Lasts, Endings, and Beginning Again

Right now, I should be entering grades, writing (very late) lesson plans, and designing the final exams that I will be giving the week after next–in order to put together study guides, I need to know what’s on the exam, and with graduation next weekend, I’m not going to even attempt to tell myself that I’ll put together the tests next weekend. I know better.

This coming week is graduation prep for Beth and winding up the year for me. My to-do list is somewhat long, but I’m not feeling pressured; it’ll all get done, even with me taking a moment to write. I want to reflect on all the ending, all the changes–but at this point, the combo of things that need done and emotional….fatigue?….blunt my reactions. I want out of the classroom, and I don’t believe that I’ve been good in it for two years. I can’t point with pride to much I’ve done in the classroom–academically or as it relates to specific kids since MI ended. Parts of this year have been as dead and anxious for me as the worst of the old school years. Would it have been different if I had known I wouldn’t be replaced until next year? I don’t know. My attitude about that could certainly have colored the year. But it’s not that much different than last year, and I can’t name any teacher I’ve talked with that would even call the year mediocre. I have to remind myself that I had good years–excellent years–and try to hold to them as my memories of teaching.

And Beth is graduating. For 18 years, my mornings have included her getting in the car with me to go whereever she had to be before my day started. Her first day of kindergarten is still so heart-stopping clear to me. We got in the car, her with her backpack and smile–a bit scared, but she’d met her teacher before and been in the school for speech therapy many times. I took her to First Baptist, where she’d get breakfast and walk over to school with her daycare teacher and a few other latchkey kids. She went in with no issues, hugged me and we talked a bit, then I left. When I got to the car, I cried. Sobbed. While watching my watch, because I had exactly 3 minutes that I could fall apart, then I had to swing past the house to get Megan (first year of high school) and Chris, who was starting his senior year. 3 minutes to cry. There’s a poem in there somewhere. By the time I’d traveled the few blocks to get them, my eyes were clear and if they could tell I’d been crying, they didn’t mention it.

And now, I’m at another major juncture, and I don’t seem to have any tears. Very little joy, either. Just another to do list, just another time when I know I’ve fallen short, but have to cross my fingers, light some candles, and have faith that it’s all going to work.

Not For Veteran’s Day

Note: I wrote this in 2012; I’m surprised by how much of it I still agree with. 

Two days ago was Veteran’s Day. Yesterday Billy Owens’ birthday. In my mind, those are connected.

Billy was a student in my epic AP class close to a decade ago. He wasn’t the usual AP student, but he wanted a shot and worked hard to earn his place. After graduation, he went into the military, and he was proud of the time he served. I talked to him intermittently both while he was serving and afterwards, while he was a veteran heading to college. The story ends too soon, with Billy committing suicide a while back. I’ve lost track of time, but I know that summer I had two former students do that; this is a rough era for young people, and suicide stats are one of the starkest proofs of it.

That isn’t what I intended to focus on, though. The intersection of Veteran’s Day and Billy’s birthday have me thinking. As a quasi-pacifist, I can’t wave a flag and yell “hip hip hooray for Veterans” if there’s any chance that I’m also glorifying war (Yes, I know that as a member of Daughters of the American Revolution, I’m on a slippery slope  using that criteria. Talk to my dad about it). One of the reasons I want to turn Quaker is because of their “Peace Testimony,” and as I’m writing this, I’m keeping their stances in mind.

When I started teaching, I was appalled that several special ed teachers used the ASVAB test, which qualifies a person for military service, as the major text in their room. They were prepping their students to be gun fodder–that’s the way I saw it then. I was pretty self-righteous about it, but at least I didn’t take to a bully pulpit. Usually.

In contrast, when one of my favorite students from the last couple years came into my classroom last month and told me he’s going in the Navy after Christmas, I nodded and told him that was probably an excellent decision. He’s a very smart kid, very personable–and for a lot of reasons, needs some direction and self-discipline– and he needs out of Lima. Many of my students are like that, needing some time to mature and learn skills, to figure out who they are while earning money and having a roof over their heads and a reason to get out of bed. College does that for some–but not all. The military is often the only other option, particularly in this job market. I hate the fact that there’s a decent chance he’ll be deployed in a war zone, but he knows the price he’s potentially paying for the shot at gaining maturity, experience, and a clue what to do with his life.

The change in my attitude reflects a greater awareness of the world and years of observing people. When I was a total pacifist, back when I honestly believed that with reason, love, and the right incentives conflict could be handled without resorting to throwing plates, fists, or bombs, my experience in the world was limited to people who had roughly the same assumptions about life and ethical constructs that I did. Debates about whether the car radio should play John Denver or the Partridge Family didn’t devolve to fisticuffs, and arguments about who should clean the bathroom at my college apartments may have involved snarky comments and pointed product placement (a can of Comet on the kitchen table eventually gets noticed), but again–no stitches or police were required.

And…as always…I’m a product of my age. It’s easy to say “War is wrong” when the only war you’ve experienced is Vietnam. I remember the  older kids worrying about getting a draft notice, or trying to choose the best way to be 4F. I remember asking why we were fighting there, and the confusing answers I got–perhaps that was an early sign that I ask too many questions, but people tried to answer, each explanation tangling with another, slightly different one, to create a sticky web that lead out one way: War is wrong.

But that was a long time ago, and I suspect that if I go to a zoo, I’ll even see the zebra in shades of grey. The stark right/wrong viewpoint that worked even through much of my 20s and 30s is much muddier now.

At this point, I define myself as a quasi-pacifist. In no particular order, that means I believe this:

  • Choosing to not fight can be powerful. Gandhi and the Civil Rights movement proved that.
  • People have the right to chose to not fight, but they need to be able to do it from a position of strength; pacifism cannot stem from weakness or fear and be effective.
  • People need to know how to deal with school yard bullies, both as children and adults. Weak people are targets, but that doesn’t mean that the best (or only) answers involve brute force.
  • Physical Force or the threat of it is overused in daily life and in the political arena. Almost always, reason, negotiation, and proper understanding of core values will improve a situation.
  • However, evil and myopically-self-involved people (and groups of people) exist in the world. They cannot be allowed to hurt others–but derailing those people must impact the least other people possible, and all possible non-violent means must be used first. “Preventative war” is an unethical concept, and “Collateral damage” is a fancy way of saying “innocent victims.”
  • Emotional rhetoric on from any party in the situation does not mean violence is inevitable or will help. It’s a sign everyone needs time–like a week–in the time-out chair to think about what they’re doing. (My school and the UN both need time out chairs!)
  • The only use of force that I can embrace is to protect those who cannot (not will not) protect themselves. And again, non-violent means of to achieve that goal must be tried first.
  • The fights between people, like between students in my school, should not occur. We should be doing more to create non-violent  interpersonal relationships.
  • The fact that the US military budget equals the next 15 countries’ military budgets combined is unreasonable and immoral.
  • People who choose to serve deserve all the honor and support our country can give them–and I don’t see our national policies doing that now.
  • The best way to honor and support our people in the military is to ensure they don’t have to go into battle, and when it’s unavoidable, give them materials and support, and get them out of it as soon as possible. Or sooner.
  • The high number of military and veteran suicides and PTSD means something is seriously wrong in the system, and we should be figuring out what now. Top priority.
  • There are many benefits to serving in the military, and I’ve seen many students gain confidence and become adults due to serving. Designing a National Service option/requirement should be investigated.

I started this by thinking about Veterans’ Day and Billy, and as a semi-literate somewhat- writer, I know that my conclusion should wrap up by tying all this back to Billy and Veterans’ Day. That neat ending eludes me–possibly because Billy chose an ending that doesn’t fit into a tidy, light paragraph. Billy and I discussed in detail why he went into the military, and he had many good reasons, reasons that my student last month echoed. All I can do is light a candle that the story ends up differently this time…for all the people serving.

Good Bye, Yellow Brick Road: My Ode to the School of Multiple Intelligences

Note: I wrote this in 2013, and I was only an English teacher at Lima Senior for a couple of years after I wrote this. I teared up while re-reading it, and I stand by my belief that MI did incredible things and being part of it was the highlight of my career as a teacher.  

I’m only going to be a teacher for the School of Multiple Intelligences for a few more hours. When I walk in school, after dawn comes and I’m more awake, I will be an MI teacher–but after my room is packed, my check out sheet is signed, and my keys are turned in, I’m simply a Lima Senior High teacher again.

Being an LSH teacher is a perfectly good thing, of course; I spent the first 18 years of my career doing being one, and I did a boatload of wonderful  things as an LSH teacher–and I will again, no doubt.  Here’s the thing, though: I did those in isolation, one teacher, a bunch of kids. I wrote a piece when we closed Lima Senior about the ending of that era, when we were closing the actual building and opening not only the new building, but also opening three small schools within the building; what strikes me now, after 9 years as an MI teacher, is  how little mention of my colleagues or the larger school community were in that piece. It was the students and me, and any connection with my neighbors down the hall or the principals in the office was unusual.

At the time, of course, I didn’t see it that way. I assumed that my relationships with my department and my fellow teachers was perfectly normal. Then came MI.

Before the school opened, we had spent hours—days–no, weeks–in meetings about what “our school” should be like. Almost everything was on the table: schedule, electives, mission statement, even what our hall passes should be! Even the decisions that were studied by small groups eventually were decided by consensus, not vote, by the whole staff. We eventually learned which teachers orally processed ideas and options, not really committed to the stream of ideas they were spewing forth; they had to think out loud. We learned which teachers wouldn’t say a word through the discussion, but once they did, they were sure of their path. There were a few times, especially at the beginning, when decisions that we thought were made turned on a dime when one quiet, thoughtful Math teacher finally spoke up, saying she couldn’t support whatever that decision was…and the discussion began again. Ultimately, that check and balance made us stronger and more committed to our course of action. We knew what we intended, and even when we fell short (which happened frequently), we still had the vision in front of us–and our leaders and each other, trying to get it just a bit more “right” the next time.

Even after we opened, the discussions and the tweaking continued–and the self-assessment, wrapped up in those dreaded Barnhardt questions. I always threatened to miss the meetings where we had to argue through what rating we should receive on every criteria (citing evidence, of course), but the only time I missed on was when I was out of town on school business. I still think we should have had a voice in adapting Barnhardt, but here’s an important point: the process of discussing those ideas was what mattered; not the rating we gave ourselves. That process is missing now, and it’s impossible for the same degree of voice and interaction to occur in a staff of nearly 100 (MI had around 30 staff members). That’s a big part of what happened behind the curtain, where the students and the public didn’t see–and it’s a large part of what we are losing. Ownership. Autonomy. Partnership with people who have bought into the vision.

As my Facebook page and my phone contacts attest, it wasn’t just the teachers who mattered in MI. In the old LSH, my students were my most important relationship. In the new paradigm, the students were the whole reason we did it, and our goal was to build relationships with them that pushed and inspired them to do more than they imagined they could. And I am still finding daily examples in my Facebook feed of how well that worked. Students who would have fallen through the cracks in the old school have recently graduated from college–something I couldn’t have imagined for several of them based on where they academically when they entered MI. With around 400 students and about 30 staff members, no one was merely a face in the crowd. I could give example after example showing the relationship between teachers and students, and how that carried over into a higher commitment to doing their best on both sides; I don’t even know how to cherry pick an example. The kids matter, and I can find examples of every staff member going well above and beyond to prove it.

We started with a young, inexperienced teacher as our leader, and until Jeff, I didn’t know what it meant to be driven by a vision and committed to working it through. To this day, he is one of the very, very few people I have ever gotten into an actual “shouting” argument with–and there have been times since he left to play on a bigger field that I wish Jeff would come back to continue pushing us, even though I can imagine the arguments we would need to have! Until then, I’d never dreamed what it meant to have the support and respect of the principal, either. And……I’d certainly never imagined that I’d tackle a principal at a Christmas party to try to keep him from winning at Dance, Dance Revolution–but yep, that happened too (with a little help from another teacher–thanks, Melinda!) We were a community, with all the ups and downs, wounds and scars and blessings that implies.

With Jeff as our leader, we had the “rocks” of our foundation, which is the genesis of the oft-used phrase “MI Rocks!” When he left, we asked for and got the right to not just be at the table for the choosing of our new leader, but to run the whole process–and we eventually choose Jeff’s right hand, Sue. As different as her style was, her commitment to MI was every bit as strong. The “Rocks” still existed, but we had outgrown our vision statement; it was dated and generic for what we needed at that point. So…..after several meetings with no progress on a new vision statement, we decided on 10 Belief Statements. They are still the most lofty set of goals I’ve seen for running a school. (I will add them as a separate post when I get to school. I don’t happen to have them posted in my dining room)

I have been thinking about this writing for a week now, and have taken notes–which I have completely ignored as I’ve written in the dusky hours before dawn. I had some good ideas, and who knows, maybe some MI memories will be posted this summer. Or maybe the time will have passed. I’m busy getting ready to teach this summer at Rhodes, and to begin next school year in a different classroom with a different principal and a whole new set of conventions and expectations. Maybe I don’t have the emotional energy left to write more about it in the near future. My alarm clock has rung, and my day needs to start, so I can’t begin the litany of names and memories now.

Here’s my clearest image of MI, what I’ve been remembering this week: The first day in the new building, the first day MI existed. All the MI teachers wore their new,crisp, shining white MI shirts–Bill Blass’ best emblazoned with the MI logo. Students walking in were completely enthralled. Visually it was impressive–but there was something else: it was clear we were working as a unit, we were proud and excited–we were MI. And the kids were too. That’s what they walked in to discover that first day. We did it for them and with them—and especially those first few years, they recognized the difference.

MI existed because of the school reform movement. Bill Gates (via KnowledgeWorks) threw passels of money at us, making all the meetings and training and details possible. We’re closing not because of money, but because the enrollment in our district has gone down enough that keeping three small schools open is fiscally irresponsible. I know that, and I have to trust that everyone involved is going to do their best to make the “new, improved” Lima Senior better than ever.

I’ve learned more about what that means in the last few years, though. I’ve learned that true school reform doesn’t come from the outside-in or the top-down. It comes from the people in the trenches buying into the vision, then working their damnedest to make every day a bit closer to the vision than the previous day was. Will we do that? I don’t know. It’s too soon to tell. What I do know is this: For a brief, shining moment, there was MI.

“Live Long & Prosper” and Other Platitudes

The final grades are in, and the lockers cleaned out. For our seniors, “school’s out, for summer…school’s out, forever,” to quote the great sage of education, Alice Cooper. All that remains are the goodbyes.

For most people, that’s easy: a few tears, a long hug, reassuring that they’ll remain close…on Facebook…forever. Then, with a brave smile and a wave–“good luck,” and walking away.

For me, though, saying “au revoir” to my seniors isn’t that simple. Philosophically, I can’t endorse saying “Good luck” as a platitude. I could wrap my logic in jargon and causal links, but the core of the reason is this simple: an overwhelming percent of my students believe that random chance, or at best, semi-random chance influenced by the most loosely defined causes, is the determining factor in their progress and success. After 26 years of discussions, essays, and status messages, I’m persistently struck by the variety of ways they credit luck, or some equivalent force, to things like passing the state graduation tests, completing school work on time, and even whether they make it to school before the tardy bell. Deep down, the belief that they are subject to the whims of forces outside of their control pervades my students’ lives.

Of course the roll of the dice impacts us all in multiple ways. As the popular bumper sticker says, “Shit Happens.” I’m sure that every holy book has some variation of that belief, wrapped in the guise of their deity’s  capricious “Carrot & Stick Guide to Garnering the Gods’ Favor.”

But modern civilization–and modern education–are built on the diamond-hard assertion that peoples’ actions and choices directly impact their lives. My students say all the right things about making good choices and controlling their destiny…but when I listen closer, they usually do not take neither the blame nor the praise  for their accomplishments; ultimately, the factors impacting their lives are categorized as “Shit Happens.”

So “good luck” doesn’t slide easily off my tongue as I say good bye. I’ve opted for “May the Force be With You,” in some cases, and “Live Long and Prosper” in others, but generally, an awkward, “Stay in touch. You know how to find me,” may sound diffident and glib, but for me, that’s more sincere than a chorus of “Good Lucks” streaming on banners attached to pegasuses as they fly over a rainbow. I do like staying in touch. I do like knowing “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey would say.

And as I watch the rest of the story unfold, I notice one thing: whether the student rolls all sevens in life, or is kicked in the teeth, luck only bares a portion of the credit.

 

Practical Math

Note: I wrote this in 2012. It’s still all true, maybe even more true–except for the number of tech-related devices I carry at a time. My phone now replaces most of those!

I like technology. In my purse right now, I have a Livescribe pen, a digital camera, a couple USB cords and a recorder that I can talk into and download what I say into my computer, where it appears as typed words—often word soup, but even that fascinates me. Technology makes sense to me the same way that shopping for shoes makes sense to some women I know. I’m certainly not going to be the person who claims texting hurts communication, or that twitter is killing society–a sizable portion of my life in online, and I’m a firm proponent of tech in education.

However, the fact we can technologically do something doesn’t mean it’s the best way to accomplish the task. Just because we have the toys doesn’t mean we should play with them. To be bluntly specific, because of technology, we are turning students into accountants.

Every high school I know of requires teachers to keep their gradebooks online, and those gradebooks can be accessed by parents and students from any computer with internet access. That sounds like a terrific idea, giving the parents and students detailed information so the home can partner with the school to improve the student’s understanding and achievement I like being able to tell students to look online to make sure I credited all the assignments they have emailed me or to understand why their grade changed dramatically in the past week. Having continual access to a student’s grades is the type of idea that makes a great sound bite and gets unilateral support—who can oppose parents and students having the data to understand the progress the student is making?

Welcome to the dark side of the online gradebook.  One issue is that students live in an “instant gratification” society, and the ability to see their grades in real time feeds that jones. This week, I’ve had students hand me a paper, then say while they are still holding onto it, “So what’s my grade now?” If I haven’t put it in by the end of the class, there’s so much sighing and eye-rolling that I feel as if I’m surrounded by a flock of Scarlet O’Haras.

There’s another trend that shows students are becoming accountants After accessing their grade, some students will decide that they’ve “learned” enough, and not even attempt an assignment that doesn’t impact their grade in a concrete way. They’ll calculate points and percentages, then determine if the homework assignment will make a noticeable difference—it may seem as if every little bit helps, but in practice, that’s not true. Students who struggle with the state math tests often have a Einsteinian grasp of “gradebook math,” even with weighted grades or categorized assignments.

The flip side of that is students who don’t have the score they (or their parents) want, so they audit their points with the fervor of an I.R.S auditor who is bucking for a promotion. Every piece of paper they’ve written their name on needs to be accounted for, and they often try to dicker for missing points or the ability to turn in very late work—they almost always have a ten point paper from seven weeks earlier that would pull them up a percentage point, getting them that much closer to athletic eligibility or the next higher grade.

What do grades mean? Does having the technology to micro-manage grades lead to the student “learning” more? Maybe instead of having more trainings to make sure teachers and parents can use the technology correctly, we need discussions about how to use it wisely.

What Glee Got Right

What makes football players cry? Maybe losing a game, but I haven’t seen that…often. In fairness, that could be because my school’s team has more than their share of experience at dealing with loss.

No, the television show Glee got it right tonight, which is something I have only very rarely been able to say. Finn, the football player and Rachel’s boyfriend–his only two identities–doesn’t know what he wants to do after high school. He’s surrounded by people with dreams, but he just can’t figure out what his next step is. In a heart-rending speech, he admits to his teacher that he doesn’t want to graduate, that he believes he has little talent and that once high school is over, he’ll be lost in the crowd, destined to a mundane life watching others succeed as he lives on past semi-glory.

The actor playing Finn nailed the range of emotions, and the writers got the speech down almost exactly to how I hear it, every year, sometimes multiple times. They were basically right about the context, too–just the senior and the teacher, alone in a classroom, fairly certain that no one will wander in–it’s usually after school, or during lunch, a time it’s easy to predict who’s around.

The first few times I had these conversations, I was stymied; even kids who sit in classes enthusiastically counting down days till graduation with their friends have been among the ninjas who sneak in my confessional to unburden themselves.

I’ve taught 26 years. In that time, there have been very few years that I haven’t had the “I don’t really want to graduate” speech, sometimes from a kid who seems to have the world by the tail, sometimes from a kid who is sabotaging his/her graduation in amazingly passive-aggressive ways. The reasoning and emotions are nearly the same: the kid feels unprepared in some way (intellectually, socially, emotionally, financially) for life after high school–even if there’s evidence that he/she is ready to cope–and the kid feels that his/her high school years may be their peak. It may be the smartest, the most popular, the most talented that they will ever be.

I could whistle a happy tune and tap dance the platitudes that spout like dandelions in May throughout the school, attempting to “encourage” these kids. Instead, I listen, and just listen some more, often as they choke up and look for tissue to wipe their tears–and yes, the males cry in this conversation as often as the females. They cuss and get angry, too–they’re not ready to go on, and they’re pissed that they have to. And I admit to some of them that yes, they probably will remember high school as a golden time, and depending on how they handle the next few years, it could be downhill after they wear their cap and gown and walk across the stage to shake hands and get their diploma.

I have a lot of issues with Glee, and have gone through times of only half-watching because my daughter wanted me to. And I have plenty of comments to make about Rachael’s cover of “How Deep is Your Love” tonight–it was not a perfect show. And I don’t want to give spoilers, so I’ll just say that a couple later scenes with Finn have no ring of truth resonating. But the scene when Finn finally tells Mr. Shue how he feels–that was real.

I could prove it….I’ve had conversations in my room in the last month that the writers of Glee could have been scribing for that scene. Bravo for writing it right…for once.

 

 

 

 

Things I Don’t Believe In, Education-Related

Note: I wrote this in 2012, and I predicted that within ten years, the traditional college freshman-style research paper would change dramatically. I’ve taught college courses this year (2020), and yes, they have changed quite a bit. Citation styles are very different, expectations and paper types are different–change is in the air. 

When was the last time you curled up to read a research paper? When was the last time Oprah or Dr. Phil or Matt Lauer suggested you really needed to catch the hot new research paper that everyone else was reading?

Never?

Research papers–the standard, gotta-have-footnotes/citations/endnotes with a Bibiliography/Works Cited/References at the end type paper–don’t exist outside of a very specific climate. Even if you have written one, you probably never read one, except the examples your English teacher provided as a model. Unless you read professional journals, you probably haven’t read one outside of the English class where you wrote one.

As a highly qualified teacher, a part-time college instructor, and a fairly smart cookie who spews words for fun, I have a professional opinion about research papers: they suck. If that’s not clear enough, how’s this: as a benchmark of student success, the process of producing a standards-based paper following the current MLA or APA guidelines relies on an antiquated educational paradigm and provides inconclusive data about a student’s critical thinking ability, research capabilities, and essential writing skills.

With all that said, I believe whole-heartedly that we need to push critical thinking and research. Teaching students to ask good questions, be curious, and to engage in meaningful discussion about ideas–whether face to face, via technology, or in a written format–is crucial. Getting them to evaluate the quality of information they find and put it in a context is paramount, too.

Learning to write a research paper, following spacing guidelines, formatting rules, and worrying about punctuation, transitions, and the mechanics of good writing do not further all of the things listed in the previous paragraph. In fact, the emphasis on learning to write the formal paper de-emphasizes the crucial skills listed above. Form matters more than content, at least most of the time at the high school level.

In fact, I’m going to don my Amazing Kreskin hat and predict that in a few years–a decade at the most–the “research paper” is going to change format dramatically, with the wide-spread acceptance of first person (which is usual now in some journals) and hyperlinks to sources instead of traditional citations. We’re on the verge of that change now.

The research paper as it’s taught and written in high school is a completely artificial form of communication, and needs to change to utilize the technologies we have now while emphasizing the baseline research and critical thinking skills that are even more important in the age of information glut.

The “research paper” needs to give way to a more relevant form of writing that reflects those concerns and priorities.

And part of the reason? Research papers thrive in the hot-house of academia, but not out in the world our students live in. Not in the world we live in, either. The skills to write a correctly formatted paper can be learned with relative ease when they are truly needed–and that’s not at the high school level. The research and critical thinking skills, yes. Emphatically. But the hallowed formal “research paper” that I spend weeks teaching? It sucks.

My Reading Life: Little Black Sambo

My earliest memories involve books. I remember both of my parents reading to me, Mom reading kids’ books to me, Dad reading…..well, whatever he was reading when I climbed on his lap, I think. Probably everyone my age knows the books Captain Kangaroo read on his show–Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel jumps out at me, and I have gauzy visions of Mom reading that to me, too. Reading was part of the warp and weft of my childhood.

But there’s one story that I probably shouldn’t talk about Mom reading me, a story that is reviled in children’s lit; in a college children’s lit class I took, the prof actually lowered her voice as she mentioned the volume, and admitted she had never seen it. Little Black Sambo was the story of a child who tricked some tigers into chasing each other around a tree until the tigers all melted into butter, with illustrations that were later considered overwrought and racially demeaning.  Poet Langston Hughes called the book “a typical ‘pickaninny’ storybook which was hurtful to black children,” and slowly,  publishers and the public, in a growing awareness of racism, quit buying and reading the story.There’s more to that part of Sambo’s saga, but that’s not what makes this part of my reading life.

A couple years ago, in one of my Senior English classes, I was trying to explain “trickster” figures. Along with Bugs Bunny, I mentioned Sambo–totally forgetting that my students have been raised in a politically correct, racially sensitive era. The class was almost entirely African-American, like many of my classes are, and I had to make a split-second decision when I saw they didn’t understand the allusion: shrug it off and go on, or stop, explain and discuss. Which option was more likely to result in phone calls? Which stood a better chance of getting my name in the paper…..in a context I really wanted to avoid? Stopping to talk about Little Black Sambo sounded like a bad idea, but…of course that’s exactly what I did.

There’s a part I didn’t anticipate when I tried to briefly (and politically correctly) describe Sambo’s story: cell phones. Students who couldn’t do research for their senior research papers unless I stood behind their shoulder all the sudden had their cell phones in their hands, the version of the book from my childhood on the tiny screens. In a matter of seconds, three students had found the book, and another couple were scanning the wikipedia entry about the book.As “racial” material, the virtual book couldn’t get past the school internet filters, but like good rebels, we had access anyway.

We had a two day conversation about what racism is and how attitudes have changed over the years. Many of the kids were baffled by why the book was considered racist; they even pointed out that Sambo is Indian, according to the story, not African, yet curiously, the pictures were reminiscent of an Aunt Jemima bottle. Questions about censorship, especially commercial v. governmental, were raised, too. My lesson plan was shot for those days–but the degree of research, engagement, and deep discussion that came out of it was incredible. And, because I had to wrap it up and carry on, there was a writing prompt giving the kids a chance to assimilate and process our discussion.

In the process of discussing with my students, I learned something else. Well, I knew it, but it was vividly reinforced. Few of my students were read to as children. For many, the first memory of someone reading to them was HeadStart. There were exceptions, of course, but fewer than I hoped. I can’t imagine not having Sambo and Mike Mulligan and all the animals from Over in the Meadow, and the Little Lost Dolly and Laughing Allegra, and Make Way for Ducklings, and….all of them, bouncing around in the dark recesses of my mind. My reading life started before I could read. Woven through my life are the stories and people that I’ve only encountered on the page (since I got my Kindle, on the screen, too). Maybe it’s not a wonder that my students so often label things “boring;” their imaginations aren’t peopled with ideas and places outside of their experience, anxious to be brought to life as only an imaginative reader can.

Talking about what I’ve read is a cornerstone of most of my relationships. My older kids are more likely to call me if they have read a good book than if they have the flu. The students who I’ve stayed close to after graduation are all readers, and frequently email or text to share something they’ve read. I’ve discovered–or rediscovered–great writers because of they assume I want to know what they’re reading.

So my students, who don’t read for fun, who very often come from homes where reading is “work” or “boring,” where no one ever read to them for fun–or argued that that book is always better than the movie– they miss a world of interaction and connection not just with ideas, but with other people.

Little Black Sambo reminded me of all that.

My Reading Life (as inspired by Pat Conroy’s book)

Define “reality.” Feel free to google it, and look through all the great philosophers and psychologists that Wikipedia so conveniently turns into sound bytes. I’m curious what they say, because I can’t neatly tie up in a tidy bow and point to it as a discrete package.

That’s because I read.

I don’t remember learning to read; I remember sitting in Mrs. Wild’s first grade, reading about Dick, Jane, and Sally. Decoding letters came so easily that I don’t think I ever consciously learned. Sure, I may have stumbled over new words as I sounded them out, but even that was minimal. I’m still baffled by how people learn to read. How do you not know how? And how can people not be entranced by the magic of one letter following another, making pictures in your head, conjuring whole people and places with the symbols on the page? One of my (many) downfalls as a teacher is that I assume that of course you will want to read, that meeting these characters or delving into this information is as wonderous for you as for me.

Pat Conroy, who is one of my all-time favorite writers, wrote a book that talks about the books that he’s been influenced by. It’s a cozy flannel sheet of a book, with his effusive and emotional explanations about what each volume meant to him. Usually, I race through Conroy’s work, finishing a first read of his huge stories in a day or two, then rereading more leisurely to sink into the place and people. (Yes, I do mean that the first time I read each of his books, I read twice, right in a row. Well, except for South of Broad, which I pretend he didn’t publish.Whole ‘nother issue!) My Reading Life, however, I’ve been eating in bite-sized morsels, a chapter at a time. Most then once, I’ve then read (or reread) the book that he rhapsodized about, wanting to see if I could find in the story why it was so influential to him. Some books focused as much on the person who introduced the book to him, fleshing out English teachers, librarians and friends who were fictionalize in many of his books.

There’s a punchline, of course. I’m going to take the Conroy Challenge. I’ve been off my game, writing-wise. My blog has been silent. In important ways, I’m more a reader than a writer–which is like taking razor blades to my soul to admit; I’m going to set a goal of writing about 20 books that have influenced me. That’s a minimum, fans. The challenge, I realize, is to say anything interesting enough about them for anyone else to read!

First book up…..hmm…...Little Black Sambo? Seriously, it might be–that’s a book I will write about. Over in the Meadow? Gone with the Wind? Little Women? On the Road? Stranger in a Strange Land? I’m not sure….but it’ll be this weekend!  (2020 Note: I still haven’t written about most of these)

Football. And Nascar. And….beer. Yes, lots of Beer**

I didn’t think I’d forgive Barbara Ehrenreich for her narrow-minded, condescending book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America a few years ago–and I still would like a couple hours to talk to her about it, preferably with no heavy objects in my reach–but this article about modern feminism may redeem her just a bit.

In the article, she analyzes the state of current day feminism, and laments that the single “woman’s issue” that generates any discussion is breast cancer. Slap a pink ribbon on something, and you’re woman-friendly. No need to deal with social issues or even health issues that are controversial and make women shrill and unreasonable. Wrap the world in princess pink and we’re all “feminists” because we all care about a woman’s issue–even though some science suggests that current standard approaches may not be the best way to treat prevention, detection or treatment of breast cancer. No worries–we’re still very concerned about women and we show that with the ubiquitous pink ribbons.

Does anyone besides Marlo Thomas and Gloria Steinem call themselves feminists anymore? Well, and Phil Donahue and Alan Alda, I guess. Even I hedge around the word, instead going into long explanations of what I believe; the label is too laden with baggage for me to expect I will be treated seriously if I just say, “yep, I am. You still getting used to the idea that women can vote?”

The feminist movement of the 70’s had so many issues to deal with that they ended up tripping over themselves like a centipede trying to tango. Instead of being known for groundbreaking work in insuring living wages for “pink collar” jobs and opening opportunities for women, the image that lasted seems to be bra-burning and combat-boot-wearing lesbians.

The record numbers of women athletes, women in grad schools, woman professionals and management–that is the product of hard work and talent, no nod given to their mothers and grandmothers who argued and voted and changed the game. My sister’s high school counselor offered her two options for her professional future: nurse or teacher. I can’t imagine anyone working with teens today that look at a girl and see her only options as housewife, mommy, teacher or nurse. It wouldn’t be tolerated. Thanks, Gloria Steinem.

A truly brave candidate for national office–or a truly daring reporter–would fight to open a dialogue again about the issues that have gotten buried in the kinder, gentler, pink-ribboned womens movement. What is the impact of women in the work force? Should society be doing something differently? Are latchkey programs and quality day care priced so the working poor can afford them? What messages are reality television shows giving our young women–and our young men–about relationships, sex, and life? We need thoughtful people acting as the third estate to make those topics dinner table conversation.

The article by Barbara Ehrenreich resonated with me today. I listened to an adult and a group of teens arguing whether boys or girls had it worse. The adult (NOT me) and most of the teens agreed that women have it easy, or at least easier than men. The girls who were drawn into the argument had their opinions dismissed because they were “just girls and they would stick up for girls without seeing how it really is.” Not one girl tried to counter that argument. All I could do was sigh. These kids, members of the sound-bite generation, just wanted to outshout each other, not discuss. And the adult issued proclamations and  dismissed the girls’ opinions as emotional, not logical. (This is why I drink Pepsi at school. It keeps me busy so I don’t scream. The miracle is that I don’t spike it with rum. Yet.)

I’m thinking that next year, I’m not going to teach. I should stay home, barefoot and pregnant, watching talk shows and reality television. I could dress in princess pink and wear a pink ribbon every day. It would be a much easier life.

**Do you really need me to explain the title?