Monday, June 28, 2010

Crabs in a Bucket: Why Am I Still So Shocked by the Incivility of the Right?

Let's get something straight: I am not a political pundit. I have no investment in recruiting impressionable minds to join my particular ideological team.

No, I am just a regular person who is not afraid to speak her mind, especially when people ask me what I think and how I came to think it. 

I believe what I believe because I feel--I deeply know--that it is right. By "right," I mean moral. That's where I'm coming from, politically. But isn't that, usually, what everyone claims?

Morality, to my mind, equals caring. It goes hand in hand with civility, and generosity, and all things that are Good and Kind.

I vote the way I do because I hope to make the world a better place. I want the earth to be saved; I want people to be healthy; I want people to be better educated, safer, happier. I want the wars to end.

Lately, however, I feel as though some people are like crabs in a bucket; they are desperately trying to pull back down the ones that have almost climbed out of the death trap and are getting away.

"If I can't have or didn't have that (freedom or benefit), then neither should you!" the crabs in the bucket might as well be saying.

I just do not undestand the mentality that declares with outrage, "I'm not going to pay for you!" 

I do understand that everyone works hard for what they have, that we all deserve not to be held back by government or have too much taken away in terms of our personal income. At the same time, as a regular person with a regular family income, I have no problem whatsoever sharing with other people. 

It stuns me that people who are rolling in money find all the tax breaks and loopholes and utterly refuse to let any dollar bills slip from between their greedy little fingers. 

I would give my last $20 (and, in fact, I did at one point) to someone who needed it more.

When I first started teaching, I had so little money in my paycheck, it was insane. One Sunday afternoon, I wanted to take my kids out for gelato in Philadelphia, and I was driving into the city, literally counting change and trying to figure out where I could park for free.

A man whose car had broken down (filled with family members inside) flagged me down, and begged me for $20. He had scraped together $80, but he needed that last bit in order to pay for a tow to get off the side of the busy highway. 

I felt really bad for him and I gave him the money. I couldn't imagine not doing so.

After I handed it over and once I had driven away, I was, however, mad at myself. Now, I was out that money, and I needed money, too, and why was I such a bleeding heart? I felt sort of like crying, actually. 

And then I looked inside my glove box and miraculously, there was another $20. I had shared, and it was going to be okay for everyone involved.

That's how society--civilized society--works. We all contribute a portion of our income, through taxes, to programs that improve the lives of everyone else.

No one really likes parting with money, and I am no exception, but we do it willingly, anyway, because of the Greater Good, and because we ourselves are helped when we help other people.

We aren't crabs in a bucket. And also, of course, no man is an island. We need each other; we need to think of each other.

We also need to stop yelling obnoxious slurs at our elected political leaders or shout from the peanut gallery of Congress that they are "liars" (what that even means in our current president's case, I have no idea. And save it, wingies, I don't want to hear it, either. I lived through the long and hard Bush years and I hated every minute just as much as you seem to be hating things now).

I already knew that one side of the political spectrum was a bit, shall we say, crankier than the other. Still, the amount of bizarro messages I've received lately, the hateful things that have been written about me by people who only caught a whiff of the fact that I am a proud Democrat who (heaven forbid!) held a teaching post--has shocked me deeply.

I can't even count how many frighteningly weird, right-wing blogs there seem to be out there, and how many readers of those blogs seem to gleefully engage in vicious, hateful commentary about people they do not know.

I am also really stunned by the number of "conservatives" who truly appear to loathe teachers. Why the distrust of educators? When I was growing up, I and everyone I know was at some point or another "humiliated"--and quite purposely, too--by our teachers. It helped us mature, actually. (If you don't like the "nanny state" idea, then why are parents interfering so much in educational matters?)

Things are much different now. I always fell all over myself to be sweet and accomodating as a teacher. I was probably one of the nicest teachers around. And still, I find myself on the receiving end of all sorts of undeserved vitriol, as a former teacher.

Do Democrats do the same thing and act the same way? I think not. In all my online travels, I have only seen a handful of "liberal" blogs, and all of them have been remarkably civilized, actually. If anything, they are usually just mildly satirical. Nothing I've seen was ever hateful; no liberal publications I've read have ever threatened violence or been filled with ominous images of guns. Blogs from the other side? That's a much different story.

I guess that ideological differences really do run far deeper than red or blue, pro-small government or pro-social programs. They seem to also indicate incivility (and much worse), in the case of one, and generosity, manners, and compassion for humanity in the case of the other.

What happened to civility in American civilization? What happened to caring about other people? That's what I teach my own kids: if we want a strong society that can accomplish great things, we need, first and foremost, to be kind to one another.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Pennsylvania Tornado That Definitely Was

Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting on a beach chair, baking, letting my kids take a final refreshing dip in the pool before we had to leave.

Just as my kids were diving in, a distant gurgle of thunder was heard. The lifeguards' air horns went off. The pool was cleared.

I looked up at the sky and noticed that it was very suddenly dark.

Already mostly packed up because of my hectic schedule, I put the kids in the car, and as I hopped in, I saw to my left a huge bolt of lightning. It almost looked as though it would hit the cross on a nearby church spire.

We zipped out of the parking lot on our way back home, and then the wind picked up in a crazy way. I could see it forming circles on the road in front of me, whipping leaves into vortices.

My Land Cruiser was weaving, almost pulled off the road by the wind.

Then the machine-gun fire of massive hailstones started.

"Hail!" I shouted to my kids. "Look at that. Ice!"

"Hail?" said my eldest daughter, a jokester. "I thought it was just very aggressive leaves."

The kids cracked themselves up over that for a while, but then the rain started--torrential rain that formed fast-moving rivers in the street.  I had to pull over and put my hazards on. I hoped we would not be hit, but no one else was daring to drive, either.

We finally made it home, after the hail stoppped, to discover loss of power. Trees were down; nearby roofs had been torn off.  Whatever inconvenience I was experiencing could have been worse.

Still, the heat and humidity were palpable in the house. The night was horrible, long and sweaty. My big dogs sighed and panted and followed me around all night. All of us barely slept.

I lost all the food in my refrigerator. I thought about packing up and heading towards New York City, where maybe I could guilt my parents into turning on the A/C (which they hate to do).

I thought to myself: old people die in their hot, hermetically-sealed houses on days and nights like this. Scandinavians such as myself are probably prone to homebound heatstroke, too.

I was mostly upset about the groceries that were rotting in my refrigerator (and, possibly, in the freezer, too). To think of all that money's better not to think about it. Making breakfast was hard. At least we had running water. I served bread and water, like in prison. It was my only option.

No coffeemaker. No stores selling coffee. Everything around me was closed.

What's worse is that I couldn't get any news--I couldn't find out when this hell would stop, where it hadn't hit, or who, precisely, had been worst affected.

I berated myself for being such a pansy. What's a little loss of electricity? It's not that big of a deal--except that it's summer. And hot. And we weren't prepared in any way for this. Still, though, after nearly 24 hours, I got used to it. We packed to flee, but I was adjusting.

It might have been even peaceful were it not for the beastly rumbling of all my neighbors' generators (horrid noisemakers, those), or the guy down the street who ran his leafblower for six straight hours (he constantly uses that leafblower, several times a day, for long stretches)...until I regretfully had to call the cops on him for noise violations. I simply could not take it anymore.

Hey, I'm a writer. I write at home. I can't think with the cacophony of leafblowers all around me. I hate leaf blowers, and honestly, I am just about to start a crusade to try to make them illegal.

Anyway--the power came back on. I noticed the lights on in the kitchen as I headed outside, prepared to hang up my wet laundry on the deck, which is something I should do anyway, instead of using the dryer.

Maybe this experience, as much as I did not enjoy it, was somehow good for me. It reminded me, first of all, of what I take for granted. It reminded me to be better prepared. It reminded me to be flexible, which is a lesson I constantly seem to need. It also reminded me to try to be a little more easygoing and a lot more green.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Summer Reading Lists: Get Psyched!

Ah, summer. Three long months to conveniently forget what was just learned in the previous nine months of school, lounge in the sun, waste loads of time, and just relax and go kind of brain dead.

But wait: there's the summer reading list! Back in my days, in the 1980s, I had huge reading lists to tackle before school recommenced. I'm talking multiple-page lists. Lists of at least 30 books, and I am not lying.

I went to a really good school (thank you Mom and Dad. I didn't particularly appreciate it at the time, but in retrospect, I realize it was far better than most of what I see today, and doubtless, the school was good for me). So yes, I read the 30 recommended/required books over the course of the summer. Reading Ethan Frome lying down in the back of our Volkswagen, driving home from Nova Scotia, straining to keep reading despire the fading light...there's a memory from when I was 12. Honest. On that same two-week vacation, I probably read six or seven books.

I didn't just read the 30 books I was told to read, however. I read more than that. I also always participated in a summer reading contest that my library had. There were about a dozen of us diehard readers, who week by week moved our nametags up in the stacks, until (before the high school reading lists took over) we hit the coveted 100 Book mark. Reading was cool, and again, I'm not lying.

I told my kids about this the other day while we were visiting the library. They were stunned. My kids usually have about five books on their summer reading lists.

I typically assigned about five books, as well, for my high school students to read in preparation for English. That is, I did until I was forced (commanded) to cut it way down. To one book. I protested vehemently. One book for one class is just not going to cut it, in my opinion, and in some other teachers' opinions. We all got the list back up to three, but that was the best we could do.

The list had been effectively dumbed-down, and I can't really fathom the reason why.

Summer reading nowadays apparently feels like teacher-inflicted torture to kids. I would think parents would be pleased to have their kids reading as much as possible over the summers, but I guess it's hard for parents to play task-master at this time of year.

Of course, a student's summer reading should--ideally--not become homework for parents, too, though I do recommend reading what your kids read, so you can talk about it, so you can show you aren't just talking the talk ("Read!") but walking the walk...willingly.

In my tutoring work, which I am doing right now, I help kids with their assigned reading, and already I am seeing the pained expressions that accompany the reading of summer books. Kids may have one book to read for English, one for Social Studies, and then, perhaps, one other school-wide book (e.g., everyone in the school reads it so they can have assemblies about it).

I tell my tutees to not drag out their reading, lest they forget what they just read. I tell them to be active readers, to take tons of notes, to jot down questions, to copy profound quotes. I tell them to stick to a schedule. Read every day, for at least half an hour, preferably an hour. Finish a novel every two weeks (in a perfect world, I would say: finish a novel every three or four days).

Get the summer reading done in a month's time, tops. Fill a notebook with thoughts and ideas and questions. Bring the notebook in to school and impress the teacher right away. Think not in terms of plot (what happened), which any fool can fake by reading the SparkNotes, but rather in terms of language, tone, and theme. Think about how language was used in the books you read, how that language made you feel and what it made you consider, or re-consider.

That's what's important. That's why we read.

Now, having said that, it is not enough, in my opinion, to just do the summer reading. No, the summer reading desperately needs supplementation.

My private students tell me they want to become stronger spellers and writers. That all comes back to reading. The more you read, the more you will absorb--painlessly, naturally--how language was meant to be used and written. Good spellers are good readers. They have seen the words so many times they just know how to spell without even having to struggle or think about it.

But back to the supplemental reading--a news magazine a week should be read by all students, all people. I like NEWSWEEK. The layout is easy to deal with; the language is sophisticated; the content is important. I want all of my students to read at least one magazine a week in addition to their other reading.

With ten weeks or so left of this summer, there's no reason why a student/kid (I mean high schoolers, mostly) can't enjoy at least five or six novels. I personally could read up to five novels a week, but that's just me. I do read faster than most other people, and I love to read. Punishment for me is NOT having a book to read.

The more kids read, the more they will love to read. Encourage wider and more consistent reading. Spoil your kids by bringing home the hot new titles from the library. Give them a bookstore gift card. Take them to the library once or twice a week (that's what I do).

The summer is for fun--and for me, fun is reading. Even if summer just means relaxing to you, why not relax with a book? The beach was made for reading. Porches with lazily swirling ceiling fans are also perfect places to read.

This summer, create your own personal or family book club. Who can read the most? Who can get the most out of what they read? Who can share the most exciting books with everyone else?

Happy Reading--and please, feel free to share lists of books you've read this summer to help give others ideas about what to read. I will do the same.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Point of All the Convo

I had a long phone conversation today (and I am not a big phone person; I'd much rather e-mail) with a woman who found out about me because of, uh, the recent article in the Ink.

I stood in the lobby of the movie theatre, missing the movie (which I don't care about), the cloying smell of steamy popcorn and grease in the air. I pulled my jacket ever tighter against the gusts of cold wind coming from the hard-cranking air conditioner, but I was absolutely comfortable.

I ended up talking much longer and more intensely than I expected because the call was important.

The woman on the other end of the phone was wonderful, and we had much in common, and I had great concern for her story, which she so graciously shared with me.

I'm not going to say what we talked about (it was business), but what was most striking to me was her stated belief: "I found you for a reason."

There is a reason behind all of this. People keep telling me that. I keep forgetting.

Another recently-made friend told me yesterday (or was it earlier today? The days are blending together) that,"The test comes before you understand the lesson." I'm paraphrasing; it was something like that.

As a teacher, I'd hope that would not be the case in any class. But life is a different story.

I just checked my Twitter messages, and another virtual stranger just told me, "You have so many friends you don't even know yet."

That's heartening. Is it true? Perhaps. People from all over the world are writing to me and cheering me on. I thank them all.

I have received so many very kind e-mails and comments sent to me via my blog.

So, too, the mean ones keep coming in; I think it's a calculated attack. The comments don't even make sense. It's like people were told to bug me with certain lines.

For example, someone just tried to criticize me, in a very snarky way, for calling Bush "Bushie" in my model speech. Um, I didn't even do that. How about you actually read it?

Plus--even though I have zero love for George W. Bush, that's what the man and his wife Laura call themselves. They like that nickname; it's no dig. It just means I know that because I'm well read.

(And "Poppy" is what he calls his dad. It's a family name, and well-known fact. It's not a put-down. I think Poppy is a far better politician/person than his son.)

Whatever... as a webmistress recently explained, "The ultracons like to dominate the comments." The more noise they make, the more important they can pretend to be.

It doesn't change the fact that only 25% or so of the population thinks they know what they're talking about.

Even Catholics are bitterly divided, with one segment decrying the intolerance of the other.

Which way will the Catholic church go? Time will tell. Perhaps it will split. (I am not advocating that; I'm just wondering out loud.)

I have no interest, as I've told people, in debating the finer points of conservative vs. liberal. If you ask me, that's a total waste of time. We think the way we are first told to, then--as I hope--we think for ourselves. However that works out, it's probably the way it should be.

We will never be of the same minds. Our society is bitterly partisan, utterly divided. I wish it were not so, but that is not to say that I wish all people believed the same thing.

Think for yourself, as I always tell people. But don't tell me how to think. I've already made up my mind.

If you don't like it, don't listen. You will not change me. You will not silence me.

My opinions are as valid as yours (and vice versa). If it makes you crazy, don't let it. I won't let you affect me, either.

Rather, I'll just enjoy the kind, supportive words I've received. They keep coming in. There are many of us of similar minds, and that's great. It's good to know.

As for those of you who believe the opposite--it's not like I don't know you're there. Rest assured, you have your own forums. Enjoy those. Use them.  Otherwise, though--please take it outside. I have a book to finish and a new one to start.

The notoriety you're giving me works well for me, even if it can be somewhat annoying to deal with. So I guess I can thank you, too, nasty commenters. You've made me famous, at least for a while.

Is that what you wanted?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Moving From Academia to Activism

I read an interesting blog post recently that contained some gems of wisdom I'd like to share:

"Teachers need to show what they stand for, and more and more we need to stand for something beyond doctrinal is activists, not obedient employees, who make a difference, who make the world a better place." 

--Denis G. Rancourt, "Academic Squatting: A Democratic Method of Curriculum Development." (April 13, 2007, from his blog,

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about my own call to activism. It began in high school, with concern for the environment, and continued in college because of my work with prominent Democratic politicians. My activist streak deepened as a result of being a news reporter, as I investigated and reported on many horrifying stories about groundwater contamination and the health problems that seemed to be caused by living near nuclear reactors.

Currently, I am very concerned with the need to reform American education by moving away from high-stakes testing to more equitable, fluid and creative ways of teaching and gauging learning.

I want to see more focus on the arts in schools (I am considering launching a local afterschool arts program for students), and I know there's a real need for teachers' intellectual freedom to be both protected and encouraged.

If we want our students to develop the brightest possible minds, then we need them to be taught by brilliant, creative, out-of-the-box thinkers and doers.

I keep reading how the best corporations are encouraging creativity with, for example, free days for brainstorming and personal projects and new ways of working with non-standard hours, more amenities on campus. Why shouldn't schools do the same?

I love reading about classrooms where a teacher managed to get new furniture such as movable tables with swinging foot bars and stools. Why were these needed? Because students learn better when they can move, when they aren't trapped, when they can collaborate and discuss things more easily. Such a simple idea, but most schools wouldn't allow a teacher to do what s/he knows is best, and that's very sad.

We are confined by rules, but we need to show our students, I think, what can be done despite the rules, and what amazing changes can happen when people take action to make their world a better place.

Teachers teach because they care about youth, and what better way to show that you care than to be active in the community, to engage in intellectual discussions, to encourage knowledge of the big issues?

Teachers need to move from academia to activism. I believe that teachers should write about the problems facing their students and the nation, the world , and get involved to change things and act on what they know is right.

That's what I am trying to do now. This summer, I am taking my brainchild, The Full Potential Seminars for Students, to several states in an effort to jumpstart young minds that may have been stalled due to the distractions of popular culture or the boredom caused by stodgy school curricula.

I became inspired to act on the problem of unrealized student potential when I considered how students can become engaged in their own learning, and why--perhaps--they haven't been.  The first step, I think, is to get students interested in something, anything.  How can teachers find out what a student's interest is? Try wide exposure to a variety of topics through reading, viewing of films and art, and captivating, active discussion of the issues.

I am lucky that many things have always interested me, but all a "bored" student really needs is one overriding academic passion with which s/he can begin.  From there, the student can pick up speed quickly, reading more, thinking more, making amazing connections. At that point, the student easily develops the potential to change him or herself and, later, to change the world.

Students need to find that one interest and then fully explore it through reading and studying (not a chore at all when you love what you're learning!), experimenting and writing about what was found.

We all have a calling and a purpose. We all have untapped potential. My current activism involves helping students discover what they most want to do, which--oftentimes--is part of what they were meant to do.

It's never too early and it's never too late to work on realizing your Full Potential. What do you most want to learn about? What do you most want to do? Look into a new idea, work at it, and then get out there and show the world what you can do.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Elephants Are Tromping Through My Thoughts

I was just reading about the plight of elephants in the most recent (June 2010) issue of Conde Nast Traveler.

I read some absolutely shocking statistics about the rate at which elephants are being poached (33,000 elephants a year--which makes extinction by 2015 a distinct possibility).

I read that many tree species in Africa--which is a huge swath of the planet, and one of the most important areas for carbon-guzzling vegetation-- need to have their seeds digested (and excreted) by elephants before they can grow.

Besides the fact that elephants are an important, majestic species, and vital to our Earth's ecosystems, I wonder how we can stand idly by and just let these creatures get killed off for their tusks? (Click on link to read the article yourself.)

Before I read about why we have to save the elephants, however, I was simply thinking about elephants as symbols of good fortune.

I have my own good luck elephant sitting near my laptop. It trumpets if its back is petted. I find it highly amusing; it even blows kisses and will grab a finger with its trunk.

I felt compelled to buy this toy for myself (well, I originally intended it for a random birthday child, but then I loved it so much, I couldn't part with it) because it was about 70% off at Target, and because a portion of its proceeds are supposed to go to Africa. (The toy, which you can buy for yourself, is a Fur Real Friends Zambi the Baby Elephant--see photo above.)

Anyway--I was working on some personal art, and while looking around for snippets of inspiration, I kept finding amazing photographs of elephants. I realized that I had to post something about these animals.

I fear that it's not enough, nor is it good enough, but if it gets elephants on other people's minds, too, then that's the point.

As most of us probably are, I am especially drawn to baby elephants. Let's be honest: is there a more heart-rending sight than that of an elephant matriarch with a calf?

Elephants remind us of ourselves, despite their incredibly inhuman features.

We can see, or at least sense, the emotion in elephants.

All animals surely experience emotions; I believe they are all capable of far more thought (and more complex feelings and reasoning) than we can ever truly understand. Don't try to argue with me that animals are soul-less and do not feel. I have no doubt that is wrong. Even insects must feel.

To see this elephant below, we see that smiles are not just for people. Happiness is apparent and easily readable despite the boundaries of our physical bodies, the limitations of our individual languages.

What animals inspire you? What animals can you help? Consider those things, and then, please, act on them. 

If we cannot save the elephants, then I fear we cannot save ourselves.

To read more on the problems facing elephants, see the link below.


Also, read Elephant Journal (an interesting blog based in Boulder, CO) for essays on yoga, Buddhism, eco-consciousness, and more.