It’s Time

Just this morning, I took the outgoing mail down to the box and dropped in in.  Included with the monthly bills was a form letter to my former school district declining their offer to continue working for them as a substitute teacher.  I finally decided to stop teaching–entirely.

When I retired, I refused to sign up for any classes or do any kind of structured activity for the first six months.  I had been in school for 53 straight years, first as a student and then as a teacher, and was delighted to not have a daily time schedule.  I was happy that I no longer had to wait until the bell rang to go pee.

I was as surprised as anyone when I did the paperwork to become a substitute teacher after that six months passed.  I quickly discovered that I needed to put down limits. I’d only sub for English or social studies teachers (subjects I knew pretty well), only at two schools where I had friends, and only for teachers who I respected because I knew they knew how to run a classroom.  Every time I made an exception, I ended up regretting it.

For the first few years, going back to my school, was a pleasure.  It was fun to see my ex-colleagues and meet new teachers.  There was a cadre of former students still there who knew me because I had been their freshman English teacher, so I was not an entirely unknown quantity.

Going to the other school was a test, having taught for 36 years in one place, but among the groups I subbed for, I quickly became just another teacher and a sub that they (usually) respected.  You have to understand, the pool of competent subs is so thin that showing up with a level of confidence and expertise was often something kids appreciated.  I was shocked at the number of times kids actually thanked me for being their sub that day.

I learned to always ask the teachers I subbed for to email me lesson plans the night before when possible, so I could go in feeling prepared and even read what the kids had read if we were going to do something text-related.  Getting to interact with the kids without having to do any significant preparation and then walk away without any papers to grade was wonderful, and getting in front of a classroom again felt really good.

But then there were days when I’d end up showing the same film for 5 hours, or administering tests for the entire day.  I’d feel like the clock-watching students, just anxious for the day to be over.

I started turning down so many jobs that the demand began to dry up.  I had grown so used to spending time in my yard, or taking my daily walks, or going hiking that I hated being required to be indoors.  I didn’t like being on my feet all day and coming home feeling exhausted with my back aching.  Taking sub jobs meant I’d miss yoga classes or time with my hiking group or acupuncture appointments I’d been looking forward to.

So, last year, I put the word out that I was pretty sure I was done.  I volunteered for a couple of school-related things to help out friends–proctoring AP tests, being a part of a panel for senior-project presentations–but that was it.

This year, no calls at all.  I guess I am done as a teacher.  I’m not an entrepreneur.  I don’t need the time to start a new career, but I do want to have the time to learn new things and maybe become good at something that’s not teaching.  I gave 40 years to teaching.  I think it’s time to let it go.

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“Retired, Not Dead” Turns 100!  My Ten Favorite Posts: A Retrospective

It never occurred to me that if I just kept writing, I would end up publishing 100 articles in this blog, but this entry will be #100.  For this landmark, I decided to go back and select 10 articles for which I had a particular fondness.  If you are a regular reader or have just accidentally stumbled across the blog for the first time, I hope you will take time to browse a few of my favorites.  Please drop me a comment if you are inspired to do so.  I love to hear from my readers.

My first post was on March 5, 2014.  These are listed from oldest to most recent:

“Thank You, Paul McCartney” recounts my introduction to French kissing and I am forever grateful to the young woman who introduced me to it so kindly.  The moment coincided with Paul McCartney’s song “Maybe I’m Amazed” which is why it is dedicated to him.

“Just The Facts, Ma’am–The Top 5 TV Detectives”  I loved this project.  Once I decided on my list I spent a full day on each one–reading up on them to collect background, watching clips for memorable moments, and at times watching whole episodes each morning.  After all, I was doing research.  Right after lunch, I’d start on the detective’s profile and get it posted by the late afternoon, building the article in serial fashion, posting detective #5 on Monday and #1 on Friday.

“Dish Bitch”  wherein I complain bitterly about being the only member of the family willing to empty the dishwasher and then slowly come to terms with my fate.

“So, Hypochondriacally Speaking…”  This one explores my own paranoia about my health and how I seem to overreact to every odd fleeting symptom that comes along.  I might have picked this one just because I liked the play on words in the title.

“Dude, I Said I Was Sorry”  This one tells the story of my encounter with an angry bike rider who claimed I had almost run him over when I actually had never even seen him.  In this one I played with a technique used by Joseph Heller (Catch 22) where the character’s thoughts sometimes become part of the on-going dialogue.

“Watching Icebergs Go By”  This is a story from my teaching career where I was once again reminded of how little I actually know about the lives of my students.  One particular student makes a heart-breaking revelation in the very last class on the very last day of the school year.

“Competitive Backpacking”  Yes, one would think that backpacking is the ultimate team activity, but when my friends and I were active in the 1980’s there were always contests to one-up each other, sometimes with very funny consequences.

“Men: Why It’s Important To Keep Your Mouth Shut”  The complexities of communication between men and women is a source of constant fascination for me.  Over time, I think I’ve learned when it is most important to shut up and listen.

“A Day In The Life”  I think some people might skip over my blog, assuming from the title that it is a record of the glories of retired life.  However, those kind of entries make up a small fraction.  This one, however, tries to answer the question I get from working people who cannot fathom a life without work:  “Just what do you do to stay busy?”

“Honestly, I Lie All The Time”  Honesty should be simple, but in this one I discover times where I had to evaluate just how often I tell “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

“Grumpy Old Man”  I’m better now, but I went through a few months where everything seemed to annoy me.  In this one, I describe both my symptoms and a possible cure.

OK, so I picked 11 and couldn’t decide which one to cut.  So, shoot me.  I find that I was much more anxious to reprise articles that made me laugh than the ones that were more serious.  The serious ones are in the archives if you feel like exploring them.

Thank you to everyone who has been so encouraging and who regularly leaves “likes” and comments and to those who pushed me to start off on this journey 3 plus years ago.  I’m looking forward to more writing ahead.

Shakespeare Sunday: Everyone Dies

Happy Sunday everyone!  Last week when I wrote about Sonnet 18, I mentioned the irony in how the speaker in the poem brags about the immortality that his poem gives to his loved one’s beauty, when Shakespeare spends an awful lot of time reminding us of our fragile grasp on life.  That brought me back to Sonnet 73. Go ahead and read it again if it’s been a while.  I’ll wait:

SONNET 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou seest the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire

Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Just to bring a little more rigor to Shakespeare Sunday, I actually read some analysis of this poem, but what I was looking for was to see if there was any record of when each poem was written.  I was curious to see how much later 73 was written than 18.  No luck.

However, I did find lots of analysis and deep parsing of this lovely poem which would have completely ruined it for me, but I long ago quit paying much attention to literary criticism.  I enjoy reading some analysis to inform me of just how ignorant I might be when I start writing about literature, but am sometimes appalled at the nit-picking I start to find.  I sure hope that I didn’t kill the enjoyment of the poetry that I read with my students in a similar manner.  I did write about my approach to poetry as a teacher some time ago in a piece I called “I Don’t Hate Poetry.”

One analysis found the three metaphors that Shakespeare uses to be “cliched”–another writer might call them “timeless.”  Regardless, as a teacher it was great fun to play with these metaphors with students because most young people simply do not think in terms of metaphor.  They do not consider that the seasons, or that the cycle of the day, or that the burning of a fire is kind of like the progression of life from youth to death.

I particularly like the first four lines.  I’m not sure you can find a better example of iambic pentameter (just supposing you were looking for one) and they are maybe my favorite four lines of poetry to read aloud.  The image of naked branches as “bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” seems just perfect; naked branches “where yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.”

In the following quatrain, the speaker thinks of himself as being in the “twilight” of his life “which by and by black night doth take away.”  I was always intrigued by Shakespeare’s characterization of night as “death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.”  To think of sleep as akin to death seems totally appropriate to me.  It reaffirms my daily response to the overly-cheerful baristas at Starbucks who greet me every morning between 5 and 7 AM with the question “How is your day going?”–just a horrible question to ask me BEFORE I’ve had my twenty ounces of morning Joe.  The only thing I can think of to say is, “Well, I woke up this morning.”

In the third quatrain, the speaker admits he is no longer a bonfire, but just a collection of burning embers, soon to be extinct.

In the final couplet, we come to understand that the speaker seems to be speaking to a younger person and warning or advising him or her that one must “love that well which thou must leave ere long.”  Life is short.  Live long and prosper.

As I was warming up to write this piece (something that goes on all week!), I thought about that scene from “Dead Poet’s Society” when Robin Williams character takes his boys down to view the pictures of long-dead alumni of the fictional Welton Academy and delivers his famous “carpe diem” speech:

“Now I would like you to step forward over here and peruse some of the faces from the past. You have walked past them many times. I don’t think you’ve really looked at them. They’re not very different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their live even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilising daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, Lean in. Listen… Do you hear it? (whispers) Carpe. (whispers again) Cape. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

Some critics thought this speech sucked also, but I like it.  Any movie that showed a teacher teaching with mindfulness and passion was OK with me.

Hope you’ve had a great week.  I promised my mid-week piece would be a check in on “Surviving the Trump Apocalypse” and I will try, but “Retired, Not Dead” will be on the road to Seattle, WA for a well-deserved vacation,  and I may just be having too much fun to write about politics.

Connected

Yesterday, Mary and I took a hike to Kitchen Creek Falls (near Buckman Springs), and enjoyed a nice view of the falls but decided not to climb all the way down because we had taken some wrong turns and were getting tired.  As we began to head back, we could see a young couple approaching.

“Hey, Mr. Waldron!” the young woman called out.  Yep.  Middle of nowhere.  Former student.

This happens pretty often. It’s a function of having taught in the same school for thirty six years and living in the same community.  It’s actually pretty nice.

Like, there were those years where after coaching AYSO soccer for 10 years so that I could spend more time with my daughter, my former players started showing up in my classroom, kids who I had coached when they were as young as 6, now appearing as teenaged students, and their parents, happy that “Coach Tom” was now their daughter’s English teacher.

There was the time that, when I was an acting vice-principal, I had to pretend to be stern with a 9th grade girl over a minor disciplinary incident.  She was dissolving into tears especially over the fact that I was going to have to call her mom.  I knew that the mom had high expectations for her girls because I had already had her two older sisters as students in my class.  One day I discovered the eldest, tucked away in a corner of the school in tears.  I sat with her for a while, and she told me about the constant pressure she felt from her mom, no matter how hard she tried or how well she did.  Years later, when I was looking for a referral to an acupuncturist, a friend recommended a woman who had a clinic nearby.  It turned out to be the mother of the three girls.  It took us a while to make the connection, but when her eldest daughter began to practice in the same clinic and take over some of her patients, my former student became my doctor and treats me weekly now.  She remembers our high school interactions and the support I offered.  I get invited to her children’s birthday parties.

At the end of 2008, I went through a rigorous, but exciting process, and was selected as one of five San Diego County Teachers of the Year.  I received many pretty certificates and collected a lot of pieces of engraved acrylic trophies, most of which I’ve discarded now.  But the nicest recognition happened when I walked into my local pub, and the man who had run my local hardware store for many years was sitting at the bar and when he noticed me got all excited.  “You got picked as a teacher of the year!” he said, reaching into his back pocket and pulling out a profile of me that had been written up in the local paper.  He’d been holding on to that clipping knowing he might run into me at the bar eventually.  As I settled in, he began going up and down the bar and showing all the regulars the article and pointing at me and pretty soon I had a group of guys coming up to shake my hand and offer their congratulations.  The band broke out their rendition of the CSN song “Teach Your Children.”  It was so spontaneous and heartfelt that I’m sure I did not stop smiling all evening.

So, when I look back at my work life I wonder sometimes about how limited it was, how many experiences I may have missed by not branching out a little more.  But I loved what I did, and I really value the connections that I have in my life as a result of the choice that I made.

If It’s Friday, It Must Be Barry White

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To be honest, I think most of Barry White’s music is pretty awful. That being said, two songs—“Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe,” and “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything”—belong right up there in the Catchy-Ass Music Hall of Fame.

I first got hooked on just how great these tunes were when I noticed that one of the sports guys I listened to on the radio as I was driving home from work every day,  ended his program with a small clip of “You’re the First…” and with the words, “Hey, if you ain’t getting any, it ain’t Barry White’s fault.” The words made no sense, and had nothing to do with sports, but I loved the fact that he did the same thing every day. It was his send off. His ritual.

I’m not sure when I started incorporating music into my classroom (I taught English) but it came from noticing how often some periods began with such lethargy that I felt I was lifting a boulder of boredom before I even got started. So, I started picking out two or three songs to play from the start of the passing period until I had shaken hands with each of the kids, taken roll, and was ready to start the day. When the music went off, kids knew it was time for class to start. I created playlists I thought they would like, made them listen to some international music like Manu Chao, Mexican fusion from Los Lobos and Ozomatli, and lots of Beatles and Motown—basically anything that I liked. Occasionally my son or daughter would advise me to slip in something current, just to keep the “cool factor” up, so I’d surprise the kids with that.

But Fridays were always reserved for Barry White. Monday through Thursday was  a mixed bag, but every Friday was a Barry White Friday. I didn’t explain why, or tell the story about how I had come upon it. I just wrote on the board on the first Friday of the year, “Today is a Barry White Friday.” For some kids, it took months to even notice. Some picked it up right away, that Fridays were different. Fridays were to be celebrated.

Kids are so immersed in so many things that I had to laugh at the number of times I would crank Barry up, and I’d hear someone exclaim, “Oh, my god! It is Friday!” Dancing would then sometimes ensue.

At least two or three times a year, I’ll get a text or FB message from a student telling me about how they were walking through a grocery store or listening to the radio and one of his songs would come on, songs that I had played for 36 almost-consecutive Fridays, and they would be flooded with the memories of senior year.

I don’t think anything about Barry White made my kids better students, improved test scores, or fundamentally changed the arc of their lives. It was just one of those very little things that made our class a little different, a little special. Something that their friends in other classes wouldn’t get, and would never quite understand.

 

 

 

 

Watching Icebergs Go By

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Day 12

One of our writing buddies, Niki, recently wrote in a comment that she “often felt like an iceberg—most of myself staying hidden from view.” I was struck by this, not because it parallels my own loneliness issues, but because it reminded me of how I felt as a high school teacher as, day after day, I looked out over my ocean of students.

I got into teaching high school primarily because I wanted to be a caring presence in the lives of teens knowing that it was a tumultuous time of life and that, at least occasionally, I might be able to be of some help.

Over 36 years, I was confronted with almost every kind of crisis—the loss of a loved one, an abusive home, a young man preparing to come out to his friends, a student discovering that her life was about to be repossessed by financial reversals about which she had known nothing.

Every one of these encounters made me acutely aware of how many other of my students must be out there, icebergs who floated by me daily, taking my quizzes, turning in papers, joking with friends, but suffering in silence.

Coincidentally, as the end of the year approached, all of my 12th graders knew that they were expected to deliver a 3-minute speech to their peers as part of a culminating activity. They had several options for a topic, but most of them chose to reflect on a personal observation, and sometimes those speeches were incredibly revealing, leading me to wonder if this activity was badly timed, since I often learned critical information about them during the last two days of school, information that would have made me a better teacher to them had I known it all semester.

I’ll write more about the speeches later, but one quiet student’s speech has always haunted me. He delivered it on the very last period of the very last day of school. He had struggled all year to maintain a passing grade. It was killing me because whenever he turned in an assignment, especially any writing assignment, it was clear that he was beyond capable. I’d pull him aside and show him how little he had to do to bring up his grade to a safe level so that graduation would be guaranteed. I regularly warned, pleaded, and cajoled him to put out just a little more effort.

In the end, it came down to his speech. If he got up and did it, he’d graduate. If not, he’d fail. When his turn came, he took his place at the podium and began. It might have been the first time he had actually had spoken up in a class activity.

Once he began to describe the year he and his father had spent coping with his mother’s terminal illness, the class lapsed into an unnatural silence. I no longer remember the particular illness, but the symptoms and complications sounded very similar to ALS or multiple sclerosis—something that was slow, degenerative, and ultimately, deadly.

And then, with great composure, he told us that this particular disease was genetic and that he had a 50% chance of having inherited it. He told us there was a test that would tell him definitively if he had the disease, if he had the condition that would ultimately lead to the painful deterioration that he had spent the past year watching in his mother. He told us that he had been struggling all year with the decision of whether to have the test or not. He told us that he had not yet made up his mind, and then he sat down.

He passed the class.

Somehow I got through the rest of the period, wished them all well, and sent them on their way to graduation and beyond.

Then I sat down and thought, “Well, fuck me.” How much more supportive a force could I have been for this kid if I had had any idea what he was going through? Of course, little assignments in Senior English seemed meaningless to him. Of course, he was getting by on minimum effort. Why in the world did he decide to tell us all on the last day of school?

I don’t have a savior complex. Even if I had known, I know I couldn’t have made his year that much easier. He was just one more iceberg that got past me.

Flirting With Insignificance

Day 10

Once I started teaching seniors, I looked forward every year to the day I would begin to introduce them to the concept of existentialism. I felt I had to go all Albert Camus on them because The Stranger was one of the central lit pieces that I taught.

I relished immersing them in the basic tenets of this philosophy, essentially alien to all of them, and for one or two days in a row I played devil’s advocate to every question, objection, personal experience, religious belief that they could challenge me with. For two days I would crush their spirits into the belief that they were living insignificant lives in an absurd and meaningless universe, continually verging on the edge of the abyss of despair and alienation.

Of course, then I would have to spend the next three weeks reassuring them that existentialism was simply one of many world views and not one that I was promoting. To avoid parent phone calls, I had to swear to them that I wasn’t anti-religion, that it was fine with me if they believed in God and the afterlife, and that, of course, they were leading meaningful lives.

But, for some of them, this one lesson was an earthquake. The fact that anyone could believe in such a philosophy, that it was a well-developed, much discussed pillar of post-modern society, that I could fill up a 40-minute power point with its principles was a shock to some 17-year-olds who had never considered a point of view that varied from what all of their families and friends had at least pretended that they believed in.

One student refused to speak to me for the rest of the year.

Part of the lecture was to discuss why existential thought considers an individual’s life to be meaningless. To illustrate this I had them think about how our 70 or 80 or 90 years on this planet compared to the eons that came before us and the millions or maybe billions of years that would follow our short lives. I asked them to add that to the fact that we are on a small planet, in a small galaxy, in the midst of an enormous universe, the size of which is, for me, incomprehensible.

So given all that, just how important was any single action, thought, or decision that any one of us might make? It usually got really quiet after that.

It took me a while to explain why I found this aspect of existentialism to be particularly freeing and not depressing. As someone who constantly second guesses himself and agonizes over sometimes trivial decisions, it helps me to be reminded that the world doesn’t turn on my decision on when it’s appropriate to buy a new vacuum cleaner or get the garden weeded.

It’s where I’d try to lead them to eventually—that meaning comes from within. That an existential point of view empowers them to wipe the slate clean and take responsibility for looking at their actions and decisions and figuring out for themselves what ultimately a meaningful life looks like.

Note: Most of them still liked me by the end of the year.

 

Senior Scrapbook: The Second Best Idea I Ever Stole

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During my 36 years as a high school English teacher, I generally substituted creative theft for actual creativity. Some of the best practices that I used were taken from teacher workshops, my colleagues, and journal articles. One of the things that teaching did for me was to keep me engaged in the world, always looking for something I might adapt and use effectively in the classroom. A song lyric, a news article, a documentary, a project my own children might bring home from school were all fair game. This was how I entered the weird world of scrapbooking.

I taught Advanced Placement (honors) senior English for the last 12 years of my career and all AP teachers, particularly those who worked with seniors, quietly dread the day that the AP test has come and gone. Beginning on the day that the students would return from the test for which I had prepared them, they would begin to look at me as some alien being, someone who no longer served any purpose especially when I would insist that we were continuing on with our work as usual.

I faced 4-5 weeks of trying to keep them engaged when nearly every kid had already chosen the college they would be attending the following year, and once AP tests were over, they were done. My best attempts were met, not with hostility, but with a deep and abiding sense of apathy. “Mr. Waldron,” they would say, “why do you keep trying to make us do stuff?”

 I did “stuff”, because I could not stand the boredom that comes from doing nothing. I decided they would read The Rocket Boys, the poignant memoir by Homer Hickam, popularized by the film October Sky. They would write a reflective essay focusing on one significant thing they had learned during their high school years, or to profile one special person who had provided them with mentoring and guidance. Students would also prepare a reflective speech to be delivered on one of the final three days of school. The guidelines were similar to the reflective essay and provided me with an easy way to get through the final three days with little to grade.

Lastly, they would create a scrapbook.

It started with the class of 2001. The entire idea of this four-part unit was to personalize the last 5 weeks and to give them opportunities to look back and consider what this experience of high school had meant to them, the good and the bad. For better or for worse, they were hitting one of our society’s significant rites of passage—graduation from high school. It was also designed to make the last 5 weeks as fun and easy for me as possible. Call it senior-citizenitis.

The seed of the idea for the scrapbook came from an article I read in the spring about a teacher who had used the creation of a scrapbook as a classroom activity. It occurred to me that this fit right in with my theme and that it would be both valuable and fun to have students create their own, individual scrapbooks, full of their best memories from high school.

I kept the guidelines simple. The scrapbook was to be a minimum of 25 pages. Each scrapbook had three required elements: a copy of their reflective essay, a short blurb on each section telling why this sport, activity, person, club, was significant, and three letters from meaningful people (a friend, a school person, and a relative) written to them and reflecting on this moment of their impending graduation. The other pages were up to them. I gave them a list of suggested page topics, but they literally exploded with ideas of their own. The grading was simple. If students met the requirements on time, they got full credit. The scrapbook could be expensive and elaborate with themed paper, stickers, and all of the other scrapbook madness, or it could be in a three-ring binder mounted on typing paper. It had to be completed at home. I took only three class days out to check on the number of completed pages and check on the required elements. The hardest part for me was getting through the class in one period. Some kids wanted to tell me the story behind every picture on every page and I really, really wanted to listen because some of them had worked so hard, but I had to sometimes rush them so I could look through all 30+ scrapbooks in one period.

I kept the same requirements for 12 years with very little adjustment, the biggest change being that after the first year, I told the students about the project during the first week of school to give them plenty of time to take pictures, save memorabilia, and to procrastinate. After the project had become well established, I would poll the students on the first day of school as to whether or not they had heard anything about it. Ninety percent of them had. Some of them had literally gotten into my class specifically because they wanted to do this one assignment. Wide-eyed kids eagerly told me that they already had completed some pages during the summer before their senior year had even begun. The finished projects ranged from meeting the minimum requirements to putting together 80-page productions in multiple volumes. It became a monster.

But it did not catch on right away with that very first class, the class of 2001. In fact, there was open revolt from the moment I suggested the idea. Remember, I introduced it with only 5 or 6 weeks remaining and it sounded like work and work was something that most had grown allergic to by then. But, there was a distinct gender split. As I explained the project, I could see a euphoric expression crossing the faces of some girls as if this was the assignment they had been waiting for, hoping desperately for, for their entire high school careers. Many of the boys were outraged. “You can’t make us do this“ they threatened. “We’re going to start a petition!” I’m not sure what the petition would have been for or to whom they would have given it, but clearly they needed some outlet to combat my audacity. One of the boys came to me and said defiantly, “I’m just not going to do this project!” My response had been honed by years of practice. I looked at him blandly and said, “You don’t have to. You don’t have to do anything I assign. If you can afford to lose the 100 points for the project, then don’t do it. It’s entirely up to you.” While the boys were planning rebellion, the girls were already planning scrapbooking parties.

We made it through that first year. The rebels surrendered and put their mothers and girlfriends to work and everyone completed the task. In the last weeks as I attended numerous senior activities, both kids and parents approached me to thank me. “We are so grateful that you made us do this. We would never have taken the time to do it on our own and now we have something really special to help us remember his high school years” was a comment I received frequently.

Alicia, a wonderful student from the class of 2005 wrote a message to me recently where she stated, “I found my scrapbook last summer and can’t thank you enough for creating an assignment for us to compile a concrete record of our time at Valhalla (High School). I never would have done it on my own, and it was incredible to rediscover the high school version of myself—so concerned with defining my own personality and path, surprisingly struggling with some of the societal and personal issues that I think about today.”

It’s funny the things that endure. I tripped across an article, adapted it for the classroom and decided to give it a shot. I quite unknowingly discovered a tool by which kids could “rediscover the high school version” of themselves. As the years have gone by and I have met up with or heard from students who are now scattered across the country, the scrapbook is invariably mentioned.

So much from the classroom fades away, but clearly, the scrapbook abides.

 

 

 

 

A Handshake A Day…A Classroom Practice That Changed Everything

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During my 36 years of teaching English at the high school level, I attended many, many “professional development” workshops. I will let you in on a secret. By and large, teachers are terrible learners.

We demonstrate every bad behavior that we spend all day chastising our students about. We don’t pay attention. We pass notes. We ignore directions. We grade papers instead of attending to the presenter. Smartphones have made us even more inattentive, since now we can check email, Facebook, or chat with our friends across the room via text messages.

It is not our fault altogether. The workshops frequently do not meet our most critical or pressing needs. They are often planned by administrators who have lost touch with the classroom. And especially bad are the district-sponsored sessions that are designed to indoctrinate teachers into THE NEXT BIG, IMPORTANT THING IN EDUCATION which they are convinced we must begin to implement immediately. Those of us who have been around feel a touch of cynicism about such roll-outs because we know it is likely to be just a couple of years before we are dragged back into the same room to hear about THE NEXT BIG, IMPORTANT THING IN EDUCATION which not only replaces its predecessor, but likely undoes all of the work we just completed implementing for the previous program.

However, one spring afternoon our staff gathered for a half-day workshop with a focus on the importance of boosting students’ self-esteem. This was some time ago when caring about students as individuals was considered as important as producing good test-takers.

The woman presenter was earnest and sincere and I’m sure she gave us a lot of good ideas and strategies, all of which I have now forgotten—all except for one. She told us that she stood at the door of her classroom at the beginning of every period and shook hands with every entering student, greeting every student, every day.

She claimed it was the single most influential thing she had ever done in terms of creating a warmer and more welcoming classroom environment. She claimed that once she began, her problems with discipline were greatly reduced, her students felt better about her and about themselves and most remarkably, that she could wait until the end of the day to record her attendance because she could actually remember who had attended that day.

“Hmmm,” I thought. This actually sounded like something.

There were so many reasons NOT to try it. First of all, we were nearing the end of the year, with barely 6 weeks of school remaining. Introducing a new ritual, a new daily practice would be awkward, both for me and for them. My classroom had two entry doors, so I’d be unable to greet them coming in the door. I’d need to wait until they were seated and then circulate through the room killing more instructional time. Most of all though, the thought of it made me feel vulnerable. I imagined that the kids would think it strange, forced, artificial. I convinced myself several times to put it off to the beginning of the next year. After all, it would be so much easier to start off the year with a brand new group of kids who had no expectations, who would be less likely to see this new practice as being a weird departure from the norm.

But the idea gnawed at me all weekend. If it was really that good, if it really made that big a difference, why not take it on a test drive for 6 weeks and see if it really could have the kind of impact that the presenter had suggested?

I was nervous on Monday morning. The first period kids sat down at the bell, and I began circulating up and down the rows with my first official handshake of what would become a ritual that would endure throughout the rest of my career. Students were surprised, puzzled, skeptical, and amused as I went around greeting each kid briefly. Once I was done, I certainly had their attention because they all wanted to know what the heck that was all about. So, I told them the story of the workshop, of my decision to experiment with them until the end of the year. After we had given it a try, I told them, I’d let them tell me what they thought, whether it was something I should continue with or not.

Over the next couple of weeks, we all became used to the new ritual. I began to look forward to this way of beginning each class. I liked that I had a brief moment each day to acknowledge every student in my classes. If I had a concern with one of the kids, I could pause at his desk and consult with him for a moment. Likewise, the students discovered that this was a good time to stop me if they had a particular problem or question to which they wanted to alert me. I found myself giving impromptu handshake lessons when students would offer up what I called a “dead fish handshake”, letting their hand lie limply and passively in mine. I felt like I was performing a public service by preparing them for using the proper “business handshake” that they would need as they eventually made their way into college and job interviews.

As the year came to a close, I did not feel as though I had seen a huge transformation in the classroom atmosphere. I had, however, begun to feel a significant change in me. By spending that moment every day with every student, I began to be much more aware of the uniqueness of each kid. Especially important to me was that it gave me a chance to chat with and acknowledge those who were very quiet or shy. They couldn’t hide when I was standing over them with my hand outstretched and, over time, I think they appreciated the attention.

During finals I surveyed the class and asked them how they had felt about our little experiment. It had become so routine by then a lot of them shrugged their shoulders. “Fine” some of them mumbled. One brave soul raised his hand to comment, “What I noticed, Mr. Waldron, was that it was really hard to be mean to you when you took time to shake our hands every day.”

Well, that was enough of an endorsement for me. I continued shaking hands for the next 15+ years, every kid, every day. Through it, I discovered not only the importance of creating a non-threatening physical connection, but the importance of having unique classroom rituals. The handshake made our classroom special because no one else (that they knew of) was doing it. Howls would go up if I mistakenly tried to begin class without handshakes first. Returning student might not remember a single thing I had taught them about reading or writing, but everyone remembered our daily routine.

One student who wrote to me on the occasion of my retirement in 2012 summarized it nicely: “I remember your daily handshakes (or fistbumps if we were sick) like it was yesterday. Taking those few minutes out of your day to talk to each student really made a difference, especially during a time where every teenager is struggling to figure out who they are and where they fit in. It was nice to know that at least one teacher really cared enough to take those few seconds out of their day to treat each student like a real person, not just another face in a crowd.”

Just a few minutes a day. Such a simple thing. I’m so glad I was paying attention during that one afternoon workshop so many years ago.

Please, Please Don’t Make Me Think!!

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From time to time, I return to the high school where I spent most of my adult life, filling in as a substitute teacher for friends of mine. Having taught freshmen during the last year before my retirement, there is still one cluster of students who know me as a “regular teacher” and they are all now seniors, getting ready to graduate. For the past week, I have been substituting for a teacher who has mostly seniors, and I’ve been re-united with many of my former kids.

It was during some slack time in one of those classes that Luisa, one of my former freshmen, asked if she could do a brief interview with me for an assignment she was trying to complete for her psychology class. She had three questions that she had to ask of someone younger than her, someone older than her, and someone who was of “post-retirement” age. She laughed when I said, “That’s a nice way of saying that I’m the old person of the group.”

It would have been much easier if I had been inclined to give glib, easy answers, but each question hit me as being tough and thought provoking.

Question 1. “What has been the best age in your experience?”

I immediately assumed she was talking about “best decade” as opposed to “best year” and I found myself torn. I had six decades to choose from. I discounted the first two, eventually narrowing it down to either my 20’s or my 60’s (although I’m only two years in). These were/are decades where I have felt the greatest personal freedom, especially freedom from responsibility. I have always taken my responsibilities as a husband, a dad, and a teacher very seriously, but now, when I see a responsibility heading my way, I duck and hide and hope someone else will get stuck with it. I am both highly responsible and responsibility-averse at the same time.

After some thought, I settled on my 20’s. On the one hand, I had less money; on the other hand, I had many fewer aches and pains. I had the energy and enthusiasm of youth and was in the midst of finishing college and beginning a new career. Most especially, though, I remember those years as the long honeymoon of my now 40-year marriage. Married at 21 to a girl I had loved since high school, I’m sure those years are hazed with a golden glow of nostalgia, but for me they were a time of being young and free and in love. As we set up our first home together, a two-bedroom duplex, we worked at blending our different images of what “home” looked like and started to learn what it really meant to be partners. We learned how to have fights. Best of all, we learned how to make up. We could spend lazy hours together on a Sunday afternoon with nothing but each other’s company and feel utterly fulfilled. I remember watching her stand at the bedroom mirror, brushing her long, black hair in the evening, marveling at her beauty and at my good luck in having found her.

That decade was capped off with the birth of our son Nico, and the exciting, demanding, and immensely fulfilling beginnings of parenthood.

Question 2. “What age do you consider “old”?”

Ouch. The face I see in the mirror every morning says that I am old. Scrolling back to 1953 on my laptop whenever I have to record my birth date for some government form is certainly an eye-opener as decade after decade slips past. The constant aches, the more frequent doctor visits, the amount of time needed to maintain a body that once seemed to take care of itself all scream “OLD, OLD, OLD!”

But given all of that, I don’t FEEL old. And I am around OLD a lot. My mother resides in a board-and-care home, a residential facility that can house no more than 6 residents, all of whom need 24-hour attention. The oldest resident there is now 99 years old and until just recently was as spry and sharp as could be. He is my hero. My mother clocks in at 92 years of age, placed in this home due to her growing dementia and lack of mobility. I visit nearly every day, at least for a while, and doing so for the last three years is beginning to age me a bit, I think. Every day, I’m reminded of what the ravages of age can do no matter how hard one might try to fend them off.

It was these many visits that informed my answer to Luisa about what I considered to be old. I told her I could not pinpoint a particular year. For me, it seems that there will come a time when I start to feel that my body is beginning to rob me of my ability to be active in the way that I want to be, the way I am now.

I’m no Stephen Hawking. I don’t expect to be heroic as age or disease begins to chip away at my well-being. I expect to be pretty pissed off about it and to rage a little against the dying of the light. I am just happy that I am not there yet.

Question 3. What is the most important life lesson that you have learned?

 “Is Your Love Enough? Or Can You Love Some More?”

Singer-Songwriter Michael Franti reels off these and other rhetorical questions in his song, “Is Love Enough?” I hate rhetorical questions. There are enough things in my life for which I have no answers. I don’t need more.

Man, where do I even start? I said it poorly to Luisa at the time, but essentially what I wanted to say was that I now knew that I needed to learn to love—more freely, more completely, more vulnerably, more fearlessly. I was raised in a family where we never actually talked about love, didn’t even use the word with each other that I can remember. I don’t think it was until my daughter moved away from home that I got trained in ending a conversation with the words “I love you” because she kind of insisted on it. In my own relationship I have always struggled to be demonstrative and, instead, have hoped that actions would show the love I felt. It is not enough; I know that now.

I believe now, that meaningful human connection may be the most critical element of happiness, and yet these relationships seem fraught with land mines to me. Families are complicated; friendships are complicated; I mean, people are just fucking complicated.

But, I do love the comfort of my family, where affection comes almost unconditionally and instantaneously. Outside of my family, I think I may have only said the words “I love you” to three people in all of these years, and in every case I feared I had said something I shouldn’t, revealed too much, invited an unwelcome response. Why am I so afraid? Is it really that hard to love? To claim a feeling that I know that I have?

On my final day as a teacher, the staff gathered together, as we do every year to honor retirees. The principal said nice things and gave out gifts and awards. Three of us were retiring that year and I ended up going last. The first two wept as they addressed our colleagues and there were tears all around. I didn’t get it. I mean I did, but I didn’t. And I said so. I told them that I could not be happier at this moment, and I hoped that they were all happy for me. I had had a wonderful career and was getting the chance to retire and experience a whole new life. I told them that especially in my final years I had come to love, yes love, the students that I taught. The kids had given me so much love and affection and support that it was easy to forgive their occasional transgressions and bursts of immaturity.

As the ceremony ended, I could hear the skeptics. “Love my kids? I’m not there yet!” I overheard one teacher say. I hope she gets “there.”

Three supposedly simple questions. Just another assignment for a kid (a really great kid), one more occasion for my brain to ache, for my mind to explode.