Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mama's Birthday

I know I'm not alone in recognizing that mothers are our first teachers. In honor of my mother, who will be 81 on October 25th, here is a true story of her birthday from three years ago:

Mama’s Birthday

I often realize that in a room full of women, I am the one with the most makeup on. I also realize that I always have makeup on…from two minutes after I step out of the shower in the morning until two seconds before I jump into bed at night. When my daughter was born, my obstetrician told me he had never walked into a room during morning rounds and found a new mother sitting in a hospital bed with a full face of makeup. But that’s how he found me. Many boyfriends of my past, including one who became a husband – the first one – complained that they like the natural look better. All those complaints fell on deaf ears, strategically positioned behind a cheek full of blush – Clinique Pink to be exact.

Many have questioned my excessive use of face paint. Am I attempting to cover some horrific flaws, some ask? Maybe I’ve never shared the reason until now. But it’s quite simple. During my elementary school years, my mother was, in fact, the Avon Lady. Yep, as in “Ding Dong, Avon calling.” I spent hours upon hours playing in her sample bag as a child. I can still feel the texture of the bag, the blue burlap feeling ridged and uneven under my small fingertips. My favorite items in the bag were the little white lipstick samples. They were perfectly pointed, shiny pieces of color that served as lipstick for me, lipstick for my cats, blush for my baby dolls, and crayons for my color books. Sometimes even now at flea markets and antique stores, I see the bottles from different types of Avon scents. My mother’s bag smelled of them: Skin So Soft, Somewhere, Occur, Topaz, and others – names that mean nothing to most folks today – but names that have the ability to pick me up where I am and throw me back into second grade.

My mother hasn’t sold Avon in over forty years. This was a job she could do with my sister and me in tow when we were little; we would sit in customers’ homes and try to remain quiet. If we were lucky, there would be children there, which meant toys, or there would be a dog or a cat, and we would be entertained. But after we reached middle school age, my mother went to work in a real estate office, and that’s where she’s remained, until her retirement this month.

Retirement has been a big adjustment for her. We knew it would be. Still reeling from Daddy’s death a little over a year ago, and with no job to occupy her time, my mother has become a little depressed. I have encouraged her to hop on a little old lady bus to Branson, Missouri, or somewhere comparable, but it has been really difficult to get her off of her couch for the past few weeks. A couple of times I’ve stopped by to visit late in the afternoon, only to find her still in her pajamas.

So today my sister, our husbands, and I visited my mother’s house to participate in what we always call a “work day.” There are so many adventures at my mother’s house that require physical exertion. Last week, a huge tree limb, which could have been mistaken for the entire tree because of its size, fell and landed just in front of the porch. That needed to be taken care of. Also, her refrigerator light burned out, almost simultaneously with her microwave oven light and her dryer light. But my mother’s most urgent request was that we help her clean under her kitchen sink and up in her highest cabinets. With her seventy-eighth birthday approaching, she knew that she would be unable to do the bending, kneeling, and climbing necessary to do the cleaning. So the only birthday present she wanted was for us to assist in her post-retirement fall chores.

We immediately knew what we had gotten ourselves into when we peered under the sink. One thing we have forgotten: my father was alone in the house, while my mother worked, for the entire six years that he was sick. We know that he had an interesting storage system as we have found many of his treasures boxed here and there and wrapped in old newspapers held together with black electrical tape. We didn’t know that he was seemingly collecting various types of cleaning fluids: the lack of storage room under my mother’s kitchen sink was mostly due to the fact that there were multiple bottles of Windex, Fantastic, and Comet accumulating there. We tossed, we arranged, and we rearranged. Finishing that chore, we moved on to the cabinets.

The higher ones have always been a problem; it’s just impossible to reach them from the floor. Without hesitating, I hoisted myself up to walk on the counter, just as I always did as a child. I immediately noticed that my knees didn’t seem quite as interested in pushing me up there as they did when I was sixteen, but I made it, and I turned to see what adventure waited. We hadn’t looked at those top shelves in years.

What I saw took a while to process. While it seems that I felt puzzled for several minutes; at the same time my brain said one word to me – “Daddy.”

His handiwork lay before me, I knew, but what I was looking at eluded me. Lying on top of, and around, a couple of random bowls and mugs were twenty or so “packages” of various shapes. Some were wrapped in aluminum foil, and some were wrapped in plastic wrap. Some of the plastic wrap was clear, and some of it was pink. It was a bizarre spectacle, a contemporary art project gone wrong, one of those sculptures made of trash that some famous artist gets thousands of dollars for, while we normal people think I could’ve made that.

I said, “Guys, I’m not sure what’s up here, but I’m sure I know who’s responsible.” My mother and my sister spoke together, “Daddy.” That word means so much when we discover things…

I began handing my sister the wrapped objects one by one. My mother got up from her chair and came to join us.

“What’s in those?” she asked.

My sister began unwrapping the foil, slowly….somehow we were all thinking, If he wrapped them, maybe we shouldn’t unwrap…he’s not here…maybe we should just leave them.

As the first one was unwrapped, we knew what he had done. He had tried to preserve history and safeguard pieces of our beginnings; he had taken precious items, items that people now sell for profit, and placed them in the only wrappings available to a homebound cancer patient. One by one, as I handed, my sister pulled wrappings off of forty-year-old Avon bottles. The actual bottles were not that much of a surprise. What was surprising was my mother’s reaction. She was smiling, laughing, almost childlike in her response to each separate surprise.

“Oh, that’s Cotillion,” she squealed. “That’s Here’s My Heart.”

I watched her smiling for the first time in days and thought that maybe this was her birthday present. Once again, my Daddy had figured out a way to send a message, to show us that he’s not really gone. I stood on that counter, unable to move, and watched my sister open the last one. I tried to memorize the moment, to spin between picturing my sick father pulling off bits of aluminum foil and wrapping them around these treasures and this moment when my mother looked almost like the mother I remember, the mother who carried the blue Avon bag. When the wrapping fell off, I gasped silently and said nothing as I looked at the bottle that held the perfume. This one, like many others, had a name that included only one word, but this word was the most meaningful of them all – an old Avon fragrance called Unforgettable.

I made my way to the last cabinet and found one aluminum wrapped gift sitting in the middle of some spices. I lifted it out and handed it to my sister. She opened it, laughed, and showed it to me - a box of birthday candles.

I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.

Happy Birthday, Mama.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Who Believes in Dallas?

Is there anyone in the education world who wasn't motivated to tears at the beginning of this school year by a fifth grader named Dalton Sherman? The words "Do you believe in me?" were evangelically shouted over the cheering audience of 17,000 educators in the Dallas Independent School District at their beginning of school convocation. The YouTube video of the inspiring speech has been shown all over the country in schools and board meetings. Teachers from Maine to New Mexico have asked themselves "do we really believe in our students?" Dalton has continued to inspire, even sharing the stage with Maya Angelou, appearing on the Ellen DeGeneres show, and being interviewed by numerous news outlets.

But in an emotional twist of fate, some teachers in Dallas may have to find something else to believe in besides students. Today 460 teachers are scheduled to be laid off due to the budget shortfall. Originally, 560 teachers were to be let go until a couple of hundred were "bought out." It is painfully apparent that more is at stake here than the fact that there will be 460 people packing up rooms and leaving. I picture bewildered children having to sever relationships that have been built since August. I see remaining teachers struggling to move their own classrooms in order to spread human resources around the district. And, although I'm aware that we're in a budget crisis, is this really the best time for this type of disruption?

All I can think of is Dalton's face, and the hope that school system began the year with, and I have to wonder...who's left to believe in the children of the Dallas ISD now?

Update: Dallas didn't fire the predicted 460 teachers today. Instead 375 were given the bad news . The stories of crying teachers and students, teachers returning to pack up classrooms, and distressed children who are unsure about what will happen on Monday when they return to school are heartbreaking. How can this be the answer?!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Boys Will Be Boys

My Assistant Superintendent and I were having a discussion recently about a former baseball coach we both remember from our school days. Curtis Young was a larger-than-life, foul mouth, tobacco spitting man who used to yell obscenities on the ball field while I hung my head out of my school bus window to hear them. Later, when I was a senior in high school, Coach Young grabbed my arm as I entered the school auditorium for West Side Story dance auditions and asked me if I would keep the score book for the baseball team. I momentarily looked toward the stage, thought about high school boys in baseball uniforms, and enthusiastically agreed to take the job.

I was telling my Assistant Superintendent that I was the first girl to letter in baseball at my high school, but he had another story...about the time he played against Coach Young while in junior high. He went on to explain that he played ball in a rival county and had one of the best games of his life the day he played Coach Young's team. I stood there listening as he recounted every ball, strike, and hit he got that day. He provided information about his fielding also, and then went on to say that he thinks that game was the reason he was named All Conference that year. When he was finished with his story, I asked him if he ever forgot to pick something up at the grocery story for his wife. He grinned and walked away, knowing exactly what I meant.

My husband cannot remember the butter if I ask him to pick up milk, eggs, and butter. He'll come home, proud to have milk and eggs, and say, "You didn't want anything else, did you?" But he can tell me every play of a high school football game that occurred in 1967. He doesn't know what we did on our first date, but he can recount every golf shot from a game several years ago. "Well, I placed the ball on the tee on number one..." he'll start.

These men in my life have helped me to understand the boys that I teach. In my classroom, I can stir up immense interest if I just make everything a game. It begins like this: "Okay, we're going to get into two teams..." and I'll watch as the girls look distressed (will my friends be on my team?) and the boys start jumping around the room, unable to contain their excitement.

So all we have to do is figure out a way to make everything that happens in a classroom a competition. I have found in my experience that boys don't even need prizes for the winners. They just want to strut out of the room at the end of the class, chanting, "We BEAT 'em, we BEAT 'em!"

Oh, if only we could award All Conference for most pages read or Most Valuable Player for the most math problems done correctly, all of our boys would achieve. And if only I could say what Coach Young used to say: "If you ain't gonna give me all you got, get off my ball field!"

Wow, would schools be different!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Goin' to Bo's!

I recently presented an overview on Classroom Instruction that Works based on research by Marzano and others at McRel. As I reviewed the Nine High Yield Strategies, I was reminded of McRel's findings on reinforcement. I felt really good about these two ideas:

Providing rewards to students does not negatively impact their intrinsic motivation.

Students respond more to reinforcement that is not tangible (for example, a hug or a "good job") than they do to food or money.

The latter finding may be true at that research lab in Colorado, but it is absolutely not the case in my classroom. My students will hang from the ceiling if I offer them a biscuit from Bojangle's. And although ceiling-hanging is not on our Standard Course of Study, I have found that this tasty incentive will encourage students to bring materials to class and actually use those materials to produce work.

In the event you aren't from the South - Bo's started in Charlotte, N.C. back in the seventies. Bojangle's prepares Cajun chicken biscuits and seasoned fries that will pucker your entire mouth. There was a time, I'm not proud to admit, when my own children would refuse homecooked food and rush for a Filet Biscuit Combo at any hour of the day or night. Once they were legally able to drive, they would head by there on the way to school, go back again during "free lunch" (off campus) and turn up their noses at a nice pot roast at dinner. One Christmas I purchased four bottles of the special French Fry Seasoning and placed one in each of their stockings. They said it was the "best gift ever." Two of my children have moved away from North Carolina, and they miss Bojangle's more than they miss me. But I have been known to pack a chicken biscuit in my carry-on bag when I've gone to visit...

So, back to my classes. I can tell Jamal and Jalen "good job" and they will be good boys. But if I tell them I'm going by Bojangle's on the way to school, they will be good, and they will see to it that every student in the class is good. I cannot tell you how many times I've heard, "Shhhhh...if we be quiet, we'll get Bojangle's!"

Tomorrow's the day. They know I just got paid so I'll be in the drive-through at 7AM. I'll be ordering enough Filet Biscuit Combos to make a big dent in my paycheck.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the sweet tea. It'll make you smack your Granny!

I bet Jamal and Jalen are sitting at home thinking about it right now...come to think of it - I am, too.


As it turns out Jamal was nice enough to let Darryl (Lil D) have his combo. Here are Jalen and Lil D enjoying their Bo's before school. The boys are definitely partial to their sweet tea.