Painting Your Digital Portrait

(The blog has been at rest for a while. I hate it when bloggers begin with big apologies that consume half of their content for the day. But it’s awakening – that need to write once again. And in the words of Forrest Gump author Winston Groom, that’s all I have to say about that.) 

Social Media Logotype Background

I spent a bit of the morning today piecing together the story of Natalie Munroe, the suburban Philadelphia teacher who was suspended from her job for writing profane and negative blog posts about her students. Later, Munroe was fired. After that, she filed suit against her school district. Yesterday, a US District Court Judge threw out the suit.

But this isn’t about Natalie Munroe (or Natalie M, the not-so-anonymous nom de plume she used on the infamous blog about her students,  or about what happened in the Central Bucks School District. You can look that up for yourself.

It’s about the self portrait that we paint every time we go online. Every tweet, every post, every “like” contributes a brushstroke to a picture of ourselves that…well, may not look quite the way we expect.

I’ve been thinking about this a while, and my musings were confirmed a few weeks ago. We had guests for dinner, and a 20-something talked about how he uses social media. “I use it all,” he commented while carving up the watermelon. “But everything I post has a very specific purpose – it’s very deliberate.” He told us that at job interviews, he assumes the HR folks already know a lot about him.

Because he’s painted a portrait that is out there for all to see.

Now, I’m the first to admit that I “like” Facebook more than the average person. And after years of spending (too much) time there, I’ve developed my own set of “do’s and don’ts” and my own set of pet peeves. I wonder, sometimes, if a few of the folks that show up on my news feed ever, ever look back at their own timelines and ask, “What am I saying about myself here? What picture am I painting?”

So indulge me, please, as I offer up my own set of suggestions to hone our digital portraits…the obvious ones first.

We’ll start with pictures. They’re worth a thousand words.

  • No pics of sex toys. Your own or anyone else’s. Or your naked or nearly naked friends. Or self. Ever. (Kids learn this in high school these days. Grown ups, take heed.)
  • Cleavage shots? Well, they may make you look well endowed. Just showing off your best feature, right?  Or they may make you look overweight. You decide. But…if every shot is a cleavage shot, there’s some serious self esteem stuff going on. Who knew?
  • If more than half of your photos involve adult beverages or bongs, you just may have a problem. Seriously, we know you’re a grownup. We know what a margarita looks like. Ditto jello shots, brewskis, fifths, and flasks. You don’t have to show us. (But if you indulge, please spare us your ramblings after you’ve downed a few. We can tell, you know. You’ll use the word “amazing” way too much and your sentences won’t make any more sense than they would if we were sitting at your table.  Except they aren’t funny once they hit the screen.)
  • Similarly, if more than half of your photos involve cats, you just may qualify as a “crazy cat lady.” Cray cray. Over the top. We won’t eat cupcakes from your kitchen, thanks.
  • If a whole lot of your pictures lately are selfies, you just might come off as a little self absorbed. If those selfies include even a few duck faces, a “Miley Cyrus tongue out” pose, or mouth-wide-open-as-if-on-a-roller-coaster, you can be assured that nobody wants to see any more of those. Even if you’re Miley Cyrus. It’s sad and old and if you are older than 12, kind of humiliating.
  • If lots of your photos are of food, it’s also a sign. Not that you’re obsessed with food, but that you may be a very bad cook indeed. We know what meatloaf looks like. Ditto stroganoff, zucchini bread, and a Whopper at the BK. Save the food pics for ceviche at a five-star place in Miami, or a steak on the grill that is truly picture perfect.

Now,  a word about that pesky “relationship status” thing: If you’re in a relationship with someone, check out THEIR online presence. Will your friends (or future employers or babysitter) click twice only to discover their pic on If so, just keep the relationship to yourself. It’s complicated.

Sometimes, my friends, too much means….too little! Go to your timeline or your Twitter home page. Scroll back. Jumping on with 20 posts a day? I’m sorry if this sounds judgey, but you need to get a real job. Or a real life. If those 20 posts a day are nothing more than shared memes, buzz feed quizzes, or “You’ve got to see this! It’s sooooo funny!” videos, you might as well be posting duck face selfies. (Told you it was judgey. Sorry.)

Other times, too much is simply too much. “I love you and last night will live in my heart forever!” is a personal message. That is, one that should be spoken out loud to a real person. Not posted or tweeted or whatever.  Flip side: Sometimes “just the facts” are TMI. From the trivial (your grocery list) to the personal (the fact that you’re in therapy, or taking a whole lot of medication or have no money or PMS-ing) – sometimes it’s too much information. Tell your family. Tell your therapist. Tell a handful of close friends. But don’t put it on your wall. It’s like…writing it on the wall.

And when the wall meets the workplace…you could be in for trouble. Not long ago, an ER nurse was fired for posting pics of patients on a very crowded shift. Bad judgement, much like Natalie Munroe. Some corporations have strict policies on photography inside their facilities. Violate those, and you’re toast. But it’s not exactly subtle to jump online during work hours and pop out a tweet that says, “No one respects me! I’m outta here!” or “I hate this place!” or “These people are idiots!”

Looking for a new job? Boss on your friends list? Keep it to yourself.

Ditto anything at all if you’ve taken a sick day from work. Co-workers who had to cover for you really don’t want to see the online evidence that you really did your Christmas shopping that day. They don’t want to see your footprints on the beach. But if you’re really sick, what about the pics of used tissues and cold medicine, shots of you entering the door at Urgent Care, or holding the thermometer? If you’re that sick, just take a good nap. You’ll feel better.

And overall, you’ll have a digital portrait that leaves a better taste in your mouth. Because you’ve used your social media with a modicum of good taste.

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Guest Post: Acceptance: Living With Grace

It is my pleasure to share this wise piece by Cleo Conrad McKernan, who I named as of the inspirations for yesterday’s blog “Here Comes Another One.” Cleo reflects on acceptance, peace, and living with grace even in times of adversity. 


I have always felt that the greatest gift I’ve been given is the gift of acceptance. To be able to truly accept and work within your reality is both peaceful and empowering.

The ability to accept what is allows us to function with grace despite what others may see as disappointments and problems.

This is good.

And so I wish to talk about this “acceptance” thing – this ability and willingness (even eagerness) to forsake pipe dreams and unrealistic hopes in favor of creating a peaceful and secure knowledge that we did our best. We did it right.

When my daughter was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma I never once wailed at the heavens. It did not occur to me to say, “Why Megan? Why her?” From the first moment, I accepted that it was, and that the why didn’t matter. More importantly, I accepted that there was no “why”, no reason I would ever be given.

This was real, this was happening, this was what was going down. No amount of wishing, dreaming or questioning was going to change things, make the cancer dissipate, or take me back to the previous month, when all was right with the world.

I accepted.

Moreover, from that first moment I was given a great gift of knowledge. Where this knowledge came from, I do not know. I did know, however, that this really wasn’t about me. My pain, and my sorrow, were secondary or tertiary – if even that. This knowledge gave me the ability to take it outside of myself, and to do the things, say the things, live the things that needed to be done, said, and lived.

I never sobbed, although I cried often, and still do. My tears were always the kind that slide softly down and clog the voice. The kind that sneak up and grab you unaware, and I have always allowed them, but never felt the desire to show them off, or wear them like a badge. Sadness and sorrow are okay. They are legitimate and real emotions and feelings to be felt and (once again) accepted. It is not necessary or even good to battle them. I remember hearing my daughter say to her own children “feelings are never wrong”. I believe that.

The point is this: For this new year, allow yourselves to accept what is, give up losing battles and save your energy to do what you are able to create warmth and serenity around you.

Allow yourselves and others to feel sad, if that comes your way. It is alright. You are under no obligation to have perennial joy.

Remember that most of what troubles you is not, in fact, about you. You are only there as an instrument of aid and comfort, and as an observer. You cannot change things that are not about you in the first place, now, can you? So do what you can to empower the primary person affected, and to pass the acceptance along.

Learn to live without regret. Regret is useless, except as a learning tool. Regret weighs us down. We cannot change what was. I do not regret that my daughter died. No, I don’t. It happened. I cannot change that. I am sad, I mourn and feel grief, but I do not regret. She died. But she lived first, and I am happy for that. I feel joy in having known her.

I accept now that I will always have a well of sorrow. I will always miss her, and that’s okay too. It is my lot. Fighting it would not honor either myself or my little girl.

I accept, and this year I will “keep on keeping on”…and do whatever needs to be done, take my pleasures where they come, and work within the reality that is my life.

Posted in Faith, Learning, Mindfulness, Parents and children, Spirituality, Transitions | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Here Comes Another One

I admit it, New Year’s is not my favorite holiday. Football and resolution making just don’t hold my attention I guess. They pale in comparison to 4th of July fireworks, Thanksgiving dinner, and trimming the Christmas tree.

By January 1, I’ve had enough holiday food. A bowl of black bean soup sounds great.

But many friends do, indeed, celebrate the New Year. Facebook proves it. You’re celebrating this year in Miami and New York City, at the K of C Hall up the road, and at the Rose Bowl.

You’re making those resolutions again this year; you’re not smoking, saving some money, getting new jobs, going gluten free.

You’re toasting at midnight, and nibbling on bacon-wrapped dates. You’re wearing party hats and plastic tiaras.

Wherever we are, we’re wishing each other well on this New Year’s Day. We wish one another health. Happiness. Joy. Prosperity. Good luck. Peace. Hope.

But my childhood friend Cleo put it differently. She said, looking back on a particularly rough time in 2013, “Okay old girl, here comes another one to get through. I guess I’ll just keep on keeping on.”

And some of us will just keep on. A. will show up for chemo, still in shock that it is really lymphoma.  L.  will take her little girl to fancy hospitals for endless needle sticks and complicated genetic tests.  E. will hold on to whatever shreds of her marriage she can. S. will cry for the baby that died. C. will try once again to make ends meet. R. will keep looking for a place to live. M. will mourn for the dreams that, she believes, will never come true.

The sun will rise tomorrow, and “the holidays” will officially be over. Winter stretches before us, a long road, with some slush piled up along the sides.  Real life is waiting.

And even though I wish you health and happiness and all the rest, the real meat and potatoes of the New Year gets served up when the wishes don’t come true.

So let me rephrase those wishes just a bit.

When you are sick, I wish you a hand to hold and a hopeful heart.When you are hurting, I wish you a compassionate friend who will come and sit by your side.When you are cold, I wish you a safe place to call home.When disappointments mount, I wish you the gift of gratitude and the ability to county your blessings. When money is tight, I wish you the satisfaction of honorable work. When the noise of the world deafens, I wish you a calm and quiet heart.

Blogger Alyssa Cherry put it this way: I hope your year is filled with soft pjs and best friends in yellow kitchens and banana pancakes and loved ones who feed the chickens while you pretend to sleep in.

Here comes another one. Keeping on is a great resolution. Let’s get through it together, okay?

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Remember the Innocent

Never Forget

Never Forget

Today many of us will remember where we were 12 years ago. I saw a car accident on my way to work that morning and thought, “Someone’s day isn’t going the way they planned.”

90 minutes later, word came to my office about the first plane hitting the Trade Center, and I thought, “Where on earth is air traffic control?” When the second plane hit, I experienced a moment of pure disbelief. “But people are in those buildings,” I stammered to my secretary. “People who just went to work.”

Parents streamed into my school to pick up their children. Businesses closed. I asked teachers to leave the television monitors in their classrooms off – the news was too overwhelming, the images too horrible, the lack of answers too frightening.

Today, there aren’t many words left. That day divided American history into “before” and “after,” as historic events do. We don’t take our safety for granted as we did “before.” We know America isn’t  “off limits” when it comes to terrorism.  We strip our coats, belts and shoes off at the airport, and feel an odd tinge of gratitude for the bomb sniffing dogs at the train stations.

We know  for certain that evil is an active force in the world.

Our son Bryce has become a first responder since 9/11. Our soldier son Matt has been deployed twice since that day. I honor those who go where they need to go, who do what they need to do, who serve others even when it means sacrifice and risk to themselves.

Let us remember the innocent. The victims.

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June 1968: All’s Right With the World



Photo: Hank Walker

School was almost out for the year, but the morning had dawned brisk, and a little chilly. By lunchtime, though, the day turned warm. I pushed up the sleeves of my green Garland sweater, wishing I’d chosen something lighter for school that day.

The tall wooden windows in Mr. VanderVen’s room stood wide open as we filed in for English class. The air hung still; the room smelled like sweaty seventh graders and chalk. I took my place in the back row, sliding into the wooden desk and stacking my books on the wire rack underneath the seat. I took out a pencil and fresh piece of notebook paper, but we didn’t have much homework to review.

My mom always said I was lucky to have Mr. VanderVen for English. His wife taught for years at the same school where my mom worked, so they were part of the “teacher network” that existed around town. Mr. VanderVen was one of the classics – sort of a local legend. He made sure that we learned to diagram a sentence, use proper parts of speech, and memorized poetry. In fact, it’s only because of Mr. VanderVen that I ever learned a single word by Robert Browning, but I still remember this one:

The year’s at the spring

And day’s at the morn;

Morning’s at seven;

The hillside’s dew pearled;

The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn:

God’s in His heaven – 

All’s right with the world!

That day, so close to the end of the year, a lot of teachers let formal lesson planning slide. Mr. VanderVen was no exception, and he opened up the floor to discussion. There was a lot going on in the news; the Detroit Tigers were off to a great start in ‘68. He challenged one of the girls on the other side of the room to name the Tigers first baseman. She grinned for a split second before replying, “Al Kaline.” He laughed.

And the night before, Bobby Kennedy had been shot in Los Angeles. We all remembered the King assassination, just weeks before. Most of us had been third graders when President Kennedy was killed, and we watched Lee Harvey Oswald die on our black and white TV screens. Ours was the first generation, I guess, that grew up measuring time by assassinations. Our TV violence was the real life stuff that would become contemporary history.

I sat next to a girl named Mary. For a while, she spelled her name Merri, which allowed her to dot the “i” with a heart. Mary/Merri reached into her purse and offered me a piece of Juicy Fruit – forbidden contraband in those days at Central Junior High. More importantly, though, she tipped her purse just enough so I could see the corner of a transistor radio inside. As Mr. VanderVen talked on about the Tigers, Mary/Merri slipped the plastic earpiece out of her purse and clicked the radio on. She wiggled in her chair to pull in a better signal from WKNR 1340; we were fortunate to sit near those windows or there would be no signal at all.

Suddenly, Mary’s head jerked up. The earpiece fell to the ground, making a telltale rattling sound. She didn’t care. She blurted out, “They said Bobby’s ok.”

Posted in Memoir, Rochester, Schools, Teachers, Transitions | Leave a comment

Guest Post: A Child’s Pain, A Mother’s Pain

Last Sunday, America celebrated Mother’s Day. It’s a holiday filled with sentimentality, cleverly wrapped in flowers, brunch, and Hallmark cards. But in recent years, we’ve become aware that Mother’s Day can be a painful day for many women: Those who have never known their mothers. Those who have never borne a child. Those who have laid a child to rest. Those whose best efforts have not been enough to protect a child from pain.

I believe that every mom wants to protect her child from pain. The best efforts, though, sometimes aren’t enough. California writer Tracey Yorkas shares her own experience on this particular Mother’s Day. 

This Mother’s Day I don’t have a mom and I can’t be a mom.

Three weeks after my mother’s sudden death last summer, my 13 year-old daughter was diagnosed with depression.

Fast forward to today. My daughter sits in a residential treatment center struggling with self-harm.

She will spend her Sunday playing cards, going on a brief outing, and attending therapy groups.

I will speak with her for ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes at dinnertime.  I will look at the Post-It notes she wrote in Sharpie for me last year: “HAPPY MOM’S DAY LOVE YOU MORE THAN ANYTHING!”

Unless she remembers it is Mother’s Day, I won’t remind her. She feels bad enough already about events of the last several months.

My wish for you this Mother’s Day season is that you never understand the pain of knowing your child copes by slicing her skin open with a razor blade, or of finding blood on her clothes, or of having someone tell you it would be better if she didn’t live with you for a while. That she is safer elsewhere.

Hearing the words “We think your daughter needs to go to residential treatment” can buckle your knees.

But the truth is that self-harm is a real problem.  Our kids are in trouble.  Keep your eyes open. Does your child refuse to wear shorts or t-shirts?  Does he have unexplained scratches, some more healed than others without explanation?  Has your previously out-going child become withdrawn?  These are warning signs that your child might have turned to self-harm or “cutting.”  (S)he might not need residential treatment, but it is a cry for help.

You can’t pretend it will go away.

In school we educate our children about the dangers of illegal drugs and unprotected sex.  Let’s tell them they don’t have to suffer alone or in silence and that a razor blade is not their best friend.

Posted in Body Image, Family, Holidays, Parents and children | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Rest Well, Old Girl


I woke up early today, and pulled on my black yoga pants and a plain t shirt. I barely combed my hair. No need to look in the mirror; It was not a morning for makeup. I’d shower after a while. 

I watched Holly stagger out the back door.  She didn’t go far, but her legs looked a little steadier today. She returned to the house and walked past her food bowl without a glance; she quit eating on Wednesday.

I glanced at the clock. It was time to go. I clipped the blue leash onto her collar, and hesitated. I bent down and wrapped my arms around her broad neck, nuzzling the top of her head. “Good girl, “ I whispered, as if she could hear me. “Let’s go, Doodlebug.”

We stepped out into the cloudy Florida morning. The air was warmer than it looked from inside.

When we got to the car in the driveway, Holly didn’t hesitate. She’s always been a good traveller. I lifted her tenderly, and placed her hind legs up on the seat.

From behind the wheel, I rolled the rear window down all the way. She might as well have her head out the window this morning. But she laid on the seat, head down. I knew then that she had surrendered.

The Golden Gate Animal Clinic sits in a low 1950’s style building, a block off the main road. You wouldn’t know it was there, unless you went looking for it. It’s not in a fancy part of town. But a friend told me that Dr. Lanier was a kind and gentle man. And he had a great way with Holly. He saw her four times last week.

Walking toward the door, I almost detected a little bounce in Holly’s step. Hope flickered for a moment. Maybe she felt  a remnant of her normal curiosity about this trip. Maybe she felt happy to be out on a journey. She sniffed the grass off to the right, like always.

Just before the door into the office, the concrete sidewalk ends. Emerald green indoor/outdoor carpeting covers the entry step. Holly’s back legs gave out before we reached the edge of the carpet. I reached under her belly to catch her before she fell, and held the door open with one foot so I could help her in. I was glad that in Florida, entry doors open outward.

The receptionist had the papers waiting. I checked the boxes and signed my name. She ushered us to the exam room.

Holly leaned her weight against my legs for a moment and held her head low. She laid down then, full out on her side. Her head rested on the beige tile floor. She didn’t move when another dog got rowdy in the hallway outside. She didn’t move when Dr. Lanier entered the room.

He would give her a tranquilizer, he explained. It would relax her. It was time. She had gone downhill. He gave her the injection in her shoulder; she didn’t flinch.

I bent forward and laid my hand on her side. I watched her belly rise slowly, slowly with each breath. I wanted her to feel my touch. I wanted her to know she was not alone. She couldn’t stand to be alone. It was her greatest fear. I heard the snuffly, snoring noise that a boxer makes when it breathes. I realized that her coat was almost completely silver grey.

The doctor came back with his assistant. He held a brown leather muzzle. Because the tumor was in her brain, he said, it can cause behavior that we wouldn’t expect. He would muzzle her while he started the tiny IV line in her front leg.  Just in case. The technician held Holly’s head. I kept my hand on her side. The doctor knelt and swabbed her leg with alcohol. We formed a kind of trinity, kneeling around this innocent dog who always fancied herself the center of attention.

She didn’t move as the medication flowed up the plastic line and into her tired body. Her chest went still. My hand lingered on her short fawn coat, still feeling her warmth. The room was silent until Dr. Lanier whispered, “She’s already gone.”

Photo: Holly at her Pennsylvania home, after an exciting trip to the mailbox. 2011. 

Posted in Animals, Domesticity, Family, Memoir, Transitions | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

What Does Polyester Have To Do With Playing Monopoly?



Aunt Effie was the trendsetter in our family. She and Uncle Orlie built a tidy brick ranch house on what would become the good side of town. She was the first to have a dishwasher, a family room with a fireplace, and an aluminum Christmas tree with a rotating color wheel. Aunt Effie took her housekeeping seriously and proclaimed the virtues of kitchen carpeting before any of her three sisters. She was the first to step into the world of Italian cooking, with her homemade meatballs and sauce. I still have a handwritten copy of her recipe.

And so, on a particular Sunday afternoon visit to Aunt Effie’s house, no one argued or asked why when she commanded us to sit on the rose beige sofa and just wait.

“I have something to show you,” she announced. We sat silently, obediently, as she disappeared into a bedroom and emerged a minute or two later with a piece of navy blue fabric over her arm – I would guess about 2 yards. She held it in front of us and announced, “Just feel this!”

And then, with a flourish, “This….is….polyester!”

We stroked the thick double knit finish in awe.

And that was the beginning of the end.

Not of the world of course, but of the chore that consumed most Sunday afternoons at our house: ironing.

I learned to iron when I was eight or so; I’d watched my mom and older sister tackle the task for years, and loved the smell of fresh laundry and hot steam. When the day finally arrived that I could be trusted with the black and silver GE iron, it was a rite of passage. I started on flat items: dad’s white handkerchiefs. Pillowcases. Later, I graduated to white crew neck undershirts. (Yes, we even ironed undershirts.)

Mom was always good at simplifying her ironing, though. My dad’s heavy green work pants hung on the basement clothesline with metal pants stretchers in each leg to form the crease. Other pieces hung on the backyard line in the summer. Cotton percale sheets grew stiff in the sun, but smelled like fresh air even after they were folded and placed in the linen closet.

My brother’s dress shirts defied all shortcuts though. In the mid-1960’s, Mike was in the heyday of his teenage years. His preteen chubbiness was gone; he grew to a handsome six-footer who never lacked for friends hovering nearby. It was the era of the British Invasion, and style dictated that “all the guys” wore tapered black pants and white dress shirts. Every day. It was the only thing Mike would wear to school, despite mom’s plaintive questioning, “White?”

I know now what she was thinking. A white shirt can’t be worn twice. More laundry. And more ironing. Eventually, I learned her system for ironing a shirt properly: collar, cuffs and button placket first. Then the shoulders and back yoke. Sleeves next. Finish with the body. Have a hanger ready.

I don’t iron much these days, and I know a lot of people who don’t iron at all. Still, I felt a pang of nostalgia this week when Hasbro retired the iron game token from 21st century Monopoly boards. The game piece was described as an anathema – it was an old flatiron that had to be warmed on the hearth or wood stove. A cat will replace the trusty iron, to make life interesting for the Scottie dog I guess. The boot, race car, top hat, battleship, wheelbarrow and thimble remain, but I have to wonder if very many kids today know what a thimble is when they select their tokens and begin to learn the game.


Posted in Domesticity, Family, Memoir, Parents and children | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Off The Radar: Reflecting On The Common Cold


The first twinge came on Monday – a trace of dryness in my eyes. Maybe nothing. Maybe the lighting at work, or a little eye strain. But I knew better. It was the first sign.

On Tuesday, it escalated to what I called “sniffles.” I kept a fistful of kleenex in my pocket hoping that no one at work would notice when I slipped out of sight to blow my nose. Chugged mint tea on my breaks. Told myself I was fine, really. I would go to bed early and sleep it off.

By Wednesday, my head felt like a stuffed cabbage. I stepped it up to Day Quill, with a backup supply of tissues in the car. By the end of the day I was glassy and worn out. I was grateful for light traffic driving home, and rounded the corner onto my street with relief. Hopefully I could catch a short nap before heading into an evening with some kids from church (which involved feeding about 20 people at my house, but that’s another story.)

I pulled into the driveway, and noticed that the tree on my left seemed out of place; it’s my reference point to be sure I am pulled up close enough to the garage door. The numbers on the front of the house seemed off kilter somehow, but inertia kept me moving forward. I climbed out of the car and gathered my keys, phone, and bag. As I rounded the corner of the house near the front door, I finally stopped. This was all wrong. My sidewalk goes into a courtyard; this one was out in the open. I retraced my steps and realized I had pulled into the neighbor’s driveway, not my own.

But I still couldn’t admit I was really, truly sick. I took that nap, changed clothes, and (really, truly) enjoyed baked ziti with a houseful of teenaged girls.

The next morning, the signals were clear. Just enough of a fever to give my skin that creepy crawly don’t touch me feeling. Overwhelming fatigue. I dared not be more than an arm’s length from the Kleenex box. This was it. The common cold, as it’s called, took charge, and I was down and out for the day.

I don’t get sick often, but if a bug is  bad enough to keep me at home, it’s bad enough to keep me in bed. I wrapped up in quilts and slept most of the day. The TV stayed on – a rarity for me. Certain shows have a tone and cadence that can lull me to sleep; this time, I dozed through episode after episode of Frasier. I only managed to stay awake for only one all the way through, though. (House Full of Heroes, if you’re curious.)

Friday morning dawned with a chill in south Florida. I added a down comforter to the bed, and pulled the duvet over into a double layer on my side. The wastebasket overflowed with used tissues by now, and I was on my second box of Day Quill. I gave up on plans for lunch with an old friend and reached for the remote. More Frasier reruns awaited; even with a fever, I loved the scenes with David Hyde Pierce. I dared not laugh though. It would most likely launch a fit of coughing.

I searched for signs that the cold was abating. Could I get out of bed for longer than 12 minutes at a time? Read the newspaper? Did I care that the water heater had shorted out and a plumber was on the way? Or that the same plumber peeked under the kitchen sink just long enough to confirm that we need a new faucet? I’d intended to work out on this Friday off. No way was that happening. Maybe check Facebook? Nope. I was off the radar for a second day.

Saturday, I realized that my solid food for the last few days had consisted mostly of navel oranges. I opened the pantry to survey my options but nothing looked good. I closed the door and made toast. By nightfall I was back to the pantry, this time for saltines and a bowl of cereal. More carbs than I usually like to eat, but I figured my nutritional balance was shot for the day anyway. Besides, those oranges had to count for something good, right?

It’s Sunday morning now, and it looks like the kind of day that makes people want to come to Florida for the winter. I’m sipping ginger tea and thinking about shaving my legs. I must feel better today.

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And Now, A Word From The Teacher In Me

Another viral video crossed my desk last week, accompanied by a lot of “Awwww….so cute!” comments. This one features Dixie, a puppy heading down a flight of stairs for the first time, with a little help from a friend – a Golden Retriever named Simon.

If you haven’t seen it, here’s a link:

Yes, Dixie is indeed a cuddly pup, and Simon took on the role of adorable big brother as he helped Dixie figure out how to make it to the bottom in one piece.

But I can’t help drawing the analogy to my teaching life when I watch that video (and I’ve watched it now, about twenty times.)

To that puppy, a half-flight of stairs compares to an adult leaping head first off an 80 foot cliff. Ditto the fourth grader coming nose to nose with dividing fractions…the eighth grader  grappling with a long chapter of American History….the high school Sophomore about to open the pages of The Odyssey….the college Freshman walking into an organic chemistry lab…the law student prepping her first brief.

The unknown is scary stuff. Testing your ability to master new learning is scary, too. It seems, of course, that everyone else is so…so smart! So accomplished!

Every one of us has asked, at some point, “What if I fail?”

I’ve known great and accomplished teachers, from the time I was a small child right on through my professional years.

And I’ve studied teaching and learning. A lot.

Whether the lesson is one for a new puppy on her first journey down the stairs, or one for that law student, there are a few things that great and accomplished teachers do every day. There are a few things those great and accomplished teachers know for sure.

In college, it’s called instructional pedagogy. Good pedagogy gets good results; kids learn well from teachers who do it right. In fact, it’s what a lot of education reformers fuss about much of the time. We can learn it from professors and textbooks, of course, but today we’ll take our lesson from Simon and Dixie.

Here’s what Simon – and those great teachers – know:

  • Some students will learn quickly. Some won’t. Be patient.
  • Having a little experience makes things easier. Draw on your students’ background experience when you can. Share a bit of your own.
  • Learning is an act of courage. Respect the courage of your students as they try. Respect them even more if they try and fail and come back to try again.
  •  It helps to have a good example. It helps even more when that good example -the teacher, mentor, coach, or tutor – doesn’t give up but keeps on coming back around to help again and again….and again.
  • Peer-to-peer teaching is powerful, on both sides of the equation.
  • “Show” – don’t “tell.” Work with me until I can get it on my own.
  • Give lots of chances for practice. Build confidence to take the next step.
  •  No student is hopeless, even if they sit down and dig in their heels for a moment.
  • Sometimes, when we are right at the edge of success, it can all seem like too much. Pace activities to move students forward, even when they want to retreat.
  •  Celebrate success! Celebrate learning! Don’t just “test” it, “evaluate” it, and “score” it. You’ve given that student (or even a puppy) a skill she can build on and draw on forever. It’s those “tail wagging” moments that we remember.

Look back on your own life and learning. Pull up a memory of a great big lesson you learned. Enjoy that memory today, for a minute or two.

Video Credit: Tim Doucette

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