All the World’s a Stage

The Globe

I was one of those young college students who struggled to decide what path to follow in preparing for a career. I began with an unspecified arts and sciences major and changed directions multiple times. I even dropped out for a time because I was so confused about what I really wanted to do with my life. In the end I graduated with many more hours than usual, ultimately majoring in English and Education with a heavy dose of mathematics courses for good measure. By that time I saw myself as a purveyor of literature, and I dreamed of inspiring students to love Shakespeare as much as I do. I carried visions of my favorite high school teacher, Father Shane, in my head and hoped that I might inspire a new generation of young people to appreciate the beauty of the the written word as much as he had impacted me.

To my surprise my first job was as a mathematics teacher, something I viewed as a temporary status wrought by a dwindling market for newly graduated educators. I assumed that within in year or so the economy would right itself and I would soon enough be dramatically quoting lines from Othello and demonstrating the art of writing. Somehow I instead became branded as someone capable of instructing students in the algorithms and formulas of algebra, geometry, probability and statistics. It became an unbreakable trend, and soon enough my preferred mode of work. Still, there hovered in the back of my mind an undying love for literature, grammar, linguistics and composition. The artistic side of my nature needed to be unleashed, but would have to learn how to express itself in unique lessons for teaching proportion and the wonders of circles.

Once I retired from my career I returned to my roots, writing almost daily, reading and rereading some of my favorite authors, and immersing myself in the beauty of language. I even enjoyed tutoring a student or two in the ways of interpreting literature and then writing about metaphors and other tools of language. If found great joy and relaxation in having the time to devote myself to explorations of the ideas that I have always so loved.

Still there remained a longing to visit the land where so many of my favorite authors had once lived and to experience the history and culture that had so molded them. The number one entry on my bucket list was to travel to London and its countryside, and I was determined to one day make it happen. It was with great expectations that I recently crossed “the pond” and had the opportunity to walk in the shadow of some of the greatest authors of all time, not the least of which is my favorite, William Shakespeare.

The original Globe Theater where Shakespeare’s plays were performed was destroyed long ago, but a replica now stands along the Thames River offering seasonal productions for those desiring to get a feel for how the Elizabethan world might have been. It is an outdoor venue with a large open area for the “groundlings” who must stand during the presentation with three levels of seating on the same type of narrow wooden seating that the more prosperous patrons of old might have enjoyed. The only nod to comfort in the arena are the small cushions that may be procured for an extra fee to soften the harshness of sitting on a hard surface for three hours.

My traveling companions and I went to see The Merry Wives of Windsor, a comedy that might not have been my first choice but was nonetheless the offering for the season. It was a greatly modernized version of the rollicking farce featuring the crowd pleasing character, Falstaff. The members of the company played well to the audience just as the actors of old most surely had done. Their light hearted banter kept all of us laughing and enjoying the ridiculousness of the story.

When intermission came I learned that the members of my family had little idea what was happening. They had not taken entire courses on the works of Shakespeare as I had. Only my sister-in-law Becky was somewhat attuned because I had gifted her with a translated version of the play since she was worried that her English might not be up to speed enough to understand the nuances of a Shakespearean production. I hastily describe the premise of the play and each character’s role in the tale. After that there were more laughs and enjoyment coming from my family, and I felt a small sense of satisfaction in being a purveyor of understanding for them.

I was literally floating on air as we emerged from the Globe Theater at the end of a riotously fun evening. The night sky was clear and illuminated by a million points of light from the city of London. I walked across the Millennium Bridge in high spirits as I marveled at my good fortune, and considered that the course of my life had gone full circle, returning me to the passion of my youth. I thought of Father Shane and gave him a silent nod of gratitude for instilling me with a love of all things literary. I felt quite complete as I considered how well the course of my life had gone. There was something very Shakespearean about the way that I was feeling and the contentment that filled my heart.

As if to remind me that life is filled with comedies and well as tragedies, in the midst of my elation my brother Michael ran into a low barricade, did a complete somersault, and banged his head on the pavement in view of St. Paul’s Cathedral. His glasses were broken, his body was bruised, and we worried that his injuries were severe. With the usual aplomb he brushed away our fears, but the bubble of perfection in which I had been floating returned to reality. It felt as though Shakespeare himself was reminding me of the vagaries of life that are the stuff of both tragedy and comedy.

I shall never forget my evening at the Globe Theater. I have seen better plays and more superior acting at the Alley Theater in Houston, but those entertainments did not feel as sacred as my pilgrimage to the place where the undyingly prescient words of the Bard still deliver their universal messages. More than ever I knew that “all the world’s a stage,” and I have been a player in its never ending plot.

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A Paperless World

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The world is becoming more and more technical, and the trend is forcing us to learn how to use complex implements for living or be left behind. There is such a rush to modernize and improve the way we do things that most of the electronics that we buy are outdated within a few years. Technology is the new driver of industry creating a conceivably better way of living, but also a host of unforeseen problems.

When I attended college as an undergraduate I typed my papers on what was essentially a keyboard that directed a piece of shaped and cut metal to strike an inked ribbon to leave an impression of a letter on a sheet of paper. If I mistakenly hit the wrong key I had to use a white liquid to hide my error and then strike the correct button to hide what I had done. A bit of correction fluid here and there was somewhat unnoticeable, but I tended to have far too many slips of the hand as I typed, and so my entries were more often than not rather messy looking. I invariably lost points for the rather shabby appearance of my efforts, even though I was known to type and retype my papers in an effort to make them perfect. I once begged a professor to allow me to simply hand print my offering on lined paper which he obligingly agreed to accept. He noted with a laugh that my scribing was a hundred times better than my typing.

I was thrilled with the invention of the word processor which permitted me to concentrate on my phrasing rather than the physical construction of my papers. My days as a graduate student were far easier than my earlier years of education, but as usual inventors were not satisfied with leaving things in a simple state. They had to create software that enabled the users to develop professional looking presentation pieces that were often far too complex for me to manipulate. I generally didn’t have the time to study the processes, and so once again I found myself falling behind not in how I said something, but in how it looked on the page.

It was about the time of my graduate studies that the Internet was becoming a thing on college campuses. One of my professors taught us how to use it and required us to send him emails. It seemed almost like magic to be able to communicate so easily with him. It would only be a couple of years later that the concept of email would become a thing and the need for almost everyone to purchase a computer became a reality. Before long the educational world was onboard for creating an almost paperless society.

At first I worried mostly about my economically disadvantaged students. The virtual way of doing business did not always work so well for them. It assumed that they had computers and wifi in their homes, which many of them did not. I was often criticized for allowing them to use my machines and printers rather than the computer lab, but I had learned that the fight for use of the facilities was real. Over time home computers and Internet access became as common as having a stove for almost every person, but I was still concerned about those who were not up to speed with the world of technology. I saw the changes happening so quickly that most students were working with outdated and sometimes unreliable equipment that created huge problems for them. I remember one young man who had worked for weeks on a research paper only to have some quirk of his home computer lose all of the writing that he had done. Because he had been conferring with me on a regular basis I was able to confirm to his teacher that he had indeed been nearing the completion of his great efforts and he was given one  additional night to attempt to recreate his paper.

Now students are being bombarded with technological demands. They register for classes online, receive emails with syllabi and instructions for projects, take online tests under the eye of proctors for whom they must pay, and submit assignments electronically. They must watch for confirmations that their work has been received and be alert for last minute messages. The old face to face meetings with professors during office hours are often replaced by attempts to “speak” with them via text or email. In spite of the fact that messages get lost in the barrage of information drowning students each day and equipment failures at the worst possible moments excuses are rarely considered. Students live and die by their ability to cull the wheat from the chaff, and must hope and pray that there is no power failure or unforeseen problem when due dates loom.

I have heard many stories from my former students about issues that they have encountered because of the assumptions by professors that they will be able to navigate successfully in a fully automated world. One young man spoke of how his dyslexia was not well served by computerized tests. Another called me in a panic one evening when his laptop crashed just before an important paper was due. Others have spoken of having to spend far too much time perusing their email inboxes each day just to be certain that they were not missing some important information from their professors. Sadly occasionally they became so snowed under that one tiny misstep obliterated what had been an excellent grade in the class. The brave new world of technology can be as hurtful as it is helpful.

Technology has been a boon to much of our way of life, but it has also created unforeseen problems as evidenced by cyber bullying, out of control tweeting, and an inundation of information that often creates new anxieties. Without checks and balances the electronic way of doing things can leave individuals feeling alone and isolated. What was supposed to be an aid to better living can become a source of major frustration.

We know full well that each human is an individual with a very specific learning style which highly computerized teaching does not always address. I am a very tactile person who needs to have a paper in my hand with words written on it that I may then highlight and annotate. That is how I best study and how I do well on tests. If I have to deal with a computer screen I still need a piece of paper on which to jot my ideas and create outlines. The paperless world does not work well with my dyslexia and I’m soon transposing numbers and reading words that are not on the screen. I’m certain that there are many others just like me who are struggling with the demands of an electronic world.

As we educate individuals we must ask ourselves why someone might make all A’s on traditional work in our classes and then suddenly make a failing grade on a computer generated assignment. Surely we need to take the time to find out what happened and then adjust for that student accordingly. The key to good teaching has always been to understand that there can never be a one size fits all way of operating. We have to be ready to deal with the exceptions to rules.

I was the valedictorian of my high school class of 1966. I was proud of that accomplishment then as now because I earned it with old fashioned hard work, not native intellect. What it taught me was that goals are achieved through persistence and effort. The playing field on which I excelled felt level and fair because it allowed me to learn the way I am best suited. I’m not so sure that I would have done as well in today’s environment. The learning difficulties that I overcame would be sorely challenged by the letters that seem to jump around and glow on electronic pages. There would be no place for me to set them right with my markers and pens and little drawings. Like my blind student who required braille books, I need materials in my hands to learn most efficiently. I wonder how many more like me are struggling to demonstrate that they have what it takes because it is so often assumed that everyone does better when no paper or textbooks are involved. It’s something that we need to think about and address.

The Final Entry

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I regularly watch the first thirty minutes of Sunday Morning on CBS while I prepare for church each week. It’s generally an informative and upbeat program  with interesting human interest stories that make me think or laugh or even cry. This past Sunday featured a segment on a young girl named Alexandra who had committed suicide by throwing herself off of an overpass bridge. After her body was found her parents also became aware of journals that she had kept that were filled with vivid descriptions of the angst that drove her to kill herself.

Up until the moment of the gruesome discovery of Alexandra and her diaries nobody, not even her parents or her closest friends, had any idea that she was so troubled. She appeared to be a happy successful high school junior with a sweet smile and a joyful laugh that filled her parent’s world with a feeling of being especially blessed. She was an A student who was so well liked by her classmates that they had elected her to one of the class offices. She wanted to major in engineering in college and to that end she belonged to the school robotics team that had only recently qualified for the international finals. She was a favorite of her teachers, one of whom indicated that she was possibly the number one or number two student that he had ever taught in his twenty years in the classroom. What nobody seemed to know was how desperate and worthless Alexandra actually felt.

She had a checklist of things she needed to accomplish to get in M.I.T., her dream school. She was striving to be the valedictorian of her class and to score high on entrance exams. In her journals she confessed that she felt as though she was a failure, valueless, unmotivated and unhappy. She hid her worries and her depression from her parents even though she spent time lots with them and talked openly with them about her life and her aspirations and her feelings, only what she told them was far different from what she recorded on paper. Everyone saw her as one of those extraordinary teenagers that every parent and educator hopes to have, while she saw herself  as a hopeless loser.

Alexandra’s English teacher, like her parents, was stunned by her death. He still wonders what signs he might have missed that would have allowed him to help his beloved student. So also was the school counselor who had never sensed the depths of Alexandra’s desperation. Her best friends were also left wondering how their pal had managed to hide her feelings from everyone. She was a golden girl in everyone’s eyes the lines in the notebooks described how overwhelmed she actually was.

I have spent the majority of my life advocating for care for those afflicted with mental illness and for the students that I have taught.  I have often uncovered problems with my pupils before they escalated to a point from which there might have been no return. I used my observational skills to ascertain that one of my students was self harming herself. I saw another student’s outbursts not as disregard for authority, but a cry for help. I was particularly good at ferreting out the truth behind student behaviors of all sorts, but there were still moments when I missed all of the signs. Those times were particularly difficult because I truly cared for all of kids, even those who gave me grief. They were like my children and I wanted to be a person of understanding and compassion for them, but sometimes my they were hiding the truth of their feelings from me and everyone else. They put on Academy Award level performances designed to hide the pain that they were feeling.

I suppose that the key to really knowing a person comes in keeping the lines of communication wide open. Teens and young adults need to know without reservation that it is safe to ask for help, admit mistakes, discuss worries. Adults need to ask themselves if even the students who appear to be handling challenges are pushing themselves too much. As parents and teachers we must continually have discussions regarding how much work/life balance our youngsters have. As a team we can indeed work to alleviate some of the pressures and fears that plague their journeys to becoming adults. We can start with very frank discussions and a willingness to really listen between the lines to what our kids are telling us. They need to know that we do not expect perfection and that erring is not failure but an opportunity to learn, We must be certain that we are not making them feel trapped in a whirlwind of unreasonably high expectations.

Years ago Rice University, sometimes known as the Harvard of the south, was the suicide capitol of universities. The numbers of students killing themselves was so dramatically high as to cause the board of directors to ask what the reasons might be. They found that the university in general focused almost exclusively on competition and grades with little or no regard for social skills and psychological health. Brilliant students were continually made to feel inadequate as they were quantified and ranked and pushed beyond their endurance. It was only after dramatic efforts were made to help students to achieve a realistic balance of work and pleasure that the rate of self inflicted deaths began to drop. Not long ago the university was even named as one of the happiest  campuses in the country, an honor that spoke to the hard work of truly concerned educators who had worked together to find ways of developing the whole individual.

Alexandra’s parents have made their daughter’s writing public. They lecture at high schools  and parent meetings. Their advice is that we must be watchful of every young person for signs that our systems are devouring them. They believe that if their daughter’s tragic story saves even one more life her words will not have been in vain.

Alexandra’s final entry was addressed to her parents. She insisted that they not blame themselves. Of course as loving parents they do, as is also true of everyone who loved this precious girl.

Learning Is A Beautiful Thing

img_0026A young woman that I know rightly noted that learning is a beautiful thing, and in the same breath wondered why our methods for conveying it garner such anxiety. We have somehow managed to take one of the loveliest aspects of being human and turned it into what is often an onerous competitive blood sport. In today’s world education is all too often a numbers game in which young people who are still developing are ranked and classified in life changing rituals that sometimes have the effect of changing the course of their destinies. It is a process that affects not only our students but also our teachers and our society. The attempts to quantify the learning process has ignored the more subtle aspects of people, and instead stamped them with life changing numbers that have the power of affecting where they will eventually work and how they will live.

The idea of joyful learning has become secondary to test scores and grades, often wringing the joy of schooling out of the equation. The message that we send our young is that education is a numbers game overseen by mega testing corporations and the College Board. The test is the thing, and those who learn in ways contrary to mastery of often trivial and subjective standardized questions need not apply. All too often the difference between an opportunity to follow a dream and condemnation to a lifetime of frustration is found in a rigid reliance on numbers, even as we somehow know that such things are incapable of truly determining the worth of someone’s talents.

As a small girl I was repulsed by situations that ranked me and my fellow students. The teacher who created a bulletin board with rockets bearing our names to identify those who were soaring to the moon versus those who crashed and burned at takeoff became loathsome in my mind. I understood that I knew how to please her, but that others also had great but different gifts to offer. I suppose that living with my brothers had taught me about the ways in which we grow and develop, not at a constant and linear rate, but in a kind of spiral with stops and starts. One of my brothers had a brilliant mathematical mind that was far advanced over the rest of us. He knew what he wanted to do with his life from the time that he was five. My other brother and I drifted here and there. As a people pleaser I was able to convince my teachers that I was indeed quite intelligent, but only by towing the line that they required of me. My little brother was more rebellious and thus often considered less likely to be successful. The truth was that he had a complex and creative mind that would eventually prove to be exactly what an entrepreneur needs.

Today the pressure to conform to the numbers game is more intense than ever. Students are ranked from the first day of high school. They are told that class standing and scores on entrance exams will determine whether or not they are allowed to enter the most prestigious universities and majors. They battle for the top spots by adding premium points to their GPAs with countless advanced placement classes. They worry about every little test, every rise or dip in their grades. They take courses to learn how to be better test takers. They eschew subjects that sound interesting or fun because they might cause them to fall in the ranks. Often they lose the joyfulness of learning in the process of pursuing their goals. School becomes an odious task that must be endured so that the future will be bright.

Even when they reach the hallowed halls of a favored university they may find themselves once again being sorted into the stars and the also rans. Competitions for internships and jobs are based more on grades than personalities and the kinds of traits that cannot possibly be measured with numbers. A single point difference shuts doors and opportunities. It is only after entering the real world of work that things like effort and creativity become marketable skills. An ability to work with a team is often more important than making the highest score on a test but such things are rarely considered in the world of academia.

People often ask me about my experience as an educator. In that capacity I literally taught people of all ages. My initial foray into the life of a teacher began with four year olds. By the time I retired I had worked with virtually every age group including adults. The one constant that I observed is that we each learn and progress at a different pace. Those who are the quickest to master a topic are not necessarily the ones who will ultimately do the best with it. My eldest daughter was fifteen months old before she walked, but on the day that she took her first steps she literally ran and then became a beautiful and graceful dancer. The fact that she took so long to walk upright had zero effect on the rest of her life. Thus it is with each of us. Learning is very personal and should be cause for joy, not anxiety.

One of the finest teachers that I have ever known devised a grading system that allowed for differences in the learning curve. If a student initially failed to master a skill he offered additional tutoring and then retested the individual and eliminated the failing grade, replacing it with the mark that celebrated success. His students adored him and often reported that they not only walked away from his class filled with knowledge, but they also felt more confident and willing to take new risks. They learned how to be resilient from him, and they found great joy in learning about topics that might have earlier terrified them. This is the way education is supposed to be but all too rarely is.

The young woman that I know is so right. Learning is a beautiful thing. Let’s hope that one day we will find a way to universally bring the joy to those who embark on the journey of becoming educated.

I Found My Purpose

42678886_10217646777023389_6852434799655649280_nI recently had dinner with a group of former students and a teaching colleague. It was incredibly rewarding to see how well the young ladies who were once my pupils have done. One of them, Jennifer, is a teacher who recently earned an advanced degree in educational leadership. Another, Christine, works in the development department of the KIPP Charter Schools and she was recently rewarded with a promotion. The third, Joana, is working on a post graduate degree in Social Work. All three are articulate, hard working and filled with compassion. They have literally become more like peers than pupils. Our gathering was like a reunion of old friends and it was quite exciting to hear their stories of life and work.

While its tempting to take some credit for how well they have turned out, I know that they are fully responsible for their amazing accomplishments that came only with extraordinary dedication and much sacrifice. Talking with them tells me that they continue to work toward exciting goals and that they have fully become exemplary adults of whom I am so very proud.

I also learned at this meeting that my friend, Ann, is still working to educate high school students. She’s a phenomenal educator whose expertise has helped to launch the careers of a host of exceptional people. It’s reassuring to know that someone like her is still out there making a difference in people’s lives. That’s perhaps the most important aspect of being an educator and she is among the best.

There are times when I forget the real rewards of being a teacher. We rarely get paid as much as we should, and our retirement programs are far from being sufficient. I would have done far better financially if I’d had a pathway in business or even if I’d worked for the federal government which offers some of the best pension plans that there are. If I’d held office in Congress for even one term I’d be set for life. With all that said, when I talk with the individuals that I once taught and realize how remarkable they are, I know in my heart that I was actually blessed by being a teacher. There are very few professions that provide such satisfaction.

The frustrations of teachers are legend, but in the cacophony of complaining we sometimes forget to boast of the wonders of being an educator. Much like being a parent we can get caught up in the day to day routines and problems that sometime blind us from seeing the pure joys. It takes a bit of stepping back to gain the perspective that reveals our sense of purpose and meaning.

I know that I did not reach every heart and mind that I attempted to touch. There are probably even those who disliked me for one reason or another. As with anything I have fans and I have detractors, but on the whole I believe that I made some kind of difference in making this world of ours a bit better place to be. The value of that is priceless to me, and I would not be willing to give up even one day of my many years as a teacher for monetary profit.

Each kind of job and each person has value for our society. We really do need everyone and to rank the importance of work would be silly, but an argument might be made that teachers make it possible for the remarkable diversity of skills and talents that bring progress and innovation into our lives. We build the foundations from which all else springs. It is a breathtaking responsibility to consider.

I worry that we are somehow diminishing the importance of teaching these days. All too often I hear people arguing that they would never encourage a bright young individual to participate in such a terrible profession. I hear parents shudder when one of their children expresses an interest in being an educator. They worry that talents will be wasted in a job that lacks respect and a salary commensurate with intellect. They attempt to steer their sons and daughters into more prosperous and promising professions.

It saddens me that I so often find myself defending the occupation to which I devoted so much of my life. I am questioned as to why I didn’t pursue more stimulating and lucrative fields. I sense that some see my choice as a kind of failure to use my talents to their fullest.

Then I go out to dinner with a colleague and three phenomenal young women whom I once taught and I remember again how glorious it felt to go to work each and every day. I know in my heart that mine was a true vocation and that those of us lucky enough to find our true reason for  existence have something that no amount of money or even regard will ever buy. I am and always will be a teacher. I bear that designation proudly and without regret.