Saturday, March 23, 2019

Particles: Actually a Thing. Really. For Sure.

What makes meaning in our words, our conversations, our writing and communication?  What serves as a "body language" or words, helping us really connect to others beyond the dry sequence of formal words?

Particles do.

Mary Norris wrote of particles when explaining her dive into the Greek language in her New Yorker piece, "To The Letter."

Who knew there was a word for the tools that help us enhance meaning, "...the small, indefinable, not strictly necessary words that linguists dryly call 'function words' and which are known in Greek grammar as particles... Particles help make a language a language.  They give it currency and connect you to the person you're speaking with.  English is loaded with particles, words and expressions that float up constantly in speech." Norris gives examples:

Like, totally, so, you know, O.K., really, actually, honestly, literally, in fact, at least, I mean, quite, of course, after all, hey, sure enough... know what I mean?  Just sayin'.

"Some people deplore the extra words as loose and repetitive, and complain that kids today are lazy and inarticulate and are destroying the beauty of the language," Norris says.  She's right.  I've heard that done.  But Norris explained their value, and summarized precisely why I actually really enjoy particles:  They "act like nudges, pokes, facial expressions."

I like a good conversational nudge.  A secret little word poke.  When words become a facial expression.  It's fun.

When I was a teenager, my father pointed out, gently, as he was wont to do, how often I was saying "like" in my conversations.  "Listen to yourself," he said. I did.  He was right; I was using "like," like, all the time.

Saying "like" wasn't wrong, in and of itself.  Using it as the only particle in my arsenal was my mistake.

Sorry, linguists:  I don't believe particles destroy the beauty of our language.  I don't think it is lazy to use, them, and I don't think it makes me inarticulate when I do.  Like most words or phrases, they can be fancied up and used perfectly—at the perfect place, time, pause, or thrust of conversation— to enhance meaning and drive a point home.  A good particle makes the listener or reader grin in recognition.

Which is why I'm never annoyed when I hear students using particles and experimenting with their meaning and effectiveness.  After all, all they're doing is connecting with others through words.  Who can dispute the benefits of a kid learning to communicate?

It's super-cool.  Truly.

*By the way, if you're into such things, track down this piece in The New Yorker.  The the effort—the will!— Norris puts into understanding ancient Greek language is unidentifiable to me, but is, among other things, indisputably impressive.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Finding Beauty in FebruMarch

A mentor once told me, "Every five or ten years, you'll have one that feels you might not survive."  That's this year for me.

So I'm writing a pep-talk blog post.  The pep talk may be for you, or it may be for me, or maybe both.  In the end, it doesn't matter—just so it serves a purpose for one of us.

This year's relentless array of challenges have grown almost comical.  Every single time I think there will be a quiet day, I'm blasted with an out-of-left-field problem I didn't see coming.  It's been a hard year.  Students struggling, staff struggling, an endless stream of parents finding fault, causing fault, raising all kinds of hell.

I've also felt cold for five straight months, and there aren't enough sweatshirts to take it away. My skin feels like a crinkled, worn parchment.  My house is crumb-y and my clothes all look the same.  Rut, rut, rut.

There should be some sort of law that if you live in Ohio, you go somewhere warm as winter wanes.  For a day or two, even.  That's all.

My sister lives in Mexico City.  Almost on a whim, my husband and I packed up our kids, tank tops, and sun hats, and flew there to see her and her family.  We spent three full days drinking in the stories of this rich, layered city.  I stepped back from myself and pictured an energy tank that was filling, filling, filling up. We were buoyed, giddy:  The colors!  The sun!  The tortillas!  The welcoming smiles of the people!  The blue of the sky!  For breakfast the first day, my niece squished up a fresh avocado and spread it on thick wheat toast with a drizzle of spicy sauce on top.  I ate it every day we were there, and have eaten it every day since.

Seasonal depression is a real thing, methinks.  I'm a relentlessly positive person, but there were many days this winter I wondered, "What is wrong with me?"  Blech and ick and meh and blah.

A few weeks ago, I presented to a group of principals about ways to avoid burnout.  The topic itself was an irony not lost on me, since there I was, presenting as some sort of expert, and I felt—had been feeling— like a wet, bedraggled rat trying to scurry and scrape my way out of dirty depths of seasonal doldrums.  I felt like a fraud:  Who had thought I could talk on avoiding burnout?

I started by being really honest about the internal fights of frustration in my own mind, reminding them multiple times, "I don't have answers.  I can only offer validation."  I felt the audience really sitting up.  Putting down their phones and closing their laptops.  Agreeing and relating.  When I finished, one raised his hand. "Why don't principals feel like they can talk about their dark times?"

We kept talking and talking, long after the session was scheduled to end, as we tried to answer his question.

"We have to be the strong ones."

"We're not paid to have bad days."

"There is no time to wallow."

"Everything just moves too quickly."

"We need to be unbreakable."

All these things are valid.  And it wouldn't be right or fair or productive to try to find a way out or around them.  We are paid to be the strong, positive, confident ones.  That's why we are leaders.

It's just what we need to do.

And, as they say, if we look around and see no one following, we're not leading.  If we're grumpy, we're making everyone else grumpy.  And that's not okay.

So let's pull our bootstraps—yank them, if needed—and bust through this month.  Stay strong, my Midwest friends.  The sun is coming out soon.  It's a promise, promise, promise!

**This, by the way, is a photograph of a tree we saw when walking to the Teotihuacan Pyramids.  I look at the colors and gasp a little.  This tree alone may be enough to get through

Saturday, February 2, 2019


I really should get to the work of writing down things my father says.  He is wise. 

Today he told me this: 

“A lot of people don’t really have any meaningful capacity to solve their own problems.  They just wallow around in them, flail around in them, blame them on somebody else, ignore them, run from them, and of course misidentify them.”  

He remembers becoming aware, and horrified, somewhere around the age of 20, that no matter what, problems were going to keep coming.  “When I solved one, there would be another one right behind it."  

When he'd been a kid, no one had ever mentioned that troublesome little detail about, you know... life.  

It was shocking, and depressing.  Rather than pout about it (which, incidentally, would be a common and reasonable and common), he decided to go ahead and approach this realization, and thus, yes, life, by attacking problems as they came, fast and fierce, so he’d be ready for the next one. And he decided to do it that way because, he reckoned, if he didn’t, he would ultimately and inevitably be overwhelmed, swamped, and hopelessly stuck.  And he didn’t want that. 

These are all his words, by the way.  This his how he thinks.  Logical.  Rational.

He says he decided, all those years ago, to make it a goal to choose the type of problems he’d have to deal with. His thinking was characteristically linear:  If he found life work he enjoyed, the constant stream of problems coming his way would likely be related to things he liked.  Right?  It didn’t always work flawlessly, of course, because we can’t completely control such things.  But control wasn’t the point.  Increasing the odds that he’d enjoy the inevitable lifelong stream of problems—that was the point.  So he focused on a life of doing what he enjoyed, which was build houses, run his hay and sheep farm, raise his kids, help people, and write music into songs so sweet they could—can— silence a room.
I’d wager most people never figure out about accepting and attacking problems.  They're too busy being pissed the problems even exist to actually get to solving them. 

Instead, they want someone else to solve them.  

Thank goodness, I suppose, because that’s what I get paid a nice salary to do.  

It’s Groundhog Day, which is a good day to think about this.  It’s the point, actually.  Problems come and keep coming and keep coming. All life long. It’s like cleaning the house. It’s never, ever, ever done. Ever.  I mean, it gets done, constantly, but then people come home and live here.  So then it starts over again.  

"Make sure your kids know this," my father advised.  "Children should grow up knowing problems will keep on coming, and they have a choice in whether they like the type of problems that come.  The only way to get through life is to attack, attack, attack the problems."

That's what I'll try to do.  

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Impossibility of Blogging the Truth

Blogging the truth is impossible for a school principal.  90% of the stuff I want to cover really can't be told publicly, because most of it someone else's story, and, perhaps more importantly, all the stories are somehow tied to a kid—and I won't write about kids in any way that could be negatively misunderstood or misconstrued.

I could fictionalize some of the stuff, I guess, but that doesn't really work, because, you know, people aren't stupid.

The passage of time helps; I could write about some of the things I experienced years ago.  The question becomes:  How far back is safe?  A decade?  Certainly a decade.  Right?

Actually...  Probably not.

I guess I'm trying to blog without controversy.  Which is a lot like trying to eliminate stress:  It sounds do-able enough, right up until you try it.

A close friend of mine got another job last week.  It's a really good job— his dream job.  He will be teaching and heading up a department at a prestigious university.  His days will soon take on a different pace, pressure, and pull.  It won't be better or worse, necessarily—just a different universe for a guy who's worked his entire career as a public school teacher and administrator.  I envy him.  He's starting over, and he can take what he's seen and help others learn from it openly and honestly. I'm jealous, in the good-jealous way; I am so happy for him I could pop.  I'm glad he gets to do this thing.  He deserves it more than any human being on earth, and I'm rooting for him with all of the luck-bones in my body.  Not that he needs it.

Thinking about his new job reminded me of my consolation prize about not being able to blog the real truth about being an educator.  Even when things happen for teachers and principals we can't write about (especially on a public blog, of all things), there is intense learning in all of them, and they deserve to be told to others as learning tools.  All of my "day-in-the-life stories" tend to percolate inside my brain, and I'll often ask myself:  "What happened here that holds value in making me a better principal?  Is there something others can learn from it?  How can the story be changed to honor privacy but still demonstrate an important learning point?"

That's why I tell versions of stories to my graduate students.  They come to class after a loooong day of teaching, all slumpy and dull-eyed.  Their backpacks and bags thump heavy on the floor next to their desks.  This time of year, it's dark and gray and slushy, too, which is squelches the positivity of... well, anyone.  Which is why I always open class with, "I have a reallllllllly good one for you today..."

They sit up.  They attend.  They relate—their arms raise with a question or a story of their own, or they explain a similar experience.  We spend a chunk of time breaking it all apart:  How was the situation handled?  Did things turn out well or was the whole thing bungled?  What could have changed its course?  Stories grab my students' attention and, conveniently, demonstrate the applicability to key points on my syllabus.

There is so. from stories.  So while I don't tell them here on this blog, they really are my best teaching tool.  With character names changed, and a few key detailed altered for privacy, I can give a story a brand new purpose and plan, multiplying its scope into supercharged real-life learning.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Cyclical Gratitude

Not long ago, I was overboard on frustration and irritation; everything grated on me, and I felt very off-balance.  I couldn’t quite get myself together.  I was stumbling— and I knew it.

That’s progress, by the way: Sometimes, when I’m in a bad place, I spend a great deal of energy hissing to myself, “I’m fine.  I’m fine.  I’m fine.”  Until I believe it, or it actually comes true, or life smothers the issue.  It's only later I realize how not fine I'd been.  

This time, knowing I was off-kilter, I made the conscious decision to just keep on keepin’ on.  Everything balances out, no?

I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store, somewhere between the Oreos and the Cheez-its.  We did the “how-are-you” thing.  

When it was my turn to answer, I shrugged.  “It’s not an easy time of year,” I said.

“Oh, I know!”  She exclaimed.  “You know what you should do?” 


“No, seriously.  This really works,” she said.  “You should get a gratitude journal, and write in it every day. Just one thing.  Then, when you’re feeling down, read all the things you have to be grateful for.  It will fix you right up.”  

Let me tell you this: When things are challenging, and someone tells me to take a moment and feel gratitude, or—worse—to pull out my journal and count my blessings, I want to punch something. 

Gratitude doesn’t work like that.  Not for me, anyway.  I can’t flip a switch from genuine frustration or anxiety to—click!—instant, genuine gratitude for all the good things.  I can’t flush negative feelings easily, and I certainly can’t seamlessly float from unhappy places to happy places. 

Gratitude, for me, has to be built when everything doesn’t suck.  Recently, when taking a walk, there was a just-right-moment:  My mind was calm, my body felt good, the sunset was breath-stopping, my children were riding ahead on their bikes, and my husband said something super-funny—I had to stop walking so I could appropriately hoot. In that moment, it washed over me: I am so, so, so lucky. 

The feeling was extra-powerful because it was genuine, not just something I’d mustered up to replace something else.  And not because it was long or earth-shaking.  It was just real, is all.

Another thing I think about when I feel crappy:  O
ur school librarian sees every student in our school on a four-day rotation.  One of the things I appreciate most about his work is the genuine connection he makes with his students with simple conversation.  He doesn’t just say, “How was your day?”  He asks them what is happening, how they feel about it, and how they react to challenges.  He uses what they say to teach something important—not in a lecture-y way, but just asking the students to think about how their action and reaction contribute to their attitude.  A few weeks ago, I heard him talk about bad days.  “When things are hard, is it because you had a hard day—or because you had a hard five minutes?”  He wants them to identify the difference.  Because it's an important distinction.  If there are 17,000 minutes in a day, and only a fraction of those are icky, there’s certainly time to embrace the good that came to us in the other thousands of minutes.   

Gratitude is a cycle—it emerges, it fades, and it emerges again.  

I like to grab it when it’s there and, when it’s not, wait.  For me, it can’t be forced.  But time will bring it back around.  

Cyclical gratitude.  

If I feel it, and share it, then I feel it again.  It’s a nice promise that comes from universe, no? 

Particles: Actually a Thing. Really. For Sure.

What makes meaning in our words, our conversations, our writing and communication?  What serves as a "body language" or words, hel...