Monday, June 11, 2012

Endings, Beginnings

"In summer, the song sings itself." (William Carlos Williams)

It's the last day of the school year.  One final time, we teachers migrate to our classrooms.  No busyness or bustling today for most of us.  Just clearing the clutter, packing away what's precious, and taking a moment to reflect and smile, if we're lucky.  Another year ended.  Summer with its promise of renewal has finally returned.  An ending.  A beginning. 

Once again, I sit alone in my classroom.  How quiet it is.  How orderly it seems.  Serene and tranquil, like a Zen garden. 

Quite a contrast from the raucous romper room of learning this is during the year when filled with 30+ teenagers!

(Ok.  Maybe neither of these pictures really show what my classroom is like during the year!)

So, as one season of my life ends...and another begins, I thought I'd write some "End of the School Year" haiku to celebrate.   Let's see what comes out.

Don't Disturb
Weary desks whisper
"Shhh...We're ready to hibernate".
School's out - summer's here

Emancipation Proclaimed
Teachers and students cheer,
"No more homework, grades, and bells!"
"Free at last!  It's June!"

A Whispered Wish
A teacher's glad prayer
"Ready to wiggle my toes!"
"Summer, renew me"

June's Chameleons
Blink, and you'll miss it.
Slacks and shoes to shorts, flip flops
Teachers unbuttoned.

Endings and beginnings.  As I get ready to turn off the lights, lock my door, and walk down the hallway for the last time this year, I'm grateful for all the school year brought me:  the hard work, the challenges shared, the laughs, the satisfaction that comes from knowing you've done something worthwhile (even though you may never really know who you've touched - and how). 

But most of all, I'm grateful for the chance to experience an ending, and a beginning.  A chance to learn and a chance to grow.  A chance to discover that which was untapped within me, and to discard that which has become old.

I found this wonderful poem by Guy Finley.  Fits nicely with my thoughts now.

Jump In
Life will fill
Whatever you empty...
And whatever you fill,
Life will empty.

That's the code;
The hidden conduct of contentment
Wrapped in mystery,
Filled with contradiction.

No sense in trying to save yourself
By holding out;
Nothing you have held onto
Has filled the hole, has it?

Then be hollow.
Let the winds of change
Play you instead of punish you.

Give it away!
Use it up!
Offer it to the Wind
And then... jump in!

August will bring its own special endings and beginnings, as well as the 2012-13 year, for it will be my last one as a full time teacher.  Who knows then what "pearls" I'll be discovering?  What Life will be asking me to "use up" or "give away"?  I look forward to all of that, but for now... time to relax... time to jump into Summer!

Saving the pink chair for my wife!
"People don't notice whether it's winter or summer when they're happy."  (Anton Chekov)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Five Books That Taught Me

"The worth of a book is measured by what you can carry away from it." (James Bryce)

My wife and I love to read.  I knew she was "the one for me" the first time she curled up contentedly with a book - and alternated between quietly savoring each word, then bubbling over with enthusiasm as she shared a passage with me.  I remember when she was reading Laura Hillenbrand's story, Seabiscuit - An American Legend,  about the "underdog" horse that inspired Americans during the Great Depression.  When Deborah would read about one of Seabiscuit's races, she would cheer and bounce up and down on the sofa while reading as if she was trackside!  I loved it!

So, with summer nearing, I look forward to reading some more.  As I began to ponder what I might read next, I began thinking about all the books I've read in my lifetime (lots!).  Reading was something that I've always done (probably explaining why I love writing too!), and was always encouraged by my parents.

What books have influenced me?  Made an impression on me?  Inspired me?  Were just plain fun to read?  That sounded interesting to write about.

Here are five books that taught me something.  After having read them, in each case just once, they changed my view of the world, or my knowledge of something, or how I thought.  They're not in any order, other than how they came to mind (though I am actually surprised at what books popped into my head!)

1.  Case Closed:  Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, Gerald Posner

  • In 1994, I had the first chance to really teach my U.S. history classes about this tragic event in modern U.S. history, and this book came out at the same time.  I knew very little about Oswald or the Warren Commission, or any of the conspiracy theories, so I picked it up.  Posner's investigation thoroughly and convincingly answered all of my questions, relying on hard evidence and science to discredit all of the conspiracy theories, and prove the sad fact that a lone "nobody", desperate for attention, could indeed alter the course of history.  His chapters explaining the "magic bullet" and erasing the "mystery" of the "grass knoll" were stone convincing.   Case Closed is a masterpiece of historical research and considered the benchmark for all other books on this topic.
2.  Animal Farm, George Orwell

  • Animal Farm was the first (and only) piece of literature I ever taught in a social studies class.  I was looking to spice up a unit on Communism, so a colleague suggested this book to me.  Barely 100 pages long, I read it in an afternoon, but it completely changed my understanding of the lives of people living in the Soviet Union under the tyranny of Joseph Stalin during the 1930's and 1940's.  I had known of the events and thought I understood the history, but Orwell's allegory - telling how a sinister group of pigs led a revolution on a farm, took over, and then exploited the other naive animals on it, all in the name of "equality" - gave me a much richer understanding of it all - plus I was moved by it.  I was stirred by the courage of Snowball and Boxer, angered by the cruelty and greed of Napoleon and his cunning assistant Squealer, and saddened as the other animals are betrayed. ("All animals are equal - but some are more equal then others" was a chilling line) And when Boxer....oh wait...better not say (in case you decide to read it!).  This classic taught me the power that even a seemingly simple story has to teach a great lesson.
3.  Out West:  An American Journey, Dayton Duncan

  • I randomly picked Duncan's book off my parents' vast bookshelves one day several years ago, and discovered a genre that I've loved ever since:  travelogues that also skillfully weave history throughout them.  Out West is the story of the author's retracing of the route that Lewis and Clark took in making their historic journey westward to the Pacific Ocean.  But where the Corps of Discovery walked, rode, or poled by flatboat, Duncan putters along in a Volkswagen camper (in true Schnorenberg fashion).  His vivid recounting of the exploits and thoughts of Lewis and Clark, using excerpts from their journals, was my introduction to this epic expedition.  It led me to want to read even more about these two men; to visit the places on the Oregon coast that they visited; and to be a bit of a "pioneer" in my own small way.  To this day, whenever I'm on a road trip, I think of Duncan's advice to practice "journey travel" vs. "destination travel", and remember some of his "Road Rules" (#1: "Never stop to ask for directions or look at a map - unless you're completely defeated, or have to stop for something else")
4.  Let Go And Live In the Now, Guy Finley

  • Let Go And Live In the Now was the first one of Guy Finley's books that I read when I began attending classes at his Foundation 7 years ago.  It was my introduction to ideas that have changed my life.  The spiritual principles and exercises in self-awareness that he presented in this book were brand new to me.  Yet when I read them, a part of me immediately knew their truth and relevance for me.  I've read many other works of his since, and have heard hundreds of his talks, but this book is still one I turn to.  Learning how to be "a storm watcher",  or that I have a right at any moment to CHOOSE what thoughts I give my attention to, or the necessity of "walking the spiritual road alone" all came from here - as did this powerful idea I've never forgotten.  "We teach others whenever we refuse to psychologically defend ourselves...The world around us receives the lesson that what is true needs no defense and that what is false cannot be defended."  Priceless.
5.  Why We Buy:  The Science of Shopping, Paco Underhill

  • Though this book was a little dry at times, and not one of my favorites, it definitely changed my understanding of marketing, and the subtle science clever retailers practice in order to increase profits.  I had no clue how everything in a store is deliberately placed (if the retailer is smart!), or done, all to make me more likely to spend money there then not:  from predicting which way I'll turn when I enter the store (right, most of the time); to what's put at eye level or lower; whether there's a chair for me to sit at a predicted spot that I'll want to sit;  to how nice the dressing room is (Women care A LOT!  Men - not so much!); even how long I will stand in line before I get impatient (about 90 seconds), and what clerks can do to "reset" my clock and put me at ease.  Everytime I walk into a store now, whether it's Macy's with my wife on a shoe shopping safari, or Fred Meyers to get milk, I remember something I learned from this book.

So, these are books that taught me something.  I look forward to writing about other books that inspired or entertained me.

Time to find my next book!

"There's nothing to match curling up with a good book, especially when there's a repair job to do around the house." (Joe Ryan)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Most Important Lessons

"What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches."
(Karl Menninger)

It's a Tuesday morning in June.  I sit alone in my empty classroom - just me and my thoughts.  My Seniors are done and gone, eager eagles ready to flap their wings and fly off into their futures - yet also a little anxious at leaving all that has been familiar to them.  I will see them all again on Saturday at graduation, and I will smile proudly at them - shake hands with a few - as they march by.

But as I sit here at my desk, I don't feel so alone.  The rows of desks in front of me seem to be standing at attention, like eager soldiers waiting for instructions on the parade grounds.

So my mind stirs.  What are the last things I would want to tell my students before we parted?  What are the most important lessons that I hoped they learned from me?  I know that it wouldn't be the Economics we covered, the news that we discussed, or any reading, writing, or 'rithmetic that we did.

Because in my heart I know that the most important things a teacher teaches are the intangibles:  the things they model through their actions each day, and express through their attitudes and presence.  These are the true gifts that we are called to pass on to our students.  These are what will be impressed upon them and hopefully be of value to them as they soar off into the unknown.

So what are the "Pearls" I would want to offer to my students?  What would I tell them if I had just one more session with them, and I had to teach what was most important?  These four lessons are what I'd offer them, based on my own experiences, and hope they'd be as valuable to them as they have been for me.

Be Curious

"Who dares to teach must never cease to learn." (John Cotton Dana)
  • Always be willing to learn something new.  Say "I don't know, but I want to learn" - about the world, about yourself - more often than you say "I don't want to know" or "I don't need to know".  Continue to cultivate a sense of wonder and innocence.  Don't stop reading.  Your world will expand or contract based on how curious you remain.  Learning doesn't stop at 18, or at 54, or at 80.  If you're willing to remain a student, life will always reward you with something new to see, and you will grow.
Be Humble

"A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle."
(Benjamin Franklin)
  • All of life's greatest virtues:  Patience, Compassion, Kindness, Generosity, Love - arise out of Humility:  the knowledge that we are meant to be servants of something greater than ourselves during our lives.  Be willing to give more often than you take, and to go unrecognized for doing so.  Say "I'm sorry - I was wrong" more often than you say "I was right!".  When you can see in any disappointment that Life isn't "taking something away" from you, but instead offering you something greater if only you'd surrender, then real treasures can be yours.
Be Courageous

Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway." (John Wayne)

  • In big ways and small momentous events that are clearly turning points in your life, and in small quiet moments when you think you're all alone, Life will call on you to be courageous.  To do what you don't want to do.  To risk being seen as a failure or to be disliked.  To sail away from the shores of the comfortable and the known into the darkness, not sure that you have what it takes.  Sail away.  Take that step.  Stand tall even when trembling.  It's the only way you'll ever learn that there is inside of you something stronger than you ever would've known, just waiting to be called upon.
Be Honest

"Make yourself an honest man, and then you may be sure there is one less rascal in the world." (Thomas Carlyle)

  • Being honest - with others, with yourself - will never lead you down the wrong road.  But at times it will seem the most difficult thing to do.  Inside all of us is a nature that always wants to "hide", to "take the easy way", to "pretend".  Be willing to face it.  Be unwilling to follow it.  When you remember that what is True never needs defending, and that what is False can never be defended, then you will know that there is nothing you need to fear.  All of my greatest joys, greatest discoveries, the love of my life, all became possible for me only when I was willing to be unflinchingly honest.  Don't wait.  Start making the honest path the well traveled road in your life.
As I finish writing this, the sun shines through my windows on to the desks.  They seem brighter and lighter - inspired by my final "words of wisdom"?   Perhaps not.  But maybe next year I'll share these words with my real students.  Because I know that they're really not "mine" - all of them were given to me to pass on.  I look forward to a chance to do so.  That would be the most important, and rewarding, class I'd ever teach.

Class dismissed. :-)