Hard Facts

This week, hard facts were everywhere.

Look to the left, find sorrow in the aftermath of a mass shooting on Las Vegas. Look to the right, see fires moving through Northern California. Look a few weeks back, see hurricane waves and winds snuffing out lights and prospects in island and coastal communities. Look into a child’s eyes, find a flurry questions, some spoken, some not. Look into your own heart, find a well of uncertainty, as well as a need to come up with not only the right thing, but also the true thing, to say to the children in our care.

At times like these, I find myself thinking about other trying times in history. Growing up, like many others I was a little bit obsessed with Anne Frank. I wanted to know a person like her. She was so brave. I conjure little Anne in my mind’s eye and marvel at her resolve, her optimism, and her commitment to creating a legacy of the hard facts she and her family faced.

I hear echoes of her work in the brave words and actions of people like Michelle Gay, the mother of Josephine Gay who was killed at Sandy Hook and founder of Safe and Sound Schools. In the face of such hard facts in her own life, Michelle has built a legacy for her daughter and a bridge to the future by bringing awareness to the issue of school safety.

Listening to Michelle speak about the day her life changed forever, December 14, 2012, I was struck by the power that is within each of us to find something meaningful to say and do in the face and wake of hard things. I was reminded of these famous words from Anne Frank: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” 

Wonderful — yes. And necessary.

Essential Emily & Marilynne

“Writing should always be exploratory,” writes Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping, Gilead) in her NY Times essay, “Toward Essentials.”

“There shouldn’t be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express.”

I couldn’t agree with or love this idea more. One writes to understand, to deepen understanding, to discover. But, like “wrestling with an angel,” it isn’t easy. It takes discipline, curiosity, creativity, time.

It’s no surprise, then, that Robinson’s essay begins with a reference to Emily Dickinson, whose poetry is known for its rigorous compression of language and simultaneously sublime expansion of meaning.

Living in the 19th century with her family in Amherst, Dickinson stripped everything but what she felt was absolutely essential from her poetry, including conventions such as punctuation marks and proper nouns, while at the same time adding quirky signatures such as the dash and capital letters, additions that built layers of meaning into her sparse lines.

It is astonishing to think that, in the throes of inspiration, Dickinson jotted these poems on the flaps of envelopes and the backs of shopping lists found in the flotsam of her daily life (the “gorgeous nothings“).

Robinson cites Dickinson’s poem, “The Brain – is wider than the Sky.” I looked it up and reread it, having forgotten it. It’s just one of hundreds of astonishingly sly and intelligent poems that she wrote in her lifetime.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

Comparing the brain to the sky, the sea, and to God, in well under 100 words, Dickinson makes a clever argument in which the human mind is greater than natural and divine wonders, while also dependent upon both. If the brain had nothing to contemplate, it would be as dull as the world around it. Syllables and sounds may differ, but they don’t exist without one another.

Did Dickinson set out to write a poem comparing humanity to skies, seas, Gods and sounds? Doubtful. But through writing, and wrestling, and dancing with words, she did.

A Wrinkle in Time

Madeline L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time is one of my all time favorite books. I know I’m not alone. But while reading it with my 9 year old this month, I was surprised to find that despite the book being very important to me, I had forgotten nearly everything in its pages.

What I remembered: time/space travel, a very smart child named Charles Wallace, some strong weather at the beginning, a missing father, a malevolent (I think!) force called IT.

What I had forgotten: the word, tesseract, which for some reason, my mother gave me as a name when I was little. Also forgotten: how sophisticated many of the words in the book actually are. And the fact that Calvin likes not only Meg but also her mother.

Which made me remember: we used to read books like A Wrinkle in Time on our own time and without incident.  Which isn’t to say that we understood all of what we read. Rereading the book today, I know it isn’t possible that I understood the book deeply. Clearly, I didn’t remember it well.

But, it sort of didn’t matter. I thought I read it, and I really loved it. And, I don’t think we were expected to understand what we read all the way through back then. Instead, we were expected to read a lot. To just read. Whatever we wanted, and as often as possible. It was totally fine for us to pick up a book and put it down, only to pick it up months or even years later and resume as if no time had passed at all.

That’s why my mother thought nothing of giving me a copy of Jane Eyre when I was 10. And again when I was 12. And then again when I was 15, at which point I could finally make sense of the first pages and persevered all the way to the end.

Books were our wrinkle in time. We’d open a portal to one and walk through. Stay a while in its world and then exit on the other side, changed.

Raising and Caring for our Little Adults

I loved Julie Lythcott-Haines’ How to Raise an Adult and had the good fortune to hear her speak last spring when she visited Charlotte. The book, like Julie herself, offers straight-talk to parents and teachers who take the responsibility of preparing future generations for whatever awaits them very seriously.

In a nutshell, she tells us to give our kids more space and time to become themselves without our constant interference. Sitting amid an audience of hundreds of parents, I couldn’t help but notice that there was not a person, including myself, who was not laughing and cringing all the way through her talk.

As a dean at Stanford, Lythcott-Haines saw first hand how easily thrown freshmen were in the face of any challenge. After being “overparented” — and therefore never having to do anything completely for themselves while also never feeling total independence or pride in the wake of their achievements — these high flying young people with high GPA’s were having a ton of trouble acclimating to college life. They were — are — suffering from acute anxiety, depression, and worse. Having accomplished their parents’ and often their own dreams, they were finding the reality to be both a bit underwhelming and somehow also overwhelming.

Frank Bruni’s editorial today, “The Real Campus Scourge,” adds an important layer to the discussion about how we are preparing young people for the places, situations, and demands they will confront. I read it just after talking with my niece, a newly minted college freshman who described finding it very hard, in these early days of freshman year, to eat regular meals, find people to connect with, even work out at the gym.

In his essay, Bruni hits the nail on the head: college, at least at first, is lonely. That college freshmen feel alone has nothing to do with the way they were parented or the fact that some may be like snowflakes that melt in the heat. Says Bruni, “In a survey of nearly 28,000 students on 51 campuses by the American College Health Association last year, more than 60 percent said that they had “felt very lonely” in the previous 12 months. Nearly 30 percent said that they had felt that way in the previous two weeks.”

Those numbers are pretty staggering, but what they really confirm is simply the fact that being alone is, for most of us, lonely. Also, people leaving home, if they are loved and lucky, miss home. Years ago this was true and it is still true today.

Tomorrow, I’m spending some of Labor Day collecting things for care packages for my five nieces and nephews who are currently in college. I wish I had the time and the funds to send one to each of my past students, too. This blog post will have to serve in the place of those hundreds of boxes full of symbolic hugs that I would send out tomorrow if I could.

It’s not easy to raise — or be — an adult. But it’s also not something any of us have to do all by ourselves.

Anything is Possible

Some characters get under your skin, if not into your heart. Elizabeth Strout’s formidable Olive Kitterege of Maine is one such character; Lucy Barton, of Amgash, Illinois, is another.

Readers of Strout’s unforgettable fiction know Lucy from the tremendous My Name is Lucy Barton, published in 2016. In that slender book, Lucy tells a mostly sanitized version of her childhood in Amgash, where she and her family lived in terrible poverty. Like Jeanette Walls in The Glass Castle, Lucy and her siblings withstand indignities, confusion and isolation growing up with an inappropriate father and a cold mother who struggled to provide more than a roof above their heads.

In Anything is Possible, Strout widens her lens to include a number of other characters who lived near, but did not socialize with, the Bartons in Amgash when Lucy was growing up. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, these chapters come together to add vibrant color and luminous detail to what was a sketchy image of the town of Amgash in My Name is Lucy Barton. And while Lucy was certainly one of the most neglected children in the community, she was not the only one raised on insufficient food, education, and love.

Strout never fails to breathe truth and wisdom into her work, no matter how tough some revelations are: people are not all good or all bad, but some combination of both, all the time; everyone who is unkind to someone is sad or broken in some way that explains, if not justifies, his or her hurtful actions; people take care of each other to the best of their abilities. Lucy, who hasn’t been home in nearly twenty years, gives money to her sister, Vicky. Tommy, the school janitor, asks Pete Barton to work with him in a soup kitchen once a week, just to get Pete out of the house. Charlie, a war veteran who betrays his wife, accepts the love of the guidance counselor, Patty, who helps Lucy’s prickly niece apply to college. When Lucy has a panic attack after visiting her siblings Pete and Vicky at the end of the book, they drive her back to Chicago so she can resume her life without them.

Because the people in Strout’s powerful fictions are fully complex, anything – connection, redemption, happiness – is possible, if not always probable.

Rules of Engagement

We can’t deny that kids on the playground will sometimes get into stuff. They might exclude one another or push their way to the front of the line. They might say something unfair or untrue directly to one another, or behind one another’s backs. They might raise their voices, cry, even in rare cases, use their fists.

What almost always then happens, and should always happen, is that one child, or a group of children, will run to find a figure of authority — their teacher — for help.

In an ideal world, their teacher is already right there, ready with an empathetic but firm action plan for deescalating the situation. In a less ideal world, their teacher is just around the corner, or on a bench at the far end of the asphalt, ready to listen, willing and able to swoop in to help.

Astute teachers can see conflict coming and do all they can to help children to address their disagreements and hurt feelings with civility. That is, after all, the bedrock lesson of elementary school, without which the more complex and content-specific learning of high school and beyond is unlikely to happen.

On the playground, if two children get into a fight, they bear some responsibility for their actions, for their choices. But because they are children, the greater responsibility lies with the adults who fail to anticipate, educate, intervene and protect not only those involved but those on the sidelines.

It’s hard to think of a world where a teacher will say to two allegedly guilty children, well, you’re both apparently guilty, so there’s nothing I can do about it. Such an approach does nothing to better the problem, and instead shows a tacit or overt agreement that the perceived conflict is real and also justifies poor behavior. Such an approach fails to capitalize on the white whale of education — the teachable moment.

It’s hard to conceive of a school that functions without an adherence to an agreed upon code of conduct, on the playground and beyond. That’s because students can’t learn effectively when they don’t feel safe. Schools can’t function without civil discourse and a commitment to being actively anti-bias, anti-bullying, anti-violence and affirmatively inclusive.

Nor, it seems, can societies. And whereas kids on the playground ought to know better, and sometimes don’t, we, the adults in their lives, need to and do.

It’s Not What — It’s How

This week, as I am transitioning from high school to elementary and middle school administration, I had the chance to read about the philosophical underpinnings of the Responsive Classroom.

Among the many wise tenets of this educational framework is a simple observation about what really counts in school: how teachers teach. It echoes the bedrock principle elaborated in John Hattie’s Visible Learning series, where Hattie aggregates global educational research to pinpoint which exact teacher practices have the greatest impact on student learning.

I fully agree with both Hattie and the smart people behind Responsive Classroom: it’s not what we teach, but how. But I didn’t always feel this way. Years ago, as a novice in the classroom teaching Kafka’s Metamorphosis, I felt much the opposite. In fact I remember thinking, if I can just show them how interesting this story is, they’ll like it and do well. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, the substance of Kafka’s work is definitely interesting. A man wakes up one morning to find that he is a human-sized bug. He has all of the feelings and thoughts of a human being but not the appearance or the capacity of one. He just wants to get up and out the door for work, but it’s no longer possible. His parents and sister try to remember the man within the insect, but they just can’t. It’s sad. And a little funny. And gross. And confusing! How are we supposed to feel about this person-no-longer-a-person? What is Kafka’s overarching message? It’s a tough reading experience for most students, with its advanced vocabulary and its absurdist humor.

Knowing then what I know now about Responsive Classroom and Hattie’s research on the effects of teacher practices on student learning would have improved my teaching dramatically. Rather than think about my own engagement, I would have thought instead about how to make Kafka’s text accessible to all of my students, to slow and quicken the pace where needed, to take the time to let students co-create the story’s meaning, and to allow them to experience the text in groups during and outside of class. I might have known to send a note home to parents inviting them to read the story, too, to have given some talking points for the dinner table.

It’s not what, but how. Sometimes the content we are delivering to students is so interesting to us that we forget our main purpose as teachers: to engage our students and teach them what they really need to know.

Popular

In the popular musical, Wicked, the character Glinda takes Elphaba, otherwise known as the Wicked Witch of the West, under her wing. It’s grade school, and Glinda is the class pet. She’s pretty and talented, and everyone assumes she is also good. Elphaba, on the other hand, is bookish and solitary.

Glinda, with the intention to do a public service of sorts, decides to help Elphie make friends and be liked. She sings,

Popular! You’re gonna be popular! I’ll teach you the proper ploys when you talk to boys, little ways to flirt and flounce; I’ll show you what shoes to wear, how to fix your hair, everything that really counts to be popular! I’ll help you be popular! You’ll hang with the right cohorts, you’ll be good at sports, know the slang you’ve got to know…

I love this song and the way that Kristin Chenowith sings it. But as a parent and an educator, I have a love-hate relationship with the concept of popularity. Maybe that’s why, at the bookstore last week, I found myself drawn to a title I’d not heard of called Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World by Mitch Prinstein, a psychology professor at UNC Chapel Hill.

The book just came out and is bound to be a bestseller. For who among us hasn’t grappled with the desire to be popular, or with popularity itself? In the book, Prinstein exposes both the immediate and long-lasting effects of popularity on each of us. His research indicates that our earliest experiences with our peers imprints on us and, over time, contributes to, if not shapes, our lives. Successes at work and the quality of our interpersonal relationships and self-image can be linked back to whether or not we were accepted or rejected by our peers as children.

Reading this book, I couldn’t help revisiting elementary school memories of being included at one minute, excluded the next by the popular kid on the playground. It was all so confusing — the being in and the being out. Then, in middle and high school, it got only more confusing as the opportunities to try on popularity presented themselves.

Despite depictions in books and films about popular kids who wreak havoc on the lives of others and often on their own lives as well, Prinstein points out that popular individuals can make a positive impact on others when they bring energy and creativity to the things they endorse. There is a difference between seeking popularity for the status it confers and being popular on the basis of one’s warmth, interest in others, and likability. 

Likability, Prinstein says, hinges on the positive way that we make others feel. Likability can’t be asserted and it can’t be bought. It can only be garnered through a geniune connection with other people. While there will always be those who seek popularity for the way it makes them feel, there will also be those who don’t seek it, and yet who are popular for the way they make others feel.

I really liked Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World. And in liking it, I hope to help to make it popular.

Rambling Roses & Thoughts

Like my students and fellow educators, I have been on summer vacation this past week. I didn’t do much in terms of travel or learning. My goal was simply to listen and look more, and to try to speak less. I was doing so well with the goal that when I went to the post office to buy stamps, I had trouble asking for what I needed. The man behind the desk looked at me with a puzzled expression as I spoke too quickly and too quietly. I could see that I wasn’t being clear. But I couldn’t do better. My mouth was dry.

In addition to bungling a visit to a government office, I visited my parents at their summer house. My grandparents built the house in the 1970s; my parents renovated it in the 2000’s. But it’s the same house, the same place, no doubt about it. I know because when I fill a glass with water from the kitchen sink and look out the big picture window at the garden, I see the same scene I have seen every summer of my life. Scrubby pine trees waving in the wind. Butterflies at the bushes. Light on the day lilies. When I look down the driveway, I see the same rose bushes spilling over the gravel. I see my grandmother in the garden, where she liked to be in summer time. I see my grandfather, too. He’s reading the newspaper, like he always did. I hear his voice.

I see my sister Lisa, gone since 2009, coming up the driveway from an afternoon at the beach. I’m filled with happiness.

She’s there.

I’m here.

Milestones By The Letter

Yesterday, my younger daughter reached a milestone in her life: she went to sleep away camp.

Although many moments in my childhood have faded at the edges, the unhappy memory of being dropped off at an unfamiliar place far from home remains crystal clear in my mind. To this day, my lifelong friend Lindsey, whom I met at camp 31 years ago, laughs with love and sympathy when she remembers me at 12. I was so homesick, and so terrible at hiding it.

But my daughter seemed ready for action in the days leading up to the big drop off. One of the things she was most looking forward to, she said, was getting mail. “I bet I will get the most mail of anyone,” she said with confidence, knowing that she comes from a family of writers.

At 9, she does not yet have a cell phone, but since everyone else for the most part does, she’s never really received many letters. She’s also never written more than one or two in a month, usually to her grandparents. More and more, she’s asking to use my phone to text people. Someone. Anyone. Soon, we will give in and she’ll get her own device. Soon, she will not have to wait more than one or two seconds to connect with a friend or loved one, whenever she wants to.

I am ambivalent about that upcoming milestone in her life. It’s part of the reason I appreciated Boston Globe writer Jaci Conroy’s recent article about the many benefits that flow to letter writers, and especially children. In addition to giving kids a chance to practice and hone their writing skills, Conroy points out, waiting for mail to arrive is a great lesson in delayed gratification.

Before my daughter went to camp, I promised to write to her every day. I plan to do so — I’ve got plenty of pretty cards to send, if not a lot of news. But when I dropped her off, I told her this: in the beginning, you will probably write a lot of letters. After a while, you might start to forget, and that’s ok. I’ll know it means you are having a lot of fun. For me, that will be better than getting a letter. 

I mostly meant what I said, about being happy not to hear from her. It’s an expected marker on the parenting road I’m on, and I want to meet my milestones as bravely and enthusiastically as my daughter is meeting hers.