Back to School

I’ve had enough experience teaching now to realize that my worries about returning to school after spring break — potential laziness, potential mutiny, potential problems of every sort — are almost always unfounded. The first week back is almost always painless. But it’s busy, getting used to the schedule again.

This week was the last week before testing. Our school has decided to do the state-mandated testing a little differently this year, and I applaud the decision. Instead of having a week of eighth-grade testing, where we test day after day after day (math, then English, then science, then social studies), followed by a week of seventh-grade testing and a third week of sixth-grade testing (divided by grade because we still don’t have enough Chromebooks for the whole school to test at the same time), we’re testing one day a week for four weeks. Next week we begin, and once those four weeks of testing are over, the school year is almost over. Perhaps that’s what makes the transition from spring break always a bit easier: we all know we have that final push until the big break.

After talking to Babcia

It’s also the time of year that students who are at risk of failing a given class — students who throughout the whole year have usually done very little other than disrupt class — decide they might want to try to do something to save themselves. There’s always one or two who don’t, and they usually move on the ninth grade anyway through this or that administrative and summer school magic. I’m not putting down our school: it’s a phenomenon that occurs throughout the country, I suspect. But I do have mixed feelings about it.

Morning snack

On the one hand, what will keeping these students back accomplish? It’s not like they’re going to behave any differently if they repeat. Because our district — perhaps state? never cared enough to check into it — has a policy that a child cannot fail two years, they’re just going to get pushed on, and if they have already been held back, they know they can’t be held back again, which probably prompts a lot of the apathetic behavior. (Students have told me, “I’ve already failed one grade: you can’t hold me back again.”)

Getting things in the ground

On the other hand, isn’t this just teaching them a wonderful lesson for the future? “I can do nothing and still succeed!” What happens to them when they get to high school and the rules change? I’ve told several students over the years, “When you get to high school and fail freshman English, they don’t say, ‘Well, he was close. Let’s give it to him.’ They say, ‘Try again.’ And if it looks like you’re going to fail a second time, they don’t say, ‘Well, he’s already failed once. Let’s move him on.’ They say, ‘Nope. Try a third time.'” And by then, they’re old enough to drop out, and they do. What happens to them when they try to keep a job with that kind of thinking? In short, they don’t. They can’t.

Proof that it’s shaping up to be a good day

So this is the time of year all of this swirls through my head, and I find myself thinking about my own responsibilities. It’s much easier for me, regarding paperwork and the like, just to move the kid on as well. It’s much easier for me to make my class almost impossible to fail. I think to myself, “They’re still kids: they’ll grow out of it.” But I look around at some millennial young adults and find myself thinking, “Well, maybe not.”

It’s also the time when thoughts and plans for summer are solidifying. This time last year I was getting a little nervous about the huge project that was looming on the horizon. I didn’t know what all was behind the walls, what all awaited us. And now I know what’s behind the walls because I put it there, and the only thing that awaits us in the kitchen is a bright, open space now.

But plans are just that, and now it’s time to get planting, get mowing, get weeding — all the joys of spring that just leave you exhausted but strangely satisfied.

And time to play guitar with your neighbor.

Easter 2017

Easter is the highlight of the liturgical year, and so for Poles, it’s the highlight of social year in many ways. As with Christmas, begin quietly at home, breaking the evening’s fast (and the non-meat fast of the last several days) with treats from the baskets blessed yesterday.

Bread, ham, sausage, boiled eggs, a lamb-shaped cake, slivers of apple and orange, and a horseradish sauce. A simple meal, a somewhat humble meal.

It’s not like the equivalent for the Christmas Eve dinner. That will all come later. But the Boy is simply not waiting for anything more elaborate.

“One more piece of ham,” he chirps, sliding it to the side of his plate. “Save the best for last,” which he doesn’t — he eats it in a few moments, then repeats.

He downs four or five slices of ham, a serving of veggie salad, a large proportion of the orange, a couple of sausage hunks, some bread — he eats at least twice as much as L.

After breakfast, it’s off to Mass with us. I take the Girl an hour earlier for choir practice and sit in the pews, watching the brightening sky slowly illuminate the church.

Morning light as the choir practices

This is our first Easter in our new parish, and it’s parish’s first Easter in the new church.

All the colors seem to glow as a result. Or perhaps that’s still the sheen of newness. Likely a bit of both.

Mass in this wonderful space feels like it should: an explosion for all the senses. The altar servers process in, the first swinging a thurible and filling the middle isle with incense that drifts upward, catching rays of light and glowing. The choir is sublime. We kneel, stand, sit, kneel, cross ourselves. The physical beauty of the place surrounds us. The sweet Communion wine lingers as we head back to our pew.

Easter altar

In front of me, a young lady has brought a friend — boyfriend? — and he’s clearly not Catholic. I remember the first time I witnessed all of this. It was so different from everything I’d experienced growing up. “The smells and bells” forced out of me a begrudging respect as did the humble faith of the parishioners.

This young man keeps his hands in his pockets most of the time, rarely looks around, and seems bored. Perhaps he’s not having the same experience I did twenty years ago when I first went to Mass. Perhaps he is and simply doesn’t show it.

After Communion, the girl, still kneeling, eases back onto the pew, and her father, sitting to her left, places his hand on the small of her back and massages gently. The girl pulls herself back up into a full kneeling position. I smile at the universality of fathers: I’ve done that many a time with the Girl, but she’s never with us in Mass these days. Instead, she’s in the choir loft.

The children’s choir poses

I think about the obvious: there will come a time when the Girl might want to bring a young man to Mass with us. She’s already growing so fast that K and I can’t keep up with her, but right now, she says boys are disgusting.

“They’re always messing up things on the playground,” she often complains. “They steal balls, bother us, chase us.” How long will this last? Not long enough, I’m afraid.

Easter portrait

I can still get into my wedding suit, but looking at the picture reveals the sad truth: a bit of a gut has formed that pushes the jacket into slight wrinkles. “I forgot to suck it in,” I think to myself, remembering all the times my own father did something similar. Like father, like son.

In the afternoon, all the usual suspects come over. We eat; we drink; we eat; we laugh. After a while, a couple of us go out to hide Easter eggs for the kids. Some we hide in the open; some we actually hide.

In the end, a perfect day.

Good Friday 2017

Good Friday in our family is just as it would be in Poland: work, work, work, then more work, work, work, then church — not for Mass because that’s not celebrated on Good Friday, but rather the Liturgy of Good Friday — then back home for more work, work, and still more work.

K, after a small breakfast, spent most of the day in the kitchen. Doing what? I’m really not sure. Baking, I know. Fixing lunch. Other than that? I don’t know: I spent the entire morning giving the carport a good scrubbing, literally from top to bottom.

The kids got into the spirit, too, helping me by cleaning every single thing we’d taken out of the carport. E was a little upset because he felt at times he didn’t have a real part in helping out, and for him, that’s about the worst thing he can experience.

“Have I ever told you how happy it makes me that you are so eager to help?” I said at one point as he was using an improvised squeegee to pull away water that was puddling in the corner of the stairs to the kitchen from the carport.

“Yes.” I often play this little verbal game with him. “Have I ever told you…” followed by something I tell him all the time. If it’s “I love you,” he smiles and shouts, “Everybody knows that!” One thing I haven’t told him is how much joy it gives me that he consistently says “Yes” as opposed to “Yeah.”

“I hope you always stay that way,” I said.

“I will.” I really don’t doubt it.

At the church, it was like being in Poland again. Our pastor is a very traditional priest. (In most aspects, that is. He’s married with kids, which is rare among Catholic priests, but not so rare among Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism and after years get a dispensation from the pope for the discipline of celibacy. But that’s another story.) He’s really a “Say the red; do the black” priest, which means traditions that I haven’t seen since Poland are present everywhere, including the use of wooden clappers during Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday liturgies. One site explains it thus:

In most liturgical services during the year, the consecration of the bread and wine is marked by the ringing of altar bells. The Easter Triduum, consisting of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, is a time that is set apart from the rest of the liturgical calendar. Because these three days represent the three days that Jesus spent in his tomb before he was resurrected, they are traditionally marked by increased silence during mass. In traditional catholic worship services, the last time the altar bells are rung before Easter is on the evening of Holy Thursday. In between then and the Easter Vigil, a wooden clacker is used. A wooden clacker, sometimes called a wooden clapper, serves the same function as the altar bells. The clacker is sounded at the consecration of the gifts during the liturgy of the Eucharist, reminding the congregation of the awesome transformation that takes place at these moments.

So we knelt and stood, knelt and stood, kissed the cross, and felt at home.

Back at home, we got back to work, putting everything back in its proper place. K ran to the store for the thousandth time. (I’ve got a few store runs waiting for me tomorrow, without a doubt, but it wouldn’t be Holy Saturday otherwise.) The Boy finally got to use the pressure washer, helping clean out the cuts in the concrete portion of the driveway, which resulted in a wonderfully dirty little boy.

At bath time, looking at himself in the mirror, he said, “It was a great day!”

I think we all agree.

Holy Thursday 2017

Last night, I went out to get something I’d left in my car, and as I was opening my car door,  I heard behind me a thunk. I turned and saw silhouetted against lights of the house a shape that moved ever so slightly. For a moment, I thought it might be a raccoon: we have them all over the place, including in a hole in our neighbors’ Sweet Gum near the base of our driveway. That didn’t make sense though: why in the world would a raccoon jump onto the car? And would it even be possible? Sure, one had jumped onto our deck once several years ago, but that jump was from our not-so-long-gone gas/AC package unit, a jump of about three feet.

A closer look showed it wasn’t a raccoon but looked positively owl-esque. I walked slowly to the back of the van and saw that it was indeed an owl. It came back this morning, drawn by the birds nesting in our downspout. Determining that there was no way it could get to the birds, it left as quickly as it came.

That was probably good, because everyone had lots to get done today. For K, it was a baking day. She finally was able to bake a miodownik like her mother always bakes. “You have to bake four sheets, and we never had an oven big enough,” she explained. Now we do.

So K baked and baked while I was out cutting grass and cleaning up the lawn for our Easter guests.

I got the kids out to help by picking up Sweet Gum seed balls, the spiky little bits of hell that can spawn dozens of almost-impossible-to-kill saplings each. They decided to count as they collected. Front and back yard yielded over six hundred, they said. And the probably only got about thirty percent of them in total.

They finished up just in time to do some egg painting. K tried some new method that involved whipped cream (or shaving foam) and food coloring, which remained a mystery to me throughout the process,

but the girls elected to go with more traditional methods. An egg painting mini-party has always been a staple in our Easter preparations, but it’s been on the decline over the last few years. This year, it was at its most minimalistic.

One chore left: smoking the meat. Two racks of ribs, two pork loins, six large chicken breasts. The ribs will go into K’s Easter żurek along with generous amounts of horseradish. The soup is my favorite part of the whole meal.

The soup is my favorite part of the whole meal.

Helping Saturday

The Boy likes to help. That’s established. Everybody knows that, as he might say. Often his help is anything but help, yet it’s always welcomed: he’s learning, that’s what’s important.

Today, though, he was being genuinely helpful for a while. He’d seen me trimming some bushes, and while I was finishing up K’s decorative fence, he decided he wanted to trim. I showed him how he needed just to cut the branches that were extending above the sphere of the bush itself, and he seemed to be doing fine, so I went back to work.

Later, K pointed out that he’d cute a relatively large whole into the bush.

“It’s an animal trap,” he explained.

Turn Around

Dear Terrence,

What a turnaround you’ve had these last two weeks. If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it. (That’s not quite true: I would have believed it because I’ve seen it happen before, but not often. Not often enough, for certain: such kids are certainly outliers.) For the year to date, your Class Dojo positive behavior percentage has been right around 45%, which means you’re a negative influence on the class the majority of the time.

I’m not quite sure you realize the extent of your behavior. You couldn’t go more than a minute or two without talking to someone — and that’s not hyperbole but probably an understatement if anything. You turned in absolutely nothing for most of the year. When I ran a missing assignment report for the year to date a few weeks ago, you were missing 45 assignments, to go along with your 45% percent, I guess. At that point, I couldn’t have possibly given you more than 50 or 55 assignments, so that means you hadn’t turned in 85-90% of your work. Your grade was abysmal as well.

Then two or three weeks ago, something happened. What exactly, I really don’t know. Perhaps your mentor finally said something that really made an impact. Perhaps our counselor, who’s been pushing you all year, finally said something that made an impact. I’m afraid it wasn’t I who said something that made an impact because, I’m a little ashamed to admit, I had all but given up on you. You have to understand: I have 120 students. I can’t expend all my energy on one at-risk kid, and there comes a time when I have to say to myself, “I can keep going after this kid, which hasn’t worked for three-quarters of the year, or I can take that energy and apply it to that kid, who really has shown some growth.” Finite resources and all. So it wasn’t I, I’m afraid, but someone said or did something, and you’ve been a different person since then.

Last week, you turned in your article of the week and worked as hard as I’d ever seen you work. Sure, you didn’t turn in one assignment, but you did turn in two. That’s a vast improvement right there. Then there was that surprising Dojo percentage: 79%. I was shocked. You probably were, too.

Last weekend, I was wondering: “Will Terrence make it two weeks in a row or will things go back to normal?” Tuesday you approached me and said, “Mr. S, I left my article of the week at home, so I won’t be able to work on it as my bell ringer.” Wednesday, when you walked in the building and passed where I had hall duty, you waved your article at me: “Got it today!” You did your work; you set a good example. And that Dojo percentage? 90%. I like to frame things in reference to things you guys get, so I made the obvious parallel to basketball: “Think of that, Terrence: if you’re shooting 90% from the field and I’m your coach, I’m going to make sure you get paid whatever you have to get paid to stay on our team, and I’m going to tell the rest of the players, ‘Just carve out a little space for him and give him the ball. He’ll do the rest.'” That smile was unforgettable: “I know, right!?”

The truth is, Terrence, it’s not just in basketball that that 90% will get you whatever you dream of. Just about anywhere will work.

This week, it was an honor to have you in class. I can’t say I’ve always felt that way, though. Here’s hoping we both keep bring our A-game for the rest of the school year.

Impressed and still smiling,
Your Teacher

Optional

Dear Terrence,

When did a response to “Good morning” become optional? When did manners become a matter of personal preference?

For you, considering all that has passed between us, my behavior likely seems two-faced. You think, “Here he is trying to be all nice to me, and when I get to class, he’s going to be on my back about everything.” That’s not an accurate interpretation of my behavior, though. You see, I won’t deny a simple fact: despite the fact that your behavior often is the most irritating aspect of my entire day, despite the fact that your behavior disrupts the whole class, despite the fact that your behavior often descends into outright disrespect (never mind the fact that disruptive behavior is itself disrespectful) regardless of how politely I redirect you, and despite the fact that some of your behavior seems downright spiteful, I try to approach each day as if it were the first day you and I ever encountered each other. I try to give you the benefit of the doubt each and every day. In short, I try to start fresh daily.

It seems only fair. You are, after all, only a kid. Your personality and behaviors have not completely congealed, and there’s always hope that you will mature during the school year and come out the other side a different kid. It does happen. And so I want to foster that possibility, however remote, in your behavior by starting anew every morning, and the simplest way I can do that is simply saying as cheerfully as I can muster without sounding false, “Good morning.”

Ironically, this type of behavior extends even into the adult world. There have been plenty of times, in both my teaching career and in other jobs I’ve held, that I’ve come to work with a sore spot for some colleague or other. It’s hard to leave it all behind, and sometimes that sore spot gets irritated just by seeing that person, and the last thing in the world I want to do is to be cheerful and polite. But that’s part of the game. It’s not being false or two-faced to hide those true feelings; it’s called being professional. It’s called being an adult, realizing that these little rituals like “Good morning” are just that, rituals that really mean nothing more than “I acknowledge your existence this morning.” True, it is a shortened form of an older greeting, “I wish you a good morning.” But even my worst enemies I wish a good morning: if things are going well for them, they’re not likely to take anything out on me.

So let’s try this again. I’ll say “Good morning, Terrence,” and you say, “Good morning, Mr. Scott.” And we both know we’ve started our day off with each other on a positive note.

First practice is tomorrow morning.

Kindest regards,
Your Teacher

Rain Day

Snow days — those make sense here in South Carolina. Most municipalities don’t have the equipment to clear snow properly and effectively. Add to it the lack of general experience drivers here have with snow and it’s fairly obvious why everything shuts down. The snow starts falling in the morning on a school day, and everyone realizes it’s likely only a matter of time before the announcement. At our school, it’s usually something like this: “Teachers, please check your email.” And there we find the procedures we will follow for early dismissal.

Rain, though? I remember there was a kid in the apartment complex we lived in when I was in kindergarten whose mother would keep him home if it rained, but I thought that was a one-time thing, an exception. Today, I found otherwise. By the end of fifth period today, probably a third of the school had already gone home. Early dismissal. To be fair to parents, there was supposed to be a horrible storm passing through: flash flooding, potential tornadoes. Nothing to take lightly. But what ended up happening was so much less dramatic: a few parents began taking their kids out of school, and every other kid, realizing the possibility, texted home. Probably something like this: “Everyone else is going home. Come get me — please!” And soon, there were so many parents waiting to pick up their kids that instead of calling individual classrooms as with the standard procedure, general announcements echoed through the school.

“Will the following students please come to the office for early dismissal,” and then ten, twelve, fifteen names. Five minutes later, “Will the following students please come to the office for early dismissal,” and then ten, twelve, fifteen more names.

Later in the afternoon, an apologetic email from the principal: “I understand that very little teaching can take place due to the announcements,” it began. But what was to be done?

I sent a text to K during lunch: “L is going to be sad because she didn’t get early dismissal. Kids are leaving here in swarms.” Something along those lines. K texted back: “I’m at home with the Boy. He had early dismissal, too. We’re going for L soon.”

And so what do you do with an unexpectedly free afternoon, that rarest of all gifts?

There was a movie, of course. The latest from Netflix, another Studio Ghibli film, Pom Poko. (We as a family have grown to love those films. Not a bad one in the bunch.)

There was a bit of playing, of course. The Boy can find entertainment anywhere. Just add some cars and he’s set.

And K finally got some time to work on a project that’s been haunting us for years: pictures for our living room and kitchen. What to include? How to arrange them? What, sadly, to leave out?

Tomorrow, everything goes back to normal, but only for two days as we near Easter and spring break.

Spring Saturday

Spring Saturdays have their own rhythm for years now. Almost all Saturdays begin with an eight o’clock Skype chat with Babcia. They talk about family, friends, recent events, changes in our life, changes in her life — the little changes that can accumulate in a week or that pile up unmentioned for weeks. The only thing that’s changed is the instrument. At first, it was downstairs on the main computer. After a few years of that, it shifted upstairs to the laptop in the kitchen. These days it’s via K’s cell phone.

The Boy and I head out after breakfast. We’re building a small fence to hide a now-visible, now-empty area that was once held our buggy gas pack air system hidden by Leyland cypresses. Like always, the Boy wants to help, and like always, it’s less help than one might really want in order to call it help. Instead, I think of it as helping him — helping him grow, helping him learn the value of work, helping he learn how to use tools properly. I show him how to use the square and he’s off, scoring lines all over the four-by-four that will eventually be the final two posts of our fence.

Next, it’s time to dig the holes for the posts. Here, patience is the key. I take a shovelful of dirt out, and he follows suit with his little blue shovel. But here’s the thing: he has to have a shovelful that suits him. A dab of dirt at the tip is not acceptable, so he tries again and again, frustrated as the dirt slides off the end as he tries to pull the shovel out of the growing hole. Or later, he starts kicking dirt back into the hole.

But shortly after, he’s genuinely helpful: he holds the post for me to get some measurements and check alignment. He helps shovel the concrete around the posts and smooths it once it’s in. Of course, in between, there’s time to play.

And once it’s done and the other chores are behind us, we head down to the swing and hammock for some early-evening silliness.

It’s like so many other spring Saturdays. And ritual is always comforting.

Spring Saturday

Spring Saturday

Saturday Ritual