Monday, November 18, 2013


Sometimes writing is a celebration. The writer chooses a subject and holds it up to the light to inspect its beauty and paint it so with his words.

Sometimes writing is a mutilation. The writer chooses a subject and rips it apart to investigate its innards, its weak spots. He cracks its bones and shreds its skin.

Sometimes writing is a salve. It soothes troubled spirits and minds. It may not heal, but it provides relief and respite.

Sometimes writing is a blood-letting. It trickles, and it gushes. It provides a relief and respite that is totally different -- painful and unnerving but weirdly soothing.

Writing is different things for different people at different times. Sometimes it's all four. Sometimes it's none.

But it's never easy. Not if it's meaningful. Not if it's true. At least not for me. Words may fill the page or the screen, and they may flow quickly, but they hardly ever flow easily.

This is my 300th post. I started writing here in May of 2010. Looking back on those first couple of posts, I don't recognize myself. They feel fake and peppy. They feel like something I thought someone would want to hear, not something I would want to say. Only 4 people read that first post, and I'm glad. I can most likely guess who those four people were, and they knew that wasn't really me either. 

It was a starting point, though, and I don't think it took too long to find myself.

I value privacy. I am, by my very nature, a secret-keeper, and I am good -- with my own and with others'. I worship, shy and squirming, at the temple of modesty, and my nose tends to stay in my own business. So to put mine out there, in a public forum no less, has been a constant battle. To reveal my shortcomings, my embarrassments, my failings has been painful albeit helpful. 

There have been times that I stood naked in my weakness, and there have been times I have tempered my words because it felt too much, too raw. I don't reread those posts often; some wounds just shouldn't be picked at.

But there have been times that someone found comfort in my discomfort, and that's not a bad thing. It's a human thing. None of us wants to be alone, and, as cliche as it sounds, if even one word made someone else feel less lousy, then it was the right word.

And there have been times when I was able to tell someone all the things I never had the chance to tell them, all the things I never took the time to tell them, all the things they should be celebrated for, all the beauty they held within the light. I revisit those posts often. 

In those 299 posts, I've ranted and raged, cried and crumbled, sulked and snarked. I have also smiled and laughed and triumphed. I've uncovered the awkward and revealed the absurd. I've said hello to a few, and I've said goodbye to too many. I've written about my students and about my co-workers. I've written about the meaningless and the meaningful.  I've written for my family. I've written for my friends. 

More than anything, though, I've written for myself.

I've gone to the well 108 times in the last 4 months. A third of my posts in such a short time, and I wonder when it will be that I run out of words. I worry about that often, but I only know that it will not be today. My original goal was to write more, and in the past three and a half years, I've written more than I could have ever imagined, even with long stretches of silence where I could not bear to open my heart. 

A few of you have been there since the beginning, when I was too scared to do more than just let my writing sit, waiting in the corner at the school dance.

A few more of you have joined along the way. Some I know well; some I barely know at all.  In the time I've written, my site has had 27, 894 page views. Some blogs do that count in a month or a week or even sometimes a day. But I am not them, and they are not me. 

It seems, to me, like a whole heck of a lot of love and attention for my little wallflower blog. 

Thanks for asking me to dance every once in a while.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

I Won't Be Watching

I am a sports fan. I am sometimes a highly illogical sports fan.

It's okay; I own it. I'm not the sort of person who believes that players or coaches are losing or making decisions to spite me or that my complaints or thoughts will somehow make some sort of difference in the outcome. Those people aren't illogical; they're insane.

I'm not insane. At least not to the trained eye.

I do believe in superstitions though. I believe in mojo. I believe in routine. I believe in lucky shirts and changing seats and whispered prayers. So maybe slightly cuckoo but not insane.

I've always followed Duke basketball intensely, and the addition of better technology has only heightened that passion. I've written about it a few times: here, here, and here too. Duke football, however, has mostly lived in the shadows for me and most everyone else. I've always been a little ashamed of that, but football itself has never had the same hold on me as basketball has. 

Yet, the last two years, I've watched an emergence of Blue Devil football. Through area sportswriters and fans on Twitter, I've delighted in watching Coach Cutcliffe lead this team. And for the record, I am falling in love with Cut in the same way I fell in love with K -- as a teacher. As a teacher and former coach, there's nothing that drives me crazier than people who think that it's "easy" to coach. As if all you have to do is draw up a couple of plays on a chalkboard and roll the ball out. But good teaching recognizes good teaching, and I can say with confidence that Coach Cutcliffe is not just a football coach; he's a fantastic teacher. Watching him, and reading about him, has piqued my curiosity and strengthened my belief.

Also, let me clarify about the word "watch". I have to confess that of all of the games I've actually watched in real time, most have wound up as losses, including the Pitt game this year and the Belk Bowl last year (sorry, Ben Swain). The only notable exception was the Duke-UNC game last year.

Last week, as the Blue Devils took on NC State, I left to grab dinner at 17-14. I was gone for 15 minutes, and no one scored. Within 30 seconds of watching, State scored. Testing out my jinx status, I turned off the TV and turned my attention to following the game solely on Twitter updates. Without my watching, at one point, Duke scored 21 points in less than 30 seconds. I got this message.

Of course I was. Jinxes cannot affect recorded television. But a lack of planning can. The DVR cut off 45 seconds before that scoring onslaught began. Duke won 38-20.

This afternoon, I was out of the house at the beginning of today's game against Miami. A win against them today would put Duke in the driver's seat of their division. I walked in the door to see Miami score a touchdown to go up to 17-7. I held on, watching, just long enough for a punt before I decided to test my theory one more time. 

I scheduled the DVR to extend an hour after game time ended, and I turned off the television. When the tide began to turn, I started getting the itch to turn it on and watch for a while. Instead, I left the house to erase the temptation. This is how I wound up sitting in the Quik Trip parking lot, searching my Twitter feed, and screaming in my car as Duke Football emerged, once again, out of all the shadows, winning 48-30.

Do I believe in superstition? Yes.

Do I believe in jinxes? Yes.

Do I believe in Duke Football? Hell, yes.

Congratulations, Blue Devils. Good luck next Saturday at Wake Forest. 

And don't worry, I won't be watching.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The House Always Wins

I love to gamble. For someone as cautious as I am, it seems illogical. But I come from a long line of chronic gamblers, and genetics are a bitch with a tight, tight grip.

My best childhood friend, Haley, and her MamMaw took me on my first big gambling trip when I was 19. Haley had turned 18, and in Santa Fe, the legal age was about to change. MamMaw Cherry decided that it was her civic duty to teach us the ways of the casino and, consequently, the rules of life.  It was a magnificent time.  Because it was an Indian casino, there were few table games, but this did not matter to us. It did not matter that we could not drink or smoke or go buck wild. What mattered was that we had money in our pockets and a willingness to let it go.

MamMaw Cherry's Rule of Gambling #1: Don't play with necessary money. If that $500 is your rent money, you quickly shall find yourself homeless.

We milled about, feeling quite important and grown up. Loud and brash and obnoxiously hopeful, we played slots and video poker and keno.  We nickeled and dimed our way to hours of fun.

MamMaw Cherry's Rule of Gambling #2: Breaking even is a win. Don't question it. Don't get greedy.

But with every jingle jangle to our coin bucket, our confidence grew. By dawn, Haley and I had begun to strut around, claiming even our smallest victories and inflating them in our heads. We were up $50 and feeling our oats, dabbling in the dollar machines. Haley, feeling extra saucy, sauntered over to a $5 machine and won another $50 with one pull.

MamMaw Cherry's Rule of Gambling #3: Don't leave with empty pockets. Save something to at least buy yourself some pancakes on the way home.

It took us less than 10 minutes to be down to our last $10. As quickly as our hopes rose, they fell just as swiftly. Completely ignoring Rule #3, Haley decided this money qualified under Rule 1, and we didn't come here to break even, so she put in our last ten bucks. Haley grabbed the handle, shouted "All in!", and closed her eyes. Haley has always been an "all-in" kind of friend, and I have always loved that about her.

Thirty seconds later, we were on our way to the hotel room, broke and pancake-less.

MamMaw Cherry's Rule of Gambling # 4: The House always wins. Always.

She said this one with a sly smile. She had saved it because she knew we wouldn't listen the first time, and this would be an important -- the most important -- lesson of all.

I thought a lot about MamMaw Cherry today on my way home from work. Today was an interesting, although wholly unsurprising, day at work.

As gamblers, we can't resist breaking rules 1-3.  As gamblers, we go for broke. We spend every dime. We ignore every red flag. We believe in superstition and  Lady Luck and changing machines. We believe that big moves will always equal big pay-offs. We play with rent money and then wonder why we're out in the rain.

But we never, ever stop to think about what would happen if we just didn't go in. We don't think about what would happen if we didn't ante up. Because we wouldn't be us if we didn't sit down at the table to play. And no matter what hand we've been dealt, we play it all the way, even if we lose, knowing that the House always wins.

It's just no fun to eat pancakes by yourself.

Thanks for the lesson, MamMaw. It has served me well.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Kid Drives Me Crazy

I had a student once, just a couple of years ago.  Here's what I knew about him then:

He didn't talk to me. He didn't even really talk to his classmates that often or that loudly, but he especially didn't talk to me. I wasn't sure how he felt about me -- if I freaked him out, if my jokes were simply terrible, if he was bored. When he spoke, it was because I asked him a question. There was occasionally a shy smile, but he was mostly head down, serious, determined, and, yes, fairly silent.

He was in band. He played soccer. He loved the Dallas Cowboys. He liked to doodle and draw. He was meticulous and careful and prepared.

He was a teacher's dream -- sweet, humble, quiet. So quiet that it drove me crazy.  It drove me crazy because I didn't really know him. Since then, I've wondered if I did right by him. Do I teach kids like that or do they just absorb what they can while I manage the chaos around them? This is my constant worry as a teacher. With kids like him, I worry double because they're too kind to speak up and demand more for themselves.

I got an email last week from my friend, Bryan, our band director at school. This kid, this wonderful and kind kid, has been diagnosed with leukemia. Not that I think the Universe should go around handing out terrible diseases as punishment, but let's get honest with ourselves, I'd much rather see some pedophile or wife-beater in that hospital bed than this kid whose worst crime is probably not completing his summer reading for World Geography class.

I've fumed about it for several days. This is what I do about things I cannot control. I fume. I am often outraged by my lack of control.

Tonight, his 7th grade English teacher, his 8th grade English teacher, and his junior high band director, showed up at his door. What he didn't realize is that for all the moments leading up to that visit today, we were confused. What do we do? Where do we go? Where are all the parking spots in this crazy hospital? We were also pretty scared. How is he feeling? How will he look? What has been happening? And, most importantly, what are we going to talk about with this kid who doesn't speak?

It didn't matter. Bryan went through the door and was met with an excited, "Mr. Stein!" And then, "Coach Naz?" followed by a "Mrs. Simpson?!"

And the biggest smile I've ever seen on his face.

He looked thinner. Tired. He kept adjusting and readjusting his baseball cap and fiddling with his hospital bracelets. But his head was up; his smile bright. And he talked to us for 30 straight minutes.

About his diagnosis and treatment, he knew every detail. It didn't shock me because he's an incredibly smart and attentive kid, but there's such a sadness for a 14 year old to have so much knowledge. It feels far too heavy for those shoulders.

About the hospital, he assured us that the people are nice, but he's ready to go home. I think his poor mother is too.

About high school. As a small town girl, I am still intimidated by the size of Lamar High School, and I've always wondered how a kid so shy takes on such a thing. Yet he's enamored with how many new people there are to meet, how many opportunities there are to seize, what different challenges present. He won't be able to go back to finish his year at school, but he's expecting bigger and better things for his sophomore year.

About marching band, he gushed. On the wall was a giant poster. As he talked about his friends, both those that he has only met this year and those that have inspired him since elementary school, he pointed out their well wishes and signatures. He loves music, and he has found a family within the band. To see him so happy, especially in such a tough situation, made me just want to hug each and every kid in that band.

I went in tonight expecting us to muddle through, to attempt to bring some sort of lightness to a dark and scary moment, to just do the best we could. To be adults because adults know what to say, right? To be teachers because teachers have all the answers, right? To be some sort of saving grace because what else can you be?  

We didn't even have a chance because the kid in the bed, the kid with the i.v. line and body full of cancer-fighting poison, the kid who never spoke -- he spoke to us. We came bearing gifts, but it was he who gifted us. We came with questions, but he shared his answers with us. We came with fear and doubt, but he banished them with that same familiar smile. Only it wasn't so shy this time.

I got lost on the way home. I'm easily lost in unfamiliar places, but the hospital is literally less than 5 miles from my house. I was unfocused, and when I did find myself on a more recognizable path, I sat in traffic for almost an hour. I had expected to fall apart after our visit; I build walls against crisis only to crumble at the first private moment.  I didn't, and I couldn't wrap my head around why. I'm still not entirely sure.

Before our visit, I could only think about the student I thought I knew 2 years ago, but here's what I do know about our student now:

He's wise beyond his years. He has a clarity that is startling. He sees the beauty and strength in others and draws from it himself. He has many friends. He's still a teacher's dream. He still finds time to doodle. He seemed lighter, wiser, but still pretty determined. And he's silent no more.

I had expected him to wilt. Instead, it's almost as if he's finally blossomed. How does that happen? I am still shaking my head over it.

Did I teach him anything when he was in my classroom? Probably, but it took me 187 days. He managed a great deal more in just half an hour. How did that happen? Man, that kid drives me crazy.

Get better soon, E. There's a big world waiting, and it needs you.

Monday, November 11, 2013

She is Me, and I am Her.

Today is Veteran's Day. While I am always thankful for the service of our troops and veterans, it's hard to celebrate only them today.

Today is also my mother's birthday, so when I woke up today, she was all I could think about. My mother and her sisters were all born on holidays -- Veteran's Day, Christmas Eve, New Year's Day. I think this might be why my mother was so anti-holiday and anti-birthday; each day seemed to be celebrating others before them. As I saw all the posts (well-deserved though they are), it hurt me for her that yet again, others went before her.

I wrote something for my mother for Mother's Day a few years ago. It's one of my favorite pieces because it's the first time I actually realized the shift in our relationship.  My dad has always called me Wanda Jr., claiming that there is more of her in me than either of us would ever admit. In the past five years, our roles have reversed drastically, and it is only in this reversal I have begun to see myself within her.

My mother has always been brash and abrupt, never letting politeness impede truth. Politeness and manners have always been my armor against confrontation, but as I've gotten older, I've learned to wield a sharp word for those who deserve it. My mother's nickname isn't Freight Train for nothing.

My mother avoids the spotlight, always letting my dad be the star.  She downplays her own talents, camouflaging them as luck or happenstance, and abhors compliments and insincerity.  Wanda Jean is the Queen of First Impressions, knowing within moments the intentions of new friends as well as their retention. There is not a relationship or friendship that I've ever had that my mother didn't accurately predict its success or failure.  And, looking back, I knew too.

She is loyal and determined and fiercely protective. She is private and guarded with her heart, but once it is won, it's won forever. She is competitive and stubborn and wildly funny. She loves curse words and fried chicken and salt on her margaritas. She sticks when she'd rather run. She is often scared but doesn't show it. She is sometimes sad but doesn't say it. And she is strong but doesn't know it.

She is me, and I am her.

For the past 5 years, we've become veterans of our own private war, she and I. Today is a celebration of those men and women who have fought for our freedom and sacrificed for our rights, but in thinking about my mom, I realize that not every battle is fought on foreign soil and not every warrior puts on a uniform or grabs a gun. Some just get in the car and drive toward the sticking point instead of away from it.

Happy Birthday, Freight Train. Thanks for loving me, for teaching me, for fighting for me.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Fantasy Football Update: Week #9

Big news on the Fantasy Football front.  BIG news.

I won.  Again.  Two weeks in a row.  Repent now, sinners, because I'm on a hot streak!  Well, a lukewarm streak, but I'll take it.

In truth, the past two weeks, everyone's either been on a bye or injured, so I haven't made many choices.  In fact, the only decision I made this week was to pick up the Colts defense as they were playing Houston.  The last defense playing the Texans scored 30 points for me; this time, they scored one.  One. Thanks for nothing, Indianapolis.

Rule of thumb? Stop thinking. It can only hurt the ball club.

Bring on, Week 10!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Rowdy Boys

When people ask me what I do, I usually tell them, "I do God's work."  And then when they give me a strange look, I add on, "I teach junior high."  That typically brings about a sympathetic head nod or maybe even a "better you than me" sigh of relief.

Most of us were weird in junior high.  Or mean.  Or obnoxious.  Or just weird.  Junior high is a time where nothing about ourselves seems to make sense.  Physically, emotionally, academically... strange stuff is happening; it ain't pretty.

Junior high is all about pack mentality.  There's safety in numbers.  Find your group.  Follow the leader.  Do your best to just blend in.  In a way, it's not all that different than what you should do on the first day of prison.  Unlike prison though, you don't have to shank someone in the yard the first day.  You only have to find the one kid who's weirder than you feel.  An emotional and mental shank, if you will.

And that idea -- that idea about being like everyone else, the idea about not standing out, the idea about not rocking the boat -- that's what makes it so hard to teach kids about kindness to others, especially those that are different.

That's why I liked this video so much.

It reminded me of one of my favorite camp stories.  I worked for 8 summers at a camp that mainstreamed children with special needs into cabins of "normal" campers.  There was a family who came to camp.  The parents were older, with grown children, and they had then adopted 3 children with special needs.  The oldest of these kids was Sean, a young man with cerebral palsy.  He was in a wheelchair and difficult to understand, but Sean was blessed with the biggest and brightest smile in 4 counties.  Wherever he went, he brought sunshine with him.  He was loved by every member of our staff.  In his last summer at camp, Sean was put in a cabin of uber-popular teenage boys who would be staying for 2 weeks.  Sean would only be there for one.

Although I knew that Sean's counselors would take care of him, I worried that these boys (who could be rough and loud and, let's be honest, a little obnoxious) would either A) overwhelm and intimidate him or 2) completely ignore him.  I crossed my fingers, hoped for the best, and kept my eyes peeled.  

I knew things were going okay; I hadn't been called for any major problems with them so that took care of concern A.  I wasn't so sure about the second.  It wasn't until the boys figured out that not only was Sean going home while they would stay another week, he also probably would not be back the following summer.  They came to us at lunch, asking if they could throw a goodbye party for Sean after Free Swim.  They planned to let Sean go early with his counselor, and they would get ready.  The boys -- these rowdy, self-absorbed, uber-popular knuckleheads -- gave up their favorite activity to decorate their cabin with streamers and banners and homemade cards.  When he and his counselor pulled up on the golf cart, the boys were lined up on the front porch to welcome him back, hooting and yelling and dancing around.  Sean was so excited, clapping and swaying, that he almost fell out of the golf cart, and his smile could have powered all the lights in Fort Worth AND Dallas in that moment.

In that moment, though, Sean's smile had nothing on the smiles of those 9 other boys.  When I saw that kid at the end of the video, describing how that play changed him, how it made him want to be kinder and more helpful to others, I saw my rowdy boys in his face.

In my circle of camp friends, it is well-known that I had not wanted that Unit Coordinator job with those god-awful teenagers that summer.  I had been a little-kid counselor, and I had kicked and screamed about taking that job.  I was an elementary education major until that summer, and when I think about memories like that, it's no wonder that I switched the following semester.

Throwing that party for Sean didn't mean those boys were any less rowdy or any less of knuckleheads.  It didn't mean that they never caused me trouble again or never made another mistake.  It didn't even guarantee that they would see the importance of their own actions.  But it did mean that, for a few minutes at least, they were a lot less selfish and a little bit more grown-up. 

Those moments don't happen often for teenage boys, but when they do, it's important to stop, think about all those sympathetic head nods, and know, "better me than you".

Monday, November 4, 2013

Come On, America.

When I was 6, my parents moved us to the small Texas town of 2022 people.  I say this as if they'd moved us from some giant metropolis.  In truth, except for a few random memories of kindergarten torture in my previous home, I've never known anything other, and I still consider it to be my hometown even though I haven't lived there in nearly two decades.

Growing up in such a small and sheltered place (two stoplights, one Dairy Queen, and approximately 15 churches) had its distinct advantages.  I had very close friends who were more like family.  I benefited from a sound and extremely stable education (especially in junior high where I had the same teacher for each core class for 3 years straight).  I was safe to ride my bike, cruise in my car, or walk about town with little to no real concern of being snatched up.  Heck, I don't know that my parents ever even locked our front door until I went away to college.  I still sometimes forget to lock my car doors, 20 years later.

There were disadvantages too, of course.  In a town that small, everyone knows you.  Consequently, everyone knows all your business.  It can also get kind of boring.  Not much to do on a weekend night except for get into trouble.  Everything tends to run a few years behind, also -- cable tv, cell phones, politics, fashion (I know... as if I'm really ever one to comment on fashion).  And sometimes the sheltered state feels kind of like a police state, especially to a teenager.

Disadvantages aside, please understand that I truly love where I grew up.  It was idyllic in so many ways.  But it wasn't until I left those city limits that I really began to understand what I'd been missing.  See, in my hometown, everyone looked sort of the same.  Everyone had basically the same way of thinking.  I graduated with 33 people in my class.  Three were African-American; two were Hispanic.  And I didn't realize that it could be any other way.

When I graduated from college with my teaching degree, there was a real worry among my friends that I'd just stay there forever.  I'd been living there and doing my student teaching in my old junior high and high school, and all the members of my family and friends feared that the complacency and comfort would claim me.  I probably would have stayed if my mom and dad hadn't sat me down and told me "The life you're meant to lead isn't going to happen here.  You are meant for different things and different people."

It is still, to this day, the greatest gift I've ever been given -- the permission to leave.

So I moved to the DFW area and soon got my first teaching job at a junior high (7th and 8th grade) in Arlington.  In those two grades, there were 925 students.  In my childhood school, kindergarten -12th grade, there'd been less than 700.  Everywhere I looked, everyone looked different than I did.  My first teaching assignment was as an ESL teacher.  For the first time in my life, I was the only white face in the room.

I have never forgotten that feeling.

In the past 13 years at that same school, I've lived a different life for sure.  Very different from the first 18 years of my life.  I have taught students from all over the world -- France, Vietnam, Korea, China, Mexico, the Czech Republic, etc.  A few years ago, I had a student come to my room from Liberia.  He and his father and siblings hiked for three weeks, at night, to escape his country's civil war.  When we did free reading in class, he squatted under his desk, knees hunched up around his ears.  When I asked him about it, he told me, "That is how I used to get small when we would have to hide.  That is the way I feel safe."  He is also the student who would pick up pencil stubs and crumpled papers, always shaking his head at his wasteful American classmates.  I learned a lot from him.  Teaching those kids was a pretty big experience for a girl who had barely even left the state in any way other than through a book or a movie.

I've also had my eyes opened in a lot of other ways.  I've had students who were homeless.  Students whose family income is through drugs or prostitution.  Students who were pregnant at 13.  Students whose grandparents are only a few years older than I am (by the way, I am only 37).  Students whose parent(s) were incarcerated.  I've had students who went to jail themselves.  In my first year of teaching, the gang unit was called to our campus 4 times in one year to help combat the gang violence.  In one of my first assignments, I asked the kids to bring a family picture for a writing assignment.  One of my favorite kids brought a picture of him, his father, and his grandfather.  He showed me, and I promptly took it next door to ask a more seasoned teacher if they were, in fact, all throwing up gang signs.  They were, indeed.  There was also a two year old in the picture, attempting the same sign.  I also got to know a great many of our kids in that same school who came from regular two-parent, middle class families.  We had kids who grew up in multi-million dollar mansions and whose parents went to work as professional athletes.  We also had kids who grew up in the trailer park down the street.

It was the absolute strangest place I could have ever wound up.  I told my parents very vague details about my daily work life for fear that they'd make me quit on the spot.  Back then, I couldn't have told you why I stayed, but I know now.  I stayed because I loved those kids.  They were so interesting to my small-town self and their honesty and upfront way of dealing with me was such a completely foreign concept.  My students became my teachers about all of our cultural differences -- music, hair, dancing, humor, language -- and their delight in my inept fumblings and questions delighted them to no end.  In turn, they let me teach them, not just about English or basketball, but about the world outside their own city limits.

Their favorite subject was to interrogate me about my own past -- it still is to some extent.  Their eyes would widen as I would tell them about the introduction of the SECOND stoplight to my hometown or how local businesses would close completely for the Friday night football games.  They didn't believe that we had no ATM.  They scoffed at the fact that the nearest movie theater was 60 miles away.  But the statement that really caught their disbelief was the train tracks.  For the most part of my life, if you lived in town and were white, you lived on one side of the tracks; if you were black, you lived on the other side.  They would shake their heads and tell me that such things weren't legal.  I laughed and told them that I didn't really think that this had been a continual legal battle but that society's laws and rules are far more often likely to set the tone than any bow-legged sheriff.  They would question me at length about the differences between the two sides and if I thought of my beloved hometown as "full of racism and prejudice".  And always there was the question of "where do the mixed-race kids live"?  That was a very difficult and hurtful conversation -- for me and for the biracial child innocently asking the question.

Another teacher told me once that I shouldn't share my background with the students, that it would provide fodder for them to accuse me of being racist when a disagreement arose (because of my obviously racist upbringing).  But I just couldn't do it; I think it's important to have a firm grip on where we've been in order to know where we're headed.

All the time in my classes, I talk to my kids about differences.  I explain very early on that I'm here to provide a safe space for learning and that ignoring someone's differences doesn't eliminate their differences.  We talk and debate very freely about lots of issues, including things like religion and race and culture.  But we try to also educate each other instead of alienate one another.  Sometimes I think about what I hear from them -- what it's like to be a young black man, what it's like to sit in a classroom full of people speaking a different language, or what it's like to struggle with whether to wear a hijab in a world of girls with ponytails and curls -- and I remember those first few moments of loneliness and fear when I looked out into a room that did not reflect me.

That's not to say that life in my classroom is perfect.  It looks vastly different than the school and town I grew up in, but some of the same issues still reside.  At least once a week, we have to discuss why I won't allow a certain song (because it has the "n" word).  And I often have to defend my stance that NOBODY gets to use that word in class.  I have had to explain the term "wetback" to a student who claimed to think it was about people working in the sun and sweating.  FYI... it does not.  (I also knew that he didn't really understand because he called a Caucasian student that after a football practice.)  I've had to differentiate that all Hispanics are not Mexican and that not all Hispanics are illegal immigrants to a young man in a philosophical debate.  I cannot even begin to tell you the struggles I had trying to illuminate that a person can, in fact, be both Asian AND Chinese (and that the kid wasn't just trying to pull a fast one on this girl).  I literally thought my head would explode from the effort.  We've also recently had to tackle "that's gay", "retarded", and "no homo".  I'm really ready for the repetition of  "no homo" after-any-compliment trend to be done.

And my kids aren't alone.  I've said some (at best) culturally insensitive things in my lifetime.  I'm certainly not proud of it, and I suppose that someone could rake me over the coals for it if they wanted to dig deep enough.  But I'd also like to think that I'm pretty aware now of other people and what's hurtful.  It's a conscious choice to not go around being a jerk.  And the best way to not be a jerk is to educate yourself about people who are different than your own self.  My students hear other adults, celebrities, songs, movies, comedy routines, and they assume that because something is "okay" there, it's "okay" for them as well.  Being teenagers, it's also hard to get them to avoid pushing a button just for the delight of pushing the button.

So last night, I started hearing about Richie Incognito being suspended from the Miami Dolphins for -- you guessed it -- bullying a teammate with -- yep, you guessed it -- some disgusting slurs and other foul messages.  Yet another white dude tossing out a racial slur in order to show his manliness or get his way or just be an idiot -- I don't know.  It seems that every time I turn around, someone, somewhere is acting a fool seemingly just to act a fool.  And, of course, there's always someone else willing to stand up and defend the fool.  Happens all the time.  Just take a look at social media once in a while.

Man, social media is like friggin' truth serum.  People get behind that profile pic and keyboard and just go buck wild with their nonsense.  Social media shows you all the deep dark places people don't talk about at parties.

And every time I see it, I'm right back in my classroom.  Because that's what I've decided most social media (and much of the mainstream media) is -- a classroom of stubborn, selective-hearing, excuse-making teenagers.  My students give me the same arguments when they are a jerk to someone else.  And they are, often, jerks to each other. Their favorite way to be a jerk is to crack a couple of racially/culturally charged jokes.  It unnerves me to no end, and we wind up in a whole lot of  discussions about self-worth and self-reflection and treating others the way you'd want to be treated.  So to see people with a voice or a platform or a little influence throw some backward thinking out into the world for my students to emulate, I get a little pissed.

So here's my lesson, America, and I'm only going to say it once:
  • Rape jokes.  Not funny.
  • Slurs -- racial, religious, sexual.  Not funny.
  • Mocking the mentally challenged.  Not funny.
  • Costuming yourself as a survivor of a horrific tragedy.  Not funny.
  • And while we're on costumes... black face.  Not funny.
  • Bullying.  Not funny. 
Come on, America.  I need you to think before you speak.  Think before you hit "send".  Think before you do.  Because your kids are watching and learning, and you're creating a whole lot of extra work for me.  And that pisses me off more than just your average stupidity.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Safe. Stable. Stale.

I've never been a daring person.

I don't jump off the high dive; I ease in, one toe at a time.  I drive the speed limit.  I stay off-stage when we go to karaoke.  I've never done drugs or paid too much for shoes or got in the car without a map.  I've never gone all in.  I've never put a blue streak in my hair or gotten a tattoo.

I am dependable and careful and responsible.  I do the right thing even when it's not what I want to do.  I say what others want to hear, measuring my words on a Richter scale, calculating risk and damage.  I don't rock the boat; I hand out the life jackets.  I hide behind what if's and should have's and unused wishes.

I wonder if I've lived my life avoiding regrets only to wind up with a soul full of them.

Safe. Stable. Stale.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Big Dreams and Drive-Through Lines

For the entirety of my childhood, all I ever wanted was a normal name.  I would go into stores and browse racks of personalized clutter, always hoping that someone, somewhere, would realize the loneliness my 8 year old self was enduring.

As you might expect, disappointment was plentiful.  

My mother intended for my name to be Deanna (dee-anna), but whomever filled in my birth certificate only put one N in the name.  My mother liked it even better, and because she understands how language works, my name became Deana (pronounced Dee-nuh).  It was also a nod to my dad (whose name is Dean) and my older brother (who is James Dean) as well as a nod to what might be perceived as my family's utter lack of originality (my nephew is Hunter Dean).

For a kid though, there's almost nothing worse than being different because:  DIFFERENT = WEIRD.

Having a different name was a daily reminder of my own weirdness.  I wanted to be a Carrie or an Ashley or a Lisa, like the other girls.  I wanted to have personalized pencils and license plates and lunchboxes.  And I didn't want some sympathy embroider job that my mom paid someone to do.  I wanted the real, live, pre-printed crap because:  PRE-PRINTED = NORMAL.

You can see here that I was a joy to be around as a kid.

Youngsters these days have it so easy, what with the internet printing whatever you please and making it look all NORMAL to have your name spelled any kind of jacked up way (looking at you people adding unnecessary z's and y's to your kids' names as if you're not going to cause them enough therapy-needing pain some other way).

I was 24 years old before I ever even met another Deana.  But she spelled her name "Deanna".  Her mother did not understand how language works apparently.  You'll notice that I'm a bit of a snob, now, when it comes to my name.  I spent most of my life answering to DeAnna, Dana, Diana, Dinah, or anything beginning with a D.  I've spent all of my life spelling and re-spelling slowly both my first and last name.

I've grown accustomed to my name, even growing enough backbone to correct its spelling or pronunciation with telemarketers or hostesses or new acquaintances.  I lost the people-pleasing need to overlook their mistakes or inattention to detail because I finally began to see my name as a gift from my language-loving mother and my very original dad.  And no matter how far apart my family drifts, I have at least 4 little letters that keep us connected.  I like that small comfort.

I've met a few more Deana's over the years, and it's been nice to know that I really wasn't alone in all those struggle moments.  I'd like to say that I've lost the need to see my PRE-PRINTED (read: NORMAL) name on a junky little gift, but I catch myself, eyes scanning the D-names at the booths in the mall.  There's still a little sigh of exasperation when I don't see myself there.

But sometimes when you least expect it -- say, you're just sitting in line for a Diet Coke and a biscuit -- the world opens up with the tiniest little shout-out, with a *dragon named "Deana".  A dragon, apparently, with big dreams.  And maybe you hold up the entire line to search for your camera in order to digitally capture a moment that's been 37 years in waiting.

On the cover of a children's book, no less.  I'd trade a million stupid pre-printed pencils for that.

*side note -- When I was 9, my brother, JD, won a giant pink and purple dragon for me at Six Flags.  He spent probably $30, trying to win it.  It was, and still is, my favorite gift he ever gave me.  Thanks for the reminder, Universe.