***I’ve been taking MasterClasses for the last few weeks. Often, there are assignments given out. This one was to write about the saddest moment in your life. One other note, I allowed ten minutes for writing, so the essay might seem short for such a heavy prompt. Here it is…

The Rental

Honesty in sadness is a tough one to write about. Trying to find the saddest moment of a life seems so disrespectful to all of the sad moments a person experiences. For me, the end of February 1998 had to be about the worst. There was a confluence of events that took me away from being happy and culminated in somber dash to get rid of a rental car.

My grandfather died that month in Texas. We were all together for his funeral. We learned things about him that are only things you learn when someone dies. That weekend was tough because of my grandfather’s passing, but it was not unexpected. He had been sick for a long time.

Two weeks later the shock hit. My brother was gone. We had just been together for my grandfather’s funeral and everything seemed fine with my brother. It wasn’t and I had missed whatever clues he was giving out.

Before I had gone to Texas, I was renting a car because mine had been smashed by a kid driving on ice. His car had gone full on bobsled and crashed into mine. The rental had some problems and when I returned from Texas, I made arrangements to exchange the car.

Then the phone call came that my brother had ended his life.

I felt a shock that I cannot explain. By nature, I am a problem solver. In stressful moments, I just get on with the business of moving through the situation. I rarely take time to grieve and if I do, I’d prefer to be alone. The morning after the phone call, I had to drive across our county, about an hour long drive, to change the car. While I was driving, I had to fight back the tears, but somewhere over on Route 100, I lost it at a stoplight. I cried about as hard as I could. When I looked to my left, there were kids in their car laughing at me as I wailed.

I felt nothing for them. My brother was gone.

Twenty or so minutes later, I had changed out the car. The new car smell of the next rental was more of a cherry bomb scent, cheap and hurried. The rest of the drive home was a blur.

Imagine being dressed in a bumble bee colored baseball uniform in late April on a Saturday and standing outside a grocery store. Add to that being the idiot who wore baseball cleats instead of sneakers and you can imagine me at ten years old doing Tag Day for the Williamsburg Youth League. Tag Day was sanctioned begging and tugging at the guilt laden weaknesses of anyone bold enough to carry change. Wait, that was nearly forty years ago, we all carried change. I hated Tag Day, but I also hated sitting the bench. I knew that my coach, God save his imprisoned soul (I’m bitter about that), would have taken playing time away from anyone who did not show up for Tag Day.

Basically, we stood for two hours in front of the grocery store by the Martin Cinema and asked people to drop money in our little containers. I’m a poor conversationalist with the people I know really well. I’m ridiculously poor at speaking with strangers, so going up to shoppers and asking them to make a donation for our league was way beyond my comfort level. I probably brought in less than ten dollars that first year. My begging partner was ridiculous. We were classmates and sat next to each other in fourth grade. I was the new kid in school and he seemed like the shy kid, but he raised so much money. It was sick the way he would get people to give him money. There wasn’t an ounce of begging or salesmanship in his request. He just had an aura. It would serve him well in centerfield and wherever else that magic was needed.

Three years of begging got us through battles as members of VFW Post 4309. We were competitive and cockier than we should have been. Those were some good years…

pexels-photo-94327

Trigger Warning: There is a bad word in this…

The time had come for me to take a unit test in a sixth grade Language Arts class. This was a big test for me because I thought I might have a chance to move to the back table with the coolest kids. Little did I know back then, but one would someday have a cool job working in a lighthouse up in Maine. Anyway, the test included a reading and then some comprehension questions. One of the tasks in the test was to make an outline about clouds.

I think I was already starting to dislike school. Maybe that sounds crazy since my whole career has been as a teacher, but it’s learning that I love, not school. On the outlining part of the test, I could not remember where the Roman numerals went and where the capital letters were supposed to go. My teacher kept sending the test back with directions for me to fix the outlines and I kept sending it back wrong. I’m sure that I just didn’t care. I didn’t care about the outlines. I didn’t care about the clouds. I only really cared about sitting with those guys in the back of the room. Finally, Mrs. K. gave in and let me move on to the next level. She also kept me in my desk near the front of the room.

Really?

I’ve thought about that day many times over the course of my career as a teacher. I thought about it a lot while I was working on my doctorate in education. During those Monday night classes where we debated that state of education in the context of creating change, I began to believe that we are missing the boat on education. As we are forced to squeeze more from students in the name of achievement and accountability and as we continue to force canned instructional programs on students for the sake of standardization and efficiency, we are losing the essence of learning. To learn is to have interest. To learn is to be passionate about something new. Learning is more than a college prep course, scripted instructional programs, or a one dimensional program focusing on some motivation inspired by industrial interests.

Recently, two former students talked to me about school in those terms. The first is a current high school junior who wants to be a physical therapist. She is working in an experiential program that has her paired with professionals in the field. She lit up when she talked about her opportunities to get practical experience before going to college. She also shared her disappointment at not being able to take fitness classes, because of all the other “academic” stuff she had to do. She felt like being in an environment where she was exercising and learning about how the body worked was more suited for her goals than learning about history. Names, dates, and the struggle for power…

I agree with her in principle. Core academic subjects are important, but how many of our students will use the content knowledge that is required in those courses? We miss the opportunity to link the content to life skills in meaningful and practical ways. For example, how often are students asked to write goals. While schools spend a great deal of time talking about students following their goals, we give them very little opportunity to follow them. Goal setting will continue to be nothing more than an academic exercise until students are allowed to pursue those goals and demonstrate commitment to achieving them. For my student, the traditional academic requirements are not necessarily meeting her needs. Too bad…

The second student graduated last year (2015) and I was fortunate to teach him for all four years in high school. When I asked him as a freshman if he was thinking about going to college he said, “I don’t have no time for fuckin’ college.” Instead of shutting him down for his language or telling him he would be closing doors if he didn’t go to college, I just said, “Cool,” and left it alone. He worked hard in my classes, helped other students succeed, took care of large family at home, and lived a social life straight out of Dazed and Confused. Today, he is landscaping and not regretting his decision at all. He does what he needs to do without giving in to the singleminded focus of college as the only path to success.

I love my job as an educator. Some would say that being a gym teacher is not really teaching (Try it, I dare you…). Health is an academic subject, but this is not about me trying to justify whether Health and Physical Education are important parts of a student’s learning. What this is about is whether we have the students’ best interests in mind or do we have the best interest of education in mind? I wonder about instructional programs that are based on shaky research practices. I fear that coercion is the tool that gets used to motivate students rather than finding positive ways of helping students find intrinsic motivators. Maybe the current model of success set for students and schools is unattainable because the logic of continuous improvement is flawed and I write cynically, schools are not allowed to succeed by politicians and the media (uh-oh…Am I running for office? Never.) Can we ever be satisfied when the goals are always changing? When will we be good enough? Remember, I love my job. Helping students learn to love learning is about the most satisfying thing there is for me as a teacher.

Please don’t confuse my criticisms of my profession as an indictment of my school. We are evolving into a building that values persistence, embraces innovation, and understands that an education can take many forms. There is an energy in my school that is shifting and it’s very exciting.

As for outlines, I’m not sure I ever made another outline after sixth grade. Check that, Mr. Yates’s history class in seventh grade was one serious outline. At least I only had to copy his outlines for notes. It obviously worked for him, but I can’t say the roller-overheads about the colonies or Thomas Hooker made more of a difference in my learning than if I had been allowed to format my own notes. Despite, or maybe because of, I like studying history. Names, dates, and the struggle for power… Clouds, though? When they are big and heavy it’s likely to rain or snow. That’s all I need to know.

 

Photo Credit: unsplash.com via Pexels