Sunday, January 27, 2013

Just ASK Them

51 Chambers Street where Satellite Academy resided, on one dimly lit, dusty floor,  from the late 70s till 2000

“Slipping through the cracks” is a cliché; however I can tell you it is a very real phenomenon.  Kids do it every day, in hundreds, maybe thousands, of American high schools.   When I worked at a small public school in New York City, especially designed for those students, I knew first-hand of the many ways in which they had failed school, and school had failed them. they wove a common thread when they told of “feeling like a number” and not “being known” in their old schools.  Some kids told stories of being “internal cutters” in buildings so large they could be counted present at certain key moments of the day, then wander into less patrolled sections of the school and “chill” until it came time to leave each afternoon, successfully avoiding classes that bored or confounded them.

Of course back in those days, I was filled with self-satisfaction, knowing I was One of the Good Ones, helping youth find their way back to the educational path from which they had strayed.  I had the opportunity – the luxury, I realize now – to be encouraged by my school’s (and, at one time, my district's) leadership to be a leader myself, in inspiring my students using creative means.  We had approximately 200 students in our building, cared for and educated by around 20 adults.  I’d be lying if I suggested we were successful in guiding all of them, but we were good at helping a majority of them feel they had found a scholastic home – a place where they could be free to be vulnerable in that way that allows you to pick yourself up and try again. 

The school where I work is anything but small, as I have mentioned in a previous post.  In that same post, I meditate on the notion of bringing a “small school mentality” to a large campus.  I don’t know that I had a clear sense of what I meant when I wrote those words the first time, but I think I know now.

And here it is:

Just listen to them. 

It sounds absurdly like an oversimplification, and I know it probably is.  Don’t dismiss the idea, though.  What most of the people who graduated from the school where I taught in New York will tell you (and I hope they’ll read this and chime in) is that the first step comes when a student begins to seriously consider what is not working in their education.  Teachers are asked to reflect on student failure all the time, as they should be.  But rarely do we ask students to think, and talk, about what they believe has gone wrong. 

Here are some questions that a teacher might think about asking their students:

  • ·      Tell me about you and school.
  • ·      Tell me a about the last time you loved a class and why you think you did.
  • ·      Who was the best teacher you ever had and why?
  • ·      Who was the worst teacher you ever had and why?  (No names, please.)
  • ·      What do you think you need in order to be successful?

There are teachers who will read this and have a negative response, dismissing me as one of those liberals who enables children, rather than challenging them.  I’d argue that these questions are challenging ones – especially to ask sincerely and in a safe atmosphere that will ensure honest results.  Some will say, “Well, when I was a student no one asked me questions like these.  They just told you to do the work, and either you did it, or you didn’t.”

What I would encourage that teacher to understand is that the self-actualization they may have had as a teenager is rare.  Yes, many of our students are capable of pushing through whatever the assignment is, with a minimum of help.  However, there are others who bring with them through our school doors myriad shackles, accumulated over years of failure and/or being passed along. 

It’s difficult for you to know every one of your students well in a school where your individual student load approaches 200 – the TOTAL number of students we worked with in our small transfer high school in New York City.  I don’t deny that.   But the teachers I see thriving, coming to work with smiles on their faces, and leaving in the afternoon looking invigorated and not depleted, tend to be the ones that try.  Keep fighting the good fight.  And if you want to take a step in the right direction, stop that one kid who keeps on failing, seemingly without a care in the world, and ask him my first question. 

“Tell me about you and school.” 

You might be amazed at what you hear, and it might just energize you at the same time. 

But one thing is for sure:

You’ll never know if you don’t just ask.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Soil Connects

Jeanette, Diego and Jackson, showing off a recent crop of beets in our back yard

Jeanette and I recently began attending something called a "Citizen Gardener" class.  Sponsored by the Sustainable Food Center of Austin, the class is designed not only to help novice gardeners understand what they're doing -- or trying to do -- in their back yards, but also to train a corps of volunteers who presumably will go out and share their skills in community gardens around the Austin metro area.  It's one of those great ideas I wish had been my own, because it manages to incorporate both the fun of gardening with the larger idea of service, and connecting with the community around you.

I'm all for the idea of connecting, though I'll be honest:  this class is more about connecting with my wife and children than it is about any grander sense of the word.  Yes, I do like the idealistic notion of breaking down the barriers between myself and my Fellow Man, but I'm even more excited about doing something special with Jeanette.  My wife and I don't see each other enough.  It's a simple statement, but it's also one that resonates.  It's the kind of sentence you read and then nod your head and think, "You know what?  My spouse an d I don't see each other enough either..."  It's the nature of the world we live in.

So to have an activity, a hobby, or a passion we can share is something I think we've always looked for.  Lately, we've tried yoga, which has been great.   In the past, we've played a little tennis together, worked out at the gym on occasion, and even went roller blading, albeit briefly, which we joke about, because it was supposed to be what we did on our first date, and it only took me about fifteen years to make good on that promise.

Gardening is something that I think will work better than these other activities, only because it ihas always been a connector for me.  When I think of home gardening, I immediately think of my father, out in our yard at 18 Hartford Lane.  (Once again, as my friend Gayle Saks-Rodriguez points out, all roads lead back to Hanno.)  He enjoyed waking up early and getting out into the yard.  He planted many trees, including a row of poplar saplings he ordered through the mail -- forty-inch twigs that became, eventually, a sixty-foot fence of dappled sunlight.  (I noticed last time I passed by the house at 18 Hartford Lane that they'd cut down the trees.  It's their right, I suppose, to prune and start anew.)

In addition, my father grew a beautiful rock garden that flanked the front entrance to our home, filling it with what I remember to be a wide variety of multicolored flowers.  He planted rose bushes and an apple tree.  He had a back patio built, around a lovely mimosa tree, whose leaves I recall being silk-smooth to the touch.

And he did try has hand at vegetables.  The way time distorts memory, I couldn't tell you how many varieties of vegetables there were, or for how many seasons he grew them.  This would have been in the early 1970's, some 40 years ago now.  Of course, when I close my eyes and think back, there were tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers and lettuce, all of it shiny and bright as the produce rack at the supermarket, just after the piped-in recording of distant thunder rises up and the sprayers have spritzed the merchandise.

I do know he tried his hand at corn one summer.  I specifically remember it climbed the posts of our back porch, along with some grape vines.  Where it gets spotty is when I try to recollect whether or not a crop was ever produced.  Things get further confused by a story my father used to tell about his own childhood.  He told it every time we ate corn on the cob, and though my brother and I groaned each time ("God, Dad, not that story again."), it's a good one, and I tell it myself, as I've no doubt my younger brother does at his own dinner table, to his own family, some 1,700 miles away from mine.

When my dad and his family arrived from Europe in 1940 or so, they came together for a dinner at a cousin's house in Larchmont, New York.  It was a big meal -- maybe a holiday (Thanksgiving, if you like) -- and one of the dishes on the table was corn on the cob.  This was exotic to the Fuchs family.  They'd never had it before.  When he and his older brother (probably 12 and 15 respectively) bit into the strange vegetable, they looked at each other, eyebrows raised at the amazing sweetness and flavor.  It was so good, my father told, that they began to laugh, and the two of them continued to laugh, eating ear after ear of delicious sweet corn as they went.  It was for this reason that my father always classified corn on the cob, for the remainder of his life, as either "Laughing Corn" (worthy of his stamp of approval) or not.

I don't know whether the Citizen Gardener course will ever fulfill its promise to connect me and my family with the members of our larger Austin community.  I will say this, however:  Getting out into my garden has connected me to my wife, to my children, and to the memories that keep my ancestors alive within me.  I am creating memories for my own children, just as my father did for his.    And in this way, the class has paid itself back already.  Tenfold.

The author, getting ready to build his first palette composter. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Visit From My Former Self

A few days ago, I received the following text from one of my oldest friends:  "Just found a stack of letters from you as far back as 1987.  Mostly letters from Madrid."  My friend lives only a few miles from where I work, so I stopped by her house and picked them up on my way home yesterday.  Just seeing those 20-peseta stamps, emblazoned with King Juan Carlos's handsome profile, brought back my Spanish adventure in striking detail.  I flashed on the ornate post office at Cibeles Square, where I would go to buy stamps and airmail envelopes.

I was a prolific letter writer back in those days.  I was trying hard to create a writer persona for myself, which included sitting in Madrid cafes, scribbling  journal entries, poems, short stories, or letters to my friends back in the States, among other, late-night activities.  (Anyone who's ever visited that city knows there is no lack of those.)

If you've ever had the experience of reading letters you wrote 25 years earlier, you know it's an odd sensation.  It's kind of like turning a corner and looking your young self in the face.  In the words, you recognize bits of your identity, but it smacks of pretension, making you remember the discomfort of youth, when you tried so hard to convince those around you that you were comfortable in your own skin, all the while sure they would see through your flimsy disguise.   

My writing in the letters is embarrassingly overdone at times.  One, written in November of 1989, starts with, "Closing out the eighties, you and I've known each other more or less this whole sad and best-forgotten decade.  If you could collect all the proverbial water that's passed under that ole bridge you'd have one hell of a reservoir..."

I have no choice but to forgive myself; ultimately, I couldn't have written any other words but those.  That was who I was, and perhaps I'm kidding myself to suggest that I've changed much at all since then.  I still write the occasional letter, but mostly it's emails and text messages, along with Facebook status updates and tweets.

Which is not the same.  There's an intense intimacy in letters that you don't find in those other forms of more modern communication.  My mother was a letter writer.  I got it from her.

The most jarring admission I can make to myself about these found letters is that they are a chronicle of unfulfilled dreams and desires.  I had the audacity at age 25 to imagine myself as a famous actor ("They will name diets after me!"), and brag about having met a literary agent who loved my writing and encouraged me to write a novel, a task I have not yet accomplished, nearly 25 years later.

Once again, forgiveness is due.  A young man is supposed to dream big dreams.  If I hadn't been imagining big things for my future, something would have been amiss.  And besides, I've got another confession to make:

At age 49 I still dream of writing great novels and being a movie star.

And you know what else?  It just might happen, because I ain't dead yet.....

Monday, January 7, 2013

I Am My Father's Son

My father was an ad man, so of course, I hate commercials.  There are still too many of them on TV, and the pitchmen come on at volume levels that should be prohibited by law, yelling at you about the same dumb products, over and over and over again.

Every once in a while, though, I find myself looking at the world through the eyes of an advertising man.  Recently, as I hugged a curve on my way to work, I clicked on the "Voice Note" app on my iPhone and said the following words, in a loud, confident TV pitchman's voice:

"The guilt-free SUV.  The Highlander Hybrid.  From Toyota."

Friday, January 4, 2013

Happy Anniversary...Compact Disc

Back in October, during my ride to work, NPR ran a brief, uninteresting story on the 30th anniversary of the advent of the Compact Disc.  Despite being forgettable, the piece did send me into one of my reveries, this time back to the corner of East First Street and First Avenue, where my friend Jem Aswad lived in a walk-up, split-level apartment.  It was small but interesting, with lots of exposed brick and an upstairs loft space with roof access.  

Jem has always been my music buddy.  The first time we met, he taught me how to play a few songs on the guitar in the lounge space on the third floor of Shaw Hall in Syracuse.  He was wearing a Psychedelic Furs t-shirt.  Although I knew nothing about the band in 1981, I could tell by looking at the shirt that they were cool, as was the dude wearing it.  Jem (who went by "Jim" back then) turned out to have an extensive record collection, and he worked part time in an indie record store called Desert Shore Records.  During our 30 year friendship, I've witnessed Jem's complete immersion into the world of music, from LPs, to cassettes (he made some amazing mixed tapes for me and the rest of our crowd back then), to CDs to MP3s.  I'm sure he's still got a warehouse full of vinyl records stashed somewhere, and lord knows how many songs are on his iPod at this point.

But yes, CDs entered the mix some time in the 1980s, and I will never forget my introduction to them.  One afternoon down there in the East Village, Jem happened to show me a cardboard box he had in the bottom of his closet.  The box was filled with CDs, which I'd never seen before.  Not in person, anyway.  My understanding was that they were significantly more expensive than records, which I still listened to at that time -- in 1986 or '87 -- after Jem moved into 1st and 1st and before I snuck on over to Europe for my expat stint.  

"Come on," Jem said, with that familiar twinkle in the eye that suggested impending mischief.  He grabbed the box, and I followed him up the iron spiral staircase that led to the loft and out onto the roof.  From six stories up, we had a good view of the block.  I'm not sure, thinking back on it, what time of the day it was; I'd like to think there weren't too many people around.  

Remember now, the CDs in that box were like exotic treasure to me.  To Jem, however, they were nothing more than what probably amounted to an unending stream of freebies that awaited him daily at CMJ, where he had an entry-level editor's job at the time.  He sent the first disc flying out into space, and I marveled at the way it dipped and dived, shining prismatically before smashing into the sidewalk below.  I threw one of my own, Frisbee style, and watched it crash as well.  

I'm sure it didn't take long for us to realize that what we were doing -- our little act of Keith Moonesque rebellion -- was idiotic.  Rather than wait to get arrested or threatened with violence, we moved our party back inside the apartment.  We may have smashed two CDs that day, and for the sake of the story, I'm sure it would be better to contend that we tossed the whole lot off the roof.  Regardless of the number, I'll never forget the sense of pure decadence I felt, as I watched what was still a technological novelty at the time, these shining flying saucers, crashing into shards down below.  

When Your Friends Become Your Family

Every once in a while, I steal a peak at my nephew's Facebook page.  He's in his early twenties, and the online life he's leading is WAY different than mine.  For one thing, he's got far more friends.  They write almost exclusively about what appear to be inside jokes.  In other words, they're speaking a language I don't quite understand.  I wonder, as I browse his page, how many of these 1,000 + individuals are his "actual" friends.  The reason I wonder this is because I remember, so fondly, my own friendships from that time in my life.  It's a bit of a cliche to say it, but when you're in your 20's, your family -- the one you grew up with -- recedes into the background, while a select group of friends comes to the fore.  In essence, these folks become your family.

I was lucky enough to have a few special groups of friends.  In college, we lived first in dormitories, then in a collection of thin-walled, over-priced apartments off campus.  There was talk at one time of trying to rent an entire house together, a proposition that excited and intrigued me.  Doonesbury was one of my favorite comic strips at the time, and I liked the idea of having a "Walden" where my friends and I could regenerate in a kind of self-selected, co-ed fraternity.

For whatever reason, our commune never came to be, but it didn't matter much:  Just because we lived in separate places didn't make that group any less of a family.  In fact, I'm still in close contact with many of my college friends today.

And I did get to live my commune fantasy eventually, if only briefly, when I lived in a place I've written about before -- the Cava de San Miguel apartment in Madrid, Spain.  Those friendships, with an international flair now (Spaniards, Italians, Americans, Germans and Dutch came together in that place), were part of what made that spectacular flat so special.  Granted, the relationship that brought me there was falling apart, and I was carrying around some pretty heavy grief at that time in my life, but I still enjoyed the sense of community in that sprawling old Madrid apartment.  I'll never live anywhere like it again.

Fast forward a few years, and I am a young man waking up from a failed marriage, in need of a place to lick his wounds.  Other friends, in similar moments of their lives, have found a summer house in a place with the rather magical name of Big Indian, New York.  The drafty farm house provided a lovely sanctuary for all of us, and we had some wonderful times that summer of 1993.  The experience in the house in the Catskills was the closest I've come to a commune and to the Doonesbury Walden experience, complete with my own "puddle" (actually a little bend in the Esopus River, that provided a perfect soaking tub) in which I could luxuriate on hot days, thinking about nothing more than how much I was enjoying the time with my friends.

Of course, as with all things, I look at my two young sons and wonder what sorts of communal experiences they will have when they're older.  Jackson is the social butterfly.  In a way, his entire life has been one big commune; the moment he walks in the door, anywhere he goes, it seems, the hellos start coming.  Diego might be less likely to want to share his space with others.

Who knows, though?  Like me, he may find himself one day surrounded by a small group of friends who, for that brief moment, become his family.  I could see myself visiting him -- in my sixties now -- smiling, and wondering, as I listen to their code-like banter, just what the hell my son and his friends are talking about.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Death of Wonder

"Did you ever wonder what dogs do on their day off? They can't lie around and do nothing; that's what they do for a living." -- George Carlin, American Humorist

The irony of today's post is not lost on me.  Much of what I call "navel gazing" is really comprised of me wondering about stuff, and hoping it's "relate-able" enough for those of you who take the time to read my seven-to-twelve paragraphs on whatever the current thing I'm wondering about might be.

I'm always wondering, and I always have.  My father encouraged it; in fact, he was the one who introduced me to George Carlin and his observational wonderment -- some of it pretty misanthropic at times.  My father wondered a lot himself, sometimes taking the time to write down his musings on three-by-five index cards, a practice I have inherited from him.

When I was in college, my colleagues and I would partake in certain activities meant to, shall we say, "spur wonderment."  I used to wonder so much that at one point, over a pizza that was being devoured by myself and a couple other ravenous college friends, one of them lost his temper and, with his mouth full of cheese and tomato sauce, he let out, "Jesus, Dan, enough!  Do you ever wonder who wonders?"

Well that shut me up.  For the time being, anyway.

And these days, I do wonder who wonders.  In this age of Google and Wikipedia, and Ask Jeeves and the rest, one really needn't wonder any more.  The answers are all out there, just a few clicks away.  My nine year old regularly asks me to "google" the answers to questions he has for me, the once omniscient father.

My brother and I still laugh about how my father used to stammer through explanations of the things we didn't understand.  He was an unusually intelligent person, and nine out of ten times he knew the actual answers to the questions we had for him.  But on that tenth occurrence, we always knew when he was stumped.  He'd say things like, "Well, now you know, that's an interesting question," or "There are a lot of conflicting theories about that."

We'd let him struggle for a while, before one of us inevitably said, "In other words....."  And the other  would respond, "You don't know."

After a few years of this, the "you don't know" wasn't necessary any more.  Dad would either laugh and admit that he really didn't know the answer, or he'd defiantly say, "No, no, I actually know this!"  It didn't matter much; our admiration for him didn't flag.  He wasn't all-knowing, but that was okay.  He still knew a hell of a lot more than either of us did.

I wonder . . . if all the answers are out there on the Internet somewhere, is the quest for knowledge over?  Is the wise man on the  mountaintop out of a job?

More importantly, I wonder this:  If there's nothing left to wonder about, do we continue to be human?  Or have we morphed into something else?  And is that something else something more, or something less?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

That Perfect Week Between

It's officially 2013, and in two days, I'll be back at work, wearing the professional mask, or hat, if you prefer, for the first time in a couple of weeks.  I'll have people -- many people -- stopping me to wish me a happy new year, then hoping to get their questions answered, questions particular to them in their particular niche at our school.  I'll wish them well, exchange pleasantries, then do what I can to answer their query.

Then I'll sigh, remembering this quiet time -- the perfect week between Christmas and New Year -- as a fading, pleasant memory.  For now, I bask in it.  I enjoy being in my pajamas on a weekday, sleeping late and sipping my coffee in my sunny home office.

Back when I was a younger person, this wondrous week was when I'd come down from the hinterlands, back to my home in the suburbs of New York City.  Sometimes we had snow, sometimes not.  I can remember Amtrak train rides that were delayed by frozen tracks and fallen limbs from wind-swept trees.  One of my fondest memories is coming down from Syracuse University with my buddy Mignon.  She was kind enough to give me a ride in her dying Scirocco, a car in such poor shape that the heater gave out, causing us to shiver during the five-hour drive home.  To make the time pass, we played travel games like Boticelli and something we called "The Movie Game."  Mostly, we laughed a lot.
My snowy childhood home, One Scott Lane, in Purchase, New York
Once we arrived home, it was all about reunions.  Our friends would find their ways home from the various institutions of higher learning they attended -- places like the University of Vermont, Franklin and Marshall College, Brown and the various State Universities of New York -- and we would reconvene in a number of places.  Sometimes we'd meet up at one of our homes.  More likely, though, we'd end up at one or another of two local bars -- the Cobblestone and the Hilltop -- which sat (and still sit) right next door to each other on Anderson Hill Road, near the SUNY Purchase campus.  They were comfortable bar-restaurants, with decent food and reasonable drink prices.  We were known there, and the bartenders and bouncers were kind to us, so we brought our reunions, and our money, to these two places regularly.

It was good to catch up with friends, to break out the old inside jokes, tell stories of college life, and get happily plastered.  Of course, we did a few things we probably shouldn't have, things we now warn our own children against, but there was a perfection to be had in that week between Christmas and New Years that can never be duplicated.