Friday, March 22, 2013

My Clever Scavenger

A dog who opens doors, who opens jars and bottles.
Canines, Incisors, Nose, Head, Paws.

We crated him. He got out. We crated him again. He got out.

Asleep on the sofa: the McGyver of dogs.

The light from my refrigerator door told the story first. Left swung open--panchetta, cheese, tomatoes disappeared--two times. I removed two screws and placed the handle in a closet. He used his nose.

He tried the bathroom once. He turned on the faucets and drank. And then left the room to flood into the basement. A hand towel was knocked into the sink by doggy-accident.

I placed a baby lock on the fridge. He broke it.
Leftover ham, olives, and cold green tea.
I tried a second lock in a different location. He broke it.
Pepperoni, green peppers, and milk.

The refrigerator remains blocked behind a beer meister every day for over a decade. One time, he pulled the handle and drank beer.

Now my beer is locked.
And the fridge is safe.

The Lazy-Susan has been opened and turned until he found the bread crumbs.  Nothing else was disrupted. Only an empty box was left to gather for the garbage.

He opened bi-fold closet doors secured with bungee cords.

And ate rice, and cereal, and dog biscuits, and dog food, and crackers, and cookies.

He stepped on the release plate, opening the trash compactor. With ease.

He lifts the lids on plastic bins. With ease.

He twists open lids on pickle jars, mustard, and peanut butter. With ease.

He punctured a beer can and emptied it. With ease.

He opens bottles and bananas. His nose nudges open kitchen cabinets, handbags, and coat pockets.

But he has not cracked a can yet although I have found them around the house on occasion.

He leaves behind an open door, shredded cardboard, an overturned end table. He leaves behind the empty containers. But never a stain, a trace of food, or a scent is left.

He cleans his plate. And he always hopes and hopes and hopes to clean my plate.

I rescued him over twelve years ago. He was malnourished and abused. Someone found him along busy Route 7 in Delaware and brought him to the shelter. When I took him, cruel bruises still showed beneath his fur. He flinched and cowered with sudden movement and noise.

Now, over a decade later, my clever scavenger has definitely mellowed...a hair.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Living Harbor

Among the scores of artifacts at Ellis Island, graffiti has been preserved. The sketches kept getting my attention. I can imagine an anxious immigrant sketching a burro from a home, a New York pigeon on a window ledge, or a simple cooking pan.

Chunks of wall behind plexiglass display many names and dates. The photograph I shared reads Pietro Mecia and Tommaso Pirlo---, 31 Agst 1901.

As some immigrants waited on Ellis Island for weeks, these sketches and names are treasures among America's embroiled history of immigration.

They are symbols of the perseverance still required of immigrants today.

And they serve as a reminder to me not only to keep educating myself about our country's history of immigration but also well-read on the current state of affairs. Recently, my students wrote about their family heritage--many do not have to reach all that far back to share their stories of family emigrating to our country. In some cases, I am teaching the children of two adults who sacrificed a family history and a homeland in order to come here for an education.

Sometimes that fact of life as been lost on me. It has been easy (and irresponsible) to see immigration as something that ended once Ellis Island closed, or to just associate it with the early twentieth century and U.S. History textbooks.

As a teacher, my classroom is a living harbor to immigrants. That overwhelms me. The American classroom is indeed one of the last few harbors of hope for the modern immigrant--the entire American classroom, and not just the TESL classrooms.

I need to be mindful of that honor.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Lost Art of Self-Reflection

While a lot of attention is placed on the struggles and realities of states developing an accurate system of teacher evaluation, I wonder how much value is ever placed on teacher self-evaluation. I ask because I do not know.

Are there schools out there who ask their teachers to self-evaluate their practice? To that end, are there schools who ask their teachers to set their own goals? I suppose some may argue that any self-directed professional development programs would serve as an adequate substitue.

What if we were asked to write a response to the following question:

What have you offered this school over the past five years that I would not see had I hired someone else in your place ?

Is that a fair question? Is it dangerous enough that we can smoke the union heads out from their family dinners, screaming? When I press "publish: will I start to feel the electromagnetic panic in the air?

Narcissus and Echo by David Revoy
I'm not suggesting a witch hunt just as I not suggesting an exercise in narcissism. Is the art of introspection only appropriate for Yom Kippur, Alcoholics Anonymous, and readers of Any Rand?

I'm truly wondering where the conversation has been among educators regarding meaningful, written self-reflection...and then maybe a follow-up conversation with a peer, department head, or administrator?

I am wondering about the promises we make when accept a job in any business let alone education. Do we take a job, learn the ropes, and then settle into the routine of the expected? Do we feel compelled to push for more--to achieve greatness? Or do we fall back in with the gang--don't do too much because then they will expect it.

Well...shouldn't "they" expect it...our best? So I ask myself...what is my best?

In education we are asked to study the scores, find areas where we can be better, and then address those weaknesses...raise up the tired, the weak, the huddled masses. Educators are so used to being on the defensive, that posing the question I crafted above can not seem like anything other than a threat or an accusation.

But are we ever asked to reflect on anything other than numbers or how we can demonstrate that the kids have learned more?

Is sound self-reflection happening in any schools? Are any of you self-reflectors?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"Enjoying It."

A small group from our building participates in a holiday "Secret Santa" exchange. Well, we used to call it that. It goes by "Secret Pal" now--you know, no offense...

I participated in it for several years (one of a small number of men). The standard rules include to keep it secret and don't spend anymore than $20 total for the final gift as well as for any little gifts you buy along the way. Usually, people leave small surprises on a desk or in a mailbox--a candy bar, a pack of pretzels, etc.

One year, I drew one of the other male teachers from the hat--"Mike" The responses on Mike's slip of paper read:
What is your favorite color: None
What hobbies or activities do you enjoy: None
What is your favorite snack or drink: I don't care
Share something special with your secret pal to help him/her with gift ideas: I dont care
Irritated, I resolved to shower Mike with the most random gifts every day for the next two weeks. In response for the ridiculous slip, I would have some fun with the situation even if Mike didn't seem to care either way. Among the random gifts I left for him:

  • a flower out of a neighbor's yard--shoved in his teacher mailbox--roots and soil included
  • several clean napkins
  • a half-eaten bag of Cheetos
  • an old book about William Penn's properties
  • an awful handwritten poem
  • a Jesus coloring book
  • a mix tape (CD) of the same song recorded over and over again (I forget the song now)

However, the piece de resistance was his final gift. I enlarged the color staff photo of our oldest and toughest female custodian--Sheila. Tough as nails, Sheila was a legendary battle-ax having worked almost 50 years in the district.

She was short--barely four and half feet tall.

One building legend has it that she once drove midget stock cars. That wasn't repeated as a joke. People actually shared that a serious matter of fact. Another legend has it that she punched a teacher in the face and took him off his feet. The story goes that he snuck up behind her and caught her by surprise...and paid the price.

Of course, Mike did not come to the holiday reveal, so I had to leave his gift on his desk for him (why did he ever participate in the first place?) Wrapped in a beautiful silver holiday paper and a twenty dollar frame, I wish I knew what his face looked like when he saw Sheila smiling up at him through the glass.

Even though we weren't afforded that laugh, I did tell everyone at the final reveal what was in Mike's package.

However, as it turns out, we were blessed with a better laugh, because this isn't the joke.

Mike guy hung the picture up in his classroom!

The main office secretary stopped me one morning and told me that Sheila was hopping mad at me. Earlier, she barreled into the office and told the ladies "wait till I get my hands on that Kelley."

She said she saw her picture in Mike's room when she was delivering some rags for the white board. Bothered by it, she confronted him the next morning--with her finger in his stomach since she couldn't reach his chest. He said it felt like an alien probing him.

She marched into his room before the kids showed and pecked her forefinger into him, "What are you doing with my picture on your wall?"

His response, "Enjoying it."

Long after I bailed out of Secret Santa, the framed photo of Sheila actually ended up being passed around Secret Pal as a gag gift for several years afterwards. Sheila caught wind of that and then really got mad at me--even though I had nothing to do with the gag anymore.

Even after several apologies, Sheila stopped talking to me during the last few years before she retired...and even moved to growling when passing me in the hallway.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Computer On. I repeat...

When I started my current position in 1995, none of us had a computer in our classrooms. A single computer lab, equipped with Apple Color Classics, sat dark on the second floor--at least that is how I remember it since that is the only way I saw it. I have no idea who used them--the dawning of computer access for students hadn't yet yawned in our building.

In 1996, teachers received an offer: attend a computer workshop and get a computer for your classroom.

Incredibly, only a dozen teachers showed for the first round of offers. It was a mixed bunch in terms of experience with a computer. We met in the small, but cozy, library classroom. Our Macintosh LC500 computers awaited us. Directed to sit at any one we liked, that computer would become ours after the training.

While I owned a Powerbook for personal use, the colleague who sat next to me did not have much experience with a computer. Nevertheless, everyone was excited--including the man who sat right next to me.


Ralph had logged over thirty-five years of teaching math to middle school students and was going strong for forty. Time paused forever in the early 60s for Ralph. His Roy Orbison black frames and slick black hair complimented the white short-sleeved dress shirt. It was like his own superhero uniform--he wore this combination every day with charcoal slacks.

He arrived first to school every morning. He put the coffee on. No one else was allowed. During a heavy snowstorm he called me at home and asked me if I wanted to make some extra money plowing snow. Even though we had the day off, I declined. He would needle me relentlessly about passing up a chance to make a few extra dollars.

The workshop started right after school. Our leader directed us to turn on the computers and helped a few of the teachers who sat near the front of the space. As I pressed the inconspicuous power button, I saw Ralph look at the left side of his computer and then the right side.

Most screens blinked to life with the signature Apple tone. Ralph stared at a blank screen.

And before I could open my mouth to help, Ralph did what seemed logical to someone who spent his childhood reading Dick Tracy and middle adulthood watching Star Trek. He pressed the underside of the mouse up to his mouth and enunciated as if he were the real Henry Higgins:
"Computer on."
"I repeat, Computer on."

Note: While "Ralph" is a fictional name--this is a true story. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

YA Book Review: Crank

Crank (Crank, #1)Crank by Ellen Hopkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The book found me after two students used it for a book talk at the start of class--one 8th grade boy, one 8th grade girl. Interestingly, a colleague saw me reading the book and scrunched up her face as if she had tasted something bitter and sour and spoiled--she'd read it too.

In his book talk, the boy talked about the struggle he felt in figuring out what was going on. He was confused. He pressed forward. He admitted he did not understand every page, but he understood enough to want to keep reading--it "hooked me in a lot of different places." He shared the part of the book that kept him the most hooked was the author's note in the front of the novel which he read to the class:

"While this is a work of fiction, it is loosely based on a very true story--my daughter's. The monster did touch her life, and the lives of her family. My family. It is hard to watch someone you love fall so deeply under the spell of a substance that turns him or her into a stranger. Someone you don't even want to know."

"Nothing is impossible in this story. Much of it happened to us, or to families like ours. Many of the characters are composities of real people. If they ring true, they should. The "baby" at the end of the book is now seven years old, and my husband and I have adopted him. He is thriving now, but it took a lot of extra love."

When the girl delivered her book talk (to a different class) she focused on how challenging the story was to read--not the format (free verse)--but the subject matter. The decisions a girl her age made...and the disappointing influences around her. Yet, she admitted, she couldn't put it down.

Both students recommended it to the class...but only if you are mature and willing to look at some of the harder topics of life.

Therefore...I had to read it too.

And it was everything the three people intimated: it challenges hooks you in a lot of different places...and it tastes bitter. That said, God Bless Ellen Hopkins for having the courage to write a story that teens can use to learn about the horrors of "crank" and how drugs will drastically alter your life.

I understand people who want to put their heads in the earth like an ostrich--and in so doing, submerge their son or daughter's head below the surface as well. While life is sweet and beautiful, it is also littered with awful truths. I get that parents want to keep their children protected from these truths...and not every teenager is equipped to read this book. That is also a truth. This is a hard book to digest.


All the more reason for teachers to know the the event that another child, who knows you read the book, comes up and asks, "What did you think of "Crank"...I read it too..."

Books are where kids can meet life on their own terms in a safe place. Adults can be the safety net for when they find these books...and need someone to reassure them and talk them through the moral lesson. For that, I love "Crank" by Ellen Hopkins.

Every year school districts schedule the state police to talk to kids about drinking and driving, texting and driving, etc...often with graphic images that more than make a point in shock value...sometimes schools schedule parents who have suffered with their children through a chemical dependency (we've seen that one a few times). Schools sometimes raise this issues to kids to teach them.

While I am also not handing this book out (some kids just will not be ready for it) I realize that some kids will gravitate to this book. Because they are curious. And they feel ready to read someone's honesty...and for those kids...make yourself ready. This is a book with a great combination of sensitivity and respect for today's YA reader--they want honesty. And Hopkins delivers it.

I read some other reviews of people who did not like the book. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I wanted to add this to the conversation--this is a book written for teens about a really difficult and horrible topic that few have the courage to broach to teens. This book is not "What the Teddy Bear" saw. It is raw and written on a level so teens can engage. The book may just be the panacea to start parents and teens talking.

Good Bless you, Ellen.

View all my reviews

The Sandwich King

On the morning of the first teacher day back to school, I found myself in a light conversation with Marcel. Picking up an itinerary from the office counter, he seemed worried that we might not have enough time to set our rooms up for the first day of classes.
"The day is jam packed."
Reassuring him that we always find a way, the stress of it all already showed in his brow.
"I'm just one of those people who likes things done. I don't want to leave anything to chance."
"Just here, or are you like that at home too?"
At this, Marcel shed a grin and offered, "The weekend before this day is my favorite weekend of the year--drives my wife crazy--but, yeah, I like things done at home too."

He baited me, "What happens on the weekend before school?"
"I make my lunches for the year."
We turned into the auditorium. Inside, teachers milled through the aisles and reached over rows to shake hands, offer hugs, and exchange kisses. Summers were recapped in short bursts and the overall spirit was convivial and loose. Some dress the part of the professional, others still cling to summer attire with the excuse that we don't want to get work clothes dirty moving boxes and books.
"What do you mean--"
"Well, this is the part that drives my wife crazy: I buy a  twenty-five loaves of bread."
The palpable mix of astonishment and disbelief pulled my eyes open as my lower lip dropped.
"We only have two small cars so I have to make a few trips to get the other stuff. It takes most of the morning. She goes out for the day--she wants no part of it."
His eyes shifted away from me and he his imagined must have spread the whole scene before him. He was lost in the memory. As people nudged by us to their seats, patting us on the back, we remained in the aisle as Marcel continued.
"You only get about seventeen slices a loaf and I don't use the ends so I buy a little more than I need. When I get them home, I stack them on the counter--facing out towards the dining room table--and then I fold the paper bags, not plastic, paper holds more, and store them in the closet. Then, I take the car and drive around town buying lunch meat, peanut butter and jelly, and a several jars of different kinds of mustard and mayonaise. Then, I usually have to go back out to buy small paper bags, wax paper, and I go out again to buy a few cases of those small snack packs of chips."
Dumbfounded, my mind raced and I couldn't choose one question to be the first question--the obvious question being "WHY?"--so one just fell out of my mouth on its own.
"Marcel, where do you keep them all--you created your own homeless shelter!"
"Oh--we have a old refrigerator and freezer in the garage. That's right--I usually thaw that out the weekend before and wash it really good so it's ready."
My fingers had been combing hair from the stress I felt and I hadn't noticed it until his eyes flicked over to me.
"I lay out as much bread as I can on our dining room table--all of the spreads are open--no squeeze bottles--all of  the lunch meat is open and spread around the kitchen counters--I bet walk ten miles--and I just start making sandwiches about sixty at a time. I just about fit sixty--I have to use a couple dining room chairs to get to sixty. Has to be sixty.
We had started shuffling down the aisle to find some seats. I couldn't see or hear anything else.
I asked, "Why sixty?"
I really wanted to ask "Why sixty, Rainman?" but didn't think he'd find that humorous.
"Then I only have to do it three times. Three times sixty is one-eighty."
"You make exactly one hundred and eighty sandwiches?"
photo credit: Jerome Espy
The ease and pride in his response felt as if he was discussing how he got an old car to run again or solved the compressor problem in an air conditioning unit, "Yeah, it goes really quickly. The hard part is the shopping and getting everything open and in order--well, the wrapping isn't all that great either. I'm not really good at judging wax paper so my pieces are all over the place."

I normally wouldn't sit with Marcel--not for any reason other than I normally sit with the people I have a friendship with outside of school, but I was compelled to see this through to the end. So, we sat.
"I put all the spread down first--a row of mustards--a row a mayos--a row of dry--a row of a different mustard--until I run out of rows. Actually the row of dry is layed first but I compose it last--thats for PBJ--I try not to mix that in with mayo or mustard--so, after all of the spreads are down, I start laying cheese. I put cheese on everything. And I go back and start layering different meats. It goes really fast."
The administration started milling around up front--this conversation was almost at an end. I knew I couldn't reengage him in it afterwards. So, I egged him forward.
"So, did you bring one today?" He bristled.
"No, I made a separate one for today this morning--today isn't a part of the count. I have to use up the leftovers."
"Every morning you grab a frozen sandwich?"
"Yeah, on my way out the door. I have everything I need stored together on shelves in the garage. Even napkins. I put my gym bag down--take a brown paper bag from the shelves next to the freezer--drop in a sandwich--drop in a bag of snacks--a napkin--put it in my gym bag and then I'm off to school."
He turned away from me--the vision left him--and an administrator started the convocation.

Note: the above story is complete fiction....BUT it is a story I told in the faculty lunch room one day about one of our good-natured colleagues who was not in the room at the, the names have been changed.  Many in the lunch room believed me...because "Marcel" seemed like the kind of guy who might make 180 sandwiches in one day. The funny endmark on this story is that the joke lingered. One of my colleagues who fell for my tale caught Marcel in the office a couple of weeks later and asked him, "Hey Marcel, tomorrow morning grab an extra sandwich for me, eh?" Unsure of the meaning, Marcel stared back and tilted his head. "Marcel, you know, you can spare a sandwich--you have 180 of..." And at that point he knew I had him.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Honor of Our Inner Circle

Yesterday, a colleague forwarded an essay about reading by Nanci Atwell called The Pleasure Principle.

This morning, I drove by a book fair at the elementary school at the top of my neighborhood. I was out buying Dunkin Donuts coffee, and children in winter jackets hustled to buy books. The parking lot was almost full. This was at 8AM.

Published in February of 1984, One Goal: A Chronicle of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team may have been the only book I read in 1984--I picked it myself. Honestly, I very well could have and very well should have read more than one book that year, but if I did I do not remember it. I was between my sophomore and junior years of high school and I was not an inspired reader.

In 1983, I vaguely recall talking over some kind of literature in Mr. Carey's 9th grade English class. But I don't remember the books. And I liked Mr. Carey. And I remember liking his class. But I certainly don't draw on what we read from that year. If I read any of it at all.

Remembering something I read from my junior and senior years is also challenging. Yet, in grade school, I walked dozens of blocks to a variety of libraries in the city. What happened that stopped my developing joy of reading when I got to 8th grade and then high school?

Even with that enormous four to five year gap in my reading, I recall my engagement with  A Farewell to Arms on the floor of our family room--the summer after high school graduation. I bought it on my own at a mall bookstore. I picked it because I had heard of Hemingway and I liked the title. And I remember quietly sobbing at the conclusion, and trying to hide it before my parents saw me.

When the 1980 U.S. hockey team beat the Soviets, it edged out my beloved Phillies 1980 World Series victory in my child's heart. I loved both, but I really loved hockey. I don't recall ever writing about it--but I could have. I do recall cutting a picture of Wayne Gretzky's face in half, pasting it on a page, and then drawing the other half with colored pencils--it was an assignment for school.

No wonder I devoured that book when I got my hands on it as a sixteen-year old.

While I can't go back to correct what happened when I was a middle school and high school student, I can try to make things right for my students today by continuing to foster their joy of reading and guiding them to write about the things that matter to them today.  The rest of it is my job to make work within that framework--I have to find a way to teach the other things they need.

So, yes, teach them grammar and literary terms and the elements of setting, plot arcs, and conflict. Yes, by all means, teach them theorems and battles and cloud formations. But teach them where they live. Teach them in the zones that matter most to them now. Give them choice and talk with them.

But don't shut them out either. Unlock the penitentiary within all of us. The penitentiary that places the handbooks and disciplinary codes over the spirit of kids. The penitentiary that makes us focus 90% of our energy on 10% of the kids. The penitentiary that makes us rush through a unit so we can get to the next one and the one after that.

If we don't say it, and say it to ourselves...who will? No one outside of the inner circle of teachers will make that change. This is where the honor of our profession lies.

When we say we want to develop life-long learners, we need to mean it by our actions within the framework we are given. In my mind, American schools only look like penitentiaries--we have to be mindful our behaviors and reactions don't mirror those correctional institutions.  I have failed at this probably at least once a year over my 19 year career.

We have to remember, even when kids create circumstances which we must address in the fire of the moment, we are not rehabilitating criminals. And those moments of sudden kid shock and shrift happens to all of us in this vocation.

If you are a teacher, try grasping and believing that whatever grade you teach is not a sprint. No matter what your curriculum says--and I know this is difficult and might seem idealistic. Yet, I disagree with the notion that we are preparing kids for the middle school...or we are preparing them for the high school...or we are preparing them for college. Or for the next grade. Those statements make me cringe deep inside; they are convenient excuses for the sprints we create in our schools. Why do we make each year a sprint?

Aren't we preparing them for the education of a life? And in that process, kids will make mistakes. And in that process, kids will be playful. What happened to being the people in their lives who provide a rich experience today?

Kids will find their greatness or their passions with or without us. I prefer to be a part of their potential greatness and passions and not the obstacle...or the education they forget.

We all know, education policy will change. Our buildings will change. Our communities will change.

We all know, a teacher feels the pressure of the canons of public pressure pointed dead at him. We will feel pressure about curriculum, and grades, and state testing, and standards, and teacher evaluations.

Those things are here. They have always been here. And they are never going away.

Therefore, we have to be better that all of those distractions. There is honor in what we do. Embrace the honor in it.

The bottom line is the lives of our students will change. Change is a constant in all of life. Just as I changed from the boy who can't remember what he read in high school except a book about a hockey team he loved a long time ago.

My teachers played a part of my change, and I wish they played a different part. Similarly, we are a part of the change of our students today--whether we embrace it or not. Perhaps that self-selected book or self-selected topic in their writing will help them make sense of those changes. Perhaps the way we speak to them...or with them...will make the difference the next time they need a teacher for help.

Maybe the lab can be adjusted...or the way we manipulate math...

It doesn't matter what subject you teach--keep opening the doors of books, magazines, comic books, pamphlets, newspaper articles, artwork, charts...whatever it takes to provide them the coal to stoke their fires. Have those things available. And if you don't know what they are...ask...find the part of their change that matters and that can't measured by any score. That is the honor of our profession.

The memories children have are often fostered from the decisions they were permitted to make.

Or denied.

Friday, March 15, 2013

When Arrogance Reigned

In case anyone needs to know, an icy rain lashed sideways through the night on November 14th, 2009. It started early in the weekend and never let up; nevertheless, the game would be played.

The heater roared on the yellow buses. The players did their best to keep dry and warm for the two hour drive to the first round district playoff match-up against the #2 seed in the region. At one point of the season, our opponent stalked out to an 8-0 start and was ranked 5th in the state. Their coach was quoted in the paper as saying he didn't worry about running the same plays over and over, or being predictable...because he ran the same stuff a few years prior when they won it all. He makes a point. When you execute better than the other guy, you'll win most of your games by just doing what you train your guys to do.

A hiccup in week nine kept them from being the #1 seed, so they drew us--a first round tune-up. Time to get back to basics for a long playoff run.

A #15 seed.

We didn't know any better. We thought we preparing to play a game against a perennial high school football powerhouse--and that they were preparing for us. We didn't realize they were impatient. We didn't realize that they couldn't wait to start preparing for the next opponent.

But we learned that when we stepped off the bus, because that is exactly what was said to us.

Climbing down from the dim and warm interior of the bus, the players worried about the field conditions as they gathered their bags. Pulling rain hoodies over their heads to shield their eyes, they squinted into the steady gale. The stadium lights, imposing and bright, radiated a blur of white from the steady wash thrumming without end. From the distance at which we unloaded, the light glittered along the field-turned-wetlands.

Fortunately, their fields drain well. While not exactly a quagmire, the grass was heavy, and slow, and sated with fate. Some of our parents braved the weather, but not many. Our local press didn't even send somebody to cover the playoff game.

We were running late. Our normal routine might need to be adjusted.

As our kids hauled their gear into a low building behind the home stands, the coaches walked the field to assess it--which, on that night, is kind of funny to think about now.

Yep--definitely wet.

In the process, we watched some of the opponent's players run light sprints across the width of the field as they checked their footing and ability to make cuts. They had not lost on this field in over two years. The officials asked us if we could hurry things along. The wind kicked up, and the darkness was thick with waves of rain. It was the kind of rain a boy imagines in his dreams--a tumultuous sea fat with lightning strikes, yet the boy tarries on with his wooden sword and teddy bear, chasing pirates and gathering gold.

We were soaked. Everything was soaked. My hands pruned and rainwater iced and fell from my beard in small rivulets. Some men just said the hell with it--no sense in trying to stay dry. The rain fell faster and swirled in what seemed like small twisting clouds--and the game hadn't even started yet.

While our kids hustled their gear on after the long ride up the Pennsylvania turnpike, their head coach greeted our head coach at midfield in denim jeans, Timberland boots, and raincoat half zipped, the hood flipped back from head. I'd never seen someone so casual in a storm or before a game. Was it confidence? Was it just the way he was? But after only a moment of small talk he asked something and I had my answer.

He asked if we brought any film of the next opponent so he could get it from us after the game--and save him the trip tomorrow. Seriously. He asked us for the film for his next game.

Because they were going to win that night...jeans, boots, deluge, smirk...they were going to win. Let's just get this one over with so you can hand me the film and head on home and they real team can move along with preparing for its game next week against another real team.

While I could go on and paint the details of how the game played out, this is the end of the story, the slice of life, because the devil in the detail here is arrogance.

He knows how the game ended. I know how the game ended. And none of us will forget.

And that is not arrogance. That is as real as the weather on the night of November 14th, 2009.

It rained cold and hard and sideways. And it never let up. And neither did we.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Sky So Overwhelmed Me

The sky so overwhelmed me.

Deep in the mountains of southern Wyoming, we held strange horses still for a photograph. Since it was late in the spring, the five-month old snow still held.

But just barely.

The snow was wet. The deep we rode into the country, our guide worried about possible icing--potential trouble for the horses in the steeper landscape. Clumps of snow stuck to the hooves and the stiff wind felt heavy, damp, and cold. At its strongest, the gusts stung my lungs if I inhaled too much, too quickly.

The horses were impatient and did not like stopping for pictures. Our group was three times the size that made it into this photograph--the others had hurried on ahead.

Soon after pictures, we found ourselves in snow that almost reached the knees of the horses. Their muscles fired and showed me just how weak and frail humans out.

Africa working to find more trustworthy footing revealed a detail I missed for the past hour--no paths exist beneath the wide high sky of Wyoming. The sky was all around me. It wrapped up in a virgin blue and seemed the curl beneath us as the land undulated and cupped away from us into the horizon.

I rode a black horse named Africa.

For long stretches our guide led us up and downhill over millions of broken fragments of granite. It was as if the mountains were eroding for a million years down into the basins, and had a million more to go. When Africa ascended to flatter land, he was a part of the landscape.

He could run and find his way. I was the stranger--out of place---a vistor. Nothing could make me feel more like an intruder than sitting on the back of that horse in that place.

Even though the slopes and lines of the horizon were gentle and wide, some of the natural routes the horses wanted to take, brought us to icy patched. Directed to steeper alternatives, the horses never faltered.

The guide directed up to lay back when the horses took us down a steep slope, and lean far forward  as they gallop and surged uphill. When it felt as if I were reclining so far back that I would tumble feet over head, my nerves seized and throbbed when I forgot to stop thinking and fell into the cruel fear only generated by thought. Going uphill revealed nothing but sky...I saw nothing but deep blue.


When Africa lurched downhill...incredibly, I still saw sky. It absorbed us no matter where we rode.

The sky so overwhelmed me.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Blurry Pope of '79

Pope John Paul II visited Philadelphia in 1979. As an 11 year old I took this photograph of my mom waiting for the Pope on Broad and Shunk.

You can see me in the reflection of her sunglasses.

I wore a pale yellow "Pope"  t-shirt the nuns at my elementary school had us buy. We were supposed to hold something up as he drove by--it would be blessed.

We waited for hours on Broad Street on an an mild October day. Over a million people lined the streets--more than would turn out for the Phillies World Series parade a year later. I remember it snowed a few days after the Pope visited.

However, the memory that stands out strongest is the ultra-brief glimpse we had of him in his Popemobile.

Running late from his flight, Pope John Paul II blew by us in a bullet proof bubble. I wasn't prepared for the speed or the presentation.  He went by. Zoom.

A growling and accelerating motorcade transformed the promised leisurely cruise down the main thoroughfare of Philadelphia into a panicked teenager trying to make curfew. No one knew what was going on--and rumors quickly spread through the crowd: he was sick! someone tried to harm the Pope!

Was that him? Is that it? 

After hours and hours of waiting, the thousands of people sharing the intersection with my mom and me just stared at one another.

I wanted to press down on that bubble in frustration to see if he joggled around like dice. We stood in a crowd for hours in order to wave to the notoriously charming Pope and had no explanation for what happened in the moment. I had my camera--I was ready for the money shot with the Pope.

Instead we got a white smear and a sonic boom.

Later that week, we debated at school as to whether or not our icons were blessed. Some frowned that he couldn't have blessed anything at that speed. Of course, some kids said he looked at them dead in the eye and sent his holy blessing at their Pete Rose autographed baseball mitt or their popsicle stick framed picture of the Pope.

Local history will remember that the Pope delivered an outdoor mass in Logan Circle and that he found the time to wade through the crowds, smiling and charismatic, like a triumphant Donald Trump who strides through his casinos as if he is Caesar crossing the Rubicon. That is the Pope I wanted to see when I was a kid. But I didn't. I got the blurry Pope.

As the smoke went up today in Italy, I was prompted to look at my only worthy memory of that day and the blessing that is and has always been my mom.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Significant Fragment

Among the ten years I spent building a theater program in our middle school, I received a lot of letters and notes from students about the experience--rarely did they actually write about the play. Most wrote about themselves, what they learned, and in many cases how they changed and what they will always carry with them.

While I have not directed a middle school play in almost ten years, I still keep these letters in a pile in a drawer of my desk. Close by.

In writing an essay for something else today, I shuffled through that pile and pulled the piece I always look for when I open that drawer.

It remains my favorite piece ever given to me by a middle school student. It means more than any raise or accolade ever could, because I did not have to do anything for it except be myself and lead kids.

It is the perfect reminder that we are not teaching numbers, words, or elements. Sometimes we may forget and think we are teaching books and formulas. That isn't true. We are teaching young people. We are teaching young people to love _____________.

You fill in the blank.

Whether all stakeholders in education realize this or not,  young people change when they are with us, even if we can't see it. They are changing every day. And whether you simply smile or frown; say hello or pretend you do not see them; or ask about their grandmother or fuss with something else on your desk, it all matters. We can be the significant fragment of their change.

Just as it is not about who we are but who and what we can become, so it is also true that being a teacher is not about who they may be today...but who and what they can become.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Rock, Paper, Scissors--shoot!

Out of the blue, a student asked to leave the classroom a minute before the bell rang.

Also out of the blue, I offered a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors for the blessing to leave early. Best out of three. Me versus a fourteen year-old.

I won.

Several days later, the student asked to play again as did each of her friends. So, I played again. The games went well past the bell.

And I won. Again, and again, and again. The kids leave with a half-smile, half frown.

So, after a month of playing Rock, Paper, Scissors against various fourteen year-olds, I remain undefeated. No one has left a minute early and the adrenaline thrums at the end of class with each passing day.

A conservative estimate would have me at 20-0 after my 4-0 sweep of four different girls today. And I am starting to generate a lot of energy and excitement each time we play--my opponent and I will each chant out Rock-Paper-Scissor--shoot! 

Sometimes I almost feel bad after they go up 1-0 on me in a best out of three game, only to lose the neck two shoots.

It leaves me wondering if they have any strategy? I think I have a strategy when I play...I think I can read the landscape of the game as it unfolds...but, I ask, can one have a Rock, Paper, Scissors strategy?

Am I just lucky?

Or do I have something going here--toppling fourteen year-olds in Rock, Paper, Scissors? I am thinking I need to order one of these bad to the bone Rock, Paper, Scissors tshirts...

Seriously though--these types of moments are just one part of what makes teaching middle school kids priceless.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Monster in the Face

On one corner of our city street, a candy store changed owners every few years of my childhood. 

Among several issues, the most public remained that no one could chase the loitering teenagers from the store front. Once teenagers in a city claim an intersection, it becomes a home. Long before cell phones, we would walk to the corner to see who was around. If you lurked long enough, someone in your inner circle would show.

Boys ponied dollar bills together to share quarts of beer and a pack of cigarettes. 

Girls chewed small gum and bartered swigs from the boys. 

Boys urinated against the brick facade. 

Girls cuddled with boys in the doorway.

Beneath the low thrumming of the streetlight, their laughter jangled along the brick and asphalt and into the open windows of sleeping men. Their thick-necked wives bellowed from behind blinds to shut up before slamming the windows shut.

The boys and girls just laughed and gnawed on purple hickeys.

In a city, the evening reputation of a corner often carried to the day for the locals. Once the stain of teenagers marred a business, people stopped buying. Desperate for income, store owners made teenagers feel more welcome during the day by installing Pac-Man machines. They remodeled with soda coolers and cigarette displays right up front. Soon a card shop turned into a candy shop turned into a water ice and pizza shop turned into a confusion of anything that sold and so went by the name of thrift store or even more neutral monikers like "Sal's Paradise" or "Little Jock's" that peddled whatever a teenager might buy--including drugs.

Inside by day. Inside the parked cars by night.

I stuck my toe into this world as a child--I stole chocolate and a stamp-collecting book when it was still a candy store, still fighting to retain its dignity.  The owner’s name was Joe.  

Joe was the first monster I knew before I saw the real monsters of the world--the creatures seething in small plastic bags, whiskey bottles, and handguns. Joe was skinny and tall; olive-complected and pock-marked. His wiry hair, thinning and silver. Heavy stubble powdered his jaw. Deep eye sockets led to eyes losing their light, but most distracting was the hearing aid.  It glowered at me like a goblin clinging to the ledges of the towers of Notre Dame. 

He wasn’t very friendly, even before I stole from him.
Someone told me Joe’s son died when he was little.
My grandmother caught me stealing from Joe’s shop and made me take it all back.  After sneaking in behind two boys buying cigarettes, I grabbed several foiled chocolates and plucked the magazine from a stand as I walked out.

I already ate the second of the chocolates and opened the plastic cover on the stamp-collecting book in grandmom's living room.  And then grandmom was towering above me.

"Where did you get those?"

She lived across the street from "Joe's Sweet Shop." Taking me by the collar back into the shop, Grandmom paid for the chocolate.  Joe said nothing and punched hard keys on the register. 

"Tell Mr. Cilione what you have to say."

The soda cooler gleamed silver in front of me. I couldn't look at monster in the face. I never heard him called 'Mr. Cilione.'

Grandmom insisted that Mr. Cilione take the stamp-collecting book back though.  He balked at the torn plastic, but grandmom insisted, and he did without another word. Once outside, she stopped in front amid the cigarette smoke and laughter. She asked for the rest of the chocolate and had me place the final piece in her long slender hands, and it disappeared forever as did the incident.  

She took me small hands and weaved her fingers within mine before we crossed the street. She didn't let me go when we crossed. And we never talked about it again.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

How Some People Make It

Beneath bushy black eyebrows, unkempt hair, and grit in the lines and creases of his hands and face, Tony sat behind a fly-swatting mule on a vegetable cart. He eased the wooden cart up our street late in the afternoon on a daily basis.  His jaw hung low and his eyes were dark and heavy. My aunt always waved to him and smiled at me at the same time, "He's a real dago, that one."

etching by John William Winkler
Perched on the front edge, the rickety cart, filled with bright vegetables and leafy greens, delayed traffic and ground a long line of cars to a steady crawl.
No one honked at guys trying to make a living in 1979.
Only eleven years-old, we asked for rides on the back of the cart when there weren’t many vegetables left at the end of the day.  Fatigued, he nodded and gagged the mule to a patient stop. On we climbed as Tony whispered some hocus pocus into its twitching ears. Our legs dangling from the back end, Tony calmed the mule and took us on a slow tour once around the block.

We waved at the cars creeping behind us. 

We didn't know better--people trying to find a place to park in a crowded city after a day at work aren't necessarily in the waving mood. 
I learned as I grew older that Tony had a wife and several kids. When summer break came, I heard the clattering wheels from his shopping cart reverberate against asphalt and brick neighborhood in the morning. Loaded with cleaning supplies, he knocked with grave respect, door to door and offered to clean windows for a couple of dollars. My aunt slipped him a ten dollar bill when everyone else always gave him three dollars. As I child, I thought Tony was illiterate--I didn't realize he was just Italian. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

What was Cool

Flipping the collars up on our navy Catholic school blazers was the cool thing to do.  Hiking up the sleeves of the blazer, just past our forearms, was also cool.

And then some boys started to pierce their ears in 1981. 

At the moment the parish determined it an "epidemic" in a letter to our parents, the nuns marched just the boys, single file, into the church which was attached to the K-8 school. Lit only by the dim November sunlight filtering through stained glass windows, the space was awash in muted reds, blues, and yellows. Sad eyed, John the Baptist...the pious Peter...the shameful Mary Magdalene gazed upon us for a long stretch of silence.

We were to reflect.

When the nuns clacked their knees against the pews, we watched them struggle as they shuffled towards the pulpit. From the lectern, several nuns stood shoulder to shoulder like a Greek chorus and took turns with pressed lips against the microphone/ They admonishing our practice of ruining our bodies with piercings. We insulted God who blessed us with beautiful bodies. Moreover, they officially forbade any male piercings--even though it was too late as there were already holes littering a lot of little ears.  

They decreed that boys were not permitted to wear their earrings to school; if your ear closed up, so be it for it was God's will. 

Consequently, the boys just put band-aids over their earrings.

The frustration of the canonry escalated from the lay teachers pleading with us to strip the band-aids and metal from our ears once and for all to the infamous moment with Sister Mary Peter. Already a character because of her nasal-voice and bulldog jowls, she was the first educator I saw physically handle a student. 

Losing her mind and cinching Dino’s band-aided ear between muscled thumb and forefinger, Sister gripped it and ripped it. She raised her chubby palm and a bloody mass that still glinted.  
"Do you think you are cool, young man?"
The room held its breath.

As Sister pitched the fleshy earring into the waste bin, Dino's ear blossomed red like a slow summer rose even though he didn't utter a sound. A rivulet of blood snaked down his neck and disappeared inside the eggshell blue shirt collar.

She berated Dino and he took it for a while. Eventually he simply stood up and left the room. And then she cauterized our souls by defining "cool" for us.

"God was cool. And nothing you little shits do will ever change that."
Sister Mary Peter disappeared for a few weeks after that incident and Mother Superior soon announced over the loud speaker that boys would be permitted to wear band-aids on their ears--even if they were only covering up a damnable earring.

With our tensions eased and angry parents huddling in the main office with the Monsignor on a daily basis, we antagonized the anxious faculty by asking their opinions while openly debating which ear made you gay.  
“Look, Sister!  His earring is in his right ear!  Is he gay?”
“No, Sister, it is the left ear that is the gay ear--isn't that right, Sister?”
The fact is, we didn’t know. We asked because we were afraid of the answer--and no one could garner a straight answer from any lay teacher or nun. Uneasy, our teachers would not touch the question. 

But a part of us really wanted to know.

Just as many boys had earrings in their right as in their left. So, we would nudge each other when we saw an earring in a boy, no matter how tough he was.
“Look, he likes boys.”
Even though we wore earrings too.

While I didn’t smoke in 8th grade, most of my friends did.  Like little James Deans leaning against cyclone fencing, cigarettes nestled behind some of the band-aided ears, we pawed at the girls with just our eyes--the girls skipping rope--the girls giggling in tight circles for warmth--the girls blowing smoke "the French way" in shaded recesses of the building--the girls shoving a nervous friend into my path as I played catch with the other boys --the girls who shrieked with wide-eyed smiles when the small rubber ball bounced towards their knees peeking beneath navy jumpers and taking turns gripping it firmly in their hands--the girls taunting us with the ball and their smiles, and after handing the ball back, using their palms to press our blazer collars flat and back into place--the way they should be--as only girls could do.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

By the time the paint dried

As a first year graduate student, I wrote a poem about dust in 1991.

Among the first poetry I wrote to any girl I liked; I can still recall this specific poem word for word:

I've never known
such solace
as it is within your trust--

You and I

Written on yellow legal pad paper in blue pen, I slipped it into her palm--double folded--in a crowded street on Temple University's campus.  We knew each other, but not well. I disappeared into the crowd.

You know when you are young, aren't living home and high school is long over and your life is still taking shape but the possibilities are wide open and unravelled every day for you? Well, this girl became one of my possibilities.

I saw her...we talked...we talked some more...we had a loose circle of similar we talked some more...and then I quietly changed my graduate school schedule just so I could be in her Linguistics class--which ended up becoming the most difficult course I ever took.

And then I started leaving her poems; never mentioning them or signing them.

I had been leaving her poems on and off for several weeks.

I taped one to the hallway floor outside of one of her classes so that she would see it when she left. She did.

I slipped one inside our student newspaper and placed it back where it was--folded beneath her door.

I can't remember any of those poems. Just the dust poem. Because I slipped it into her hand and she saw me for a flash...and saw the yellow paper flash in her palm...and didn't know whether to look back at me, call to me, or open the paper.

In the swirl of a girl trying to decide--she was left with only one option.

Looking back at it now, I was twenty-three years old and trying wicked hard to get a specific girl to notice me. I couldn't play the guitar or sing. I wasn't very good at sports. I could draw and I could paint--and I was too young to know about the line, "Would you like to come up to my apartment to see my sketches?"

Maybe that is why I remember that specific poem. It was the first time something worked. It was the dust poem that literally got me invited to her apartment--it got me in the door. And writing that girl poems turned into my painting vines, flowers, and fruits on her bluejeans in her apartment--even though she had a boyfriend at the time.

By the time the paint dried on the first pair of jeans, the boyfriend was an ex.

Poetry got me in the door. Painting and drawing kept me there.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

You are in Demand!

Inside the cover of the black-marbled, hard-backed notebook, the multiplication table glared at me in tiny black print.

Curled up on the soft gold sofa on a Saturday afternoon, I read the numbers over and over to myself. An Abbott and Costello movie played on the only UHF station with flawless reception. I also tucked a matchbook between the blank pages of the notebook

2 times 2 is 4.  2 times 4 is 8.  2 times 2 is 4.
And so it went. 2 times 4 is 8. And so it went.
It made my ten year-old head tighten; I kicked a leg and then flailed an arm as if irritating ants crawled onto me. 
4 times 4 is 16.
Harumphing whenever my mom lingered nearby, my scalp dampened on its own as a fatiguing, head-shrinking ache massaged my eyes towards Bud and Lou:
I got a job in a bakery.
Good! What are you doing there?
Turning my head back to the numbers, it was as if the space between my eyes and just above my brows contained a steel plate...

4 times 3 eyes scanned...45, 9, 36...12. 4 times 3 is 12...
...the longer I went, the worse it grew. I could not press the information through. So, I took a lot of breaks. Alternating between Bud and Lou:
You mean you need dough to loaf?Well sure, how could you loaf without dough?
I scrawled my name and address inside the red, white, and blue, matchbook. My heart was set on receiving the official art school test. 


I could draw any of their pictures--I just needed someone important to see it to save me from multiplication hell.

I could be an art student and never need math!

Just that morning I sketched the jaunty little turtle in the turtleneck and newsboy hat--I didn't even use a pencil. I used pen. In the past I sketched Bob Hope from the challenge in a Reader's Digest, a hard-browed woman, as well as a frowning pirate from the back of a comic book. 

Convinced that I could win the $375 scholarship to professional art school, my multiplication-table breaks filling out the essential information on the matchbook cover, while glancing at my flawless sketching of Tippy the Turtle, felt reasonable until my mother walked back into the room.

Flipping the notebook back, I started saying the numbers aloud to impress her: 

7 times 2 is 14. 7 times 3 is 21. 7 times 4 is 28.
I must be learning. She lit a cigarette with a lighter and then sprayed a film of white furniture polish onto the coffee table, wiping in large circles and glancing back at Bud and Lou. This was my chance to impress her. This was my chance to prove that I had learned something and then I could show her the matchbook offer and ask her to mail it for me. I could strike this deal! Confident, I closed the notebook on my lap and tried to recite the multiplication tables and earn my drawing pencils back from mother:

7 times 3 is 24.  7 times 4 is 33. 7 times 5 is 72.

She stopped wiping and frowned. Turning off the television which quickly faded from an icy black and white screen to small glowing green dot to a blank green screen, she walked back into the kitchen to shuffle silverware and open and close cabinets. A tube popped inside the television like it always did when it cooled down.I resorted to counting on my fingers, or using hand beats against my legs to help me remember the numbers. My confidence grew and so I counted by tapping my fingertips lightly against empty space. Working to be subtle and unnoticed, I knew there would be no way I would remember any of it without using my fingers.

The screen door screeched open, and my aunt entered. Carrying a brown bag of vegetables for dinner, she called to me to grab the rest of the bags from her car. She parked all the way down the block, closer to her house. I could see the trunk of her red Dodge yawning wide open. Resting, in the entranceway, she wheezed heavily, struggling with just the one bag.

After hearing about my finger-counting strategy against my leg over a frittata dinner--it's not cheating, right?--my aunt told my mom and me about a Chinese finger-counting method before I could bring up the art school test we had to mail a matchbook in order to receive. 
"It's like calculator fingers. Maybe that's what he needs!" she said to my mom.
 Loving the opportunity to assist my mom in raising me, my aunt ordered it and the Chinese Finger Method came in the mail very quickly. 

I lost the matchbook and by day I scoured the city sidewalks for discarded matchbooks covers and hunted Cosmopolitan magazines for another ad.

When my aunt presented the Chinese Finger Method system to me, she snapped her thumb against a light and brought the tip of a long thin brown cigarette to life. What my aunt handed me was nothing but a thin white pamphlet. I stared at all of the words and diagrams and unfolded it like a map through wide purls of smoke. Their words and numbers, arrows and sketches of hands, overwhelmed me. Everything was even smaller than the table in my notebook, and I openly complained that they mailed us a sign-language book by mistake.  I tried, but could not understand the basics after a pair tortuous minutes and dropped the Chinese finger method map onto the marble table top and laid on my belly on the floor to draw.

My aunt read the pamphlet, turning it like a great wheel every minute or so, and tried to demonstrate the methodology to me over lunch of sliced tomatoes on hard bread with a little olive oil. With her silver hair perched like a fluffy cloud on her head, she smiled proudly as she learned the first basic maneuvers. 

"Look Bri, pinkys are ten, thumbs are six the fingers next to your pinkys, the ring fingers, are nine, eh...(she looked back at the map)...the middle finger is eight, and look all the way down to six."
"Where's one?"
"There's no one."
"The Chinese start with six?"
"Nevermind that. Look, eight times six is four fingers down over here and on this hand this is two which makes the six, eh...the eight you need to get forty-eight."
Doing her best Donna Reed, her head swayed from side to side, pleased as punch, as she clipped off "8x6=48" as if it were music while bending and pounding jeweled fingers into the kitchen table.  Her cigarette burned and burned untouched. A long ash curled downward and and a thin ribbon of smoke ascended.

I was snared in between.

Trying to leave the table, she grabbed me by the wrist and then complained that she lost count.

In the end, the only thing I learned was that there weren't enough smokers in my family or neighborhood who used matchbooks.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Honor, Commitment, and a Ponytail

It was July when the girl approached us in the weight room and said she wanted to come out for football as a senior--the reviews among the men and boys were mixed. 

On the one hand, the girl was a soon-to-be Division I athlete. Having committed to a college for lacrosse, some adults were confused by the choice. After all, injuries are commonplace in high school football for young men who workout and build muscle in order to withstand the grind and physicality of the game...
But a girl? 

A girl with a future in another sport? 

A girl with a scholarship in her back pocket? 

A girl who, as a freshman, ran meaningful miles and contributed to a high school cross country team who happened to win the state title?

A senior girl wanted to play high school football for the first time--and I can remember the first and loudest syllable falling from every mouth who knew her: why?

WHY? Why risk everything you've built? Why risk your future as a college athlete?

She wanted to play for her cousin, Andrew McDonough, who would not have the opportunity to play anything anymore--he lost his fight with leukemia after six painful months. The girl wanted to do something to honor her cousin.

For four evenings a week, between 5pm and 7pm, the high school team lifted weights together.  Often, the boys would run outside as the last bit of sun sanded away the day and the one-story buildings cast squat shadows across brittle grass. As the boys pushed weight up and down and ran together in small groups, the girl worked on learning how to kick a football.

Often alone.

Sometimes with the assistance of the kicker she would soon compete against.

But she was there when we were there. Day after day. Kicking a football. Chasing a football. Kicking it again. Chasing it again. We all saw her. Between sets, the boys would take a peek downhill through the weight room doorway. There she was. That girl. Going about her workout by herself. Never looking up.

Resolute and determined, she must have kicked 10, 000 footballs in six weeks.

Sometimes she checked in with us at the top of the rise, nervous but smiling. Soon returning to her solitary workout.

Eventually, the summer burned deep into August. Our grass was blonde and had not needed a cut in weeks. Dust kicked up as the boys ran across it. The first practice of the season was in the morning and we wore shorts and t-shirts. About sixty boys showed.

Zero girls.

We practiced for a couple of hours, trying to beat the coming afternoon humidity. As we dismissed the boys for the afternoon, all seventy of us--players and coaches--walked towards the school. 

Our practice field was in a gully--actually, it still is the school's practice field--and serves as the low point for water run-off for the campus. The high school baseball field is perched like a castle high above it. The ninth grade baseball field frames one side, also high above it. A wide pond, a drainage field, is nestled between the two little round tops holding the baseball fields high and dry.

Being down in that gully, coaches or players can't see much else except what is going on in front of us. No distractions. Just the way we liked it. And since the girl did not show up, I imagine some others were ok with that too. Some assumed she wasn't going to compete for a spot after all--maybe we had avoided a possible distraction.

Yet, as we walked up the steep rise, I saw the girl. 

She stood with her father about a hundred yards away from us. The coaches were in front of the boys, and as we drew near, she smiled, waved, and was about to say something, but I cut her off--

"Are you going to play football or not?" I barked. I believed in her and I wanted her to know I was going to treat her like every other player...if she came out.

Kalyn said, "Uh...ah...I didn't...what...I guess...I..." 

She was perfectly inarticulate. I've been there. We all suffer these temporary spells. The critical moments in our lives where talking about something accomplishes little. The moments in our lives where action and acting on our wishes means more than just the idea.

"Evening practice starts at 5pm. Be here at 4:30 if you're playing."

Not far behind her, the girl's father cracked a slight and careful smile.

"See you tonight, coach." She answered with confidence. 

With her trademark blonde pony tail wagging from beneath her helmet, the girl went on to win the job as our placekicker--making damn near all of her kicks. What hangs with me to this day, more than five years later, is a point that grew roots in me as the coaches debated which player won the kicking job as the first game of the season loomed just days away--the boy or the girl?

And I asked the other coaches, "Would we be having this debate if her name was Kevin McDonough?

To this day, I believe that question made the point. Actually, to this day I believe Kaylyn made her point just fine when she won that job. Sometimes men need a little nudge to see exactly what they are indeed seeing.

A kid made a commitment, set a goal, and accomplished it--it remains among the most special experiences I've had in education and in coaching.

I admire the hell out of kids like that Kayln--boy or girl.

P.S. We went undefeated during the regular season (10-0) and won our first round district playoff game against Phoenixville before falling to a great local rival, Garnet Valley, in the second round of the playoffs.