Sunday, December 16, 2012

It's too cold outside for angels to fly, an angel will die, covered in white, closed eyed, and hoping for a better life

Several weeks ago we received some bad news at school. One of our students had been killed over the weekend. He was shot several times. This boy was in ninth grade. Say what you want about Baltimore, and gang violence, if that's what it was, but regardless of the circumstances surrounding his death, that is entirely too young to die. I didn't know this student personally, but I know who he was. I know that he breathed, and laughed, and gave the staff a hard time. I'm sure that he worried about friends, and girls, and probably a lot of other things that no teenager should ever have to worry about. 

The lives of many of my students are filled with uncertainty. Uncertainty about where they'll be living next month, or next week, or even tomorrow. Uncertainty about where their next meal will come from. Sounds tough right? Sounds like no one should ever have to grow up in a situation like that, right? Is it any wonder that I spend my days working to help these students develop a future beyond those circumstances? You might feel sad right now, maybe you can sympathize, maybe you can even relate. Or maybe you're one of the people that assumes that my students will be the ones to "leach off of the system." Maybe you stand in judgement of children who did not choose that life. You are entitled to your own opinion, as always, but I hope that you can take a moment to feel something for those who have to begin life with a deficit. 

In the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it has been difficult not to give into the desire to weep at the injustice of it all. As an educator, I look at the stories of Victoria Soto, Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach and I feel a thread connecting me with these women, and with every other educator who would do literally anything for their students. I feel gratitude toward them, not only for saving the lives of many students, but for showing the world that the good in people really does exist. Their sacrifices will live on in every teacher that goes to school tomorrow morning, and in every student who feels comforted by the fact that their teachers have their backs. I grieve with the rest of the nation for these women, and for the innocent children that lost their lives on a day that began like any other day. 

As someone who spends every day with students who are emotionally disturbed, however, it is hard for me to look at Adam Lanza and not feel some sympathy for him as well. Crucify me if you must, I'm sure there are readers who will jump all over this, but Adam Lanza was a boy who needed help that he obviously wasn't receiving. I was reading "I am Adam Lanza's Mother", which is the story of a mother with an emotionally disturbed son, and I was moved by her honesty. It is the side of the story that many don't see, and regardless of your initial opinion, you should all read it.

I was horrified by one of the comments, which read "If he wants to kill himself, let him." At which point do we decide that a child is a lost cause? Seven? Eight? The first time he or she has an outburst? Do we do as that reader suggested and allow them to kill themselves? As a parent, should we give our child up to the state, or allow them to be charged with a trivial crime just to get them help? These are issues that my students' parents and guardians deal with every day. I have students whose parents did give them away, and trust me, that only made their issues worse. Do we breathe a sigh of relief when a child is murdered in the streets because at least we don't have to worry about them anymore? 

Let's take this time of mourning and use it to have an honest discussion about the options for those who have these problems. Let's make it okay to ask for help. Let's do our best to cut down on the bullying in schools that makes students afraid to ask for that help for fear of embarrassment. If the things that I have written here have shocked you, good. If you feel anger or confusion or torn, good. At least you're still here to do something about it. At least the students at my school still have a shot because they are in a place where the staff is working every day to understand them. Think though, about the children like Adam Lanza, who fall through the cracks. What if someone had fought for him when he was eleven, or twelve, or whenever he first started showing signs of illness? One of the people who knew him growing up was quoted as saying that he was "odd" when he was as young as five. Five! We'll never know, but we as a society can do something to help the others like him.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Don't ever allow yourself to feel trapped by your choices. Take a look at yourself. You are a unique person created for a specific purpose. Your gifts matter. Your story matters. Your dreams matter. You matter.

In 2009 I was a senior at Elizabethtown. I was student teaching, working and writing my senior thesis. In addition, my long lost father was about to make a sudden and dramatic entrance into my life. That however, is a complicated story for another day. So when "The Blind Side" was released in theaters, heading to the movies was really low on my priority list. By the time I remembered that I really wanted to see it, it was already out of theaters. After that well, you know how it is, things kept coming up and I never got around to watching it.

Regardless, it always hung around at the back of my mind because I love a good underdog story. I find that it is so easy to be inspired by the Michael Ohers of the world, and everyone needs some inspiration. Soon after the movie was released, I began to hear people talking about the accuracy of it, and I concluded that I wouldn't see it until I read the book. Then life got in the way again. It wasn't until a couple of months ago that I was reminded yet again that I was missing out.

My reminder came in an unexpected form. In a school where most of the students struggle with academics, one student recommended that I read a book. Not just any book, Michael Oher's autobiography I Beat the Odds. This student told me that I should read it because Michael's life reminded him of his own. In an attempt to get to know these students, some of whom live in circumstances that most can't even imagine, I took the book from the student and began to read.
I'll be honest, I'm not a big fan of reading non-fiction unless it serves a specific purpose. I tend to associate it with college papers and tedium, and try to stay away. This book grabbed me from the very beginning. It was a story about a young boy who realized very early on that in order to change your circumstances, you have to take charge of your own life. Oher encourages the readers of his book to surround themselves with positive influences, because it really does matter whose company you keep. This boy, whose mother is a crack addict and who has approximately a dozen siblings, was never told "I love you," but somehow learned to recognize it anyway.

Now that I have both read the book and seen the movie, I can recognize that "The Blind Side" did get some things wrong. Michael Oher was never stupid, and at times I believe that the movie portrayed him that way. He simply couldn't stay at a school long enough to receive a quality education. He also didn't need help learning plays, he had been dissecting plays in baseball, basketball and football since he was very young. Sports had always been an outlet for was not something that was introduced to him in high school.

One thing the movie did get right? The goodness, generosity and loving nature of the Tuohy family. If you want to aspire to be like anyone, that is the family to look up to. I know that I learned a thing or two from Leigh Ann Tuohy's tenacity. I hope that when I have a family someday that I can raise my children the way that they raised theirs, to be accepting and open minded.

Michael Oher fights to be a role model for children living in the same circumstances as he did when he was a child in Memphis. The last chapter of his book was written as a guide for those children. He writes that he hopes that teachers and foster parents and social workers will copy that last chapter and give it to their kids, to show them that there is a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, but that to reach it, you have to work harder than most. That is perhaps the most inspiring thing about Michael Oher: his ingrained knowledge that in order to change your situation, you have to be proactive. You have to DO SOMETHING about it.

I encourage all of my students to read I Beat the Odds. "I've seen the movie" is not an acceptable response, because the movie does not emphasize how truly hard Oher had to fight to "get out of the ghetto." I cried in my office as I was finishing that book. Not because it was sad, but because finally, someone is speaking out about what it takes to pick yourself up out of the ghetto and fight your way to success.

Friday, July 6, 2012

I don't want someone to save me, I want someone to stand by my side as I save myself.

Every day there are little reminders that I have yet to find someone to share my hours with. A couple holding hands, a friend telling a story about her boyfriend, or her upcoming wedding, or even a discussion about whether or not a friend should start trying for a baby. I want all of those things, as any girl that listened to boy bands and watched Disney fairy tales does. After seeing Magic Mike over the weekend, I definitely want all of those things, plus maybe someone who can dance. Seriously. 

That being said, I find myself continually faced with a kind of lingering fear. My most recent relationships have been testaments to the fact that I always feel the desire to change the person I'm with. My friend Erin and I have come to the realization that as teachers, we yearn to help people, to shape them into better versions of themselves. Unfortunately, that particular inclination tends to bleed out of the classroom and into our personal lives at every turn.

In a response to past failures, I have spent the last year avoiding relationships in general. I keep telling myself that it's because I'm waiting for the perfect circumstances, the perfect guy, the perfect conversation. I keep saying that I'm not settling, that I'm waiting to see if I have to move, that no one has connected with me (with the exception of one extremely inappropriate guy who shall remain nameless). I laugh with my friends about my single girl escapades and tease them about their relationships, when in reality I'm just jealous.

So what is a girl to do? I could continue to blame my daddy issues and the uncertainty of my future, but that obviously hasn't been working for me. I could keep skirting the issue, and flirting with boys at bars, getting drunk and using my youth as an excuse. I cling to my independence because I am afraid to allow anyone else any ownership. I've had a lot of fun, and I know that I will continue to do so, but what I really need to do is relax and realize that my next relationship might not be the fairy tale that Disney taught me to want, but it might be fun, and it certainly won't kill me. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.

A few weeks ago, I was engaged in a text message conversation with my friend Scott. He told me that his mother had just started reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Of course this incited a torrent of pithy remarks about the sheer ridiculousness of that book's popularity, which seems to be a rather frequent occurrence these days. Amused, he responded, "I really think this is going to be your Catcher in the Rye."

As someone who is usually pretty adept at understanding allusions, I was annoyed when this reference completely escaped me. Unfortunately, I had to ask what he meant. He said something along the lines of "After all three (Fifty Shades books), you're killing Lennon." That was enough for me to Google "John Lennon Catcher in the Rye," which yielded about a million results. Cheating, I clicked on the Wikipedia articled on The Catcher in the Rye, which told me that after Mark David Chapman shot Lennon, he stayed at the scene of the crime reading Salinger's novel. Inside the cover of the book, he had written:

Dear Holden Caulfield, From Holden Caulfield, This is my statement.

As if that wasn't intriguing enough, the Wikipedia article also mentioned that the novel has also been associated with two other crimes: Robert John Bardo had a copy on him when he shot Rebecca Schaeffer, and after John Hinckley Jr. made his attempt on Ronald Reagan's life, a copy of the novel was found in his hotel room. 

Salinger's novel has been challenged many times by school boards and parents because of its sexual references and inappropriate language. It was this fact that initially prompted me to read the novel in middle school. That and the fact that I was consistently working my way through every book in the public library. Even though I was enthusiastic about reading a banned book, all I can remember about my first sojourn into Holden Caulfield's world is that I didn't like it. I didn't like the sarcasm, or the way it was written. Of all of the books that I have read and disliked, only two stand out in my memory. One was The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and the other was Catcher in the Rye.

Well, after I found out about the book's ties to the aforementioned crimes, I obviously needed to read (or re-read, really) this novel to see if it made me insane as well. I ran the idea by another friend, Liz, and she told me that the novel was one of her favorites. Whether or not this makes her insane is up to interpretation, but she assured me that Holden Caulfield's humor is similar to hers. Since I enjoy her humor, I went to Barnes and Noble and picked up a copy.

Hoping that I was too young the first time I read the novel, I sat in Barnes and Noble's adjoining Starbucks and cracked the spine. It's a bad habit, but I do it anyway. Sipping my low calorie skinny vanilla latte (iced, of course), I once again stepped into the 1950's life of Holden Caulfield.

Holden initially comes across as a pretty typical seventeen year old boy, which only served to cement my long-held belief that people don't really change over time. He has gotten kicked out of yet another prestigious boarding school, which the reader soon realizes is absurd. It's absurd because Holden is smart, exceedingly so. It is apparent in every word of the novel. He is also potentially manic-depressive, irrational and impulsive, but some of the most intelligent people inevitably are.

The book itself is almost like a stream of consciousness: just several days in Holden's mind. It is at once inspirational and depressing. I found my own emotions following the roller coaster ride of Holden's, and highlighting little tidbits of wisdom that were spewed forth almost casually by Holden and the myriad foil characters that he interacts with.

Honestly, the most frustrating thing about the book is its realism. Holden Caulfield is the least contrived, most alive character that I have ever met. I say met because when you read this novel, that is what you do; you meet Holden Caulfield, and you spend a couple of days with him. You start to wonder whether he'll ever call Jane Gallagher, because Salinger never tells you. Plus, the whole time you're reading, Holden keeps wondering where the ducks from the Central Park pond go in the winter. Then suddenly, the book is over and you never find out. That's terrible!

After the second go-around with this book, I have revised my initial opinion. Love it or hate it, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye is worth reading. I suggest that you take the time to meet Holden Caulfield. After all, somewhere inside all of us is a seventeen year old rebel.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Every man should follow the bent of his nature in art and letters, always provided that he does not offend against the rules of morality and good taste.

I'm not a confrontational person. As a result, I have a habit of writing letters to express my feelings. On many occasions, I never send those letters. Instead, I use them as a cathartic release. Since I am still dealing with the feeling that my life is hovering on the precipice of fate, I decided to write a letter today. This letter is to the next person who occupies my desk at school. For some reason I am terrified that next year my classroom won't be the happy, comforting place that it was this year. I haven't decided yet if I will leave this in my desk, but I think that posting it will go a long way toward helping me close this chapter of my life.

To the next occupant of this desk:

You may be new here, or you may have been here for years. Nothing is certain, which is surprisingly the one thing that I am certain of. As you’re reading this, I could be anywhere; I certainly cast my net wide enough. My name is Brooke, and although you and I may never meet, it’s almost as if we know each other. After all, I was the last person to sit in the chair that you are sitting in now. I was the last person to teach a class in what is now your room, and I was the last person to experience the “first day of school” excitement from your vantage point.

If you are new here, be prepared to feel the whole range of emotions this year. I bet that when you became a teacher, you never imagined that you would find yourself in an old building with no air conditioning, teaching the students that didn't seem to fit in anywhere else. I know that when I was in college, my dreams of my first classroom didn't include peeling paint, laptop carts that only work some of the time, and students that would just as soon cuss you out as sit down and listen.

Don’t be afraid, although perhaps a little fear is good for you. My time in this room was one that I will always remember. Before you get started though, I want you to take a minute and forget everything you’ve heard from the other teachers. I’m sure they’ve told you all of the juicy gossip and horror stories. Walk down the hall and talk for a minute with Robyn Barberry; she’s got her head on straight and she’ll give you the truth. I’m not going to sugarcoat it; this year will be anything but sunshine and roses. It will be hard, frustrating, and at times you’re going to feel like you’d rather be anywhere else. Remember this though, every time a student cusses at you, or walks out, they’re just asking you to notice them. Pay attention to them from the beginning, and you’ll have far fewer issues.

You became an educator for a reason, and you probably ended up here for a reason too. Whether you are a teacher, or a paraeducator, or anything else, you are going to play a huge role in the lives of the students at CEO this year. Regardless of your role, you will teach them, whether you mean to or not. These
kids are sponges, and for the most part, they’re searching for something to give validity to their lives, just like we all are. Do your best to help them find that. Do it because they are going to teach you something every day. Do it because I promise that if you let it, your time at this school will inspire you. Most of all, give this a chance, and I hope that some of the happiness and fun and learning that has happened in this room will lend you support.

Take care of these kids and yourself, and have a wonderful year.

Brooke Travers

Saturday, June 9, 2012

And when you finally fly away, I'll be hoping that I served you well...For all the wisdom of a lifetime, no one can ever tell...And whatever road you choose, I'm right behind you win or lose, forever young

The end of the school year is at once exciting, uplifting and overwhelmingly sad. Maybe one day, when I've been teaching for ten or twenty or thirty years, I'll forget to be sad that another group of students has passed through my classroom doors for the last time. I hope that never happens, because despite the tight sensation in my heart and the tears that prick the backs of my eyes, I am grateful to know that I connected with my students, and that I will miss them. It is a teacher's greatest accomplishment, I believe, to know that there are also some kids that will miss their time sitting in those now empty desks.

This year my first group of seniors graduated. Some of them were my students last year, some this year, but as a whole, they are a group that I will never forget. My inaugural class, in a way. Since I have been at Alternative Ed, I have met a multitude of different personalities: angry, depressed, manically happy. Regardless of their insecurities, attitudes and the days that I thought that I would never get through to them, I have loved them each individually.

These days there is a stigma attached to a teacher's love for his or her students. In my mind, this fact is one of the greatest downfalls of today's culture. It is a little pinprick on my conscience every day, this knowledge that because I am a young, female high school teacher, I will be scrutinized and ridiculed for caring "too much" about my students. It's unfortunate that the mistakes and bad judgment of a few will forever color student-teacher relationships.

Regardless, I have never hesitated to express my dedication to the welfare of my students. Ask anyone who talks to me even once a week and they'll be able to tell you that although I have been frustrated, angry and at times a little hysterical regarding my job, at the end of the day I wouldn't trade my kids for anything. There were several moments in the past year when students asked me "You hate us, don't you?" My response was always the same, "Of course not, I lecture you because I love you guys." Sometimes a child needs that reassurance, that unconditional devotion that they are sometimes missing at home. Even in my most desperate, self pitying moments, that answer was always true.

My students are the underdogs in every sense of the word. They are the ones cast out by their "normal, rule-following" peers and tossed in with the other kids "like them" on the island of misfit toys that is Alternative Ed. This year I had the opportunity to witness how teachers cope with these students, and I was saddened to see that in some cases, not only was the love not evident, it wasn't there at all. It is a tragedy that in a place where students, especially the most frustrating and unruly, need to see that love, it wasn't freely given. Love is the most simple gift to give, after all.

I won't pretend that loving my students is easy, in fact it can be the most draining, profanity-worthy process. Even so, I would do it again, day after day after day. Actually, I intend to do so for the rest of my career. Just little acts of caring, a hand on the shoulder, the gift of a sketchbook, a note of encouragement, have the potential to turn things around for kids. In a larger sense, this is true of all people, not just those in school. These  little things are reminders that every moment counts because every moment is an opportunity for someone to chart a different course. 

That course led my inaugural seniors across the stage yesterday, and I have never been more proud of any group of people in my (rather short) life. As I watched them process in, in their white and red caps and gowns, I felt more like a parent than a teacher, because in many ways, some of those kids were my babies. We laughed together, wrangled a wayward dog together (long story) and on more than one occasion, I let them cry on my shoulder. I helped to show them what it means to be good people, and although sometimes they may forget it, they have proven themselves to be good-hearted, capable young adults.

One of my students was the valedictorian, which was the culmination of a year of hard work, perseverance and near perfect attendance. Considering this was a kid who came to us believing that he would be kicked out of school completely before he was eighteen, his accomplishments really can't be understated. On Back-to-School night at the beginning of the year, he told me that he would have straight A's and speak at graduation, and he did that. I know that he exceeded even his own expectations, and he will be a fine asset to the Navy's Nuclear Engineering program.

Another of my boys pretended that he didn't care about graduation, but when he was finished with the ceremony, there were tears in his eyes. I know, and I believe that he does too, that he is capable of anything he sets his mind to. I said goodbye to a girl that is bright, kind and funny, and I hope that she realizes all of her dreams. I hope too that she remembers to never let the opinions of others tarnish her opinion of herself. Finally, I was able to congratulate one of the nicest, quietest, most respectful students that I have ever had the pleasure of teaching. He was in night school, and his quiet dedication and positive attitude are inspiring. I hope that he never loses those qualities.

People ask me why I teach, and especially why I have chosen to spend time at Alternative Ed when I could have made more money simply substituting. My answer varies, depending on when they ask, but in my heart it's always the same: I teach because my students teach me. I teach because I love to give a part of myself to the education of others, and I teach because I find inspiration in every day spent in the company of my kids. The end of the year is exciting, uplifting and overwhelmingly sad, but I wouldn't trade the moments that led up to it for anything.

Friday, June 1, 2012

I am done with this graceless heart, so tonight I'm gonna cut it out and then restart

My next post was supposed to be reserved for a final review of the Fifty Shades trilogy by E.L. James. Unfortunately, getting through the third installment is much like wading through sex-filled quicksand, so that particular post is going to have to wait. Don't hold your breath, I'm pretty sure this last review isn't going to be much more kind than the first.

Regardless, events over the past two weeks have led me to a place that is completely worthy of a complicated, lyrically passionate Florence + The Machine song. That being the case, I decided to take my own advice, which has been tossed out countless times to friends and students over the years. I figure that if I am going to suggest to others that they "write it out," then maybe I should do the same. After all, that advice has always come from a feeling of certainty that all the world's problems can be hashed out on a few blank sheets of paper. Draw it, write it, whatever, if it's on the paper it's out of your head, right? Well, let's put that to the test.

I'm sure that if you're reading this you're either curious about my life for some reason, Facebook stalking (which is pretty much the same thing), or maybe you actually enjoy my cynicism and lame attempts at humor. Whichever category you fit under, I bet you read my entry last week about my friend Shawn. Maybe his death kicked something loose inside of me, because it seems like I've been on a downward spiral since then. Re-reading that now, it seems cliche, but all cliches were created for a reason I guess, because that is exactly how I have felt, like I'm spiralling away and I will never find a safe place to rest.

Why do I feel this way? It's been difficult to figure this out, mostly because I talk to students every day who have things a million times worse than I ever have. To them, my story would seem like a fairy tale. A friend told me tonight that my problems are just as real, and that I feel them just as deeply as my students feel their own issues. I suppose that on some level, that's true, the same way it's true that I seem to be rambling on here without making any real points.

This spiral feels like drowning at times, when I'm lying in bed at night with my eyes wide open, knowing that my body needs rest. In those moments, I feel as though my eyes may never close and at the same time I am afraid to sleep because I know that I will wake up to the same life that I shut my eyes on.That is my biggest fear: the sameness. I am afraid that I will stay stuck in this rut where I am caught between a million families, all of whom need something different from me. The rut that I've been living in for at least the past year and a half, where for some reason my awesome friends aren't enough to fill the yawning loneliness that is fueling my spiral.

At face value, the people around me assume that my loneliness is a result of a lack of male companionship, and I guess that's part of it, if I'm being honest. Actually this particular feeling deserves capitalization, because it's more of an entity at this point. One that sleeps, eats and breathes with me. In that case, The Loneliness was born out of a lack of career, a lack of new adventures and maybe for the first time in my life, a lack of direction.

So what do I do? Apparently I get wine drunk or watch a chick flick and cry to a friend. Or maybe I take my own advice and write it out. Did it work? Maybe. I have a feeling my Florence + The Machine song is as yet unfinished. For now though, I'll stick with this:

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

I guess that's the point of it all. No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push it just the same.

High school can be epic, amazing and rewarding, but not always. People, and teenagers especially, often forget that for some, high school is dark, disturbing, and ultimately devastating. Who were you in high school? The Breakfast Club comes to mind here, as it always does when discussing high school stereotypes. So which were you? Jock? Princess? Brain? Or were you the loner? The basket case? How did the other kids see you? How did you see yourself? Maybe more importantly, how did you see everyone else? Did you scoff at the jocks and laugh at the plastic princesses, imagining that they had everything, while you had nothing? Or were you popular, pitying and ridiculing those who didn't "fit in?" What if you didn't fit into any category at all? It is often those teens who find it hardest to survive the mayhem that is the high school world. They have no identity, nothing to cling to, nothing to be passionate about or to rail against.

In his debut novel Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher brings us into the world of Hannah Baker, a girl who didn't fit into any of the normal categories. She wasn't disliked, but she wasn't popular either. All she wanted was a few friends to make high school bearable, maybe even memorable. And was it too much to ask for a cute boy to be interested in her too? She wanted what everyone wants on some level: acceptance and friendship. The books opens, though, with Clay Jensen at the post office, mailing a package with no return address. And he mentions his dread of returning to school, where Hannah Baker's desk is. Empty.

The day before, Clay had received a package containing seven cassette tapes numbered 1-13. You know, the old fashioned kind with two sides? He digs out a cassette player and puts the first tape in, confused and nervous. The voice on the tape is chilling, like a haunting, because it is Hannah Baker's voice, and Hannah Baker is dead. Hannah Baker committed suicide.

"Hello, boys and girls. Hannah Baker here. Live and in stereo...No return engagements. No encore. And this time, absolutely no requests...I hope you're ready, because I'm about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you're listening to these tapes, you're one of the reasons why."

Intrigued? You should be. Everyone should read this book. In fact, if you read no other book this year (except for maybe The Hunger Games), this is the one book you want. And you're going to want to pass it on, trust me. It is the story of your actions and how they affect the people around you. All of the little things, the words and the insults and the slights that you don't remember or never meant to give. Jay Asher chose the right subject, the right emotion, the right everything for his debut novel, and I hope that it makes cracks in every person's existence.

Thirteen Reasons Why is dark, disturbing and ultimately devastating. It is the world that everyone is afraid to look too closely at, and the world that we have all touched in some way or another. Let this book impact you, let it open doors and encourage change. Let it teach you, and most of all, let Hannah Baker rest in your heart.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Send me away with the words of a love song

"Don't take anything for granted." How many times have we all heard that? Our parents said it to us when we were children, and in high school when we were selfish and sometimes mean, as all teenagers can be, our teachers reminded us. The first time death claimed someone we loved, and we learned what real heartbreak, the choking, painful kind, feels like, someone in the wings told us, "Don't take anything for granted."

And yet somehow we all slip into the complacency of a life that is solid and routine, and we begin to do the very thing that everyone always warned us about. We begin to take things for granted. And not just things, like our cars, and cell phones, and computers, although surely we are all guilty of that, but worse: we begin to take the people around us for granted. We expect them to be there forever, waiting on our call, or posting on Facebook, or Twitter. In our increasingly interconnected world, we simply assume that everyone is always a click or a text away. Maybe that is part of the problem, our reliance on technology to do the connecting. We forget to reach out to physically be with someone else.

Shawn Christy taught me a lot of things, although he probably never realized it in between all of the drinks and laughter and fun. When I began working at the Greene Turtle, I was afraid more than anything else. Not of the work, that was easy enough, but of myself. I was afraid of who I was going to be in a world where I was suddenly free to make all of my own choices. I could be selfish, I could be giving, I could be strong, weak, different, the same. The fact that I chould choose was overwhelming to me. Trust me, over the next few months I made a lot of bad choices, but somewhere in there, I emerged with this new family at the Turtle. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by people who accepted whoever I wanted to be, and trust me, sometimes that changed daily. In the center of that family, playing cornhole, encouraging another round of shots, giving out hugs, was Shawn Christy.

Shawn was bright. There really isn't another way to describe him. He shined through his smile, his outlook, and his devotion to his son. He was flirtatious, and I know he kissed me more than once. He was just playing, just goofing off, but somehow that was exactly what I needed. He was so at ease with himself that he inspired me to reach for the same thing for myself.

Two days before his accident, I was rolling silverware at the hostess stand, absorbed, singing absently along with the band. I felt arms go around me from behind, and although he didn't work there anymore, and I hadn't seen him in a couple of months, I just knew. So I turned around, and hugged him, and told him which manager was on duty. And that was it. Two days later, he was gone.

And so I'm left with the same regrets that everyone is when they realize that they've taken something for granted. I wish that I had texted, or tweeted, or facebooked more since he left the Greene Turtle. I wish that I had let him know that I am happy that he was my friend, even though it seems like I only knew him for a heartbeat of time. I can wish, and regret, and cry forever, but I won't. You know why? Because Shawn was always smiling, and he would want everyone to do the same.

Please visit this link to donate money toward a fund for funeral expenses and Shawn's sons, Shawn Jr. and Da'lyn.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

What is love?

Since the end of the school year is almost here, I've tried to turn most of my students' thoughts to social issues. I figure that in the end, it's important for "kids these days" to learn how to have intelligent, thoughtful conversations about the world's issues. I also stress appreciating the opinions of others, of course, which is probably the hardest part for my kids. Nevertheless, they seem to respond well to topics that make them angry, or sad, or passionate.

We began the week with the question, "Who should decide who lives and who dies?" When I posed this question to my students, I mostly got the answers I expected, like God, fate, and in some cases, ourselves. In one class, we ended up in a religious debate that lasted at least twenty minutes. It was off-topic, but I think that it was a worthwhile distraction. We then discussed major issues that may or may not play a role in the upcoming presidential election: abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty. We wrapped it all up with the same question we started with: "Who should decide who lives and who dies?" I was proud of the students that used our discussion to really reevaluate their original answers.

Today we began class with the question, "What is love?" Some of you may be like me, and immediately launch into "What is love?" by Haddaway, with accompanying "Night at the Roxbury" dance moves, but trust me when I say that my students did not find it funny. Instead, we started down a winding conversational path during which I learned a lot about the softer side of my students. One of my most obnoxious protegees, who shall remain nameless, surprised me the most. When I asked him "What is love?" he immediately answered "trust." I pushed them further, asking whether there are different kinds of love, and whether people feel love differently. I was easing them along the path toward a revelation, you see, that not only does everyone experience love in some form or another, but that people should be able to express that love in whatever way makes them the most happy.

Some of you may already see where I'm heading with this, especially if you've watched the news, caught a glimpse of your online home screen, or checked any social networking site in the past twenty-four hours. President Obama, in the wake of a hug uproar over North Carolina's proposed ban on gay marriage, FINALLY did what sane people everywhere have been waiting for him to do. He hopped off of the fence and declared that gay and lesbian couples have the right to get married. Go Obama! I may not agree with everything he's done as a president, but to take a stand in a country where the public is still split 50/50 over the issue takes courage and conviction.

I'm going to ask you, readers, the same question that I posed to my students: who gets to determine what love is? God? Fate? It's funny how life, death and love have all come to the same stalemate. I'll tell you the answer, if you're wondering. Who should decide who lives and who dies? No one. Live your life as if every day is your last and know that death is inevitable. Who gets to determine what love is? NO ONE. It simply exists, meaning different things to different people. Who gets to decide what marriage is? The bible? The Quran? The Talmud? And what about those of us who don't live our lives by a book? Marriage is simple, the union between two PEOPLE who love each other.

It's simple really, and my students seemed to get it. Gay marriage is just marriage, plain and simple. It's not affecting you any more than the gay and lesbian couples who have been committed to each other for decades before this "great debate." Let it go. Live and let live, because in life and marriage, no one should have a say except for you. As for death? I'll just leave it up to whoever deals with those things...maybe you should too.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Sometimes, the beauty is in the attempt

So, someone very dear to me requested a story. Here's a start, let me know what you think!!


Maybe he had a point. Who, you ask? Why, Charlie Dashing, of course. Come to think of it, I'll bet that's not his real name. No matter, it's not important. What's that you say? Who is Charlie Dashing? My dear, have you been living under a rock? Oh very well, if you have to ask, you must really need an explanation. I'll tell you, and then maybe you'll understand what I meant when I said that he had a point. Well, maybe he had a point.

I met Charlie Dashing just downtown, at this cute little place called Lola's. Well, downstairs it was Lola's, upstairs it was Herbert G. Farvel's Stationary Shop. Ah, but that was the twenties, darling, dreadfully dull on the outside and shockingly glamorous on the inside. Prohibition was in full, ugly swing, and everyone was living for the nighttime, when the law abiding citizens of Baltimore would go off to bed. Of course, that left those glorious hours of darkness to us, the ones who just wanted a nice cocktail and maybe a dance or two.

So one of those nights, I slipped into my feathers and sequins and headed downtown toward Lola's. I had never been there before, you see, and had only heard the password by chance from a dear friend of mine. What was her name? Oh it doesn't matter, where were we? Ah, yes, Lola's. I entered in through the back door of Herbert G. Farvel's, and walked down some rather creaky old steps to a door at the bottom. A man was standing there, a monster of a fellow with his cap pulled low to completely cover his hair. He towered over me, and I remember thinking that maybe I had made the wrong choice, heading downtown tonight.


I cleared my throat and licked my lips, mentally cursing myself for smearing my red lipstick. “Dandelion?” The monster said nothing, and for a second I was sure that I had gotten the word wrong, and that he was going to pick me up by my sequined dress and toss me out onto Chase Street. After letting me sweat for a full five seconds though, he moved aside and pushed open the heavy door. I breathed a sigh of relief, pressed my lips together, and stepped inside.

Lola's was a cramped place, as most gin joints were, but it had a little stage in the corner, where a negro saxophonist was playing some decent jazz, and a bar on the far wall. I spotted my friend, Maude, on one of the stools and made my way over. She looked lovely as always, her bobbed auburn hair caught back with a sparkling pin and a short, fringed black dress. I had always been jealous of Maude because she was so slender, a true flapper. I, on the other hand, was utterly cursed with  brown hair, curvy hips and a generally buxom figure. All of the loveliest dresses just didn't seem to fit me the way they fit Maude.

It has just occurred to me that I have been unpardonably rude. We've never been properly introduced, have we? Here I am, going on about my figure, and you don't even know my name! Ah, well, age will do that to you. My name is Cordelia Van Hart, but in those days, most of the young people just called me Dilly. A carryover from my childhood, you know.

Anyway, where was I? Ah right, Maude. As I made my way over to the bar, she was deeply engrossed in conversation with the man sitting next to her. A mobster by the look of it, so slick he was slimy. I approached the bar, and accidentally knocked his fedora to the floor, three feet away. He shot me a look that might have knocked me off my heels if I hadn't already sat down in between him and Maude. I raised my left eyebrow in challenge, and he stalked off to retrieve his hat. The single eyebrow always seems to work my dear, never forget that.

Maude grinned at me, her jade eyes sparkling. “Dilly! Now what if that man was my soul mate? You may have just scared him away forever!”

“Maude, darling, if that man was your soul mate, I'm afraid it doesn't say much about your soul.” We smiled in easy camaraderie.

Maude turned back to her tea cup, which by the looks of it was full of a gin martini, her favorite. I flicked a manicured finger at the bartender, who was miles more handsome than the mobster, and smoothly ordered the same. My martini came in a tea cup as well, pink and white with tiny flowers around the edges. As if the tea cup would fool the Feds if they came knocking. I wasn't worried though, the neon owl light outside of the Owl Bar hadn't been blinking on my walk down, which meant that the Feds weren't in town.

“That fellow at the door really gave me the heebie-jeebies Maude, I was afraid you didn't give me the right password!”

“Oh Dilly, sometimes I swear you are so easily scared. Door men are supposed to give you the heebie-jeebies, that's what they're hired for.” Maude rolled her eyes, which somehow made her look more attractive, and took a sip of her martini. “So what do you think of the place? I rather like it.”

It's small.”

It's cozy. Comfortable, like you could really get to know everyone that comes here.”

Why would you want to do that? Isn't part of the fun not knowing every sheik in the place?”

Well sure doll, but every now and then, I'm keen to try something new. Oh look! There he is.”

There who is?”

Why the reason we're here, Dilly. It's Charlie Dashing! I'm practically goofy over him already.” Maude pointed toward the door, where a tall gentleman had just entered the dimly lit room. He looked up and caught my brown eyes with his blue ones. Charlie Dashing, indeed.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Perhaps I've spent too long in the company of my literary romantic heroes, and consequently my ideals and expectations are far too high.

As I was perusing Pinterest, as I seem to do every twenty minutes of every day, I kept coming across these pictures of hot actors. Good day on Pinterest, right? I thought so, too. Even though I could already see the hotties perfectly well, I clicked on them anyway...just to see them a little bit bigger. Who wouldn't? Well, as I was clicking around, mentally adding names to my "elevator list," I began to notice something. Most of these pictures had the following caption: "Christian Grey?" Interested, especially since everyone that was commenting seemed to be really invested in this question, I googled Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James.

I read a couple of articles which detailed how James' book knocked The Hunger Games out of the top spot on the New York Times Bestseller list. As any bibliophile would be, I was intrigued. I also noted that there seemed to be a lot of conversation about the BDSM aspects of the novel, and almost decided against reading it because honestly, that stuff freaks me out. To counterbalance that though, Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fan fiction, and I am a huge Twilight fan. The Twilight-loving, bibliophile side of me won out, and I downloaded the book from Amazon to my eReader.

So I curled up in bed, which is my favorite place to read, and began what would end up being a shocking journey on many levels. The story is simple, and if you deleted all of the freaky sex scenes, it would be a typical boy meets girl, boy sweeps girl off of her feet, boy has issues, romance. Keep in mind though, that James springs the BDSM on her audience pretty quickly. My first shock was that (sorry Ms. James) this book is terribly written. James uses a first-person narrative, which is fine, but although most of the novel is written in present-tense, there are quite a few moments where she switches to past-tense and back to present. Plus, it almost seems like she put every third word through a thesaurus, using words like "beguiling" and "paradigm" in what should have been normal conversation. Yes, those are words, and when used properly, I'm sure they could work, but PEOPLE DON'T SAY THEM IN NORMAL CONVERSATION. Not even stuffy, billionaire Christian Grey-types. I am completely cognizant of the fact that E.L. James is British, but if you are going to write about people who live in America, you need to be aware of the language difference. Things like that really irk me, and normally I don't make it past the first chapter of a book that is so poorly written, but to my dismay, I couldn't put it down.

Before I go any further, I want you to know that I would have kicked Christian Grey to the curb so fast he would have gotten whiplash. He's bossy and controlling with some worrying, stalker-like tendencies. We wouldn't have even made it past the coffee date no matter how disarmingly gorgeous he was. Regardless, it was interesting to see the unrealistically innocent Ana fall for him.

This book is what I would imagine cocaine is like: horrible and addictive. It has been almost a full twenty four hours of reflection since I finished it, and I still can't quite put my finger on what made me like it (against my will). Okay, so it might be that I imagined Ian Somerhalder as Christian Grey through the whole thing (thanks Pinterest). Or it could be that I have always fallen for the bad boy with hidden scars. You know, the one that needs some work, but ends up being the prince in the end? Okay, so even beyond the bad writing and all of the shameful BDSM stuff, which I'm still freaked out about by the way, by the end of the book I did actually start to like the characters. I actually like Ana much more than Stephanie Meyer's Bella because she actually has some guts. She stands up for herself even in the face of Grey's overly controlling personality.

I have been recommending this book to my friends, but I'm pretty sure it's only so we can be shocked by/make fun of it together. That being said, I will probably read the second installment, Fifty Shades Darker. Just out of morbid curiosity, of course.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Casting blame

Because no matter where you run, you just keep running into yourself

When I was a junior at Elizabethtown, I wrote a paper. Okay, I wrote many papers (way too many to count), but I was really excited about this one, which was for a cultural history class taught by Kevin Scott. I had to pick an item of popular culture from any era and explain how that item represented the time in which it was made. I spent days Googling and searching through the vast amount of primary documents that I had already accrued in the hopes of using them in my classroom one day, but no luck. As much as I was enjoying the class, and as much as I love history, nothing was really speaking to me. I was frustrated, sitting on my bed in my dorm room, when I glanced over at my desk, where I had some DVDs stacked on the corner. And then it hit me. Breakfast at Tiffany's! I had always loved the movie, and recently finished reading Truman Capote's original novel. Once I had the idea, I was on a roll.

Holly Golightly speaks to every woman. She's classy and beautiful and most of all, she is independent. If it was one thing I knew, it was that the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s marked a shift in the paradigm for women. This movie represented that shift. Between Holly's origins as a wife in Tulip, Texas to her fight for independence, the movie chronicles the struggle women were having at the time. Honestly, it's the same struggle that women are still facing today: career or family? And if we want both, when do we have time for anything else?

Capote's novel was miles different from the movie when it was finished, but gay, nameless narrator or George Peppard as a love interest, the theme remains the same: women's needs were changing. So I wrote my paper with passion and a love for my subject. To this day, that era remains my favorite one to teach about because the struggles going on in a woman's mind, or between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., or in the post-war man's psyche are fascinating.

Three years later, my little sister handed me a book that she had just bought for me at the New York City Public Library on 5th Avenue (incidentally, we were on our way to have breakfast at Tiffany's). It was 5th Avenue, 5 a.m. by Sam Wasson. I was excited, as I am for anything regarding Breakfast at Tiffany's, so I began to read it as soon as I could.

Imagine my frustration when I realized that this book, published more than two years after I had written that paper, was about pretty much the same thing! Granted, the research that it must have taken to turn the idea that apparently Wasson and I shared into this New York Times Bestseller must have been intense, and there's no way that the college version of me could have written a book.

Despite my disappointment that it was Wasson, not me, who was the bestselling author, I was enthralled. Fifth Avenue, 5 a,m, is entertainingly written and concise, and arranged in a way that the chronology is not confusing. It is a book about Audrey Hepburn, and her desire to be part of two worlds: Hollywood and the home. It is a book about women in the 1950s and 60s, and how they shared Audrey's same desire. Mostly, it's about how Tiffany's changed what was considered "acceptable" at the time and made it seem okay for a call girl to fall in love with a kept man. In fact, it managed to make the whole thing classy, with Givenchy's landmark dress as the cherry on top.

I wholeheartedly recommend this to fans of Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, or history in general. I am usually not one to enjoy non-fiction, but this book was amazing. And besides, if I can't take the credit for the idea, at least Sam Wasson did a lovely job with it! So what are you waiting for? Go pick it up!

Monday, April 30, 2012

You are...

See, TV can teach you something

“The rest of your life is a long time and whether you know it or not, it's being shaped right now. You can choose to blame your circumstances on fate, or bad luck, or bad choices, or you can fight back. Things aren't always gonna be fair in the real world, that's just the way it is. But for the most part you get what you give.”
I recently took a trip back into the world of One Tree Hill, and although I’ve been ridiculed for years for watching a “teen drama,” I have always stood by this show. Two weeks ago was the series finale, and was reminded of a lot of the things that made this show great; things that inspired me as I was working my way through high school and college. The quote above is from Bethany Joy Lenz, who played Haley James Scott on the show. She was a teacher, and she makes this speech to her English class on one of her first days at Tree Hill High. So yeah, One Tree Hill is a teen drama, and it’s from the same network that spawned The Vampire Diaries (which I love, but not because it’s inspiring), but One Tree Hill made some good points. Most of all, it was about a group of kids who made bad decisions, and then took responsibility for them (eventually). I think that all teens should have to watch at least the first four seasons of OTH, if for no other reason than it is about a teenage boy who READS.

The rest of your life is being shaped right now. I took today to introduce this idea to my students, who, on a good day, are hard to handle. I teach at a school where bad choices are not only a daily occurrence, they’re expected by teachers and administrators, and all of the people who are supposed to believe in our students. If my kids take nothing else away from this school year, I want it to be the knowledge that every decision they make is having an effect on the rest of their lives. I want them to be able to give others a chance, not because they want to necessarily, but because it’s the right thing to do.

So today we wrote lists, and not just any lists, we wrote self-reflective lists. I had come across a MySpace post that I had made when I was a senior in high school called “50 Things I Don’t Care if You Know.” When I re-read it, I was reminded of all of the craziness that accompanied my high school journey, and also how much just creating and posting that list helped me get through that difficult year. So I told my students that the best way to start fighting back against all the naysayers and doubters was to get to know what was rattling around in their heads. So I gave them a modified version of Haley’s speech, my list (which they of course found hysterical) and asked them to create their own. It went over well for the most part, and many of the kids really enjoyed it. If my assignment reached even one or two, I consider this a success.

My kids are dreamers, whether they realize it or not. They are poets and philosophers and one day, the rest of the world will see the things that I see in each of them. They are the Lucases and Peytons and Nathans and Haleys of this life, and they have the strength to overcome the obstacles that life has thrown at them. Our lives are being shaped right now, our choices, right or wrong, are in the past, and we are fighting back.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Thoughts awaken us

I have always been a reader. I wish that I could remember the first book that ever touched me, the first characters that ever inspired me to be a better version of myself, but I can't. What I do remember is begging my mom to take me to the library in the summer, and coming home with a bag full of books. I would stack them neatly on the floor next to my bed, and over the next two weeks, I would devour them, line by line, page by page. I remember once being so frightened of a book that it kept me awake for the whole night (no small feat for a fifth grader), but you know what? I finished that book anyway, because I had discovered that books could be more than interesting; they could be gripping and powerful.

The catalyst for me, the moment when reading became more than a hobby, when reading became a passion, was in my ninth grade English class. My teacher, Mr. Frey, told us "Thoughts awaken us to the journey of life," and since that moment, I have known that books and poems and essays are all thoughts, carefully constructed and deeply felt, that lead us through our lives. As a writer now myself, I know that writing is an act of hope. Hope that someday, someone will read the words that a writer has laid down and be inspired.

I can't remember every book I've ever read, and this isn't the first time that I've wished for a list, but I can remember the ones that meant something. I can remember struggling and laughing and above all, loving with Laura Ingalls Wilder on the prairie. I can feel the breeze coming in the windows of Anne's Green Gables. Most of all, I remember yearning and working and learning with Christy in the Appalachian Mountains. Catherine Marshall's epic novel, "Christy," fictionalized her own mother's time teaching in a remote, backward village. "Christy" changed my life, and has continued to change it since the first time I read it. I am not a teacher because I read that novel. I have no doubt that had my grandmother never given it to me, I would be a teacher anyway. I don't think, however, that I would teach with the same level of compassion and caring if it weren't for the tenacity and inspiration that was lent to me through "Christy". I can't even count the number of times that I picked up that worn paperback during college, desperate for some hope and relief. "Christy" always reminded me why I was working so hard.

I encourage the students that I work with to find the words that lift them up, that teach them how to be better versions of themselves, and to read because reading is eternal. It connects us to the past and helps us to understand ourselves in the present. It is meaningful, and permanent, and all children should be given the same opportunity that I was; the opportunity to find themselves in literature. In fact, I encourage everyone to do that: if you don't like to read, you probably haven't found the right book. That may sound silly, but I promise you that somewhere, between the pages of a book, is a world that you want to be a part of.

Welcome to Changing the Beat

It took me an hour of staring at the computer screen, walking away, coming back and staring some more, and so on to figure out a title for this blog. It needed to be exactly right because I'm counting on this to be not only an outlet for me, but a place where I can rediscover the writer that I used to be. After thinking and pondering and tapping my fingers, I finally decided to look for inspiration in the one place that I can always be sure to find it: my quote books.

In 2002 I was a freshman and just getting a taste of the trials and tensions of high school. One day, for no reason at all, my mom gave me a book. I love books, and I always have, but this book, purple with a verse on the front, was filled with the best kind of pages: blank ones. The epithet on the cover is over-used, and I've seen it on countless posters in high schools and offices. You know, places where they are trying to inspire people. So would I use it today? Probably not. But that day, when my mother handed me that purple book, this verse was poetic gold:

"Only as high as I reach can I grow,
Only as far as I seek can I go,
Only as deep as I look can I see,
Only as much as I dream can I be."

Beyond the words on the front, there was a song in the back, lyrics written in my mother's careful hand.  "I'll be" by Reba McEntire is a song about trust and a bond so strong that nothing can break it. I'm glad that I can say that I still share that kind of relationship with my mom, and that I've copied the same song into cards for friends as I grew older. I try to give others the same support my mother has always given me.

The book was mine, to do with what I would, and the freedom was exhilarating. This was a safe place for me to put down my hopes, dreams and convictions. I've never been much of a journaler, so I put those hopes and dreams and convictions down on those blank pages using the words of others. Thus, the quote book was born, and four books later, they chronicle my growth and give me a place to look for inspiration when it seems like I have none.

So I felt silly when I didn't think of looking to my quote books for my blog's title. It seemed oddly fitting, because although I am still writing quotes and songs in that fourth book, this blog gives me the same sense of freedom that those blank pages gave me way back in the ninth grade. So, I flipped through the pages, and relived some moments, as I always do. And then, alongside a giraffe sticker and some seriously ill-thought out quotes that are written in spirals, I found this....and a blog was born:

"On a small planet, where minute follows minute, day follows day, year follows year, where tradition marches on with a deafening, orderly beat--sometimes the order is disturbed by a dreamer, an artist, a scribbler--sometimes the beat is changed one person at a time..." -Mary E. Pearson, "Scribbler of Dreams"