No Shit, Sherlock: The Case of the Cultural Literacy Conundrum

Mamacita says:  Sometimes, teachers assume that their students have a background in cultural literacy when in fact they do not.  And sometimes, helping a student make and understand a connection between one thing and another, makes it all worthwhile.    Sometimes, teachers do not agree on what is worthwhile and what is not.

Sherlock HolmesA few years ago, my sixth graders were getting ready to read a Sherlock Holmes short story: The Adventure of the Speckled Band, to be specific, which is my favorite Sherlock Holmes story.

About ten seconds into my enthusiastic introduction to the story, I realized that my students had never in all their lives even HEARD of Sherlock Holmes.  They will never be able to make that claim again, however.  I assure you.

Speckled Band, snake in the bed

Every night, the snake climbed down the rope and crawled around on Julia’s bed.

Speckled Band, ending

Dr. Roylott’s scheme to have the snake kill his stepdaughter backfired. . . .

We read the story and most of the students agreed that it was pretty cool.  Snakes.  Poisonous snakes.  Big ones.  Gypsies camping in the yard.  A cheetah and a baboon wandering free.  A huge powerful man given to fits of violence.  A bed, nailed to the floor.  Bending the iron rod.  Holmes, bending it back.  We discussed the physics of the iron rod; all the students, young as they were, knew that bending the rod in the first place required strength, and that bending it BACK required even more.  Holmes’ powers of observation fascinated the kids. Weird noises in the night.  Strange coincidences that even an 11-year-old thought off-kilter.  A bell-pull that pulled no bell.  Shared inheritances.  Screams in the night.  What’s not to love?  Before they left my room, I recommended other Holmes stories, and the bell rang, and they left my room.  I sat there hoping the unit had gone as well for THEM as it did for me.

I knew it had been a good unit when I overheard a group of boys talking about it in the hallway.

“Now I know what it really means when somebody says ‘No shit, Sherlock!’”

No, I did not stop short, drag the student to the office and demand that he be punished for saying ‘shit.’  The P.E. teacher who also overheard the boys wanted to, but I asserted myself, which didn’t often happen because I am pretty much of a wuss in spite of my big talkin’ ways, and anyway, I do not believe in jumping on kids when their conversation was not directed towards me.  Eavesdroppers often hear negative things, and if they would mind their own business, it wouldn’t be such a big deal.  (I am not referring to inappropriate remarks specifically aimed at a non-invited listener with the intent of upsetting, insulting, or otherwise involving said uninvited listener, mind you; I am talking about private conversations that happen to be overheard and sometimes taken personally when no personal involvement is intended.)

holmes hits the snake

Holmes driving the snake back up the rope and into the next room….

I figured that we were eavesdropping on those boys, and that whatever they said to each other in their supposed privacy (unless it was about bombs or threats or clues about who TP’d the restroom or whispers of abuse, etc.) was their business, not ours. Kids deserve some respect.

The other teacher walked off in a huff, carefully, so the corncob wouldn’t fall out.  I smiled at the boys and said, “That’s right, guys.”

Knowledge is power.  Education is all about connections.  And that, as far as I was concerned, was a legitimate connection.

Too many people take too many things far too seriously these days.  It takes our attention away from REALLY serious things, and THAT, my dear readers, is why so many important things are circling the drain while others, not nearly as important or serious, are getting so much attention.

Taking offense at someone else’s private conversation?  Please.

Let’s all try to use our brains a little more, and our sense of context a little more, and our “I’m offended” a little less.  There are too many genuinely important issues out there; we must not allow ourselves to be influenced by, let alone offended by, an overheard conversation not even intended for the eavesdropper’s ear.

I do not want to live to see the Kardashians win.

Were these eleven-year-old boys having an inappropriate conversation?  I don’t think they were.  I think they were having quite the intellectual discussion, truth be told.

Was the PE teacher overreacting in her zeal to have the boys rounded up, branded, and sent out to the North Forty to do penance?

No shit, Sherlock.

Censorship is for Chumps

Banned-Books-WeekMamacita says:  If I owned the biggest and best thesaurus in the universe, I still would not be able to find a word accurate enough to fully express my disgust and loathing of book banning and censorship, nor of the mentality of those who censor.  Let’s not tiptoe around this issue – it’s too important.  It must be grabbed the balls neck and squeezed tightly enough to elicit a scream.  Or perhaps a squeamish, ladylike squeal, from those who advocate censorship.

It’s one thing for fearful people to dictate to their own children and each other what may and may not be read within their own home, but when such people take it upon themselves to dictate to others what the children of others may and may not read, there we have a problem.

A big problem.  A really, really big problem.

Because if you dare step into my house and start telling me what we may and may not read or watch or eat or wear or anything else imagined or not imagined, you are in territory you have no right to be in.

I read banned booksKeep your narrow, pathetic, frightened, scripted, dictated-by-others beliefs where they belong: in your own home and nowhere else.


Oh, and I am so terribly sorry for your children.  With a little luck, I hope they can manage to grow up with brains intact, unblemished by your sad belief system and frightened, suspicious, narrow existence.

Harsh?  Hah.  I haven’t even let myself start with you.

1. We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still. — John Stuart Mill

2. The only valid censorship of ideas is the right of people not to listen. — Tommy Smothers

3. The dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book. — Walt Whitman censorship is evil

4. Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too. — Voltaire

5. I am thankful for all the complaining I hear about our government because it means we have freedom of speech. — Nancie J. Carmody

6. Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. — Alfred Whitney Griswold

7. Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings. — Heinrich Heine

8. Every burned book enlightens the world. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

banned books, read what youw ant9. Censorship feeds the dirty mind more than the four-letter word itself. — Dick Cavett

10. To choose a good book, look in an inquisitor’s prohibited list. — John Aikin

11. God forbid that any book should be banned. The practice is as indefensible as infanticide — Rebecca West

12. If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all. — Noam Chomsky

13. I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. — Voltaire

14. If your library is not ‘unsafe’, it probably isn’t doing its job. — John Berry

15. Your own mind is a sacred enclosure into which nothing harmful can enter except by your permission. — Arnold Bennett

16. There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them. –Joseph Alexandrovitch Brodsky

17. Censors tend to do what only psychotics do: they confuse reality with illusion. — David Cronenberg

18. Everyone is in favor of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage. –Winston Churchill

19. You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police. Yet in their hearts there is unspoken – unspeakable! – fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts! Words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home, all the more powerful because they are forbidden. These terrify them. A little mouse – a little tiny mouse! -of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic. –Winston Churchill

20. If librarianship is the connecting of people to ideas – and I believe that is the truest definition of what we do – it is crucial to remember that we must keep and make available, not just good ideas and noble ideas, but bad ideas, silly ideas, and yes, even dangerous or wicked ideas. –Graceanne A. Decandido

21. To prohibit the reading of certain books is to declare the inhabitants to be either fools or slaves. –Claude Adrien Helvetius, De l’Homme

22. Fear of corrupting the mind of the younger generation is the loftiest form of cowardice.
–Holbrook Jackson

23. Children deprived of words become school dropouts; dropouts deprived of hope behave delinquently. Amateur censors blame delinquency on reading immoral books and magazines, when in fact, the inability to read anything is the basic trouble. –Peter S. Jennison

24. Books and ideas are the most effective weapons against intolerance and ignorance.
–Lyndon Baines Johnson

25. The burning of an author’s books, imprisonment for an opinion’s sake, has always been the tribute that an ignorant age pays to the genius of its time. –Joseph Lewis

burning books, banned books week26. Censorship, like charity, should begin at home; but unlike charity, it should end there.
–Clare Booth Luce

27. To forbid us anything is to make us have a mind for it. –Michel de Montaigne

28. Censorship of anything, at any time, in any place, on whatever pretense, has always been and always be the last resort of the boob and the bigot. –Eugene Gladstone O’Neill

29. All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship. –George Bernard Shaw

30. Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it. — Kurt Vonnegut

31. An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all. –Oscar Wilde

32. Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice. — Henry Louis Gates

33. Everyone has an opinion, and the guy screaming for censorship may be the next guy to have his ideas cut off. — Richard King

34. Pontius Pilate was the first great censor and Jesus Christ the first great victim of censorship. — Ben Lindsey

35. The only thing that is obscene is censorship. — Craig Bruce

36. If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries. These libraries should be open to all—except the censor. We must know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms. Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors. For the Bill of Rights is the guardian of our security as well as our liberty. — John Fitzgerald Kennedy

37. We live in oppressive times. We have, as a nation, become our own thought police; but instead of calling the process by which we limit our expression of dissent and wonder “censorship,” we call it “concern for commercial viability.” — David Mamet

38. Censorship: the reaction of the ignorant to freedom. — Unknownharry potter taught me to read, banned books week

39. He is always the severest censor of the merit of others who has the least worth of his own — Elias Lyman Maggon

40. Even to the present day, we so often condemn books that were written to fight the very things we claim to be fighting. Mark Twain’s (Samuel Clemens’) Huckleberry Finn is so often cited as being racist, when it was written against slavery and racism. — -Jamey Fletcher

41. The most common examples of book censorship are in schools and public libraries, and all those examples are most often involving children’s literature. Political groups attempt to remove books from library shelves because those books use ‘naughty’ words, do not have happy endings… or because they have too many rainbows. Rainbows are considered a sign of ‘New Age’ religiosity. Little Red Riding Hood was the 24th most banned book in the early 90′s mostly because she had a bottle of wine in her basket. Many organizations demanded a non-alcohol Little Red. They were successful sometimes in their efforts, by the way. –Herbert Foerstel

42. There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance. –Goethe

43. One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present. –Golda Meir

44. The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventhday Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme. –Ray Bradbury

45. I never heard of anyone who was really literate or who ever really loved books who wanted to suppress any of them. Censors only read a book with great difficulty, moving their lips as they puzzle out each syllable, when someone tells them that the book is unfit to read.
–Robertson Davies

46. It is our attitude toward free thought and free expression that will determine our fate. There must be no limit on the range of temperate discussion, no limits on thought. No subject must be taboo. No censor must preside at our assemblies. –William O. Douglas

47. Woe to that nation whose literature is cut short by the intrusion of force. This is not merely interference with freedom of the press but the sealing up of a nation’s heart, the excision of its memory. –Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

48. We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. — American Library Association

49. The use of “religion” as an excuse to repress the freedom of expression and to deny human rights is not confined to any country or time. — Margaret Atwood

50. As to the evil which results from censorship, it is impossible to measure it, because it is impossible to tell where it ends. –Jeremy Bentham

51. Purveyors of political correctness will, in the final analysis, not even allow others their judgments… They celebrate “difference,” but they will not allow people truly to be different — to think differently, and to say what they think. –Mark Berley

52. In order to get the truth, conflicting arguments and expression must be allowed. There can be no freedom without choice, no sound choice without knowledge. — David K. Berninghausen

53. The censor believes that he can hold back the mighty traffic of life with a tin whistle and a raised right hand. For after all, it is life with which he quarrels. –Heywood Broun

54. We are not the keeper of our brother’s morals – only of his rights. –Judith Crist

55. To prevent inquiry is among the worst of evils. –Thomas Holcroft

56. The First Amendment says nothing about a right not to be offended. The risk of finding someone else’s speech offensive is the price each of us pays for our own free speech. Free people don’t run to court — or to the principal — when they encounter a message they don’t like. They answer it with one of their own. –Jeff Jacoby

banned-books-week (1)57. Political correctness is the natural continuum from the party line. What we are seeing once again is a self-appointed group of vigilantes imposing their views on others. –Doris Lessing

58. If none of us ever read a book that was “dangerous,” had a friend who was “different,” or joined an organization that advocated “change,” we would all be the kind of people Joe McCarthy wants. — Edward R. Murrow

59. Obviously, the danger is not in the actual act of reading itself, but rather, the possibility that the texts children read will incite questions, introduce novel ideas, and provoke critical inquiry. –Persis M. Karim

60. Let children read whatever they want and then talk about it with them. If parents and kids can talk together, we won’t have as much censorship because we won’t have as much fear. — Judy Blume

61.  If you don’t want your child to read a particular book, that’s your choice.  But please don’t attempt to dictate such choices for the rest of us.  – E.R. Frank

62.  No one should have the power to decide what other people’s kids may or may not read.  - Lisa McMann

As Inigo Montoya would say, “Let me sum up.”  Here it is.

Censorship is for chumps.  Smart people won’t tolerate it.

Classroom Tips for the Hovering and the Worried

Dear Parents, In this day and age of instant computer access to your child’s progress in the classroom, complete with specifics as to percentage and behavior, please don’t call your child’s teacher daily and ask for an average, at least, not very often. Chances are pretty messy backpackgood that if you can’t find any graded papers in your kid’s backpack or notebook, he’s not doing very well. Please don’t expect that your kid will be allowed to make up all that missing or poor work.  Sometimes that’s appropriate, and sometimes it is not.

A reasonably good student at almost any level knows how he’s doing in any class at any given point in time. If they show up and take their quizzes and tests and turn in their homework, they’re probably doing well. If they don’t, they aren’t. It ain’t rocket science.

Your child’s teacher has an entire classroom of students, no one child (including yours) more important than any of the others, and if each parent asked the teacher to send home a daily report, the poor teacher might as well put up a cot and start paying rent because there isn’t going to be much of a home life. And yes, parents ask us to do that all the time. At the secondary level, one teacher might have well over 200 students.

At midterm, most schools send out half-way-point standings. Check your child’s grades. If midterms are cominghe’s doing poorly, call the school and make an appointment with the teacher. NEVER just walk in off the street and ask the teacher to give up her lunch or prep without prior notice. (Would you walk into your dentist’s office, or your doctor, or your lawyer, or your accountant’s offices without an appointment? Have some respect.

Please don’t march in like a Teutonic Reichmaiden and assume that the teacher is a psychotic who hates all children and yours in particular, and that your child is innocent, totally innocent, and his straight-A work has been shredded by the teacher so the world will never see it. I hate to burst your bubble, but it’s probably more your child’s fault than anyone else’s. Probably.

Every single night, require your child to SHOW YOU the contents of his backpack. If the papers are wadded up, give your child some incentive to not ever do that again. Require your child to file papers immediately in a pocket folder because you’re going to be looking them over every night. If this interferes with television for either of you, cry me a video games

Do not even turn on that television until this has been done. If there is homework, make sure your child has it finished before the television is touched. Ditto computer, telephone, no TVand any other electronic gadgetry your child has been playing with instead of doing his academics. Don’t, however, deny your children who ARE doing it right just because one of them isn’t. Sometimes, the sound of a sibling enjoying TV or a computer game or a friend can light a fire under a slacker kid. If it makes him vicious, you’ve got problems that aren’t school-related. Call a shrink.

If your kid is an athlete and brings home a bad mid-term report, ask the coach to bench him.student athlete Usually, schools do that anyway; sports are games, and games are only for kids who have done the actual SCHOOL part of their kid-duties. A good coach will do that anyway.

Is your kid one of those students for whom sports are all he has going for him? Is playing ball his life’s priority? Help him change those priorities, because his are all wrong. Don’t EVER argue with a coach for benching your kid for low grades. Even the kid knows he deserves it.

I really don’t have to deal with these issues much any more, because at the college level, I don’t have many parents demanding that I change Junior’s grade, etc. I do have a few, though. It’s incredible and really quite sad that so many parents seem to be living their own lives over again vicariously, through their children.

I’m not a mean teacher. I am, however, a teacher (and a parent) who required all of my students to work, to obey my reasonable requests, and to behave. I still can’t think of a single viable excuse for slacking off on any of those three things. Once those three things were mastered, the creativity could flow. Once students learned that I would not put up with anyone who did not understand the big three, we could have fun. It did not take most of them very long to learn that it was better for all to behave in Mrs. G’s classroom, because for those who did, the rewards were many and awesome, and for those who didn’t, well, okay. . . .I poisoned them and buried them on the playground, under the wood chips. Nobody missed them.

That might be an exaggeration, but will you hate me if I tell you that I thought about it on occasion? Oh, so do you. Don’t lie to me.

Where was I? Oh yes.

I also say things like, “Shame on you!”

Because, you see, I really do believe that people are encouraged from a very early age to believe that they have a perfect right to please themselves in all ways, whenever and wherever they are, that nothing they choose to say or do or wear is in any way wrong or inappropriate, and that their parents are the main ones who encourage it.

Perhaps if we help our children learn that some actions and words ARE shameful, our children will treat each other better, and everyone’s self-esteem (you really don’t want to get me started on that topic) will rise naturally, instead of being inflated with bullshit so it rises regardless of what the child says and does.

Also, I use a red pen. Filled with the blood of helpless, hapless children.

red inkRed is the color of “Stop.”  Red is the color of “Take care.”  Red is the color of “Hey, might I bring your attention to this particular thing?”

Red means “Look at this.  Look closely.”

Purple is the color of cutesy makes no never-mind.

Bring it on.


Nightmare #3, by Stephen Vincent Benet

Nightmare #3Mamacita says:  Nightmare #3: When I did my student teaching, this poem was in the seventh grade literature book.  I’d never seen it before, and it made a definite impression on me.  I absolutely loved it, and I still love it.  Why?  I have no idea.  I just do.

My obsessions with sci-fi, fantasy, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Dr. Who, and all the trappings of geekdom and nerdery have nothing to do with it, I’m sure.


Nightmare #3, by Stephen Vincent Benet

We had expected everything but revolt

And I kind of wonder myself when they started thinking–
But there’s no dice in that now.
I’ve heard fellow say
They must have planned it for years and maybe they did.
Looking back, you can find little incidents here and there,
Like the concrete-mixer in Jersey eating the wop
Or the roto press that printed ‘Fiddle-dee-dee!’
In a three-color process all over Senator Sloop,
Just as he was making a speech. The thing about that
Was, how could it walk upstairs? But it was upstairs,
Clicking and mumbling in the Senate Chamber.
They had to knock out the wall to take it away
And the wrecking-crew said it grinned.
It was only the best
Machines, of course, the superhuman machines,
The ones we’d built to be better than flesh and bone,
But the cars were in it, of course . . .
and they hunted us
Like rabbits through the cramped streets on that Bloody Monday,
The Madison Avenue busses leading the charge.
The busses were pretty bad–but I’ll not forget
The smash of glass when the Duesenberg left the show-room
And pinned three brokers to the Racquet Club steps
Or the long howl of the horns when they saw men run,
When they saw them looking for holes in the solid ground . . .

I guess they were tired of being ridden in
And stopped and started by pygmies for silly ends,
Of wrapping cheap cigarettes and bad chocolate barsNightmare #3, man vs machine
Collecting nickels and waving platinum hair
And letting six million people live in a town.
I guess it was tha, I guess they got tired of us
And the whole smell of human hands.
But it was a shock
To climb sixteen flights of stairs to Art Zuckow’s office
(Noboby took the elevators twice)
And find him strangled to death in a nest of telephones,
The octopus-tendrils waving over his head,
And a sort of quiet humming filling the air. . . .
Do they eat? . . . There was red . . . But I did not stop to look.
I don’t know yet how I got to the roof in time
And it’s lonely, here on the roof.
For a while, I thought
That window-cleaner would make it, and keep me company.
But they got him with his own hoist at the sixteenth floor
And dragged him in, with a squeal.
You see, they coöperate. Well, we taught them that
And it’s fair enough, I suppose. You see, we built them.
We taught them to think for themselves.
It was bound to come. You can see it was bound to come.
And it won’t be so bad, in the country. I hate to think
Of the reapers, running wild in the Kansas fields,
And the transport planes like hawks on a chickenyard,
But the horses might help. We might make a deal with the horses.
At least, you’ve more chance, out there.
And they need us, too.
They’re bound to realize that when they once calm down.
They’ll need oil and spare parts and adjustments and tuning up.
Slaves? Well, in a way, you know, we were slaves before.
There won’t be so much real difference–honest, there won’t.
(I wish I hadn’t looked into the beauty-parlor
And seen what was happening there.
But those are female machines and a bit high-strung.)
Oh, we’ll settle down. We’ll arrange it. We’ll compromise.
It won’t make sense to wipe out the whole human race.
Why, I bet if I went to my old Plymouth now
(Of course you’d have to do it the tactful way)
And said, ‘Look here! Who got you the swell French horn?’
He wouldn’t turn me over to those police cars;
At least I don’t think he would.
Oh, it’s going to be jake.
There won’t be so much real difference–honest, there won’t–
And I’d go down in a minute and take my chance–
I’m a good American and I always liked them–
Except for one small detail that bothers me
And that’s the food proposition. Because, you see,
The concrete-mixer may have made a mistake,
And it looks like just high spirits.
But, if it’s got so they like the flavor . . . well . . . 

Tribute: When The Towers Fell

9/11 tribute Mamacita says: I’m guessing that many most bloggers will be posting tributes today, and telling the blogosphere ‘where we were’ when the planes hit the World Trade Center. Here is mine. This is actually the second third fourth fifth sixth seventh eighth ninth tenth time I’ve posted this on 9/11, so if it seems familiar, you’re not crazy. Well, not on this issue, anyway.


The morning began like any other; we stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, and sat back down to watch Channel One News, which had been taped at 3:00 that morning in the school library, thanks to the timer. But Channel One News didn’t come on.

Instead, the secretary’s voice, over the intercom, told the teachers to “please check your email immediately.” We did. And we found out what had happened.

I scrolled down the monitor and read the end of the message. The superintendent had ordered all teachers to be absolutely mum all day about the tragedy. We were not to answer any questions from students, and we were especially not to offer any information to them.

The day went by in a blur. Many parents drove to the school, took their kids out, and brought them home. Between classes, frightened groups of students gathered in front of their lockers and whispered, gossiped, and cried, and begged us for information. By that time, the superintendent’s order had been seconded by the principals, and we were unable to give these terrified kids any information. In the computer labs, the MSN screens told the 8th graders the truth, but they, too, were instructed NOT to talk about it to the other students. Right, like THAT happened. The story was being repeated by 8th graders, and it was being told bloody-killing-deathtrap-you’re next-video-game-style.

At noon, many of the students were picked up by parents and taken home or out for lunch. Those few who returned had a big tale to tell. The problem was, the tale was being told by children, and few if any of the facts were straight. The tale was being told scary-style, and the atmosphere in the building got more and more strained. We are only a few miles away from an immensely large Navy base, where ammunition and bombs are made, and we’ve always known it was a prime target, which means, of course, that we are, too. Many of my children’s parents worked there. The base was locked down and those parents did not come home that night.

Reasonable questions were answered with silence, or the statement: “You’ll find out when you frightened childrenget home.”  This, to children who weren’t even sure they still had a home to get to.  A rumor mill can be a horrible thing.

This, added to all the rumors and gossip spread by children, turned my little sixth graders into terrified toddlers.

As teachers, we were furious and disgusted with the superintendent’s edict. We wanted to call all the students into the gym and calmly tell them the truth in words and ways that would be age-appropriate. We wanted to hug them and assure them that it was far away and they were safe. We asked for permission to do this, and it was denied. Our orders were ‘silence.’ We hadn’t been allowed to hug them for years, of course, but there are times and places when hugs ARE appropriate. No matter, the superintendent stood firm: no information whatsoever.

The day went by, more slowly than ever a day before. The students grew more and more pale and frightened. We asked again, and again he stood firm that no information whatsoever was to be given out.

By the end of the day, the children were as brittle as Jolly Rancher Watermelon Sticks.

A few minutes before the bell rang to send them home, a little girl raised her hand and in a trembling voice that I will never forget, asked me a question. “Please, is it true that our parents are dead and our houses are burned down?”

That was it. I gathered my students close and in a calm voice explained to them exactly what had happened. I told them their parents were alive and safe, and that they all still had homes to go to.

The relief was incredible. I could feel it cascading all through the room.

I was, of course, written up for insubordination the next day, but I didn’t care. My phone had rung off the hook that night with parents thanking me for being honest with their children. That was far more important than a piece of paper that said I’d defied a stupid inappropriate order meted out by a man who belonged in the office of a used car lot, not in a position of power over children’s lives.

The next day at school, in my room, we listened to some of the music that had been ‘specially made about the tragedy. I still have those cd’s and I’ve shared them with many people over the past few years. It is true that kids cried again, but it was good to cry. It was an appropriate time to cry. We didn’t do spelling or grammar that day. There are times when the “business as usual” mindset simply is not appropriate.

I wish administrators would realize that kids are a lot tougher than we might think. Kids are also a lot more sensitive that we might realize. It’s an odd combination, and we as educators must try our best to bring the two ends of the emotional spectrum together and help these kids learn to deal with horrible happenings and still manage to get through the day as well as possible.

9/11 tribute torchIgnoring an issue will not help. Morbidly focusing on an issue will not help. Our children are not stupid, and to treat them as such is not something that builds trust. Our children deserve answers to their questions.

How can we expect our children to learn to find a happy medium if we don’t show them, ourselves, when opportunities arise?

I’m still so very sorry, children, that I was forced to participate in that dreadful conspiracy of silence when just a few spoken words might have eased your minds.

September 11, 2001 – September 11, 2014. God bless us, every one.

The Time of the Season *

back to school Mamacita says: Remember those scenes in You’ve Got Mail where Meg Ryan is talking about how, even at her age, she still loves the time of the season when the leaves are colorful, the weather is divine, and every store has school supplies. And then she’s swept off her feet when Tom Hanks, who doesn’t know Meg loves school supplies, says this:

bouquet of pencils

As adults, we take seasonal indicators/decorations for granted. We like to mark the season with a centerpiece or bouquet or display, but the days when we were struck voiceless by the miraculous representation of a season, in public, and that’s a shame. We expect store windows and school bulletin boards and office tables to remind us of what season it is, and unless it’s our job, we don’t do a lot of thinking about how that tiny trimmed tree or vase of mums or patriotic display or heart-shaped window cling or carved jack-o-lantern got there.

To a small child, these things are part of the miracle of the universe.

In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie Nolan knew that summer was over and autumn had officially arrived when she saw the vase of autumn leaves and bittersweet on the librarian’s desk. Francie would look at the display and her heart bittersweetwould ache with happiness and sadness and nostalgia and glowing joy and all the other emotions we don’t usually think small children could possibly feel. Francie didn’t have any labels for her feelings and thoughts; she just looked at the display that represented the shifting of the seasons and loved it.  And it told her that the seasons had changed.

Years later, when Francie was grown up, she returned to that library and that same librarian and mentioned the vases of seasonal flora, and was devastated to learn that the librarian hadn’t even noticed them and thought the janitor must have done that.

As adults, we simply must start paying attention, the way we did when we were children.

To what? To everything. We must pay attention. If we don’t pay attention, things happen and change and we miss it.

Leo Buscaglia’s papa knew. Every night at dinner, the same thing would happen.

Papa, at the head of the table, would push his chair back slightly, a gesture that
signified the end of the eating and suggested that there would be a new activity. He Richard Byers, Phyllis Byers, Jane Goodwinwould pour a small glass of red wine, light up a thin, potent Italian cigar, inhale deeply, exhale, then take stock of his family.

For some reason this always had a slightly unsettling effect on us as we stared
back at Papa, waiting for him to say something. Every so often he would explain why he did this. He told us that if he didn’t take time to look at us, we would soon be grown and he would have missed us.

Peter Banning’s wife Moira knew, too. She tried to explain to her husband:

Peter, Moira Banning, HookYour children love you, they want to play with you. How long do you think that lasts? Soon Jack might not even want you to come to his games. We have a few special years with our children, when they’re the ones that want us around. After that you’re going to be running after them for a bit of attention. It’s so fast, Peter. Just a few years, and it’s over. And you are not being careful. And you are missing it.

He may have been a grown-up Peter Pan, but he needed a drastic reminder.  Remember, just a few hours before, he had yelled “Stop acting like a child!” at his son, who replied, “I AM a child!”

As parents, we have the power to make ordinary days extraordinary.  Let’s use that power.  It’s a magic so strong that, done right, it will help create children who are full of light, full enough that they’re better able to drive out the darkness than are the poor children being brought up in families who don’t know the difference between one day and the next, let alone one season and the one following.

Use your super powers for good, parents.  Cultivate the noticing.  Cultivate it in yourselves AND in your children. It’s the time of the season every day.