I hate to break it to you, but summer is going the way of the dodo bird…

mean-old-ladyWhen you think of teachers, usually a few memorable ones will pop to your mind, the best of them or the worst of them. For me, the first who always comes to mind is Ms. Putsky, my first grade teacher. She was ancient back then, so my guess is she’s long gone by now, which is a good thing for all first graders everywhere. She was awful. She came from an era of corporal punishment, and though that age had moved on, Ms. Putsky had not. She was known to break rulers over hands, to intimidate and to mock. Political correctness–hell even kindness–was not in her repertoire. I remember her moving my desk to the front of my class, breaking all my pencils, calling me names, and, on one occasion, even throwing away my shoes (they clicked in the hallway when I walked and it annoyed her). I had many wonderful teachers along the way, but sadly, she is always the first to come to mind.

Whether a teacher with a positive influence or negative influence comes first to your mind, the reality is someone does, because a teachers influence us all. There are certain people from certain professions you might go your entire life and have no interactions with, but a teacher, well, none of us can go through life without living day in and day out with them, at least for portions of our lives. Which is one of the biggest reasons I chose to be a teacher, to have influence, to give back, to be a positive influencer, not a negative memory like Ms. Putsky is for me. Most teachers go into the profession for similar reasons (God knows it isn’t for the money!).

teacherWhat people don’t realize about teachers is, though we may love our jobs and love the big or little people we pour ourselves into, there is a large part of us that lives summer to summer. After all, if we’re going to pour ourselves out and into others year after year, we need  the chance to refill, or we too, will turn into a Ms. Putsky in our dotage–that’s what happens when you’ve poured it all out and yet you’re expected to keep pouring from an empty watering can (though, I have to say, in the case of Ms.Putsky, I think she just hated children and derived pleasure out of tormenting us!)

When we first step through the door of our classroom in August, we are already having a few stray thoughts of what we’re going to do next summer (often, the things we somehow didn’t have time for that summer). Throughout the first semester, the thoughts are fleeting, but they’re there. We start making lists. We start noticing all the things that aren’t getting done because of all the piles of grading we have, but those tasks have only been shortly abandoned, and though we might look at the yard work that is needing to be done, the floors that need a deep cleaning, things have only been neglected for a short time, and so they don’t press on our consciousness too terribly much. Besides, we think, with Thanksgiving Break and Christmas Break, surely we can at least catch up on those to-do lists then.

teacherburnoutAnd we do, at least somewhat. The only problem is that this list gets inevitably longer every day that passes, and, if, like me, you have a young family who seems to absorb mommy’s time like little sponges, you can never really get everything done that you had hoped to do, so you start telling yourself spring break, I can catch up on all of this when spring break rolls around.

The only thing is, that by spring break a teacher is starting to burn out. The constant social interaction (especially for the non-extroverts of our profession) is wearing us down. The piles and piles of essays to get through start to feel like a ball and chain around our mental ankle. The school responsibilites and the home responsibilities seem to press in, and by the time spring break hits, well, that to-do list, pressing though it might be, takes second seat to the desperate need for a break. So, instead of crossing things off that list, the list gets longer.

summerThat is when we teachers start thinking and dreaming about summer break in earnest. We start making lists of all the things we will accomplish: the home improvement tasks we will tackle, the deep cleaning we will do, the piles of books we will read, the places we will go, etc.. We begin our countdown and we watch that approaching day in June with at least as much anticipation as the students, and when that day finally comes, we think we will actually get everything we hadn’t had a chance to do during the course of the school year–finally–done.

The only problem is, at least for me, it never seems to happen that way. Here I am, looking up and it’s mid-July, my summer is half over, and my list is still so incredibly long. I blame it on the little people in my life. They seem to add two things to that list for every one I cross off.

mombalancing actI have to admit, I look at my childless teaching friends with a fair amount of envy (yes, Heidi, I have you in mind!). Whereas so much of my time is spent feeding my children (someone should really warn pre-mothers that they will need to prepare three meals a day for those little darlings…that means shopping for said meals, cooking said meals and cleaning up after those said meals…how much of my time disappears in that cloud of smoke?), cleaning the piles of laundry that they seem to go through on a nearly daily basis (how many shirts can my son wear in one day!! And why does he have to change back and forth from clothes into pajama pants throughout the day creating more and more clothing that makes it’s way down my laundry shoot?!), cleaning up after their general mayhem (the debris that somehow ends up scattered throughout my house on a daily basis resembles a small tornado in force, magnitude and destruction), carting them from one summer activity to another (next year I think I am going to keep track of the miles and minutes that I rack up from being the chauffeur…I think it would be quite shocking), and entertaining and spending quality time with those little people (by far the most enjoyable of the time-consuming tasks). There goes the bulk of summer, poof! And I haven’t even touched the things that I want to do or the special projects that have been waiting patiently for me to finally get to them over the course of the long academic year (it makes me tired just thinking about it!).

good-lifeWhereas, my childless teacher friends (Ahem, yes, you again Heidi) get all that time to do all sorts of things: traveling to Houston, traveling to Las Vegas, traveling wherever the whim takes them…going to concerts and shows, fancy restaurants and movies, reading the piles of books that I wish I could read…their time is their own. It has been so long since my time has been my own…

So, yes, here I sit half way through my summer, and my house still has not entirely gone through its deep cleaning. I still have not sorted through and organized my garage, much less my attic. My bathroom is, as yet, unpainted, and the dining room chairs, well, I had almost forgotten about my intention to paint them this summer. The great pile of books I intended to be through by this point sits largely untouched (I’ve gotten through a few, but there are still so many waiting!) and the book that I intended to be done writing by the end of July still has a little less than half way to go, and only two weeks to meet my goal. Sigh…

Back_to_schoolAll of this, and I am starting to see the words “Back to School” pop up in ads and at stores. My children have begun wondering who their teacher will be for this coming year, and I feel the second half of the sands of my summer slipping through the hour glass at an alarming rate.

How much of my to-do list will be pushed off to next summer, and then the next, and then the next, until my little birdies fly the coop and my time is my own again?

And yet that doesn’t make me any happier, for if I was to choose between the two, my time or my birdies, I would choose to keep those little loves close every single time.

To-do lists will always be there. Concerts and vacations will always be there, but they will not be, and how I will miss them when they go!

first-day-of-college-cartoon1So, as much as I hate cleaning (and I really do HATE it!), and as much as I beat myself up for the never-ending to-do list that never diminishes, I am glad for the opportunity to spend this time with my little sponges. Soon enough, they aren’t going to want to spend their precious summer moments hanging out with their mom!

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No more pencils. No more books. No more teachers’ dirty looks.

I came home last night to a distraught daughter. images

I wanted nothing more than to curl up in my leather recliner with a book, and disappear for a few minutes after my long day, but, instead, I found myself in that same chair, with my 8 year old third grader cradled in my lap, as she wept and wept.

Why, you ask was my little one crying? Did someone pick on her at school? Did she skin her knee? Is she the target of all the bullying we’ve heard so much about lately?

No, no and, no. But she is a victim.

She is a victim of expectations and perfectionism. She is a victim of standardized tests and insane expectations. She is a victim of a generation of extremes. Either the kids feel like they need to be perfect, driving themselves in their need to achieve: academics, athletics, community service–or, they go to the opposite extreme and skate by doing as little as they possibly can (except maybe in the athletics department), spending most of their time on their phones or playing video games.

sleepI see it everyday at school. Granted, my school is an extreme. The kids drive themselves to exhaustion in their effort to outrank each other. They give up their passions and they give up their sleep. They put their dreams on a shelf to get dusty, and, eventually, to become forgotten altogether. They forsake their childhood while still children, and exile the high school experience to the dusty corridors of “If I only had the time . . . ”

Or they do nothing. They exist. They come to class, do as little as possible, and spend every spare second on their phones. They feel like the very fact that they dragged their lazy bum out of bed, and sat that same bum into one of my chairs entitles them to a passing grade.

Okay, so maybe that is a little unfair. After all, some kids do fall in the middle. Some kids have found the balance of the pendulum. But truly, the vast majority seem to fall into one extreme or the other. Over achieving or lazy bum.

I am not a stranger to perfectionism. I most certainly was a perfectionist in my youth. My class was very competitive and I wanted to compete, so I drove myself. I joined everything there was to join from choir and basketball to forensics and theater. I was big into community service. I was so busy competing that I forgot to play. I rushed through college in four years, testing out of whatever I could so that I could finish first. I rushed into adulthood and responsibility. I was that kid. The kid who was all work, all acievement– and no fun.

But today . . . today it seems so much worse.

My perfectionistic nature drove me to my perfectionism. My exceptionally gifted class drove me to my perfectionism. School itself did not drive me to this unhealthy balance. State testing was something we did, but no one paid a whole lot of attention to the results. I did not always feel as if I was compared to the others in my class. And, truthfully, there really wasn’t any feeling of expectation until middle school. Yes, we were encouraged to do well, but it was not a competition. We did well, so that we would learn what we needed to learn, so that, when it counted, we would be prepared.

cryingAs I listened to my daughter cry because she scored low on her reading istation test. As I listened to her weep, because she was “Terrible at spelling! Terrible!” As I listened to her tell me she wasn’t as smart as the other kids, I felt anger stir. I was indignant. I became livid.

My daughter is in third grade. She should be playing. She should be happy. She should be carefree.

She should not be weighed down by school. She should not feel like she is competing for her academic future. She should not even be thinking of her future in anything but abstracts term! School should be fun, a place of learning and growth–academic and social growth–not of stress and pressure.

She has hours of homework most nights. She has more homework than some of my high school students. She’s eight.

My daughter reads–without me having to remind her to do so. She loves to write–she is always writing stories. She practices her flash cards–because she likes to.  She is very bright–but she is worried, already, that she is not good enough.

I have a problem with this. I have a problem with my daughter who will likely be a straight A student all the way through her academic life already feeling the pressure of school. I have a problem with these standardized tests that expect all children, no matter their birthday, and no matter their developmental speed, to achieve the same levels at the same time. I have a problem with a system that makes these children feel not good enough, because a certain skill might take them a little longer than it takes someone else. With this, I have a problem.

It’s bad enough that, day in and day out, I see so many gifted students forsake their love of art or music in the name of success.

I found it so telling that, when I asked my students at the beginning of the year what they wanted to do with their lives, 90% of my honors kids said they wanted to do something in the medical field. Success means math and science to them.

As it did to me back in the day. It’s what the smart kids do. It’s what their parents tell them to do. What the counselors encourage them to do. It’s what society expects them to do.

I was going to be a doctor too . . . until I realized that I hated math. Until I acknowledged that, though I was good at it, I hated biology. Until I realized that, I would rather make less money doing something I loved, than make more money doing something that I hated.  Just because I was smart enough to be a doctor, did not mean that I was supposed to be a doctor.

easelIn a million ways I see my students’ love for the arts. I read of their love for music and dance. I hear of the artists with abandoned easels . . . the dancers who’ve retired their dancing shoes . . . the athletes who have abandoned the courts.

All in the name of success.

In the name of perfectionism.

To be the best.

Because they are smart enough to do it.

Even if they don’t want to do it.

Just because they can do it.

Almost daily, I tell my daughter that she does not need to be perfect. Every day, I tell her her best is good enough. Every day, I remind her that there are things more important than school.

Yes, I am a teacher, and I say this.

I lived this. I see so many of my students living this. I don’t want my daughter to live this.

ChildsDreamI don’t want her to give up her childhood while still a child. I’m not ready for her to stop dancing yet. I’m not ready for her to be anything, but who she wants to be. Not ever.

I don’t want her to take on the stress and pressure of unreasonable expectations. I want her to LIVE–not simply succeed.

I want her to play. I want her to dance. I want her to soar.

There is time enough for her feet to be firmly planted on the ground.

For today–for now–I want her to live in the clouds, in the land of dreams, where anything is possible, and where her best is good enough.

I want her days to be about friends and dolls. I want her childhood to be filled with songs and swings. I want her evenings to be filled with pretend worlds and wild imaginings–not with math and science. Not with spelling. Not with tears.

I look at my high school kids, and I wish that so many of them knew what I know now.

I wish that they knew that they need to forge their own path, not the path their parents think they should take.

I wish they knew that medicine is not the only road to success.

I wish they understood that there are more important things than money and success, and that all the money and success in the world are not enough to make them happy if they’re doing something they hate.

I wish they understood that high school is as much about memories and moments as it is about books and homework.

There is time enough to be adults. They don’t need to let their childhood go so quickly. They never need to let go of their dreams. Nothing is worth that. Not even success.

growing_up

 

You Don’t Have to be Alexander the Great to Change the World

I was very discouraged last week.

I wrote a blog, pouring out some of the greast lessons I feel like I have learned in life, and I crafted them with great care. I wrote, I paused, I pondered, I wrote, pondered some more, and rewrote. The end result was a blog that I felt captured the heart and soul of what I wanted to say. With a feeling of accomplishment and pleasure in a job well done, I posted it and waited. And waited . . . and waited some more.

A handful of friends and family read it and appreciated it. A handful. I was discouraged. As so many writers, I blog because I have so much inside myself that needs to come out, but also, because I am a writer–I have things to say and I hope that they are worthwhile things that can speak to the human soul, the human angst, the human experience, and thereby, that my influence, my voice will be appreciated by the masses, not a handful. I was discouraged.

As so many of my fellow bloggers have wondered at some point in their blooging lives, I couldn’t help but wonder why I even bother? Why do I spend my free time writing for an audience that doesn’t emerge when I could just as easily simply put my thoughts and ideas into a private journal? Why spend my time agonizing over word choice and turn of phrase, putting my thoughts out in the universe, when no one is going to bother to read them?

But then I began to remember something. It started with a comment a friend who I haven’t seen in ages wrote on my facebook page. She read my blog, and it impacted her. It helped her. It spoke to her in her present pain, and helped her see that she was not alone, that what she was living, is normal. I cried.

In that moment I remembered a truth that so many of us tend to forget.

I have always wanted to change the world. It has always been a burning passion in me. I want to leave this world a better place when I leave it. I do not want to simply take up space, but instead, to know that my living will have an impact, that my time spent on this planet will mean something.

I’m not alone in this desire. It is a somewhat comman desire, that we leave our footprint, our fingerprints, on this world. I think however, that sometimes we look at that and think to change the world we must do so enmasse, in one fell swoop. We have the misconception that we change the world by personally affecting the lives of many people personally, but that is not how most of those who change the world, change the world. They do so one person at a time.change

I have an absolutely wonderful grandmother. She is smart, she is kind, and she pours into the lives of her eight children and her many, many  grandchildren.

She poured into my life. In so many ways, I am the person I am today because my grandmother instilled within me a moral compass, a compassion for others, and a will do to the right thing because it is, quite simply, right.

My grandmother is getting older. As she is walking into the twilight of her life, she spends a lot of time reflecting on the life she has lived. More than once she has spoken with me about her struggle as she contends with a life that, she feels, has not had an impact, has not been important, has not left an imprint.

She was a stay at home mom in a generation of stay at home moms, and now she wishes she had done something great. Something important.

What she doesn’t understand is that she has changed the world.

Behind every world changer, there are many individuals who have changed them.

Martin Luther King Jr. did not change the face of our country alone; he had behind him all of those who impacted him, who encouraged him, all of those who believed in him and told him not to give up. Every great man or woman does.

My grandmother doesn’t think that she changed the world, but she changed me, and I am determined to change the world, be it one person at a time. Every time I impact one of my students, every time I write a blog that changes someone’s outlook, every man woman or child I helped in my times overseas–my grandmother was a part of that. She changed me, and I in turn changed them.grandma

She impacted her children, who have gone out and impacted others. And she has impacted her grandchildren, directly and indirectly. She helps cancer patients through my sister, she reaches countless adults, women and children through my Uncle Mark, and she has touched almost every continent in this world between her various children and grandchildren. By changing one, we change the world.

And so, though my blog is not read by many, and though my impact is negligible, I will not be discouraged. If I impact one, I have made a difference. As a writer, as a teacher, as a citizen of this planet, I will never be able to impact everyone, but, just like paying it forward, if I can give of what I have and of who I am, and if those I pour into will also pour into others . . . then that is really enough, isn’t it?

What are we doing? Technology: the curse of this generation

When I was a kid and I got to school early, I hung out with friends. I talked. If I was in an anti-social mood, maybe I read. If I was in a waiting room at the doctor’s office and there was no one to talk to and I was surrounded by dull magazines, I thought. I thought about the world and my place in it. I thought about God, who he was and what I believed. I thought of the future and who I wanted to become. I rifled through my past mistakes and thought about what I might do differently next time.

Of course, that was in the age before cell phones and the brainless activity that is always at the tips of our fingers these days. You know, eons ago before this new technological age. At least, that is what it seems like to so many of my students. How in the world did we do without technology?!

I teach Freshmen. I think there are few who are so in touch with the trends of culture and the shifts of our youth as a high school teacher. And what I see lately disturbs me greatly.

When my students get to school early, the vast majority don’t hang out with their friends, and even if they do, they aren’t talking to them. They are too busy texting the friends who aren’t there or tweeting about some inane something or playing a game or . . . well you get the idea. Too often, when my first hour class comes in, I will have 20 kids all sitting their quietly with cell phones out in their own little worlds. They are disconnected from their peers. They are losing their ability to communicate effectively, and, so many of them, as a result, feel isolated and alone.

Group Of Teenage Students Sitting Outside On College Steps Using Mobile Phone

When this generation (and so many of us in the Gen X generation as well as Millennials are falling into this as well) has down time, out come the phones. No small talk with strangers that teaches how to interact and learn from others. No self-reflection so that they grow as individuals and wrestle with the higher concepts of the world and their place in it. When I ask my students to reflect or write an essay about what they think, so many of them don’t even know how to reflect and have never even thought about these philosophical or existential concepts. All great thought and great deeds come from moments of reflection. What are we doing to our future?

We started “The Odyssey” in my classes a couple of weeks ago. Along with it, the kids need to read a modern epic. It was horrifying to hear the number of my students who asked if their book could be found on spark notes and when I said that, no, I didn’t think any of these would be on spark notes, they followed up by asking if there was a movie made from the book. When the answer was no, the kids panicked. “Mrs. Graham! What are we supposed to do?”

I gave them a blank look and responded, “What you are supposed to be doing– you read it.”

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They were flabbergasted. They don’t read. They hate reading. There has to be an easier way. Can’t I just let them pass without making them read? Why do they have to do anything at all? The number of students who seem to think that just sucking air should be all they need to do to pass is staggering. If there is not a short cut provided through some technological means or another, they simply don’t want to do it anymore.

It’s not that any of my classmates didn’t cheat when I was growing up. Many of them did. It’s the fact that the number is rising incredibly because of the ease of cheating. Plagiarism actually took some thought and effort in my day (and I’m not that old btw!!). Now every kid has a computer or access to one and all they need to do is google spark notes or some other comparable website and, bam! They don’t need to think at all; someone has already done the thinking for them. If a student wanted to plagiarize when I was in school they had to go to the library or even a bookstore to hunt down spark notes or something comparable–now it’s at the tips of our fingers and so many of the kids don’t see anything wrong with that at all.

plagiarism

I can’t help but wonder what this is going to mean as this generation hits maturity. They are the generation of entitlement. They are used to not being held accountable. They are used to doing the bare minimum to get by and when it’s not enough to get by, too often, we simply lower the bar to accomodate them.

Obviously, not all of them fall into this. There are many great kids out there who are hard workers. There just aren’t as many as there used to be and the number of kids who want to coast through life playing video games, watching youtube videos or pretending that life is just one big party, well, there are just SO MANY of them. If the few strong ones have to support the rest of them, well . . . quite frankly, we’ll go belly up.

What’s the answer? I don’t know. Technology is wonderful in so many ways, but as with so much in life, anything out of balance can become destructive.

My 2nd and 4th grade children are continually complaining because all they have is a flip phone between them (for emergencies only) and all their friends have iphones (I don’t even have an iphone!) and ipads, kindles and nooks (again, I don’t even have one of these!).

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They can complain away, because I’m just no willing to go there. I want them to talk and play, use their imaginations and think about life. I don’t want them glued to a glowing screen. I know I can’t keep them from it forever, but first, I want to teach them to use their minds, to enjoy a good book, and how to make friends–and keep them–real friends, not just the text variety that seems to be so in these days. It would be easier to give them the phone, but, well, isn’t that the problem right there? The best is rarely the easiest.