Our Authentic Show Must Go On

Our Authentic Show Must Go On

This weekend, I was enthralled by a blog post shared by Mark Willen (“Sexual Assault: When Real Life and Fiction Collide”), who was pondering how his published works hold up in the #MeToo era. As a result of Mark’s post, which was weighing heavily on my mind today, I decided to ask a few writers/teachers about what they thought influences authors to share certain works with their intended audiences.

Now, that’s a lot packed into that last sentence, so let me unpack it.

What influences authors.

As English teachers, we often analyze an author’s writing by what the topic of the essay/story is about, and what was happening during that time in history or, more specifically, what was happening in that author’s personal life, either directly or indirectly. Our focus is finding that cause-and-effect relationship, that One Big Thing that led her to craft that piece. We love doing that. It’s what we live for.

To share certain works.

As well, we know that writers often choose which pieces they take to publication. This is what they offer the masses; this is what they have selected as their representative piece.

With their intended audiences.

Not only does the author select the intended piece, he selects the intended audience. Sometimes, that’s a decision based on money and quantity. What can I write that will reach the most number of people, and fill my pockets with the most amount of money? Or, conversely, he might choose a very selective audience to share a more cultivated piece, aimed at entertaining or conversing with a smaller group.

So what?

What all these things have in common is that we are making gross assumptions that the cause-and-effect relationship even exists. As we know in this era of all things, it is nearly the opposite. Some of us are in great distress, and our creativity is stifled in ways we could never fathom. We put our pens to paper and the parchment remains unblemished.

Where do we begin? How do we tell the truth? How do we write about something that is so polarizing?

So we choose to write about other things, and in other genres. Published or not, none of it is representative of where many of us are. There is no authenticity in a large body of what is being published. Truth lies in that unwritten, Barbaric YAWP that plagues us, weighs us down, suppresses our voice in ways that historians might overlook entirely.

In other words, the literature written centuries ago, which we have been analyzing so comfortably based on the stories crafted in history books, may be as much of a lie in absencia of the truth that could never be written.

Maybe a little like what we’re going through now.

I just got rejected from yet another publication (Let the great streak from 2017 continue!). It was a horror short story that I thought was pretty good. It wasn’t, according to the judges (again this year), and I’ve allowed myself a 12-hour pity party that ended, oh, a few minutes ago.

But I find this okay. I’m not a horror writer anymore. I thought that I should be able to spin a good tale no matter the genre, but that’s probably not true. I’ve got so much bunched up in me of what I am not writing about, that it makes full sense to me that anything I try to pass off as authentic is anything but.

So I’m turning this figurative page somehow, and I will return to authenticity. I will spill words here that are raw, genuine, politically incorrect, and my truth. I will lose followers and, perhaps, close friends and family members. It sounds so harsh to say this, but I can no longer let that stop me.

I don’t want to be cautious, gentle, patient, worldly, or even compromising. The time has come to share that authenticity with all of you.

I have no idea where this will take me, but at least I’ve opened the door for it to happen and to find out. We have to demonstrate courage in our writing and our art in the present; we must let our work be an authentic reflection of who we are, where we are, how we are reacting to it, and why all of this matters.

Thanks for listening (er– reading). I’ll be back soon, sharing words that need to be said, and by me.

Model Teaching: Empowerment Through Multi-Faceted Instruction

Model Teaching: Empowerment Through Multi-Faceted Instruction

I’ve been teaching for a long time — long enough to see the spin of the pedagogical cycle of strategies come full circle. What I have learned along the way is that there are some practices that work better than others when it comes to teaching writing.
In 2009, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) published a call-to-action report, “Writing in the 21st Century,” that stated clearly our need to recognize the importance of teaching writing in a way that aligns with our complex lifestyles interwoven with technology and multitasking.

In the report’s introduction, NCTE past president, Kathleen Blake Yancey, writes, “It’s time for us to join the future and support all forms of 21st century literacies, inside school and outside school. For in this time and in this place we want our kids—in our classrooms, yes, and in our families, on our streets and in our neighborhoods, across this wide country and, indeed, around the world—to ‘grow up in a society that values knowledge and hard work and public spirit over owning stuff and looking cool.’” (Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion)

She rallies teachers of writing to answer this “call to research and articulate new composition, [this] call to help our students compose often, compose well, and through these composings, become the citizen writers of our country, the citizen writers of our world, and the writers of our future.”

I could not agree more with Yancey’s call to action. What we need to do, as teachers of writing, is to find ways to integrate the various strategies that have worked over the years and apply them to real-world needs that empower our students to effect change. This is the most meaningful way to make writing matter to students who are already engaged in communication outlets and devices only dreamed of in sci-fi works a generation ago.

Sean McComb, 2014 National Teacher of the Year, models this beautifully in a 12-minute feature with the Teaching Channel. This video, titled, “Making Learning Personalized and Customized,” empowers individuals in the classroom to write about real issues (many of their own choosing) that are relevant in their lives today and, most certainly, their future.

What makes McComb’s approach so authentic and applicable to the students’ lives is his development of this project.

McComb’s strategies are clear in this graphic that is presented toward the end of the video. Not only has he integrated technology through Skype sessions and Google interviews with real sources, as well as through laptops and tablets at various stations, he has integrated opportunities for individual, one-on-one, small group, and larger group collaborative activities that all work toward the publishing of original, genuine, and meaningful works for a larger audience.

In other words, he has taken the finest materials of our best teaching strategies, the recursive writing process, real-world issues, and publishing and has seamlessly woven them together to create a lasting experience for his students that they will be able to apply long after the last bell rings for the school year.
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Our opportunities to teach well and effect change in the classroom are still available to us as teachers of writing (and this applies to all ages and across all content areas). We need to rethink how we approach teaching, though, and create projects like McComb’s that have strong beginnings built on the foundations of communication and comprehension, solid middles filled with diverse opportunities for rigorous and highly applicable learning, and empowering endings that give the students the tools they need to succeed in real-world ways that improve their communities and allow them to fight confidently and appropriately in the acts of advocacy and equality.

To see the full video, click on the image below.
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Why We Fear Creativity, And How To Let Go

Why We Fear Creativity, And How To Let Go

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I have been in this cafe for a little over an hour, writing in my Daybook to the ambient sounds of chatter, the clanging of dishes, all blended with the meditative, hollow sounds of Deuter playing his bamboo flute. On these pages, I have written about singular moments I experienced decades ago along the marshy lands lining the Patuxent River, the beautiful flow of my life in this present here in Baltimore, and the possibilities that await elsewhere in this world with an open heart.

It was not hard to get here. In fact, I’m not really in a cafe at all. Try a dining room table in my suburban home next to my kids who are experimenting with crayons, sketch pencils, and a lot of funny faces.

But I feel like I am in a cafe, thanks to the assistance of coffitivity.com with the background noise. Because of their creative and innovative thinking, I am able (as are you) to find a fertile environment for creativity anywhere and at anytime.

(I have to admit, I discovered Coffitivity in Anahad O’Connor’s article in the New York Times (published 6/21/13), How The Hum of a Coffee Shop Can Boost Creativity. O’Connor cites a fantastic study published in the Journal of Consumer Research on the correlation between ambient noise and enhanced creativity. The findings by Mehta, Zhu, and Cheema — the authors of the study, through a series of five experiments, showed how and why moderate ambient background noise can enhance creativity, primarily by opening up the mind to think more abstractly.)

Being creative: it doesn’t take planning, or great orchestration, or even cooperation from others.

All it really takes is a decision, on your behalf, to embrace the powers of creativity within you and live a mindful and inspired life.

Too busy? Too old? Not your style?

Nope. Sorry — Not buying it. Everybody’s busy doing the work that everybody else expects, we all think we are older than we really are, and too many of us are trying to discard the things we have been told are foolish, childish, and a downright waste of our time.

I’m not buying any of it, and you shouldn’t either.

We have been fed, far too long, the belief that “being creative” is something extreme artists do. They are poor, they are messy, and they are crazy, wild madmen and madwomen set out to do outrageous things.

Those creative types, always cutting off their ears and stuff. Really! Get over it already and find a real job like everybody else!

Yes. Creativity has gotten a pretty bad rap over the last century or so. It’s not your fault, though, and it’s not even your parents’ fault; it goes a little deeper than that. But we don’t need to be concerned about the past so much. We need to be concerned about what is happening to creativity right now to you, me, and even our children in our heavily funded school systems. (if you haven’t stumbled over this TedTalk gem by Sir Ken Robinson, go grab a fresh cup of coffee and push play; you won’t be disappointed.)

The Suppression of Creativity

Julia Cameron, author of the best-selling book and program, The Artist’s Way, has spent her entire career fighting for the right of all individuals, young and old, to reclaim their creative souls and live a more mindful, inspired life. In her follow-up to Artist’s Way, Vein of Gold, she argues that the first step is to awaken from the ho-hum expectations passed down to us. “Most of us are not raised to actively encounter our destiny. We may not know we have one. As children, we are seldom told we have a place in life that is uniquely ours alone. Instead, we are encouraged to believe that our life should somehow fulfill the expectations of others, that we will (or should) find our satisfactions as they have found theirs.”

How sad! But it makes sense, doesn’t it? Somewhere in our childhood, right around the age of 8 or 9, our lives changed. The time had arrived to put away the colored pencils and get “serious” about life.

Cameron continues: “Rather than being taught to ask ourselves who we are, we are schooled to ask others. We are, in effect, trained to listen to others’ versions of ourselves. We are brought up in our life as told to us by someone else! When we survey our lives, seeking to fulfill our creativity, we often see we had a dream that went glimmering because we believed, and those around us believed, that the dream was beyond our reach. Many of us would have been, or at least might have been, done, tried something, if…If we had known who we really were. But how were we to know?”

Ugh. It makes me sick every time I think about how we suppress the very key to innovative thinking and inspired living. Our greatest accomplishments in the history of our world have come about from being creative! And yet, we treat creativity like some banished, bad kid who has spent a little too much time being naughty, wasting everyone’s time with silly games and stupid thoughts.

And, now that we are older, we seem to think that it is just too late to do anything about it.

But I have a family, a job, other responsibilities now…

Yes. Most of us do. But the truth is this (and here’s where we can boldly begin to discard the excuses and the worries): We can use these constraints to our advantage, once we accept creativity back into our lives.

Turning Constraints into Creative Opportunities

Daniel Levitin, speaking on “Creativity in Music: Constraints and Innovation” at Stanford University’s Behavioral Science Summit earlier this month, argued that much of our creative explorations that have led to masterpieces are a result of evolution, rather than just revolution.

Levitin defines creativity in the following way: “Works of art that we judge to be the most creative involve the artists working under constraints to produce something novel, or something that pushes the edges of these assumed constraints.”

In other words, because of these constraints, our creativity can manifest into great things, for ourselves, for our communities, or for the world.

Well, it’s not too late. I am here to tell you: You are a creative individual, and you have the right and the duty to live a mindful and inspired life right now. Maybe it’s time to take an online creative writing course, or at the very least, head to your local bookstore and pick up a new journal and begin creating. What matters most, right now, is that you realize there’s a creative YOU waiting to be rediscovered, right now, and you don’t have to do anything extreme to bring creativity back into your life.

Why wait any longer? A creative, mindful, and inspired life is waiting within you, ready to be ignited.

 

 

On Authenticity and Taking Things Personally

On Authenticity and Taking Things Personally

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.

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I’ve been having some rather candid conversations with fellow writers and non-writers in Towson and around town about the importance of authentic writing, both in polished pieces that we submit for publication and in less-polished posts that we share via social media. Repeatedly, the same troubling concern rises to the primary focus of these discussions: we do not wish to offend, yet we know that, invariably, we will.

Offend whom, you ask?

There’s a book that I refer to often. It’s called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. The message is simple and can be found in most “good book” manuals, from the bible to the cub scout handbook. But the simplicity with which this book is written makes the agreements themselves accessible.

One of the four agreements is this:  never take anything personally.

Good advice for both readers and writers, I think, when the latter is doing his job authentically.

On the reader’s end, authentic writing from a son, a father, a spouse, a friend, a colleague can be terribly enlightening, but often it brings contradictions to that “role” that the writer has played with that reader over, perhaps, many years. It took me a very long time to see my parents as individuals; they shared only a fraction of their true personalities to us when we were children. By no means did they not live authentically; I believe that, on many levels, they did, especially Mom. But I didn’t care about any of that; I didn’t know any of that even existed, to be honest with you.

It did exist, though. Despite my every attempt to keep them in their roles as Mom and Dad, much to my astonishment, they were Eileen and Charles, individuals, to the rest of the world.

I imagine it is the same for you, in some manner.

For those of us who do not write for publication beyond social media, it’s not as big a deal, I think. There are fewer chances for us to bare our true souls, put them on the stage for all to see in black and white. But for writers and non-writers alike, we find convenient ways to practice a “don’t ask, don’t tell” lifestyle where we keep our authentic selves from emerging.

We’re good. We play the game and, for the most part, choose our translucent masks from the jar by the door, where they mingle a little shyly with the others of varying thickness. We even find ourselves believing that we are the mask. It shows up in our actions, our words, our beliefs. We buy into these pop-fad crises of global warming and rush to buy our hybrid cars suddenly to save the earth. We are made to feel so good, our egos soothed by our acts, doing our part, living the good, right life.

I don’t mean to mock or offend. I don’t. If anything, I am writing these words in my own reflection. This is my belief about myself and my attempts to be real, authentic, genuine; it’s not about any one of you. It’s what I feel, what I think, what I believe. When we look for hybrid choices when purchasing a new car, we applaud each other for our efforts. Then, in the next breath, we want to know if you are free for an early-spring barbecue next Thursday. These are our choices that we make. This is our place in this world, right here, right now.

I do not mean to offend. I mean to tell you what I think. Please, do not take it personally.

Writers do this as well. We anticipate criticism that we will most assuredly take personally, and then censor our writing to make our audience members nod their head in agreement. That’s what we’re after, isn’t it? Approval? We sacrifice authenticity for approval. We sacrifice genuine honesty to protect the ones we love and to preserve the images they hold of us, near and dear to their hearts.

God bless us all for our efforts. I mean that.

That’s not authentic, though. As writers, we’re faced with this dilemma on a daily basis. My blog is public. But my blog entries are personal. Do I wish to be conservative? Refrain from posting opinions that might offend? Censor my thoughts and censor who I am to save the ones I love from potential hurt because they choose to take my words personally?

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We can’t help it, I know. It’s what we do all day long. We are trained away from seeing and sharing all things with love; we grow suspicious, concerned, filtering all that comes in, and all that goes out.

We are becoming the first generation of artificial intelligence (AI) life forms, higher-level thinking zombies, if you will, who walk through their days and surf in their nights playing the lifelong game of PC-Perfect individuals, never wishing to offend, never wishing to misunderstand.

So many of us wish to do neither. And yet, we do, and in so doing we feel terribly sad that our efforts to live and write with genuine authenticity have somehow missed their mark.

Never take anything personally.

I know. I see myself doing it even now. It’s hard. So hard, when you know that your audience sees you in so many different roles: teacher, husband, father, friend, colleague. They bring those filters to my words and gasp, shake their heads, and maybe even do a little re-read to make sure they got it all right the first time.

Never before, though, have we lived such transparent lives for all our communities to see us so vividly. We’re all making choices, however conscious (or not) those choices may be. Some are retreating, staying low, under the public radar and wrapping themselves around popular causes to insulate them from the dangers of authentic living. It’s a genuine and noble drive, for sure. Still, there’s not much awareness happening at this level; rather, there is much awareness happening for everything but who they truly are as individuals.

I say this with love, and with personal experience. I think we all immerse ourselves into projects that protect us from baring our souls and living authentically. It’s the ultimate shield that gives us personal assurance that we need not walk unclothed into that good night; there is much to be done, indeed, and to think of ourselves and our own authenticity is, well, selfish.

There’s no way I can hide my tears in recognizing this reality.

We’ve had our arts programs stripped out of our schools, we have our students practicing the art of hoop writing with perfecting the tricky craft of composing standardized statements that fit ever neatly in digitized pop-up boxes. We are regurgitating numbers and facts and formulas and processes at lightning speeds so that school systems can boast when the annual reports are published in the morning papers: We are in the XXth Percentile; we have many reasons to celebrate. So many other schools did horribly worse. Hoorah for us.

We are not celebrating the successes of our individual students in their desperate attempts to hold on to their individuality; instead, we celebrate that — collectively — we play a better game of jump rope than half the other schools on our block.

But when they graduate, those expert jump-ropers, what do they know of authenticity? Of individuality?

Perhaps that is why so many of them flock wildly to Facebook and other forms of social media for a little breathing room, a little sanity where they can be a little dangerous with their words, say what’s really on their minds, and feel like they’re living authentically in a bead of water that rests precariously on a dewy leaf, overlooking the rushing waters of domestication and conformity.

The problem, of course, is that when we do that, we assume that such posts are attacks against us or against our beliefs, and we find ourselves taking things personally to an entirely new and dangerous level.

The current presidential campaigns from the remaining six contenders — four republicans and two democrats — are stirring more divisive rhetoric in social media, in print, and on television. When one speaks out against a particular candidate, others are easily offended and trigger an emotional exchange that leads to hurt feelings, anger, unfollowings, and even unfriendings.  Even in our authenticity, we offend. We let it get personal. We think it’s about us.

But it’s not. None of it.

We’re all doing our best to navigate through these days of stress, tension, and transition. None of it’s easy, and all we are doing is making it worse.

Look, I know it’s hard. We both need to work on it, Reader and Writer. But maybe, just maybe, if each of us comes to the page with a little sensibility, doing our best to take none of this personally, then maybe, perchance, we will not have offended the other.

And then, just maybe, if we are fortunate enough, our authenticity will lead to clarity; our clarity will lead to collaboration; our collaboration will lead to solutions.

Just maybe.

But first, we need to take nothing personally. Even if our presidential candidates are struggling to do this themselves, we can set the example for others –and most importantly, for our younger generations who need a better model.

Challenger: 73 Seconds Define 30 Years

Challenger: 73 Seconds Define 30 Years

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 10.42.07 AM Dateline – Tuesday, 28 January 1986. 11:35 a.m.

I’m upstairs in my bedroom, cramming the last of my new textbooks in my bag, grabbing a few extra pens and my journal, and checking my look in the mirror: clean-shaven, every single hair gelled in place, and wearing a white oxford with a blue Hugo Boss cardigan sweater. I smile at myself, fighting the need to wear a jacket in the cold January weather. I am beginning my second semester of junior year: an English major with an education minor. This semester feels just the opposite, though, as I am taking classes like Principles of Secondary Education and Teaching Reading in the Secondary Classroom. I am so happy to be immersed in my major courses as I try to look like the teacher I can’t wait to be.

I rush downstairs just in time to catch the liftoff of the most important space launch of my lifetime. Teacher Christa McCauliffe, designated a payload specialist, has joined the flight team of commander Dick Scobee, pilot Mike Smith, mission specialists Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judy Resnik; and a second payload specialist, Greg Jarvis.

At 11:37 a.m., I look at my Mickey Mouse watch. I don’t have to be on campus until 1 p.m., but parking will be a challenge, as usual, so I will need to head out as soon as the space shuttle disappears from the camera’s eye and is swallowed by space.

Dad is in his chair to the left of the television, as he always is when he’s not at the firehouse. I am so thankful that this is his last year before he retires. He hasn’t looked himself lately.

At 11:38 a.m. I sit on the edge of the couch and watch the liftoff, a brilliant burst of light and fire propelling this team of seven into the skies. The energy that it takes, I think, to lift such a machine into the heavens, just so that it can carry on its mission in weightlessness.

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Three seconds into ignition, the Public Affairs Officer announces on NASA TV: “Liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower.”

I have been following Christa McCauliffe’s story for months, where her energy to teach mingles with the lessons I am learning in my courses at Towson. While others are lifting superheroes or movie stars as their idols, I am lifting this 37-year-old teacher from Concord, New Hampshire who is paving a path for all of us in what it means to teach, what it means to “touch the future.”

Twenty-eight seconds, pilot Mike Smith says: “There’s ten thousand feet and Mach point five.”

I watch the bright light arc right, bend to the heavens, on the ultimate teaching mission. I can’t help but see and feel the parallels in my own life. This time next year, I think, I will be in the classroom as a student teacher, realizing a dream to work with others since I was in high school. From my days in elementary classrooms through my senior year, I had the best role models to show me what teaching was all about: Green, Gordon, Bennett, Delaney; then Crouse, Falcone, and DeVita. They had been human, loving, nurturing, guiding in those first 12 years of school. There, as I watch McAuliffe climb higher and higher in the shuttle, piercing the blue and leaving behind a single stream of white, I feel the immediate urge to teach stir within me. This is going to be the best semester yet.

Sixty-eight seconds, CAPCOM, or the Capsule Communicator, says: “Challenger, go at throttle up.”

Dad and I are silent. We are captured by the beauty of the launch on this clear blue Tuesday morning as we watch Challenger roll right.

Seventy seconds, Commander Dick Scobee replies: “Roger, go at throttle up.”

We watch as CNN zooms into the Shuttle. I feel so close to it on the television. We are with the crew of seven, we are flying with teacher Christa McCauliffe for the most magnificent teachable moments imaginable.

Then, at seventy-three seconds, that single stream of white explodes, and two rocket boosters fly to the left and right, leaving a chalice of smoke in the silence of the broadcast.

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Thirty-one seconds after the explosion, a somber voice from the Command Center says: “Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.”

The silence between my father and me changes, shifts from the incredible to the incredulous. We are unsure what has happened, as CNN channels through its camera shots from white-lined skies to crowds of shocked onlookers, some of them Christa’s family. They are holding on to each other. They are holding on to hope.

I look at my watch and the time has somehow slipped away. Minutes have ticked away like seconds, and it is already after 12 p.m. I have to leave. Head to school. Learn what I can to be a good teacher.

But what I realize on the drive to Towson is that what I need to learn to Touch The Future is already in me, thanks to the Christa McCauliffes who have shown me what it means to hold such responsibility, such opportunity to empower others to embrace learning, to let them know that there are no limits to how far they can go.

Seventy-three seconds crystallized that for me for those 30 years that would follow. I vowed then, at 20 years old, to always remember what Green, Gordon, Bennett, Delaney, DeVita, Crouse, Falcone, and now McCauliffe had taught me: no matter the challenges we might face, never lose the energy to empower the young, never abandon the belief in the individual futures that breathe life into our classrooms.

Seventy-three seconds made me who I am today. Though my cardigan might now be a little worn, I will always carry with me the energy of my mentors and Christa McAuliffe’s words, “I touch the future; I teach.”

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The Child At My Door

The Child At My Door

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It was a late November night,
And I was just about done.
The stacks of papers that I needed to grade
Had, in some small way, dwindled down to none.

I lifted the stained red cup from my desk
And finished the cold coffee poured hours before;
I reached for the lamp signed by students years ago,
But was stopped by a soft knock on my classroom door.

“Enter!” I said, but there was no reply,
And so I left the light on and walked to see who was there.
I peered out the small window and saw a head bowed so low;
It was a mere child, standing small, his clothes threadbare.

I opened the door – just a crack – to see who he was
And what he wanted, and why he was here.
At first he didn’t speak, not a single sound;
I wondered if he was dumb, or simply frozen with fear.

“What is it, my son?” I asked. “You can tell me what is wrong.”
He looked up, his eyes stained with mud and tears,
And immediately I could see that he had traveled far;
This boy, still in his teens, had aged far beyond these early years.

“My Lord, what has come of you?” I asked, still holding the door.
“My school has closed,” he replied, “And I have nowhere else to go.
“They have burned our buildings and our books.
“Now we are left with no place to grow.”

I felt the weight of the door press against my chest
As I looked into his eyes, filled with desperation, with defeat.
My classes were already packed, I thought,
And I was warned to be wary of lies, or even deceit.

Was I wrong to be fearful of this boy,
Who had traveled far to seek shelter in my room?
After all, he was different, and his land was filled with dread;
He came from a place that was dark, a harbinger of Persephone’s tomb.

I pulled the door shut, affirming my fears, and sighed.
As I had been warned of the dangers of such travelers in the night,
True, though I knew they had nowhere left to turn,
It would be easy for me to send him away, out of my sight.

But then I turned around and looked across my room
At the scattered desks left awry by the lives I had taught;
Hundreds – no thousands – over the years who had come through this door
Despite their struggles, their challenges, that had once left them distraught.

Of their backgrounds I knew little at the beginning of school,
Then- as they wrote, and shared, their stories with their peers,
I understood the adversity that they had faced
And realized that I had met them at the end of their hardship years.

Was this child any different than those who had come?
Different than the thousands who brought color and life?
They filled these four walls in this once-barren room
With the expressions of love and learning, far distant from that long-ago strife.

I thrust open the door and welcomed him in-
A shuffle, if you will, of warmth and care like I had shown no other.
“You are welcome in this room, my friend,” I said,
“And here you are safe, for I will help you as I would my own brother.”

I poured him the last of my coffee and gave him my seat,
The soft glow of the old lamp casting a warm light on his tired face.
We are all one in this world, once weary, once in need, I thought,
As he absorbed the feel of his new home, a nurturing, kind place.

I stuffed the stack of papers in my old teacher’s bag
And opened our books to chapter one.
He looked at me and smiled when he read the first three words
And I smiled too— For us both, as our new journeys had, indeed, just begun.

Rus VanWestervelt, 11/18/15

To My Graduating Seniors of 2015

To My Graduating Seniors of 2015

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Earlier today, I had my final class with my seniors. This was the third of three groups that I have had to say goodbye to in as many days. Very sad to say farewell to some very fine individuals; I have been with many of them for 2, 3, and even 4 years. Before the final bell, I thanked them, offered a few final words of reflection, and reminded them that, before any other role they might play in life, they are individuals first. As the period ended, I gave them the following letter — and an accompanying CD — to remind them that this journey has not ended for any of us; it simply continues in new and exciting ways. 

May it continue for all with mindfulness, love, and compassion. ~rvw

May 2015

To my graduating seniors…

A few weeks ago, there was a moment in our classroom when I realized that we had turned that final corner of the academic year; the end was too close to ignore, and like some giant magnet pulling you away from our discussions of Hamlet and the many literary devices that I wanted you to learn before your AP exam, you looked at me with eyes alive, but not for what we were studying. You were gone – already on some beach or along a narrow mountain trail – you were, simply put, at a place far, far away from our classroom.

I get that. Not only have I experienced that for myself in such trips through the academic circuit – first in elementary school when I graduated from sixth grade, then high school, then undergrad, and most recently as a father in grad school – I have experienced it too, as a teacher for close to 30 years, where I have seen an energy in my students for all that awaited you once that final bell rang and you had thrown your cap in the air. The world was yours to conquer.

The little secret, though, that I want to pass along to you, is that it has always been yours – a great life is not waiting for you somewhere out there; it is already here, as it has always been.

I tell you this because you are going to face this feeling again – and again, as you journey onward. And even though they are indeed milestones, they are pinnacles in a life that is already extraordinary – or should be.

To keep it that way – to stay in the extraordinary – I want to leave you with five guiding lights that have led me along my own personal journey. It’s never easy to stay the course and keep the focus, but they have been good reminders to me, and I hope they help you too.

  1. Do The Work. You have a limitless source of energy within you. Channel it in ways that are productive, in ways that benefit you and others in genuine and authentic ways. Many will complain about why they can’t do something. If you are “doing the work,” then you have no complaints; you are in control of your actions, and you are empowering yourself to have greater options available to you, now and in the future.
  1. Trust The Process/Have Patience. It is a tough time to be growing up, simply because you live in a give-me-now society where instant gratification is not fast enough for us at times. We are easily bored, quick to judge, and quick to react. We have to trust the process of how problems evolve into solutions. We need to have and practice patience along the way. We cannot expect to have every answer appear in our newsfeed as we scroll through items and updates that pass by us at a rate of 1 to 2 seconds at a time. Take a deep breath. Step back. Observe. Be patient. And trust the process… and trust yourself.
  1. Practice Compassion/Be A Good Listener. It’s so hard for all of us, I think, to get to where we think we need to go. We keep our heads down as we plow through on our journey to become better students and harder workers while we build that resume or get those high test scores. The danger in such a pursuit is that we rarely observe and understand the struggles that others – just like ourselves – might be going through. There’s a phrase in Lost, Live Together, Die Alone that really fits here. We need each other. We need to practice compassion for our friends and our family members, and for everyone else, too. We need to be good listeners to each other so we know that we are in this together, and we are not alone, in this shared journey of individuals. Do the work, but keep your head up and remember to be compassionate toward others along the way.
  1. Respect The Lessons And Stories Shared In Literary and Artistic Works. Artists – writers, painters, musicians, actors – have used their talents for centuries to tell us something, to share their stories that matter deeply to them and, as a result, to us. Reading and appreciating the arts was never intended to be done for grades or for assessments; it was to offer an expression of shared experience, to touch us in some way, to reach out as a lasting attempt to tell us something. Read, watch, listen for a purpose that is deeply personal; let the art touch you and then own a part of it for yourself. Capture what is most important and carry that with you. Let it breathe through your own words, brush strokes, and actions as you continue along your own way in expressing your experiences.
  1. Have Courage, Release Fear, and Embrace Love. The greatest challenge we face is fear. It holds us back from taking risks, believing in ourselves, and pursuing our passions and what is most important to us. Fear disguises itself through rationalizations and securities of comfort. Have courage to discover what you want in your life. Believe in yourself, release the fear that holds you back, and embrace self-love and love from others along the way. Once you do this, you will see that your choices will become your realities.

Living Your Life Fully – now – is all about recognizing, understanding, appreciating, providing, and loving. The songs that I have selected for you on this CD are what I would feature if I had my own online radio channel. They are timeless for me. They are the musical version of my guiding lights helping me along the way. I hope they help you too.

It’s been an honor and privilege to spend this year with you. We have learned from each other in our short time journeying together. Always remember the power of words – both of what we read and of what we write. They are miracle workers for others as well as for ourselves. I wish you the very best as you continue on, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. May the walk be long, filled with love and compassion, friends and solitude, challenges and epiphanies.

It’s your journey. Make every step worthwhile.

Offering love and peace to each of you. I’ll see you on the other side….

as always……………….VW

 

The 12AP2K15 Playlist:

  1. “Waiting on the World To Change” ~John Mayer
  2. “One” ~U2
  3. “Love Is the Seventh Wave” ~Sting
  4. “Don’t Worry Be Happy” ~Bobby McFerrin
  5. “Secret O’ Life” ~James Taylor
  6. “Three Little Birds” ~Bob Marley
  7. “This Is Home” ~Switchfoot
  8. “Imagine” ~John Lennon
  9. “Over the Rainbow/What A Wonderful World” ~Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
  10. “Black Rock” ~O.A.R.
  11. “Soulshine” ~Warren Haynes
  12. “Free > Into the Mystic” ~Zac Brown
  13. “Redemption Song” ~Bob Marley
  14. “Ripple” ~Grateful Dead
  15. “All You Need Is Love” ~The Beatles

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