Sunday, May 30, 2010


He was twelve once. With a grin as big as the classroom he sat in, he'd rather hold a football than a girl's hand. I think he laid awake at night figuring out ways to torment the teacher. Once at school, he carried out his plans, bringing his friends Barry and Kris along for the ride.

His favorite ploy was to get the teacher off the subject. He'd ask about her children...try to get information about her love life, grinning all the while. One day the teacher saw him throw a football the length of the middle school field and thought This is a very special young man.

Brian Anderson was a special young man indeed. Continuing on to high school, he became a football and wrestling star. His infectious smile permeated the high school classrooms, football field, and wrestling mat. "A real character" is how his football coach described him. "Never a dull moment with Brian around," he said.

After high school he enlisted in the Marine Corps and asked to be among the first of the troops to descend on Iraq in 2003. He didn't want his buddy, who had orders to go, to be alone. He kissed his mother goodbye and traveled halfway across the world...only to lose his life on April 2, 2003. By then he was a man, but to his teacher, he was still twelve and sitting in that last seat in the middle row...

He was in his early twenties once. He grew up on a farm in a rural North Carolina county, digging in the soil that produced the meals for his mother, four sisters, and two brothers. He was the oldest, the man of the family. A good-looking guy, he had a smile that made some country girls swoon.

Riddick Blackwood joined the Army in August of 1944, taking the same course as so many men in those days. He reported to Germany, leaving a young wife behind, to travel to a country he'd only heard about, a land altogether different from his rural homeplace.

He would lose his life in the single largest and bloodiest battle of World War II, the Battle of the Bulge. The War Department would deliver an official message to his wife and mother, and he would be buried in Holland. His family was never able to bring him home, focused now on his two brothers still serving - Truett, who was lying wounded in an English hospital and Bob, stationed in India.

Riddick Blackwood would never meet his nephew (his baby sister's boy) or his nephew's wife who thinks about him often...especially on days like today.

Thank you, Brian and Riddick, for what you represent and for what you sacrificed. I continue to pray for the peace that you died for.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Itsy Bitsy Spider

Remember that part in the movie Arachnophobia when the character played by Jeff Daniels mentions that there's no noise from the crickets? All of a sudden it's so quiet outside that the main character takes notice, oblivious to the fact that some creepy crawly creatures have snacked on all the insects in the land.

One day this past week I walked the halls of my school and noticed that same eerie sound. It rang out more loudly than the usual halls full of bustling children...the "he saids/she saids" of middle school class change, the laughter and joking, the "stop running, keep-to-the-right" characteristics of a school hallway.

Our huge eight-legged critter?


I heard once that a first grader returned home from school one day during my state's End of Grade Tests (which we call EOG's) and announced, "The school was really quiet today. We had E-I-E-I-O's."

More like just O's....line after line of O's as in, "Fill in your circle completely. Be sure your mark is heavy and dark. If you erase your circle, do not try to redraw it."

Today I completed my fourteenth day of standardized testing. Next week there are makeups and retests and on and on - an army of arachnids taking over the schoolhouse and silencing the happy noises of the children.

Where's Jeff Daniels when you need him?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

I LOVE sports. LOVE 'em. From little league to middle and high school, college and doesn't matter. I enjoy the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat as much as anyone. I still get chillbumps when I ride by our county's high school football stadium on a Friday night. I can smell the grass on the field, the popcorn at the concession stand, and the sweaty players running to the locker room at the end of the game. I hear the band playing Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4" and can still remember the dance I used to do on the sidelines. I have season tickets to NFL football games and Triple A famous in my town that a movie, Bull Durham, was filmed here.

I also love the Division I university that I attended. My daughter graduated from there 24 years after I did, and coincidentally, that was the same year I earned my master's degree there. She was a captain on the cheerleading squad and traveled the country when "our" team played in the NCAA tournament. To say I'm a fan is an understatement. In my area of the state the basketball rivalry is so intense that it can break up a marriage and everyone would understand.

I love my profession, too. This week my heart broke when I read about the local teacher who is half a paycheck away from homelessness and who is in danger of losing her job. Just as I was wiping away my tears, I read the following:

"With 11% unemployment in NC that includes 5400 educator jobs, the Senate's budget continues $14 million funding of our-of-state athletes' tuition. Out-of-state athletes cost upwards of $42,000 annually, mostly at taxpayer's expense. A starting teacher in NC makes $30,000 annually."

Did you just hear a needle scratch violently across a record (you have to be my age to understand that reference.) Seriously? Seriously? I can barely summon a response.

My husband says, "Yea, but how much do those athletes bring to our state?" And to that I say, "Not a damn thing if they hadn't had thirteen years of teachers and coaches training them to do what they do and be who they are."

I'm so mad I don't even have words...

Friday, May 7, 2010

Pushing Buttons

I was in an airport bathroom recently...specifically, I was in a stall. I could hear a little girl somewhere near the sinks squealing, "I wanna push the button!" over and over and over. And over. The squeals escalated from a post-toddler whine to a pre-school shrill.

From my perspective, it was apparent that the little girl wanted to push the automatic hand dryer button. So I waited to hear the machine start up and pictured the air blowing across the little girl's head; surely, she would be just the right height for a new wind-blown hairstyle.

I never heard the hand dryer come on, but I did hear the little girl squeal her request repeatedly. But what I didn't hear was any acknowledgement from her mother. She had turned her little girl off.

The entire scenario reminded me of the summer of 1989, a month before my son's kindergarten year. By chance we ran into his first ever public school teacher in the shopping mall, just before school started. Coincidentally, the teacher had a son the same age as mine. And interestingly he was banging her on the head with a balloon the whole time we chatted.

It went something like this: "Yes, he'll need paper, pencils, a box of tissues, a glue stick..." BOP! "Oh, and don't forget about Open House...." BOP! "I'm so happy to have your son in my class this year..." BOP BOP!!!

The teacher never said a word to her son, and I decided she was accustomed to him, somewhat desensitized to his antics. During my restroom stall retreat, I thought back to that teacher and that little boy and thought about how my buddy out by the hand dryer was turned off, too. It was as if her mother didn't even notice her squeals, desensitized to shrill requests because she most likely hears them all day.

All of a sudden, in a bathroom stall in Baltimore, Maryland, it hit me. Lawmakers are turning the same deaf ear to educators. We've squealed about working conditions, salaries, and layoffs. Recently, we've taken to marching, walking out, protesting, and letter and editorial writing. But it's as if policymakers have their fingers stuffed in their ears, singing, "I can't hear you. I can't hear you..." Apparently, they are desensitized to our pleas.

So, finally on the plane and ascending upward and over Washington, DC, where so much of what impacts us as teachers is decided, I thought about how to get our message across in ways that are more difficult to "turn off."

First, I truly believe you get more with honey than vinegar. Angry outbursts and name-calling are the best ways to ensure that they won't hear what you say; they'll hear how you say it. Remain calm, state the facts, and have data to back it up. No squealing or whining allowed.

Next...learn from history. Dr. Martin Luther King's peaceful protests changed our country. Walk to the capitol if you like; carry a sign displaying your message. But don't communicate threats or yell obscenities. Hang on to your self control by thinking about the message you're sending to your students or your own children. We should all be role models for peace.

Also, use your 21st century technology skills and get your messsage out there so you can drum up support. Have you heard of California teacher Anthony Cody's Letters to Obama that got him an audience with Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education? Mr. Cody's use of social networking helped him connect with educators all over the country and thus send a message to policymakers that can't be turned off.

Last, it's necessary to hit 'em where it's important, with stories of our students and our children. For example, my sixth grade student Jake has almost learned how to say his "r's" during this school year. But if the speech teacher's position is cut, he'll move on to high school sounding much younger than his actual age. Perla, my English Language Learner, will continue to struggle in school if her ESL teacher is moved elsewhere. And Andre and JoeJoe will have a difficult time learning in a classroom with 38 other kids. They've told me they do better in small groups. But fewer teachers mean crowded classrooms and less learning for Andre and JoeJoe.

So, yes, we do want to push their buttons. But first they have to hear our requests. We need to do whatever it takes to make that happen.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Teachers Who Make a Difference

I've just completed my first ever Book Tour which included four states, six television interviews, a radio interview, and three book signings. But after all of that excitement, I was inspired when I checked my email after my trip. At the end of my book, Finding Mrs. Warnecke, I ask for readers to write me and tell me about their own "Mrs. Warnecke," the teacher who made a difference. I returned from my trip to hear from Susan, a teacher in the Virgin Islands:

Hey Cindi,
I tore through your book lent to me by my boss, Edney Freeman, Virgin Islands Teacher of the Year, and enjoyed it thoroughly. My Mrs. Warnecke was a teaching nun, Sister Mary Remy Revor, who I didn't encounter until I was 30 years old. She taught fabric arts at Arrowmont School of the Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and in two weeks was able to undo all the negative messages I had received over the years about what art is supposed to be. "Never use pink and yellow together," was the rule according to my elementary school art teacher. The unspoken lesson in college was that men are the artists and women are the models. I dropped out of college after three years because I couldn't see the point.

Sister Remy taught me to take pride in my own work and to believe in myself. She shared everything she knew, no holding back secret tricks. With that positive experience under my belt, I continued taking art classes during the summer and eventually returned to college where I earned BFA Honors, was accepted into the MFA program as a teaching assistant (they paid me!) and started teaching high school art. Certification courses led to an MAE, but all the pedagogy in the world pales in comparison to the example set by Sister Remy. This is what I bring to my students.

Susan Edwards
Charlotte Amalie High School
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

(Thank you, Mrs. Warnecke and Sister Mary Remy Revor!)