Friday, February 26, 2010


It's not so much a TGIF kind of end of the week. I'm not feeling that fist-pumping Friday glee. It's a bit gloomy outside, for one thing.

And I'm distracted. A local teenager went missing yesterday evening; she hasn't been seen since she drove away from home for a long trail run. Her locked car with cell phone inside has been found in a community center parking lot.

I certainly don't want to jump to conclusions. But.

I can accept that senseless things happen, that we live on a dynamic planet where there are earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes that kill thousands of people. It doesn't make these events any less tragic to explain them as organic, but I can accept the lack of control we have over their occurrence.

What I can't accept is that I share this earth with people who would kidnap, torture, and kill other people as they go about their daily lives: out for walks and runs and shopping trips and on their way to school. I can't wrap my brain around that reality, and it saddens and infuriates and frustrates and terrifies me. A seventeen-year-old girl should be able to go for a run, dammit. A seven-year-old should be able to walk to school.

Also in the news, and on my mind: A man was killed early yesterday as he drew a chalk sunflower in the middle of the road in front of his girlfriend's house. He was hit by a school bus. I'm sad for the family and friends of this creative man who died committing a loving act. My heart aches too for the bus driver.

So I'm looking forward to seeing my girls tonight. Husband's going out of town, and we are going to gather up some games and head over to the home of a former student and mother of two young children. Her husband is deployed and she could use a break--a quiet dinner out with friends.

Sounds like a plan, sister.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The 2190th Dinner Olympiad

Good evening! We report to you live from Meal Mountain, the Olympic venue for the Children's Eating Event.

Fer, what can we expect to see at tonight's contest?

Fer: Well, this heat is a qualifier for the Dessert event, tentatively scheduled for later this evening. What's important to realize about Dinner is that it is not simply a race of speed and completion. Judges will also be considering manners, style, and the contestants' abilities to remain in the arena.

How does Team USA look in this competition?

Fer: As you know, Dinner is an event at which our Americans have not historically excelled. What we've learned from the past few Games, however, is that Americans pose a threat in this competition in terms of their ability to eat quickly and in large quantities. But tonight's performance will depend on the course. Anything unusual--extra cheese, unfamiliar vegetables, and quite frankly, even something as minor as the appearance of the blue cup instead of the preferred red one--could throw off our team.

Which competitors should we be watching for?

Fer: Representing the US in this event are Big Sis and Little C. Big Sis, the veteran on the team, is in her sixth year of Dinner competition, and has shown tremendous growth over the past few months. She brings to the table adaptability and a rare determination. Conditions will prove important for her performance. Her aversion to black pepper has been an obstacle in the past, so we will be watching closely to see how she handles that challenge if it arises. The judges will also be on the lookout for issues concerning position in her chair, as well as how much food ends up on the floor.

Little C is an exciting addition to Olympic Eating. What she needs to do tonight is remain focused and in her seat. While she may be the lesser consistent of our two contenders, when she's on, she's a proven winner.

We understand Little C is one of Team USA's more colorful competitors...?

Fer: Yes, well...I am sure you are referring to some incidents recently reported in the press. Under duress, Little C has resorted to the use of Potty Talk, which has gained her some notoriety. She will need to be careful tonight: any lapses in language could disqualify her from Dinner mid-course. Her unprecedented enthusiasm for eating, though, is what gave her the edge over more conservative contenders for Team USA. She can be a joy to watch.

What will qualifying for Dessert mean for the USA?

Fer: Our team is under incredible pressure tonight. At stake is an opportunity to be the first Americans to qualify for Dessert in many, many dinners. And Dessert is what our team has been training for diligently. If either competitor makes it to the next round, we can predict a gold for the USA. At the very least a medal. Both Big Sis and Little C excel at Dessert; in fact, they have often expressed that they wish it were the qualifying event, with Dinner representing the medal competition instead. But despite pressures from both the American and French teams, so far the IOC is not entertaining a change to the Eating event. So we've got to get through Dinner. It continues to be our challenge.

It looks like the competition is underway! Let's take a look:

Fer: The table is set for a fortuitous night for our team. As you can see, napkins are in proper position and Big Sis has both legs under the table. The forks approved for tonight's qualifying round will be very familiar to our competitors as they've trained with that small metal variety for years. We're waiting now for a glimpse of the course.

Are there elements we can expect to see?

Fer: I am going to guess that tonight's course will feature a starch base--most likely pasta of some sort. Team USA has deep experience with noodles, so that is not likely to present major challenges for our team. Any kind of sauce could be dicey. Protein is likely to be included--ground turkey would be a safe option, but sausage would throw a curve into this course. And then there are the vegetables. Vegetables are a feature of any Olympic Eating course--it's just a question of what kind and how much our competitors will face. Finally, the IOC favors water over milk, but it's not a requirement of the race for it to be completed during the heat.

It looks like the plates are being presented!

Fer: Well, as predicted, we have a pasta: angel hair. This is exciting for Big Sis--she would prefer a thin spaghetti noodle over, say, a penne course. The pasta is tossed with broccoli, a familiar challenge for our team. They will have to watch their confidence in that area. Some leftover homemade meatballs add bulk to the course. But what will make tonight interesting is the addition of orange peppers. Not to mention the onions. Onions could really define tonight's event. Little C in particular will need to put her head down and power past them.

And the event is underway, with Big Sis already two bites ahead!

Fer: We could expect Big Sis to pull ahead with an early lead. In terms of form, she has more experience twirling her spaghetti, giving her an advantage over her less experienced teammate. But she has a tendency to slow down towards the end, which is when Little C will have her chance to take this event.

But Little C looks unhappy.

Fer: She just noticed the onions. Judges will observe that she is strategically moving them to one side of the course. She is exerting a ton of effort, and she looks angry about the situation. She needs to focus on the broccoli. Focus on the broccoli, Little C!

Big Sis just took a HUGE BITE of cappellini!

Fer: Judges will likely deduct points from Big Sis's overall score for the pasta that fell out of her mouth back onto the plate, her lap, and the floor. But she is looking confident. Little C is tackling the pasta now. Her form is sloppy, but the noodles are going in. She could make huge gains if she keeps up this momentum!

Something is going on with Big Sis...

Fer: Oh no! Even though Big Sis already conquered three pieces of meatball, it's clear she has determined that this part of the course is not her favorite. She is pushing the remaining meatballs all around the course, wasting valuable time. She knows that if she leaves more than one on that plate, she is not likely to qualify for Dessert. The pressure is intense. You know, she's been regularly training with meatballs, but this race just illustrates the danger of relying too much on formulaic courses. While she has mastered Trader Joe's meatballs, these homemade ones are throwing her for a loop. Her coaches are going to have to consider more variety, moving forward.

Little C is almost finished! But she appears distracted...

Fer: Well, it's not a good sign when Little C is communicating with spectators, particularly when she's left only peppers and onions on the course, the toughest part to finish. She's looking a little out of control. Unfortunately, Little C has been known to walk away from a race when she knows she won't qualify. The judges will be looking for her to make sincere effort here. If she finishes two-thirds of those vegetables, it might make up for points deducted earlier for talking with her mouth full.

Big Sis looks like she's going to vomit.

Fer: Big Sis needs to pull it together and show the judges what she's got. If she thinks she can tackle Dessert tonight, she can hurdle a meatball. Own it, sister. You can do it!

And Little C is in tears.

Fer: This is where maturity comes in. Little C just might not be prepared to finish this heat. Dessert may be too much for her tonight. She's letting the peppers and onions overwhelm her prior successes on the course and it's a shame. They're only accessory vegetables, after all. And she didn't even need to eat all of them. But you know, she has a lot of years--and Desserts--ahead. This just may not be her time.

Little C is leaving the arena.

Fer: It's over for Little C. But look at Big Sis! She's pulling it together. The judges are likely to overlook a meatball remnant here and there in favor of advancing her to the next round. This is a typical performance from her--highs and lows along the way, some lapses in confidence, but ultimate success. I see a gulp! She's pushing back her chair and appealing to the judges. We'll await their verdict.

And an American has made it to the medal round!

Fer: This is an exciting night for Team USA. Big Sis has demonstrated the kind of courage that will inspire the folks at home to try more orange peppers in their pasta. All that's left for her is Dessert. Meanwhile, we hear from Little C's coaches that the Dessert event was past her bedtime anyway. We look forward to seeing her in future Eating Events.

I want to take a moment and comment on the years of hard work, training, and preparation that go into the completion of one successful course on Meal Mountain. Surely Big Sis is thinking right now of her parents, and the years of commitment and sacrifice they've put into her training: the groceries wasted, the failed recipes, the tears, and the pleas invoking starving children from other countries. Their labor has not been in vain.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Tremendous Qwest

As I write this post, my daughter perches on the back of the couch to my right, staying up past her bedtime to work on her Chapter Book, the first in a series called "The Grassland Secrets: The Princess and the Crystal Stairs."

I think there's a good argument for letting a budding novelist burn the midnight oil, even on a schoolnight. I don't know what it's like to be in the stands when your kid hits a homerun, but watching my daughter chew on the end of her pencil as she ponders her next sentence might be just as thrilling.

Tonight I attended a lecture by Sir Ken Robinson, an innovator and advocate for creativity. While I haven't read his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Sir Ken's message tonight was that you know you're in your element when you have a natural capacity for what you do; you understand the discourse of your field and speak the language. You get it, whatever it is. Your work is not just what you do, it's who you are.

Because his talk was geared toward educators, he then described and advocated for the kinds of academic environments that both help one find and nurture passion.

To illustrate his claim that human potential blooms under the right conditions, he recounted the Death Valley Phenomenon of 2005, in which the normally arid, lifeless region exploded with spring wildflowers the likes of which hadn't been seen in fifty years, as a result of heavy winter rains. Hearty seeds had long lain dormant awaiting their chance to sprout.

Our manufacturing model of education, Robinson argues, is stifling the creativity that children are born with--the innovative spirit I am feeling particularly fortunate to watch at work this evening.

Over the holidays our daughter rekindled her friendship with the daughter of dear friends who were visiting. We delighted in the products of their collective imaginations: dance routines, stuffed animal dramas, stories and drawings. As we anticipated the end of their stay, I suggested to our first graders that they collaborate on a storybook together, which they could send back and forth through the mail, each of them contributing text for the next one to continue.

In late January, a folded and stapled, construction-paper-covered booklet arrived in our mailbox, with the cover page completed and illustrated: "The Golden Bridge of Courage." It was my daughter's task to launch the tale. She got right to work on Chapter 1, "The Bridge," finished Chapter 2, "The Great Great Poand" (pond), and soon we had three pages and a cliffhanger to send back to our buddy, along with some Valentines.

Well, Valentine's Day was last week, and we already have the novella in our possession again. Within an hour of opening the envelope, our daughter had completed her next part of the saga. The only things slowing these two creative freight trains down are their mamas and their ability to get themselves to the post office.

It's safe to say these kiddoes are in their element. The golden bridge between them is pencil, paper, and a shared determination to create.

I have a newfound resolve to not only invest more in my own passions, but to recognize and encourage those of my children, family, and friends.

As Sir Ken Robinson reminded us tonight, healthy, dynamic organisms enrich the environments in which they thrive.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Isn't This the Playlist Generation?

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone!

I had a conversation with some of our senior boys on the quad this week. They were mulling over what to do about February 14 and their significant others.

"How about...a mixed...CD? You know, of good music?" I offered.

A chorus of groans. "Oh, c'mon, Ms. M. That is like, so...1994."

Well, okay, sure. I did pour my heart and my ego and my pride in my taste in music into Many a Mixed Tape in my day. And they usually had clever titles, often alluding to a song lyric within. Not without innuendo, of course. But wasn't that the beauty of the mixed tape? It was a menu of mixed messages.

Sadly, I have a lot of mixed tape left in me. If the dang CD burner on my computer worked, I'd be giving all of you some awesome Melody Mixes whenever the spirit moved me.

To make myself feel better, and to show those boys that the music hasn't died, I offer you Valentine's Variety 2010:

1. Happy-in-love song of 2010: "Therapy" by India.Arie.

2. U2's best make-out song: "Love Comes Tumbling"

3. Goofy love song: "If I Had $1,000,000" by BareNaked Ladies

4. Unrequited love: "Ghost" by the Indigo Girls

5. Long Distance Love: Kristen Hall's "Peaches"

6. I finally found true love, and I hope I don't screw it up: Paul Simon, "Something So Right"

7. Friends with benefits: "Say Goodbye," Dave Matthews Band

8. Sappy love (and because there had to be a Carpenters' song in the mix): "You," The Carpenters

9. Celebration of enduring love: Cowboy Junkies' "Anniversary Song"

10. One Night Stand love: "Love Song for a Stranger" by Joan Baez

11. Shout out to my little girls' current taste in tunes: "Love Story" by Taylor Swift

12. Try not to smile while you're listening to this song (I dare you): "Gotta Have You" by the Weepies

13. Could be the soundtrack for newlyweds driving away from their wedding: "Favorite Adventure," K's Choice

14. Just a rad song: "Bus Ride," by Alex Lloyd

15. Finally, our wedding song: Sade's "Kiss of Life," which makes my husband all misty...

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Landscape of Loving: Mountains Beyond Mountains

Alas, I haven't written a poem in a very long while, though I have paused here from time to time to share a few (scroll down) from my archives.

How I miss writing poems. I miss, particularly, that moment of a poem's conception. The recognition of something--an event, circumstance, or emotion--arching into the abstract, and the poem is the bridge.

Teaching in a classroom of creative geniuses helped my process. Putting music on and pulling my journal out and writing with teenagers compelled the verses. Let us not diminish the luxury of taking an art class: Force me to paint, to draw, to write, to create! And I will!

Why is my current life so barren of poetry, so prosaic, I wonder? Four years ago I had my second child and shortly thereafter left the classroom to become Vice Principal. My life was instantly busier; office replaced classroom; observation gave way to analysis. These days are better chronicled, perhaps, in narrative than verse. Where I am poetry poor, I am now blog bountiful. And yet I hold out hope that my lyrical muse will return.

Without a classroom full of creative writing students generating rhymes and inspiring my own, I rely on the postal service to deliver fresh poetry to my mailbox. Thank goodness for The Sun Magazine and its monthly dose of prose and poems.

The right poem will stir me for days or weeks as I ponder all its allusions and implications. A poem can resonate on a single word, turn of phrase, or sentiment. I could wax poetic (if I were, in fact, writing poetry these days) on poems and how much I love them. I used to entertain my students with my effusive endorsements of the genre, likening poems to furry little animals one can snuggle in one's mind.

Imagine a world without poetry? I won't.

The gifts in the February issue of The Sun include Selected Poems by Brian Doyle. My favorite of the three published is included below, as it so moved me to seek permission from the poet himself (Note: receiving an email response from a Real Live Poet was quite a thrill!).

In his poem Brian Doyle recalls his young son's heart surgery. Our daughter was diagnosed with kidney reflux after suffering a kidney infection when she was three years old. It was two years of diagnostic and outpatient procedures before she had surgery that corrected what can be characterized as a minor structural problem.

Despite the hassle of numerous appointments and the heartbreak of watching one's child in any kind of pain, we left each visit to Children's Hospital grateful for our good fortune and perspective. Someone else's suffering is always worse, it is true, and as Mr. Doyle demonstrates in his poem, you will find your own self facing another mountain to climb just as you've crested the last seemingly steepest one. This is what it is to love, I think: to commit oneself to the "incoherent narrative shape" of life's worries, fears, and surprises "with all possible grace."

I am thankful for Brian Doyle's willingness to share his words. Isn't his last line lovely?

A Note on Vocabulary in the Cardiometabolic Field

Where I am wandering one afternoon thinking of my second son who not once
But twice had a surgeon’s fingers milling through the muscle of his wild heart.
Eleven years ago now. He doesn’t remember those hours, my boy, but I sure do.
His chicken chest gaping open like a mouth. Me eating a word like septectomy
For breakfast, bending it this way and that, trying to find any way to get inside.
Situs solitis & ventricular inversion & tricuspid hypophasia & anastamosis
Ranged across the horizon like the most incredible and unimaginable mountains.
Who ever thought there would be a time when we could remember those times?
But here we are on the other side of the mountains, and of all things to see what
Do we see? Mountains beyond mountains and yet more mountains beyond them.
We have such an itch for pattern and narrative, such a ravenous hunger for order,
But there is no pattern, there is no order, there isn’t really even a hint of coherent
Narrative shape, the fact of the matter is that at best we maunder forward with all
Possible grace in the moments when we are not thrashing and sobbing and crazy.
Believe me, I know about thrashing and sobbing and crazy, he’s a teenager now,
Arrogant as sin one moment and weeping from the bottom of his bones the next,
Making everyone weep with laughter one day and roar with fear and fury another.
Mountains beyond mountains and yet further mountains beyond those mountains.
I used to think if we could just get through this time everything will be peaceful,
At least we won’t be terrified and exhausted, but it turns out there’s lots and lots
Of ways to be terrified and exhausted, who knew? So hold my hand and let’s go
Up this next mountain. Who cares about other mountains? Isn’t this one lovely?

-- Brian Doyle

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Valentine's Day REDUX

It's Tuesday, April 9th, but wouldn't you know; Presidents' four-day weekend starts on Friday, April 12th for my daughter's school.

And that means that her Valentine's Day Party is Thursday, February 11th.

Which is Far Too Early for us to get our hearts in gear, people.

It's 2010, and many of you will chirp in glee to learn that in the two years since 2008, not much has changed in our First Grader's Painstaking Valentines Making Process. I had to leave the room to make this post so as not to stand over my daughter and mutter, "Oh. My. God. We. Still. Have. Nine. Homemade. Valentines. To. Make. PLEASE GET AT LEAST FIVE DONE TONIGHT."

We only have tomorrow to finish this project. With very little of my patience remaining.

I am estimating each Valentine taking, oh, fifteen minutes to make. Except for Kurt's. His was special. So that one took all of last night's energy. With 26 kids in her class, you may be thinking only nine left isn't so bad. Yet, we've spent almost a week making Valentines.

What makes tonight truly hilarious is that her other homework was watching ice melt. You think I am kidding. But I am not. In between nagging my First Grader on getting those %&$*&@! Valentines DONE, I was reminding her to check her ice, and check the clock. We have to record how long it takes to melt.

About the same amount of time it takes to manufacture two homemade Valentines, in case you're wondering.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Full Court Press

Yesterday I accompanied half of our senior class on an all-day field trip to downtown Superior Court. As far as field trips and supervision go, escorting 12th graders to court is about as good as it gets: there are metal detectors, armed guards, and a high probability everyone's going to behave.

I was excited about the opportunity, as my experiences in court have been limited. I appeared once before a judge as a teacher in Washington D.C. in order to be granted permission to take one of my middle school students--a foster child--across the country to spend part of the summer with my family.

My first jury duty experience allowed me to read the entire Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, as I waited all day in the lounge. The next time, I was selected for a jury panel but the defendant failed to appear after lunch and we were all excused.

I have been served personally with subpoenas twice at school. The first time, I was the wrong lady with the right name. The second time, I wormed my way out of testifying by convincing the lawyer I wouldn't help his client.

Last year the principal and I were summoned to attest to the veracity of a student's school records only to be told upon arrival at the court that we weren't needed. I remember my annoyance at the hassle of long lines and bureaucracy but also being humbled by the slice of humanity passing through the building's doors at opening time. I recall being struck by the obvious contrast between the demeanor and dress of the officials of the court (lawyers, judges, clerks) and my peers dealing with the legal system.

Our yellow school buses drove past the family court building this morning and I thought of the students in the seats behind me whose parents are divorced. Court, I think, is kind of like a strip joint: I'm fascinated, but don't want to spend a lot of time there.

Still, if there's an organized tour, well then, okay...I'm in. And our students were taking part in Justice 101, a program for graduating seniors that combined time for witnessing real-life trials in action with lectures from a judge on Drunk Driving, Non-Consensual Sex, Getting Your Ass Kicked, and Beating Up Women. Ample time, of course, was allotted for Waiting Around and A Long Lunch, which are two staples of court, as I've come to recognize. It's safe to say I spent my day alternately awed and outraged.

Our students were told tales and shown videos of poor decision making that resulted in DUI, Gross Bodily Injury, Mayhem, Permanent Brain Damage, and Death. Also Arrest and Time in Prison. And then we were set free to walk into courtrooms at will and watch our justice system at work.

There were four murder trials in progress, so many of us headed off to catch a glimpse. Of course, our right to a public trial, part of the 6th Amendment, means folks can walk into (most) courtrooms and observe what's happening. That doesn't mean, however, that it is comfortable to do so. These are often life and death matters, and barging in on discussions concerning the fate of a fellow citizen felt a little like interrupting someone's doctor's appointment.

On TV and in movies, murder trials appear to have full galleries of spectators. I was surprised to find only two audience members observing the case I peeked in on. Someone lost his life, I thought, and another young man's life is hanging in the balance, and there are only two people here for closing arguments. On the other hand, I had to consider the extent to which family members of victims and accused can put their own lives on hold to be present in court every day. There are long hallways of courtroom after courtroom and serious sagas playing out within, day after day. Sobering.

The verdict was yum on the Mexican fare in the Food Court, where I received some of the best advice of the day. "Hey lady," offered a man in the long line snaking behind my chair, over which I'd slung my purse, "you should put that bag in your lap."

As we left the court building at the end of the day, a fellow chaperone overheard one guard note to another, "There go our future clients..." Hey! I want to protest, They're (mostly) innocent!

In my position of authority as Vice Principal, I've studied the contrast between my role and the roles of other authority figures, particularly judges and cops. School admistrators are tasked with serving synonymously as students' prosecutor, defense attorney, judge, and jury. It sounds like a burden, but I think it's a luxury to view a situation from all sides and adopt an appropriate role in support of a student.

I left court not envying the judges who make life-changing determinations for the folks in their care, but have only fleeting relationships with them: a heavy responsibility and without the crystal ball to reassure them that their verdicts turn some lives around. They have to take for granted, I imagine, that fair, consistent, and compassionate carriage of justice does indeed make the world a better place.

As for my closing arguments: I think the best world is the one outside court.