Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"Early Morning Stress Haiku"

Complete exhaustion.
Listen to the clock ticking.
Late for work again.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Oy Christmas Tree

It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and there was a seasonal chill in the central Texas air. Conditions were perfect: it was time to purchase the annual tree.

I packed the boys into the car, along with our friend Melissa, her son Statton, and Statton’s sister Hayden. The six of us made our way over to Evergreen Farms in Elgin, just a few miles east of us. (We had decided to divide and conquer, with J. going to Costco’s to do the week’s shopping. Plus, the four of us have been on top of each other for the past week. A break was needed by all.)

The farm was great fun, complete with a hay ride out to where you pick your tree, activities like face painting and marshmallow roasting for the other kids and a general sense of good, old-fashioned “Holiday Cheer.” ®™

After inexpertly tying the tree to the roof with twine and bungee cords, and after thanking God for keeping it fastened up there for the time it took to get it home, the children were eager to begin trimming the tree.

We got the Christmas music on the radio and set about decorating the tree. The kids are getting better at it every year, and I’ve learned to let go of the control and let them have it a bit. As a result, the finished product is perhaps a tad rough, but it’s an obvious collaboration, which is most important in my mind.

Of course the holidays (and particularly this one) are always evocative of the past, and how could this nostalgic navel gazer not watch his two sons squabble over ornament placement, without once more traveling back in time? It’s the late 1960’s and early 1970’s – when my father, an avid amateur gardener, had an idea. Instead of buying a cut Christmas tree, or one of the garish artificial varieties they sold at the five and dime, Hanno would purchase a small pine tree, complete with root ball, every year. At the conclusion of the holidays, he would dig a hole in the cold, hard soil and plant the sapling in his yard.

(As a side note: I know what the Jews who are reading this must be thinking: “Wait, wasn’t Hanno a refugee from Nazi Germany? What’s with all the goyische stuff about Christmas and trees?”

Well, Gayle, the way it was explained to me was this: There is a combination of factors at play here. On the one hand, the upper middle class Jews in Germany were often liberal agnostics who enjoyed the strong secular holiday of gift giving that was Weinachten.

The other, perhaps more understandable explanation or motive was that he married a Depression-baby Schikse from Little Rock, Arkansas who, although poor, came from a long tradition of Christmases past.

Either way, the result was some lovely holidays, which my brother and I loved and will never forget. In the photos, the trees sometimes look tiny – not touching the ceiling like the Noble fir we bought yesterday – but if you drive past the old house on Hartford Lane today, take note of the towering pines, some forty years later, part of my father’s legacy of the productive time he spent on this Earth.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Thanksgiving Memory

Lately, my children have a fascination with all things British -- I think it's a result of watching "Flushed Away" over and over, or maybe meeting my friend Janet Gordon from London not too long ago. ("Daddy," Diego whispered, as Janet charmed him and his brother in my living room last month, "she really speaks British.")

One of my favorite Thanksgiving memories is from 1987, when my girlfriend and I were living with our college friend, Tim Knight, and a band of BUNAC (British University North America Club) American expats for about a month in a flat in the Kilburn section of London, where we were studying to become certified English teachers. We were a pretty clueless crew, incapable of simple tasks like cleaning the shower curtain, which was an impressive science experiment of mold-cultivation. We were a fun bunch, though, and we knew how to laugh it up on the regular.

London was gorgeous in that month or so I was living there -- adorned with Christmas lights, which looked especially lovely in that historic city. On Thursday, November 27, the holiday season was in full swing, and outside our little group of expatriate misfits, the day was just another winter Thursday.

We, however, were aware that it was the last Thursday of the month, and we felt compelled to make something of the day. Between the 10 to 12 of us, we managed to throw a turkey in the oven and have it come out pretty well. There may have been some imbibing going on that day, as well, so we didn't stand on ceremony, as far as the table setting was concerned. In fact, I don't remember any plates at all.

We were a dozen young, unkempt and carefree Americans living in an Irish neighborhood in London, drunkenly devouring turkey with the trimmings. It was a unique moment, a moment verging on perfection, a moment steeped in the joyful ether of youth.

It's a moment I won't forget.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Having Something Left

It wasn't until I pulled my car out of the parking lot that I finally exhaled. That was the kind of day it was at Cedar Ridge High School.

After a good early-morning meeting with my old boss, who now serves as our external coach, I found myself in Z.J.'s annual Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) meeting. Z is a complicated young man with a host of issues, and he's also the first student to latch onto me the way students sometimes do. The meeting was going well, until Z and Dad got into a disturbing verbal confrontation that included Z's father claiming Z's grandparents feared him. I don't doubt that this is true, as Z can be unpredictably explosive, but those words -- "They're afraid of you, Z" -- were like five daggers; I could almost hear them piercing the boy's heart. As often happens with Z, he began crying, and the meeting was adjourned, to be continued at a later date.

The day snowballed from there. Two Downs Syndrome students got into a physical fight in the Life Skills classroom, a girl was stumbling drunk, I busted a kid for smoking in the bathroom, and a colleague was physically threatened by a student.

In addition, I had to fit in two classroom walkthroughs, participate in a learning walk with our coaches and discipline several other students.

I suppose the good news is that the world kept turning and all of us survived -- albeit wearily -- to see another day.

The most important test I passed came after all of this was over, after the aforementioned exhalation. When I picked up the children, Jackson was beside himself, inconsolable that we'd moved him into the ACE after-school program, without informing him he'd be leaving LEAP. I inhaled again, and the breath stuck in my chest. There was a clearly defined moment when time stopped, I stepped out of my body, and made a decision. It was when I walked around to Jackson's side of the car to help him into his seat.

The burning anger, the wish to lash out made its way toward the surface, and before reaching for the door handle and yanking it open, as (I'm sorry to say) I've done before, I imagined the day's troubles rolling off me like raindrops off a newly painted automobile.

(Breathe out.)

"Jackson?" I said in a calm, measured tone that made him stop and look into my eyes. "Would you feel better about ACE if we went to look for some vampire teeth?" (He's been asking for them since Halloween.)

"Yes," he said, smiling through watery eyes. "And Daddy?"

"Yes, Jackson?"

"I'll give ACE a chance."

The three of us went on to have a pleasant, fun evening together, which helped remind me that there's much more to my life than ZJ's tears or kids getting tickets for smoking in bathrooms, or sitting with a crying boy who can't understand why he'd been hit in the temple by a bully. That simple choice to let out that deep breath and give my son the love he needs fortified me, built me back up and made it possible to come into work this morning with a smile on my face.

(And ending my evening last night with a shot of Cuervo and a cold Lone Star chaser didn't hurt either....)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Thank You, Satellite Academy High School

It's not unusual to hear graduates or alumni of an educational institution talk about how much of an impact their school made on them. In my own case, I've written recently about my good memories of Harrison High, many brought back by my trip home last month for the HHS 30th reunion.

Less often does one hear from a former teacher about the benefits of having been a part of a school's faculty. I've been an ardent proponent of Satellite Academy High School, where I worked from 1992 to 2005, for about as long as I've known about the place. Designed with the disaffected student in mind, Satellite is a place that builds students back up who have been worn down by the relentless tides of impersonal, traditional schooling. Satellite puts the student squarely at the center of the educational equation -- not in a babying way but in a fashion that affords respect and autonomy while simultaneously insisting on accountability. Students are amazed at first, then thrilled and humbled by how different Satellite feels, in contrast to their "old" schools.

As the adults in charge of such a place it was imperative that we lived the dream, so to speak; we had no choice but to model the values of the place, if it was to work the way it was meant to. For most of us working at Satellite was a rare example of being allowed to live out the idealism of what had brought us to teaching in the first place. Occasionally a teacher would wow us at the interview table and then end up being outside our fold, someone who insisted they taught subject as an expert, and either the students got it or they didn't. Their humanity (or "humaneness") never entered into how they thought about teaching and learning.

Those teachers didn't last too long. Usually the place made them into True Believers eventually. Sometimes, though, they tendered their resignations, stating the school was a "bad fit." And they were right, and thank God they were honest.

Now, in my middle-aged administrator phase, I occasionally receive praise for my "unusual" leadership style. I've learned to ask people to elaborate when giving me any kind of feedback, even praise -- not because I like the tolling of my own bell, but because I can replicate what I know works only if I know what it is.

Most people have trouble putting it into words. Some call it kindness, and others say I make them feel like professionals. Generally, they say I do things "a little differently."

This should come as no surprise to me, as I "grew up," essentially, in a small, different high school called Satellite Academy, where kindness, respect and a sense of humor went a long, long way. I want to bring a "small school mentality" to my gigantic, 3,000-student school where I currently work, and I think I am doing it so far.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sometimes a Cigar is . . . MORE Than a Cigar

I'm no longer a smoker, thank God. The moment I threw out my last pack of cigarettes -- after a particularly medieval dentist visit back in the year 2000 or so -- was a sincere one, and I have no urges to return to that sort of butchery. Not to mention the less visible damage that I did to my insides.

However...I will admit there have been moments in the intervening years during which I've entertained a flirtation with cigars. Yes, the stinker and I have had an on-again-off-again relationship since 1993, on my 30th birthday, when I went into Village Cigars in Sheridan Square. It was a cold night and I was pretty well bundled up as I recall. I had the salesperson clip the end of my stogie -- probably something inexpensive like a Garcia y Vega -- and made my way out into the December night.

I get why smokers smoke. I don't defend it; I'd encourage anyone reading this to try and quit. However I refuse to judge anyone for smoking, because I've been there, and I recall not only the addiction and sense of relief when lighting up, but also the privacy it affords. Those five minutes it takes to smoke that cigarette are mine and mine alone. Time stops during the cigarette break, and one can reflect, as they watch their cloud open out from their lips and nostrils.

With a cigar, those five minutes are expanded to 15, 20, 30 minutes, depending on your hurry. My winter walks in the West Village were lovely -- those red-brick brownstones lit up for the holidays in the crisp night, but the cold sometimes cut those walks short.

Last Saturday night the boys and I went to a dinner party at a friend's place, and our host was kind enough to offer me a cigar to chew on as we watched football on his large-screen TV in the living room -- children and dogs running noisily around.

At one point, after enough beers had gone in me, I thought it would be a good idea to go out into the mild Texas evening and light the Bad Boy up. I grabbed some matches from atop my friend's fridge and -- with the burn ban solidly in mind -- I went out on his back deck and lit up.

There, in the glow of my cigar ash, as I puffed, locomotive-style, a memory came to me like a shot. It emerged from far deeper down the well -- much earlier than 1993. This flash was more like '73, and I was in my grandparents' living room at 42 Maple Hill Drive in Larchmont, New York. My "Opa," Bill Fuchs, sat in his favorite chair, feet up on the ottoman, puffing beatifically on his cigar. I'd forgotten my grandfather was an aficionado. I don't know what brand he smoked (he was in the import-export business, so I'm sure it was a good one), and now have a notion to ask my uncle and aunts.

No one complained about his smoke -- partly because it was the early 70's and the tobacco industry was still running full throttle. Mostly though it was all any of us had ever known. That room without cigar smoke would be as sad and lonely as if it had lacked Bill himself, which it would do, sadly, not too many years later.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Generations on a Mantlepiece

My eye was drawn recently to the mantelpiece – more specifically, I found myself looking at a fascinating heirloom called a Wanderbecher.

At first glance, it doesn’t look like much. The silver of this two-ounce cup is tarnished. One can hardly make out the inscription, or even know that there is one.

What makes it truly special is the note my uncle sent along with the cup:

Dear Diego:

This ‘Wanderbecher’ is like a challenge trophy and must be passed on according to a simple rule. It is to be passed down through generations of (male) May babies to perpetuate the Fuchs family name forever.

It was given to me by your great grandfather’s cousin Gottfried (Godfrey) of international soccer fame, since I (Werner Gottfried) – the next generation Fuchs – was born in May.

It is now yours to keep until a future generation gives birth to a Fuchs baby boy in May.

Use it to drink in the sweet nectars of a wonderful life.

Much Love,

Your great-uncle,


The actual inscription that is etched into the cup reads, Wanderbecher der Familie Fuchs and is followed by the May birthdates and the respective names that go with them. The first two are in German, and the last is in English:

3 Mai 1889 – Gottfried Eric Fuchs

3 Mai 1926 – Werner Gottfried Fuchs

May 16 2003 – Diego Reyes-Fuchs

My uncle Geoffrey and I are similar in a number of ways. I think we are both idealists who cling tightly to the notion of family and family history. There is a great deal of importance in keeping our family name alive in the world, and keeping this branch of the Fuchs tree growing strong.

Obviously, when one looks at the dates on the Wanderbecher, one notes the piece is over 120 years old. Almost more striking to me is the idea that my uncle will turn 86 next May. I’d like to figure out a way to see him soon. He’s a good man and an inspiration, due to his strength, commitment to learning, and love of family. My cousin’s son Gabe (Geoffrey’s grandson) recently had a child, making Jeff a great-grandfather for the first time.

I’d love the opportunity to see the two of them together – patriarch and most recent arrival – sometime soon. I can only imagine how it must light my uncle up, to be in the room with four generations of der Familie Fuchs.