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Monday, June 29, 2015

Read To Us, Mommy.

Lessons Learned

Read To Us, Mommy.

Three little boys.  Three busy, inquisitive, active, always-cooking-up-something-very-exciting boys. It was summer and there was endless playing to do and countless adventures to be had. Experiments, inventions, and explorations  all regularly occurred as a direct result of treasures unearthed at garage sales, on winding bike paths, in the garden, the sandbox, the kitchen, and jumping from the pages of books.  Free, imaginative, creative, unstructured play ruled our days, recharged our hearts, and engaged the most important kinds of thinking.  Running, flying, launching, constructing, splashing, connecting, shoveling, climbing, swinging, shrieking, catapulting, and every other conceivable action verb propelled us through delightful escapades. And when exhaustion from an overabundance of enacted verbs overtook us, rest in the form of this consistent  request always followed; read to us, Mommy.  Together, we left our overheating flip-flops at the door and snuggled on the couch with a big stack of books. One very rainy June we even pitched a tent on the porch and read our daily pile of books in there.  Ten books per boy each week from the library as well as shelves full of gift books, garage sale books, homemade books, and old family books kept our literary repertoire full and fresh. For hours we’d play. For hours we’d read. Hours upon hours upon hours upon hours.  We stretched out attention spans and grew our imaginations as we listened to story after story and chapter after chapter.  From Fox in Socks to Stone Fox,   and everything in between, we laughed, we cried, and we adventured.  When we were too tired to run one more obstacle course, or to chase one more catapulted and floating parachuter, or to climb one more time to the top of the swing set, we were not too tired to be read to. Precious, beautiful, important time, reading together.  Priceless treasure. And now my boys are grown.  We all still love to lose ourselves in the pages of a great book.  What are you doing this summer in between activities and action verbs? With all my heart, I hope that you are gathering a stack of books and convening with your kids on the couch or in a porch tent to read together, whereby investing in priceless treasure. Read to us, Mommy, is a powerful, precious thing to hear.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Happy Father's Day 2015. Thank You So Much, Dad.

Lessons Learned

Coloring Outside the Lines

It was a Mary Poppins coloring book and the pages were all a very light green, which was extremely awesome because then one could freely use a white crayon. Everyone knows that a white crayon is the loneliest crayon in the box and rarely is selected as it cannot be seen on the usual white art and craft paper. The white crayon enjoyed a bold, frequent presence in my Mary Poppins pictures. My dad and I colored together a lot, for in his wonderful innovative creativity, he was an especially brilliant coloring accomplice. Rather than coloring in the lines, Dad used a black crayon to extend the pictures, and liberally added hats on heads, props in hands, hot air balloons in the sky, every sort of fish in the lakes, additional furniture in the Banks’ home, unexpected and delightful animals in the parks, vendors selling treasures on the sidewalks, and all kinds of excellent, wonderful, highly imaginative and creative fun. With his black crayon, my white crayon, and all of the colors in between, we smiled, laughed, and created masterpiece after masterpiece, all the while, narrating the stories of the pictures as we colored. From my earliest days, I fondly and vividly recall being encouraged to color outside the lines. This great gift of exercising and trusting creativity has joyfully served me and through my humble hands has reached hearts of students through thirty years of teaching.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Gift Of a GREAT Teacher

Lessons Learned

The Best Piano Teacher

She had a stunning reputation for excellence. Unquestionably, in a very wide geographical radius, she was the best of the best. She was the Head of Piano at the local liberal arts college, and every music student there was indelibly enriched to pass through her brilliant tutelage enroute to his or her degree. She could be handed a pencil-scribbled accompaniment manuscript on opening night, and, in the shadows of the dimly lit orchestra pit, she could carry the entire cast of performers through the show magnificently without a single glitch. Her excellence was their confidence. She could play anything. To me, she was magic. As a high school freshman, I was handed many scores of very difficult music in preparation for accompanying several of the high school choirs, as well as vocal and instrumental soloists. As incompetent as I felt, I knew that in lugging this bag of music to her home for weekly piano lessons, there was hope for me as long as a little of her magic could rub off. Through the weeks and months, she taught, she played, she explained, she modeled, she mentored, she tutored, and she led me by the hand through this treacherous bag of music. Unrelenting, we worked note by note and phrase by phrase without any doubt that this all would be fully accomplished in the necessary timetable. I had my doubts, actually, but she never did. She believed. She encouraged. She ran alongside. She made me believe, too. The concerts and performances freshman year were accomplished beautifully and with significant relief on the part of the young accompanist. The sophomore, junior, and senior years flew by with increasingly challenging and greater volumes of music, but with this precious tremendous piano teacher leading the way, no musical challenge was insurmountable. We worked, oh how we worked! She informed me that “impossible” was not an adjective, it was a choice; a choice to surrender. And no student of hers would surrender. Handel’s “Messiah.” Beethoven’s “Halleluiah Chorus” from the Mount of Olives. Books full of vocal solos by Haydn. Trumpet solos by Vivaldi. “Mass” by Leonard Bernstein. Gilbert and Sullivan. Rodgers and Hammerstein. Lerner and Loewe.  Scores spanning the centuries were dissected and reassembled in her living room as this very active learning process surely kept every single neuron firing. Side by side we worked. Side by side I learned every drop of musical understanding I could from her. Infinitely blessed was my life through her gifts and her time. Changed forever was my life because of her tireless pouring of musical passion into my heart. How does one begin to quantify or even explain this sort of teaching excellence? Genius? Yes, I believe she was a genius. She was a genius who felt music with every one of her senses and exuded its fire and glory through her every pore. We corresponded for many years after I went off to college and on into a career in teaching and the creative arts. She remained a strong encourager and a profound voice of inspiration in my life until her passing. An unfathomable love of music, an incomprehensible passion for teaching, these are among the treasures she planted in my heart, and these are among the blessings I pray I bring to my students.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


Lessons Learned

Road Rage, the Adult Equivalent to a Temper Tantrum

When driving, have you ever had someone follow you so closely that it seemed they might climb right into your trunk?  Although, your speedometer insists that you are maintaining a suitable law-abiding pace, her face in your rearview mirror clearly and vehemently disagrees. You could almost watch the fire engine red creeping up her neck in flagrant, irrational rage except that keeping your eyes on the road is a higher, albeit less entertaining, priority.  What is that but sheer impatience turned radically ugly. What drives that crazed, possessed fury laser-focused at the stranger ahead, who has done nothing but drive in full accordance with the law? I believe that we are forgetting how to breathe, despite the simple anatomical fact that breathing is an involuntary process which is controlled by the brain. It seems we frequently revert to toddler temper tantrums when we settle in behind the wheels of our cars. While grocery shopping one day, I witnessed a full out temper tantrum by a child who wasn’t going to get a toy at the grocery store.  The answer “no” was more than he could take, so on the floor he flailed with kicks and screams and a bright red face. He held his breath but continued his flurry of chaotic movements. (Not dissimilar to our road rage neighbor.)  His mother stood quietly, patiently there, her eyes perusing the shelves for the best-priced tomato paste. She was breathing. She maintained calmness and stilled her heart by pausing to breathe. When the young chap realized that the intended outcome was not to be, the tantrum downgraded and then fizzled at which point, he began to breathe again.  “No” is the word we cannot easily accept, especially when it thwarts what we want when we want it. No, you cannot drive faster when I am driving slower. Tantrum. No, you cannot push me to drive faster when I have decided to drive the speed limit. Tantrum. No, you cannot make me change my mind about speeding by shouting at me in the rearview mirror. Tantrum.  So with fire and daggers flying from your eyes, you spew hate in my direction, simply because you cannot travel the speed you wish. You don’t even know me and I am a little bit afraid of you already. Adult temper tantrums are ridiculously unflattering and bespeak a desperate narcissistic immaturity that is horrifically disappointing. If you require immediate medical attention, please call an ambulance as they are licensed to exceed the speed limit, and we will all pull over to let you through. If, however,  you are running late for your hair appointment or the ballgame or even work, please just set your alarm for a few minutes earlier thus allowing time to breathe. Breathing will certainly make you a more respectable citizen and will incidentally help make the world a kinder, gentler place for us all. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Own It, for Pete's sake!

Lessons Learned

What? I Didn’t Do It

The knee-jerk response to most every “shouldn’t have done it” incident is I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it! Regardless of the age of the spokesperson, two to ninety-two, this response more often than not remains consistently uttered, for it represents the finest in Teflon outfitting defending one against all sorts of true or false but always uncomfortable allegations. I can be watching a student do the very thing he or she has been instructed not to do and when called on it will almost unequivocally, bordering on the brazenly, assert, I didn’t do it. Many times a day. This phenomenon is certainly not exclusive to schools and students, however, for these students have had to be carefully taught, which they absolutely have been. The I didn’t do it mentality and societal norm seems as automatic to human nature as bowing for applause.  I didn’t do it is usually followed by a bit of anemic bantering along the lines of yes you did, no I didn’t, yes, no, etc. where it then fizzles to conversational complacency, a very safe place where it quietly rests until it is needed again. It never gathers moss nor grows dusty waiting, though. In complacency it is deemed not a worthy fight, and in complacency it is perpetuated with increasing shamelessness.  But it’s a lie. A big, fat, bold-faced lie. I am not sure why we are okay with this. Over and over and over again in every walk of life and living from classrooms to legislative halls, from snarling interactions with referees, police officers, and parents to defensive exchanges with neighbors and road rage enthusiasts, we fight to abscond from the responsibility of simply owning what we do. The reality is, despite what our insecurities may shout at us, owning our actions, fessing up to our behavior, or begging the pardon of our screw-ups does not in fact really hurt that much. Mild embarrassment perhaps.  Or maybe a pinch of shame.  But honestly, bearing responsibility for our good or bad behavior strengthens integrity and is honorable. We all make mistakes with great regularity for it is in our very nature to push back a bit against the rules, even the most compliant among us. Own it. Claim it. Confess it. Apologize for it. Then be free of it. If you refuse to own it, it will in fact own you, and you will be diminished by it. The automatic I didn’t do it response is not good enough for today’s students, or yesterday’s for that matter, because it doesn’t call students forth to be strong or to be responsible, both of which they will need to become the leaders they are capable of becoming.