Sunday, June 28, 2009

Remembering Michael

If you haven't heard the name "Michael Jackson" 9 zillion times this week, you haven't been in our stratosphere. All of the cliches are true - the world has lost a pop icon who made an immeasurable impact on the worlds of music and dance. I so wish that school was in session right now, so that I could talk to my students about the life and music of Michael Jackson and about the troubled lives (and tragic deaths) of some of the celebrities that my middle schoolers adore (think Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Heath Ledger...the list goes on and on....)

There will be time for those discussions in the fall. But first...Michael...

Since I was born one year before the King of Pop, my life and his work have intersected on many occasions. My father's voice, which has been silent for almost five years now, rings in my ears whenever I hear "I'll Be There."

"Daddy," I said during a Sunday drive in 1970, "Don't you like this song?"

"Sounds nice," he answered. "But who's the little girl singing it?"

At thirteen, I thought that was hysterical... that my Daddy couldn't tell that the Jackson Five was a "boy band." I had Tiger Beat pictures of Michael (right beside Donny Osmond) wallpapering my bedroom. And my first slow dances with boys were awkwardly carried out to "just call my name...and I'll be there..."

I choreographed a middle school dance routine to "The Love You Save" and performed it for the neighbors (I charged a nickel) at our talent shows in the 'hood. Years later, Off the Wall would be the soundtrack for my first year teaching - "I Want to Rock with You" could be heard reverberating up and down the halls of that high school.

And it was pure destiny that I owned a dance studio and worked as a dance instructor in the eighties, the Thriller years. Although my classes always warmed up to "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" from Off the Wall, so many recital dances came from that Thriller album...including a stage full of ghouls and monsters. I remember studying the videos, particularly the one for "Beat It" as I worked on choreography. I couldn't discern the dance moves by watching Michael Jackson; instead, I watched the backup dancers in an effort to learn the steps so that I could teach them to my students.

In the next decade I would have the opportunity to sit in the audience and watch my nine-year-old daughter perform "I Want You Back" with fourth graders from all over the school district. Eight years later, she and her friends would become The Jackson Five at a Halloween Talent Show. They got some strange looks from other drivers as they drove across town to the talent show wearing their afros.

In this, the next decade, I have become "Nana" and memories of three-year-old Taylor bouncing in her car seat shouting, "Play 'Rockin' Robin', Nana!" are fresh. My iPod repeatedly blasts "Rockin' Robin" and "ABC" for a preschool soloist as we drive down the same "Sunday drive" roads from forty years ago. Little Taylor works hard to snap her fingers while the music of an icon from my childhood makes an impact on hers.

And now...the end. The intersections of my life and Michael Jackson's have come to an abrupt halt...but not before one new memory: I have spent the past month making several trips a day to the retirement home where my mother is recuperating from a fall which resulted in a broken hip and elbow. After the permanent residents are dressed every day, they're lined up in front of a huge television in the lobby. I have to walk right in front of them to get to the elevator from my mother's room. In the past few days many have asked me, "Did you hear about Michael Jackson?" as I pass by. One resident told me, just as the local news reporter was delivering the tragic news, "I dreamed last week that Michael Jackson died." I begged her not to ever dream about me.

A wonderful memory of the music of Michael Jackson I'll always remember - as I was leaving the retirement home tonight, I walked in front of a row of senior citizens, lined up like weary wheelchair soldiers. One after another, they appeared to be in varied stages of consciousness, some sleeping, some slumped over the sides of the chair, some alert. But all...ALL of them were tapping a foot or gently smacking a leg to the music of the video on that television screen - a catchy little tune named "Smooth Criminal."

That's what Michael Jackson was...before the odd behavior, before the Neverland Ranch and the monkey and the hyperbaric chamber....when he was just little Michael singing "ABC," that's what he was....smooth. And, in some ways, he was a teacher. Who hasn't tried to do the moonwalk? Who hasn't held a hairbrush as a would-be microphone and belted out, "Billie Jean is not my lover..."?

Rest in peace, little Michael. I've enjoyed sharing the timeline of my life with you.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Summertime Blues

Last year at this time I had no idea what my summer would be like, having been freshly selected as North Carolina's Teacher of the Year. I knew that I would be working all summer (NC TOYs immediately become 12 month employees - for the rest of their natural lives...) but I wasn't sure what I would be doing. As it turns out last summer wasn't much different from the remainder of my Teacher-of-the-Year-year with lots of speaking engagements, board meetings, presentations, workshops, etc.

This year I have a better idea of my summer plans, and I have some really cool things going on. But I have to tell you, cool things aside, I feel a twinge of envy reading classroom teachers' (and students') Facebook countdowns to the end of school: "four days left!" I remember all too well that excitement (I always encourage the entire faculty to line up and do the can-can as our buses leave the lot on the last day.) And I remember those summers when my own kids were little - we'd be by the pool every day, cheering on the swim the beach...sleeping late...

When schools first began to have computers in the mid 90's, teachers were allowed to "check out" a desktop for the summer. I would load that monstrous machine in the back of my car, along with a printer that fed paper with holes-along-the-side, so that my kids could practice word processing. As it turns out, they mostly practiced the game Oregon Trail. They actually got pretty good at it, while I always got bitten by a rattlesnake or died of malaria.

While thoughts of those fun summers "off" are etched in my memory, this summer I will be accompanying fifteen teachers and the Center for International Understanding on a trip to Denmark. We'll be visiting schools there, studying Denmark's wind-energy, and staying with a Danish family. I'm most excited about visiting Odense, the city of Hans Christian Andersen's birth (he's called H.C. Andersen there.) I have many memories of the story of The Little Matchgirl: my great grandmother, who was a school teacher in a one room school house, used to tell me that story when I was a little girl. I'm also looking forward to visiting the Kronborg Castle in Elsinore - Hamlet's castle! (This English major will probably cry.)

My next big adventure will be to reunite with the State Teachers of the Year in Nashville, Tennessee as we convene at the National Forum on Education. Clayton Christensen, author of Disrupting Class, will be speaking, along with other engaging presenters, but we'll also fit in time for site-seeing in Music City!

And last, again with the State Teachers of the Year, I'll be able to play pretend - and this time I'll be an astronaut! We're going to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. I've heard that this is an amazing experience and that we get to float around in zero gravity, among other things.

So...yes, I'll be doing some wonderful things this summer, but even so, I'll miss those lazy, crazy days. Last weekend my granddaughter and I played together on one of the first really warm days, one that ended with a thunderstorm that frightened Taylor. I told her we'd just turn up the music really loud to drown out the thunder.

Then we danced.

Later, after Taylor went home, the following poem found its way to my Writer's Notebook:


an apricot sun
toasting shoulders

a three-year-old
in the backyard

all you heat haters
cooling it
in the air conditioned

come out
and see

a bee
a blue-tailed salamander
a waggy, spotted-tongue

and me

the storms away

("turn up the music, Nana!")

in the summer,
the season
made for children

and grown-ups
who remember.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Sign of the Times

I ventured out recently to purchase a picture frame at a large chain that sells homegoods. I knew exactly what I wanted, and as soon as I made the turn into the frame section, I saw it from a distance. As I got closer, I realized that the frame I wanted, my frame, had several nicks and chips on it.

Not to worry - there were two additional frames, exactly like the first one, underneath a pile. I began moving items and uncovered yet another damaged frame. I was patient, though, knowing that the one at the bottom of the stack would be perfect and ready for purchase, hidden from damage down there at the bottom.

Wrong. The third frame did have less nicks on it, but the box surrounding it was ripped and barely hanging on to the very item it was meant to cover. I decided I could easily camouflage the tiny chipped places with a brown marker so I pushed the box back together in an effort to find the price. I was a bit distressed at the asking price but wasn't too worried: certainly the kind employees would offer a discount for damaged goods. I headed to the register.

Luckily, I was in a line that was being serviced by the store manager; this stroke of luck would eliminate another clerk's need to seek higher authority to approve the discount. I waited for several minutes until it was my turn. I explained my saga to the manager, including the fact that there were two other damaged frames back there on the shelf - surely he would want to remove them in an effort to present only the best for his customers.

He spoke politely, "I have to ask full price for this." I assumed he was kidding - or delirious - surely he didn't want $40.00 for a chipped picture frame in a dysfunctional box. He saw my surprise and continued, "We aren't allowed to offer discounts on damaged merchandise. It's a sign of the times."

After explaining, as nicely as possible, that I couldn't believe his company would want to represent themselves that way, I left with nothing to show for my visit except a wasted thirty minutes.

Later, I thought about the budget cuts that are occurring in school districts across the country. The proposal in my own state currently calls for the elimination of thousands of teaching positions while raising class size and shortening the school year. This is in addition to a salary cut that hit our pay checks last week...which, by the way, I felt okay about at the time. I didn't mind giving up .5% of my salary so that hundreds of teacher jobs could be saved; however, it was just after I came to terms with that news and justified it in my mind that I heard about the thousands of teachers and third grade teacher assistants that we are likely to lose in our state if this budget proposal goes through.

I thought about the "damaged goods" that we'll manufacture in schools - students who will leave us ill-prepared to be successful and with little hope for a bright future. What should I say to those students? Oh, I's a sign of the times.

But unlike that picture frame, I can't put my students back on the shelf. We, as educators, have to remain committed to do the best we can with the resources we have available to us, even if the only resources we have are a passion for children and subject matter expertise. I can do it if I run out of paper and I can do it with more students in my classroom, especially if those of us left to do the work continue on with a purposeful effort to make a difference in the lives of children.

Meanwhile we will continue to be a voice for those children as we write our legislators and make our positions known (I'm happy to report that each representative that I have written has written me back. I do feel that they are listening.) In addition, in my state educators are wearing red on Wednesdays to symbolize that "education is bleeding."

But bleeding or not, we'll teach those children - however many sit in our classrooms - because the alternative is not an option.

It reminds me of an old song from the sixties - "Don't Give Up" by Petula Clark:

Don't give up; don't let it get you down.
Don't give up; don't think of leaving town.

Which, in turn, reminds me of a popular Petula Clark album with a catchy guessed it -

Sign of the Times.