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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.

Tangible Evidence

Per Marie Kondo’s advice, in the last two weeks I have made it my mission to pick up and hold each and every thing in my house that I have in order to determine whether or not it sparks joy. I am doing much the same thing in my office at school.

I have thrown out thousands of sheets of paper, gifted hundreds of books and clothing items, and placed myriad things into binders, envelopes, boxes, drawers, suitcases, and bags.

Naturally, some revelations have occurred to me as I have undertaken this challenge. Because no matter where it happens, school is always in session… I am learning while I am packing.

  1. I hold on to things. Old photo id cards, letters, books, scarves, hats. Papers I wrote in high school. Papers I wrote in college. Essays I wrote that never got published. Essays that did. Pins. Pens. Postcards. The sheer volume and relative pointlessness of the things I have held on to is stunning, embarrassing, and probably metaphorical.
  2. I have changed a lot since 2002, when I moved to Charlotte from New York. Pictures reveal a shifting face and body as I have raised two children and ushered hundreds of students through high school. My feet have grown a half a size. My hairline has receded what feels like half an inch.
  3. I have not changed much at all – not since 2002, maybe not since 1992. Based on the journals and other miscellany I have been sifting, the person I was when I graduated from high school is very much the person I am today. I am one who loves to read, write, think, talk, remember, exercise, travel, and eat. In that way I am completely ordinary.
  4. If there is one thing that always sparks joy in me, it is the moment when I see or create a connection. I hold on to things the way I do because those things are the tangible evidence of what can’t be held in my hands: ideas, hours, voices, love. The things that matter most.

Sift, Sort, Spark, Joy

I am in the process of packing my family’s belongings as we prepare to move.

There is nothing particularly fun about sorting through fifteen years of accumulated objects and deciding what to give away. But according to Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo, what I am doing is more magical than it feels.

Decluttering and organizing my house, she says, will transform my life. I don’t know if I believe her. But I’m intrigued. Kondo recommends a simple test to determine what we keep and what we discard — not just when we are moving, but all the time. Gather all of one kind of thing that you own (example, shirts). Pick each one up and hold it in your hands. Ask the question, does this shirt spark joy? If the answer is no, to the consignment store it goes.

Hers is a useful philosophy for living. Keep what makes you happy. Discard what doesn’t.

Although I don’t think this is easy to do at all, I’ve already begun to annoy my children by repeatedly asking them to consider whether the clutter in their rooms sparks joy in their hearts.

“Does that raggedy notebook with most of the pages scribbled on really spark joy?” (“Mom!” )

Staring down a pile of t-shirts this past weekend, I wondered, what would happen if we applied this same spark joy test to school? 

A trickier business, no doubt. School is stitched from many threads, few of which can be teased out, not to mention thrown out. However, in schools across the country — public, private, charter, parochial, home — questions about what students need and ideas about how to best serve those needs seem to be piling up. It sometimes feels hard to find the simple spark of joy amid the heaps of things to think about, things to try, things to do.

So while I’m not convinced that throwing away old socks will make me happier, I agree with Kondo that thinking about the things we hang on to and why is important in both school and life.

It’s not easy. But it is vital to keep the flame going.

Twice Told Stories

My nine year old daughter came home from school a few days ago and told me that she is writing an adaption. It took me a minute, but based on her description — “a story I already know, but different” — I realized she was talking about an adaptation. I was excited to hear her version of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. One of my favorite things in the world is a well-worn story in new clothes.

The new Beauty and the Beast is a great example of the way a retold story can gain resonance for one who already knows the story well. Whereas the animated film from the 1990’s is fun and heartwarming, the 2017 live-action movie gives viewers more to think about.

In this version, a real man is made into a beast as a result of his cold-heartedness, and a real woman restores his humanity through love. But it is the character of Gaston that really got my attention this go-around. Because he, too, is a real person and not a cartoon, his words and actions take on new dimensions in this latest iteration of the classic fairy tale. Played by the Welsh actor, Luke Evans, Gaston has the kind of eyes that crinkle at the edges in seeming sympathy and understanding. He wants Belle because she’s beautiful and smart. That, he says, “makes her the best.” He pursues her with a doggedness that mostly annoys and doesn’t intimidate, and for the first many minutes of the movie, I found myself rooting for the suitor I knew to be the real villain of the story.

But when Gaston assumes the mantle of Belle’s savior, won’t take no for an answer, and is determined to kill the competitor who won his girl’s heart, it is surprisingly jarring, not comical. At least, it was to me. Watching the movie with my daughters, ages 14 and 8, I couldn’t help wanting to say something about Gaston, about the way he was behaving toward Belle, her father, and the Beast.  I wanted to ask my girls if they thought Gaston was funny or scary. If they noticed that he was “beastly” despite how handsome he was. If they could discern where interest ends and obsession begins.

But I held my tongue. I didn’t want to break the movie’s spell. Instead I thought about the importance of story telling in its many forms and versions, in the experience of stories together, in and out of the classroom, today and every day.

Get On Board

I know I’m late to this party. People have been talking about Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad for months, and it just won the Pulitzer. Even my husband has read the book, and he rarely reads fiction. But better late than never. Whitehead’s sixth novel is now one of my all-time top ten, right up with there other masterpieces like The Handmaid’s Tale, Station Eleven, and 1984. 

This may be because The Underground Railroad explores so powerfully a misunderstanding I had as a child. It began with a set of playing cards my mother gave me one holiday featuring famous American women — Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Dolly Madison, and my favorite, Harriet Tubman.

Tubman, so plain in feature and dress, was a spy, an abolitionist, a champion of women’s and human rights. She looked different from the other women in the deck, and for reasons I didn’t understand, I loved her immediately. I imagined her running a station of the secret railroad coursing beneath the surface of the earth to carry slaves to freedom. I didn’t stop to think that the railroad wasn’t real.

In his book, Whitehead explores this fantasy of a magical railroad to freedom through the story of a runaway slave, Cora. After escaping her sadistic master in Georgia, Cora discovers a network of subterranean train tracks leading up from slavery and into various cities on the way to the free north. Each time she emerges from an underground station into a different southern state, she experiences a different racial dystopia with completely different laws and perils. But Cora is a quick study who will use whatever means necessary to survive.

She is Harriet Tubman; she is Anne Frank; she is Wonder Woman. She is everyone who ever ran from a bad life in search of a better one. She is one of the lucky few to make it all the way to freedom, all the way home.  And as she makes her way “into northness,” she learns that the railroad doesn’t depend on station masters or trains at all. It is one’s own creation, a figment of one’s imagination, made real by hope and perseverance and luck.

The Underground Railroad reveals the many tough truths and mysteries of American slavery. Run, don’t walk, to catch a ride on this novel.

A Flipped Script

One of the best things about working in an independent school is advisory, that time each week when students and teachers gather in small groups to eat and talk. In my advisory over the past decade, my advisees and I have vigorously debated politics; discussed aspects of social media, Hollywood news and fashion; watched Saturday Night Live skits; shared favorite video games and pet peeves; debriefed assembly speakers; complained, worried, listened, laughed and cried.

More often than not, I am the listener who gives guidance, and I like it that way. But this winter, I found myself in the unexpected position of needing support from the very people I usually advise. When my husband accepted a new job in another city, I had to tell my school community that I, too, would be leaving at the end of the school year. I started with my advisory.

My advisees had a lot of questions about what would happen to them in my absence and what my life would look like. Where would my girls go to school? Would I take time off? What did I really want to do with my new life? How would I manage the cold? Did I plan to come back for their graduations?

They moved quickly from surprise and concern to excitement. Which makes sense, upon reflection. Students know from the time they enter high school that their time there is limited, that they are on their way to somewhere else. It’s only a question of where, not when. And the feelings about moving on, while sometimes bittersweet, are skewed toward the positive. Moving on is the natural and wanted thing.

But for me, the script was flipped. For a few weeks, I needed more advising — and cheering — than they did. As I got used to this script, though, I found I liked it more and more. Never before had I seen my students in exactly this light, or seen them step into this role.

I didn’t anticipate it, but my being out of joint was actually helpful to two of my advisees who were also trying to figure some important things out. One hadn’t yet been accepted to a college of her choice, and the other hadn’t yet received a scholarship she was competing for. My being uncertain about next steps allowed them to be certain for me, and, in time, for themselves as well.

Things have settled out nicely for all of us. The four juniors in my advisory will stay together with another teacher who they love and who will see them through to graduation. The seniors and I will leave our beloved school together. The student competing for the scholarship won it. The other was accepted to several colleges she will be happy to attend. I’ve found a new position in a new school. My girls have, too.

Nowhere is it written that every story will have a happy ending. But in the case of our advisory, it already has.

Lessons By Design

I like expanding the condensed meanings in poetry, especially with the help of my students. But my students don’t always feel the same way. For some, poems  — and poetry lessons —  are like labyrinths with pathways to nowhere. Which is why, after teaching a poetry survey for nearly two months, and listening to various complaints, a colleague and I decided to put a design challenge to our high school seniors: to build a better high school poetry lesson.

The challenge we set our students to solve was actually twofold: learn Design Thinking (not easy, actually) and use it to design a better way to teach poetry (not easy, at all). In groups of 4, students had about a week to design a 10 minute lesson on a 21st century poem that would be better than or different from the traditional lessons on traditional poetry that we gave them in the fall.

I gave myself a challenge as well: to watch and monitor rather than teach or participate during this time. I saw groups that immediately got to work and others that sat in prolonged silence. There was one that, at least at first, bickered back and forth. I really wanted to intervene. I mostly didn’t.

I’m glad I held back because given a little space, they got more and more comfortable with the project. They conducted interviews of others students to learn what their experience learning poetry was like. Then they brainstormed ideas. Then they prototyped, revised, and finally delivered their lessons. Voila, Design Thinking!

Were their poetry lessons better than the gold standard method I and other teachers tend to use (assign poems for annotation, read aloud, listen to others read aloud, break things down by line and stanza, look for figurative language, consider author’s purpose, etc)? I don’t think so. All of their ideas and lessons were sound. But none of their lessons resulted in the class really understanding the poems they taught, and they all recognized that fact.

As many of them wrote in their reflection, the 10 minute time limit was, in the end, the greatest challenge of all. It wasn’t nearly enough time to teach a poem effectively, no matter how innovative they had been in the attempt.

Understanding poetry, like so many other challenges we face in our daily lives in and out of school, takes time. But what my students learned during the Design Thinking challenge transcended all of these particulars. Through working together, listening to one another, delegating tasks, meeting deadlines, and speaking publicly, they came to a better understanding — not of poetry — but of themselves and their teachers. That’s what the project was ultimately about.

Orwell’s Powerful Premonitions

As a fiction reader, I sometimes experience confusion about what is real and what is not real, and this double consciousness can be dizzying — I’m seeing things for the first time, but they don’t feel new to me. I can’t deny that fictional stories have often informed how I experience my real life. When I meet new people or listen in on conversations, read the news or travel to new places, I feel a quickening in my mind as I shuffle through images and impressions of similar people, conversations and places I have read about in fiction.

I was holding back from writing about George Orwell’s postwar novel 1984 because the parallels are so evident and are already being explored by many smarter than I (see the great piece by Adam Gopnik that came out this past week in The New Yorker). But after this week, with the closing of our borders, the proliferation of blatant dishonesty, and the reversal of policies and protections that benefit millions of people, I decided to choose a single passage from the novel to help me illustrate the power of Orwell’s story.

To be sure, Orwell’s book offers a number of resonant passages. Where he explores the internalization of guilt and shame that comes from always being watched and recorded by the Thought Police. Or the systematic way in which the Ministry of Truth disseminates lies by editing, revising, and ultimately erasing history. Or the passage describing the hypnotizing effect of the Two Minutes Hate, when citizens get riled up and furious at a made-up enemy and then slide back into servitude and submission to the nonexistent Big Brother. All feel appropriate.

But I’m going with one concerning Winston’s neighbors, the Parsons. I’m choosing it because of all the things I am confounded by right now, the biggest one is this: when we close our borders, when we villify others, when we reverse laws that were put into place to protect human and civil rights, when we confuse and cajole people into questioning their own ability to discern the truth, I wonder, what are we teaching our children?

The passage goes like this: in the midst of writing his rebellious thoughts in a forbidden journal, Winston is summoned to his neighbor’s apartment to help Mrs. Parsons with her kitchen sink, which is clogged with cabbage leaves and human hair. Her husband is at work but her children are home, and they are both excitable and mean. The nine year old boy sees Winston helping his mother and says, “Up with your hands!” Holding a toy gun, he threatens Winston in a very real way: “You’re a traitor! You’re a thought-criminal! You’re a Eurasian spy! I’ll shoot you, I’ll vaporize you, I’ll send you to the salt mines!”

Mrs. Parsons explains that the children are angry because she didn’t let them witness a public hanging. They are members of the Spies, a state-sponsored youth group, where they have been encouraged to verbalize, and act upon, their every violent and suspicious whim. Winston thinks, “With those children, that wretched woman must lead a life of terror. Another year, two years, and they would be watching her night and day for symptoms of unorthodoxy… It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which the Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak — ‘child hero’ — had overheard some compromising remark and denounced his parents to the Thought Police.” Indeed, these Parsons children turn in an old man for being old and later turn in their own father who, along with Winston, is tortured and reprogrammed to properly love Big Brother.

In 1984, Orwell chillingly depicts what happens when a pernicious education takes hold of society’s children, and we need to pay attention to it even though — precisely because? — it is fiction. And we need to ask ourselves, what are our children learning from us right now, in real life?