Monthly Archives: February 2015

Initial stages of melting

Yes I know what you mean. And that, if true, is a miracle in itself.

Yesterday my daughter showed me a photo of address that apparently is going viral, because when people view it, apparently about half see it as blue with black trim, and the other half as white with gold. (link here) No in between, no convincing either it’s any other shade, at any angle. Which leads into the subject of nominal aspect of color. I remember realizing with wonder as a young person that one can’t ever know what colors another person sees, only the common names for them. How does each one experience and interpret color, and, extrapolating, any stimulus of the mind or body?

What I meant was, I know what you mean about the danger of pursuing euphoric experiences. Not the usual danger such as death or injury from extreme sports, because life and limb were never our most important assets. I mean the danger of becoming mediocre, not much good to anyone, even oneself.

I remember climbing the stairs to my dorm room in Cochrane Bay at King’s, up a half flight, turn, up another, turn, alternately feeling proud of myself for something, then ashamed of my pride, then proud of my humility, and so on. I decided that laughing was the best cure, and getting back to work. I was also at that time immersed in the Christian teaching that we are here to bring glory to God, and also that our “success” is because of yielding to and participating with the divine will. Living in the paradox of individual insignificance and belonging to the royal priesthood, reflecting God’s glory just by being a created being, and becoming more like the Creator by grace and choice. “Not by works, so that no one may boast.” Yes, one ought to laugh and get back to work. Or rest, whatever is the plan. A favorite Bruce Cockburn song, “Laughter,” here.

What would it be like if humans could accomplish all the good of which we’re capable, due to our self consciousness, yet ditch the self consciousness at those crucial moments where one risks catching that virus of conceit, as I was experiencing on those stairs. I see this struggle being played out in interviews with great people, who continually divert compliments, who become less so that others may become more, who shun attention, sometimes vehemently, as a threat to their sense of purpose and identity. We all know of people who came to public light and never recovered from the glory lavished on them. They were tested and found wanting, whether scorned for their self aggrandizement or pitied for their failure of character..

Of course I am so far from the honor of being selected by the evil powers that be for that kind of test, and if it should ever come about that I am, having passed the daily smaller ones that would eat away at my God-given potential to bring more love and justice to this world, you won’t hear much from me. Wondering at your silence, you who are being tested, and suffer for the harvest of joy you have glimpsed beyond the curtain.

I have read very few spiritual classics, either Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, or Confucian. Nor have I attended spiritual retreats, conducted purifying fasts, or gone vision questing. So this is an experiment so far in seeing what I can learn from everyday experience and the people around me, as I am in my writing. But think victory in this realm  is less a consequence of concentrated effort, self flagellation and that kind of reflection that makes two vertical lines form between one’s eyes, though these things are certainly sometimes necessary, but in the kind of movement of the soul that generates spontaneous laughter up and out. So, as Bruce Cockburn says in this song, let us go laughing.

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Posted by on February 27, 2015 in Personal Growth, Religion & Spirituality


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Frank and Ernest and their friends up North

I subbed for the first time at an Options high school this week. Where students who weren’t getting a proper education in the regular system go, you know, and get more support in smaller classes. And where they get more direction to go into into manual arts and blue collar jobs, I gathered from the textbooks on the shelves there. I’m starting to think it would be better to encourage them to consider becoming teachers. Why not, since even my son, who was interested in teaching, and would be good at it, has decided to go for a better paying job in technology.

The Options zone was an arrangement of four portable classrooms called North, with mellow, understanding teachers, a few I.A.A.’s, and an acting principal. There was no lesson plan on the desk, so I got the scoop from the teacher next door, who told me that today was basically a study hall day, with students doing whatever assignments they had to work on.

Five students filtered in, and when I had told them my name and jotted theirs down, they got settled down to work, and I realized i wouldn’t have much to do and wished I’d brought my copy of The Boys in the Boat. Now and then I’d check in with one or the other, but no one really needed anything. So I sat at the desk did some writing and planning.

After a while I got to talking to the two girls in the front. One asked me how I got into subbing, and then what I expected Options students to be like. Had I been scared? I said, I’m always a little scared, no matter where I go to sub, because I never really know whether I can do a good job, and what might come up. But I like that, I added—keeps me on my toes, and things usually go pretty well anyway. She offered that some subs came with an attitude, as if they know the students already, as if they were troublemakers because of being in the Options program. I said, yes, I believe it, I’d seen that kind of prejudice and disrespect, and it’s sad.

I asked her how it made her feel to be treated that way, and she said she felt like being bad on purpose. Mm-hmm, I said, and then the teacher can feel justified, right? She totally got that, of course. So I invited her, and her friend also in the conversation, and I suppose a few of the guys who could hear from where they sat (one in particular, a tall, athletic black boy with a bit of his face peeking out of his hoodie as he glanced up now and then), to consider how worth it it could be for them (and me) to rise above and be a free agent, and act out of choice rather than auto-response. Told her what I’d learned long ago (not so as I remember to apply it much) from Eric Berne’s transaction analysis, how if we can have the self awareness to act from our true mature self, even if someone is expecting less, it can change the dynamic. I said but I’m preaching too much, and she said, I like it. She had to go, but if we’d had the chance to talk longer, I suppose we would have to come to the problem of the prejudiced teacher thinking that the good response was somehow due to her skills and showing who’s boss, rather than the maturity of the student in the face of disrespect.

I went back to writing in my notebook, and after a while the other girl asked what I was writing. I told her this and that–notes, thoughts, two-minute timed pieces for my class, ideas for books and articles, research on writing markets, and so on. She wanted to know more, so I found one piece that made a little sense, on how Annie Dillard’s writing affected me. She was so interested and appreciative. Told me I should write a whole book of things like that. Maybe I will, I said, once I figure out what’s people might like to read. I mentioned my blog, and she wanted to know how blogs worked, so I explained. We chatted on, about our families, and I could see her parents and step parents and step sibs were lucky to have her in the family, and told her so.

On the way out she said she’d recommend me to sub again. And I felt that flood of thankfulness, of privilege, of blessing that keeps me going, that would almost make whether I get paid for this job seem irrelevant. Not that I’m desperate to be liked, because I now have a confidence of my own that I at least can do a decent job. But it’s a blessing be invited into someone’s domain, out of good will.

Since the lunch room was across campus and there was a microwave in the building, I cooked up my rice and chicken there, found a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest tucked behind a row of Math with Business Applications and enjoyed a quiet read.

One thing that struck me about Options, or at least the way it was organized there, was the freedom that these students enjoyed, to come or not come to class, to come late, to decide on what they’d accomplish and when. No hall passes or tardy slips. There was a sense of final preparations for their life outside school, an acknowledgement of their impending (or newly begun) adulthood. Even with a sub in the room, these five students were responsible and respectful, and did their work.

The afternoon class was completely different. I took over from a young male teacher in “North North” supervising two big guys whom he had allowed (or not interfered with their decision) to watch internet flicks. I asked one student his name, which he gave as Josh, and put his headphones back on, continuing to blurt out song lyrics now and then, complete with expletives. The other teacher said, funny, he introduced himself to the other sub as Josh, too. I asked his real name, in case I needed it.

I couldn’t help but be surprised at what I felt were the low expectations there. The teacher seemed too intimidated to expect much. Maybe it was just because of early release and schedule changes. I knew nothing about these two man-sized guys except that I would be alone for the next hour with them, and that, as the teacher had explained, usually subs were not expected to do much teaching. I said maybe next time, since they’ll be used to me. Otherwise it’s hard to stay awake, right?

I read a bit, looked around the space, logged on to school district websites and picked up a few sub jobs. I went over and congratulated “Josh” for successfully pulling the wool over my eyes. He was the first, I said, because he didn’t give himself away as most did by pausing before giving the false name, and then looking for a reaction. He made an acknowledgement sound. I asked why he hadn’t given his real name, and he said because most people automatically shortened it to nicknames he didn’t like. Said he’d just not answer them. I said I didn’t blame him–names are important, and I think people should try use the ones they are given by the owner.

The taller guy was roaming around bored, but the bell rang and the two went to get their drives home. As I locked up and walked across the parking lot to the library to put in my final hour of duty in which I had no defined purpose, I daydreamed about what I could bring to a place such as the one I’d visited this day. Would I be able to set up some cool science labs? Model writing for the love of it? Lead a reading of The Importance of Being Ernest? Inspire some kids who found they weren’t served by the system to become educators themselves?


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Natural history observations

Three bald eagles circle high overhead as I work in the garden, one lower down, feathers brown, a juvenile. Later they land in the cottonwoods across the road and chitter to one another like sparrows, only much more piercingly.

A young woman, thin, dressed only in light clothes, comes to us as we pack away the swim team’s food and asks for change so she and her girlfriend can get something to eat. She thanks us, wishes us blessings,and takes away her cheese, fruit, and cookies.

Several small formations of trumpeter swans wing across the sky above town from one field of sprouting greens to another, honking now and then, the sound of their wing beats just audible.

A man comes up to us in the hotel breakfast room and introduces himself, being from the same town, and has lots of interesting things to say, but after a few minutes we realize he doesn’t know how not to be the keynote motivational speaker. I’m sorry I naively introduced him to my father-in-law, thinking that as former teacher-coaches they’d enjoy getting acquainted. I have to go, nice meeting you, I say when his tone reaches the true believer pitch, and escape, as does my mother-in-law shortly after that. He gives my father-in-law his card and urges him to call to receive a free chapter of his new book, hundreds of proverbs on how to live an inspired life. He has eight hundred employees.

Three chestnut backed chickadees flit from one fir to another in front to the house, two in a fierce battle, swooping at one another and cheeping angrily, until one flies off, defeated, to seek another mate.

High school boy swimmers come in and breakfasting on waffles, sausage, cereal, preparing for today’s State competition. One, a friend of my son’s from another team, waves over at me. My lovely teen daughters sit down with us and work on their French toast. Suddenly the frequency of glances in our general direction triples.

The usual flocks of juncos pick at bits of composted vegetables and tidbits in the lawn. I can’t help but regard their visit as a special event, no matter how regular.

We drive into the packed parking lot as the previous event participants are starting to load up and leave.Competition for good parking spaces is high A bus and a van have blocked our access to the space being vacated ahead of us The driver and passenger of the van are oblivious as they peck letters into their cell phones, and someone comes from the other side and takes the spot.

Flickers, crows, our neighborhood flock of pigeons circle from their roost seemingly with no aim. Hawks on the power lines down in the valley, herons in the sloughs.Mallards and geese in the flooded flats.



Posted by on February 21, 2015 in Uncategorized


Serendipity strikes again

Thank God for real people. That’s you, and you, and you, the ones I’ve got a chance to see and hear know a little. If I had to go just on ideas, and opinions and the news, I’d be such an intolerable crackpot. Ideas–those I just inspect, dissect, prospect, speculate, synthesize, sympathize, synchronize, synergize, all very analytical and logical and objective, so I feel.

But you, with your eyes that look out, your voice that speaks with a tone, a rhythm, a catch, strong and forceful, low and uncertain, layered over laughter, wonder, or sadness. I believe you–please believe me. Over the years I’ve learned to be gentler with people than with ideas.

I subbed in a social studies teacher’s class today, for the second day in a row there, had about ninety 7th and 8th graders through the day. At the end of the day, they all went away, I had a free period with nothing to do but disinfect some desks, connect the laptops with their chargers, reflect, then write a little. Remembering the last class, the highest average energy group of the day, but still, like all the rest, pretty much engaged in the ongoing assignment, and, with some gently insistent encouragement, willing to make things work. Most challenging for the big boy with the big presence and voice, and a love of making others look and laugh. But he tried too, toning down his volume and calming himself whenever he got too wired, trying to focus. It’s relative.

All these little interactions happened near the end–a pair of identical twins, quiet African American girls, who hadn’t said much all class–hey, you look so bored, I said, why don’t you get up and make a little trouble so things might be more interesting for you, and we all smiled at the idea. Since I’d been working all period at keeping things relatively calm and trouble-free, and they were so “well behaved.”

Another boy, mature and thoughtful, actively working with his partner on rewording the Bill of Rights, took it upon himself to tell me I should come to a meeting that evening of teachers and parents, and maybe students too, who were discussing a problematic teacher, and how I should take his job. Which I took as a vote of confidence, when the other two at the table and the ones nearby nodded in agreement. I asked what they thought was the problem with this teacher, and the boy said he was failing everyone, but the more he required in work the less he taught anyone anything. How instead of learning how to create websites they were just typing, typing, and doing an online grammar program which they didn’t get. How they’d heard teachers talking about how he was a problem, and they though he should be fired. Why do people like that keep teaching, I wondered aloud–is it just a paycheck? What about trying to do a better job for the joy of it? And what was his side of the story?

Later I thought, in my job hunting I want my most important references to come from students, not just teachers and principals who pass through or read the reports or judge by hearsay. Students are actually there when I work with them; they see if I can manage a classroom, respect them  and treat people fairly, if I can handle a challenge, if I know how to engage, if I know my content. The are pretty good at seeing potential, and discerning a heart, even. I think I’ll distribute anonymous reference forms to students next time I have an extended subbing job, ask them to send them to my district HR departments.

The last two to leave before my prep were project partners from the back corner table. One had said she sometimes got so bored that she would literally fall asleep in class, and had to keep herself hyped just to get anything done, but also sometimes had fits of anger. The other was an Indian girl who had sneered at me for mispronouncing her name the previous day, and who I knew had had multiple run-ins with staff. She asked if I had any food. I pulled out a nut bar and shared it with her and the other girl, and off they went. Earlier I told her that for some reason I imagined that some day she’d be a teacher. She was skeptical, but , there it is in my mind, I said, for some reason.

I felt like an awesome teacher today. Not like I did it by my superlative prowess and immense wisdom, but that it happened, and I got to be in the middle of something special. And no, it wasn’t random thank God.


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Serendipity is not what you think it is

You and your talk of serendipity. Do you know that it means nothing? Just that something good happened to you by chance–that’s what the dictionary says. What you really seem to mean is that you think the gods are on your side because of your humble, open, goodness-motivated choices. Admit it. Or else say, “Something good happened to me.Your odds are probably worse because of that–sorry, but good luck. May the odds ever be in your favor too.”

It’s faith talk under a different name.  Like “It’s a God thing,” or God is “taking care of us” or “placing certain people in my life.” I used to be able to swallow all this, when my nice, positive-thinking friends and relatives put it out there. I’d actually feel guilty that I wasn’t thinking that myself all the time about my good life and many blessings, and resolve to get into a more “Christian” mindset. It always made me feel better to do that. But if I have to take such faith-based medicine, then shouldn’t everyone? Oh yeah, says the victim–he hits me and starves the children, but I know it’s all for the best, and God doesn’t make mistakes. It’s all in his control. Some faith perspective that is.

But wait, isn’t that the Hebrew Bible perspective? God hardens Pharoah’s heart, requires a father to keep his vow even to sacrifice his daughter. No excuses. Allows faithful Lot to send his daughters out into the street to be raped, so as not to break holy laws of hospitality. later, allowed the Jews to experience holocaust after holocaust after holocaust. Why, O Lord, why? How long, O Lord? The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. We suffer, and ask God why, but always yield and regard all suffering as due to our sins as a people. That’s what I call faith. And I understand why so many faithful Jews are atheists even so–seems more honest to God.

Individualistic faith is different. It’s awkward to teach that you and I are suffering because of our individual sins. So we thank God for the blessings, and try to huddle together and avoid most of the suffering, while we reach out to those who suffer because of their sins, or the sins of those secular people, or the sins of the parents, or just don’t think about why at all. Not that there isn’t any meaning in it–nothing is random and God is in control, right? But I’m too humble to say openly why others suffer. There but for the grace… I got the grace, for some reason. Not some random reason, but… To teach us all a lesson, except we can’t know why. Or judge… Now we see through a glass dimly, but then we shall see face to face.

Is it just something so mysterious, so, so utterly beyond our ken, that really God is in control, and it’s only our paltry attempt to simplify that makes this seem inconsistent with his goodness?

Back to the woods for me. There I get it, a little. Beauty, grandeur, loftiness, death, birth, decay, intimacy, order, chaos, sensuality, mystery, grace, tenderness, terror. He is hiding, but I heard him cough.

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Posted by on February 18, 2015 in Beautiful Earth, Religion & Spirituality


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The problem is not that I don’t know everything. It has to be something else.

I’ll try to keep this between 500 and 800 words, and appropriate for a general audience. Let me start with a Newfoundland joke:

One Newfie says to t’other: “Hey b’y! Guess what I gots in the pawket o’me trousers.”

“Aw, b’y, I dunno.”

“C’mawn! Just guiss! I’se’ll giv ye a clue. It starts wit an ‘N’.

“Awl roight. Is it ‘napple?”

“Nah, guess agin!”

Is it ‘norange?”

“Nah, I’ll tell ye–It’s ‘negg!”

I’ve decided that except for one remarkable quality, I prefer the cat that’s lying at my feet to her near relation, the simpleminded, lovable male. This one, Starlight or Star, for short, is dainty and small, very quiet, making only the sound of quiet purring, and not all the time, which would annoy me. Although she enjoys an occasional stroke in the quiet of an evening or morning, she rejects excessive touching yet enjoys company of the parallel presence type. Her home is at the foot of my bed, even when I stretch my feet down below her under the covers. She keeps her thoughts to herself, except occasionally when she runs into the food area and looks up at me with plaintive hope.

Juno the male is bigger, more the tom around town, and simple minded, as I said. For example, when he runs to the food cabinet in the morning hoping I’ll feed him, he sticks his head in front of the cabinet so that I can’t open it without either pushing his face back or bonking him on the nose, Every time. I’ve tried both pushing him away and bonking his nose, but he never learns. He never sees the threat coming. As I explained to several classrooms of kids, he shows less of that kind of intelligence than did the garden spider who moved her web two feet up after I walked into it two mornings in a row.

Which brings me to his other quality, which I believe is one of the proper applications of simple mindedness. The other threat Juno never sees coming, and therefore does not react to, is our dog–our young, high prey-drive Siberian husky, Sadie. When Sadie sees quick movement of any kind she reacts–with playfulness toward dogs and humans, and with bloody murderous intentions toward small animals and well as large prey species. Once when she escaped through our decaying fence, we tracked her to where she had cornered a deer, and when we startled it and it tried to plunge away, she leaped and got a hold of its leg and would have taken it down (I might have let her in a less public location) if we had not jumped on top of her and got her to let go. Despite two years of leash training, she still lunges and leaps whenever we pass through a region smelling of squirrel, rabbit, or deer, and once she grabbed the carcass of a fawn that had been killed by a car and started dragging it away before we took control. All very natural behavior, and in case of alien invasion or foreign takeover I think she’d keep us in wild meat just fine if we had to retreat to the woods.

Sadie will tease Juno to try to get a reaction, even takes his head in her mouth as he naps on a chair, but he only bats her away, or if excessively irritated with these efforts to get a rise, gives her a quick rake of his claws. When Juno moves from one place to another he strolls, and though Sadie watches intently for that provoking quick movement that stimulates her to lunge, he rarely brings out that response. Starlight,on the other hand, is a nervous cat and deathly afraid of Sadie. When Star has to move to the door to be let out, we have to keep a sharp eye out to keep her in one piece, because Sadie invariably gets excited by some twitch of her tail or darting movement. Although Sadie does exhibit a veneer of family loyalty and we believe she is not really intending to kill.

There may be a metaphor here, probably something about expecting the best of people so they will respond in kind. But I’m over six hundred words and I still have so much not to say.

What I really need is a reality check. No, I take that back, I just want someone to tell me that I’ll not a terrible, awful, no good person. That this is just a stage, and that some personality conflicts are inevitable, especially–and you must be sensitive about how you say this–at my stage of life, and combined with the stages of life of the other people in the house. You can tell me that there are bound to be misunderstandings, and not to take anything personally. I am a good person, I am, and of course they will realize that in ten or twenty years. Of course there is a certain implied encouragement to be a good listener, in between the lines, at least, and try to use these difficult interactions as an opportunity to grow. Like the father down the road who, his wife said, before she left him, would shout, “Thank you for helping me to grow!” at such moments. And then go teach that principle the next day to his counseling clients.

The following is a brief personal insertion made after writing the rest of the piece: For ten or twenty minutes I was just curled up trying to survive. I could hear the people talking, as I always can in this small house, and some of their words were not healing. Then I got back to my keyboard and started sidling in…

Perhaps I am just feeling frustrated at how much I can understand, but how little I can remember, create, or express. I do so love to read Mark Twain and Annie Dillard, to read poetry and philosophy and research articles, and once I even enjoyed the very density of Heidegger on Man’s relationship with Nature. But I cannot think of anything to say or write that is not just sentences one after the other, mostly unrelated to what’s inside of me. It does not seem to reach to the place inside my soul that I am supposed to “tap into” in order to “get closer to the felt experiences of my life”. When I even suspect have glimpsed a rustic, overgrown launch into “the sea of no limits”, even when I am allowed to witness the beginnings of the forays of others, I recoil.

That’s why, when I came up with a plan to write a book before I was forty, I thought I’d start with something straightforward like How to Clean the House, for Young People, When You are Told To. I’d start from a position of objective inexperience, research heavily, interview experts, distill essentials, and put it together with lucid, economical prose, supplemented by drawings and helpful spreadsheets, lists and recipes. Because, that way, it wouldn’t be personal, or stimulate expectations of depth or profundity.

The other idea was a recipe book, entitled, thanks to a comment dropped by my younger sister (though she does not recall saying it), Recipes are for Wimps.

Except (and I hope you will forgive me for exceeding my word count), I am starting to hear “the voice of tenderness”. And I am interested in the hopeful balance between, “Be yourself, please! Please!” and sometimes writing to the voice that is not my own. That seems safer. The best I will be able to do, mostly, is to tell it slant.

[The last two words have been removed in the interests of propriety]



“She always does that.”

As a parent and teacher I’ve learned that negative confrontations with students can often be prevented through those subtle arts that one learns through experience, and extend myself pretty hard in that direction. Only if a student insists on the type of direct defiance that impinges on others’ ability to learn do I insist on beginning the scale of disciplinary measures available to me. that’s after I’m clear in my conscience that I’ve given the student a fair chance and now have to turn my attention to the others who came to learn. Even so, in a way I feel like I’ve let the kid down if I have to resort to the very thing they’re pushing for. As in “Make my day.” Because when a kid pushes for trouble, beyond the in-class kind that’s only meant to be entertainment, it means they are trying to get their needs met too, but I can’t help them do that environment. So I hope for the best as they get passed on into other hands, and hope that by staying calm while giving the consequence I can at least communicate respect and caring. If I was a regular I hope I’d have the margin to get involved in the extra support for those kids. As a sub I just hope that they’ll have an easier time adjusting to me the second time around. Which has happened a couple of times, as if somehow I passed the sub test.

Another kind of challenge is when I realize that some student has missed most of the class work because they’re quietly tuned out and I haven’t noticed, or had the time (due to dealing with the usual hubbub of a classroom full of adolescents I don’t really know) to really connect with them. Or if I have checked in and offered help, they might relapse into passivity, not really caring even to make trouble. Had three students like that last week. One girl did origami all class, another just listened to the goings on of neighboring boys who were nevertheless getting the work done, and another just sat there, a man sized person staring at me blankly whenever I asked him to respond to a question.

The question that comes to my mind when a student resists going along with the learning plan for the day is, “What’s your plan, then, if you don’t like mine?” Because sometimes, contrary to popular belief, kids know better, and can even come up with different but viable ways to gain the essential knowledge and skills of the lesson. Or even take leadership in making it happen for others, as when a teacher asks the boisterous kid to come on up and read or draw or demonstrate for the class. ‘Cause sometimes they just need to walk and talk, as the self-described hyperactive “Discipline With Dignity” conference keynote speaker explained to us years ago.

The passive students are tougher for me, though they are never a disturbance to other students. It’s as if they want to become invisible, but don’t understand the long term consequences of tuning out. Or maybe, there’s a mute challenge, a kind of plea to “Prove that I matter.” Those students I also want to empower to make some decisions. I want to ask, “What do you want?” And if it’s reasonable, to try to negotiate something. Who knows why they have become so passive–the possibilities are many, and I’m sure psychologists could enlighten me further. But if a person never learns to step up and figure out why they are here and what their goals are and how to start moving, how can they survive in the school of hard knocks, let alone “achieve their unique potential”? I just want to send them home so they can at least get some sunshine or play with Legos.

While these two scenarios of noncooperation are challenging, the way other students speak about their nonconformist peers can be especially aggravating. In trying to be helpful, often someone will describe another student in judgmental terms. “He never talks.” “He won’t do what you say.” “She always acts that way.” I always resist that kind of thing and make an attempt to highlight the free will of the student in question. Because, I figure that at least for me and I hope for everyone in the room, it’s a new day, and anything can happen. Everyone is a free agent, and maybe this is the say that the new ELL student listed as “selective mute” will answer a question, so I want to present opportunities,  keep my ears open. Or maybe the kid that has been sent to the office four days a week and “never” gets along with subs will today find some reason to stick around until the bell rings.

So far I get blank looks from the students who were trying to help by naming another student as this or that, so I need to articulate better why I don’t think it is helpful. Even when I try to illustrate, saying something like, what if you were going through a stage when you felt shy, and got labelled as someone who never talks to people, just when you started to feel you were ready? Maybe in explaining to the one, I’m really just hoping to be overheard by the “uncooperative” student. Probably it’s something that a kid needs to think through to understand. I sure need to think a lot about things, and write things down and think some more, before I start to understand.





Posted by on February 9, 2015 in Education, Places & Experiences


I am opting out of having my child do the new state assessments. Won’t you join me?

The new tests aligned with Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are coming to our district, namely–get this title–the Smarter Balanced Assessments. If only a name created reality. They should have been called Seven Hour Experiment in Collecting Student Data.

I haven’t received notification about the tests from my kids’ school yet, but since I’m a substitute in the district I got the testing information letter from the district superintendent. It’s a good letter, emphasizing that there has often been too much emphasis in our country and state on testing, that the tests are only one measure we use, and that our district vision for students is much broader and addresses the whole person. I heartily agree, and think our superintendent is right on. But he also is constrained to administer testing, because if we didn’t, as he says, “We would be at risk of breaking the law and losing millions of dollars of funding that is used to hire staff and support students.” And that really is the issue for us and so many other districts across the country that believe these assessments were shoved down our throats and are part of an inferior, corporate sponsored educational agenda that will hurt students. We need that money, and this is the hoop we have to jump to get it.

The letter includes FAQs, including what to do if parents ask about opting out. The superintendent advises teachers to “tell them [our district] is participating in the Smarter Balanced testing. And acknowledge that we may have parents who choose not to have their children participate. Also to say “that you understand that some parents are using refusal forms to apply political pressure to state and federal lawmakers. This isn’t likely to solve this issue, but some parents see it as a way to voice their opposition to lawmakers.” No link provided for opting out, but that’s easy enough to find online.

Here’s where the federal government tries to tighten its grip on families and schools: students who opt out of the test are recorded in district records as failed, though in student records the term is “not tested.” Schools with insufficient numbers of “proficient” scores lose federal funding. So the way I see it, it’s either cave in, or build a big enough and smart enough opt out movement that the results of the tests become meaningless as federal funding criteria, and the federal government realizes it has overstepped its bounds in bribing states to do things its way. This would also send a message to the corporations who profit from testing, grading, and creating curriculum, software, training, and even personnel that they promise will improve students’ test scores.

I printed off the opt out form and filled it out, ready to go to my sixth grade son’s teacher when the time gets nearer–I hope there’s a warning about when the tests will actually start, if it’s not anything actually scheduled on the online school calendar. Last year the high school did a switcheroo, telling parents their test was a certain day, then giving it a day early, which was not very honest, and came across to me at least as a tactic designed to catch kids who’d been planning to stay home. It wasn’t even a real test, though, only a practice, so I felt it was an extra big waste of time. My daughter happened to be sick that day anyway, so I didn’t have to make any particular statement on testing that year. I wasn’t really ready then, anyway.

On the line for my reason for opting out, I wrote, “I disagree with the process by which the CCSS and assessments were adopted and believe that they are inferior to previous Washington State standards. I am sufficiently aware of my son’s academic progress without these tests, and can obtain further details by communicating with his teachers or conducting informal assessments. I plan to engage my student in alternative education activities during testing times.” So no sending him to some boring study hall of shame if I can help it.

My eighth grader is another story. She likes tests and thinks they’ll help her know where she is academically. I gave her the choice, on the condition that she allow me to explain why I think she should not participate. She knows I’m concerned about the access to student data that testing companies and their affiliates will have, but I told her that the main reason is the undemocratic and borderline unconstitutional manner in which the CCSS and tests were foisted on school districts all across the country. I totally understand why she wants to go ahead, and know that at this point making a political statement is not her line.

When I filled in the opt out form, I felt like I was about to stick my neck out, and wondered if I had the courage to follow through. But the more I work at articulating my reasons, and synthesize my months of research into these matters, the more I feel that this kind of grassroots effort, preferably broad based and grounded on clear understandings and civil communication, is the most effective means of changing the Race to the Top educational funding criteria that takes away states’ flexibility in how they educate their young. Though I’m proud of teachers and administrators who have pushed back and refused to test or at least openly communicated reasons parents might opt out, I think the main responsibility lies with the families of students, who are the direct clients, who do not risk losing their jobs, and who are the only ones with the right to risk their children’s education, i.e. what that federal funding provides, to fight this battle.

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Posted by on February 8, 2015 in Education


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Familiehemmeligheter–that’s Norwegian for family secrets

That poem about everyone lying at my funeral–it wasn’t very nice, and I apologize. I think that everything you do say will be true, just as the nice things I say about you at your funeral will be true. Death, ironically, helps crystallize the love and appreciation we are all capable of having for one another. I suppose even in some cases when some abusive, selfish asshole takes leave of us. We can always say, he made me learn that I am a strong person, that I can overcome, and to be tender and understanding toward others in pain like I was. And maybe he was, in the great cycle of reincarnation, actually in a state of spiritual progress from a much darker soul, so who can judge?

I think it’s just as well that I won’t be around for the occasion, so you can say what you like without swelling my head. I never was very good a receiving praise anyway, at least beyond age eleven, when I discovered that believing the compliment most frequently conferred on my golden head was the epitome of conceit. Hearing “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon brings that moment back like it was yesterday. So I stopped believing compliments, unless received second or third hand, and even those I view as disinterestedly as I can. When I turn fifty I intend to absorb compliments like a sponge once again. I’ll be starting a Prezi file, in fact, so that the organizers of my funeral can get a head start on something to put up on the screen as folks mill around the reception room. Don’t you just love to have something to look at when you don’t know anyone at a funeral, and the food lineup hasn’t formed yet? Except I’ll ask some boisterous friend to announce, “Come on, everyone, the mayonnaise will spoil if you don’t dish up!” If my mother could be around then, I know she’d do it.

Turns out the family tree I married into has its dark secrets, and it’s now the time to talk about those from several generations back. Years ago I attended the funeral of the relative in question, and the man was decently honored–for his musical ability, his athletic accomplishments and physical strength, his brilliant blue Nordic eyes and charm. Hearts went out at the suffering he endured in his end of life sickness. I never heard from his daughter-in-law any word of criticism. But on the way home from the funeral of the wife of one of his grandsons from another branch last week, I heard the low down from the granddaughter, who had talked to some others that knew, in order to better understand the legacy of pain that came down into the next generations. Knowing the things he did also highlighted for me the turn toward the light in my husband’s parental line, thanks to a spiritual revival in the ’70s, and lots of prayer and church support as their kids grew up. “We didn’t know how to raise kids,” my mother in law explained, “so we prayed a lot.”

My in-laws recently announced their intention to pay for a trip to Norway next summer for their three children and their spouses (which would include me), to visit the Norwegian branch of the family in hopes of helping more connections form in our generation. Oddly, I was more interested in that than any of the three in the blood line. One even thought the Norwegians might not want to welcome the descendants of someone who, years earlier, had committed some kind of assault when he was in the neighborhood. There are also concerns about leaving our kids, who are the youngest, and my pregnant niece, so we’re not sure if everyone can go. Might be able to pop away to visit other places too–I’d like to see Scotland, for one.

Meanwhile it’s time to read up–nonfiction as well as Norway-related literature and poetry. I hope we can go. We’ve never traveled all together, we eight, and, judging by what I learned on that five hour drive to the funeral with my sister and brother-in-law last week, the journey should be pretty enlightening, a good chance to get to know my American family cohort better at the very least. And I hear that the central Norwegian landscape is beautiful, and that most everyone put in indoor toilets for the previous relatives’ trip. I expect to experience some similarities between lifestyle there and that of my own family line in Newfoundland, who also know about long, cold, winters and love their fish for breakfast. And how about those fjords!


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Can’t always avoid those religious fanatics.

After she got home from the church youth retreat, she told me how much she appreciates her friends, how she seems to be past the stage when they seemed shallow and insincere. Yes, they have their flaws, but she accepts them as they are, and realizes that who they are is really amazing people. She’s very thankful to have friends like that. Four in particular who are genuinely and intentionally kind all the time, fun, able to be goofy and serious, who look out for her, stay connected, and like to do similar things for enjoyment and growth. Good values, good influences, and accepting of herself as maybe more of a skeptic than they. One to whom her heart also goes out due to a rough family situation—who is now living with the family of the other friend. That family always having extended hospitality to anyone who needed it, on top of raising and home schooling their own seven children.

Contrasting these four friends with the youth leader by whom she was accosted at the retreat. Who asked her, “Can I talk with you for a bit?” Then proceeded to ask her pointed, personal questions about her beliefs, one after the other. When the she answered honestly, the leader told her “No! That’s wrong, because the Bible says…” She was stunned at being so treated, and retreated into a standard, toneless response of “I don’t know,” and a masked expression. Hoping the  leader would get the message, that she wasn’t going to repent and weep and ask to pray the salvation mantra, repeated line by line. But the inquisition continued, so she simply said, “I’m going to the bathroom,” and left. Stayed in there for a half hour so the leader would be well away. Almost ruined her time there, she said. It took her two hours to feel normal again. Thank God for women’s bathrooms.

It’s a testament to her resilience and good sense that she shook it off and went and enjoyed the rest of the retreat with her friends, and wasn’t completely turned off from associating with that particular church group, or wary of Christians in general. She heard that this leader was also viewed as a problem by others. I wondered whether I should go in and talk to the head youth pastor, just to add another report to the no doubt growing file. Picturing this woman actually spoiling for a fight, some kind of confrontation, so she can consider herself persecuted, suffering for Christ, find some texts to prove it, and move on with righteous indignation. We figured she might have a personality disorder.

The main youth leader seemed safe and harmless by comparison. Though, she said, he had a habit, during prayer when all  heads were expected to be bowed and all young souls opening up to the Spirit against a background of soft worship music in the dimly lit room, of asking, if you feel…(as if you are in this or that place in life)…then raise your hand.” Which, though probably meant as a way for people to request prayer, seemed like an invasion of privacy, since she wasn’t really personally connected with said leader. And she found herself resistant to yielding to the soft strains and the warm safety that the staff were trying to create. Just sat there head bowed and feeling ambivalent.

Most of the time she pretends to be uninterested in spiritual or philosophical things, to make sure I don’t bring it up, I suppose. But she has such insight, such intuitive understanding, that I know her journey will leave her onward and upward. Safely navigating the shallows of Christian pop culture and the simplistic interpretation of the Christian life favored by those focused merely on winning souls (and reporting the score). I like her clear sightedness, her questioning, her discernment of motives in others, combined with patience for people and the ability to roll with the punches. I hope we haven’t overdone the training in critical thinking, such that, when her divine encounter comes, she will still doubt and not be able to yield.


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