Elon, Larry, Mike and More

Starman_SpaceXIt’s been a very long time since I have felt the rush of excitement that I used to get whenever a new space mission was televised. I grew up in an era of rocketry firsts that literally took my breath away when they were happening. I saw Alan Shepard become the first American to go into space. I watched John Glenn make history with his orbits around the earth. I was tuned in when Neil Armstrong uttered his famous words as he stepped onto the surface of the moon and worried with the rest of world when the crew of Apollo 13 announced to Houston that they had a problem. I marveled at the Space Shuttle and the very idea that there might be a vehicle that could return from a journey to be used again and again. I was watching in horror when the Challenger blew up just after launching. I enjoyed the advances that allowed astronauts to make repairs and live for weeks in a space station. I believed that the most wonderful qualities of humans were encapsulated in the space program and as it all seemed to fade away I felt a sadness that was difficult to explain. Then seemingly from out of nowhere came a most remarkable feat that has reawakened my belief that one day in the future we will be able to journey across the universe.

The launch of Falcon Heavy by SpaceX last week was so stunning that I literally found myself crying tears of sheer joy and excitement. Everything about the event was spectacular from the music by David Bowie that accompanied the liftoff to the glorious humor that sent a cherry red Tesla into orbit with its Starman passenger gleefully hitching a ride. Perhaps even more stunning, however, was watching the booster rockets return to earth and land precisely on target to be used again, a triumph that at one time seemed impossible. Elon Musk, the innovator and maestro of the flight is surely a pure genius, who like Da Vinci and Einstein before him has an ability to see the world in ways that move all of mankind forward in our quest for knowledge. He is one of those people who does the impossible. He has managed to make America and humanity great again in ways that no politician has enjoyed.

Progress has always depended on those who are unafraid to gaze into the future. They are the dreamers and risk takers among us. Sometimes we scratch our heads as they announce their ideas, thinking them foolish or worse. We can’t always comprehend the seeming silliness of their notions, but they believe nonetheless and are compelled to move forward in spite of the negativity that often surrounds them.

I have a friend named Larry who long ago announced that he wanted to start a business selling t-shirts with messages and illustrations on them. This was at least fifty years ago at a time when shirts of all sorts were generally plain and of all one color save for stripes or plaids. The very concept of clothing with more personality seemed strange to those of us with whom he shared his proposal. He wanted to set up a kiosk inside a mall to sell his wares. He had heard of a machine that would place a decal on a shirt using heat. He imagined people flocking to personalize their clothing, We instead insisted that he would be wasting his money and his talents to pursue such a bizarre notion. How were we to know that he was indeed on to something very, very big? He was a seer of sorts, while we were too tethered to thoughts of how things had always been to be willing to accept his out of the box thinking.

On another occasion when we visited Larry he proudly showed us a huge box near his television. He explained that the machine would record any program that he wished to keep for the future. We were polite as he explained how it worked and what its uses might be. Inside our heads, however, we felt that his had been a ridiculous purchase. After all,  we wondered, who would ever want to make a recording of a show? Once you watched it why would you want to see it again? We simply did not have the vision that Larry had. Our ability to see ahead was far too limited. Unlike Larry we were not willing to think of the world as it might be.

My brother Mike was very much like Elon Musk and Larry from the time that he was only three or four years old. He walked around with a book written by Werner von Braun that told a tale of man one day  going to the moon. He tucked it under his tiny arm like a treasured toy and gazed at the illustrations of rockets and living quarters in space vehicles as though he was enjoying the characters of a little Golden Book. He told everyone who would listen that one day a man would go to the moon and that he was going to be a mathematician so that he might help to design systems for building the craft. Adults laughed good-naturedly at his assertions, but he was totally serious, and he built his life around those goals. He created a marble computer when he was in high school that won him the Grand Prize at the Houston Science and Engineering Fair. He went to Rice University and studied mathematics and Electrical Engineering. In time he went to work for Boeing Aerospace in conjunction with NASA and eventually authored the computer program for the navigation system of the International Space Station. He too was someone who was always able to envision a future that was far more exciting and complex than most of us are capable of realizing and he sustained the confidence to follow his journey.

Now I have a grandson named Jack who is imagining the possibilities of one day being part of the SpaceX team designing software. A granddaughter named Abigail is already recording ideas for making the care of animals more humane. Grandson William is writing stories about the future. The odyssey of the mind continues with amazing individuals who see a box of junk as a source of possibilities. These kinds of people turn problems into magical creations. They are the thinkers and dreamers who move us ever forward. They are the future and instead of chuckling at their imaginations we would do well to encourage them to propel us forward. 


It’s Ten O’Clock


It’s ten o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” If you grew up or were a parent in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s you heard this question every night before the late newscast came on. It was a public service announcement that made sense then, but may be a bit confusing in today’s world. Back in those decades most children were what we now call “free range kids.” They played outside for hours at a time, often with little or no supervision other than a quick glance outside a window from a parent. They wandered away from home to visit with neighborhood friends, not always bothering to check in with parents before doing so. It wasn’t unusual at all for children to return outdoors after dinner to play in the dark under a street light or on someone’s front porch. It was a time of innocence when parents and kids both rarely worried about being harmed. Everyone knew everyone else and watched over one another. Perhaps the freedom that little ones enjoyed back then was fueled by naivety, but it was highly unusual for someone to be lost or harmed, there was little reason to worry.

The closest thing to a dangerous experience that I recall came when my youngest brother was playing a game of football in his bare feet in an overgrown field of grass. Hidden in the tall weeds was a broken bottle with its ragged edge pointing upward. When he stepped back to catch a pass he placed his unprotected foot on the shard of glass which immediately severed his achilles tendon. He bled profusely, but my mom and I miraculously got him to the doctor’s office in time to get it stitched back in place. I remember my mother instructing me in how to apply pressure to the wound to keep the bleeding to a minimum while she drove the car. I was quite frightened but didn’t let my mom see my fears. Of course at that time none of us were wearing a seatbelt and my mother did not carry health insurance either. The former was not yet invented and the latter was too expensive. The doctor did all of the surgery in his office proclaiming again and again that it was a miracle that my sibling didn’t bleed to death on the way over. I suspect that our final bill was little more than around twenty dollars and that even included pain medication that the doc threw in for good measure.

Needless to say times have changed so very much. Parents who allow their children to roam freely today run the risk of being reported to CPS. Few doctors would meet a patient at the office and take care of such a serious situation, especially if the family was uninsured. The world often feels far more dangerous than it ever did back then. Most of the time there are very few children playing outside for hours, and never all alone. They are busy with more carefully planned activities. Play dates have become the norm rather than random knocks at the door from friends seeking adventure. Children spend hours involved with computer games and surfing online. The real dangers lie in encounters with child predators masquerading in anonymity. Bullying either online or with texts has become epidemic. It’s no longer a matter of wondering where your kids are, but of whom they may be encountering on the worldwide web. The simplicity and innocence that marked my childhood and that of my own children seems to be a relic of the past. Parents have to be more careful than ever, even as they hover nervously.

I’m  not certain when everything began to change. Perhaps my experiences come from living in a city that had fewer than a million people when I was young and then somehow became a behemoth of over four million in a short period of time. Being in a place that large certainly makes a huge difference in how willing parents are to allow their children the freedom to interact without their watchful eyes. The dangers seem to grow exponentially in a major urban area. Still it just seems that over the years we have become more worried as a whole society. Maybe our twenty four hour news cycle has made us more aware of what might happen if we ride a bicycle without a helmet or drink from a water hose. I still wonder nonetheless why we no longer see children roller skating down the sidewalk or climbing the tree in the front yard even when their parents are around to guard them. Where are the street basketball games? When did our kids stop playing hop scotch on the driveway? Are they missing something wonderful, or is their world actually just an improved version of ours?

Children today certainly appear to be happy enough. I’ve always known youngsters to be quite adaptable. They tend to accept whatever reality is theirs. They don’t feel that they are missing something that they have never experienced. The child who lives in a high rise building in New York City learns to play in different ways from a counterpart growing up on a farm in Iowa. Both of them will tend to be perfectly happy as long as they are nurtured and loved. Perhaps the nostalgia that old folks like me have is thought to be quaint or even strange by the children of today. They would think it unwise, perhaps even crazy to ride down a highway in the bed of a pickup truck. They might easily bore of lying on their backs staring up at clouds searching for shapes of animals.

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if things are getting better or if we have lost something special that we once had. I suppose that the reality is that we will always move ever forward, and while it may feel pleasant to lose ourselves in memories we are better served by joining in the forward progress. We have surely learned a great deal about how to be healthier and safer than ever before. We understand what smoking will do to our overall health. We realize that wearing seat belts and engineering safer cars has truly saved lives. We have used our common sense and our inventiveness to prevent harm and injuries to our most vulnerable. I suppose that it is a very good thing that we no longer have to ask where are children are when the clock strikes ten. 

I’m So Mitt Romney

binders-made-800x800I bought my husband an Apple watch after he had his stroke, and he uses every possible feature that it allows. He thought of returning the favor by gifting me with one for Christmas, but soon enough realized that I would probably only get as far as telling time with it. He knows that I am technologically literate only to a point beyond which I’m just not willing to make the effort. For the most part I’m often still as old school as Mitt Romney with his binders. In fact, I decided to write about this after getting all tingly with excitement over finding a spiral notebook with three sections for taking notes. It’s a way of keeping track of what to remember, what to buy, and what I plan to do. I find as I get older that I need these kinds of reminders, and unlike my spouse who simply records his notes on his watch with his voice, I need a hardcopy to go with my visual learning style. I keep my scribbles on a table in my bedroom and refer to them periodically for ideas. Somehow my system seems easier and quicker than having to go through the motions of finding that information on a watch with print so small that I need 300+ reading glasses to see the letters.

I often laugh at myself and think of a time long ago when I was young. My mind was so sharp that I didn’t even need a calendar to recall appointments. Everything that I needed to know or remember was all in my very clear head. I look back at a time when I had to hold my laughter when I witnessed my father-in-law performing his daily ritual upon arriving home from work. He would walk to the kitchen table and immediately begin withdrawing slips of paper from the breast pocket of his shirt. Each paper contained something that he had thought about during the day that he wanted to remember. At the time I could not imagine becoming so absent minded that I would ever need such a system, but the need for ways of keeping track of all of the thoughts that race through my head soon enough became overwhelming, and I began to rely on planners and calendars that I carried in my purse.

These days I don’t have nearly as many appointments or goals as I did when I still had children and was working, but I continue to need a way of keeping track. I have surrendered to using Google Calendar because I can enter engagements quickly and also see what other members of my family are doing at a glance. I also keep track of my calorie consumption and exercise each day with an app that serves mostly as a kind of policing mechanism to keep me from over indulging. It chides me when I consume too much fat or sugar and threatens to starve me if I eat an item that leaves me without enough calories for dinner.

When I was still teaching my husband custom designed a grade book for me using a spreadsheet. I was one of the very first teachers in my school to use such a thing. I had to get permission from the principal to turn in printouts rather than the hand written calculations in the old style journals. I felt like a real trendsetter even though I did little more than plug in the numbers and then let the computer do the rest of the work. My program was so well attuned to my specific needs that I actually resented having to change over to the one that the school district eventually required all of us to use.

Perhaps the aspect of technology that I most enjoy is the word processor. Typing was always so difficult for me. It would take me longer to type a paper than to write it by hand. I labored over so many assignments not because I lacked ideas, but because I was a horrible typist. My final products were dotted with so much white out that I lost points for lack of neatness. God only knows how much I might have been to accomplish if I had been able to type on a computer keyboard instead of my mom’s electric typewriter with several keys that stuck.

I love emails and texts. In fact it was email that saved my bacon once when I was working on my graduate degree. I had completed all of the required hours, or so I thought, and was ready to graduate at the end of the summer until a counselor informed me that I needed one more class. Regardless of how I demonstrated that her math was faulty she refused to listen. I suppose that I became a bit overwrought and frightened her because she suddenly suggested that I get one of my professors to sponsor me in an independent study. She told me that I had exactly two days to make the arrangement. I frantically attempted to call my teachers with no luck. Then I recalled the professor who had required us to use email, a new idea that was still mainly the purview of universities back then. I sent him a message begging him to help me out. I mentioned that I would be taking a final exam the following day and joked that “if there is a God” he would answer my plea. While I was taking the test I heard a voice calling my name and saying,”God has arrived.” He helped me set up a program that evening and three weeks later I had completed the study. I became a fan of email from that point forward, and have never turned back.

I set timers with Amazon’s Alexa and request musical selections from her. She turns lights on and off by command and schedule and I have grown rather fond of her, especially when I didn’t have to squeeze behind my Christmas tree to plug and unplug the lights each day. Siri is another very dear friend of mine. She has taken me to exotic places that I might otherwise have never found. Now and again my southern accent confuses her, but mostly she is my constant guide. I am confident that she will get me safely to my destination no matter how far away it may be.

Still there is something about my hand written notes that is more reassuring than messages on a screen. I can place asterisks next them or cross them out when I change my mind. I can pull them from my pocket or my purse as I walk through the grocery store. I feel a sense of accomplishment when I crumple up a”To Do” list because I have completed all of the tasks. There is an aspect so wonderfully personal about seeing notes in my own handwriting. Perhaps it is the joy of being literate, a treasure that neither of my grandmothers ever knew. Being able to not just think, but also to record my ideas with my signature flourishes makes them feel more important, so I suppose that I will stick with my little notebooks and handwritten lists until something convinces me that there is a better way.

i’ve often thought that I might have enjoyed being an archeologist. I am fascinated by hieroglyphs and ancient paintings on the walls of caves. I wonder what we have today that will be as lasting as those ancient attempts to record daily life. Our paper eventually turns to dust. Our machines become outmoded and then seem to be more like inanimate bricks than keepers of our deepest thoughts. What will people of the future think of us, and how primitive will our efforts appear to be? The technology that we use today grows outdated so quickly. That watch that my husband wears is already becoming obsolete. We have to keep up with times that are moving faster and faster. Sometimes it’s just easier and more comforting to stick with the old familiar ways. Mitt Romney and I are about the same age. We like our binders and our notebooks. They have served us well. It’s not that we are against progress, we just see no point in getting rid of a good thing.


Stayin Alive

article-2708593-04EAC45700000514-459_634x652-optimisedForty years ago the iconic movie Saturday Night Fever debuted and became not just a an instant hit, but a film classic. I was a twenty nine year old mom with two little girls and a sense that a lifetime of adventures lay ahead of me. I had matured beyond my years not just due to my parental responsibilities, but also because I had helped my mother through two difficult mental breakdowns and had watched helplessly as my husband endured chemotherapy to combat a life threatening disease. Still I was young at heart and ecstatic when my mother suggested that we go see the movie together. I knew that it was not the kind of fare that my husband would enjoy, so I was happy to have a companion with whom to share the enjoyment of escaping into a world of music and dance for a few hours.

Back then there were still several drive in movie venues in the Houston area and Mama thought that it would be fun to watch the flick in the comfort of her car. Just as she had done so many times when my brothers and I were children she created a bed for my girls in the back seat of her automobile and brought sandwiches, cold drinks and a huge bag of homemade popcorn for our dining pleasure. I loved that she was feeling so healthy that she was her old self, and I laugh now that it never occurred to either of us to consider that perhaps the content of the film might be a bit inappropriate for my underage children. We headed off with great anticipation, glad to be a group of girls out on the town.

As it happened we were all stunned by the movie. John Travolta amazed us with his dancing and the music from the Bee Gees and other disco groups of the era was incredible. We were even surprised by the actual quality of the story and the acting. My daughters who were then three and six years old never fell asleep, because they were as taken by the film as my mother and I were. I assumed that they were unable to understand the adult nuances of the plot and simply enjoyed the characters, the soundtrack and the display of talent. As for my mom and I, we were smitten and felt like a couple of giggly teenagers as we gushed about the film on our way home. Both of us had fallen for John Travolta in his white suit, and my mom who was a stunning dancer in her own right gave him a high grade for his artistry.

I suppose that I reverted to the silliness of a high school groupie when I recounted our evening to my husband. He sensed my excitement and because he has always been quite sensitive to my every need purchased several items related to the movie as Christmas gifts for me that year. Among them was the soundtrack album which I wore out with repeated playings. The girls and I danced our hearts out on many a day, pretending that we were boogying on a disco dance floor in a contest that we would surely win.

In addition to the music my man gave me the iconic poster of John Travolta dazzling the world in that gorgeous white suit in a dance pose that seemed to represent the disco era in all of its glory. I mounted the image inside my closet door and there it stood for decades making me smile every single time that I caught a glimpse of it. It made me love my husband even more because it was symbolic of his efforts to make me happy as much as possible. While I knew that he thought that my giddiness was silly, he enjoyed seeing me smile, and so he never once suggested that maybe it was time that I finally remove my remembrance of a movie that I truly loved.

When my man and I celebrated our anniversary the following year he even went so far as to present me with a lovely dress and a pair of shoes most suitable for a night at a discotheque, as well as a promise that he to take me dancing. This was the ultimate sacrifice on his part and a sign of his undying devotion to me, because everyone who has ever known him understands that he does not like to dance. I have often joked that he is almost perfect save for that one little glitch. The very idea that he was going to subject himself to a night of twirling me in rhythm to the music was stunning, but he indeed spent an entire evening making me incredibly happy as I imagined that he and I were the most striking couple on the floor. My purple dress and and new hairstyle were virtual clones of the outfit that Travolta’s partner wore in the film and my spouse was stunningly handsome. It was a night that I shall never forget.

Somehow the next forty years flew by. Drive in movies became as difficult to find as dinosaurs. My mom continued to endure peaks and valleys in her fight with mental illness. She and I and my daughters continued to dance to whatever the latest tunes happened to be. My husband reverted to his old ways and rarely tapped his feet again unless he heard the strains of a Michael Jackson tune. My children grew into lovely young women and there came a day when that old poster that still hung inside the closet had begun to dry rot. When I finally took it down it tore in so many places that I threw it away rather than attempting to salvage it. Nonetheless, I always remembered how much I had enjoyed Saturday Night Fever.

My youngest daughter laughs to think that my mother and I actually took her to see the movie when she was only three years old. It seems that she understood a great deal more than we had imagined, but it doesn’t appear to have harmed her in any way. Like me she recalls the dancing and the music so fondly and eventually she and I sat down with her daughter to relive the moment when we became so enchanted with the film long ago. We laughed at how we had missed the scene when John Travolta was preparing for his evening on the town. There he was in all of his glory blowing his hair dry while wearing nothing but a pair of black briefs. With the beauty of modern technology we were able to rewind the scene any time that we wished, and like adolescents we took full advantage of that feature while we laughed at our silliness and my granddaughter rolled her eyes.

Back in 1977, I had barely begun my lifetime of teaching. I had not even met so many of the people who would become my dear friends. I was exiting a dark and difficult time and had become far stronger than I had ever imagined I might be. My optimism was full blown in spite of the stops and starts that had changed the trajectory of my life. Saturday Night Fever gave me a moment when I did not need to feel so serious. It provided me with a memory of just how fun my mother actually was. It blunted that pain that I had so recently endured and helped me to realize that with a balance of work and play in my life I would be able to handle any challenge that came my way.

So much has changed in forty years but the essence of the human heart and its longings that the film portrayed so well is virtually the same. Each of us have dreams and experience love and joy along with tragedy. We find ways to heal and to move ever forward. If we can do so with a lilt in our steps and a little song inside our heads, we are all the better. It’s how we stay alive.


The Human Touch


What is the next great idea in education? How might we best help our students to master difficult material? Does anyone have the key to unlocking minds?

These are questions that every teacher and concerned parent ask. We truly want to improve our educational system and we spend millions of dollars seeking answers. Our educational force travels to foreign lands to observe programs that appear to be successful. Our teachers spend summers learning new skills. Districts invest in diagnostic tools. We reinvent the educational wheel over and over again, hoping to stumble upon a magic bullet that will in one fell swoop increase our children’s knowledge, thinking abilities, and curiosity. We attempt to make mathematics and science more accessible to all, while we strive to demonstrate how to read and write more fluently. In spite of all of our efforts we find ourselves in a quandary. We still appear to be losing so many of our kids to struggles with learning, and so we continue to experiment in the hopes of one day stumbling upon the key to unlocking minds.

Fifty or sixty years ago when I was earning a degree in education a psychologist named B.F. Skinner was all the rage. His focus was on the types of reinforcement techniques that we humans use to motivate individuals, and so we learned that encouraging students when they do something right is more likely to have them repeat the good behaviors than punishing them for mistakes. He insisted that we can slowly move a person toward a goal with the just the right amount of encouragement. He even attempted to create a teaching machine that would be able to accomplish such a task according to the specific needs of the learner. Back in his days technology was a long way from being reliable or effective and so his efforts failed, but he predicted that one day there would indeed be a mechanism designed to enact his ideas.

Fast forward to the future which is now. The power of the computer has allowed us to create individualized instruction complete with feedback that would no doubt delight Skinner. While it has revolutionized education in general, there are still difficulties when it comes to creating effective programs for individuals. The fact is that it simply does not work for some people. There is till a need for a warm human to unravel questions and provide inspiration and motivation. A machine is far too cold to handle the task alone.

I do a great deal of interventional tutoring since retiring from education six years ago. I find that there is no substitute for small group interaction between humans. The first step in helping a struggling student is always a matter of dealing with fears and frustrations, something a computer can’t do effectively, at least not yet. Not all students have the ability to focus well enough to concentrate on a mechanized one size fits all instructional video, and yet they are being used in most of the schools that I encounter. Virtually every high school student is well acquainted with Kahn Academy, and while I use the lessons myself to brush up on ideas for teaching certain concepts, it cannot be used as a substitute for a good warm blooded teacher inside a classroom. It’s proper use is for reinforcement of material, not initial instruction.

I have encountered a new trend of late that involves assigning an instructional video to students for homework. They watch the electronic teacher explaining various concepts and then work independently on similar problems. The following day in class they are able to ask specific questions about the material. For the students with whom I work, this methodology has been a disaster. It is backwards from the way that works best for them. Namely, they would be better served by first receiving instruction from the teacher, then watching the videos to clarify the processes, followed by independent practice with problems and finally questions about the work. They are floundering but sitting quietly in the classrooms because they don’t even know how to begin their inquiries. They are simply lost and sometimes even drowning in confusion. By the time I get them they are feeling dejected and their confidence is in shambles. My job becomes demystifying the definitions and processes in a way that guides them to understanding. Sadly, the time that they have to spend with me often increases their stress because they are always just a bit behind in their mastery and so their grades do not reflect what they eventually manage to learn.

When I watch the videos that they must view I actually appreciate all of the time and effort that such teachers have put into producing them. I enjoy knowing how the instructor is presenting the material so that I might use similar terminology and practices. Still I find that I have to learn how and when to pause the stream of information so that I might take notes or try some of the problem solving on my own. I find that I am able to do so effectively only because I already know how to perform the operations and I am familiar with the vocabulary. I am also able to separate the chatter from the most important ideas. I suspect that the top students who are already rather gifted in mathematics have little difficulty doing as I do, but for the average to below average soul those videos must be just a cacophony of meaningless sound. For those with specific learning disabilities I can only imagine how frustrating it must feel.

I’ve been in a classroom and I fully understand and appreciate the frustrations of teachers as well. They have far too many students and increasingly complex demands that don’t always have much to do with teaching are placed on them also. Their days are long and exhausting and the vast majority of them are doing their very best. Sometimes the most gifted among them are able to break down the barriers that all too often separate them from their students. They become the inspirational individuals who change minds and manage to touch hearts as well. In other cases they simply feel as beaten down as the students. They desperately want to make a difference but can’t seem to find the way to do so. Far too many aspiring educators last less than five years before they leave in total frustration.

We seem to understand that people are complex and as such there is never one right way of doing things. It has been proven that even with regard to diet, there must be differences that take individual genetic tendencies into account. Why, I wonder, do we still approach education as though there is indeed a magical way of reaching all students without concern for their individuality? Why do we crowd our children into rooms as though they are being warehoused like cattle? Why do we push them at the same pace? Why are there so few of us who want to teach them in charge of so many? What is it about our society that we place so little value on such an important task? Why do we complain but demonstrate an unwillingness to support our schools?

The truth about education is that it has to be tailored to a person, not a crowd. Everyone is capable of learning, but not in the same way or at the same pace. How many times have we met an adult who struggled in school but eventually got it all together at a later date than his/her peers? It is the way of humans to meet milestones in a variety of ways. It is up to us to appreciate that fact and provide our young with educations suited to them. It’s perhaps the most important task that we might ever perform, and it will pay unmeasurable dividends to our future. It always requires the human touch.