Today I Will Write a Little Reflection

The sun rose east of downtown Houston, the horizon glowed orange, and skyscrapers shone in reflection. A pale, full moon hung in the west. I joined teacher friends on the school rooftop—for the happening, camaraderie, and breakfast tacos. This was the first Thursday of autumn, the end of the first five weeks of the semester. I counted my blessings.

The teacher in me is always functioning in one of two ways: first, survival, then, reflecting to teach better. This year, the first year of my brand-new job after a two-year break, I’m teaching some lessons that have worked well in the past and some that are brand new to me.

A few years ago, I tried out this idea, students would read Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Puedo Escribir los Versos Más Tristes Esta Noche” (1924). First, in Spanish. The Chilean poet’s collection Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971. This is Poem 20 in his collection.

I have enough Spanish speakers in my classes to pull off the reading as intended. Multiple volunteers raise their hands to read aloud, and the rest of us listen to the beauty of the language. This lesson is more about poetry appreciation than analysis. (Click here to listen in Spanish.)

Puedo Escribir los Versos Más Tristes Esta Noche

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.

Escribir, por ejemplo: 'La noche está estrellada, 
y tiritan, azules, los astros, a lo lejos.'

El viento de la noche gira en el cielo y canta.

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche. 
Yo la quise, y a veces ella también me quiso.

En las noches como ésta la tuve entre mis brazos. 
La besé tantas veces bajo el cielo infinito.

Ella me quiso, a veces yo también la quería. 
Cómo no haber amado sus grandes ojos fijos.

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche. 
Pensar que no la tengo. Sentir que la he perdido.

Oir la noche inmensa, más inmensa sin ella. 
Y el verso cae al alma como al pasto el rocío.

Qué importa que mi amor no pudiera guadarla. 
La noche está estrellada y ella no está conmigo.

Eso es todo. A lo lejos alguien canta. A lo lejos. 
Mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.

Como para acercarla mi mirada la busca. 
Mi corazón la busca, y ella no está conmigo.

La misma noche que hace blanquear los mismos árboles. 
Nosotros, los de entonces, ya no somos los mismos.

Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero cuánto la quise. 
Mi voz buscaba el viento para tocar su oído.

De otro. Será de otro. Como antes de mis besos. 
Su voz, su cuerpo claro. Sus ojos infinitos.

Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero tal vez la quiero. 
Es tan corto el amor, y es tan largo el olvido.

Porque en noches como ésta la tuve entre mis brazos, 
mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.

Aunque éste sea el último dolor que ella me causa, 
y éstos sean los últimos versos que yo le escribo.

Then, we read and listen to the audio version in English, “Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines.” (Click here.)

Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example, 'The night is shattered,
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.'

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me sometimes, and I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is shattered and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight searches for her as though to go to her.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another's. She will be another's. Like my kisses before.
Her voice. Her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.

I ask the students who understand both versions which one they like more. “It’s so much better in Spanish,” they say. “So much more passionate, more romantic. I mean, Spanish is a Romance language.”

I ask what makes this poem poetic, and they zero in on the purposeful repetition, the images, and the speaker’s internal conflict. “Her infinite eyes. Now that’s a line,” they say. The students gush a bit. They like Neruda, and this is the point.

For homework, I ask them to write lines of their own. Theirs do not have to be their saddest. They can choose whatever they want—their happiest, their angriest, their most musical or most artistic. This year I’m teaching at a high school for the performing and visual arts. I’m throwing out ideas right and left.  

They could borrow some of Neruda’s language, like “Tonight I can write ______” and stick to his format, mostly two-line stanzas, or not.  

They could write poetry or prose. Either way students would include purposeful repetition (I teach them a word—anaphora), imagery, and an internal conflict.

They could write in a language other than English. This was another spur of the moment decision. Why not? During these first weeks of school, I try hard to know my students by name and need.

And when the students returned to class a week later with completed assignments, I asked for volunteers to share. For the first time in over twenty years of teaching, students spoke in Japanese and Russian in our classroom. Other students shared in French and Spanish, Danish and English. And overall, students surprised themselves with a newfound confidence in their self-expression.

Sometimes we make school needlessly hard. I get it. We’re preparing students for college. But many of my students have been learning online for the past year and a half. I want them to leave with some good memories, a newfound love of language, maybe even a respect for humanity.

Google.

The day before yesterday while out grocery shopping, I racked my brain for letter G options for today’s A-Z challenge post. I felt grateful for the food soon to be on my table, but I was stumped as far as posts go.

Back at home later that day, I Googledverbs that begin with the letter G. I considered giggle, graduate, and give, but I had covered those topics recently. I had nothing new to say.

That same day I Googled the past tense of lie (which I look up over and over) and benefits of standing on your head. I realized I had twenty opened tabs, and I wondered if other people’s browsers looked like mine.

I had a page opened via Google for HemingwayApp.com. You can copy and paste your writing into this App, and it highlights problem areas such as passive voice and adverbs and hard to read sentences.

Another opened tab of Googled information included Selenium from Se-methylselenocysteine and Carbonyl Iron which a reader mentioned to me as an alternative treatment for schizophrenia.  

I had searched for the definition of Anosognosia for my memoir in progress, and Google took me to the Treatment Advocacy Center website, the tab still opened. Also called “lack of insight,” Anosognosia is a symptom of severe mental illness caused by physical damage to the brain that impairs a person’s ability to understand and perceive his or her illness. It is the single largest reason why 40-50% of people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder refuse medications or do not seek treatment.

I had an opened tab for Chase Oaks Church from a recent Sunday service and one for the Royal Academy of Dance for my third ballet lesson at home and one for the Serenity Prayer. All Googled.

A little over three and a half years ago I Googled WordPress, signed up for an account, and started publishing myself for others to Google. I feel like this post could go on and on. Isn’t it amazing the resources at our fingertips?

Thanks for reading my A-Z Challenge ramble today. This April, I’m sticking to a theme of action: mental, physical, and spiritual, things I might already do or haven’t attempted in years or maybe never. You know what else I’m doing this month? Click here to see: AbstainBalletCartwheelDevoteEncourage, Forgive.

Slowing Down My Pretty Horses

 

During the spring 2020 semester I’m taking a three-hour, on-line class—WRIT 6342: Writing Workshop Fiction II. One of the course objectives is to articulate how various stylistic choices shape a work of fiction. An assignment last week forced me to slowdown my reading and consider the effectiveness of a single sentence, word by word, phrase by phrase, clause by clause. When I teach again, I’ll use this assignment. Each week I have two to three assignments due. Once I submit my work online, my classmates read my work, and I read theirs. We discuss by commenting back and forth to each other.

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All the Pretty Horses Homework

From my professor: For this response you need to read All the Pretty Horses and the chapter on language in How Fiction Works. Find one sentence you would classify as baroque (highly ornate and extravagant in style). In 300 or more words, consider what makes the sentence effective. Yes, I’m asking you to write 300 words about one sentence.

“When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses before them and dogs trotting with their tongues aloll and foot-slaves following half naked and sorely burdened and above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives” (McCarthy 5).

After his grandfather’s funeral and before we even know our protagonist’s name, John Grady Cole reveals himself as a sentimental dreamer by riding on horseback out to the old Comanche road coming down out of Kiowa country. In this place, he hears the horses and the riders of the past. Narrated in the third-person, each “and” represents an echo of the rhythmic gallop of horses from a time when Indians roamed the land and fought to keep it. Nouns follow the repeated “and” provide more details of the place where Cole grew up, the land he is losing, like the Comanches and Kiowas did, and the unfairness of it all. We hear and see, the horses, their breath, their hooves shod in rawhide, rattling lances carried by the natives for hunting and protection and the drag of travois poles for restraining horses and dragging loads over the land. In this case McCarthy compares the sound of the drag and the image in the sand to “the passing of some enormous serpent.” In Native American cultures, the serpent is a fertility symbol, and others believe the serpent symbolizes the umbilical cord, joining all humans to Mother Earth. Even the word passing makes a hissing sound.

The young boys on wild horses are not much different than John Grady, “jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses.” We later see John Grady confidently break sixteen horses in the course of four days. An audience gathers, he performs, and they are mesmerized by the act. McCarthy likens “all remembrance” to a “grail” and in this case a search for a romanticized life. This highly ornate sentence concludes by setting up John Grady Cole’s secular, transitory, violent quest, leaving his dead grandfather’s land behind to be sold and passing from Texas across the Rio Grande in search of adventure as a cowboy in Mexico.

By the way, I watched the Matt Damon movie with Penelope Cruz before I submitted my assignment on Wednesday. Then I finished the book. What can I say? I was a little distracted last week. 

Meanwhile, my daughter Lauren journeyed the six or so miles from her apartment to our house and brought over a box of six puzzles she picked up from Walgreens. We, too, slowed down. We started a 500-piece kite puzzle, revealing the bigger picture, piece by piece, and enjoyed our mother-daughter time—one conversation, one meal, one YouTube video at a time.

This past week reminded me to slow down. I paused long enough to consider puzzles and stories and relationships and priorities. We never know for sure what our weeks will hold, but for this one, I have high hopes as always.

 

That’s My Middle West

“That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”

Nick Carraway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Over the past twenty years, I’ve discovered that most writing success begins with an example. Students need concrete models of introductions and thesis statements, topic sentences and embedded quotations and commentary, statements of theme and parallelism. Name the skill, any skill, an example provides the training wheels.

In my bag of teacher tricks, I dig for a creative writing assignment that I must credit to F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, not to mention Plano ISD, where I taught English and learned my craft for fourteen years, and the intensive two-week Plano Writing Leadership Academy, which I attended twice, and my writing mentors, Lisa Thibodeaux and Marsha Cawthon, who facilitated those game-changing professional development opportunities.

The directions for said-teacher-trick go something like this:

Think about where you are from and use F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description above to inspire one of your own. Use some of his words as needed, and pay attention to his phrasing and punctuation.

That’s my _________—not the _______ or the ________ or the ________ _________ ________ but the ________, _______ _______ of my ________ and the _________ _______ and _______ _______ in the ________ ______ and the…  

(You understand where this is going.)

As the teacher, I can’t escape the upcoming high stakes testing, but I know the students need breaks from the test prep and loads of confidence. Did I mention bonus points for sharing aloud? You should see their little faces beaming with pride as they string their ideas together like Fitzgerald, and my eyes get a little misty, too, as I learn something new about my kids and their journeys, their hearts and the insides of their heads.

That Time When I Fell on My Face

Fridays at school usually go something like this.

“Happy Friday, you guys!” I say as each class begins.

A chorus of voices, practically singing, respond on cue, “It’s Fun Fact Friday!”

Fun Fact Friday just sort of happened this year. One Friday during the Fall semester, I said, “Fun fact,” and in the pause, all eyes spun toward me, and I had a captivated audience. I proceeded to tell my students a little something about my life. They loved it, and now every Friday their voices ring out, “Fun Fact Friday!”

Last Friday’s Fun Fact:  

“So this is my twentieth year to teach,” I said. “I have a fact from about twenty years ago during my first few years of teaching when I was young, right?” I try to make eye contact with all of them as I speak. “So when I first started teaching, I taught seventh graders for five years. Then I taught freshmen for a couple of years and sophomores for most of my years, and this is my third year to have juniors. Anyway, do you remember having really fun assemblies back in middle school?”

A sea of heads bobbed up and down.

“Well, at my school, we had a traveling trampoline show with four or five trampolines in the gym, and music, and people jumping really high and flipping. It was the best assembly ever. The kids loved it. Anyway, at the end, they asked for volunteers to come down and flip.” I raised my hand as if to portray how a person volunteers.

“And so I did. I ran down from the bleachers and jumped up on the trampoline. I’m not sure the last time I had been on a trampoline or the last time I had flipped, but I was a gymnast when I was younger, and twenty years ago I was still young, right? So I took a couple of bounces and went for it.” I paused to add a little drama. “And do you know what happened?”

Their faces conveyed expectation.

“I landed on my face.”

“Awww!” They responded in unison, mouths twisting, heads shaking back and forth, half-way disbelieving the horror and fully empathizing.

“This was a big middle school, and I fell on my face in front of about 500 students AND teachers AND administrators.” I shook my head up and down to verify the truth. “But do you know what I did?”

“You quit your job?” One boy jested.

“No.” I laughed and shook my head back and forth. “No. I got up,” I said pointing first at myself and then upward. I looked at my kids looking at me, I felt my face flash red reliving this embarrassing moment, and I resolved to use it. “I got up,” my number one finger punctuated those words, “and I did it again, and do you know what happened?”

Their faces bore uncertainty and fear of the worst-case scenario.

“I landed that—.” I censored myself before I said shit, at the same time cut off by a thunder of student cheers. “And that’s what life is all about,” I continued, caught a little off guard by their response, louder now, “You will fall down on your face throughout your life, but you have to get up and try again.”

And the next time. You will land that shit.

Making Macbeth Memorable

In my head there’s this story about me teaching The Tragedy of Macbeth, and well, it’s complicated.

My story starts at the beginning of this school year (new job, new school) during the planning phase. The last minute planning phase. I had been hired a week or two before fall classes began. I remember planning my syllabus, quickly, with a small degree of flexibility, in a very similar way to that of the teacher before me. I knew that I would be teaching something Shakespeare, and I knew it would be a text I hadn’t taught before. Our book room contained two choices: Hamlet or Macbeth. While I had read Hamlet many moons ago in college, Macbeth I had enjoyed more recently performed under the moon in the park. Eenie meanie miney moe, witches and murder, I picked Macbeth.

I’m hoping one of my high school classmates might be reading this post today because I have a question: “Did we read any Shakespeare senior year?” My memory fails. However, I do remember my friend Jacki, back in junior high apostrophizing, “Out, damned spot! Out I say!” or was it, “Out, out, brief candle”? Either way—somehow these lines are equally familiar, and somehow they have stuck with me over time.

After dog paddling my way through the deep waters of last semester’s curricula for my two advanced placement courses, I started studying Macbeth over Christmas. Where was a tutor when I needed one? Not only did I read but also I listened to the audio and watched the movie and researched commentary and googled lesson plans. Lucky for me, I had a two week “vacation” from school. All of this, I did for my two AP Literature classes when I needed to be planning for my four AP Language classes as well.

If you’re not familiar with Macbeth, here’s a quick refresher. The story is set in medieval Scotland in the midst of civil war. Macbeth is a Scottish nobleman and a war hero, cousins with and loyal to the king. Three witches appear at the beginning of the play with a prophecy for Macbeth. He will become king, they say, which causes Macbeth to consider the logistics of the new title and the possibility of murdering the king. He feels conflicted over the potential betrayal on many levels, but his wife Lady Macbeth mocks his masculinity and manipulates him toward the deed. In this tragedy, murder begets murder, and the Macbeths both succumb to guilt, insanity, and karma. Lady Macbeth cannot wash the blood from her hands to her own demise.

I found an introductory lesson to Macbeth in the New York Times. Students would participate in a brief experiment about symbolic cleansing which would segue into research on one of the following significant 20th century psychological studies:

  • Classical conditioning by Ivan Pavlov
  • Conformity by Solomon Asch
  • Operant conditioning by B. F. Skinner
  • Human obedience by Stanley Milgram
  • Abuse of power by Philip Zimbardo
  • False memories by Elizabeth Loftus

Throughout the play, we would discuss how psychology drives human motivation in connection to the Macbeths as well as ourselves. The more I studied and the more I planned, the more I realized all of my students MUST read Macbeth, especially considering the cheating scandal from last semester. Macbeth provided the perfect opportunity for an extended lesson on right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, and the psychology of human behavior. My AP Language syllabus did not include Macbeth, but I made the executive decision to add it, simplifying my life by teaching the same lessons to both courses for the third nine-week grading period.

And so, to introduce the tragedy, I made two sets of note cards: Group A and Group B. The group A cards said, “Think about an unethical act from your past—like betraying a friend, stealing, or cheating on a test.” The group B cards said, “Think about an ethical deed from your past—like returning lost money, volunteering to feed the homeless, or helping hurricane victims.” My experiment wasn’t exactly scientific. Instead of a random distribution of cards, I targeted my known cheaters with Group A. Then I asked students to consider their responses silently without discussing and bring their cards to my desk where they would choose either a paper clip or an antiseptic wipe, and I would tally statistical information based on their cards and their choices. We followed the activity by reading a New York Times article titled, “Study Finds That Washing Eases Guilty Consciences.

Instead of the traditional multiple choice test, I opted for a couple of quizzes along the way and a couple of major projects with presentations. In groups, students researched one of the psychology studies previously mentioned and presented their findings to the class in connection to our play. Individually, they had lots of creative options and freedom to choose. And, to tell you the truth, I wrote today’s post just to show off how my students shined when given the opportunity.

Students wrote poetry and performed scenes and sang songs and played ukuleles. One student created an animated video of Macbeth murdering King Duncan using Legos and Play-Doh blood. Now the visuals decorate our classroom and serve as reminders that we don’t need any Lady Macbeths in our lives. But honestly, in the end, my students taught me. They rose to the challenge, and they showed me who they are, and I hope that thirty years from now they will remember reading Macbeth.

P. S. Did you see my flowers? They came from twin girls with an attached thank you for the inspiration.

P. P. S. Fun fact. Did you know that Shakespeare wrote the first knock-knock jokes in Macbeth?

P. P. P. S. Here’s my favorite Macbeth soliloquy.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

P. P. P. P. P. S. This is Macbeth’s response to Lady Macbeth’s death. For Macbeth who has just murdered quite a few people and lost his wife due to his own ambition, sure, life is meaningless. He doesn’t have the things in life that make it meaningful: friends and family and love.

P. P. P. P. P. P. S. Happy Monday, everybody! Make it meaningful!

Cheaters

Photo by Bryan Schneider on Pexels.com

The winter break approached, exam stress visible on the faces of the students. Of my four sections of Advanced Placement Language and Composition, one class tested Monday, one on Tuesday, one Wednesday, and one Thursday. On my white board I wrote: Happy Holidays! Do your best! Be your Best! The underlying message—Don’t Cheat! I would be naive to believe that students wouldn’t try. Yet I want to trust them, really I do.

Monday’s scores were consistent with student averages and other tests taken throughout the semester. Tuesday’s test had two paradoxically high scores, but the students missed different questions, so I didn’t think too much about it as I was still grading my brains out with essays, which would comprise 50% of test scores. By Wednesday after walking in on five girls just hanging out in my office, which connects to two other classrooms besides mine, I knew in my gut that my test had been compromised. There was nothing I could do in the minutes leading up to the test that day.  

After passing out Wednesday’s exam, I noted the darting glances from “Felicia.” Every time I looked at her, she met my gaze, and even though this test consists of reading passages and comprehension, “Felicia” failed to even fake read as she bubbled her answers. I monitored like a hawk. She wasn’t copying off of anyone. However, after tests were submitted, I discovered four more inconsistent scores including Bad Faker “Felicia” and three of her friends who had seemingly coordinated well enough to miss different answers.  

So (1) there was the situation with unsupervised students in the office where tests were not visible but also not under lock and key. And (2) I did not physically collect phones or Apple watches during this testing season though none were visible. And (3) normally I give more than one version of any test, but this time, with keys having to be entered into an unfamiliar computer system and too much to do and too little time, I did not. This time I stapled a cover sheet on top that either said Form A or Form B and copied Form A in white, Form B green. Lame, I now know.

So on Wednesday after school with one semester exam to go, I assembled a new test and made copies with the same cover sheet, Form A in white and a green Form B.

Before the test on Thursday, I made eye contact with every single student as I handed out scantrons. To each one of them, I said something like, “Good luck today” or “May the force be with you” or “I’m thinking of you as you test today.” Some of them probably thought/think I’m creepy, but most of them were amused. I added a new note to my white board next to Be Your BestNo Cheating. Before distributing tests, I didn’t mention anything about the suspected cheaters or the new test, I just said, “It’s been my pleasure to be your teacher this year.”

“What? Aren’t you coming back?” they asked.

“Of course, I mean, 2018 has been great, and I’ll see you next year. I hope you all have a wonderful break. Are you ready? Do your best! Please keep your eyes on your own test and keep your answers covered.” Then I passed out the test and proceeded to walk up and down the aisles for two hours.

Immediately I recognized two scantrons with the same bubble pattern—A, B, B, D—the answers from the original exam. These two students weren’t even trying to read and see if those answer choices made sense, and they weren’t keeping their answers covered either. However, I had left one clue that this test was different. The first test had 37 questions, and this one had 39. I kept my eyes on the two, and about an hour into the test they both exuded an air of defeat—heavy exhales, eyes rolling, corners of mouths turned inconsolably down.

Fast forward to the scantron machine that sounded off like a machine gun and left six scantrons bleeding red. Six. Six students had stuck to the familiar A, B, B, D pattern, their scores to the tune of 10-20%.

Skip ahead once more past me telling some co-workers and my dean. Our math teacher had a similar cheating scandal, and I heard many a conflicting opinion on dealing with my cheaters. If I gave these six kids zeroes, they would all fail for the semester, and six more whom I suspect also cheated, but couldn’t outright accuse, would get away with it. If I gave my little cheaters their 10-20% and averaged that score with their essay scores, they will still pass for the semester.  The math teacher and I both entered zeroes into our grade books and left the school that Friday, December 21 for a two-week respite. Grades would not be officially due until our January return.

In the meantime, I’ve reflected on the times I’ve cheated in life. I remember my freshman year, still in junior high. It was just math homework. I’m sure I was too busy with my ninth-grade life to worry about school, so I borrowed the homework of a very smart, kind, and well-respected friend who had diligently completed hers and whose name I will protect to this day. I proceeded to copy her assignment in my history class, and my teacher Mr. Watkins, also the dad of one of my classmates, walked over to my desk, picked up both papers, scrutinized the names, and handed them back to me without saying a word. And I felt ashamed of myself. That’s not to say that I didn’t find a way to cheat my way through business calculus in college, and I don’t relay my own dishonesty with pride.

I say this to illustrate the imperfection of humanity. I realize that the pot should not call the kettle black, and I ask myself, “What would Jesus do?”

I remember the story of a prostitute kissing the feet of Jesus and anointing them with perfume and her own tears and wiping them with her own hair.

I remember Simon saying, “If this man were a prophet, he would know this woman was a sinner.”

I remember Jesus saying to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven…go in peace.”

(It’s all in Luke 7:36-50 with a powerful parable in between*).

There will always be Simons who say, “Let them fail. Teach them a lesson.”

There will always be Jesuses and Mr. Watkinses who teach lessons in other ways.

There will always be people, like me, who choose wrong from time to time, but continue to try to be better than who they were before. Isn’t that what we all do in January? Resolve to be our best selves?

When I go back to school, I’ll give my students credit for their essays and say little, maybe even nothing like Mr. Watkins, and like Jesus, I’ll forgive with grace and peace for new beginnings in the new year.

Photo by Jonathan Meyer on Pexels.com

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*Luke 7:40-43, New International Version, biblegateway.com

40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”

“Tell me, teacher,” he said.

41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.


Teacher Spelling Bee 🐝 (Lucky Me!)

The last time I stood upon a stage and spelled words before an audience, I was twelve years old. I could spell decently. I mean, I was no Ashley Adams, champion year after year, competing her way to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, in Washington, D. C.  But, I did enjoy spending time with my dictionary, perhaps more than the typical child. And, I could spell my way out of my homeroom and onto the stage with the other Academy Elementary finalists. Go me!

And thirty-six years later, I found myself on a stage once more, bright lights in my eyes, teachers in a line to my left and to my right, an audience of students before me. Stepping up to the microphone for my first word, the cheers drowned out the word uttered by the student judge. Flattered and taken by surprise with the audience response after a semester at my new school, I turned to the judge sitting stage left and asked, “Will you repeat the word?”

“Decordicate.”

“Decordicate?” I asked with a grimace, brows furrowed.

“Decordicate,” he affirmed.

I turned back to the audience. “English teachers don’t know all the words,” I said into the mic before proceeding. “Decordicate.” I repeated, looking again to the two judges, who nodded in agreement. “D-E-C-O-R-D-I-C-A-T-E.” I spelled.

“That is incorrect.”

Okay, so I wasn’t so lucky. With disappointment, I crossed the stage, descended the stairs, and slumped into a front row seat, clapping for co-workers still competing and internally spelling their words while trying to remember mine. With my iPhone back in my classroom, I would have to wait to look up “decordicate.”

The next teacher had to spell “chocolate,” by the way, and the next “paranoia” and the next “scenery.” The winning word was “reminisce,” a favorite pastime of mine. I can spell those words. Oh well. This spelling bee supported two causes: an Engineering Club fund-raiser, $2 a ticket with a few hundred kids in attendance, plus a canned food drive, one item per student for our local food banks. A win-win. I can’t be bitter.

Once back in my classroom, my student Cheyenne who represented my advisory class in the recent student spelling bee asked me, “Was it D-I-C?”

It took me a second to understand her question. “I have no idea,” I responded with phone in hand. “Let me look it up,” and I Googled.

“Showing results for decorticate,” said Google.

“Enunciate,” said my inner dialogue. No one was there to hear. 

“D-E-C-O-R-T-I-C-A-T-E,” I spelled for Cheyenne, emphasizing the T while reciting from my screen. “I missed the T. I heard D.” Her smile revealed empathy as she left for lunch. 

I read on. According to the U. S. National Library of Medicine at medlineplus.gov, “Decorticate posture is an abnormal posturing in which a person is stiff with bent arms, clenched fists, and legs held out straight. The arms are bent in toward the body and the wrists and fingers are bent and held on the chest. This type of posturing is a sign of severe damage in the brain.”

According to The Free Dictionary, decorticate means “to remove the bark, husk, or outer layer from; peel.”

Anyway, I learned something new. I hope you did, too.

Are You a Good Communicator?

Each Monday in homeroom advisory, the students and I answer a couple of questions as a team-building exercise. One at a time, we relay a detail or two about our weekends and practice the art of communication. Some say more than others. Some endeavor to entertain. Everyone participates. The school dictates the other query through a leadership class for senior students in charge of facilitating activities for the 9-12 homeroom.

Last week as advisory started, a soft-spoken senior named Diego wrote on the board, “Are you a good communicator?” He turned to face the class and proceeded, “I’m not a good communicator…,” followed by his why. Something stuck my heart as he spoke.

From my rolling chair at the front of the room, I rolled left and right for the ultimate vantage point, listening to my twenty-three kids, digesting their responses to understand, and preparing mine to note my observations. I perceived a clear division between the extroverts and the introverts. The extroverts expressed satisfaction with their abilities while the introverts beat themselves up, half of them echoing Diego, “I’m not a good communicator…,” followed by whys. Each time my heart sank a little lower.

Student after student said things like, “I know what I want to say. It just doesn’t come out of my mouth,” and, “I just get nervous and end up not saying anything,” and, “When I work with a group, the loud people take over, and I might have something to say, but I miss my chance,” and “It takes me awhile to think, and I usually think of the perfect thing to say later” and “I just don’t care enough to say anything.”

After the tenth or eleventh time of hearing, “I’m not a good communicator,” I contemplated the purpose of the activity as well as my heart condition for my fellow introverts: Have I been the kid who’s hard on myself due to failed conversations? A thousand times, Yes! Do we really want kids to leave here feeling terrible about themselves? No! No! No!

I carefully crafted my conclusion to change the course. “I communicate better in writing than verbally,” I said, pausing for eye contact. “I’m a quiet person, too, and I like to think before I speak. As I listened, I was up here thinking that I have a problem with this question.” I hesitated with a purpose. “I don’t think any of us should beat ourselves up over a personality trait.” I took another second or two to let that sink in. “Some people love to talk. Some don’t. Doesn’t communication go two ways?” At this point I became aware of some approval in the form of nodding heads. “It seems we could’ve talked about the meaning of communication first. Some people are really good at conveying their ideas, but they might not be as good at listening. I think all of us have room to improve.” And from there, I chatted about my weekend…but the question bugged me all week.Effective communication

 

“Are you a good communicator?”

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