“Today Is Going To Be A Great Day”

I have a colleague who inevitably says every morning as she walks down the eighth-grade hallway by my door, “Today’s going to be a great day!” Sometimes she’s sarcastic, but most of the time, she’s very much in earnest. It’s an easy enough trick, I suppose, this power of positive thinking, but it then throws you for a loop when the same lady, after saying “Today’s going to be a great day” passes by you and says, “Today is going to suck.”

One of the many challenges with teaching is that we enter a room in which we have the whole range of thoughts from “Today is going to be a great day!” to “Today is going to suck.” Those conflicting expectations result in conflicting behaviors, which results in a conflicted teacher. When is a kid being a pain in the butt just because he feels like being a pain in the butt — i.e., the natural function of being an eighth-grader — and when is it the function of something bigger, something more dire? The response to those two different motivations are shaded differently.

Boys’ Afternoon

It was just too sunny, too warm. It’s the last Sunday of the month, which means Polish Mass Sunday, which means a free morning as Mass doesn’t begin until three in the afternoon. But when E woke up from his nap, it was just too sunny, too warm to haul him off sit inside. Granted, there are spiritual benefits, but there are spiritual benefits of just hanging out together, father and son, as well. “Besides,” I reasoned, “I have to go to confession anyway. Might as well have something more to confess.”


There was of course swinging. What would a trip down to the lower part of the backyard — the only flat part other than the area immediately around the house — be without some swinging?


There was of course some playing in the water. More than a little. It was a pole for the afternoon, that and the swing. Swing a little, play with a stick in the water a little. Repeat.


Each time we returned to the swing, the shadows were a bit longer, the air a bit chillier, and my initial excitement somewhat dampened. After all, what is swinging for the pusher? Now that the Boy can carry on long conversations, it’s so much more than it used to be, but it’s still a little monotonous. Especially when the Boy gets hooked on a conversational topic, like this afternoon, when he was talking constantly about his blue snake.

“Mama loves my blue snake. L loves my blue snake. Papa loves my blue snake. Nana loves my blue snake.”

“No, no, I assure you, Nana does not in any way care for your blue snake?”

“She doesn’t like my blue snake?” he asked incredulously.

“She doesn’t like any snake, regardless of the color or the owner.”


But what was this blue snake? It was in the water, he claimed, in the trees he pointed out later. It was everywhere — including in the swing when E hissed at me and then giggled — everywhere and nowhere.

We went down to the water’s edge at a new spot, more overgrown than the places we normally approach the drainage ditch we call the river when we’re playing. It was there we saw the blue snake yet again, a bit of vine trailing into the water, swaying with the current. Decidedly not blue, but somewhat like a snake.


“There’s my blue snake!”

But shortly after that, it was back in the yard before it mysteriously made its way back to his room.


As we explored, we saw that the wind and rain of earlier this week had knocked down some fairly substantial branches, and so we gathered them into a pile — wood for our fire pit or, if the quality is there, for smoking some chunk of meat.


“I’m helping you!” the Boy exclaimed as he usually does, and this time, he was right. Though his help often ends up only causing more work, this time he indeed helped.

“Soon you’ll help by mowing the lawn, cleaning up all of the branches, turning the compost — lots of help” I could have said, but he would have only answered as he always does, repeating what I just said with his mildly incredulous tone: “I’ll help you mow?”


By then it was time to head back down to the swing, though. The shadows were noticeably longer, and E put his hands in his jacket pocket, a real indication that it’s about time to go in.


There was reticence, as always, but the promise of being able to do it all again tomorrow has more and more of an effect the older he gets.

Saturday Ritual

Humans love rituals, and we’re no exception. You could just about tell the time of day on an average Saturday by what we’re doing. The first activity naturally is one that can’t be photographed: sleeping past six in the morning. Since K has become a stay-at-home mother, we don’t have as frantic weekday mornings as we used to, but they’re still weekday mornings, with all the unavoidable stress included, just lessened. Lunches to make, hair to brush, mouths to feed. But Saturday mornings, the only alarm clock is the Boy, which can sometimes sleep mercifully until almost eight sometimes.


Babcia always follows sleep. Put the coffee on, get the kids eating, then call Babcia on Skype. In the past, that involved the big computer. Then the laptop. Now we even sometimes use the little seven-inch Nexus, which means E can eat breakfast and show Babcia his new toys simultaneously. Yet within that little slice of Saturday we have mini-rituals, like standing with E at the refrigerator as he decides which yogurt he wants for breakfast.


Then there’s play. The Boy, still thrilled with his new toys, plays with Mater and Lightning McQueen on a daily basis, and Saturdays are no different. Even in his play, though, his polite personality shines: his toys always ask “please” of each other and respond with “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” The Boy hasn’t yet figured out how to do Mater’s southern accent, but give him time.


Mid-morning brings Polish lessons. Babcia has sent the Boy some coloring books, so he joins in the Polish lessons as well. He’s much more enthusiastic, but that probably has a lot to do with the difficult of his lessons compared to the Girl’s. She’s learning to read in Polish, and that’s a struggle for her. It’s not so much that the reading is difficult. She’s an excellent reader in English, and I think her frustration comes from that contrast. She often complains about doing “baby work” when K asks her to sound out a new long word.


The newest Saturday morning ritual: bread. “It’s a good hobby to have,” a friend commented, and indeed it is. But like L’s view of Polish, it’s a little harder than it looks.


“It’s a real art,” K says every time she bakes a loaf.

Two Exchanges

Two exchanges from school to show how radically different a day can be.

First, I was passing out report cards and a young lady declared, jokingly, “I’m going to cry!” She’s a sweet student who usually does her best, but occasionally she gets a little lazy. And that’s what happened this quarter: she didn’t turn in a major assignment, so her grade suffered for it. She didn’t fail, but it was a high D. So I played along with the joke. “You probably will when you see the grade for this class.” And a few moments after I gave her her report card, she was indeed crying. I felt awful, apologized profusely, and then pointed out the obvious: “It hurts, but look at the good side of this: you realize what you did, you’re upset about it, and you’ll be able to change. Not all students react that way such grades.”

Second exchange came at the end of another class, when a young man who has struggled through the year with behavior and grades approached me to tell me about a fundraiser his community basketball team is having. He didn’t quite know how to invite me, so he just ended up telling me about it. But the fact that he shared with me something from his personal life — this is a kid I’ve butted heads with a time or two, and other teachers have absolutely struggled with. He can be a challenge but not yesterday. And for me, not recently.

Two exchanges, both haunting in their own way.

At Last

E has wanted Mater from Cars for so long that he grew desperate: he began calling any of his cars that looked vaguely like a tow truck “Mater.” And he found a car to substitute for Ramon as well.


But as of tonight, he no longer has to pretend. He’s got the real thing. And when he received it, he showed once again a sweet peculiarity in his personality: no child I’ve ever seen shows joy and gratitude as unreservedly as the Boy.

“Oh thank you!” he gushed. “It’s wonderful!”

“No Reason to Do It”

Dear Teresa,

Since you phrased your starter self-evaluation as a letter and ended it by saying, “Yea so thats [sic]1 the question, but wheres [sic] the answer,” I thought I would supply the answer. I feel it is important to make sure my students understand the methodology I employ in the classroom, and it is to that end that I write to you now.

You wrote that the reasons you “have no starters is becase [sic] to me there is no reason to do it.” It’s an odd thing to write: I gave you the reason at the very beginning of the year. This is a writing class: I want you writing as much as possible. Additionally, if you didn’t see a reason for doing them, perhaps you could have asked me in private why we do them. (To shout it out in class would be disrespectful, and I know you would never want to be disrespectful.) But you never asked for the reason, so I didn’t know you were confused about why we do starters. Finally, it seems fairly logical to me what the reason is: this is a writing class, and the best way to improve in writing is by doing it. That’s why most of my starters, if you haven’t noticed, are questions to help get you writing, to get your brain working in a compositional mode. It might have worked for you if you’d tried it, but you never did. So despite your claim to the contrary, there are clear and solid pedagogically-sound reasons for the starter we do in class.

Most puzzling, though, is your claim that I “don’t even check” the starters, which “don’t even get graded.” It’s a strange claim because I directly told the class several times, at the beginning of the year and throughout each quarter, that I take up the starters at the end of the quarter. I probably also said, “Take care to do them and keep up with them because it should be an easy A.” In addition, I told the class several times as we approached the due date of January 15 that they would need to bring in their starters at the end of the week. Why would I take them up if I weren’t going to grade them? There’s simply no logic in that. Finally, I often walk around the room as the class works on the starters (you excepted) and I check roll. When I do this, I’m looking at what students are writing, often interacting with them about their ideas or possibly pointing out a silly grammatical mistake. It is during this time that I often encourage students who are not working on the starter, students like you, to begin doing so. Some students do; you often do not. So to suggest that I don’t check the starters is patently misleading.

The real key to understanding your response, though, was when you contrasted my starters to Ms. H’s starters. To begin with, it doesn’t make much sense to compare them because we teach you different subjects: she teaches reading while I teach writing. Of course we’re going to have different kinds of starters; it only makes sense. However, the whole comparison is bogus to begin with. I spoke to Ms. H about your response, and she informed me that you don’t do the starters in her class either except on rare occasion. I would bet that your behavior in her classroom during the beginning of class is much like your behavior in my classroom: you sit without any materials ready, turning around in your desk, and engaging in conversation with everyone around you. Thus your attempt to contrast my starters with Ms. H’s starters is fairly meaningless.

I trust this explanation answers any questions you have about my starters. It is my sincerest wish that during this penultimate quarter, you mend your ways and begin taking this assignment seriously: it is intended to be a fairly easy way for students to improve their grade, and I hope you see and treat it as such. However, the choice is ultimately yours. I cannot make you or anyone else do anything. Don’t make the mistake, though, of suggesting that I haven’t fully explained to you the consequences of your choices.

Your Teacher

  1. “Sic” means is the Latin adverb “thus.” It comes from the full Latin phrase sic erat scriptum, which means “thus was it written.” Writers use this to indicate a grammatical mistake in source material, in this case, your evaluation. It simply means, “I did not make this grammatical mistake; the original writer did. I just copied it as it was written.”

Afternoon Exploring

The pictures are from yesterday, but today was the same. We wander about the backyard, cross over to our neighbors’ yard, all the while pretending we’re exploring the Amazon rainforest. We’ve discovered snakes that can look like trees, leaves that can come alive, rocks that can attack. And a swing.

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Maybe head to the smooth, newly-paved road that T-intersects ours right across from our house. Maybe ride on into the grass.

Two afternoons, almost identical. Yet different in every way.

Henry Goes to Time Out

One day, Henry was feeling playful. He met Emily as she chugged along, but he was going in the opposite direction on the same track. Emily braked hard and managed to stop just in time.

“Henry, what are you doing?!” she cried.

Instead of answering, Henry began pushing Emily.


“You’ve heard of Tug of War, haven’t you?” laughed Henry. “This is Chug of War!” He pushed with all his steam as Emily, who was not laughing, chugged just as hard against him.

“Henry, will you stop it? We’re going to get carried away and derail ourselves!”

But Henry was having too much fun. He chugged, and chugged, and chugged until there was a great clatter of and screech as Emily and all her cars crashed to the side of the tracks.

“Now you’ve done it!” shouted Emily as she struggled to right herself. “You’re going to be in so much trouble!”

Henry, trying the help, suddenly jerked backwards only to find himself off the tracks as well.


Henry felt bad. He never meant to hurt Emily. He really liked Emily. They’d always had good times together, but this time, he’d just gone too far.

He knew he was going to be in trouble. He could just imagine Sir Topham Hatt’s face, but he didn’t have to imagine. Sir Topham Hatt came down as soon as he heard about the terrible accident.


“Oh, Sir Topham Hatt, I didn’t mean to. I mean. It’s just that…”

“Well, Henry, you’ve gone too far this time,” Sir Topham Hatt interrupted. “You’ll see just how serious this is in just a moment.”

Sure enough, Henry saw just how serious it was when Sheriff from Cars showed up.


“Well,” said Sheriff, “the first thing we need to do is get these trains back on the tracks.”

Sir Topham Hatt called Kevin and Harvey to put the trains both back on the tracks.

Just as Henry was about to chug away, the Sheriff called after him. “Henry, you will be coming with me, I’m afraid.


“I really didn’t mean to hurt anyone,” Henry said as he chugged beside Sheriff. “I just wanted to have a bit of fun. Emily likes to have fun.”

“Henry, did she say to stop?” Sheriff asked.

“Well,” began Henry.

“When trains ask you not to do something, you should stop. That means it’s not fun for them,” Sheriff explained.


“I know you didn’t mean it, but there still are consequences for our actions,” Sheriff explained.


“Time out.”


Just after Sheriff left, Toby and James chugged past.

“Oh, Henry, what happened? Why are you in time out?” asked Toby.

“I did something… something…” Henry stammered.

“Not useful?” Toby suggested.

“That’s it exactly. And Sheriff traveled back in time, crossed the Atlantic ocean, and left his movie to come into our story just to take me to time out!”

“Oh no!”

“And that’s not what’s the worst part of it! The worst part is that I didn’t mean to do any of it!”


Toby and James felt bad for Henry. They knew what it was like to get in trouble for something you don’t really mean to do. They were afraid all the other trains would be angry at Henry so they chugged off to the Tidmouth Sheds to explain to the other the other engines what happened. As they were explaining, Sheriff rolled up.


“Did you talk to Henry?” he asked.

“Yes, we. I mean, no. I mean,” stammered Toby.

“Yes, we talked to Henry,” James said sadly.

“While he was in time out?”

James and Toby exchanged guilty glances before admitting the truth.

“We knew we weren’t supposed to, but…”

Sheriff didn’t even wait.


“Off you go to time out as well!”

Such was our morning play.

Bread and Games

When I first arrived in Lipnica Wielka, I was shocked one morning at the small grocer’s in front of the teachers’ housing to see how much bread the women in front of me were buying. It solved a mystery, though. I’d discovered that if I arrived too late, sometimes simply in the mid-morning hours, there was no bread to be found.

“Nie ma” was the curt reply.


Standing in line that morning, though, seeing woman after woman buy two, three, sometimes four loaves of bread, I understood why. It wasn’t until I saw the same woman buy the same amount the next day that I realized her family ate that much bread in a single day.


The loaves themselves looked like nothing I’d ever seen for sale in grocery stores. I knew you could get stuff like that — hard and crusty on the outside, thick and hearty on the inside — at bakeries and such specialty stores, but in a regular Food Lion or Kroger?


When K and I first moved to the States, finding a good source for good bread was of primary grocery-shopping importance. Who knew we had a source right there?

Begin and End in the Kitchen

The day obviously starts in the kitchen. But it’s more than food and preparation for the day. The Boy has a favorite book lately — Hot Rod Hamster — and on a whim, the Girl decides to read it to him. I read it to him last night; K read it to him the night before. But that’s not enough: he could listen to that book every single day, most likely because of the basic interactivity of it. Hot Rod Hamster, you see, has to choose the parts of his car, and the author often asks the reader, “Which would you choose?” By now everyone in the family knows which one he would choose, but that’s not the point.


The day also ends in the kitchen, with play. The office chair in which I now sit is a favorite toy, for it swivels in endless circles.


To the delight of both kids.