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.

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Driving Down Memory Lane–Literally

After four years of retirement, I began to realize that I have more time available than I need for my many critical pursuits:  travel, reading, writing, home projects, gardening, napping, and beer drinking.  So, it was almost inevitable that I began to think more about volunteer work.  I already volunteer occasionally for a local environmental non-profit that specializes in teaching the basics of composting and other sustainability projects.  I also substitute teach at my former high school which is tantamount to volunteering given the amount of money one is not paid for working as a professional teacher.
So when I was ready to make a regular commitment to an organization, I had no hesitation to select San Diego’s Mama’s Kitchen.  Besides having been a regular donor for years, a close friend of mine is the head chef and my wife and I have attended many of their events and fundraisers.  Mama’s Kitchen provides 7 days worth of food, every week of the year, for nearly 600 San Diego residents who are affected by HIV/AIDS or cancer.  They have a cadre of drivers who spread out over the county delivering both hot and cold dishes three times a week and are always in need of more.

After my orientation, I selected the route that was closest to my house, west of where I live now but directly south and east of where I grew up and all around where I went to elementary school.  And there will be another post where I talk about what it is like to work with my clients, how I am slowly getting to know their needs and quirks, and how I have started to worry about them at times, but that is not what this is about. Instead, I discovered that my route unexpectedly took me back to people and memories and experiences that stretched back to my childhood.

I have to mention that I would never complete the route on any given day without the help of Siri.  Left to my own devices and sense of direction, people would starve.  Siri and I have become so close that I actually pay little attention to the street names or the how I am getting from client to client.

So, as I’m blindly following Siri’s friendly but imperious demands to “continue on Federal Blvd for 1 mile and then turn right on 61st St.”, suddenly I’m seeing street signs and buildings that have been hugely significant to my development as a person.  Honestly, I was stunned at how this route would string together memories spanning nearly every decade and every important stage in my life.

The first street sign that brought me up short was La Corta Dr. where my first girlfriend lived.  We were in the first grade.  Having a girlfriend at that early age just meant that you had admitted that you liked her, she happened to like you back, and it was ESSENTIAL that NO ONE should ever know or find out.  Our mom’s drove us back and forth to “play dates” that I have almost no memory of, but I do remember that she was a petite little blonde girl, and I thought she was absolutely beautiful.

And a single block further down was where, Mike, one of my buddies from high school lived on Madera St.  One night when I was sleeping over, I discovered that he lived next to someone who allowed Sandy and the Classics, the pre-eminent cover band for all big high school dances, to practice in their garage.  Hanging outside on a warm summer evening, listening to them working on all of our favorite songs while we dreamed of all the fantastic girls we were never going to meet in the coming year at the dances in our steamy, stinking gym, was like getting to be backstage at a free show. It was about as good as life gets for a ninth grader.

Next thing I know, I’m cruising past Morse High School, the site of my very first teaching experience. Back in 1975 I was assigned to Morse as a student teacher to teach one sophomore English class for one semester.  I had a wonderfully patient master teacher who forgave me all of my inadequacies and spent endless hours talking to me about teaching, life, and personal development.

I so owe those sweet kids an apology.  I was woefully unprepared to teach them anything about reading and writing and simply did not know how to plan thoughtful, cohesive units.  What they got was my energy, enthusiasm, and sense of humor which helped to paper over some of my shortcomings.  The class was a wonderful mix of Anglo, Mexican, Samoan, Guamanian, Native-American and African-American kids. Day after day when my lesson, planned for the 55-minute period, expired after 40 minutes, instead of giving up and giving them “free time” I’d go from student to student and check in with them, badger them about missing homework, find out what they were up to outside of class, encouraging them to keep trying hard.

It was not unusual to see those same students that same afternoon helping out their moms with the grocery shopping at the market, located just a short distance from the school,  where I was a grocery clerk.  It must have been weird for them to see me as their English teacher at 10 o’clock in the morning and as the guy bagging up the family groceries just hours later.

I cruise past the latest iteration of my old grocery store, still anchoring a crumbling strip mall as I’m rounding a corner on my way to my very last client.  But before I make that turn, I pass by Darby St.  Halfway down Darby sits the first house my wife and I owned, our starter house, purchased back in 1977 on the day that Elvis died.  I remember hearing the news as we were in the midst of signing away our lives.

We didn’t think of the house as a wreck, but in fact, it was by every measure a major fixer-upper.  In three years, we painted or wallpapered every square inch of the place inside and out, ripped up the avocado green indoor-outdoor carpet that greeted us as we walked in and re-did all of the flooring.  It was just getting comfortable when we were finally driven to sell after battling constantly with a noisy garage band across the street.  Sandy and the Classics they were not.

I sit in my car across the street from our old house now and I can barely recognize any remnant of the work that we had done.  As far as I can tell, the garage band is long gone.

I rouse myself and get back on the road to make my last delivery to a nice guy who has two very active dogs in a small house that most would call run down.  I suspect his wife is the patient.  He is chatty and fun to talk to.  We say goodbye, and I take the short cut back home where I sit in my driveway, steeped in the snapshots of so many unexpected memories.

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.

 

 

 

 

The Wisdom Thing And Why I Don’t Think I Have It

Day 15—I have been part of an FB writing group for the past three weeks or so. The challenge was to write at least 500 words a day for 30 consecutive days. This post is specifically addressed to those participating group members.

I’ve gotten a couple of very kind comments from members of the group that indicated that they thought I possessed some kind of wisdom or insight, and it’s a label I’ve always been uncomfortable with. I know part of it comes with age. I think I may be the senior member of our group from what I can tell, and just because I’ve lived though a few more life transitions than others doesn’t make me feel qualified to impart anything to anyone.

I told my wife I was struggling on how to approach this topic, and she suggested I try to define what I felt wisdom was.

Reading all that you have shared about your lives, I’m always so impressed by the depth and breadth of your experiences. You have traveled so much and so adventurously. I’ve never even seen the inside of a hostel. I can get lost walking out the front door.

In addition, you’ve worked in so may fields, had big failures, big successes, or are still trying to make your way, still inventing yourself, still figuring it out. I admire that. You’ve experienced a multitude of relationships, and I feel awful when I read about how painful some of them have been for you, but you keep finding your way through, showing a resilience that is admirable. In time, you will have a breadth of experience to share that I think really approaches wisdom.

My “wisdom” is deeply rooted in a lack of experience. I’ve been married for 41 years and we’ve been together for 43+. She is the only woman I have ever been with. What do I have to tell you about relationships? I have lived in the same house since 1980. I worked at the same job in the same high school for 36 years. Notice the pattern here? And, of course, only I am aware of just how fallible and foolish I can be, about my epic failures of judgment, about my continued and sometimes purposeful acts of poor judgment.

When I taught I school, I always felt deeply honored by students who came to see me as a mentor of sorts. One of my classroom rituals was to shake hands with each student in every class every day, just to say hi, offer them a greeting, cajole them about their work, tease them about the bad hair day they were having, whatever. Sometimes, I’d see a change in mood or demeanor and I might stop and ask if they were OK, or hit them up later and check in with them. Some sought me out on their own. Some simply came into my room and dissolved into tears over their latest crisis.

I got to be pretty good in these moments to just let them talk, to be an active listener, and to qualify any advice I might give them with the disclaimer that I was completely unqualified to give advice. In truth, I don’t think it mattered much what I said. What mattered most was they had found a caring adult who would stop everything for the moment and listen to whatever they had to say without appearing shocked or judgmental, even though they sometimes shared incredibly intimate details of their lives. I think it was especially important that I was a parent, but not their parent. If I gave them anything, it was reassurance, not wisdom. Those experiences have continued to this day with students who have chosen to stay in touch with me. I feel very honored by those relationships.

A small group of my students once got into a heated discussion before class over whether I was more like Gandalf (the wise and kindly wizard of The Lord of the Rings) or Albus Dumbledore (the wise and kindly wizard of the Harry Potter franchise). I found it a little disturbing. I didn’t like them having a perception of me that was so different than the perception I have of myself, as complimentary as it might have been. I told them it was the dumbest conversation I had ever heard them have, and that they should sit down so I could get class started.

(The answer, by the way, is Dumbledore, always Dumbledore.)

 

Bookshelf

Completely bereft of an idea for today, I started to stare at the large bookshelf that hangs over my desk—the desk where I often sit thinking about how I don’t have anything to write about.

Mary and I have been getting rid of stuff that we have not touched in 10 or 20 years and that we have finally decided we should really let go. The urge to purge really came from two sources. One was that we had to empty bookshelves, closets, china cabinets and more because we were having all of the flooring in our house replaced and we had to protect as much stuff from breakage and dust as we could. We enriched the local thrift stores with a truckload of boxes and bags, but half of my garage is still taken up with boxes that we have not had the time or the will to tackle.

And then 5 years ago, my sister and I had to empty my mother’s mobile home out and put it up for sale when we realized she could no longer live on her own and had to move her into a board and care home. It took us the better part of a month to sort through the decades worth of crap that my parents had held on to. I hauled bag after bag of items that were once useful and meaningful to them off to the dumpster including at least 10 ashtrays (they had both stopped smoking over twenty years ago). It was weird. It was like throwing away someone else’s life without their permission. I decided that I would try not to do the same to my own kids.

So on my bookshelf I can see there are really three categories of books: books I will never read, books I have read many times but cannot yet bear to part with, and books I have purchased or have been given to read but haven’t gotten to yet.

The “never will read” category includes Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, which should have gone to the thrift store, but I felt guilty because some people think it’s a modern classic and I always meant to read it. Same goes for Camus’ The Plague and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I mean, really. When am I going to be in a good enough mood to want to read shit like that?

The “cannot bear to part with” section is probably the largest. There are the classics like my copies of Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, Catch-22, The Poisonwood Bible, and Fahrenheit 451, each filled with years of notes crammed into the margins from the time I spent teaching them. They each carry all of the memories of those years of my life, especially of the days when a discussion went well. And tucked away in a corner is a little gem of a book entitled If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock. It was his first book, and I’m pretty sure it’s out of print. It has romance, time travel, Mark Twain, and the history of baseball all put together in a story I fell in love with.

The “yet to read” section is filled with gifts from family and friends, most especially from my son, a fellow writer. High on my list is Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity which I hope it is just as funny as the movie was, and Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I can’t figure out why I have not yet tackled Khaled Hosseini’s book And The Mountains Echoed because his first two books were so terrific (The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns).

So, I’m faced with the dilemma of what books to save, to toss, or to give away. It’s a tough one for a former English teacher. Each story seems to carry it’s author’s history and a little bit of my own.

 

 

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.

 

Life After Work

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First official morning of retirement

Make no mistake about it. When the time came, I was ready to retire. On my final day, as retirees were asked to address the staff at a little farewell party, I got up to face my colleagues for the last time, some of whom I had worked with for all 36 years of my career, all at the same school. I was surprised to see all the emotion and the tears, maybe just as someone who prefers to keep emotions locked up as tightly as possible because I find emotions to be unpredictable and unruly things.

But in this case, I was feeling nothing but joy. I had had a great time as a teacher. I loved the work and I loved my kids. I had a shelf full enough of recognitions that I knew that students, parents, and my colleagues had noticed and appreciated my contributions. But I had been in school continuously for 54 years without a break! I had gone straight from high school, to college, and then into my career. I was anxious to live an unscheduled life for the first time since before kindergarten.

There had been signs that it was time to go. At some point students would see me coming and stop to open the door for me, as if maybe I was wearing a handicapped placard around my neck. Increasing numbers of kids began referring to me as “sir” instead of “Hey Waldron!” It even began to affect new staff members who could not break the habit of calling me “Mr. Waldron” instead of by my first name as any colleague normally would.

And I was tired. I was weary at the end of every day and often retreated home and napped for what was left of the afternoon. I was like a veteran pitcher who could still gut his way through every outing, relying on guile and experience, knowing that the fastball was gone, that the slider wasn’t sliding, and the curveball just wasn’t breaking the way it used to anymore.

So, even after nearly three years, I’m still flummoxed by people asking me if I’m enjoying retirement or if I miss teaching. The answer to the latter is a firm “no!” As much as I loved my kids and the experience of the classroom, teaching is a brain and soul-sucking experience that can be all consuming. My stock answer about the former is to say, “Yes, I’ve discovered that not working is much better than working.”

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I now have a vegetable garden going year round and have qualified as a master composter (I don’t actually brag about that much). I have taken yoga, guitar, and hiking classes. I have been able visit my sister in Maui four times, and jet to Chicago twice primarily to sit at the baseball shrine that is Wrigley Field and watch the Cubs play. I have flown to Lake Tahoe for one night to see the Dave Matthews Band perform. I drove one thousand miles to visit two friends I hadn’t seen in years and learned the finer points of fly casting on a Colorado lake.  I finally took time to visit Washington, DC. I traveled to Oakland for one concert and to Phoenix for another. I spend a week in Phoenix every spring driving all over town daily to watch my Padres play their spring training games. I walk. I write.

I guess I’m just lucky that the transition has been relatively easy for me. Any time I feel like it’s been a slow day, that I’m feeling a little bored, I just remember the stacks of ungraded papers that used to fill every waking moment of my day from September to June.

I feel sorry for people who are still working and when I ask about their own retirement, they shrug and say, “I just don’t know what I would do.”

Believe me. There is life after work.

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.