Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On Kindness and Strength

"I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again." - Etienne (Stephen) De Grellet

I'm not quite sure why certain status updates stop and command my attention to the point of posting a response; there are likely a number of reasons. I'd imagine it depends on my state of mind, if there's an individual I've been thinking about of late, or if something someone writes strikes me as particularly funny, touching or thought-provoking.

As I recently did my usual obsessive check of the Facebook News Feed, I read the following post: "Why do people mistake kindness for weakness." The person who posted it is someone who I knew on a professional level, for a relatively brief period of time a few years back. She was one of those people, however, with whom I "clicked," to borrow a cliche. From time to time I've met those who, despite how long or how deeply I know them, just feel like they're cut from the same cloth as I am, in terms of how they look at the world around them.

In other words, I sort of see myself in this person.
Her post made me think not only about the way I see the world, but about the way I choose to live my day to day life. In the profession I've chosen -- or the calling that's chosen me, maybe -- kindness is a necessary tool. And, interestingly, so is strength. I'm not talking about "power," or "authority," although they do certainly enter into the equation of what it means to be a good teacher. (Mostly in the teacher's ability to share them, I think.)
My students looked to me for a number of things: knowledge, guidance, humor, and, yes, kindness and strength. It became clear to me as I grew into and accepted my role as a teacher that young people in the classroom need more than just whatever content they happen to be presented with.

Students need an adult's take on how to use the limited time we have on this planet. My students were receiving multiple messages from multiple sources on what it means to be a human being breathing in and out in this world. Like most teens (myself included, way back when), they got a healthy dose of "live-fast-die-young" stuff, because that message has, and continues, to sell to that market.

I chose to model kindness for my students, in the hopes it might give them a piece of what they needed from me, a way to look at the world, and to live in it. A way that would make the world better after our respective walks on her are done, as well as a way to give them that most precious commodity for a young person hoping to make it to adulthood:

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Is It Good Enough for Your Child?

I have two children, one in second grade and one in Kindergarten in our local public elementary school.

Last summer I attended a meeting to which parents had been invited in order to create a profile for the next principal of the school. I turned to a group of teachers who had come to represent the faculty and said, "I want my children to be taught to be more than just good test takers. I want them to have those skills identified in Tony Wagner's The Global Achievement Gap -- the "21st-Century Skills. I'd like the next principal to be able to speak intelligently about this."

The teachers' heads all turned in my direction at once; they weren't expecting anyone in the parent section of the audience to come out with such a gem of "eduspeak" as I just had. I noticed that one older teacher rolled his eyes at my comment. Not being a fan of non-verbal communication, I asked him if he could put his response to my comment in words. "The tests are not going to go away," he said.

And he was right. There is no viable alternative to standardized testing here in Texas, and I've come to the understanding that getting into shouting matches about the value of testing is a waste of time -- at least for now. "I agree," I responded. "I'm not asking you to stop preparing them for it. I'm asking you to do more."

Parent heads nodded around me, and I heard one woman mutter, "Yes sir, that's right," in a way that made me feel like quoting scripture and hugging a Bible to my chest.

For effect, I repeated the charge, "As a parent, and as an educator, I'm asking all of us to do more."

I doubt I "converted" that seasoned 5th grade math teacher, but I know that I reached the parents in that room. And if what I said had an effect on just one of the other teachers sitting in the audience that day (and I suspect it did, based on some nodding I saw from that section of the audience, as well), then I know I may have planted a seed of change in that school.

Now the trick is to imagine my children attending every school I work with, from Estacado High in Lubbock to Fred Florence Middle School in Dallas, and to fight the fight for better educational practice just as passionately wherever I go. To plant that seed continuously, over and over.

As Felicia Donaldson, the young principal of Baxter Junior High School in Everman, Texas put it when addressing her entire staff for the first time, "If this school isn't good enough for your own children, then it's not good enough for ANY children. And we need to change that together."


Monday, May 3, 2010

As Their World Grows, Mine Becomes More Terrifying

In the beginning, there was the womb. Picture that most traditional of heartwarming images: Mom and Dad-to-be lying in bed, both of them holding the distended belly in their hands, lovingly, speaking in hushed tones about hopes and dreams for the unborn person in there, waiting to make him or herself known to the world. You do that most imaginative of empathic leaps, as you try to picture what it must be like for him in there -- so dark, so moist, so comforting.

So safe...

After uterus comes the crib. Although the bars reassure you that your child will sleep safe and sound, they are comical at first... until the climbing begins. Then your imagination fills with images of escape, and what that could entail for your toddler's cranium. And so their world gets a little wider, with the introduction of the "Big Boy (or Girl) Bed." This purchase gives way not only to your child's new sense of self-esteem and maturity, but also to those nights when you wake with a chill down your spine as you see two little eyes peering at you through the peppered darkness from just above the edge of your mattress: for a moment, you think of the toy clown in Poltergeist. But no, it's just your little one, not so little any more, come to ask you for water, or if you could shove over and make room...

Eventually, there is the backyard or playground, and you marvel at how they run and play, throwing and climbing, running and falling, with no apparent regard for personal safety. A far cry from the womb, this space still affords a modicum of safety, you believe; it is self-contained, surrounded by fencing on all sides.

It is only a matter of time, however, before that front door must open up, and your child must be allowed to blink in the sun of the Outside World, replete with all its wonders and dangers. Being a dutiful parent, you purchase the vehicles that will, by increments, take your child farther and father away from you as time goes on. First, and briefly, it's the tricycle. You shoot video and marvel as your child propels himself in tiny circles, monkey-like. Then comes the bike with the training wheels. You watch as he rides down the street, making his way to cul-de-sac, and you become aware of how far away that circle seems to you now -- farther, in fact, than it has ever seemed before. You call out your child's name: "Watch out for cars!" And your child gives you the "duh" look, one side of his mouth moving downward, as he rolls his eyes.

Then comes the Big Moment, the one you remember well from your own childhood -- the Removing of the Training Wheels. Your heart fills with ambivalence, because you know what an exciting moment this is for your child, while, simultaneously, you were nowhere near prepared for how squarely it would throw all your fears right into your face. You hear his cries of "Let go, Daddy! Let go!" and, despite all those ancestral voices whispering in your ear to the contrary, you comply. One hand comes off his sinewy shoulder, the other releases the bicycle seat, and you are suddenly alone, all alone, in that island of parental joy and terror, and, as you watch him recede into the distance, you are amazed at your ability to hold two apparently contradictory emotions so solidly in your heart at the same exact moment in time.

And you yell, "Go! You're doing it! Go, go!"

It's then, as you hear your own words coming out, strained a bit by a catch in your throat, that you realize that this push and pull, this excitement and fear, is what your life will be all about from now until the very end.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Mother Side of Things...

Recently, I came down with a virus (thank you, son) that made it virtually impossible to sleep. Normally when this happens, I wallow on my side of the bed, moaning audibly, in the hopes it will rouse Jeanette from sleep, so that she can administer that most Dominican of Cure-Alls: "Viapuru." -- Vick's Vapor Rub, for those of you not in the know.

On this particular night, her sleep was a fortress, and no amount of my whining was going to breach the ramparts. I could lie there, continuing to sweat a cold sweat, switching soaking sides of my pillow every so often, or I could get up and try to occupy my time.

I opted to go into our family room and read for a while. I turned on the lamp, stretched out on the chaise and flipped on the Kindle to the Raymond Carver biography I've been reading. It was at that moment a wave of deja vu overtook me, and I thought, Where have I seen this before? The answer came almost immediately: This was my mother's little nest -- the one I've described in short stories ("The Favorite Nurse," and others), where she would alight with gin and tonic and ashtray at easy arms-length.

I looked at the clock. 3:30 a.m. or so. Yes sir. That would have been about right. She enjoyed waiting until the rest of the household was fast asleep before going into her little "alcove" -- an overhang, really, not a separate room at all, but it was all her own. My father lay there in their bed, only a few feet away, snoring loudly. This would prove one of those occasions when my mother's deafness went from being a deficit to a benefit, and she would simply slip her hearing aid off the back of her ear, and place it gingerly next to her sweating highball glass, allowing her, I imagine now, to work or read or doze in a blissful, buzzing version of silence.

When you sat in her chaise, you were immediately aware of the hanging smell of old cigarette smoke in the upholstery, along with the understanding that it wasn't your space to be in.

My wife, Jeanette is the one responsible for the creation of our version of Carol's nook. It is Jeanette's space, which is not the only difference. Like my father, Jeanette tends to knock off early. Let's just say it's highly unusual to find her awake after 10:30 PM. She doesn't smoke, thankfully; and her forays into the kind of alcohol my mother drank nightly are few and far between. She's also much more likely to be found there on her chaise reading a book or a magazine than scribing poems about aging parents or aging pets, the way my mother did. But just the same, there's something deeply pleasant for me when I find my bride there. There's a familiarity in seeing the matriarch of the family sprawled comfortably in this way, a throw keeping her legs warm, as she patiently accepts the embraces of her family, allowing them this brief interruption of her well-earned solitude.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

This is NOT the Canyon

Blogging is not writing -- it is not the same as it used to be anyway. It's the difference between yelling into a canyon at night and waiting for a response, and yelling into a dark room full of people who are poised to yell something back.

In the canyon, you puzzle over whether or not anyone will even hear you.

In the dark room, you anticipate the responses you'll get, even before you start yelling.

Like it or not, this changes the dynamic. This is not writing, because this is not the canyon. Some may say that there's comfort in the dark room, that the isolation of the canyon was overwhelming. For me, writing is a solitary act. Once the work is out there, and you're reading it, then we can start a conversation. For now, I think I prefer the canyon.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

He Would Have Made a Great Blogger

At some point in his adult life, my father, the late Hanno Fuchs, began writing down his thoughts and ideas on 3 by 5 index cards. They ranged from random observational tidbits, to ideas for longer pieces about the political state of the planet. If I'm not mistaken, my stepmother, Judy Fuchs, is in possession of some of these notes, along with earlier writings of his, going back to his army days as a psychological propoganda writer ("Psychprop," as they called it) during the Korean War.

His gift for writing, and for thinking, really, are evident in those early pieces. I'll reach out to Judy and ask for copies, so that I can look them over once again, in order to get a sense of how my father was thinking about the world when he wrote those notes. In today's world, the little blue cards might have been "tweets," and the longer, typewritten pages could have appeared on blogspot.com or some other similar venue.

The thought begs the question, however, of whether or not my father ever intended his notes to be read by anyone other than himself. I have no doubt he craved an audience -- he was a writer by trade, after all; but he also knew a lot about the editing and revision process. And anyone I've ever known who considers himself or herself a writer cares a great deal about the careful tweaking of a piece. Often they're quite stingy about when they consider a piece to be "ready" for public consumption. Perhaps he'd cringe at how readily I spit these little First Drafts onto the computer screen for God's Green Earth to see.

Or maybe he'd just find it to be really fucking cool.

It occurs to me now that, either way, I once again follow in my father's footsteps. He was navel-gazing long before this guy was even a notion in his formidable mind.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Convincing Oneself: Embracing the "Expert"

A couple of days ago I was introduced to a room full of new colleagues. The person making the introduction was one of those education leaders who is admired and revered for their body of work and long list of deeds done in the service of young people, and those listening had some heavy duty resumes, as well; so I was honored when she spoke to the "expertise" I brought with me to my new position.

Or was I? Was it that I was "honored," or was I embarrassed? Proud, or mortified? In agreement with her, or afraid of being found out somehow -- exposed as the impostor I really am . . .

It's an interesting dynamic, and I'm not quite sure what to call it exactly. It's the flipside of humility, I suppose; one is not meant to think too highly of oneself in this life. One takes a compliment with the proverbial grain of salt.

I find myself wondering whether Barack Obama, the first president I can call a "contemporary," (I graduated from high school only two years after the POTUS did) has ever had this sensation. I tend to have it any time I face any kind of positive scrutiny; I can only imagine what someone of my generation feels when he's referred to as The Most Powerful Man In The World, or The Man Who Made History. I wonder if, like me, he runs to his wife and says, "You'll never guess what S0-And-So said about me!"

I'd like to think he's moved beyond this.

But more interestingly, I wonder whether Mr. Obama ever looks at his reflection in the mirror, as I do mine, and sees the eyes of an insecure 12 year old looking back at him. As much of an expert as my experiences may make me in the field of education and school transformation, that 8th grade kid with the cowlick and the Starsky and Hutch sweater that's just this side of out of fashion, will always be lurking back there, I think, making me wonder whether it's me they're referring to, or some other "expert" . . .

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Did You Hear The News?

While driving to work this morning, I heard a report on the radio stating that "long-form" blogging is losing popularity. The preferred form of communication appears to be getting shorter and more "mobilized."

I guess that's all I have to say about that.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Making Time For Writing

So here's an idea: Now that I'm working closer to home, and in a much "calmer" atmosphere (more about that later), perhaps I could do some writing each day in my office, before my other team members show up for the work at hand.

As it's been, I have been dropping Diego off by 7:20, Jackson before the mandated 7:40, and then arriving at the Education Service Center where I work by 8:00. My colleagues tend to arrive at around 8:30.

What if I sat down, logged in here and wrote for that half hour every morning? It might be the exercise I need to get me going again....

It's only a half hour, but that's better than nothing, isn't it?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Next Right Word

As I kill time, waiting for George the Mechanic to do his thing, I walk through East Austin on a gray, rainy morning. I'm virtually the only pedestrian around; occasionally I'll catch sight of a figure in a doorway, taking a drag from a cigarette, or working an instant win lottery ticket with a coin. I do my best to play the part of someone who "belongs" on this side of town, someone who is walking down a rainy street while the rest of the world carries on at work, at a computer, in front of students, under the hood of a car, or wherever.

Due to a lack of sidewalks, the way is, at times, precarious, but I make it safely to Progress Coffee on San Marcos and 5th Street. It's unashamedly hip and feels like places I've been in other university towns -- Berkeley, Boston, New York -- where scruffy white kids gather to spend their parents' money on coffee and talk about revolution. I'm imagining now and, I'm sure, basing my conclusions on my own experience as a 20-something Hippie-in-Training and Che-Wannabe.

I dither on my iPhone for a bit, writing with my clumsy thumbs, (will texting create a genetic mutation of tiny-thumbed people?) sending what I believe to be clever quips into the cybersphere, then checking every few minutes for affirmation of my wit. I think back to my days in Madrid and realize suddenly that I was quite lonely there. My partnership with S. was in its end stage, so the connection we'd created in college was coming undone. (It was a slow unravelling, with moments of drama scattered through it -- impressive fights that caused onlookers to stop and stare.)

Mostly, though, our breakup felt like a slow distancing, which is what led me to the cafes of that city. I'd drift in and out of places like Cafe Central, a noted jazz venue with tin ceilings, dark wood details, and marble-top tables, and Cafe Bellas Artes, in the lobby of the Fine Arts Institute. I'd go to this last one after stopping at the American Express office where I'd just been wired money by my father.

When I think back on these places, I picture the people there. I made a habit of people-watching -- looking up from the journal in which I was scribbling. The ones who come immediately to mind are the old men dressed traditionally in gray tweed suits, v-neck sweaters, and shirts buttoned to the top with no ties. The "boina" topping the look off, of course. I call these gentlemen the tertulieros, referring to the tertulia, a cultural discussion/debate/roundtable. Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator had only died a little over ten years earlier, so it wasn't unusual to hear the tertulieros start a point with a nostalgic, "Back in the Franco days..."

Others who populated the cafes were young, chain-smoking day-trader types -- handsome, beautiful, well-dressed, a Spanish imitation of Brett Easton Ellis's characters in American Psycho. And of course there were the others like me -- spoiled "exbrats" navel-gazing in leather-bound journal books. On the occasions when our people watching intersected, we'd shyly look away from each other's gazes. This may have happened with a beautiful young woman once or twice, but my situation had pushed me so deep inside myself there was no way I could dig up the necessary self esteem to pursue a chance meeting of the eyes. Instead, I'd return to the page in front of me and begin to look for the next right word yet again....

Monday, January 4, 2010

My Dishwasher Turns Out To Be A Time Machine

There's a phenomenon I've been dealing with for the past several years now, and it's something I wonder if others experience. It's happening frequently enough now that it's a little frightening, frankly.

Every time that I do the dishes (which is often, beacause Jeanette loves to cook and hates to wash dishes), I am transported to my past. As I get into the automatic machinations of rinse, place on rack, rinse, place on rack, I get these little memory flashes -- snippets of Bushwick, Brooklyn and my drive over to Bushwick High, where I worked briefly in 2006 with several small high schools housed in that building. I immediately recall the sense of excitement I had in that building, and how promising it felt there. Yes, this was a neighborhood in flux, for sure; you could feel the gentrification pushing in, running parallel to the elevated subway line, the brand new red brick condos displacing the dispossessed. But there, in that building that felt too small for the gangly, play-fighting adolescents who peopled its hallways (had it once been an elementary school, for much smaller children?), there was a palpable sense of pride and enthusiasm. These young people were succeeding in a building that had previously been known for failure for so many years. I often had that feeling when I worked for New Visions, in many buildings; now, for some reason, when I do dishes, I am transported back there.

I also shoot over to Madrid, Spain sometimes, while scouring and scrubbing. Usually it's my final summer there, 1989, after Susan and I had split up and I was "on my own" there, for the first time, really. I had some "adventures" that summer, some of which I review as I finish pouring the Cascade into the soap compartment. Mostly, it's the walking I remember from that time -- down cobbled streets, into antique cafes with ornate tin ceilings, or brightly lit restaurants where they greet you with "Hola!" and you answer "Una cerveza, por favor!"

Like I said, I'm not sure why this time travel happens; maybe you can help me explain it. Perhaps it's one of those Oliver Saks-type neurological phenomena, like the guy who bumped his head and woke up able to speak Swedish, even though he'd never heard the language spoken. Not even once.

Or maybe I'm just bored....