon? 2002.

Go get 'em kids!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Children, Behave

If I were to file one complaint about my students this year it would be that so many of them find that annoying prank of hiding a classmate's pencil, paper, eraser, book, etc. to be so very entertaining. Upwards of 5 times a day I am called to solve the case of the missing whatever, and the culprit is nearly always the student in the next seat.

It was the last class of the week today when I had had quite enough of such shenanigans and so plaintively addressed the group, "Can we all just agree that we're not going to waste each other's time anymore by hiding the things we need to get our work done?"

My request was met by silence and downcast eyes, and several pencils were quietly slid across the table in return to their owners. One student, however, was not in total agreement, and although he did turn over the pencil in his possession to the boy who brought it to class. "How much time do you think it takes?" he asked me. "30 seconds?"

I shrugged. "That's 30 seconds of your life you'll never get back," I answered in rebuttal. "And 30 seconds of mine, too, since I had to resolve the situation."

"Yeah," he said, "but my thirty seconds were FUN!"

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Critical Success

Today's lesson involved a "poetry sort." The kids in my classes were given a collection of action poems written by former students. The task was to read all of them, select a couple, and answer questions about them. The next step was to brainstorm lists of 20 of possible topics for their own action poems.

Here's the part I loved-- in every class, without exception, several students asked if they could keep the copies of the model poems because they liked them so much.

That's validation!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Friday Night Dinner

All week long I have been receiving ads and notifications on almost any web page I visit about a BIG event happening TODAY! Yes, friends, The Gilmore Girls is on Netflix. And, unlike all the men's underwear clickables I keep getting, I agree that this news actually is cool news, because I am one of the legion of folks who loooooved The Gilmore Girls, with its terrific writing-- so snappy, so smart,  and even though it's been over seven years since the finale, I miss them and all the other denizens of Starr's Hollow to this day.

This might be some binge watching I can get behind. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Things We Do

At about 10:05 this morning I found myself in my darkened classroom, blinds drawn, lights out, and 24 children huddled beneath six tables. It was a lockdown drill. I have never reconciled with myself just where I ought to be on such occasions. Under a table or beneath my desk seems ludicrous: I can't really supervise anyone if I'm on the floor, but I don't want the police officers conducting the drill to bust me for being too visible. 

Today I sat in a rolling chair in the corner. There was a thin slat of light below the blinds in one of the four windows that looks out into the hallway, and I could see when someone was coming. Three bullet-proof vests strode by my door to the end of the hallway next door. I heard a radio squawk as they tried each of the three doors before mine. When they tested my knob it jiggled securely, but I dreaded what would happen should one of them lean over and peer into the gap that I was looking out from. Would he make eye contact? Perhaps a pointing gesture to show me that, in the event of a real intruder who might mean us harm, I would be a target? 

But there was no opportunity to find out, with the rest of the school waiting, they moved along to other, possibly less secure locations. Five minutes later, the drill was over, and notably, 24 sixth graders who have struggled with silence for the last four weeks had not made a peep. I turned the lights back on, and another lesson, the one we had been working on before the drill, resumed.

Monday, September 29, 2014


When I was a little girl, my mom was known for her novelty cakes. She was a master at baking a couple of layers, cutting them into pieces and then fitting them back together into recognizable shapes like Snoopy or a mod looking kitty cat. A layer of frosting and a few piped details later, the results were always impressive.

Flash forward 45 years: Heidi and I always make cakes for our homeroom students on their birthdays. While I opt for the classic bundt (not only is it quick and easy, but somehow a giant donut-shape seems a tad bit more breakfasty), Heidi is forever making flowers and such. Generally, she uses a shaped baking pan, but a couple of years ago, one of her students was obsessed with the Riddler and begged her for a green question mark cake. "No problem," I told her, for I had learned to bake in my mother's kitchen, where it was a simple matter to carve up cakes and put 'em back together, jigsaw fashion, into a whole new thing. Against my better judgment, a tradition was born.

Tonight, it's a throwback classic:

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Fruity Confusion

Emily gave me a half dozen pawpaws last week. The largest edible fruit indigenous to the US, these particular pawpaws came from a friend of Emily's property. Her friend also sells them to several restaurants, where the chefs prize the fruit for their provenance as well as their seasonality-- pawpaws do not keep or travel well, so they are not commercially produced. "Most restaurants make ice cream with them," Emily told me.

We cut one open and scooped the custardy flesh from the thin peel with a spoon. "It tastes like nothing," Josh declared of the vaguely sweet mush on his spoon. Heidi agreed. I admired the large black shiny seeds. They were substantial, like a chunky organic bead. 

"Maybe they're not ripe yet," I suggested and put the rest of the pawpaws on the window sill, where they sat until this morning when I blended them up with some eggs and cream, half a roasted sweet potato (for body) and a sprinkle of cinnamon. At the last minute I added a dash of apple cider vinegar for tartness and cooked it into a smooth custard.

I knew my ice cream would need some contrasting texture, so I chopped up some chocolate covered nut crunch with cashews, almonds, and pecans and threw it all in the ice cream maker. 45 minutes later I had a silky, golden-hued frozen dessert with lovely chunks of candied nuts and chocolate. Ahhh, but how did it taste? you wonder. 

Many people who enjoy pawpaws disagree about their flavor. Is it bananalike? Mangoish? Melony? As quoted by Wikipedia, Ohio botanist William B. Werthner noted that The fruit ... has a tangy wild-wood flavor peculiarly its own. It is sweet, yet rather cloying to the taste and a wee bit puckery – only a boy can eat more than one at a time.

That's close, but not quite right. Tonight, when I served the ice cream for dessert, we discussed the flavor at length.

"It just tastes so weird," Heidi frowned. "It's hard to say what it taste like, because it doesn't taste exactly like anything else."

"It starts out caramelly and then takes a turn toward the not quite unpleasant and finishes with an unidentifiable fruitiness," Josh said, moving his finger in a roller coaster motion. "But I like it. Kind of. I'll probably eat more. Maybe a lot more. Maybe not."

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Boy Birthday

How best to celebrate Josh's 19th birthday?

Why rock-n-roll and ramen, of course. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Force of Gratitude

My students were all working industriously on posting profile pictures for our online course when one of them hit a snag. I was busy helping someone else, but fortunately his buddy came to his rescue and helped him problem-solve the issue, so that in short order his smiling face was was right there next to his words on the discussion board. He was delighted and gratefully turned to his friend.

"Thanks! You're a real light saber!" he said and continued on with the assignment.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Generation Why

Have you noticed these lists of "hacks" showing up everywhere? Defined by the Urban Dictionary as "a clever solution to a tricky problem," you can find hacks for your wallet, hacks for your hair, hacks for your workout or relationship or even for your dog. Really, there are hacks for everything right now, including the classroom, but that's another blog post.

Don't get me wrong; some of these ideas are really ingenious, if not genius. Enough so, anyhow, that I take the time to click through a litany or two when they catch my fancy. Just tonight, a former teacher of mine posted a link to "Parenting Hacks for Life Traps." She is a new grandparent, and so I think that explains it. Me? I guess I'm just naturally curious, and so I scrolled through a few mediocre ones, (using lotion bottles as faucet extenders or transforming the old crib into a school desk), a couple of pretty good ones (combining eye dropper and pacifier to administer medicine, upside down crazy straw to prevent sippy cup catastrophe), some really dumb ones (dust mop onesies so your infant will clean the floor as he or she scoots), and some that could go either way (flattened cardboard cartons to transform your stairs into a giant slide?). 

As with many such things on the internet, sometimes the captions are better than the post. That, too, was the case tonight on the getting your kids to do their chores by withholding the wifi password suggestion. The editor commented, I have to say, I'm glad we had dial-up when I was a kid. 

Oh. That explains a lot.