Posts Tagged ‘School’

Decision Times

Wednesday, March 26, 2014
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I was organizing old photograph albums on a shelf in the basement when I found a journal from my teenage years. I picked  up thedr-seuss-memory-quote spiral-bound notebook filled with sprawling cursive writing, but I only read a few lines before  putting it down.

I’d thought I would enjoy reminiscing with the author, but I realized that I didn’t even recognize her. I recalled the events and even many of the emotions she described, but I didn’t remember the girl.

Experience and time have distorted my memories of the teenage girl I once was, and even though I still have a great deal in common with her, we are now very different people. And in reading those few journal entries, I found myself wondering how that teenage girl could possibly have been expected to plan what she wanted to do with the rest of her life when she hadn’t yet grown into herself.

dr seussNow, 30 years later, that former teenage girl is fielding questions about what her son wants to do with the rest of his life, and I’m having a tough time believing that he can possibly know.

Maybe I’m a cynic. After all, I’m just as astonished by people who stay in the same career, much the less the same job, for their entire life as I am by people who are still married to their high school sweetheart.

In my world, that just doesn’t happen.

In my world, teenagers are just tall children who are exploring the world and discovering new interests and passions every day. They are young souls who are still learning that life isn’t about one decision that will lead them down the right path but about a series of decisions that will take them on an adventure.  And the are unique individuals who still need to determine how to use their gifts.

But I realize that’s in my world.

In the real world, teenagers are encouraged to identify their interests, decide on a college major and purse a career path by the time they are 21.

Maybe, if I didn’t have a son who was only a baby last week and is turning 16 next week, I might buy into that world.

But in reality, my son who is still trying to figure out who he is, and I’m pretty sure that the only way he can do that is through experiences – both good and bad. My job as a parent is to encourage him so he pursue opportunities that will allow him the time and the freedom to learn about himself.  And I hope he encounters some life-changing adventures along the way.places-ypu-will-go-quote

I also like to think that the teenager I used to be hopes for the same thing.

According to her journal, she does.



Monday, March 3, 2014
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I should've seen it coming.

I should’ve seen it coming.

I knew she’d ask me “that question” sooner or later.  I’d prepared for the moment, but when it happened, I stumbled. I stuttered. I stammered.  I’d practiced my response for months; rehearsed it in my journal.  I wrote down all the clichés that would make understanding appropriate for her age level.  I read multiple articles about this topic, and I bought a few books to help me understand how times have changed.

My 10-year-old daughter is going off to middle school next year. I’ve been told that I must address these delicate issues before she sets foot in this new place. But, I waited until she asked the question that I’ve been dreading.

“Mom, what if I don’t fit in?”

Gotcha! You thought it was the big birds-n-bees talk, didn’t you? But this conversation is equally burdensome for a parent.  What if your child doesn’t fit in?  Did you?

I didn’t at first. Seventh grade was an awkward time (that phrase is spot on) in which I wore a denim jacket with every outfit.  I grew out of Palmetto jeans (not Guess) every other month, and my hair was as shocking as the gap between my front teeth. A bad perm was tinted a terrible shade of orange thanks to a bottle of Sun-In highlight spray, and it wasn’t complemented by bronzing makeup that stopped sharply at the jawline. I looked weird.  I was weird.  I carried my mother’s old Aigner purse, for heaven’s sake.  Think I’m over it?

My daughter popped the question on my bed one night, when she should’ve been fast asleep.  She lingered a little longer that evening, bouncing a foot like she was kicking an invisible soccer ball.  “What is it?” I asked, closing my book.

She crossed her legs into some type of yoga pose.  This was going to take awhile.

“What if I don’t fit in next year?”

Mike walked downstairs to check the door locks for the third time.

“What makes you think you won’t?” I countered.

She shrugged her shoulders.  “I had a bad dream a few nights ago that I was walking down the hallway, and I didn’t know where I was going.  A group of girls started laughing at me, and then one chased me through all these classrooms.”

I shuddered.  Dear God, that would scare anyone.

“And I couldn’t get away from her.”

My overly-analytical parenting style forced me into thinking that she was dreaming these horrible things to try to deal with deeply-rooted worries.  It was her mind’s way of bringing a problem to the surface (I guess). This also explains why she’s been in my bed for the last few mornings, watching the alarm clock.

“Are you treated that way now?” I asked.

She shook her head no.  I then asked how much TV she’d been watching, or if her books were too old for her.  She shook her head no again. “I’m reading about Jackie Kennedy,” she said. Well that Ethel could be a real bully, I joked.  She didn’t laugh.

“You’ll fit in because you and 50 other kids from your school are headed in the same direction,” I began.  “They’re not breaking off from the mix just yet.  But most of them are involved in something — dance, soccer, softball, gymnastics — which will make the first days of school a little easier,” I admitted.

Choosing to be uninvolved has ramifications. Inaction has consequences, too.  “These kids have been going to practices for years,” I warned her.  “So it’s a little late to start something truly competitive,” I said.

After reassuring her that she would have the best years of her life because of a friendly personality, a kind heart and a generous spirit, I shared my worries with a friend as soon as she got out of bed the next morning.

“She is an introvert,” I told her. “She holds back, and we might’ve encouraged it to keep her safe.”

“Then you know what, Katy?” my friend began, in a slightly edgy tone (which scared me).  “That’s when she picks up an instrument and she joins the band.”

I sat there for a moment.  I was in the band. I played the flute (because my cousin did), and then I switched to the saxophone (because my friend did), and then I tried out for the majorette corps (because my cousin and friend did).

“Since kids aren’t introduced to marching band until sixth grade, it doesn’t matter that she’s never had a lesson.”

I perked up.  THE BAND!

Why didn’t this occur to us?  She’s already a student of the Magnet School of Music at West Side Elementary.  Why wouldn’t she continue this interest? THE BAND!

That night (on my bed), I asked our girl what she thought about learning to play an instrument. Flute? Clarinet? Sax?

She curled her lip.

“Well, you have to do something,” I snapped. ”That’s my new rule.  I don’t care if you run cross country or join the debate team, but if you’re worried about fitting in, then you need to find a group that will be a positive influence.”

“Oh no, it’s not that,” she exclaimed, fanning her arms in my face.  “I think I know what I want to do.”

I waited.  She smiled.  Then she laughed.  She tipped over on the bed and giggled some more.

“I want to play the drums.”

After a match of “No, you don’t” and “Yes, I do”, I withdrew from competition.  “You’re serious?” I asked.

“Yes. I want to play the drums and then the xylophone.”

“We’ll support you, but you’ll stick with it,” I replied, shocked that a book about Jackie Kennedy would be replaced by a biography of Ringo Starr.  A similar worry set in. Classmate reaction could go either way. Kids are so critical, especially of those who do something unusual. Fitting in and blending in aren’t exactly the same types of acceptance.

“I’m pretty sure that a tall girl with long, blonde hair and blue eyes pounding on a snare drum will most definitely stand out,” I said.

She never lost her smile. “And you and Dad can sit in the stands and watch!”

With bells on.

The Wrong Question

Wednesday, January 29, 2014
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When I was six, I got my first glimpse at how misguided and even harmful some adults can be.

I already thought my teacher was mean (a belief I still hold today), but I never realized  that she didn’t believe in encouraging her students to develop their own dreams and aspirations.

I figured that out the day Mrs. Gladwill handed each student in her first grade class a large piece of paper with space to draw a picture at the top with lines underneath. She instructed us to draw a picture and write a couple of sentences in answer to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

I soon realized that Mrs. Gladwill cared as much about our answers as she would about a random stranger’s response to the question “how are you?” In other words, she didn’t really care at all.

But even as a first grader, I was a bit of an overachiever. I wanted to impress Mrs. Gladwill with my plans to be a trapeze artist. No matter that I was completely uncoordinated and afraid of taking risks, I was going for glamour.

My first grade brain never equated a career, or even a job, with skills, aptitudes and passions that could make the world a better place. All I understood was a job defined you for life. Why else would adults always be asking “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I wanted to be glamorous and admired. The problem was, I didn’t know how to spell trapeze. When I asked Mrs. Gladwill, her only advice was to look it up in the “book of jobs” she had provided us.

Needless to say, trapeze artist wasn’t listed.

So I had to ask Mrs. Gladwill again.

Instead of just spelling trapeze or suggesting I think about other possibilities, she told me I should be something “normal” like  a nurse.

I had no desire to be nurse, but I recognized the authority she had. So, I reluctantly looked up nurse in the career book and wrote about how I wanted to be one. Thus ended my aspirations of being a trapeze artist.

A few weeks ago, I was reminded of this incident when my son, a sophomore in high school, brought home his ACT Score report. One side provided his test scores and the recommendation he go to a four-year university. The back side was a complicated graph intended to help him make a career choice. I have a Master’s degree, and I didn’t understand how the “world of work” map could be helpful. And it, like Mrs. Gladwill and so many other adults, asked the wrong question: “what do you want to be?”pablo picasso

Every person already “is.” The question adults should be asking children, adolescents, young adults and even each other is “what are your gifts and how do you plan to share them with others?” That, according to  a quote attributed to Pablo Picasso, is the meaning of life.

If Mrs. Gladwill had asked me about my gifts in first grade, I probably would have told her “my imagination and telling stories.”  Neither lended themselves to being a trapeze artist nor a nurse. They didn’t really point to a career as a social worker either, but I would discover new gifts as I matured.

To  me, helping young people discover their gifts is entirely more useful than the “world of work” map my son was handed. And watching them unwrap and use those gifts is actually a gift for all of us.

Procrastination is Making Me Wait

Wednesday, January 22, 2014
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There’s a saying that couples who have been together for a long period of time start to look like each other.procrastination

I don’t think my husband and I have taken on similar physical characteristics, but I do fear we are becoming more alike.

When we got married, people constantly reminded us about how different we are. I’m high strung and feel guilty if I’m not doing something productive. My husband isn’t and doesn’t.

I worry about deadlines and returning phone calls. My husband doesn’t believe in unnecessary stress and knows how to prioritize what is truly important. Needless to say, I’ve sometimes accused him procrastinating.

But lately, I’ve noticed that I’ve started waiting until the last minute to do things. I never did anything well in advance, but I never put things off either. That’s seems to be changing.

Recently, I had a report for work due on Friday, and at 3:00 on that Friday afternoon, I finally started the paperwork. At 3:05 I got an email telling me that the deadline had been extended until Tuesday. Instead of finishing the report, I started working on something else. I didn’t actually complete the report until, you got it, Tuesday afternoon.

Such  behavior defies my innate philosophy about the need to plan for unforeseen circumstances. I’ve tried to teach this to my children, but they have adopted their father’s philosophy of, whenever possible, putting off until tomorrow what you don’t want to do today.

Last month my children should have realized the wisdom of my advice when the unforeseen did happen. I had been hounding my son to finish his science fair project, but he was dragging his feet. With the science fair scheduled for Monday, on Saturday morning I told Shepherd that we would spend the afternoon organizing the data so he could put together charts and his display. With that said, I took the dog for a walk, slipped on ice, shattered my wrist and spent two nights in the hospital.

On Sunday, I had only been out of surgery about an hour when I received a phone call asking if I was up to helping Shepherd with the data. With less than 24 hours before the project was due and literally nothing done, I told him to come by. With laptop in tow, he did, and we put together the charts. For the rest of the day and well into the evening, I got updates about the project. Around midnight, I even received a text with a photo of the display board.

When I got home, very little was said about the project, but I was pretty sure my daughter had assisted with some of the artwork. I was also sure she would take note of the pitfalls of waiting until the last minute. That’s why I was surprised when Kendall didn’t take my advice to work on her social studies fair project during Christmas break. Instead she, like her brother, chose to wait until the weekend before the project was due.

I grumbled, but since the project was her responsibility, there wasn’t much I could do. Besides, Kendall is at that age when she takes great pleasure in testing her mother.

She made that quite clear as she finally cleaned off the coffee table in the family room, dragged out the blank cardboard display board and dramatically opened it on the table. Then, Kendall looked at me and gestured at the table. “It’s procrastination station,” she said. “It worked for Shepherd and it will work for me.”

I wasn’t at all pleased that the kids had actually named the spot where they work on last-minute projects, but my husband seemed to be. He actually grinned when I told him.

I’ll never know for sure, but I’m pretty sure he thinks the children actually inherited that trait from him.

There may be something to that theory, and investigating the existence of a procrastination gene might make a good science fair project.

I’d suggest that to my kids so they could get a jump start on next year, but something tells me that’s just not going to happen.

The Son I Don’t Know

Wednesday, October 2, 2013
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Yesterday, my husband insisted I watch a video of a baby dancing to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” I had just gotten home from work and Image (51)was already on my way out the door again, but Giles was persistent.

When I finally looked, I knew why.

The baby dancing in diapers reminded both of us of our son, a teenager who now towers over both of us.

When he was born, everyone told me the years would fly by, but I really didn’t believe them. Sleepless nights, diapers and endless worries about his development consumed my time and energy.

Now  suddenly, he is  a sophomore in high school with a life about which I know very little.

I know the  boy who walks through my house in his boxer shorts and tousled hair. I know the boy who is obsessed with computers, video games and music. I know the boy who comes home from football games and plays the trumpet after he thinks everyone else is asleep. I even know the boy who gives me sarcastic answers in one breath and says “I love you too, Mom” in the next breath.

But what I don’t know is the teenager who goes to school every day and faces the realities of adolescence and peer pressure. I simply get glimpses of him every now and then.

The first glimpse came at the end of his eighth grade year when he won a dance contest during a school assembly. My son? Seriously? He was never the most coordinated kid nor particularly interested in anything that’s popular. I later found out he’d won the contest by performing the “Dead Bernie,” which is actually a shout out to a movie from the year I graduated from college.

I got another glimpse when I was at Girl Scout camp with my daughter this summer when one of the other mothers mentioned him.

“My son loves Shepherd,” she said. “He’s like Norm on Cheers. When he enters the classroom, everyone yells his name.”

I asked Shep about this, and he stoically said, “I’m a character, Mom.”

And then, at a recent football game, an English teacher was chatting with me. “I love Shepherd,” she said. “He is just so enthusiastic. He doesn’t care what people think about him.”

I got the not caring about what people think about him part, but I wasn’t sure about the enthusiasm. Around the house, he generally shows the enthusiasm of a slug.


But that same night after the game, he was particularly talkative.

“Mom,” he said. “One of the kids from the other band told me I was an awesome trumpet player.”

That’s about as talkative as Shep gets. At least, that’s about as talkative as he gets with me. But he highlighted his enthusiasm by wailing on his trumpet until the wee hours of the morning.

His love of music is why I am being the dutiful mother and taking on responsibilities with the school music boosters. That’s also why, on Monday night, I found myself playing games on my phone during a boosters meeting while I listened to other parents discuss basket bingo and costumes for show choir.

Then the band director said something that caught my attention. The group had been talking about the band’s performance at an away football game when the other school had given them unexpected respect and a standing ovation. In response, the band had signed a thank you letter. Only, according to the band director, he couldn’t send it yet because someone had decided to give himself an inappropriate title upon signing.

My heart sank. The band director never gave any indication about who the culprit was, but I knew. When I got home, I didn’t even ask.  But I did tell my husband, who pursued the issue with Shepherd.

“I asked Shep about signing the letter,” Giles said. “He admitted he embellished his signature a bit by adding that he was the best trumpet player.”

My heart sank a bit that my son had once again gone a bit too far. But then, my heart also lifted.

Maybe I’ve been kidding myself. Maybe I do know my son better than I thought.

Maybe, just maybe, I am having a problem letting go of the toddler and embracing the man he will soon be.

But in the meantime, I’m drafting a speech about modesty and how to sign a letter.

I have absolutely no doubt about what Shep’s one word response will be.

And when he says, “whatever,” I’ll know he still needs a mom to guide him.

School’s Out for (Some Of) Summer?

Friday, August 9, 2013
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Today is the first day of school for Kanawha County and I, for one, am JUST. NOT. READY!

Back to School Circa 2011-2012

Back to School Circa 2011-2012

Sorry. Didn’t mean to yell, but- IT’S SUMMERTIME!

I don’t even think my kids are as ill-prepared as I am. Although, they did sleep until noon yesterday; maybe that’s an indication they’re not totally ready for the school year. (Probably, because IT IS STILL THE MIDDLE OF SUMMER!)

I have not even sorted all of their clothes into a “fits/doesn’t fit” pile since THEY SHOULD STILL BE WEARING BATHING SUITS AND FLIP FLOPS for a couple of more weeks and THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO THINK ABOUT NEW TENNIS SHOES AND JEANS!

The clock ran out on us before I had the chance to dip-dye my daughter’s hair pink on the ends; before I had the chance to implement a “prepare for school” study regimen; before we even had the chance to get to the beach, or Ikea, or a major league baseball game!

School board: I NEED MORE TIME!

I have always been, and will always be, a summer person. I love the heat, the long days, and the chance to slow down a bit. Usually, though, as August draws to a close, even this die-hard hot weather girl is ready for brisk mornings, sweaters, college football, and a more structured routine. Now that school is starting early, I’m all confused: up is down and black is white. I’m telling you, this year’s school calendar is hindering my ability to flow naturally from season to season.

Of course, when the calendar came out in December and the early start was announced, rumors flew that the change was a way to prepare teachers, kids, and parents for a move to year-round schools. Kanawha County has not been on a year-round schedule except for four of its schools, but in 2011, then WV School Superintendent Jorea Marple went on record advocating a year-round schedule for all counties. As of now, no permanent change has been announced and, actually, the vote to start school early was a fairly close one: 3-2 in favor of starting at a time that would allow the semester to end before the Christmas break.

Personally, up until now, I have been cautiously optimistic about a year-round schedule. When I lived in California in the 90s, the vast majority of public schools were year-round (or, on a “balanced schedule”). Of course, I was all of 21, so I really didn’t care what the little hooligans did all year, or when they did it as long as it didn’t affect my tan. But, when I became a parent, I could see the potential benefits of a year-round schedule: better knowledge retention and a more consistent routine. Also, I understand that so many kids in West Virginia count on school breakfasts and lunches for better nutrition. When more than half of our state’s kids are living in poverty, it seems sort of a no-brainer to keep them in school and well-fed.

So, I was surprised to find myself whining and complaining so much as today drew near. I had considered myself pretty open-minded and flexible about the schedule, but- man- you should have heard me grumbling through haircuts, back-to-school shopping and the inevitable South Hills traffic snarl. I didn’t realize cutting summer short by just a couple of weeks would get me in such a funk. Are my concerns mostly just selfish annoyances? Am I hanging onto an outdated ideal of what summertime is supposed to be for kids? After all, giving kids a “break” wasn’t the original intention behind summer break- it was more about getting them to bale hay, right?

What do you think, Readers? If you have kids in Kanawha County Schools, are you as flummoxed as I am? Do you think this is a lead-up to a balanced schedule? And, if so, how do you feel about year-round schools? I want to know what you think!

In the interim, I’ll be at the pool, or raking leaves, or whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing in this transitional season.

Trying to Break the Dress Code

Wednesday, August 7, 2013
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I spent the first 45 years of my life hating uniforms. I was never attracted to men who wore them, and I never wanted to wear one myself.

I hated conformity to such an extent that I didn’t even like wearing a name tag or a shirt with my employer’s name or logo. At times, I had to wear them, but I didn’t enjoy doing so.

Then last year I attended my daughter’s middle-school orientation, and I started re-thinking the issue of uniforms.

Even though I’d already spent three years as the mother of a middle-school student, that student was my son. And during his middle-school years, he generally wore whatever I bought him without complaint. (That all changed when he started high school, but during middle school he was fairly oblivious to style.)

But my daughter is different. She’s been fashion conscious since she was old enough to pull clothes off store racks.

Fortunately, Kendall is also fairly level-headed, so I’d never been that concerned about her clothing choices. But her entry into middle school marked my sudden interest in school uniforms.

As we sat in the gym bleachers at her school orientation, I assumed the heavily made up girl in short shorts and a tight t-shirt was the older sister of an incoming student.

I was wrong. She was the classmate of Kendall, who was only turning 11 the next week.

On the way home, I couldn’t resist asking my daughter what she thought of the makeup and clothes.

I was relieved she wasn’t impressed, and even now as she prepares to enter seventh grade, she still prefers modest clothes and a fresh face.  I’m hoping that continues, but there are never guarantees.

For the moment, I have other concerns. The selection of modest and appropriate clothes is getting smaller with every inch she grows. Finding age-appropriate clothes in her size isn’t easy. Many of the dresses are suggestive, the shorts could be bikini bottoms and words on the rear end of pants are just not acceptable.

Then there are the school dress code rules about fingertip-length shorts and see-through shirts that we have to follow. Last year, Kendall was wearing a modest ivory shirt with a tank top underneath and was still told she wasn’t allowed to wear a see-through shirt by a rather militant teacher.

She was embarrassed and devastated and hasn’t worn the shirt since.

Which is why I’ve begun to re-think the whole issue of uniforms. It would certainly make the morning rush a bit easier, because no matter what clothes Kendall lays out the night before, by morning she has changed her mind.

It would also make shopping easier.

I was almost sold on the idea of school uniforms until Kendall performed in the musical Annie this summer.hooverville

She was a member of the chorus and filled multiple roles including a nun, a homeless person in Hooverville and a maid in the Warbucks mansion.

The nun’s costume is self-explanatory and she could have been taken for one of the orphans in her homeless costume.

But when she put on her maid’s uniform, she looked like an adult.maid

And, since she doesn’t turn 12 until the end of August, I had a difficult time seeing her in it.

I know school uniforms are quite different, but that modest maid’s uniform has me once again disliking all uniforms.

For now, I’ll rely on t-shirts, jeans, cute skirts, modest dresses and a great deal of  faith that she won’t grow up any faster than necessary.

The Morale of the Story

Monday, May 27, 2013
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Reflecting on the school year, I recently posted on my agency’s Facebook page that I hoped the next TIME Magazine “Person of the Year” honor would be given to the American teacher.  Aside from theories and theorems, today’s teacher also serves as a bodyguard for however many students reside in his or her classroom.  From campus shootings to EF-5 tornadoes, teachers are now pressured to be skilled in reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and…reaction.

Yet teaching is one of the lowest paying, least appreciated professions in the book. So when I told a colleague that my daughters intend to be teachers one day, he shook his head in disagreement.  “Why would you encourage that?” he asked.  “Push them into something else. Instead of teaching math and science for a living, why aren’t you making them do math and science for a living?”

You mean, why am I not preaching the success stories of Meg Whitman, the former CEO of Ebay and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook?  I could tell you why, but I think I’ll let my 9-year old daughter, Ava, explain herself instead.

“When I grow up, I want to be a teacher.  My mom teaches when she is in-between writing projects, and I want to be like her.  I want to teach children how to read and write.

Becoming a teacher will take a lot of hard work, because I will have to master subjects such as English and Algebra.  I will have to keep making good grades so I can get a college scholarship to attend a nice school like the University of Charleston.  I know I have to take two tests, the ACT and the SAT, before I can be accepted.  I still may have to work while I go to school to get my elementary education degree. Then, I will have to pass more tests to get a teaching certificate.

I want to give students a positive start in school.  I’d like to take care of younger students who might miss their parents.  Also, I want students to love learning so they can be smart and prepared for the next year of school.

I hope to find a teaching job that would let me stay in West Virginia. I’d like to work at my current elementary school, because I have learned so much in each grade. I think I’d like to teach kindergarten so that I can give children the proper start they need in school.

In ending, I feel that being a teacher is difficult work but a great career because every child deserves a chance to learn lots of information from someone who cares.”  (Westest Writing Assessment)

The main idea of this story isn’t about money.  Ava never mentions how much she’ll earn or what she’ll spend it on. In time, I’m sure this will change.  But for now, the main idea is about giving others a brighter future. What do I want for her, though? I don’t want her to stop here.  I want my daughter to keep going. While there’s absolutely nothing “wrong” with becoming a kindergarten teacher, I do hope she’ll press on to obtain a master’s degree or a Ph.D.  We want her to become that teacher…then principal…then dean or provost…and then…president. As parents, we’re confident that one of these days, Ava will be known as a Ms. Someone.  Perhaps she really will become a Dr. Somebody. But what’s more impressive than becoming a Meg Whitman or a Sheryl Sandberg?  Being one of the educators who taught them everything they know.




The Genius of Mr. Hoff

Wednesday, April 24, 2013
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As a fifth grader, I thought my teacher, Mr. Hoff, was a very odd man.

He was balding and middle-aged, but he walked with the gait of a gawky teenager who hadn’t quite yet adjusted to his new body. Instead of drinking coffee, he carried a thermos full of milk that he kept with him at all times. He wore a funny-looking, fuzzy, fur hat, and he would often break into song during the middle of class.

Mr. Hoff was the best teacher I ever had.

With an unorthodox approach to education and a genuine understanding of what kids really need, Mr. Hoff didn’t teach to the test and often didn’t even teach from a book. Instead, he taught from his heart and for his students.

We learned the parts of speech, how to solve complicated math problems and how fossils were formed. More importantly, we learned that education could actually be fun and exciting.

Thirty-five years later, I still remember.

On the first day of school after summer vacation, my classmates and I quickly discovered that Mr. Hoff wasn’t like any other teacher we’d ever known. He didn’t take a lot of time going over the classroom rules or carefully assigning us seats. Instead, he drank milk and talked about his passion for history. When he stopped talking, he told us to put away everything but a pencil and paper. He then instructed us to write everything we knew about history. Everything.

Since I’d spent much of my summer reading biographies from the public library, I was sure I’d ace the first test of fifth grade. Long after the other students had turned in their papers, I was still writing, and I handed in my essay with great pride. I anticipated an excellent grade and praise from Mr. Hoff. Instead, I got nothing. The papers were never graded and eventually forgotten.

As the school year wore on, Mr. Hoff continued to surprise and delight our class.

Instead of spending his free time with the other teachers, he chose to spend time with us and engage in conversation about our lives.

If we were restless, he rarely told us to quiet down or pay attention. Instead, he would take us outside for an unscheduled recess or to the gym to play dodgeball.

Like most of my classmates, Mr. Hoff preferred to be outside rather than in his classroom. He taught us geography by taking us into the schoolyard and pointing out the  peaks of the Cascade Mountains. He taught us geology by taking us spelunking. We learned how engines worked by peering inside the hood of Mr. Hoff’s car and by visiting vocational classes at the local high school next door.

When weather or other forces kept us inside, Mr. Hoff kept us interested in grammar by playing games. He kept us interested in history by telling stories. He told lots and lots of stories.

But Mr. Hoff didn’t just entertain us, he expected us to learn. Unlike other teachers who scheduled tests, Mr. Hoff gave pop quizzes about anything and everything. We never knew when we’d have one or what the topic would be, so we paid attention.

The school year sped by, and the last week of school arrived too soon. During one of those final days of fifth grade, Mr. Hoff once again told us to put everything away but a  pencil and paper and to write down everything we knew about history. Everything.

This time, I wasn’t the only one who wrote, and wrote and wrote. The classroom was silent except for the scratching of pencils, the turning of paper and the occasional whir of the pencil sharpener. When the bell rang, Mr. Hoff collected our papers.

The next day, he handed them back along with the essays we’d each written on the first day of school.

“I encourage you,” he said, “to read both and tell me what you learned this year.”

The classroom erupted in noise. Everyone was talking and laughing about how little we’d known only nine months earlier.  When Mr. Hoff asked for comments, everyone put a hand up.

Everyone had learned something.

Before the final bell rang, Mr. Hoff told us, “Education and life have a lot in common. They aren’t about how much you already know but about how much you continue to learn.”

Now, as a 46 year-old mother of two, I still think Mr. Hoff  was a very odd man, but I know that he was an absolutely brilliant teacher.

A School of Thought

Monday, January 30, 2012
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Finding my happy place.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the different themes in Nanya Friend’s column, “Do you leave or stay in W.Va?”, as well as Philip Maramba’s story, “Some of us stay behind to build something.”  Both pieces stemmed from a blog post written by Jason Headley, who confesses to up and leaving West Virginia for no real reason other than because he could. Now that I’ve properly cited all my sources, I’m ready to give my own thoughts on why “kids” leave home, and why some of them (like me) return.

When I was growing up, I held on to the same dream:  Succeed Joan Lunden on Good Morning America.  I wanted to become the lead anchor on the news desk at a major network and own a fabulous apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  I had no plans to marry and no wishes for children.  I wanted to work hard and live well in front of a camera that promised millions of fans across the country.   That was my life’s ambition through the age of 18.

Today, I’m a freelance writer in Charleston, working out of a basement office between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., which is when I have to stop for a few hours to pick up my children from an elementary school situated a stone’s throw away from our traditional, two-story home.

Dreams derailed? Not at all.  That grass simply wasn’t greener on the other side.  It was just a different patch of grass.

When I was a high school student, I believed that I couldn’t become a true reporter unless I graduated from Ohio University.  I applied to one school and was accepted, thankfully, but I didn’t stay long.  After one month of classes, I learned that I missed my mother more than I wanted a degree from the prestigious Scripps School of Journalism.  I didn’t care that I was one of 12 students welcomed into the broadcast program.  I wanted to go home.

I enrolled at the University of Charleston through the help of an academic scholarship and picked up where I left off in the mass communications program.  I returned to the small TV studio that I worked at during my junior and senior years of high school, and I returned to my small bedroom in the back of my parent’s Kanawha City cottage.  I never regretted leaving O.U. or becoming a commuter student.  I regretted letting myself be influenced by other people and other places.  I didn’t follow my heart.  I followed everybody else.

And my parents watched me do it, even though it was costly.  ”I had to let you go,” my mother told me during the trip back to Charleston.  ”You would have always blamed me if I hadn’t let you try it, but I knew that it wasn’t the place for you.”

Where is the best place for our kids? With us? With someone else? Here or there?

Less than a week after our daughters were born, my husband made appointments with a financial adviser to set up college funds.  As soon as we got them home from the hospital, we started thinking of how to send them away! It’s ironic, really.  We work so hard to bring healthy children into our lives, but then we have to plan to let them go.  It’s often called giving them roots and wings.

Both of our daughters want to become teachers when they grow up.   At age 8, Ava is adamant about becoming a kindergarten teacher so she can help children learn how to read. Maryn, age 5, wants to be an art teacher so she can “draw like her daddy.”  Both of them have said that they want to go to the University of Charleston so they’ll never have to leave us.  ”I’m going to sit on this couch forever,” Maryn told me one night.

We’ll see about that, little one.

Deep down, I want them to stay.  I know, I know…ask me how I feel about this when they’re teenagers with smart mouths and bad attitudes.  But, I have to admit that I don’t think it’s necessary for the girls to attend UCLA to become school teachers.  What they want to do in life (even though they’re young and most likely going to change their minds 10 times), can be done here.  They can have a good life here.  They can be happy as Mike and I are here.

But even deeper down in my heart, I know that I want them to see new places and try new things.  I want them to have experiences that are full of life, as opposed to full of caution.  I played it safe.  I stayed close to home and avoided change almost every time opportunity presented itself. I was afraid to fly too far away from the nest.  No, I don’t want that for my girls. But, in the end, what I want doesn’t matter one bit.

Could I have been Joan Lunden?  I don’t know.  I suppose life in the Big Apple didn’t mean that much to me, or else I would have stuck with it.  However, I’ve done well professionally, and I’ve certainly “got it all” personally. I’m glad that I chose to return to West Virginia, but had my loved ones been in Wilmington, NC or Napa Valley, CA, I would have found my way back to those places, too.  A physical address didn’t factor into it.  I wanted to be near my mother, who was both a person and a place to me.  She was home.