Teacher

Sandy Hook: One Year Later

I wrote this piece last year, a few days after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As I re-read it today, in honor of its one year mark, my emotions still feel pretty raw. Not enough has changed in our culture, but I try to be hopeful. In the end, hope is all we have.

So, it is in that spirit of hope that I ask you to visit the following site: Sandy Hook Promise . There, you will find the inspiring mission of the parents, family, and friends of Sandy Hook Elementary who refuse to just be the latest victims of gun violence and are fighting for change–real change within our country. It’s a powerful approach, as they are working towards sensible solutions, not more polarization of citizens in regard to gun control. I urge you to check it out, sign the pledge promise, and if you can, donate a few dollars. I know money may be tight, I know everyone seems to want donations from you, but we need to band together to effect real change. If you do decide to donate, perhaps choose the $26 option–one dollar for each person who lost their lives that day. Thank you for reading this.

The World’s Greatest: An AMERICAN Tragedy

I am a mountain
I am a tall tree
Oh, I am a swift wind
Sweepin’ the country
I am a river
Down in the valley
Oh, I am a vision
And I can see clearly
If anybody asks you who I am
Just stand up tall, look ’em in the face and say

[Chorus]
I’m that star up in the sky
I’m that mountain peak up high
Hey, I made it
I’m the world’s greatest
And I’m that little bit of hope
When my back’s against the ropes
I can feel it, 
I’m the world’s greatest

–from  The World’s Greatest, By: R. Kelly

Tears sting my eyes, as these lyrics blare through my iPod. I am out for a run on this cold, damp Sunday morning. I begin to weep openly–the emotion becoming too much. I can’t stop thinking about those kids. The innocent victims of another horrific school shooting. This is not the kind of music that I run to, usually. The song happens to be on my iPod because I downloaded it last year for my boys, who were performing it in a talent show at school. We played it every night for about two weeks. As I run, the lyrics take me back to watching them onstage with several dozen other elementary school children, scared and nervous as they performed in the dark auditorium for beaming moms, dads, and other family members. Then, my mind immediately shifts to the school children at Sandy Hook Elementary–the ones who experienced such a different form of fear and nervousness. The ones who lost their lives. The ones who lived– who will never be the same. I cry because none of us will ever be the same.

I am bawling my eyes out as I run on the side of a very busy road, and I don’t care how I look. I am so sad. And this song is making my grief spew forth because the lyrics are so beautiful. The words remind me of a comforting poem that  is often shared at funerals, by a woman named Mary Frye: Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there; I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow, I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain… The song now comforts me in that way. I take solace in the fact that these gentle souls, and the adults who lost their lives protecting them, are now a part of a greater good, a larger entity.  Their spirits will live on in all that is beautiful and innocent, like them: a twinkling star, a majestic vista.  They cannot have died in vain.

I have been pretty emotional all weekend. I agree with many things I’ve read on Facebook about not giving this gunman the notoriety our society seems to bestow on the madman du jour. I am so fed up with all of the violence. I am embarrassed to admit that I paid little attention to one of the latest shootings at a U.S. mall. Like many, I’ve grown numb, tired. But this horror, this living nightmare, may be the wake up call this country needs. All weekend I keep staring at my sons, who are both around the victims’ ages. I feel helpless that I cannot shield them from the ugliness of our world. On Friday, as I watched them get off the school bus, wearing Santa hats no less, I was stung by the fact that 20 parents would no longer be greeting their children off the bus. They will never come home again. The Santa hats underscored my boys’ innocence. I thought how, just yesterday, I was hopeful their belief in Santa would last one more year, and now I am concerned that their belief in humanity will last one more year. How could I even begin to explain this event? They know nothing of what occurred in Connecticut–how long can that last? I feel ashamed for even thinking this way when others have no child to explain anything to anymore.

I hit repeat on my iPod. I want to hear this song again. I want to cry my eyes out for all of the victims and their families; I want to wallow in this pity I feel for all of us, for our country. I hear the echo of the singer saying “The world’s greatest…the world’s greatest.” I think about that phrase. I think how Newtown, Connecticut has witnessed the world’s greatest–the greatest examples of heroism, selflessness, and loss of innocence. I think of this land of ours, and how we are supposed to be the world’s greatest–and we are at so many things–including killing. I’m sure you’ve seen the stats by now. The magazine Mother Jones reports 61 mass shootings in the US since 1982. Fifteen out of 25 mass shootings of the last 50 years occurred in the US–the next country in the line up has two. TWO! Why are we such a violent country? Why are we so much more violent in our domestic lives than other countries. The gun control debate is raging with sound and fury now. Mental illness is also being talked about with deserved attention. One of my burning questions: Why does it seem we are more mentally ill than other countries? Why do these gunmen aim at the heart of our Nation–our innocent school children? Is this the price of freedom? How many more schools need to be ambushed before we begin meaningful dialogue and real change?

Speaking of schools, another reason I feel so emotional is because I am a teacher. I read the stories of bravery from these others in my profession, and I am humbled beyond measure. I picture myself trying to hide my students and fend off an attacker–or die trying. Could I be so brave? I pray to God, yes. Sadly, since Columbine, we’ve all become jaded. And teachers have an ever-growing fear. I know it scares me. My teaching career has spanned the spate of school shootings. As a result,  I saved my son’s hand-print from an art project in preschool in my wallet–so that if our school was ever attacked, I would have his hand to hold in the end. I have also saved special messages from the boys on my phone, so if I ever think I won’t be coming home, perhaps their sweet voices would comfort me as I prepared for whatever was in store. Why the hell would I think like that? Why? Because too many schools have been subject to such terror. I teach in a wonderful school, in a beautiful town, with the most amazing kids. Many of these tragedies have occurred in similar settings. And as the death toll in schools across the country continues to rise I pray, “Let this one will be the last.”

Just this week, I had the chance to visit my son’s second grade classroom to talk to the children about Christmas. It’s a public school, and this was part of their Social Studies unit–including all of the holidays we celebrate this time of year. My first observation when I arrived at school–one I’ve had numerous times–was the sad commentary of having to be buzzed in via intercom. A sign reads: “Please stand right here when speaking into the console so camera can see you.” Every time I’m buzzed in, I feel like I am visiting a prison. Yet, once inside  I see the joy, I hear the laughter of the children, and I notice all of the incredible work being displayed. It is a happy place. It is a place of energy and enthusiasm. I’m glad my kids can go to such a school. That afternoon, I enjoyed sharing my knowledge of the Nativity with the kids, and I told them what I say to my own students: “I love teaching in a public school because we are all so different, and we can teach each other about our differences. We are different, and yet we are the same.” They understood.

And I guess that’s why I am writing this blog entry: I want to understand. Yet, as I get older, as I seek more wisdom, I realize that there are so many things beyond my understanding. And I know that is how life works. I think of how much I’ve changed in the past decade, as a husband, as a father, as a man. I am the least religious I have ever been (16 years of Catholic school), yet I am the most spiritual, the most peaceful I’ve ever been. I don’t know if I believe in a God the way I was raised to believe in him. I hope there is a heaven. I hope that there is a place where people go where all of this makes more sense. Here is the picture that stirred my thoughts on this concept of religion yesterday. I came upon it online. The caption was in honor of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary:

“We can’t help but think this is what heaven looked like today.”

heaven

Credit: painting by John Lautermilch

If there is a heaven, then these sweet children and their protectors are certainly there. Now if only they could help those of us on Earth who are left trying to make a better way from all this. Tonight, I pray to them for strength. Strength for all of us.

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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:

photo (35)

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

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.

Lord-of-the-Flies-lord-of-the-flies-527556_400_300

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.

It’s All My Teacher’s Fault

Good news! My first book was picked up! Okay, it was picked up by me–a couple weeks ago. I found it buried in a box of memorabilia while I was looking for Christmas decorations–you know how one box leads you to another, then another, and then you’re looking at crap from forty years ago that has nothing to do with decorating a Christmas tree? Yeah, me neither. Anyhow…I found this book I wrote in third grade–1978!! During that year, my dad had a massive heart attack and my grandmother on my mother’s side died of cancer. It was a very dark year in the Trainer household. And, as I recall, my teacher, Mrs. Deturo, had me meet with the guidance counselor, Mrs. Brent, who encouraged me to write about the experience–express my feelings through writing. The result is the masterpiece that has been digitally remastered for your viewing pleasure below on this very website. So, without further ado, I present to you Nine is Enough.

photo (13)photo (12)photo (11)photo (10)photo (9)photo (8)photo (7)photo (6)photo (5)photo (4)photo (3)photo (2)photoFirst, let me say that this particular brick contact paper used to cover the book was limited edition–sold exclusively at Grants before their closing in ’76. And, don’t worry, I may be trying my hand at writing, but I promise I will never publish my own illustrated book–my gosh–look at those scenes from the story (I find the “Schools” one particularly compelling).

Yet, as I read over this story, I realize that perhaps the seeds were planted in me at a very young age to write about my experiences–to process my thoughts and feelings through writing. A teacher took the time to care about me and have me talk about my issues with another educational professional. I am lucky to have had these people in my life. And, in some respects, I feel I have been drafting the second book in my head ever since.

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.