The Spirit of Mr. Rogers

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Photo credit: Salon.com

The other day, during indoor recess, I felt cold in my classroom, so I decided to put on a zip-up sweater. I happened to be standing over a table of students who were playing a card game of which I had never heard. Intrigued, but also cold, I put on my sweater while monitoring the game. I pulled the zipper all the way up to my chin and then artfully zipped it down in the style of Mr. Rogers, my favorite television neighbor.

“I’m Mr. Rogers,” I declared. This declaration was met by blank stares and it quickly dawned on me that none of them knew about Mr. Rogers. They’d of course heard of his popular puppet Daniel Striped Tiger because of the cartoon show, but Mr. Rogers was out of their frame of reference.

When I gushed about this realization to my colleague, who was also in the room, she responded, “To be fair, I never really watched that show either.” Even twenty-somethings aren’t as familiar with Mr. Rogers as I thought they were.

Of course, taking a step back, I realize that it’s not all that surprising that today’s generation of kids doesn’t know about Mr. Rogers. He died before they were born and most PBS stations stopped airing the show regularly. While it’s understandable that most kids today don’t know anything about the beloved TV man, it’s a shame.

Yes, there were and still are many children’s TV shows with positive messages, but few shared their messages the way Mr. Rogers did—by looking children directly in the eye and telling them they mattered and were loved just the way they were.

I’ve written before about all of the important life lessons imparted by Mr. Rogers and I want to know who is doing this today? Where does the spirit of Mr. Rogers live on?

According to the Atlantic, it’s in advice columns because that’s “where adult problems are considered with dignity, and where feelings are taken seriously.” A Reddit user believes  that it’s Neil deGrasse Tyson who cares the torch of Mr. Rogers’ spirit because he’s brilliant and kind and talks about living to make other’s lives better each day.

Just the other day, I came across an article in the Huffington Post about a Massachusetts teacher who created a music video called “Black Is Beautiful” for her female students who often expressed their dismay about their appearances. We need more of this kind of positivity for our children and ourselves.

Who else is encouraging children to be curious on a day-to-day basis? Who else continually reaffirms to them that they are great just the way you are? I believe that is the responsibility of all of us to carry on the spirit of Mr. Rogers.

 

[And now, because I couldn’t help myself, a video of my favorite Mr. Rogers Remix.]

 

We Are What We’ve Been Waiting For

img_0997As I went to bed late Tuesday evening, realizing that Donald Trump would actually become the next president of the United States and no, this wasn’t some horrendous nightmare from which I would magically wake in the morning, I thought to myself, how on Earth am I going to get up and explain this to the children I teach? My students, who are mainly low-income minorities (many of the Muslim faith), have expressed their deep concerns and fear about a Trump presidency throughout the last year. While they expressed the fear of being targeted on the street and the fear of having family members deported, I continually reassured them that they had nothing to worry about. There is no way anyone who talks like that would ever be elected president, I had said to them, sometimes while wiping up their actual tears.

There is, in fact, a way that someone who talks like that could be elected president and that way is white privilege. My own white privilege blinded my ability to see that a Trump presidency was not only plausible, but also highly likely. In hindsight, I see how I should’ve taken his campaign much more seriously and actively spoken out much earlier.

img_1004So, when I woke up on Wednesday morning with deep dread in my heart, I asked myself: what kind of person would I want to see today, on this day after the election? Someone who’s trying to fight back tears or someone who is optimistic and unafraid to face the brutal reality of what’s to come? I opted for the latter option.

I didn’t want my students to feel any worse than they already did and as kids absorb the feelings of their environments, I wanted to them to absorb feelings of hope. As they entered the classroom, I played uplifting music including my favorite Bob Marley song, “Three Little Birds.” I did this not to trivialize their feelings, but to provide the hope that some how, some way every little thing would be all right.

We had our students write in their journals and their responses moved us to tears. Why do people hate me, one child asked? I guess slavery never really ended, another one wrote. We talked about how the biggest demographic that supported Trump was white people without a college degree. Several of them laughed out loud as if I just given the punch line of a joke. Good thing we’re in school and going to college, they said.

As the day progressed, our kids said they were starting to feel a little better. After much discussion, one girl mentioned that she simply wasn’t going to let someone like Donald Trump get her down. Another found solace in the knowledge that checks and balances will make it challenging for some of Trump’s proposed policies to become law.

img_1003I guess you could say this day was like any other day at school; we were just teachers guiding our students through the world’s uncertainties. Except on that first day post-election and all the days going forward, our work together feels  more immediate because we are on the brink of a presidency that legitimizes hatred. Who’s going to speak out against this hatred if not us? No one. Who’s going to teach our children how to stand up against the injustices they will absolutely face if not us? No one. Who’s going to help our children navigate through these times so that they can do better when they’re grown if not us? No one. As President Obama said when he was a senator campaigning for office, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek,” and I’ve never felt that more than now.

The evidence that a Trump presidency will legitimize hatred already surrounds us. As outgoing Senate Minorty Leader Harry Reid stated, “The election of Donald Trump has emboldened the forces of hate and bigotry in America.” Already the media have cited examples of Trump supporters harassing women and minorities in the days following the election. On Wednesday, two Babson College fraternity brothers drove to Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton’s alma mater and all-women’s college, and waved a Trump flag around campus while allegedly harassing and yelling racial slurs at students. On Friday, a Baylor University student said a student walked into her while she was walking on campus and then called her the n-word all in the name of making America great again. England has seen a similar backlash since Brexit with a reported increase in racial crimes.

Or how about the fact that Vice-President Elect Mike Pence has a bigoted track record? Our future Vice-President signed a bill in Indiana that said businesses could refuse service to gays and lesbians based on religious reasons, required that all aborted fetuses have burials or be cremated, advocated for the teaching of creationism in schools, and also advocated for the use of public funds for conversion-therapy, which is an anti-gay therapy that seeks to change one’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. This man, who also thinks smoking doesn’t kill, will be governing our country.

Is this real life?

The sad truth is that this is real life and it has been for quite some time. But now, I will no longer stay silent.

I’m reminded of the poem written by Pastor Martin Niemöller , “First they came…” in regards to the Nazis rise to power in Germany and the lack of a response from German intellectuals. It feels applicable in these times:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 
img_0999Going forward, I urge you to show up and speak up. Yesterday, I attended a love rally in Washington Square Park and marched with hundreds of others to Union Square in support of Black Lives Matter, the planet, gay marriage, Muslims, a woman’s right to choose what’s right for her body, and refugees. Walking up 6th Avenue, my heart raced several times when I saw cheers from onlookers and honks from supporters in their cars. I was reminded that there are still so many people in this world who believe that diversity is what truly makes America great.

If there’s a silver lining to be found in this election, it’s that now I feel a camaraderie amongst strangers where I haven’t before. I’ve seen and engaged in conversation with strangers at the bodega and in the subway when before we would’ve simply kept to ourselves.

As we embrace the inevitable Trump presidency, I hope all of us, regardless of our political affiliations, will be the ones we’ve been waiting for and boldly speak out against bigotry and social policies that unfairly target already marginalized groups.

I know I will.

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4 Lessons Learned In My Third First Year of Teaching

back to schoolSeptember is here, which means the beginning of another school year. This last school year was particularly important to me because it marked my first year back in the classroom after a six-year hiatus. After two difficult years teaching in two different schools, I seriously questioned if this was the right field for me. While working in several other fields, I realized that many of my frustrations with teaching were not unique to the teaching profession. Instead, I was just learning how to navigate my way successfully in the professional world. It doesn’t matter if I’m teaching middle school or waiting tables, I now know that wherever I am, I need to find the balance of being a team player while advocating for myself, know how to have honest, difficult conversations with co-workers, and know how to be solution-oriented instead of whining about what makes me unhappy.

I couldn’t be more thrilled at my decision to take a third try at classroom teaching and I’m proud to announce that I survived this last school year (and even thrived at some points).

As a new school year begins, I’d like to share four lessons I learned in my third first year of teaching.

Lesson #1: Celebrate the little victories.

There are days when everything feels wrong. What seems like an interesting way to teach compound sentences falls flat on its face. Or maybe the kids just aren’t grasping the best ways to explain their evidence and I can’t think of a new way to present the material in the moment. Other days the clouds are making us want to put our heads down, I didn’t drink enough coffee (is there such a thing?), my desk is overrun with paperwork, grades are due, and I accidentally threw away everyone’s graphic organizers that we needed in order to complete the day’s writing activity.

Then, I look out at the class and see a reluctant writer writing non-stop for twenty minutes without even looking up. Or there’s the girl, who has struggled staying focused, working feverishly on her essay and can’t help but shout out, “I actually like your class!” Another day it’s the quiet kid who excitedly waves his hand in the air and demands to lead the class discussion on double negatives. There’s the kid who shrieks on the playground and almost falls over when he finds out he’s passing all of his classes. These are the little victories that make the challenging times worth it, and they deserve to be celebrated daily.

Lesson #2: Remember the why.

As someone who is often way too hard on herself, inevitably self-doubt creeps in especially in the cold dark months of January and February. Why am I doing this, I would ask myself. Why didn’t I just give up after two marginally successful years of teaching? What makes this time different? Maybe I should’ve just given up the teaching profession all together.

Proud teacher!
              Proud teacher!

Then, I remember my why. Why do I teach? I teach because I firmly believe in the power of education as what could be the great equalizer, but there’s still so much more work to do. I believe in the limitless potential of students and that they need unrelenting adults who work together to light the fires that are within them. I believe in the little victories that make teaching worth it.

Ultimately, I acknowledge the feelings of self-doubt, but then I move on and trust that I’m doing the right thing because it’s the decision I made for me.

Lesson #3: It’s not supposed to be easy. Nothing is.

I often think of the words Tom Hank’s character in A League of Their Own says when one of his top players, Geena Davis’s character, says she’s quitting the league. She says it just got too hard. He responds, “If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” I feel that way about the teaching profession. The hard is what makes teaching great. Are there days where I wish I could squeeze in a game of tennis after work followed by a long dinner? Of course. Do I gaze longingly at my non-teaching friends’ Instagram pictures of their afternoon meetings around the company keg and subsequent happy hour jaunts? Maybe a little. But, I wouldn’t trade the opportunity to be inside the classroom for anything else.

Lesson #4: Perspective is key.

When I worked at the restaurant, our manager would sometimes ask at the beginning of a shift if we thought our work would cause us to lose a limb or even worse, kill us. The answer was always no. He would then say something to the effect of say exactly, you won’t die while working tonight so relax. I think about this when I need a little perspective. As a classroom teacher, the stakes always feel high. After all, this is someone’s education we’re talking about. When things don’t go as planned, or if students don’t score as well on a test as I’d hoped, it can feel as serious as losing a limb. However, in those moments, it’s important to have some perspective and remember I’m doing the best that I can. I take the work seriously, but I can’t take myself too seriously because that’s when things go awry.

I am so delighted to be returning to my school for a fourth year of teaching and am looking forward to all of the nuggets of wisdom I will gain this year. To all you teachers out there, have a great school year!

The Dark Before the Dawn

“Remember,” they say, “that the darkest hour of all is the hour before day.”- Samuel Lover

The actual dark before dawn.
The actual dark before dawn.

It’s been far too long since I wrote my last blog post. I could give you a laundry list of excuses as to why this is the case, but I don’t believe in excuses. It looks like I’ve allowed myself to fall victim to the “busy trap” once again.

My last blog post was about letting loose and de-stressing, which is ironic, because at the time I wrote it, my stress levels were at an all time high. New York City was wearing me down and instead of attacking back with a can-do attitude, I let it run me over.

In my two-and-a-half years of living in New York City, I’ve found that city life is a constant give and take. Some days I feel the city takes more from me than it gives. Yes, it’s extremely expensive (I’m looking at you, income taxes). Yes, it feels overcrowded at times, bordering on extremely claustrophobic. Yes, people can be rude, not to mention pushy. At the same time, I love everything the city has to offer. Botanical gardens, surfing lessons, Broadway shows, art museums, French films, awkward poetry readings, garage band performances. You name it, New York City has it.

Just another day of reaping what New York is sowing.
Just another day of reaping what New York is sowing.

There’s so much to do in New York that it can be distracting. I still have to make money and even save it, too. It’s hard to save money when I’d rather be out reaping all that New York is sowing. I feel a constant struggle between making money and doing what I love. Part of the issue is that I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do professionally. Being unsure of what you want to do in a place like New York City where you have to be cutthroat to get what you want doesn’t work out so well. For too long, I’ve put what I love to do professionally on the back burner.

Until recently.

A few months ago, I made the decision to return to teaching. Teaching is where I’ve always belonged, I just didn’t realize that until I took a six-year hiatus. Last week, a few days before my 31st birthday, I accepted a classroom teaching position. I couldn’t be more thrilled. I’ve finally turned a professional corner, or at least returned to the right road.

I’m excited to start a new chapter in New York, which is working in a field I so strongly believe in, in a position I’m passionate about. It will be challenging, stressful, and a whole slew of other adjectives, but I’m looking forward to being a position where I can give back to the community of which I’ve grown very fond.

Reading Ray Bradbury

ImageMy first encounter reading Ray Bradbury came in the sixth grade, when my teacher had us read “All Summer in a Day.” This story became an instant favorite of mine. I often wondered what it would be like to only see the sun once every seven years, especially during streaks of particularly grey weather. I wanted to know how the girl felt after the story ended, when she realized that she had missed her one chance to see the sun for seven years. I also couldn’t fathom how kids could be so cruel to another classmate.

In the ninth grade, it was Fahrenheit 451 that left an impression. Outlawing books?! I couldn’t fathom a bookless existence. Through this reading experience, I also discovered that I, in fact, enjoyed science fiction as a genre. I loved the idea that science fiction provided social commentary.

As a middle school English teacher, I was drawn back to “All Summer in a Day.” One of the many joys of teaching is the fact that you get to share your favorite stories with a new generation of students. Of course, when I reread the story as a teacher, I came at with a different perspective. First of all, how could the teacher leave her students unattended? Second of all, how did she not notice that one of her students was missing when they went to play outside? Beyond those nitty gritty details, I found that “All Summer in a Day” was an excellent way to open a deeper discussion with students about tolerating differences among classmates.

Although Ray Bradbury has left us physically, his stories remain for as long as we keep them alive. It’s our duty to share his stories with future generations so that the truly great American writers, like Bradbury, will never be forgotten.