Sunday, August 7, 2022

JUST KEEP MOVING


I turned older than I want to admit last month. I remember those days when I anxiously awaited my next birthday, anticipating that special day when I would be one day older and closer to being "grown." Those days are so far behind me now that I am embarrassed to have wished my life away. 

I have been attempting to exercise more now. At some point, I pushed my health to the background as my schedule became too hectic to take that time for myself. Honestly, adding an afternoon nap rather than one more physically or mentally challenging activity was easier. Those naps are something special, though.

Unfortunately, forty-one fifty-something years old happened. 

My body aches from the constant wear and tear of walking up and down the stairs, waking up too early after staying up too late, and enjoying one plateful of comfort food more than I should have. 

My mind struggles with an inability to process the way it used to. I pause mid-sentence to recall a word I want to use or a name I have forgotten. I feel I am still using my dial-up internet when everyone else is using high-speed networks. I am losing confidence in my own decisions.

Then it begins. The self-talk, the negative kind.

I can't do this anymore.

I will never get back into shape.

This is all too much.

I run myself into the proverbial ditch when life becomes too complicated, when obstacles grow overwhelming, or when mistakes happen too frequently. Life does not wait for anyone, and I have been there when the ditch grows deeper and deeper as I spin my wheels to regain any type of traction.

I remember talking to my sister-in-law Lisa months ago about the aches and pains I was feeling. She just laughed and agreed with me. I do not think I would ever be having this conversation with anyone. Lisa offered some advice, though. "Keep moving." 

Wisdom can be found in the simplest of words.

Lisa's advice was about the physical difficulties we both are experiencing, but I found how easy it works in most situations when I engaged in negative self-talk. 

I struggled for weeks writing this blog. I started. I stopped. I wrote. I polished. I deleted. For the past few days, I began telling myself: I can't do this anymoreThis morning was different. I sat down with my coffee, turned on some John Denver, and continued writing until I finished while quieting the doubts I had as each word hit the page. Just Keep Moving.

I was tired of being tired. One day I jumped on the elliptical at Howard Long Wellness Center. I set the program on what I "instinctually" used years ago. Five minutes into the workout as I sweated profusely, obsessively checked my heart rate, and watched others exercising effortlessly, I kept saying: I will never get back into shape. I lowered the settings, realizing that this would take longer than I expected. Just Keep Moving.

I have a small pocket calendar containing all my meetings, appointments, and shopping lists. I always feel as if there is more to do than can fit into this small calendar. This is all too much. I bought a luxurious desktop blue calendar at Marshall's last week. I transferred all of the contents to its roomy pages, realizing I have plenty of space in my life for everything. Just Keep Moving.

Sometimes I wish I could send advice to that kid blowing out his birthday candles. "Don't rush to be an adult." "Take your time making decisions." "Realize that you will never be perfect." "Don't be so hard on yourself." But he doesn't need these, right? 

He needs a short mantra to push him through difficult times, a phrase to ease the doubts that cloud his mind, and a few words to sort out the countless pressures life brings. I envision Just Keep Moving in blue icing looping across his birthday cake surrounded by the candles he is about to blow out.





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Sunday, June 5, 2022

SNAPSHOTS

 

Long before the advent of cell phones, with their come-as-standard HD cameras, previous generations ran around with small cameras. Back then, we inserted cylinders of film into the rear of a Kodak camera, clicked the door shut, then slid the film forward to be ready to take that first picture. If my memory serves me, the camera film came in 12, 24, and 36 exposures which had to be mailed to a picture developer or taken to a one-hour photo shop. Then we waited. Perhaps an hour or even a week. We waited to see if our snapshots of moments in our lives would live forever in a permanent photograph.

Now we possess the means to capture those moments instantaneously. We can see them immediately, edit them, add effects, or even delete the unwanted. Perhaps someone wasn't smiling, another person had his eyes closed, or maybe the picture wasn't capturing the moment as we wanted to remember it. We stick a thin half-inch memory disk into the cell phone, so we can possess an insurmountable number of pictures. We have so many pictures that our moments seem to blur into a never-ending collage in which many of the moments lose their meaning in an impersonal collection of snapshots.

As I have grown older, I have discovered that I possess more pictures than I can view in a day. They are scattered everywhere: on my phone, in Google Photos, in my albums at CVS photo, and even on photo paper mounted in scrapbooks, placed in frames, and stuck with Mavalus tape to the dry-erase board in the back of my classroom.

Mavalus tape. I am fighting autocorrect's desire to change "Mavalus" to "marvelous." I added the word to my dictionary because something about Mavalus tape makes it worth my extra effort. Betsy, my down-the-hall teacher pal, told me about this incredible tape that must have been created with teachers in mind. Principals and custodians nag teachers about using tape on walls as it pulls off paint when you attempt to remove a poster or picture. Mavalus tape has a unique bonding material that leaves little if no residue. Glorious and literally marvelous!

At the beginning of the school year, I shared a year-long theme with the seniors sitting in my classes. Last summer, I came across this marketing campaign called Live a Great Story. I wrote about it in my blog back in August. I brought the massive Live a Great Story flag to school, where I mounted it across the back dry-erase board. Throughout the year, we listened to other people's stories, reflected on our own, and considered how every day is simply another part of a bigger story we are writing ourselves. 

Many diverse stories filled the spaces of the board. Some people were at the beginning of a chapter while others presented a closing chapter. As August moved into the fall, November became winter, and April gave way to spring, I would place snapshots of the entire class, groups of people involved in sports or service projects, couples smiling at dances, and individuals in their own unique moments. Everyone discovered themselves there, individuals as part of a larger familial community.


Last Friday, I was valiantly attempting to clean out my room. I saved taking down the Live a Great Story board and its snapshots for as long as possible. I listened to the Goo Goo Dolls as I pulled each snapshot off the board, looked at it, and placed it either in the discard pile or the save-for-later pile. Removing each one was difficult as I possess fond memories of each picture I had attached to the board with the Mavalus tape throughout the past nine months. 

I swiped my hand across the board to feel for residue from the tape. There was none. The board was smooth and clean. I chuckled because many of my students would make fun of me for looking for deeper meaning as I stared at an empty board with no sticky remains from the pictures that once adorned it. 

In one sense, I am glad that the Mavalus tape worked so well and did not ruin the board. Conversely, I find comfort that memories are not like this. We can literally take the snapshots off our walls, inadvertently delete them from our phones, and declutter by putting them in our discard piles. However, people in our lives always leave bits and pieces of themselves behind which will continue to remain even as we find more snapshots to place atop them. 

I never finished cleaning my room Friday, but I did manage to fold the black Live a Great Story flag to use again next year. 

Congratulations to the CCHS Class of 2022!



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Sunday, April 24, 2022

CARROTS


I was not really hungry at all. I had to eat quickly for a Friday with a no-planning period and a 30-minute Friday lunch while prepping for my two remaining classes. The warmed-in-a-microwave Papa John cheesy breadsticks from last Monday and softball-sized orange were both good. I was swallowing the last of the cold coffee in my Kindness mug when the sound of enthusiastic chaos began making its way to my door.

Paxton and John were the first to arrive. They had these broad smiles on their faces, the devious smiles that would have instilled teacher trepidation and tension at the beginning of the year when I barely knew these kids. Now, though? Either one of their friends said something idiotic at lunch, or another friend got in trouble again. Even though I feigned indifference over their juvenile adventures, I needed to know deep down. The anticipation was eating away at me.

Paxton chuckled as he reached behind his back. "Here, White Rabbit." He tossed a big plastic bag of carrots right in the middle of my desk.

My eyes watered at the hilarity of all of this. I grasped the arms of my chair to keep myself from falling onto the floor in laughter. I am seldom at a loss for words, but my laughter prevented me from saying anything as all three of us just kept laughing and laughing while the rest of the class continued to come into the room. I finally cleared my throat to say, "Thanks, Pax. This really made my day. I needed this."

They both regaled me of how the crew gathered up the carrots from the cafeteria lunch to stuff them in a plastic bag they would drop on my desk. More students continued to enter the room as they did this, discovering the carrots and laughing. I wanted to call it a day right then, like a mic drop, a perfect way to end a chaotic week.

Context, though. Moments like this need context.


My classes had been reading Matthew Quick's Boy21 for a week. Not everyone is a great reader; not everyone has the patience to invest time and energy into the characters in a book. As a teacher, I never know how a class will respond to a book we will read or a project we will undertake.

The book's narrator is Finley, a quiet senior whose basketball coach has asked to befriend a new student named Russell, who has moved from California to Boston after losing his parents to a senseless murder. Finley is the only white player on the basketball team, so his teammates jokingly call him "White Rabbit." Kids sometimes like to play around with their friends and teammates, so Finley is initially fine when the cafeteria students dump uneaten carrots on his tray during lunch while saying, "Here you go, White Rabbit." Unfortunately, this act becomes a joke that borders on torment. 

Quick takes the reader on a journey of three people: Finley, Russ, and Finley's girlfriend Erin, who learn to cope with life's painful struggles. Together the three learn the importance of connection and the necessity of having people who understand and honestly care about one another in our lives.

As I said earlier, the bag of carrots was a perfect way to end the week. I could have packed up, turned the lights, and then headed home. But my class just had to read the book, and they insisted on going outside to the sunny courtyard to do so. It was hot, the kids tend to be crazy, and the courtyard lacks the control I need for a class. I usually absolutely hate making little trips like this. 

"Let's go. Bring your books and be quiet in the halls."

We sat on the courtyard steps in the bright afternoon sunlight with the ambient noise of the water fountain around us. We took turns reading the next few chapters. We did our "Did you notice..." or "I wonder why..." discussion starters. Different people sat on different levels of the stairs, some squinted in the sunlight while some covered their eyes with the book, but all of us shared thoughts about Finley, Russ, and Erin. Time wound down, and everyone seemed to want to read one more chapter before making the long walk back to the room.

So why did I laugh when the carrots landed on my desk? Why did I say that the bag of carrots made my day? Why did I so willingly take a trip outside with a class when I never do that? I have been pondering this for a while.

I keep seeing posts on Twitter and Facebook about teachers leaving the profession to find something else to do or to begin their retirement. I keep wondering how much longer I can do this. My neck and arm are so sore from reading papers and typing on the computer that I have taken to wearing a brace once again this spring. I am tired of a non-stop schedule of classes and activities that always transforms into a sprint at the end of the year, one which takes me weeks to recover. I am tired of finding it harder to enjoy life once the school day ends. I get it, though. I chose to teach, and I will never regret it. 

Unfortunately, I appear to have grown accustomed to doubt. I wonder if what I do makes any kind of impact anymore. I wonder if anyone ever listens anymore. I wonder if I am past my prime and am awaiting a resurgence of energy that may never come. I wonder if my body can actually hold together much longer as I empty the latest bottle of Tylenol. I wonder if my doubt will ever overwhelm the good moments, and I wonder what I will do when that time comes.

So why did the bag of carrots mean so much?

God occasionally speaks to us through the actions of others. He lets us know when our path is correct and when it may be time to rest. Through others, He tells us when we still have a purpose and that our influence on the world may be one that the world continues to need. And sometimes, God tells us through a random bag of carrots that everything will be okay.

So, yeah. "Thanks for the carrots. These really made my day."

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Sunday, March 20, 2022

BEHIND THE BENCH



My grand quest has rewarded me with the best seat I have ever had at a high school basketball championship tournament: directly behind the bench. Well, not quite directly, but close enough. I hope the old woman in the over-sized yellow security jacket does not walk down the long bleacher stairs to find me here.

My quest began two days earlier, shortly after Central Catholic's Maroon Knights completed their monumental comeback in the second half against Grafton in the state quarter-finals, landing in a rematch of last year's state championship with Shady Spring for a spot in the finals. I was at home, watching the game stream on the sports network. My wifi is spotty at times, but the part that really pissed me off was the feed that had the announcers completing the play-by-play before the on-court action actually occurred. Seriously! I needed to see the game live: unfettered, close-up,  the way I watched all of the home games I attended this year.

The three-hour drive from Wheeling to Charleston was a grind, but I arrived at the coliseum at the halfway mark of the game before Central's game. Perfect timing. After I emptied my bladder, bought a program, grabbed some salty popcorn and an orange Powerade, I pulled down my hat and slipped on my readers. I reviewed the memorized lie that I was sitting in Section 110, Row M, Seat 4 instead of the actual ticket location on the opposite side of the floor: Section 135, Row M, Seat 9. I readied some wrinkled bills, including a crisp twenty to use as a possible bribe, then covertly began my "older gentleman lost" look. 

I strolled past that old woman security guard playing around on her tablet. I shuffled down the stairs, gripping the metal arm rail with my sweaty palm as I looked side to side for any open swath of seats until I found three halfway down. "Excuse me, young man," I mumbled to a couple who were actually about my age. "Are these seats taken?" For good measure, I spilled some popcorn and pretzel salt all over me and ended up sitting in the wrong reserved section for the next hour, unbeknownst to anyone of importance. 

I got this. I am a Knight.

The orange Powerade surging through my veins imbued me with even more resolve when seven minutes remained before the Central game commenced. I stepped down to the main floor, where I looked dejectedly at the reserved WVSSAC signs taped to the front row of seats before turning back to a vacant second-row spot, the better place for an onlooker, an observer to the lionhearted last stand of the Maroon Knights. 

I am here for the game, of course. I am here for more, though. 

How can any sports fan not appreciate the chess-like precision that encompasses a great basketball game? How can any beating heart not appreciate the small school vs. the large school confrontation, the David and Goliath biblical drama backdrop? The game did not disappoint as two teams who met over a year ago returned to play again, one intent to reassert dominance and the other prepared to prove the naysayers wrong. But after the ball was tipped, everything was pushed to the background as the game moved to the forefront. The game was like games the sports world has seen repeatedly. One team jumps to a lead until the other returns to tie the game then takes the lead. The first team plays catch-up until the final seconds tick away, and the last shot bounces off the rim. Unfortunately, the game did not end well for Central.

My popcorn bag rested crumpled beside my empty Powerade bottle, coarse salt remnants scattered around my seat behind the bench. I watched as the Central student cheering section slowly broke apart and scattered, making room for the next school. I checked my Twitter for likes and replies that had been riddling my feed with people asking for updates during the game. I returned the wrinkled bills to my wallet as I hoped to find something more healthy to eat later that evening. I did everything I could to not look where I should be looking: at the team. Of course, time slows down for us when we are at our lowest.

I cannot imagine the feeling of having to go through a line to shake hands after losing a game you desperately wanted to win. I cannot imagine the feeling of walking through that line as a senior as finality begins to creep its insidious energy into an already beaten and exhausted body. I cannot imagine walking back to the locker room for the final time, glancing about the crowd slowly leaving the coliseum and wondering how much I will miss this.

But I stopped all my anxious avoidance and remained in the moment. I wanted a seat behind the bench for a reason. I stole my way down those stairs not just to watch the game up close. To be honest, the view near the bench sucks. It just does. Coach Mel stands the entire time. The bench crew is always jumping up when a three-ball is shot, ready to thrust three-fingered fists into the air. And it sucks when the players come off the floor looking exhausted and frustrated when the game is not going their way. No one really sees those expressions when sitting in the prime spectator seats on the other side of the floor.

I will keep my seat right here, as uncomfortable as it seems to be.

You see, closer is always better. From this spot, I see more. I see the coaches interacting with all players as a group, as individuals, and as a bench. I see the hand movements and faces during the timeouts, but I have no idea what is being said. I see the Gatorade water bottle sitting five spots down from the player who needs it the most and wonder if I can bring it to him. Up close, I see the celebrations when victories are snatched from defeat and when losing feeds desperation. I see the underclassmen who want to walk in the path of the seniors but need to carve out a story of their own. I see the faces of the seniors who have dedicated years of their lives to the sport they love. I just see more.

Rest is not an option when dreams are there to follow. Determination and perseverance mean that you go hard, you do not look at the clock, and you leave the floor with no regrets. I hope that the players on this year's team understand how much they have inspired people to do just that. 

The old woman in the yellow jacket found me. "Sir, could I see your ticket? I do not think this is your seat." I was unsure if this was a dream, so I just laughed, slipped her a crisp twenty from my wallet, and politely said, "Ma'am, I will be here for a while longer."



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Sunday, January 30, 2022

RISE OF THE SITH LORD



Bucon the Gamemaster tossed books across his teacher's desk, furiously shuffling papers from one spot to the next while his body shook with nervous energy as his charges entered the class. Beneath his Pandemic "Where-Anywhere-Where All-of-the-Time" Black Mask, he gritted his teeth through a tight, maniacal smile. "Yes, come in," he muttered quietly, "laugh while you can."

"Good morning. Good morning. It is great to see everyone today." The Gamemaster turned to the ancient smartboard to introduce today's deadly challenge to the class. "We are going to continue with our examination of pronoun usage as we prepare for the upcoming SAT."

An air of indifference emanated from the crowd of teenagers. They continued the socializing that began when they sat down with their newly-formed Classcraft teams. "This is pretty easy," a few chuckled from the back of the room. Many sat with their arms crossed, moving slowly to begin class. Their insolence infuriated The Gamemaster; his anger erupted.

"I have noticed that you have become overconfident! You think that you have mastered these skills and are no longer afraid of failure!"

"But you want us to be proud of ourselves when we do something really well, right?" Ava bellowed from the side of the room, looking at her team for support.

"Ah, yes. Pride," Bucon the Gamemaster waxed philosophically. "But, I believe we have read, 'A man must conquer pride, not kill it.' Who was it that said that?"

"Oh, gosh! The Seafarer!" Abie and Jackson said in unison, with Jackson adding contemptuously, "How can we ever forget that?"

The Gamemaster revealed a picture of a ferocious Bluebeak Ganet on the smartboard. "I believe it is time for a boss battle. I was awake for hours last night creating this battle to take all of you down a peg or two."


The Gamemaster did not expect student tears and gasps of trepidation at the sight of the vicious Bluebeak Ganet, nor did he anticipate their frolicking laughter. He reacted accordingly by yelling, "Do you see this beak? It will be dripping with blood after it rips those smiles off your face. The Bluebeak Ganet is about to destroy you! Now close your Chromebooks and put away your notes."

The teams all looked at one another and laughed. "BOSS BATTLE!" they yelled, their war cries shaking the walls around them. The Gamemaster smiled, realizing that they had fallen so nicely into his trap, a trap that would rattle them to the core of their very being. 

And so it began, another titanic battle for the ages, reminiscent of Beowulf and Grendel.

Team by team, the students took turns meeting the Bluebeak Ganet on the field of battle. One correct answer, one swing at the Ganet; one incorrect answer, one swing from the Ganet. Health points fell from both opponents like blood dripping from wounded animals in a battle for their lives. The Gamemaster embraced the carnage as the students who once believed they were so knowledgeable grew frustrated with the empty treasure chests of their brains.

"Do we use a possessive pronoun there or an objective one?"

"Wait! There is something different when we use neither-nor 
and when we use and. Mr. Bucon, is there a difference?"

"Using her there just does not sound right? What's the rule again?"

"OMG! We are going to fall in battle! How much health do I have left?"

The Gamemaster relished their cries of futility. Bucon should have been angry that his students did not recall the basic rules of basic pronoun usage in basic sentences. Still, he was elated, laughing aloud at their inability to work together to find the correct answers. He was going to be victorious as the Bluebeak Ganet appeared unstoppable.

But, then there was a shift in the balance of the force. Overconfident knuckleheads grew serious. They bickered until they all agreed on the rules. They trusted one another when once they doubted. One sentence is all that they needed. 


"Just admit that you do not know the answer. You can keep guessing, or you can actually know the right answer. You act as if you know it all, but you do not," the Gamemaster laughed at the students, taunting them to doubt themselves yet again.

"Her?" Deanté asked quietly.

"Big football player," the Gamemaster confidently muttered to himself.

The class looked back and forth, unsure if their classmate was right.

"Are you asking or telling me, Deanté?" The Gamemaster chuckled aloud this time. He wanted to rattle him. He will doubt himself. "Asking or telling, Deanté?"

Deanté sat up a little. "Telling. HER!"

The Gamemaster stood still in the quiet of anticipation. He absorbed the silent energy pulsating throughout the room, realizing that he had just envisioned the future outcome of this battle. He tapped the smartboard and revealed the answer: her.

"You will NOT answer the rest of these correctly." The classroom cheers overpowered the "damn" that the Gamemaster groaned when he turned away from them. He could not let these students see him angry and defeated.

They did, though. They answered every single question. The roomful of juniors thrust their fists into the air for the victory over the Gamemaster and his Bluebeak Ganet. Some stood and gave others on their team high-fives. 

Bucon the Gamemaster was angry. He tossed his smartboard pen atop his desk, took a seat in his swiveling office chair, then began to stare blankly at the computer screen which still showed the teams' victory over the Bluebeak Ganet.

One of the more loquacious students, Hayden, did not take this opportunity to practice the humility the Seafarer espouses. "Mr. Bucon! Why are you so angry?" He laughed and laughed. This was his chance to take Mr. Bucon down a peg or two, right? 

"I am not angry, Hayden!" Bucon snapped. "I just worked really hard on that boss battle and thought it would beat all of you!"

The class roared, "Well, we showed you!"

Hayden was not done, of course. "Mr. Bucon, you know this is like you are Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, and we are the rebels!"

"What? No, I am not!" Bucon shot back, offended by the notion that he is some kind of evil sith lord. "I am the teacher here! I am the good guy! I am trying to get you to understand this stuff, but you don't listen!"

"But if you think about it, you made this big boss battle to destroy us, and you failed. Isn't that kind of how Star Wars goes?" Hayden can be really insightful and persuasive when he wants. 

"No. Wait." Bucon began to show signs of losing the discussion. "This is like The Empire Strikes Back. Darth Vader defeats the rebels and sends them running. I am the rebels, but I will be back."

"Yeah, that's what you think," someone else added from the back, "but this was more Return of the Jedi. The Emperor loses and is really mad still and dies. That's you!"

"Think about, Mr. Bucon," Hayden whispered discreetly. "You really are the Emperor - you know, the Gamemaster - and we really are the rebels."