Saturday, September 27, 2008

How Did You Use Your Two Million Minutes?

Kelli is a professional cheerleader and a PhD student, studying clinical health psychology.

I recently had the opportunity to view Two Million Minutes (see the trailer), a documentary on high school students from the United States, China, and India and how they use their two million minutes in high school to prepare for college and beyond.

I watched and squirmed in my seat as the film shared statistics that were troubling: 40% of US students never take a science higher than biology; 55% take only two maths - geometry and algebra. Meanwhile, I watched the students from China and India as they participated in rigorous plans of study, including getting up early to attend a 7:00 AM study group on a Saturday morning. Also, they laughed at the notion of majoring in music and said that their counterparts in America spend too much time socializing. (All this while Brittany from Indiana talks about wanting to join a sorority and "party and have some fun" while majoring in pre-med.)

While watching the film, I thought back to my own high school days and the two million minutes I spent preparing for college. Certainly there was a great deal of extracurricular activity going on. I took dance lessons twice a week and sometimes cheered at three games a week during my senior year. I was also a member of Junior Civinettes, the Service Club, and the Pep Club, and I was active in my Youth Group at church. At first I felt a little ashamed while watching the film and thought maybe I should have attended study groups on Saturdays. But then I remembered the work ethic I learned in those days.

Okay, I know what some say about cheerleading - like another teacher told me once: "Cheerleaders are fluff." And then a student's parent remarked to hearing that my daughter is a professional cheerleader, "Oh, you're one of those people." But I can tell you that I learned so much the year I was captain - so much about dealing with people with conflicting personalities, so much about being organized, and even a little about working with a budget. I developed leadership skills at the age of 17 that I've used my entire life. I scheduled practices, made decisions about game responsibilities and uniforms, worked with area businesses on fundraising and was like running a little business, all while promoting school spirit and smiling. And I had to balance these responsibilities with studying and doing chores at home.

Okay, maybe the Chinese student who is a talented violin player will make it farther than I have, but as I continued to watch the documentary, I became more and more stressed at the lack of free time the students from the other countries have available to them. A boy from Shanghai remarked, "Studying is our top priority. I'm either in school or home. I may go to karaoke at Christmas."

Should we be so concerned about academics that we forget to live our lives? Or will using those two million minutes in a different way make our lives more meaningful? Watch the video and decide.

Meanwhile, these facts communicated in the video worry me:

American students spend 900 hours in a classroom a year, but 1500 hours in front of a television.

American students rank 24th out of 29th in math. (Finland ranks 1st.)

One commentator is quoted as saying, "Structurally the American educational system is broken."

I hate to think that I am contributing to a broken system...but tomorrow I'll be in Charlotte watching the Carolina Panthers play the Atlanta Falcons. My daughter will be doing something she loves and getting paid for it. I just can't believe that's all bad.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Good, The Bad, and The Really Ugly!

I love to write. I have pieces of journals, old college notebooks, and scraps of paper all over my house with varied essays, poems, thoughts and quotes. I'm currently trying to keep up with several projects that may at some point become published work. So I'm constantly working through my feelings on paper. Once I was introduced to blogging, I knew I had a found a world just made for someone like me. Finally a place where my writing can be kept; instead of pieces everywhere, all I have to do is log on to read what I think. And one perk is that others can read what I think, too. I've been able to share my thoughts with people all over the world. Sometimes people will ask me a question when I'm pressed for time. "Just read my blog," I tell them as I run to my next responsibility. It's a perfect situation. Well...almost.

The world has gotten smaller. Because of the internet, folks can read my blog in their jammies in the middle of the night. But because of the internet, I'm getting some strange correspondence in reference to my blogging. Of course, I have gotten comments from teachers and administrators all over the country. Some say they have printed out my blog post to share with their faculties. I couldn't be happier about that!

But sometimes I get an email from someone who wants me to allow them to be a "guest blogger" on my blog. My first thought? "I don't know you!" How can I let someone else represent their thoughts and feelings as part of my sacred writing experience? I'm always hesitant to allow this type of activity. Today, however, I received an email that really represents the "ugly" part of the internet's ability to allow just anyone in.

In exchange for supporting this stranger's efforts as a blogger, I can choose to be paid or I can select to receive a product instead. The product? A penis enlarger.

So...folks who read my blog, I'm only interested in representing myself as a writer and thinker. And I don't have a penis. Thanks anyway.


Saturday, September 6, 2008

Finding Mrs. Warnecke

Mrs. Warnecke has always been a mythological creature to me. Since I haven't seen her in over 40 years, my mind surely has fluctuated between what may be reality and what may be memories of being six years old. But I do remember that I arrived in first grade to have a teacher who loved one little girl in the class, and it wasn't me. Mrs. Riley didn't try to hide the fact that blonde-haired, blue-eyed Shelia was her favorite. Shelia was my friend, too; we all loved her, and I loved to visit her house because she had all the Barbie stuff. And when I say all, I mean ALL! She had the Barbie car and the Barbie pool and the Barbie mansion. And the teacher loved her. She was the luckiest girl in the world!

Mrs. Riley wasn't mean or abusive to me, but I felt invisible in that room. When it became obvious that she had an errand to be run, I would slide to the edge of my desk and raise my hand as high as I could. But Shelia always went. Always.

One month into school, the principal came to tell us that some of us would be moved to another class. You would think that first graders may be somewhat anxious about that announcement, but I wasn't. It sounded like an adventure to me. Half of us were led to our new classroom, but we were surprised when he led us outside! We marched in a pretty little line out the door, around between the gym and main building, and down the steps, into a hole actually, that led to a basement door. As many times as I had walked by those steps, on the way to the gym to do the Hokey Pokey, I had never even known that a room existed down there. Suffice it to say that, as a teacher, I cannot imagine what the new teacher must have thought when the principal showed her the damp, dark place that would be her classroom. But as students, we were all giddy with excitement. We had been "chosen" to be in a new class, and we had left Mrs. Riley upstairs. (We also left Shelia there, but she and I continued to be best friends, and I played "Barbie" often at her house.)

What happened in the next few months in that classroom can only be described as MAGICAL. Our new teacher, Mrs. Barbara Warnecke, showed up with a big smile on her face, and she loved each of us unconditionally while teaching us to read from the Dick and Jane books. We thought the fact that we believed we saw beady little eyeballs staring at us from the closet when we hung up our coats made our classroom more exciting than any other room. We had pet rats! Also, that year, I wrote my first poem. It was entitled "Stars" and it wasn't even grammatically correct. But my new teacher loved it. She encouraged me so much that throughout the years I would continue to write little poems and trot my second and third grade little legs down to her classroom to let her read them. During those visits, she always treated me as if she didn't have a class of her own to teach, as if I were the most important student in the world.

She eventually moved away, as so many of our teachers did (living in Durham, most of our teachers were there while their husbands attended school at Duke University; we lost teachers after Duke's graduation every year) but we stayed in touch for awhile. Somehow I lost her in 1970. Today I found her again. And the years between seem like only a moment.

Let me begin by saying that I don't usually get too nervous about speaking in public. As a teacher, I speak "in public" daily, even if the audience is a room full of seventh graders. But on this morning, I was terrified! I was wide awake at 3:30 AM and I never got anywhere close to sleep after that. A car picked us up at 6:30, and I barely remember the ride to the Good Morning America studio. I felt so much pressure - I wanted to represent the teachers of North Carolina and the staff and students of Gravelly Hill Middle School well. I had heard that the Central Office of Orange County Schools would be gathered around a television as well as a fifth grade class at Belville Elementary School in Brunswick County. I had spoken to that class last week, and they have become my "adopted" class.

Once in the studio, I was met by Katie, the "live producer." (This role, as I understand it, is different from Brian the Producer's role - he actually came to my house to film and then he wrote and edited the piece.) Katie welcomed me and told me that I would be on national television making a plea for someone to come forward with the whereabouts of Mrs. Warnecke. In other words, they hadn't found her. But I was so nervous I could barely hear Katie speaking...I just followed her around like a little puppy. She took me to my dressing room, and we briefly discussed clothes; I actually changed from the suit I was wearing to another one with "more color" that Katie liked better. Next I passed Kate Snow, the GMA weekend anchor, as I walked to hair and makeup. Kate had huge rollers in her hair but was as beautiful as ever. After my hair and makeup were done, I felt like I didn't look like, well, me. But I was assured that I looked the way I needed to look for the lights on the set, and I was too stressed out to argue.

Katie, the "Live Producer," watches me get my hair and make up done.

Katie stayed with me almost non-stop and continually texted on her phone. I thought her friends must be up early! Later I would learn that she was "guarding" me to keep me from leaving the dressing room and that she was texting the other "live producer" who was with Mrs. Warnecke in another room. During this time I caught a quick glimpse of Sally Field who was on the show, too, but she was surrounded by people (body guards?) so she was difficult to see. And Lord knows I was too nervous to speak so it's probably a good thing I didn't try to talk to her. I'm sure I was so focused on little Cindy the first grader that I would've called her Gidget. I've always wanted to ask, "How is it possible that Gidget has osteoporosis?" But not today.

Next I was led to the studio and I walked right into Sam Champion who flashed the biggest smile at me, stuck out his hand to grab mine, and acted like he had known me forever. We made the turn to step in behind the cameras, and I think the biggest surprise was that there were so many people in the room. There was a studio audience there but also numerous crew members that took up a great deal of space. Katie kept pointing out places for my husband and me to stand; we ended up beside the table of chef Sarah Moulton who had prepared Back to School snacks on a long table in the studio.

Here's me just before my interview. It is possible that this is a picture of me being the most terrified I've ever been in my life...

I waited, shaking, and finally was pointed to a chair beside Chris Cuomo, the morning anchor. (Robin Roberts was originally to do the interview, but she had joined Diane Sawyer at the Republican National Convention.) Chris Cuomo was a complete gentleman, and he made me feel at ease immediately. Suddenly I felt more at peace; I think I knew that the worst was over - the waiting and anticipation! Chris began talking and I listened, in a surreal state, as he talked about my life. I glanced over at the monitor, afraid for the emotional surge that may come, and saw the picture of my elementary school that burned to the ground in 1991. I began fighting tears at that moment. Chris started talking to me - I don't remember a thing he said - but he diverted me from paying attention to the narrative that was on the teleprompter. I saw my sister talking on the monitor and then I saw my mother. I said to Chris, "There's my mama..." and I surely thought I would lose it then. But I held on and by the time he started talking to me again, I was okay. I said what I needed to say, without stammering too much, and then he told me that "someone" was going to help me find Mrs. Warnecke. I remember thinking, "If someone can help me find her, why can't they just go find her and tell her I'm looking for her?" Then I heard the studio audience begin to clap, and I knew she must be there!

Here we are waiting, and they're counting "five seconds to air, four, three..."

For the next few seconds, as the video footage is showing me gasp and run to hug her, I am no longer Cindi Rigsbee, Teacher of the Year. Instead I am Cindy Cole, first grader at Bragtown Elementary, and my emotions are no longer contained, even if all America is watching! To me, Mrs. Warnecke looked the very same, and I felt like it hadn't been forty years since I'd seen her. I was shocked to hear that when Brian called her house, she guessed the student looking for her was me. However, I was not surprised that she was funny and making jokes about hoping that this wasn't a show about a former student-turned-prisoner who wanted to blame her for ruining her life.

One thing I want to remember forever: during the piece and after - there were very few people in that room who weren't crying. From the studio audience to the crew to my big manly husband, there was barely a dry eye in the studio! And as I tried to manuever my way back to the dressing room to get my things, I was stopped repeatedly by folks from the editing room and other places in the building who were crying and wanting to tell me about their special teachers.

Next Dr. and Mrs. Warnecke and David and I had breakfast to catch up. It was so interesting to hear about my first grade year from my teacher's perspective. Most amazing, I think, is that this phenomenal teacher who made such an impact on me was only twenty-three years old that year! I asked her how she could possibly have been so nurturing when she didn't even have children of her own then. I said, "How is it that you were such a good teacher even though you were so young?" She answered, "I thought I wasn't. I was trying to teach reading out of those Dick and Jane books, and I thought I didn't know what I was doing."

Mrs. least for this little girl, you did.

We exchanged contact information and hugged one last time. And now I hope to share with teachers something that we hear often but maybe forget to think about - the tremendous impact we have on the lives of children. I hope that my story of Mrs. Warnecke will be a reminder of the importance of our jobs and that we must understand that impact with every lesson we plan and every comment we make to a student. Someday we could be someone's Mrs. Warnecke. And what an enormous responsibilty.

We've had several celebrity sightings since our arrival in New York. Last night we got in a chaotic mass of paparazzi and turned to see Miley Cyrus on one side of us and Rhianna on the other. This morning David came face-to-face with Hilary Clinton while walking on Fifth Avenue. But the only celebrity I wanted to see was Mrs. Barbara Warnecke. To little Cindy Cole, she's a mythological rock star...

Our last stop in New York was a trip to the Disney store to buy gifts for our grandchildren. I looked up and saw a quote on the wall that summed up the past two days:

"It's just as I always dreamed it would be."

Yes, it was...

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Saving D

I've written about D on here before. He's one of those students that you look at and know - there's something good in there. Maybe others can't see it, but it's there, and you may be the only one who can keep him from falling through the cracks that appear to be getting wider and wider the older he gets...

D came to me as a seventh grader the year that I missed the entire first week of school with a hateful kidney stone. By the time I started, the second week, the substitute gave me quite an earful about D. He had certainly made himself known that early in the year. As I got to know my students, I grew very attached to D. His big, goofy grin made me smile no matter how much trouble he could get himself into in other places. And he was in trouble OFTEN! Most of the time it would be something silly, like talking and not staying in his seat, but occasionally he would be kicked off the bus for mouthing off at the driver. When that would happen, D couldn't come to school. Although he was an inner city kid, the school sits out in a rural tobacco field. He didn't have a ride. Several times he missed school for ten consecutive days.

When I asked about his mother, he told me that she had just had a baby (that made five) and that she sometimes stole money from him for drugs. I asked if he could live with a grandparent. He told me that his grandmother stole money from his mother for drugs. Once he was suspended from the bus, and we were to go on a field trip to the zoo. I called D's mother and told her that I would pick him up and take him to school so he wouldn't miss the trip. When I got my breakfast that morning, I picked up one extra biscuit just in case he hadn't eaten. D got in the car, and I asked, "Did you eat breakfast?" He said he didn't because his mother was asleep and he didn't want to wake her. I gave him the biscuit and asked if he brought his lunch for the field trip, and he replied that "there was no food in the house." I gave him $10 to buy lunch and off we went. I've written about my problems with this type of parenting before. But it never gets any easier to understand.

After that year, I left that school but D kept in touch. One day back when I was teaching him, he grabbed my cell phone off of my desk and called his friend JoJo's number. When he got to JoJo's phone, he had my number on the caller ID. He wrote it down and has now had it for three years. Periodically he'll call me. This year he called me to tell me "Happy Mother's Day." Once he called to tell me that "they" had sent him to a group home. His reasons were vague, but one thing was clear - he was miserable.

Today I passed by the high school that D attends. I walked right in there and asked if they would let me see him. At the mention of his name, the four adults standing in the office turned and looked at me. The receptionist smiled, "Well, he's already been in the office today. I think he's in In School Suspension." I couldn't believe it - the sixth day of school! I was led out to the ISS trailer. I haven't seen D since June of 2006, but I'd know that boy anywhere! And when we walked in that trailer...well...I cannot even explain the way he looked when he saw me. It was a mixture of Christmas morning and Happy Birthday all rolled into one. And by the time he got to me, his eyes were moist and so were mine.

We sat a minute to talk (he was to be released to class in six minutes) and in that time he told me that he has "anger issues." I explained that in seventh grade he was only silly, not mad, and that I was concerned about that. I asked him what he's mad about. He told me he hates the group home, his mother went to jail but is now in a halfway house because she just had baby #7, his brother is in prison, and there's the issue about "T." There was a scuffle at the group home between D and T and when it was over, T complained that he couldn't breathe. D said he asked, "You alright, man?" and T said he was. A while later, he collapsed in the yard and never regained consciousness. A senior in college, ready to graduate in three weeks, T was working at the group home when he died. D told me that the invesigation is still continuing and that he hasn't been charged. "But they think I killed him," he said. There has been some discussion of meningitis, but the autopsy was inconclusive. Regardless, it's a big burden for D to bear.

The bell rang at this point, and I had to walk D to class (although it was a struggle to move after that news.) He hugged me at the classroom door and told me he loved me, and I fought tears all the way to the car. Once there, I drove in a crazy circle, losing my way home because I was so upset. Then the tears came. And I thought How are we letting this kid fail? What can I do to stop this madness so that D can make something of himself? Of course, I've said all the things to him that need to be said. And he's heard them all before. He hears them every day from someone.

The Fray has a song entitled "How to Save a Life." I'm listening carefully to these lyrics:

Let him know that you know best
Cause after all you do know best
Try to slip past his defense
Without granting innocence
Lay down a list of what is wrong
The things you've told him all along
And pray to God he hears you
And pray to God he hears you

There's another line - "drive until you lose the road" - I believe I did that. Now I need to get back on track...doing what has to be done to save D. If I don't do it, who will?