High school

I’m a Fool for Back to School

Fall is here, hear the yell 
Back to school, ring the bell 
Brand new shoes, walking blues 
Climb the fence, books and pens 
I can tell that we are going to be friends 
Yes I can tell that we are going to be friends

–“We’re Going to be Friends” by: Jack Johnson

Fall is here–almost. It certainly feels like Fall in the Northeast. Today was beautiful–68 degrees, sunny, clear blue sky. And to make it even better, it was a school day. Yes. You read right. School. I love the first week back to school. There is so much promise in the air. A new beginning. A FRESH START. I teach high school. Ninth grade. When I tell people this, they usually groan and tell me they’re sorry.

No need to apologize. I love my job. Sure, there are things I wish I could change, but overall, it is the most rewarding profession in the world. I get to surround myself with bright young minds. I am a part of helping students see their potential. I look into the eyes of the future and see its promise. There is no better reminder of this than Week One of a new school year. I did not plan on writing a post about this. Like every other parent in the land, I thought a Facebook post of the kids at the bus would suffice. But this picture changed my mind:

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I stumbled across it Friday afternoon. I was looking for my iPod on a book shelf, trying to squeeze in a run before the boys came home on the bus,  and there I was–my kindergarten self– smiling back at me. I actually uttered “Hello.” And instantly I was transported to that driveway, the driveway of my childhood friend and neighbor, Cindy. I noted our keen fashion sense, I wished I still had my vinyl “briefcase” (so mini- Mad Men) and realized that global warming must exist today, as we are wearing sweaters and long sleeves on an early September morning.

I love this picture. It holds particular significance because my friend Cindy died our senior year of high school–her future cut tragically short by a drunk driver. But this photo is not about endings, it’s about beginnings. And that is what I love about going back to school. We are all given a fresh start, a clean slate. We are not only permitted, but encouraged to begin anew. In the first week of school, everyone is clean and well dressed, new notebooks crackle, and the smell of freshly sharpened pencils waft through the air. In the first week of school, everyone has an “A”, and all kids are equal. In the first week of school, I am not troubled by the latest rumor or round of “He-said-she-said.” Rather, the halls are filled with “hellos” and “welcome backs” and “how was your summers.” I am not being naive, I am being optimistic. As I look out at each boy or girl, they have equal footing. I’m not bogged down with all of the sadness that will creep into the year–Mary lost her mother last Winter, Dylan’s parents are getting an ugly divorce, Alan’s family is basically homeless. I will swim in a variety of letters that detract from the feeling I have now: IEPs, 504s, ACTs, SATs, PSSAs, ADD, OCD…These all matter, they inform how I teach the individual. But in Week One, we are simply “period 5.” And I look at every student and I see us unified in hope. I want them to know that I am glad they are here, I believe they can learn, and I will do my best–which is exactly what I expect from them.

I don’t like to pre-judge– to hear about my students prior to meeting them– “You’ll love Jane!” “Jake can be a handful…” I want to get to know each person organically. I want us to figure it out, to grow together, and we will. On the flip side, as a parent, I try to not pass judgement as well. It’s hard. People talk. But I live in a great school district and all the teachers are dedicated–as I believe the majority of us are wherever we lay down our red pens. Yet, a question I have heard this week, and I even caught myself asking a girl in the neighborhood, is telling: “Do you like your teacher(s)?” What are we really asking here? What message are we giving to young people by saying this? For I think it does send a message to our kids, however slight or subtle it may be.

I witnessed a similar situation from both of my sons. Our elementary school recently merged with another that was shut down due to low enrollment. The students from Tall Pines are now attending Maple Acres (not the real names). Both of my sons came home from the first day and mentioned how there were so many kids from the other school in their classes. My younger son even complained that “it didn’t even feel like Maple Acres anymore.” He’s starting second grade, for crying out loud. This sounded like something a student overheard from a parent’s conversation and parroted the message to his/her friends, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on. Whether it was something they heard or truly how they were feeling, I was not comfortable with their negativity. “Well, guys,” I said, “Think about the kids from Tall Pines? How do you think they feel? Their school was closed. They’re the ones coming to a strange place where they don’t know their way around. You’re lucky. Think how hard it would be to have to go to a new place and start over. And who knows, one of those new kids may end up becoming your best friend!” That seemed to quiet their contempt. But it served as a reminder to me. We are so judgmental, so quick to assume. It’s too early in the year to be negative–the negativity will creep in soon enough.

When I stared at that picture today, I felt good. In my head, I commented to my former self how “You’d never have thought you would be a teacher someday, did you?” And then I was filled with a sense of pure happiness. I get to start fresh every September, and with each new school year, my hope is restored. And it’s not just me. Every teacher, every student will begin again. I think even parents look to September to restart the clock and try again. True, the circumstances will always be different, sometimes gravely so, but each September there is excitement and promise. This could be the year. This will be the year.

It might be cool if you went back and found a picture from your school days, the younger the better. Take a good look at it. Say hello to your old friend–take stock in where you’ve been and what you’ve accomplished. It’s never too late to begin again, and it’s the perfect time to do so because “Fall is here…”

owen school picassahayden school picassa

Tonight I’ll dream in my bed
While silly thoughts run through my head
Of the bugs and alphabet
And when I wake tomorrow I’ll bet
That you and I will walk together again
Because I can tell that we are going to be friends
I can tell that we are going to be friends   —Jack Johnson

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Lord of the Fleas

LOTF cover

And now for a dramatic reading of Lord of the Flies, that classic psychological study by William Golding, as seen through the eyes of my six-year-old:

Hayden picks up a copy of Lord of the Flies that he finds in my car while we are driving to swim lessons.

Hayden: Oh look, Lord of the Fleas.

Me: It’s Flies.

Hayden: Lord of the Flies. Here, I’ll read page 106. (He begins to make up words while pretending to read the print). And the boys came and farted on the Lord of the Flies. And then they watched as farts came out of the flies butts. Then all the boys said, “Ewwww. That’s gross!” Then the fleas–I mean flies–and the boys all started farting at the same time.

Me: (Rolling my eyes while driving–and laughing on the inside.)

I apologize for another post about farts, but the boys are in full swing with their fart jokes and potty words. And I can be as gross as they come, but the constant barrage of fart/pee/penis/butt/burp references is becoming a bit maddening. And speaking of maddening, I had to laugh at Hayden’s dramatic reading of the book, because he proved a theory that Golding was positing when he wrote this classic novel: all boys are freaking crazy; they are one plane crash away from a descent into madness.

I recently finished teaching Lord of the Flies (LOTF) to my ninth graders. The book is so captivating and eerily believable. I read the book (ish) in high school–I bet I read mainly the Cliffs Notes back then. But I did honestly read it in my twenties, then I taught it to juniors my first year of teaching high school. I was only 24 and I know I did not do the provocative themes justice. This year, we added it to the curriculum, and I became immersed in the island and its inhabitants. I shared with my students how different I felt teaching this book now that I am fortysomething and have young boys of my own.

In the month that I prepared for, and then taught, the book, I watched the behavior of boys through a different lens. I noticed how, in many ways, boys are so primitive in their need to be physical, to compete, to gain your attention, and, ultimately, your respect. As a teacher, I have the privilege of witnessing gawky freshmen boys grow  into confident, aware young men. And with my own boys, I see their constant battle of wills and wits. And whether they live as survivors on an island or siblings in the suburbs, boys everywhere are gross! They smell, they have sick senses of humor, and laugh at the most inane shit.

I had started to put the book behind me, having just finished it in time for spring break, when Hayden’s little literary serenade made me examine its impact on me again. We just happened to be on our way to swimming class, where last week I had an epiphany while reading the book. As I sat in the steamy pool area, I watched my boys begin to swim with the instructor. I brought my LOTF with me to re-read for the coming day. For the next few minutes, I was transported from the steamy discomfort of the Y, to an island in the Pacific, where a group of privileged boys were in a frenzied state, feasting on the succulent pork from their fresh kill. It was the crucial scene where Simon–sweet, innocent, Simon– runs on to the beach to tell the boys that “the Beast” is really just a dead parachutist. In the mayhem and confusion, some boys believe he is the Beast–although some knew he was not–they KNEW! He is pushed into the circle and brutally, fatally attacked. Too late, his fellow schoolmates realize it was one of their own that they have murdered.

As I come to the gruesome end of this chapter, I find I am distracted by another group of boys– the ones at the other end of the pool–the group of boys that includes my two sons. They are being loud. They are splashing a great deal. And they are hitting each other “playfully.” The instructor ( a mild-mannered man in his early twenties) has no control of this rowdy bunch of “Littluns” and is in the middle of the pool assisting the only girl in the class. I pick up my book and make my way down to the other end. I am glad to see that my sons appear to be merely bystanders in all this, but my anger with the boys in the novel is seeping through as I look at this lot. “Boys are crazy,” I think. “All boys. Crazy!” I watch as one of the swimmers taunts the weakest one in the pool. “He would be Roger,” I say to myself. I see another boy screaming song lyrics at the group while making violent waves in the water, “Baby you’re a firework!” he hollers. “And he would be Ralph,” I think. Two boys begin to hit each other with their kick boards. “And there are Jack and Piggy.” Owen, my eight year old, looks back at me, aware that I am watching and sensing that I am not comfortable with how his class is being conducted. He smiles at me, sitting on the edge waiting for the teacher. “And who would you be, Owen?” My eyes pass over to Hayden, the more volatile of my two sons. “And what about you, Hayden?” I wonder. “Would you be leaders or followers? Would you remain good or cross the line into evil? Would you be victims or perpetrators.” I shudder at these thoughts.

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I share this incident with my students the following day. “That bunch would not have made it until the end of the week if they were stuck in that pool arena with no adults.” They laugh nervously, and then they become somewhat reflective. Throughout the teaching of this book, we’ve talked at length about human nature and what human beings are capable of. Sadly, I share news articles with them–articles that I simply came across from the daily paper. No need to look very far to read what humans can do to one another. The first is about a boy in our area who was beaten by two others in the school yard and died the day after his twelfth birthday. Next, I reference the atrocity of a European woman gang raped in India while on holiday with her husband. This serves as a  parallel to the killing of the sow by the boys, a performance that is likened to a gang rape by the diction Golding uses in the scene. I tell the students how infuriated such atrocities makes me. I reiterate how literature acts as a mirror for society. And I remind them that, yes, there is evil in this world, but there is also good. We can be agents of good. And ultimately, our challenges will probably not manifest themselves on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere, but in our neighborhoods, our school yards, our streets, and yes, even the steamy poolsides of the local YMCA.

Thankfully, I remain hopeful. I believe that humankind is inherently good. And I realize that we all are all things: good AND evil, leaders AND followers, victims AND perpetrators. It is my goal as a father to teach my boys to lead when necessary, but not be afraid to follow the right kind of person;  to stand up for the Piggys of this world who are victims of cruelty; to seek enlightenment like Simon who communed with nature on the island and realized there was a higher power in all of this; and to keep the fire burning on the shore, to never give up hope or the belief in their fellow man. If they can gain all of this, I can put up with all of the fart jokes they can muster.

Writing My Wrongs

Javier PachecoA few weekends ago, a friend of mine, a guy I’ve known for most of my life, was talking to me about my blog. He likes it. He thinks it’s been a good platform for me.  “I think you found your new therapist,” he said. I think he’s right. Writing is very therapeutic. It is a great outlet, a way for one to process  thoughts, ideas, fears and fantasies. Writing this blog has allowed me to do that.

I’ve been blogging now for three months. Recently, I’ve been sitting on a piece that was hard for me to write. And it got me thinking about why I do this…Should I do this?? And the answer I keep coming back to is “Yes!” This blog has been a wonderful experience for me. It has reinvigorated some old friendships; it has brought me many new perspectives; it has connected me with people across the globe and right in my own backyard. If you have been reading it, I want to thank you. Thank you for letting me in, for letting me rant and reveal, pontificate and pester. Thank you for visiting with me—if only for a few moments in your week.

A lot of people claim to like the format of my blog. How I write about an incident that happened with the boys just moments ago, and then throw in a piece from my past. To some, it may seem random, but this blend is purposeful. My past makes up my present. When I see my sons, when I look at the man I am in front of them, I am a father, but I am also a husband, brother, son, friend, student, teacher, neighbor. All of who I am is represented when I parent.  I am the sum of my parts, as you are, too. And I am constantly seeking a better understanding of that. Bringing in the past allows me to do that more, and, hopefully, better.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I have been brutally honest about my upbringing and my experiences in my family—both current and past. In talking to another friend, she cautioned me to not forget the good stuff in the past. That is an important reminder, and I thank her for that. I did not start this blog with an axe to grind or out of anger. I am saddened by some of the topics I cover, but they are what resonate with me.  I am not trying to play the blame game or point fingers, I am merely trying to write about my experiences. These are the memories and the relationships I have struggled with.

One of those relationships is with my mother. When I was young, I thought my mother was a living saint. Married so young (21) and 7 kids by thirty. With little means, she made the most of it. She gave us each a spark of her personality. She taught us how to have a big heart and she loved us all the best she could. I was hesitant to show her my blog because I thought it may offend her. However, I did not want to do this behind her back. Around my birthday, she stopped by to drop off a cake for me. We visited for a while, and then I asked her to sit and read the blog. I was so nervous  I went for a run while she perused each entry. When I got back, I was relieved (and surprised) that she loved it. I asked her how she felt about the entries where she may have looked bad. She exclaimed, “Well, it’s all true. How could I be mad?” What a great moment for mother and son. Permission to tell the truth. I recently came across a quote that speaks to this very theme: “The truth hurts for a little while, but a lie hurts forever.” This blog is my truth.

My father also did his best. He lived during a difficult time for men to be alive— they were taught not to show their emotions. My dad was a boy during The Great Depression; he never went to college, yet he was very smart; he never made it passed middle management in the insurance business. He was a staunch Catholic with a strong moral code. He had some bad breaks in his life, like a heart-attack at age 44, and he never truly found peace on this Earth. My father has been deceased for more than a decade and a half. There is some guilt in me for writing about him when he no longer has a voice. I feel bad that he is not here to speak with me about these words I write, but sadly, I think if he was here, and he read what I wrote, he would not speak to me. Perhaps it would be different. Perhaps.

These are my parents, and they are flawed—as we all are. And it is through their flaws that my identity was formed, and that of my six brothers and sisters. And I cannot stop what I have started. I believe in the power of writing and its ability to bring us to a greater understanding. If I ever come across as whiny or petulant, please call me out on it. And please understand that the writing you find on these pages has been developing in my mind for years, decades even. I do not write about the past without having given it much consideration and deliberation.

Finally, some thoughts from the teacher in me. When I talk to my high school students about writing, I inform them that the word essay means an attempt; to try. These essays I write are my attempts. Like all attempts, some will be more successful than others.  Which brings me to my second teacher point. When I discuss the art of argument with students, I explain to them the old adage “Everything’s an argument.”  I tell them that what we are trying to do when arguing is “enter the conversation.” My blog is my attempt to enter the conversation. I have something to say, and I am glad I am finding a way to say it. I have started a conversation and I would love it if you would join me.

What do you have to say? Tell me your thoughts. Let me know what topics you would like me to cover more. If you blog, what scares you about writing? Please let me know what you are thinking. It matters.

Be a good sport

Growing up, I hated sports. I wasn’t sure if I sucked because I hated them, or if I hated them because I sucked. All I know is that I was forced to play organized sports until high school.

My dad loved sports. Like many men of his era, it was the best way he could communicate with his kids. If I could throw a decent spiral or a curve ball (different balls-I know), he would have had a catch with me. I watched him do this with my other siblings. My three older brothers and sister were very good at sports—first string, captains, stand-outs.  My younger brother and sister were also good at sports—first string, captains, stand-outs. Me, not so much. Both girls in my family could throw a baseball better than I (although none of my siblings would know to use “I” in that last bit):)  No, I’m not jealous. Not at all, he lied.  Anyway, out of seven children, I was the least athletic. Last in line for athletic prowess. Seventh of seven.

My father tried to be patient with me, but I would have none of it.  My dad played full-equipment, contact football until he was thirty, in a men’s league in Northeast Philadelphia. He coached pee wee football, baseball and  basketball at the elementary level, and softball at the high school level. My father was an athletic director for a private elementary school in our area. He breathed sports. He tried to practice with me, to teach me the basics, but I rebelled. In hindsight, I realize what I was doing. It’s taken me thirty years to figure it out, but I know that part of it was the notion of being lumped in with the rest. I wanted to stand out, be treated as an individual, not just be included in the roster, part of the line-up. And if the others were going to be better at it, then that was no way to get my family’s attention.

Most of my siblings played sports in high school – two brothers received football scholarships to a prestigious private high school, both played in college and one has coached at the college level ever since he graduated. Luckily, I was next in line from the household’s best athlete—right behind the all-star, the golden boy, the coaches’ favorite player. Me, I was third string. A bench warmer. A virtual non-participant. From my earliest athletic experiences, I was an embarrassment. I was the oldest kid on the t-ball team (I actually got demoted after my first year of Little League) This was the era of The Bad News Bears movies—a team of misfits I would have been perfectly suited for. In fifth grade, I was on St. John of the Cross’ JV football team. They called me “The Professor”—I think I was the only kid with glasses under my helmet. In seventh grade, while “playing” varsity football, I was lumped in with a crowd of overweight slow pokes. We loafed around the field and waddled our laps around the school. The coaches nicknamed us “The Country Clubbers” since we behaved like a bunch of middle-aged men out there (which reminds me:  my 8th grade teacher, Sister Albert, announced to my class as I rounded the bases during a game of kick ball one day that I had the body of a 40-year-old man. How charitable of you, Sister.)

Thankfully, by eighth grade I was a full-time smoker. This gave me a reason to join the track team. My friends and I signed up to run in the long distance events. We would practice at the local high school. By practice, I mean we would disappear into the woods, then hide behind a wall and smoke a couple cigarettes. We watched the other runners do one mile laps around the school property. On their last lap (we always asked) we would come in for the end of practice after splashing water on our heads to look sweaty, and pretend to be winded. We lost every meet we ran in.

High school and college were athletics-free. A couple stints of intramurals, but nothing to brag about, believe me. Then, in my twenties, I was looking for a reason to quit smoking. I was a guilty smoker—always was—and it started to wear on me. I kept imagining myself pulling an oxygen tank to my future kid’s school play or pee wee football game (ha). My brother Joe suggested I start running. Do it gradually and build up. I took his advice. I ran a few times a week at a local trail. I signed up for a 5k when I was 25 (which I completed still drunk from a night out in Philly). But slowly, I began to change. I started to run more and smoke less. I would see the cross country teams from the school where I taught running on the same trails in the late afternoon. Jim, the girls’ coach, asked me about coaching the boys’ squad. “Jim, I’m not a runner, really.” “I see you here every time we practice.” “Yeah, but I’m not a coach.” “They need a running coach and you run—you’re qualified.” And so, I coached cross country for about six years. I learned about speed drills and pacing, and I gave them all I could. They were more than grateful. During that time, I even managed to kick the smoking habit for good!

When I switched schools, I no longer coached cross country. Ironically, I found it helped me get in better shape. Since I was not coaching, I had more time to actually run.  Now, I was signing up for more races: 10 milers, half marathons. Eventually, I didn’t feel foolish when I labeled myself as a runner, or talked about an upcoming race. Today, I am still running. I discovered trail running a few years ago, and now I can do ten mile races in the mountains. I do not say this to brag. I say this to remind myself, and you, that we do not have to let our past define our future. We can become whomever we want if we put our minds to it.

In the past few years, I have begun the athletic journey with my own sons. I was even a coach for both of their t-ball teams (brought back some of my glory days). I was able to mask my lack of skills enough to assist coaching their Little League teams (I was the line-up guy), but I can’t see that lasting into the next phase of their baseball careers. I still worry that I won’t be able to be the guy they have a catch with on the front lawn.  But someday, sooner than later I hope, I will take them to the trails that hug the river into Philadelphia, a serene place called Valley Green, and I will teach them the art of running. I will run along side them, I will let them beat me in the beginning, and I will share everything I know about how to be a runner. And if they decide they do not want to run, or they find their passions elsewhere, so be it. But they will know where to find me if they ever want to explore that world.

Recently, my mom was remarking about all of the races I run these days. “You know, out of all my kids, who would have thought you’d end up being the most athletic adult?” Thanks, mom (I think). But she did get me thinking. I am the most active today of my seven siblings. I do not mean to sound boastful, but it’s true. And if I had a choice of either playing sports through high school or college or being active for life, I think I’d choose the latter. I love where I am today. I feel fit. I feel alive. I get to participate in many exciting races and see many amazing landscapes. Now, if someone could just teach me how to throw a damn ball!

Painting by Veronika Nagy

Photographs of Valley Green by Ellie Seif

Click on pictures to visit these artists’ sites.