Rain and the Roof

They were already at work when I peaked out the front windows at eight this morning.


Our neighbors finalized the purchase of their home, and in doing so, got enough money from the bank to fix up a few things, including the roof. And so while the Boy and I worked on trimming the hedges in the front — well, while I worked on it and he helped, which, as is often (but not always) the case, makes more work for me — we heard the sounds of scraping and popping as the workers pulled up the old roof, accompanied occasionally by some song or another that the workers would sing. I wouldn’t recognize the songs; they were in Spanish.

I thought about the situation for a few moments and realized that had this been in the suburbs of Chicago, it might have been Polish a few years ago. It still might be, but the likelihood is smaller: with the opening of the EU to Poles some ten years ago, few people come here to work. It’s easier just to work in Austria.


At any rate, by the time we finished the hedges, they had pulled all the shingles and tar paper off. And it was then that the unlikely happened: rain. It hasn’t rained in a couple of weeks, but the roofers had no sooner gotten the first bit of tar paper down than it started raining.


The Boy and I by that time were working on improving the draining at the bottom of our driveway, and so we decided just to continue working.


I dumped the gravel; the Boy threw away the empty bags. One of the few but increasingly frequent times when his “I want to help!” was actually help.


“Teamwork!” he exclaimed. Indeed.


The Boy’s birthday is approaching. He’s excited — we’ve promised him that he can open one of the two classic Polish cars Babcia sent a couple of years ago. He’s had them on his shelf, unable to touch them, and has now begun insisting he’s old enough. We’ve kept it from him because of the worry that, as rough as he can be with toys, he’ll destroy them in no time.


And so he’s begun marking off the days.


Spring in the South. Morning temperatures in the low fifties. Afternoon temperatures twenty to twenty-five degrees warmer. In other words, spring in the South is summer in Poland. And summer in Poland means one thing: bonfires.


A home in the South with an enormous tree requires one thing: a tire swing.

My Percentage

Dear Terrence,

classdojo-iconToday you asked me a question that I’ve never heard you ask before: “Mr. S, what’s my Dojo percentage.” You’ve always insisted that Class Dojo is a waste of time and a generally stupid idea, and although I’ve never given up trying to convince you of its value, I never really thought you’d come around and see it for what it is: a powerful tool for monitoring and controlling your behavior. After all, everyone is keeping points on us in their heads for all the good and bad things we do. It’s called a reputation. But at least with Dojo, you get an idea of where your strengths and weaknesses are. Anyway, your question caught me off guard, because I really didn’t know. I had to check. And that was a good thing, because in the past, I could have likely guessed it without looking: “No more than 30%, I’d say.”

You and I have had our issues this year, and at least once you’ve stormed out of class insisting that you have to get your schedule changed because you’re sure I’m out to get you. I assure you, I’m not: your behavior, though, sometimes seems like it is, which is why I think Class Dojo could be such a powerful tool for you. It could help you see your weaknesses (talking out of turn) and help you build on your strengths (helping others).

But you’ve made a turn around — at least your behavior of the last few days indicates that. So I was particularly pleased when I looked down at my phone and saw you were at 83% for the week.

Keep up the good work,
Your Teacher


The saying goes if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life — as if “work” is somehow something to be avoided. Before we read Philip Levine’s poem, I ask students, “What is work?” and someone always replies with some variant of that quote. I want to tell them it’s a lie, for two reasons: first, no matter how much you love your job, there are times when you don’t when it becomes “work” in the negative sense of the term; second, “work” should almost never have a negative sense, if you know what work is.

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

We finish the poem in class, and a young lady with tight curls and a sweet smile says, “This is the first poem in your class that I actually understand.” Apparently, all the other poems have been too much of a struggle. I like a struggle in my classroom. When students struggle, they learn. But if they’re struggling with a job for which they’re not really prepared, it’s not really productive struggle, just struggle for the sake of frustration. Perhaps this was a bit of productive struggle for her.

I return home to find E helping clean the house.


He absolutely loves doing anything an adult is doing, so when he sees someone working, he wants to join in. Even when the job is too big for him, like ringing out the mop before slopping it down on the hardwood floor.

“Honey, honey, you have to let me do that. You’re not strong enough to do it well,” K says, in Polish — understanding her would have been work for me twenty years ago, when I was about to head off to Polska and could only say “please” and “thank you” and count to ten — sometimes thirteen or even fourteen if my memory worked. For E, it’s nothing. Speaking Polish is still a struggle, for everyone in the family, truth be told, except K. But it’s productive struggle. Frustrating struggle — my tongue couldn’t get around “wykształcenie wyższe” the other evening when, as I often do, I was quoting Miś.

When the Boy finishes, he still wants to clean, so we take him to the carport cum covered porch and let him work some more.


He makes a mess in order to clean it up.

Or sometimes he just makes a mess, as when he’s playing in the mud. His sister informs me, “We’re making mud cement.” Work.


When it’s dinner time, the Boy insists on helping again. We’re having Chinese stir fry, so he’s thrilled to get to stand at the pan and stir everything, and he’s especially amused by the fact that we’re adding a glob of peanut butter to veggies, suggesting that perhaps we might want to add some jelly as well.


We have a friend who’s a chef who in theory does this all day long. So for him, is it work?

After dinner, a neighborhood kid comes around, and E play around at soccer. There’s no temptation to ask him questions like, “Would you like to be a professional soccer player?” because soccer for him is just one of many little diversions throughout the day.


If he was a pro, would that make soccer work? And why is “work” something we want to avoid? Do we know what work is?

In 1981, Pope John Paul II published the encyclical Laborem exercens, “On Human Work.” He takes a common sense approach to defining the word:

[W]ork means any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances; it means any human activity that can and must be recognized as work, in the midst of all the many activities of which man is capable and to which he is predisposed by his very nature, by virtue of humanity itself.

So anything can be work. But he makes a distinction between work and toil.

For the Boy and the Girl, it often depends on motivation.