Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Little House

Amanda Seyfried’s song, “Little House,” is a beautiful one about love and loss and… oh, geez, I don’t even know.  Something deep and important, probably.  But when I sing along, I’m not thinking about meaning; I’m just remembering one particular little house.

When my sister was a junior in high school, she went after a wayward basketball during a heated game against a league opponent.  She collided with their point guard, a feisty bundle of sass named Lisa.  My sister’s knee got all torn up—“blown out” was the term we used—and she crumbled to the ground, all grimaced and clenched.  Lisa stood stock-still, the ball resting between her inner elbow and her ribcage. The gym was quiet.  My sister rode on the team bus home, because that is what one did.  The emergency room doctor shrugged his shoulders and prescribed something to help her sleep.  My parents took her to an orthopedic surgeon the next day, who gamely went inside her knee to tie things back together again; she determinedly dug herself out of the whole thing with crutches, an ugly brace, and weeks of physical therapy.

Not long after the surgery, Lisa called my sister to apologize, a move I found to be ballsy and kind.  Unnecessary, too, but that’s what made me admire it so.  After all, everyone knew injuries happen frequently in sports; bodies collide, and thus there are broken bones and ripped tendons and torn ligaments.  It’s no one’s fault.

But Lisa was sorry anyway.  That it wasn’t her fault—?  Irrelevant. 

My sister and Lisa developed a friendship over the phone.  They talked every night for a couple weeks. Lisa had the wit and timing of a seasoned comedian, and my sister gamely repeated every bit of their conversations to me.  I loved Lisa.  It was a crush by proxy.
Lisa’s parents invited our whole family for dinner; I was giddy with excitement.  Lisa had a whole gaggle of brothers and sisters, and I loved big families who made lots of noise and laughed a lot.  I pictured them all living together in a huge, fancy house with high ceilings and big, open rooms for everyone.  One of Lisa’s sisters was my age—JoAnn.  She and I played basketball on opposing eighth grade teams.  She was full of spunk just like her sister.  I imagine us as best friends.  Forever, probably.

We set off late in winter, the time of year when the sun sets before dinnertime.  My father drove, squinting at a ragged scrap paper with an address scrawled on it.  We pulled into a short gravel driveway.  Then, it was I who squinted.

The house was tiny.  Tiny.

Three rooms, unless you count the bathroom.  Four, then. 

The kitchen and living room were one.  The three girls slept in the second room; the three boys slept in the third.  I don’t know where the parents slept; maybe the couch, or with one of the kids.
I couldn’t have called the place charming.  It was anything but.  It was a house hard at work to contain a fire-y family of eight.  It was cluttered with stuff.  The rug was frayed and tattered, and smelled like the black Lab that slept atop it.  The corners were dusty and dirty.  Paint was muted, peeling.  There was a clock on every other wall that was stuck in time, batteries and cords not working.

But it didn’t matter, not one little bit.  When we knocked, all eight of them met us at the door with hugs and handshakes and laughter about basketballs and busted knees.  I felt like a queen who’d been invited to a very important and exclusive party. Lisa’s family found cleverness and humor with the simple and the stupid.  I felt my ribs crack-y from laughing. 

We had lasagna.  Vats of it, it seemed.  It was so gooey and cheesy that some mozzarella flopped down on my chin and flung sauce on my chest.  The garlic bread was that delicious frozen grocery store kind—drippy with salty grease and piles of parsley and garlic.   There was a salad of iceberg lettuce, chopped carrots, red-ish imitation bacon bits, all mixed up with Kraft French dressing.  We ate together, all of us squished together, the six of us and the eight of them, brought together only because of a wayward basketball, and I thought the house might pop with all the personality and joy.

I hated leaving.  I’d never been in such a small space where there was so much love.

They came to our house a couple times, and we to them a few more times, and then time and life’s stuff faded the family friendship into a memory.  But I’ve never forgotten that house.  It was as small as anything I’d ever seen but oh, oh so big.   

When I’m old, I want to live in an itty-bitty little house, just like that one.  I want it to only be big enough to fit me—and anyone who wants to come and help me fill it up with happy laughter and lasagna for dinner.      

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Urban Meyer and Taylor Swift: Lead Singers

The Ohio State football team lost to Penn State last night, an unexpected and frustrating turn of events.  Scrolling through Twitter this morning, I found myself irritated—not about the loss, but about some reactions to the loss.  Some people feel like they need to say nasty things Coach Urban Meyer, in spite of this being only his fifth loss in five years and his first true road loss in five years.  Catch that? The first true road loss in five years.


“Don’t worry about Urban Meyer,” my husband tells me.  “He can take it.”   

My husband knows a thing or two about athletic leadership.  He is an athletic director, overseeing a large middle school athletic program, and has coached football at various levels for almost twenty years.

“I think of it like a musical act,” he said.  “It comes down to this:  Who’s willing to take the microphone?  Or, better, who has to take the mic?” he asked.  “Like Taylor Swift.  Is she going to let anyone else stand up front and sing the loudest?  Hell, no.  She knows it has to be her, because she knows she can do it the best.  That doesn’t mean she won’t make mistakes—she will—but is willing to risk it because she wants to be the one making decisions.”

“I guess all lead singers are leaders, aren’t they?”

“And the best leaders are lead singers.  They just can't… not be in front.  That’s what it’s like for Urban Meyer."

So, in thinking about being a leader, that’s the thing to consider when reflecting on our work: “Am I acting like a lead singer?” 

If the answer isn’t a simple yes, it’s time to re-evaluate.  Because you have be the lead singer in any leadership position--leading a family, leading a class, leading a team, leading a school.  You’ve got to plan, organize, and rock the performance—a performance that happens in front of critics, day after day.  And you’ve got to lose, too, and take what is said about you, and get up, and do it again. 

Urban Meyer will be alright.  He’ll be back with the microphone next week, front and center, leading the next encore-worthy performance. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Enough is Enough

I hope that every woman in the country is thinking about the speech Michelle Obama gave in New Hampshire this week.  She was speaking to all of us, and she did it with class and dignity, with a raw and vulnerable voice that radiated her depth of feeling. Watching her, I literally trembled.

She said a lot of really important things that we should all think about.  Not just in this election, but always and always.  Forever. 

She said, “…This isn’t about politics.  It’s about basic human decency.  It’s about right and wrong.”

She said, “…I feel it so personally…the shameful comments about our bodies.  The disrespect of our ambitions and our intellect.”

She said, “…I can’t stop thinking about this.  It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted.” 

She said, “The men that you and I know don’t treat women this way.  They are loving fathers who are sickened by the thought of their daughters being exposed to this kind of vicious language about women.”

I avoid writing or talking openly about politics at almost all costs.  My political stance is mine, and I keep it very private, for two reasons.  One, I have a job where it would be inappropriate and irresponsible to voice my opinions.  Two, I cannot bear to argue with people I care about—about issues I care about. But this is different.  As she said, this isn't about politics.  It’s about being a woman, and mother, and teacher, and role model.  It's about being these things together, and standing up for ourselves.   

The First Lady said, “…we simply cannot endure this, or expose our children to this any longer—not for another minute, and let alone for four years.  Now is the time for all of us to stand up and say enough is enough.”

That’s what she said.  Enough is enough.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Just let them talk

Nineteen years ago, I worked alongside my father as we spread Sheetrock joint compound between cracks of drywall.  He had been working on this house for several months, having been hired to build the dream home of a local family.  The wife was a hair stylist; the husband fell under the phrase “works for the county,” which meant he did anything from mow berms to plow snow to attend meetings about zoning.  They were good people, respected people, well-liked people—and they’d saved their money for a decade to build this perfect little house, where they would finish raising their two children and settle into the next chapter of their lives.   

Their daughter, Ashley, would be a student in my class, starting tomorrow.  In the morning, I would officially begin my career as a teacher.  I would be the 7th grade English teacher in the same junior high where I’d attended fifteen years ago.   I was feeling nervous, but I couldn’t pinpoint, of all the things to worry about, what it was, exactly, I should be scared of. 

“So.  Tomorrow.”  I took a deep breath.

I loved helping my father.  He was a general contractor by day and a farmer by night and weekend.  I helped him do anything—pound nails, rip out shingles, bale hay, nurse sickly lambs back to health.  I liked the work.  It was physical and difficult, but satisfying:  There was something tangible and durable about it.

“Here’s the thing, honey,” my father said, dipping his trowel deep into the white bucket for another scoop of compound.  “Of all the things I’ve learned about kids, over all these years, from back when I was a teacher myself, but also as a father and a guy who’s watched a lot of stuff, there’s one I know for certain.  About all kids.  And that is this:  They love to talk.”


“About anything.  Mostly themselves, of course.  But about other people, too, and what they’re thinking about a lot.  Things that bother them or frighten them.  They like to talk about parents, friends, and experiences.  Anything, really.”

I nodded.  That made sense.

“So if you’re unsure—ever—about how to hook your students, about how to make them want to be part of your class, just let them talk.  Sit back and let them go, all together, as a class.  And listen.  Ask them questions that show you care what they are saying.  Ask questions that show you want them to keep them talking.”

So that’s what I tried to do, all the years I taught, because it didn’t take long to confirm that my father was spot-on; my students loved nothing more than when I let our class conversation flow naturally, and let myself slip into a listener’s role instead of a talker’s role.

Fast-forward a bunch of years, and now I’m watching other teachers do their work.  Not long ago, I had a post-observation conference I had very much looked forward to having.  The teacher, I had noticed, started every class with a several minutes of free-flowing conversation.  I asked him to tell me about it, and he answered with conviction. “It’s important to me to preserve time every day for students to talk as a class.  It connects us all and helps us share our experiences.  It tells me what they’re thinking about—and reminds me how they think.”   He smiled.  “Kids think differently than grown-ups.  I’m a better teacher if I remember that.”

“Is there anything you do to make sure the students are being thoughtful in their conversation?  And that they listen to one another?”

“I model good listening by repeating back a lot of what they say.  It validates their thinking.  It verifies that what they’ve said is important and that I’ve heard them.  And I ask them for more.  I say, ‘Tell me more about that,’ or I say, ‘Really?’ or ‘That’s interesting!’ And I ask other students to do the same when they are listening.”  He makes sure all students have the option to speak during his class conversation time, because even the quietest voices need to be heard.

Listening to him, I realized he was articulating all the reasons I’d loved all-class talk when I had been a teacher.  There are so many benefits to it.  It sets up a natural model for small-group talk and discussion, of course, but it’s bigger than that, even.  Setting aside a specific part of time for class conversation, and staying committed to it, ensures that every student has a voice every day.  Every student is heard, every day. 

Every time I go home to visit my parents, I pass the Ashley’s parents’ house, the one my father was in the midst of building back when I started as a teacher.  I think about the solidity of the drywall we sealed up that day, and I think of Ashley, and all the students in that first class I had.  And I am grateful for that exceptionally simple but prudent teaching tip:  Just let them talk.

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

"Time flies."  The nurse shook her head and locked eyes with the infant I held in my arms.  She was finalizing paperwork to discha...