I attended Back-to-School Night at my daughter’s high school last night. It used to be my school, too; I taught English there for seven years. But last night I went simply as a mom. After almost two years, I’m ready to accept that it isn’t my place anymore.
Oh, sure. A friendly former colleague let me in the side door. And sure, I ended up chatting with most of the English department, at one point resting in someone’s classroom because my daughter’s daily trek, condensed into less than two hours, was too much for me.
And yes, I got hugs from teachers & students, a few of whom cornered me in the library, still sore about me leaving. I joked. I teased them and asked about their welfare. One kid said, “Same old Mrs. Landau,” and his friends nodded and laughed.
Years ago, someone remarked that my personality is the same in school, at home, at the supermarket… everywhere. My response? Of course!
Everywhere I go, I’m just me.
In any case, it was clear last night that I wasn’t “just” a random mom at that school; I’m still Mrs. Landau. And as of last week, I’m the notorious B-E-T-H.
Because Beth, I mean, I loudly react to certain things in our local newspaper, lately about a man who spouts bullshit and espouses bigotry and who is running for a seat on our local school board. A man who talks about starving the system without talking about learning. A man who says all sorts of inaccurate and misleading things year ’round that he keeps to himself when he’s running for school board.
And apparently I’m saying things other people wish they had the freedom to say. People who fear backlash if he does get on the board (*shudder*).
At the end of the night, I found myself semi-surrounded in the social studies wing answering the question: Wait–you’re the comment writer?
Yes. Yes I am, I admitted. I think people in our district need to be reminded of this man’s school board intentions every time he gets a nonsensical and offensive editorial to print. Because that’s how it works. Now, November, next school year. Whenever and wherever he goes, he’s just him. That’s how it works.
They said, yessss! They said, you go, girl!
I said, I will, every time.Because I can. I don’t work here anymore, and I am not afraid.
I caught a glimpse of him yesterday as I unloaded my grocery cart onto the belt. Five foot two inches and unable to see over the magazine display, I waited for the line to move up to see if it was really him. It was, though I checked his name tag to confirm. It had been at least five years since I’d seen Jack* in my tenth grade English classroom.
Jack was one of my Gens, a member of a General-level class designed for students who need more help than your average high school kid. You know, the dumb class.
That’s neither an accurate description of the class nor its students, but let us be frank. No matter how much teachers and administration do to decrease the stigma of being in a Gen class, no matter how successful the students are in that class, the kids think of it and refer to it as the dumb class.
“What type of class is this?” I’d ask. The dumb class, the stupid class, the loser class, they’d say. Many of them were convinced they were dumb simply on the basis of having been placed in a Gen class.
Never mind that some of them had been College Prep students until they leveled down because they thought it’d be an easy A. Never mind that some of them had long ago accepted that they had learning disabilities they could overcome with the right support. Never mind that some of them were literate in multiple languages but English wasn’t one of them. They were in a Gen class, so they, in turn, were dumb.
Most of my fellow General-level teachers fought this inaccuracy constantly. It made me angry, and I let my students see that. I was angry for them. I wanted them to get angry, too. Angry enough to push back.
I was a semi-nightmare in high school. Toward the end of my junior year I found myself moved to a study hall where the teacher basically barred the door with a chair and slept while the kids played Five Finger Fillet, that rapid fire stab-the-desk-between-your-fingers-without-stabbing-your-fingers game.
I’ve joked to those who didn’t know me then that I was voted “Most Likely to be Found Floating Face Down in a River.” If my life was based solely on my high school performance and behavior, that fate was not out of the realm of possibility.
But my life hasn’t been based solely on my high school career. That’s just one part of who I am. Who I was. It took me a while, but eventually I got my act together. Some of the most successful people I know tell similar stories.
Yet even if some of us knew our Gens were more than their current selves, more than their current crises or the ignorant choices some of them made, we feared for them.
It was a precarious faith we held in their potential for greater things.
Yesterday, as the cashier rang up my groceries and my daughter bagged them up, I watched Jack and waited for him to be done with his customer. It had been a long time. I look quite different than I did back then. Not every student whom I remember fondly remembers me similarly.
He looked up. Smiled. “Mrs. Landau! Hey!”
I asked how he was doing, how life was treating him. He’s busy, he told me.
“Working?” I asked.
“And school,” he said, grinning widely. Having earned his associates degree at a local post-secondary school, he’d gone back and was working on a bachelor’s degree.
A bachelor’s degree.
He’s working hard, he told me. Doing well.
I wanted to hug him, to jump up and down and say, “Yes!Yes! You did it!”
I didn’t. I’m sure my daughter is relieved I didn’t, but she could see my joy and smiled. I finished paying for my groceries like a normal person, but in the end I couldn’t help myself.
“I’m so proud of you, Jack,” I told him, grinning. “I’m so happy for you.”
“Thanks,” he told me, blushing just like he used to as a tenth grader whether he was being reprimanded or praised. “Thanks.”
Generally speaking, it was one of the happiest teacher moments of my life.
*name changed for anonymity.
I am still avoiding 9/11 themed shows, articles, and broadcasts. I don’t need them to remind me of the tragedy of that morning; it’s already indelibly etched into my brain, retrospective or not.
The high school is crawling with teachers these days. We plan and prep, pile and stack. We shove desks in circles. Are they better in rows or in a U? We look for the arrangement that will capture what we feel right now, that “it’s going to be a great year” spirit that dissipates so quickly when bells begin to punctuate our lives.
We’ve had time to decompress, to let the cacophony of the classroom fade into cicada lullabies and crashing waves that remind us that classrooms and projects, grades and research papers are transient concerns when viewed from a proper perspective. And just as we let ourselves relax into the rhythms of the world, a new school year beckons.
Slowly, we ease ourselves back, visit our ghostly classrooms, open blinds, unpack books, and throw out things that seemed crucial in June. Some of us adjust with site visits first, filled mostly with greetings and hugs and how-was-your-summer exchanges. Then it’s back to our classrooms; there’s work to be done.
If I arrange my desks in rows, will that ensure order? If I arrange them in a U will it encourage constructive conversation?
I take down last year’s teaching tenets, developed last September by each class after thinking deeply about their beliefs about learning. “Students learn better when they choose their own groups,” they wrote, but did they? I know only that I held up my end of the deal, and I am leaving room for this year’s lists.
I hang up advice posters for this year’s freshmen, developed in June by each outgoing freshman class. “Mrs. Landau don’t play,” they wrote, and, “Stay out of the breezeway.” They are from experience, from the heart and genuine. Colorful and laminated, the posters pop as I push pins through.
I look at rosters, hopeful pictures of incoming freshmen whose stories I do not know, whose disciplinary records aren’t my concern. They present themselves with forced yearbook smiles, heads turned so slightly. They will show themselves differently on the first day of school. New haircuts, new wardrobes, and fewer smiles, their bodies restless with anticipation, perceived judgment, and the sneaking suspicion that, new building or not, this is looking like more of the same.
If I arrange my desks in rows, will they feel comforted and assured that the order of things has not changed? If I arrange my desks in a U, will they feel ownership and recognize this invitation to participate?
I’m still moving desks, stopping often to survey my classroom, to envision it filled with people I do not know, to see if it will sustain a balance of control and freedom. So far, I’ve settled on the U, content to make myself part of the circle.
Throughout the building, teachers plan and prep, pile and stack as summer hums to a close around us. Though we may not admit it, we are aiming for a perfect first day that will lead us to a perfect year. One we’ll be proud of in June. Like the parallel play of toddlers, we move in tandem, alone but together in our desperate dance of hope.
Keep in mind that the above data reflects only documented cases, and anyone who works with children or teens (or who reads) knows that so many cases are kept hidden or are never proven in court. If we are to believe the data, then the fact that YA Lit is “dark” is not grotesque, at all. That’s straying into anecdotal territory, however, so I should note that a stroll over to the memoir section of the store might have given Freeman a clue about why such topics are popular. How many non-fiction accounts of horror does one need to read to see that many young people deal with “dark” issues?
There’s irony here, too. The world is full of dark issues, and we – the grown ups – are responsible for almost all of it, yet many grown ups want to pretend that they don’t exist. Or, at the very least, avoid talking about them in any detail.
It all reminds me of the ending of another YA novel (back when they weren’t called YA novels), William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. (SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read it, go get a copy and read it right now… it’s 12 action-packed chapters – you can read it in one sitting!) In those 12 chapters, a group of young boys is marooned on a deserted island as they head off to boarding school while war wages all around them. Accidentally bombed and stranded, they find themselves with no adults, no supplies, and plenty of time. Golding’s vision of what would happen in such a situation paints a grim picture of the nature of man.
By the end of those 12 chapters, fear and violence have prevailed over reason and generosity, blood-lust is encouraged if not mandated, kids are dead (both accidentally and intentionally), the island is aflame, and our doomed protagonist, Ralph, is a moment away from being intimately acquainted with a stick sharpened at both ends. In the nick of time, Ralph is saved by the arrival of a Naval officer. The officer surveys the wreckage and the once civilized children, and expresses his disapproval:
“’I should have thought that a pack of British boys—you’re all British, aren’t you?—would have been able to put up a better show than that.'”
This officer, this grown up, this military man, one of the participants in the very war that stranded the boys in the first place, chastens the boys who have turned out just like the adults who have failed to save them from savagery.
Open a newspaper and take a look at what the world looks like. We are the grown ups. We are responsible. It’s neither strange nor new that it makes us uncomfortable to face the issues reflected in the literature that seems most compelling and relevant to our young people.
But YA Lit does bear a closer look from its most severe critics. For an honest look at YA Lit (and as a bit of redemption for the Wall Street Journal), I encourage you to read “It was, like, all dark and stormy” by Katie Roiphe, published in the Wall Street Journal Online on June 6, 2009. Click HERE to read it.
Now, what about you? What’s your view?
If you ever want to be here, now, take a three year old to the park.
Normally, shortly after getting home from work, I rehash my day and immediately begin thinking about what I need to do next to be ready for the following day… and then I wonder why it feels like work never ends. On Mondays, I do make the time for a yoga class with my favorite teacher (her name is Jen Yost and you should buy her book, Bring on the Joy! ), and I am reminded to try to be here, now. I seem to live in the past and the future, so being here, now is difficult. But with breath, movement, and funky sitar-filled music, I do.
It was Wednesday, not a day I’m normally able to truly be here, now. I was tired from a long day at work (freshman research projects, you know), but my friend’s three year old son was waiting for me as soon as I got out of the car. “It’s warm, Aunt Beff,” he called. “Will you take me to the park?” Read More
One of the negative sides of being an English teacher is that I have to force kids to write. Sentences, paragraphs, essays, research papers… even poems, and most kids fight it the whole way. Every now and then, however, I have students who like to write. I always encourage these kids to keep it up, to express themselves, even if their writing shows very little sign of voice, talent, or individuality because I think it’s an important outlet. Besides, who am I to be the sole judge of their talent?
The frustrating ones, though, are the reluctant writers who have that thing. You know that thing. It’s voice, it’s talent, it’s individuality, and it all clicks together, audibly, in the writing they care about. When that happens, I share this with the student. “You are a writer,” I tell them.
I had a teacher in 9th grade, which was in the junior high school back then, I think her name was Miss Andrews (it’s been several decades!), who took me aside one day and told me, seriously, “You are a writer. I can hear it in your writing, even if your handwriting is shameful.” I already knew that I was a writer and had horrible penmanship, but her endorsement make me feel like I’d been selected, knighted even. So when I tell a kid, “You are a writer,” I never do so lightly.
Several years ago I had a student called Dan Whitely. He hated writing. His formal writing was hit or miss, largely because he didn’t really give a crap. Every now and then, though, when he was trying to be a smart ass, and he’s been a champion smart ass at least since his freshman year of high school, I’d catch a glimpse of that thing. He didn’t care. It wasn’t his thing, you see. Science was his thing, and he didn’t see that one didn’t exclude the other.
When it came time to pick a college, he very happily told me that he had chosen a program in which he would not have to take an English class. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he was going to be writing, writing, writing regardless of that, but I did groan and chastise him for running away from writing. “You’ve got voice,” I told him. “You’re a writer.” “No,” he said confidently, “I hate it.”
I think this is why he tagged me on his latest Facebook note – a beautiful poem that made me literally cheer and post, “Ha! Double HA! I love that I was right about you and writing. Beautiful!” I love being right about these things, and I couldn’t be prouder of him.
Therefore, with his permission, I present to you, “The Likes of Angels” by Daniel Stephen Whiteley, who swore up and down that he wasn’t a writer, he was a scientist. As you will see, he is surely both. Author bio follows poem:
I’ve played this game enough times to know that as long as a doctor begins a conversation by looking me in the eye, I’m probably going to be fine. When the doctor starts speaking to me while he or she examines a lab report or scribbles in my chart, I know something potentially bad is coming. The same is true about pediatricians. Eye contact is a good thing.
This is why, when my son’s pediatrician looked me in the eye to tell me that the one tonsil was still hugely swollen, that some lymph nodes were involved, and that he was ordering some blood tests, my alarm bells did not go off.
“It could be a number of things,” he told us. “Nothing to worry about.”
In retrospect, though, I should have noticed the other indicator that a doctor is worried–urgency.
That was on Friday afternoon, and we were told to go immediately to the lab with the quickest turn around time to have blood drawn. We did. Saturday morning the office called to say that the blood tests showed nothing. They said to call the office first thing Monday morning to get set up with an ENT, emphasis on first thing. That’s when the alarm bells started ringing.
My husband’s alarm bells had alerted him to a potential problem as soon as I told him about the lymph nodes, but enlarged lymph nodes can be caused by all manner of things and are not, on their own, cause for alarm. “It’s going to be nothing,” I told him.
After that phone call on Saturday morning, though, I started to wonder. Why the rush? Anyone who’s been on a medical odyssey knows that the hardest part isn’t getting bad news; it’s the snail’s pace with which the medical system works. Need a referral to a specialist? Want a test done right away so it’s clear what to do next? Plan on a flipping a little further through your date book (or phone) to check dates two or three weeks from now. The “test on Friday, results on Saturday, referral Monday morning” thing was disconcerting, so I did what any self-respecting person would do. I went looking online.
Now, I realize this can be a stupid, stupid thing to do (I once convinced myself that the twingy pain I had in my leg was Deep Vein Thrombosis and I was going to end up dead from a blood clot to the lung… it turned out to be just a weird twingy pain), but done right it can be educational and helpful. My checking it out was a little of both.
I’m an excellent online researcher. I don’t stick to WebMD or (heaven forbid) Yahoo forums. I find the right terminology and go see what the professional journals have to say. In case you were wondering, the proper way to say that your kid has one swollen tonsil and some enlarged lymph nodes on that side only is “unilateral tonsillar hypertrophy with lymphadenopathy.” Apparently, it’s not that swollen tonsils are alarming. It’s that only one tonsil and the lymph nodes on that side are enlarged. That’s when they start needing to rule out lymphoma.
But that’s the problem with going online, right? You start with a puffy tonsil and end up with cancer. I turned off my computer, stopped researching such silly long-shots, and tried to remain calm for the rest of the weekend. The key word is tried, but that Sunday I forgot my mother’s birthday for the first time ever (daughter-of-the-year, no?), so apparently trying to be calm is different than being calm.
On Monday morning, I called the pediatrician at about 9:00. The office didn’t open until 8:30, so I figured that was pretty close to first thing. When I called, they put me through to their scheduler who informed me that they’d already made an appointment for that Wednesday with the ENT.
More urgency. How did they even get through so quickly? I tried to keep it together, but the first free moment I got, I hopped back online and did some more research. Now, before you criticize and say I brought this upon myself, let me explain that I went looking specifically for information that would de-emphasize the lymphoma worry. Unfortunately, the consensus seemed to be that the only responsible way to treat unilateral tonsillar hypertrophy with lymphadenopathy was to excise and biopsy the tonsils.
In my head, the visit with the ENT doctor went like this:
The doctor looks at his chart and examines him, nodding his head as he does so.
“Ah,” he says, looking us right in the eye, “This looks like (something I’ve never heard of). We’ll send him for a blood test to confirm, but we’ll start him on an antibiotic in the meantime – fix him all up.”
“That’s great,” I say, leaning forward in my seat, “But don’t you think we should excise and biopsy them to rule out big scary stuff?”
He nods. “We will have to take those tonsils out eventually, but let’s get that test to confirm the (thing I’ve never heard of) and see him back after the course of antibiotics before we worry about that.”
“Is that advisable?” I ask. “The medical literature clearly indicates that excision and biopsy are necessary with this presentation. I’d feel better if we got that ball rolling.”
The scene fades away there, with the doctor being responsible but laid-back and with mama-bear pushing for a more proactive approach. In my experience, medical professionals never share the patients’ urgency, so I was prepared to push.
Here’s how the visit on Wednesday evening really went:
The doctor looked at his chart and examined him.
“Hmmm,” he said, putting down his tongue depressor. “I’d like to put a scope up your nose and down your throat,” he told my son. “You up for that?”
The scope came out, went in and up and down, and the doctor said, “Hmmm.”
The scope scope came up and out and away, and the doctor said, “Hmmm.”
The doctor’s fingers worked busily around his jaw and neck, poking, comparing, first on both sides, and then on just the one side. They rapidly worked down his neck to his collar bone, to the right, to the left. Then they stopped. Moved right again. Poked and squeezed.
“That hurt?” he asked my son.
“No,” my son said.
“Hmm,” the doctor said. He stopped examining him, turned back to his chart, picked up his pen. As he scribbled in his chart he said, “We’re going to need to excise and biopsy those tonsils. Sooner rather than later. My next surgery date is on Monday. We’ll do it in the morning.”
My husband and I looked at each other. It was responsible and followed the exact protocol I’d read about. It also scared us senseless.
What happened to the part where I had to convince the doctor that this was urgent? In no part of my scenario did the doctor, without hesitation, book him for his next surgical day. Nothing happens this quickly around here. I was simultaneously relieved and terrified that I didn’t have to push for this.
It seems that I wanted the doctor to share my urgency until he truly did. But there we were, getting the paperwork set and discussing the reasons we needed to do this.
The weekend passed semi-tortuously. Our son was off to a youth group convention (which he’d been anticipating for three months), and our daughter was busy both Friday and Saturday evenings. Their social lives have eclipsed ours, obviously. This meant that there was no monotonous chauffering to keep my mind off of the impending surgery and biopsy.
Still, I managed to keep busy. Maniacally busy. Scarily busy. Please get me a glass of wine right this very second or I am going to spin out of control busy.
I hadn’t gotten the chance to use my energy pushing the doctor to share my urgency, and it needed to go somewhere. My main target was the pit that my son calls a room. I spent an entire afternoon cleaning, sorting, doing laundry, and saying, “Oh, my god. What the hell IS this?” I’ll spare you the details, but I had three teenage brothers at the same time and I had never seen anything like this. Open, half-filled soda cans in the nightstand drawer? What?
I picked up my son from his trip, and he began getting nervous immediately. The weekend was over, surgery was on the horizon, and the possibility of cancer loomed large in his mind. Luckily, the sight of a floor in his bedroom shocked him out of it for a while. Meanwhile, I just kept moving because any time I stopped, I remembered the doctor’s urgency and the feeling of drowning gripped me.
There is fabulous news at the end of this story, by the way.
It started with my son handling the surgery well (though he’s still recuperating and is as bored as you’d imagine a housebound 14 year old to be). It continued when the tonsillectomy, anticlimactic in its brevity–a mere 15 minutes long–yielded great news: his tonsils were less asymmetrical than they’d appeared. This meant we could take the “unilateral” out of that horrible medical description, and without the “unilateral” part, there wouldn’t have been the terrifying urgency. This finally led, a stunning three days later, with a phone call from the doctor’s office: the pathology report was clean: no cancer.
“Whew,” one of my colleagues said upon that news, “Somebody pushed that through quickly.”
She’s right. I’d always been fearful of the no-eye-contact conversation, but it turns out that it’s even more terrifying to watch doctors worry enough to move with lightening speed (I’ve sighted a few new gray hairs I’m going to blame on this experience). But it was that shared urgency, which I’d desired and then cursed, that had moved us so rapidly toward a glorious happy-ending.
So, here we are, just a couple of weeks into this saga, and instead of still pushing doctors to share my urgency, I’m busy pushing my son, my baby, to eat ice pops to soothe his painful but cancer-free throat. (Can I get an amen?)
In many circles, including the one in which I grew up, a bar or bat mitzvah means a Jewish religious service, led by an adolescent who is ready to assume the role of an adult in the Jewish community, followed by a big party. Literally, however, bar mitzvah means son of the commandments, and bat mitzvah means daughter of the commandments. So technically, my daughter didn’t have her bat mitzvah yesterday, she became one.
She did have a big party after the service, though. And there’s the rub. I suck at party planning–totally suck at it.
One of my duties was to write a speech that my husband and I (okay, I) would present to the congregation and our daughter on the bima (pulpit). That should be no problem for me, right? Wrong. It was tough. I couldn’t figure out how to get started. Should I go the “detailed retrospective of her life” route? Or should I dive right into the “study hard and be a good Jew” routine?
C’mon, I scolded myself, you know how to do this! Start with a decent hook that leads you to the essence of your desired message. My goal was to say something meaningful that neither bored people to tears nor took the spotlight away from my daughter, that wasn’t trite, and that was no more than one double-spaced page.
I stared at a blank screen for hours, but I couldn’t find my point of entry. Eventually, it occurred to me: start with the good stuff: chocolate. Whew! I was off and writing, and it was with great pleasure that I tucked a double-spaced printed draft into the back of my siddur (prayer book) yesterday morning.
My daughter did beautifully. The prayers, the Torah reading and Haftorah, the cues to the congregation, her speech–all lovely. Then it was my turn.
On the rabbi’s cue, I slipped the paper out of my siddur, and my husband and I approached the podium. Friends, family, and miscellaneous congregants watched expectantly as I unfolded the paper. I looked down, ready to read the speech on which I’d worked so hard.
Unfortunately, I found myself staring not at my speech, but at series of poems for a candle lighting ceremony at the reception. I looked up and the audience. Down at the paper. Nope, still not the speech. For a split second I considered just reading the little poems my daughter had penned:
Right. There was no way I was pulling that off. In one fell swoop I had demonstrated that my daughter was not only a daughter of the commandments, she was also the daughter of a doofus.
“This,” I announced, holding the paper up for inspection, “Is not my speech. It’s poems for the candle lighting. Looks like I’m winging it.” And I did.
After the ceremony, some guests asked about it, and when I said the one I’d written was better, they said, “Blog it!” So here it is. It’s not the best speech ever written, and it slightly exceeded the one double-spaced page rule, but it’s honest, heartfelt, and still folded up in my purse.
Maybe I’m a bad mother,
But when the door slams and
You’re on the other side of it,
My heart does not break.
The jarring bang and rush of your explosive exit
Spawns a fear that reaches into my gut,
Grabs a fist full of viscera and twists.
Fetid yellowed claws reach up to pierce tender membranes,
And my breath escapes in a pathetic whine,
But my heart does not break.
Now I have two choices.
I can chase you. Scramble frantically to
Find you and then beg and cajole, give in,
Go back on the punishment that prompted your escape.
Forfeit all future influence.
Or I can trust and wait for you. Bide my time
Until you get cold or bored or find you’ve got
No refuge out there in suburbia.
Trust and wait while you
Stomp through the neighborhood,
Enraged at my lack of generosity,
My unwillingness meet you half way.
Trust and wait for you to
Realize that the loss of your laptop for a week
Isn’t worth a night on the streets so
You should come back to me.
Though the fear clamps down harder
And I struggle for breath,
My heart still guides me,
So I will trust,
And I will wait here in the dark
With my intact heart
Until we are on the same side of the door again.
Tell your friends I
Said you can’t go
Think you’re too young
Don’t care what you want
Consider it dangerous
Have threatened to ground you
Just don’t get it
Will totally freak.
Tell them I’m
Out of touch
Too involved in your life
Tell them whatever it takes to save face, just don’t
Catch a ride with drunk kids
Be swayed by deceitful people
Let anyone hurt you
Make babies too soon
Exploit your body
Surrender your voice
I’ll carry the burden of unpopularity if it
Lets me cling to desperate fallacies:
Of course it is futile.
The world will claim you eventually.
But for now,
While I have the luxury of believing
I can save you,
For now, blame me.
Last night I had the pleasure of attending my high school’s musical. Neither of my children were involved with the show, but I wanted to go see my students, a good number of whom have been working hard and talking non-stop about the show. It was no polished, Disney version of a high school musical, but I actually appreciate that.
In the movies, every single kid is super talented. In real life, the talent is more varied. Some kids have voices of angels while others simply have voices that they generously choose to share with us.
In the movies, shows are produced within an inch of their lives and everything runs smoothly unless some complication serves to move the plot along. In real life, kids miss cues. Streamers from party poppers accidentally get stuck in the lighting and need to be fished down by teachers, the stage crew, and eager members of the orchestra. Mistakes happen. It’s all part of live local theater. Enjoy it.
In the movies, audiences are spellbound. They know when and how enthusiastically to clap and are otherwise quiet, attentive, and respectful. In real life… Well, let’s just say this is not the case.
Years ago, after attending an elementary school variety show, I wrote about basic etiquette for school performances, specifically elementary school variety shows. Based on some of the behavior I witnessed last night, I think it’s time for an updated and simplified version of “3 Basic Rules for Attending School Performances.”
1. When the lights go down, shut up and sit still.
This goes for children, too, even at child-friendly shows. Some shows obviously attract a larger number of young viewers, and it is realistic to expect some noise from the peanut gallery during those performances. It is, however, your job to teach the children in your care how to behave during a performance, so model appropriate etiquette and steer children toward quiet behavior. Pay attention to their cues. When a child stands in the aisle, pulls on your arm, and chants, “I want to go! I want to go! I want to go,” he wants to go. Take him. Quickly.
2. Clap politely for everybody and refrain from screaming for anybody.
It is almost never appropriate to scream out the name of one performer. At the appropriate points, like when a musical number is over, the whole audience should clap for the entire cast without screaming, hooting, or hollering. Obviously, some performers will elicit heartier applause than others. This is to be expected, which is why some numbers get applause and others bring down the house. However, this does not change the fact that calling attention to yourself or deafening those around you are inappropriate. This rule applies even at curtain call when the audience is given an opportunity to express their appreciation to the cast as a whole and to single performers.
3. Refrain from criticizing performers both during the show and immediately after the house lights come up.
First, the cast and crew are not professionals. They’re students who have worked hard for the last couple of months to pull together an entire show while keeping up with homework, household chores, and budding social lives. Sure, some of them sing a little off key. So what? It’s not easy to get up there and sing and dance in front of the whole community, especially if one or two performers shine above the rest. Let’s support everyone’s efforts, not just their results.
Second (and this one is nearly identical to the earlier version of the rules), others can hear you when you criticize the performers. Who knows if you’re sitting next to someone’s dad or grandmother or friend or teacher? Who are you to publicly criticize someone else’s kid? If you have a student involved in the production, keep in mind that your assessment of him or her is biased, just as ours is about our own kids. And if you don’t have a student involved in the production, remind yourself that you just paid less than $10 for an entire evening’s entertainment. An increased level of expertise is a whole lot of cash and a bus ride away. Go for it.
Once again, these rules are nothing more than reminders that respectful behavior and an awareness that none of us is alone in this universe are always in vogue.
And I repeat: we’re all in this together. Act that way.
The persistent supervision of every
Who, what, when, and where in my life
Is not akin to a juggler keeping balls in the air.
The students I govern each day,
They are the matter I endeavor to keep aloft.
They roll, retrievable.
Mine are not always resilient.
If anything, I am a juggler of eggs.
I observe, anticipate, propel and protect,
Try to stay focused,
Fight the unrelenting urge to
Stop. Block out the ceaseless swish and whirl.
Perhaps keep one eye open,
Hold my breath against the sickening crack of
Fragile shell on unyielding ground.
I listen hard, jolt and re-jolt myself out of derelict reverie,
And try to keep those fragile eggs from falling on my watch.
I am not so vain to think that they are raw
And any sloppy toss, any clumsy catch
Will end in catastrophic crunch and ooze.
But when they’re hurtling past my face,
It’s tough to tell which would sustain the impact
Should I let my mind drift,
Miss my mark and lose my grasp,
And which are already cracked from
Some previous lapse of attention
And vulnerable to life’s unapologetic solidity.
The students I govern every day.
Don’t insult us with playful imagery,
A juggler keeping balls in the air.
They roll, retrievable.
Mine are not always resilient.
I am a juggler of eggs.
There is risk here.
– Beth Silverman Landau, 2011
It’s painful to watch you sometimes,
Muzzled by hormones and contrived, impossible images
That teach you to shine by conforming and hiding your light.
Your minds whirl while you wonder what they think
In the halls, your heels click,
Arms wrap around tummies in too tight jeans.
Your eyes dart wildly as you propel yourself within the throng,
Ungainly and uncomfortable,
Seeking attention and approval, and pushing your power
Deep inside a contradictory shell of self-consciousness.
So rigid you cannot escape it.
So fragile that you are crushed by any perceived slight.
My job is to teach you to think and to write,
To know yourself,
To share yourself,
To speak with the authority of someone who deserves to be heard.
But I remember this constrictive tunnel vision,
This cold weight in my belly,
This uneasy electrical charge in my chest,
And sometimes I have to just look away.
– Beth Silverman Landau, 2010
I knew something was up when a group of students’ heads simultaneously swiveled toward me for no apparent reason yesterday.
The grins on their faces made it clear that the reason for their sudden attention had nothing to do with the Great Expectations review they were supposed to be working on. It is the rare student who breaks into a smile over Dickens, and even then it’s a quickly hidden giggle, not a grin.
“So.. uh.. hey, Mrs. Landau,” the biggest grinner said, “What do you do in your free time?”
I wasn’t sure why that question inspired grins. Was it the idea that I existed outside of the classroom? Had there been some supposition about what I did when I wasn’t teaching English? I didn’t ask. When you’re dealing with a group of 9th grade boys, it’s often better not to know.
“I drive my kids around. I do mom-type stuff. I see my friends. I blog.”
“You BLOG??” they exclaimed, “Who does that?”
“Lots of people,” I told them. “There are blogs about anything you can imagine. You should check it out and see what you see.”
“Yeah, but you?”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “I’m a writer. It’s what I love. ”
As I said it, the world slowed down. The room got a little brighter.
“I’m a writer.”
It’s been clear to me and to those who know me well that my drive to write has been reawakened, but it’s not something I broadcast. In fact, I’m a little shy about “coming out” as a writer. It seems pompous, somehow, to say, “I’m a writer.” Bogus, even. Sure, I write, but I’m not really published. It’s mostly me and my Mac, just as it’s been me and a succession of notebooks since I was 12. So I haven’t been able to simply call myself a writer.
For me, the difference between “I write” and “I’m a writer” is one of tense. The former is present tense; it describes current behavior. The latter, though technically a present tense clause, essentially functions in the present progressive tense; it says that this began earlier, it’s still going on, and – darn it – it’s going to keep going on. Saying, “I’m a writer,” feels like a bigger deal because it supposes a future.
English weenie that I am, after applying grammar to the situation, it dawned on me that my ability to call myself a writer, to suppose a future for myself, happened amongst various conversations about Pip, the protagonist of Great Expectations. In the first part of the novel, Pip comes to find that he’s got “great expectations.” His perceived dead-end life as a lowly blacksmith vanishes, and he finds himself facing a wide open future as a gentleman.
Now, my life is not a dead-end and my job as a teacher is not lowly (despite what the press has to say about teachers), but I do feel a little like Pip does when he’s told of his good fortune. Having great expectations for my re-burgeoning passion for writing feels like a door’s been flung wide open. To quote Pip’s brother-in-law, Joe, “Astonishing!”
My referring to myself as a writer meant nothing to my students, of course.
Though my proclamation and subsequent personal connection to our current unit had me feeling giddy, my grinners promptly turned around and went back to pretending to review for the test. The world resumed its normal pace. The change in lighting, which had nothing to do with my personal growth and everything to do with a student hitting a light switch with her head, was quickly remedied to a soundtrack of giggles.
Oh, and it turned out that the boys just wanted to know if I watch Jersey Shore. The grins? I’m still not entirely sure.
In other words, life quickly returned to normal. But normal feels a little more open, a little braver, now that I’ve “come out” as a writer.
“Who does that?” my students wanted to know.
I’m a writer and I do, that’s who.
I love, love, love watching Super Nanny. I’ve only seen it a few times, and I don’t think I could even tell you when it’s on, but when I stumble over that show.. BOOM! I’m hooked. Sunk. Otherwise occupied until the credits roll.
Why? Simple. I love Super Nanny for the same reason people love “My Super Sweet Sixteen,” “Engaged and Underaged,” “Scott Baio is 40 and Single” or “Breaking Bonaduce.”
We love these shows because they make us feel normal. We can watch people be selfish, nasty, superficial, misguided and generally screwed up, and then we can turn off the t.v., think, “Well, THOSE PEOPLE are messed up,” and go back to our own mundane lives feeling all self-righteous and normal.
For instance, one of my favorite things to do is to watch “America’s Next Top Model” while eating Haagen Dazs coffee ice cream directly from the container. Mmmmmm~! I know it’s a bit twisted, but I don’t care. It makes me feel all smug. I can’t explain why.
Maybe it’s because I’m short and these girls are all nearly 6′ tall. Maybe it’s because pictures of uber-skinny women contribute to a society that breeds 10 year olds who think that unless their stomachs are concave, they’re fat. Maybe it’s just because I’m fascinated by fashion and love Haagen Dazs coffee ice cream. Who knows?
I can, however, tell you exactly why I love watching Super Nanny: it makes me feel like a fabulous parent. I’ve mentioned before that parenting is hard. At what age is it appropriate for a kid to go up to the park without a parent? At what age should a kid get a cell phone? How do you NOT turn to the little punk flirting with your 10 year old daughter and say, “What’re YOU starin’ at, Junior?” Seriously, how do you not? I had trouble with that one yesterday. Oops.
What’s not hard are the problems suffered by the parents on Super Nanny. Is it okay to let your 5 year old routinely strangle your 2 year old? Um, no. Next. Should you react to your daughter calling your home a dump by buying her more expensive things to make up for it? Um, no. Next. Should it take 4 hours to get kids to go to bed every night, and should you end up sleeping in their room because it’s the only way to get them to stop screaming and throwing things down the steps? Um, NO.
The kids and parents on Super Nanny are totally out of control. I watch kids kick, bite and curse at their parents. I watch parents refuse to set any limits and then wonder why their kids act like little demons. I shake my head and say, “OMG, these guys are totally out of control!” And then, after the credits roll, I turn off the t.v. and return to my own life feeling much more in control than those other parents.
Life with kids is semi-out-of-control by nature. The second you get the hang of a certain age or stage or habit, the kid grows out of it and you’re into uncharted territories again. I find it’s easy to get caught up in the moment when my kids push my buttons. It’s easy to get mad and lose sight of the fact that kids are supposed to push their parents’ buttons.
And yet, in the midst of this, I’ve managed to raise kids who don’t kick, bite or curse at me. They argue, they fight, and they roll their eyes, sure, but they’re decent human beings. They’re polite and helpful when I’m not looking. They’re funny and smart and they keep me on my toes. Pains-in-the-butt sometimes? You bet. But in general, they’re really cool little people.
I don’t take credit for all of this, though my mother advises me to do so since she knows I’ll take credit for all of the bad stuff. After watching Super Nanny, though, I do allow myself to take some credit for not messing them up too badly yet.
My 12 year old son is headed off to lacrosse camp tomorrow. Sleep-away camp. It’s his first time at sleep-away camp, and although I’m the one who suggested it (indeed, I’m the only sleep-away camp advocate in this house), I’ve been freaking out as we pack him up and get ready to ship him off.
He and I spent almost an hour in Target earlier today making sure he had all the necessary toiletries and other camp goods. Travel sized shampoo – check. Travel toothbrush and accompanying travel-sized toothpaste – check. Sunscreen (a million SPF because we all know he’ll apply it once if he applies it at all) – check. Laundry bag (my son: Why do I need that?) – check. Go Phone with unlimited mobile-to-mobile minutes – almost check.
Last year it was “the summer of the contact lenses.” When he asked for contact lenses the prior September, we let him know that he had to meet certain goals before we’d agree: washing hands after using the bathroom without being reminded, cleaning his room without (much) fuss, and getting the optometrist to give her consent. It took him over a year from the initial serious conversation, but he was out of his glasses and into contact lenses before he hopped on the middle school bus.
This year it is “the summer of the cell phone.” Slowly but surely, my son is growing up. We’ve avoided the cell phone thing for a while now. My 10 year old daughter has been asking for one since 3rd grade, but my son just hasn’t been interested. It makes sense, as my daughter is the one who takes the house phone into her room and blathers on about God knows what until someone else in the house needs to make a call.
My son, on the other hand, has never been on the phone for longer than three minutes, and his longest calls involve leaving insanely detailed voice messages on our cell phones when he arrives home from school ahead of us. “Hi, Dad. It’s your son. Um, Joe? I’m home. You’re not. It’s 3:25. I don’t have a lot of homework, just a couple pages of math. Oh, and I have to read a story. I don’t know what it’s about….” Phone calls with friends usually sound more like, “Hey, wanna play Wii at my house? Cool. See ya.”
Right around December 25th, however, things changed. His friends got cell phones. His friends’ friends got cell phones. It seemed that every person over the age of eight had a cell phone. Though we were resistant the first time he broached the subject, as we began loosening the apron strings in other areas of his life, the idea of getting our almost-teen-aged son a cell phone seemed increasingly plausible. Not too long ago, we sat down with our son and had an updated version of our pre-contact lens conversation.
We let him know that he had to meet certain goals before we’d agree: losing the chip on his shoulder when we ask him to practice drums or lacrosse, taking out the garbage without us having to ask three times, and, the biggie, going several weeks without losing his house or locker keys, iPod, Nintendo DS, or anything else of any importance.
I wish I could say that he’s met all of these goals. It sure would’ve made my pre-camp trip to Target less of an ethical dilemma. As it stands, however, he still has keys or iPod or glasses go missing semi-frequently (though he claims none of these disappearances is his fault).
So, as I stood in front of the Go Phone display in Target, my son’s attention successfully diverted by an aisle full of Wii games and accessories, I had to decide whether he was really ready for a phone or if I just really wanted to be able to get in touch with him while he was away at camp.
I had the Go Phone in my hand. I was standing at the electronics counter, ready to make a purchase, but sales help was nowhere to be found. As I waited, I called my husband.
“Am I crazy?” I asked, “Should I do this? Is he ready? Does he need it?”
“He’ll be fine,” my husband assured me, “Relax.”
So I did. Sort of. After pulling myself out of the electronics section, I gathered my son, bought the rest of his camp gear, and got out of there, managing to avoid making a long-term decision based on pre-camp mom psychosis.
I’m still fighting the psychosis. I want so badly to write little notes and hide them throughout his duffel bag, but after picturing some bonehead reading them aloud to the whole camp I’ve decided against it.
Meanwhile, he’s all packed up and ready to go, and I’m sitting here worried that he’ll be homesick and, thanks to my rational decision, unable to call home at will. It’s a sure bet, however, that the stash of junk food I’ve hidden in his duffel bag in lieu of little notes will go a long way to distract him from homesickness and ensure popularity with his campmates.
I know it makes me feel better. Wish us luck.
On our last full day of school, my 11th grade students asked me if I was going to share with them some words of wisdom. Apparently, in prior years, teachers have taken the last day of school to share life lessons with the kids. I asked them what type of advice they’d gotten last year.”Oh, I dunno,” one kid answered. “Just generic stuff… I forget.” “Yeah,” a handful more agreed.
They said they’d be interested in my words of wisdom if they were more specific and applicable. Of course, they didn’t use the word applicable. It’s June. They stopped thinking several weeks ago. But that was their point.
The only one I could come up with at the time was, “Don’t sucker punch someone who is standing at the top of a flight of stairs. If that person catches herself halfway down and gets back up, she’s getting back up PISSED.”
I wasn’t sure that was too appropriate, though, so I began thinking about what good, specific, applicable advice I could offer my students. I tried to come up with advice that might be new to the kids.
A few of these might sound familiar to some of my old friends, but for what it’s worth, the following list is what I came up with. Some are more serious than others, but all are true.
*Do not antagonize people who are driving like maniacs. Let go of your pride, let them by, and stay far enough away that, when they inevitably crash into a tree or someone else, you can drive around the wreckage. Trust karma.
*Don’t bend wicker.
*Yes, everything needs to be tied down in the truck, no matter how jam-packed it is.
*Wherever you work, no matter what position you’re in, make friends with secretaries, custodial and maintenance staff, and anyone else most people overlook. They may not make the rules, but they run the show.
*Almost everybody likes baked goods.
*Listen up when people talk about themselves. They’re telling you what’s important to them. Remember the names of their kids and pets… and then ask about them occasionally. You can make friends with even the grumpiest people this way.
*If you ever put your hands through a window – freeze. Most damage sustained by people who put their hands through windows is actually sustained when they jerk their hands back through the now jagged glass. So as you hear the glass crack, freeze. Then, assess the situation before you carefully remove your hands.
Impalement injuries are similar… more damage is done getting the object out. That’s why occasionally you’ll see news footage of someone being taken to the hospital with part of a fence sticking out of his abdomen. I would imagine, then, that the above advice applies. If you ever impale yourself with something – freeze.
*There is a correct bandage for everything.
* If you’re going to try a new hairstyle, bring pictures to the salon with you. The words “not too short” are relative. Pictures help.
* If you have two friends: one who’s super nice and one who’s a bit blunt, take the blunt one shopping with you.
*Remember that people can see you when you’re in your car. It may feel private, but singing and dancing like a total goofball in your car is essentially singing and dancing like a goofball in public. Don’t interpret this as “you shouldn’t sing and dance in your car.” Just remember that others can SEE you and behave accordingly.
As a side note, nose-pickers, the above advice applies to you, too. If you wouldn’t jam your finger up your nose on line at Walgreens, don’t do it in the car… we just don’t want to see that.
That’s all I could come up with for now. If you’ve read my previous blogs you know my “leave the cat” mantra and assorted other advice on everything from how to behave at a school performance to how to not annoy your neighbors. I’m thinking of gathering some of the best ones, typing them up, and actually going over them with students during our last 20 minutes together before summer break.
Anyone care to make additions?
My husband and I went to see our daughter in her elementary school’s talent show this evening – and believe me, I’m using the term talent very loosely – and once again I was amazed that people act like such jerks in public. Therefore, to the aforementioned jerks, I present three basic rules for attending school performances:
1. When the lights go down, shut up and sit still.
Also, make your children shut up and sit still or remove them from the theater, even if that means missing the show yourself. When the house lights go down and the stage lights come up, you’re supposed to give your quiet attention to the performers. Extended noisy or restless behavior during a performance is a big “screw you” to the performers and everyone around you. It also screams, “This is about ME!” almost as much your jumping up on stage to join the kids in their joyful, impromptu performance of the Macarena after the curtain call.
2. Clap politely for everybody and refrain from screaming for anybody.
Sitting and talking while other people’s kids are on stage and then pounding the ground and screaming when your kid takes the stage is a big “screw you” to those other kids and their families. It also screams, “I have no class!” almost as much as your third grader ripping off her hoodie and writhing suggestively to music about gangs, prostitutes and God knows what else.
Side note here – my experience has been that the ruder people are to other performers and the louder people scream for their own kids (and this includes air horns and other “hey this is all about me” noise makers), the less their kids actually deserve such grand gestures of appreciation.
3. Refrain from criticizing performers both during the show and immediately after the house lights come up.
First, these children, the ones who look or sound like they don’t really know what they’re doing, are the ones who made up their own acts. Appreciate that. It’s genuine. They’re not professional performers. They’re goofy public school kids who are excited to be on stage at all.
A second grader hacking out Alouette on the piano is genuine and adorable. A fourth grader alternately rocking and then massacring our national anthem is genuine and (mostly) amusing. Sixteen girls in professional costumes and full stage makeup performing a series of moves choreographed by a dance teacher? Well, that’s cute, too.
But if they dance with precision, it’s not because they’re more talented or deserve an audience more than the second and fourth graders. It’s because an adult created the dance, taught them how to do it, and made them practice. In fact, I think the second and fourth graders who get out there on their own and perform without a net have more guts than the kids in safe, choreographed groups. And in a talent show that’s short on talent, moxy is important.
Second, others can hear you when you criticize the performers. Who knows if you’re sitting next to someone’s dad or grandmother or friend? Who are you to publicly criticize someone else’s kid? Turning to your spouse and saying, “That sucked big time. Lisa was so much better,” is a big “screw you” to the friends and families of that performer. It also screams, “I am a self-important jerk!” almost as much as the bedazzled T-shirt you are wearing, the one with your kid’s picture and the words “Star of the (name omitted) Variety Show” emblazoned on the front.
Remember that your kid’s performance tortures the rest of us just as our kids’ performances torture you. I suggest trying to be positive, but if you’ve really got to complain, wait until you’re somewhere private.
All of the above rules boil down to the same thing: be aware and respectful of others. Understand that this show isn’t about you and your kid. It’s about us and our kids.
I understand that these shows can be torturous, I truly do, but they’re fun for the kids and a rite of passage for the parents, so deal with it with a little class, will you?
We’re all in this together. Act that way.
(Original post date: Saturday, April 12, 2008)
Technology has had a profound influence on the way we talk. Pretty much everyone I know has accepted “google” as both a noun and a verb. In fact, there’s actually a term for looking yourself up on google – it’s called an ego search. I admit I’ve googled myself (oh get over it – it’s very natural and normal). I did not, however, actually find anything about myself. An actress shares my name, so most google hits are about her, not me.
Another way technology is affecting language is through the increasing popularity of acronyms, thanks largely to text messaging. It’s not uncommon to hear people actually say TMI, and if a kid leaves my classroom and says I had a total BF, you can be sure he’d been pushing my buttons, big time. BFF is another acronym that people actually use. I’ve yet to hear someone say LOL – largely because it means a sound, so chances are if it’s appropriate to say, you’ve probably already done it.
Meanwhile, we’ve been trying in earnest to incorporate technology into our teaching methods at school. Lately, though, it’s starting to sound like we’re all speaking another language. If you walk into the faculty room you’ll very likely hear a conversation like this:
Hi! I’m so excited – my moodle’s up and running, my kids just finished their web quests, and tomorrow they’re commenting about each other’s podcasts on the forum.
I’d love to see that. Do you know how I can incorporate my wiki into my moodle?
Select wiki from the “add a resource” pull-down menu… wait, that builds a new one. Hmm..
I’ll twitter it. When I had issues integrating sketchcast and my smartboard I twittered it and got a response in, like, minutes. It turned out to be a bandwidth issue.
Oh, so IT has to update the server before you can use them together. Gotcha. You should ITDirect it so there’s a record of that problem. Have your kids’ blogs been better since that video conference?
Not really, but they’re loving blabberize.
Who doesn’t? It’s sure more fun than criterion. Say, did you find the google.docs tutorial on teacher tube?
Yeah – it’s on my del.icio.us. I’ll send you the url.
If it’s on your del.icio.us I should have it on my RSS feed, then. Hey, did you hear about the kid who downloaded Ganja Farmer to all the PCs in the lab?
I heard his teacher caught him with net.op, and they gave him ISS for an acceptable use policy violation.
I love how it took some kid a class period to download unauthorized software and it took IT months to get photo story up and running.
I know. Oh, before I go… any idea why I can’t upload my exam.view files to a moodle quiz? I keep getting a terminal error message.
No, but if you want to cross-reference your moodle glossaries, I’m your girl. You know…
I know, I know… I’ll twitter it
ok – g2g. l8r g8r. ttys.