In Response To: Toast

There is something to be said about learning to find joy in small things. 

Today I made the perfect piece of toast (at least to my standard of what the perfect piece of toast should be). The bread was golden like some sort of Midas-touched, carb-loaded hunk of precious gluten. On its surface, the flaky craters seem to reflect light, almost as though angels will spring forth and sing a heavenly chorus, praising my toast-making skills. It really is just right. Not even the edges are overdone. In the middle, the bread is warm and soft still, but as soon as I bite, I get that gratifying crunch that comes along with the quintessential piece of toast. Much to my satisfaction, breakfast is made more pleasant by this extraordinary and for me, unprecedented moment.

But this isn’t about toast.

This is about my need to find something good in days that often start off just as difficult as they proceed, days in which toast has become the highlight. 

Needless to say, since March, I have sifted through life’s long-abandoned goldmine for flecks of something precious. This existence that I have cobbled together from mundanity and isolation, from societally-imposed introversion and reading binges, is an unforeseen and unwelcome challenge, the kind of scenario that warrants a celebration when breakfast isn’t burnt.

Certainly, options for achieving earth-shattering successes are few and far between when you have become an unwilling shut-in, Quasimodo in your bell-tower home. How do we stay sane when there is absolute insanity in the world “out there,” the nebulous and made-scary “beyond”? 

You make toast. You make the best damn toast you can, and you shout from your socially-distanced rooftop with a voice muffled from behind your mask because if you don’t, you may scream or cry or lose it because times are hard, but your toast is not. Your toast is just right.

In Response To: Playing School

Dining choices certainly change after having a child, not because you become intolerant to certain foods, but rather because some diners become intolerant to you, you breeder you. Sometimes, you sacrifice menu options and personal preference for that kid-friendly locale, a place you can bring your child without people looking at you like you’re a leper – without feeling as though you have interrupted people who are like you used to be during their precious meal hour.

Now that Ezra is four, it’s a little easier to have a range in our dining choices, but we still tend to choose places that he is familiar with. There is an added bonus for any location that has something geared towards entertaining a child. For example, one restaurant we go to has a hollowed-out school bus for children to climb aboard. Tonight we went to what Ezra calls the “turtle place,” aptly named because of the two bronze statues that sit on an approximate 10 x 5 piece of turf, appealing to every child whose parents drag them there to eat.

Either my wife or I order the food while whoever is not doing that gets to be on turtle duty. She lucked out today, because there was a group of small children entertaining each other at the designated reptiiian entertainment area.

After ordering food, I found Louanne sitting on a bench, watching fondly over a group of four children, who I assumed came together, plus my son. One girl, probably about seven, read from a book, her audience lovingly reposed at her feet. I had walked in on story time.

Very quickly, I noted that they were playing school. Since the other children knew each other, they obediently followed the directions of the eldest child, the reader. Ezra, usually quick to join in, approached hesitantly, evaluating the circumstance before committing.

Being a teacher, there’s always entertaining in seeing a child’s notions of how school, in their mind, really is, and what he or she picks up and tries on when playing the role of a teacher. This little girl was remarkably authoritative, tiptoeing the line of bossiness. She had all of the students sitting on the “carpet,” in assigned order, cross-legged and enthralled by her story. My son however, did not want to be part of her charming flock of sheep. He, on the contrary rose to his feet, sat on the retaining wall beside the “teacher,” and claimed aloud for all to hear, “I am the assistant.” Her face contorted, caught off-guard by the brazenness of her student. Admittedly, I’ve made this face too, when found ill-equipped for a response to a particular behavior. Not knowing what to do, the teacher allowed him to sit beside her, too taken aback to correct his improper, petulant behavior.

Eventually, she began to question his disobedience. “What do you think you’re doing?” she quipped. Ezra, certain of his choice, looked her straight in the eye and reminded, “I’m your assistant.”

She didn’t like the challenge to her leadership. “Well,” she said, “If you cannot follow directions, you are going to be on red!” My son’s preschool doesn’t do the red or yellow or green behavior-card thing that even I did when I was in elementary school, yet he knew what she meant. Dejected, he stood from the wall, approaching my wife and me, and stated, “I am no longer playing school. I don’t like to play her way. I’m going to jump off the turtle.”

Now I know the last line seems a bit like toddler suicide, but said turtle is actually very low to the ground and perfectly safe, from a jumping-off standpoint.

From this less-than-10-minute exchange, I ascertained two important things: one, my son doesn’t take even pretend crap from anyone, and two, what small children glean from school mimics authoritarian behaviors, and unfocused on the content taught. Granted, this little girl could not have been older than first grade, but I find it comedic that her notion of being a teacher was simply classroom management (and story time).

Does this sound like new teacher programs, or what?

When I became an educator, the part I felt least excited about was the disciplinary stuff. It was unnatural for me. I was 21, fairly fresh out of college, and suddenly responsible for other people’s children. As the youngest of two, and on the younger end of the parade of cousins, I never really felt authoritarian or accountable for anyone younger than myself.

The only Mr. Ferro I had ever considered was my father.

Classroom management is definitely a necessary skill to possess when being a teacher. In fact, I think it is so emphasized in new teacher programs that we don’t often consider the content the newbies are asked to teach, but rather whether or not children can be managed. Currently, I have a student teacher, and like most fresh to the classroom, she struggles with managing her classroom. She’s incredibly kind, but amongst an abundance of middle schoolers, kind doesn’t always work independently of corresponding traits. Remembering hearing one senior teacher say, “I don’t smile until Christmas,” I’ve never really bought into that adage, but I can say is as I become more of a veteran teacher, valuing sternness with my students improved my practice. Fair, yes, and not a yeller, I do make myself very clear, and students understand what is expected. Mutual respect is obligatory, and even though my students are coming-of-age and challenging, they deserve my respect just as much as I expect it from them.

The little girl at the restaurant this afternoon certainly understood the underlying concept of classroom management: there can be no story time if the natives are restless. Where I think she failed, however, is she didn’t have buy-in from her “students.” What did she have to offer them besides reading a book? Her primary method of managing poor behavior was to threaten with negative consequences. So much for Hammond’s research on culturally responsive teaching and the brain. My child saw through the thin veil of authoritarianism, and quickly redirected, returning to doing things that he preferred rather than follow along with someone else’s expectations.

While I may be critical of a small child emulating what she sees in practice, I question our own management techniques. How often do we go through the motions of teachers, playing a role rather than really focusing on the humanity behind the tough work? How frequently do we assign tasks that we haven’t taught students to fully be able to do independently, and then blame them for misbehaving? These questions are at the forefront of my planning and my pedagogy, but as I work with new teachers, I see the failure of teaching programs that value classroom management over understanding how to deliver a well developed curriculum.

Of course, it is a balance, and we walk the fine line between successfully managing, as in my case, 36 moving parts, and developing engaging and rigorous curriculum daily. But, I do hope the little girl at the restaurant soon realizes that a meritocracy only works when students are engaged and respect the leader. If that isn’t the foundation of every classroom, then we as teachers fail, and there certainly will be no story time. Children will jump from turtles everywhere.

In Response To: A Loose Tooth

A few weeks back, a student in my class, an eighth grader, lost a tooth in my class. “Aren’t you a little old to lose teeth?” one student asked, but I knew she wasn’t. I, too, was a late loser, when it came to teeth, and the unpleasant memory of of their departure from my mouth, I preferred not to wax nostalgic..

I was hoping to lose all my teeth naturally, without the unsolicited aid of floss and a slamming door, but that would hardly be worth sharing. To this day, the thought of losing a tooth brings back childhood nightmares lived while awake, a terrifying monster peeking out of the darkness of my past..

I was eight when my father instilled an illogical fear in me. It was a reason for hiding in corners, keeping my mouth clenched shut and eventually, cursing the very notion of the tooth fairy.

Most parents are inherently well-meaning and good to their children. Sure, we get those occasional, nationwide news blasts about those who lock their children in animal carriers for weeks, months even, or those who feed their young ones crickets and grass. Others do such hellacious things that I can’t imagine having done to me or doing as a parent. Just because my parents never put a cigarette out between my eyes in a fit of drunken rage doesn’t mean I don’t have some small scars from childhood – and because of this, I will try to avoid scarring my child. Naturally, it’s inevitable, but I can at least try not to maim him in the same ways. And I will never, never, pull his teeth.

Growing up, losing teeth in my house led to trauma after trauma: my father took strange, morbid pleasure in pulling teeth.

That sounds worse than it actually was. He isn’t some sociopath who stalks children, pliers in hand, waiting for that precise moment when their mouths open just enough to – YANK! He was, however, fond of extracting the shiny white pieces from my mouth. In hindsight, he is otherwise rather normal.

It wasn’t entirely his fault; loose teeth are gross. Mine were the worst of all. A late bloomer when it came to losing teeth, I should have been more aggressive about wanting them out of my mouth, but I was not the child to use my own fingers to pull or twist or wiggle, nor did I use my tongue to push the loose tooth until POP! It just came out. No, my loose teeth dangled by the smallest connectors of flesh imaginable, clinging to my gums like the last leaves in autumn. Eventually, I knew they would come out on their own, either because of a strong breeze or by destiny itself.

Squeamish me. I would do just about anything to avoid seeing – and especially tasting – blood. My fear was unfounded and irrational, but if I did experience the sight or taste, several potential outcomes could occur: instant nausea, dry heaving, or maybe even vomiting, intense sweating, loss of facial color, and most certainly, complete avoidance of the source contaminant. My disgust was absolute and unwavering. When shown even the slightest drop, my only thought was, “That better not have come from me!”

Good ol’ dad, on the other hand, lit up like a deranged Christmas tree whenever I had a loose tooth, potential for blood or not. My mouth became Sutter’s Mill, a site replete with gold nuggets, needing to be mined from their earthly soil. Except not every tooth is meant to be plucked.

Good old dad would preface each tooth pulling with, “It will only hurt a little,” or something like that. Precisely hearing what he said was difficult. Usually, by the time the floss or fishing line was in his hand, I had hightailed it from whatever room he was in. With his tools of the trade within his grasp, I had little interest in sticking around. Utterly assured that he was lying and that pulling my tooth would indeed hurt, regardless of its looseness, I defiantly hid from my father. If someone would have witnessed this exchange, they would have surely thought that he was an abusive man, one who repeatedly doled out brutal beatings. Quivering in some corner of the house, I awaiting the impending doom. Eventually, dad would win me over with some form of bribery: ice cream, money, or something else I wanted (but otherwise, he assured me, I would not get).

On a particular occasion, he used floss, otherwise thin and unthreatening. Begging and pleading, but not entirely fighting him, I mumbled plaintively as my pursuer would maneuver his fingers inside my mouth, inexpertly guiding the thread first between teeth, and then around the one to be hostilely severed from its brethren. That tooth, as the tooth before, as many teeth past, dad eyed like a hawk, stalking.

“Stop!” I begged, each iteration growing in desperation and volume.

“Hold still! This will only take a moment.” Dad, committed to the deed, was able to ignore my outcries, and persevere. Looking back now, it baffles me how my mother was always conspicuously absent on these occasions, nowhere to be seen or heard, while my father played resident dentist.

“No, really!” I’d beg, as he would begin the series of unsuccessful tugs.

“It isn’t budging,” he said as he tugged. To no avail, my tooth, like me, remained indignant and stubborn, refusing to be taken, a last holdout in a futile battle.

This petulance, the stubbornness, the lack of willingness to comply with my father’s cockamamie schemes only fueled his crazed, tooth-removing fire. I continued, imploring, “But dad, please!”

“Let’s go to the kitchen,” he commanded. “Stand by the door,” he directed, pointing to the garage. Because I was trying to figure out his thought process, I stopped protesting. There was no apparent reason why this new location would get the job done, I thought to myself, and yet I was helpless, following his lead. Dad approached me with a lurch, a twist, and then a stare. He quickly burst into a contortion arms and floss, out of which came a makeshift tether. “Ready to try again?” he asked with a look of complete disinterest in my answer.

This was about to get ugly, but with the floss already tied around the tooth, I knew I wasn’t going to get out of this, but I really should have spoken up if not more loudly, but more insistently. Dangled around an incisor was floss, but it lassoed the wrong tooth, and my father had determined that it was coming out.

While in the kitchen, I imagined dad finding some hardly-used gadget to pull, if not knock, my tooth, but he needed no additional tools to finish the job. A light of determination blazed in his eyes. Chest heaving, near panic, I submitted. His determination had overcome my will and self-preserving disobedience.

Before I understood what was happening, my father tied the loose end of the floss around the knob of the now-open door. As unnatural as this was, my initial reaction was confusion, yet here I was, half-slumped over, looking down at the gray flecks in the linoleum floor, tooth tethered to its knob.

With the quick thrust forward of his arm, the deed was done.

I’m pretty sure I screamed, and it probably curdled blood of my neighbors. Tears poured down my face when the last bit of tooth dislodged from my gum. I begin to taste blood and to gag on its metallic taste because someone just has to get his prize and I will no longer be able to chew on that side of my mouth. I won’t be able to chew on the other side, either, because that’s where the real loose tooth, still dangling precariously, sways back and forth as I gasp for air.

“There! It’s out,” my father proudly announced, poised with the upright posture of the victor.

“It’s out? You pulled my tooth out!” I wailed between sobs, my face painted with tears, mouth sputtering blood. I’m pretty sure that this qualifies as child abuse, I think to myself as he squats down, taking his prize between his fingers, holding it up to the light, a prospector admiring his haul.

“That was one stubborn tooth!” he continued, pinching his prize between his fingers. It was about that time my mother, likely hearing my panicked outcries, made her appearance, just in time to witness what I know see as the real climactic moment.

“It was so stubborn because it was not the right tooth!” I yelled.

“Not the right tooth? What do you mean, ‘not the right tooth?’”

“My loose tooth is this one,” I pointed, using my tongue, uncharacteristic of me, to move it around, thus demonstrating the errors of my father’s over-eager, tooth-savage ways. It wiggled back in forth, my bony, white flag, surrendering.

My dad’s pale face demonstrated his dismay, and my mother’s red face, only slightly lighter than the small dribble mixture of blood and saliva on my shirt, was horrified. I watched the blood gather for as long as I could stand, until it  pooled on top of the slick linoleum, and it clicked my head – thick, crimson, and unfortunately mine.

The worst was over, but the irony was not. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe it was destiny. Maybe it was some sort of inexplicable dental sympathy, but in the chaos of the moment, Dad cupped two teeth in the palm of his hand. Near perfect copies of each other shone the one yanked by the slamming door, and its partner, the origin of the day’s disarray which had finally decided it was time to leave the nest of my mouth.

Mom ushered me away to the bathroom to clean me up while I silently expected the Tooth Fairy to be extremely generous in her offering tonight, and her usual letter, the one penned in my mother’s hand, better serve more as an apology for the violation of my gums than a thank you for my offerings.

In Response To: The Splinter

CPS could have knocked on my door today and removed me from my house, separating my family, and I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised. My neighbors probably thought I was killing my child.

Tearing down the hallway, slipping and sliding like a fawn on ice, all while screaming bloody murder, Ezra goes into my bedroom and promptly slams the door. The noise reverberates throughout the house, paired, all the while, with screaming. His dramatic tendencies kicked into high gear. Hidden amongst the screams, there are various sounds similar to ows or ouches, unintelligible at best.

Opening the door, I am faced with the wrath of a toddler who clearly has something ailing him, but also clearly does not want anybody to help. Face red with a mix of rage and pain and fear itself, I’ve disturbed the hive.

You got a love that fiercely independent streak.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, to which a series of sounds that resemble not words come. Children’s stories, as you may know, are often confusing, part exaggeration, part inability to communicate the facts, peppered with a flair for the melodramatic. Paying as close of attention as possible, I ascertained that something hurt his hand.

Easy enough. Hand hurts, dad looks at hand, dad kisses hand, end of tragedy. But of course, in Ezra’s flustered state, I was not allowed to examine said injury. As I came nearer, he, like a wounded beast at bay, reared back, spewing vitriol. Not making any sense (at the time), I did gather something about in an item going into his hand. Violent gesticulations not unlike an amateurish game of charades left me clueless.

A standoff ensues. After a few tense minutes involving screaming, throwing things, and avoiding both of his parents, I finally captured Ezra into a bear hug, attempting to examine his hand. There, beneath his tender skin, was the culprit: a speck of brown wood, embedded in me the top layers of his thumb and pointer finger, causing excruciating pain. Window-shattering, really. Somehow, an as-yet-to-be-explained confrontation with one of his wooden train tracks, the splinter, the billing and all villains today, made its way into my child’s hand.

Cue the next hour and a half of struggle.

Teaming up, my wife and I, wrangle the beast into several complicated yoga positions that involved restraining his legs from kicking either one of us, laying him down flat, controlling his free arm, prying open his injured hand, and stabilizing his head, preventing it from rotating in a 360° manner reminiscent of the “Poltergeist” movie. Then, and only then, could Louanne begin to tweeze at his skin in an effort to dislodge the skin’s squatter.

Needless to say, that did not go well.

Screams erupted from my volcanic offspring, spewing hot lava of sulphuric hatred at his parents. “I hate you!” he’d shout. “Go away,” he’d bemoan. Nestled in between such loving commentary, he did not miss an opportunity to scream louder and more shrilly than I thought possible, emphasizing “you’re killing me.”  That alarming claim, I was sure, would alert an entire neighborhood to his abusive parents.

After an epic struggle lasting nearly 10 minutes, my exasperated child, clinging to me for consolation and solace, collapsed onto the couch, defeated by the speck of wooden villainy.

We, too, had reached an impasse. Demands of ice shortly followed, and the storm cleared – for about the next 20 minutes whereupon I made the mistake of mentioning a needle.

“Don’t come at me with a needle! It will hurt. I don’t want it!”

Again, this screams surpassed my expectations. You would have thought I was branding my child with a hot iron or peeling his skin off, layer by later, with a paring knife. Nope. Just a splinter. If nobody had knocked on our door yet to check what abuses we inflicted upon Ezra, I was almost certain at this point that a knock would shortly grace our door. Since it was already terribly tragic, and gauging that we had about five minutes before the authorities would be dispatched, my wife and I committed to removing the remarkably reticent splinter.

The kicking. The flailing. The wailing. In a state of perpetual terror, nothing seemed to sooth my child mid-extraction attempt. Dodging a few fists and kicks, my nose remained unbroken, my teeth intact. In an instant, in a motion reminiscent of Florence Nightingale, my wife had miraculously removed the damned splinter. Although we did not use a sewing needle, we did eventually manage to extract as are his wooden nemesis from his hand.

To celebrate, my wife and I are having a drink when he goes to bed, and I’m framing the splinter for posterity.

In Response To: Ohm

Today, my wife asked me if I wanted to participate in a challenge.

“It’s day four,” she said, “And I have missed the first three days.” I laugh at her codependency and her tardiness.

This could not be more her. Even if she’s getting on the bandwagon late, I’m curious. Chuckling to myself, I couldn’t help but inquire, “What, exactly, is this challenge?”

“Meditation.” She then proceeds to let out a meditative ohm. Girl can breathe.

“It’s the gratitude challenge,” she says, “And Oprah and Deepak are leading it.”

“Oprah and Chopra?” I quip. That woman can do anything: her book club gets people to read, her favorite things become our favorite things, and now she’s telling us how to breathe.

It’s like her, my wife, to start something after it’s already begun. I have to hand it to her though, she has the heart of a champion. Even if she starts the race late, she will sprint to the finish, finding a way to make it to the end.

“Isn’t it the point to start at day one?” I prod, and I’m doing so, hint at my lack of commitment.

“I didn’t have time!” she explains, bemoaning my probing.again, I’m laughing.

“But the point of meditation is to make time.” At least that’s how I think of it.

Smiling about this the whole time, we go back-and-forth, pondering the finite principles of meditation that neither one of us can seem to commit to.

That’s when she explains how she carved out time to meditate in between our busy schedules. “I just do it in the car,” she says. The visual is priceless.

“In the car?” I question in complete disbelief. “That’s not safe. You’re supposed to focus on nothing else.”

And that’s when I realize that this is what our lives have come to: meditating at red lights and stop signs because we cannot find the time to do so otherwise. In between busy schedules, jockeying for position as parents of our toddler, and attempting to live and manage life, the only time we get to breathe is when traffic allows us to do so.

It may be day five of the challenge by the time we actually begin, but it is never too late to breathe.

In Response To: (Not So) Super Bloom

Undulating my tongue in a back-and-forth motion, I attempt to quell the raging itchiness that is assaulting the roof of my mouth. As I do this, my nose runs, as if it is Usain Bolt, speeding to the finish line in a 100 meter dash. At this world record pace, it moves more quickly than tissues can accommodate.

Spring has officially sprung, and with it, my allergies are incapacitating breathing, the histamines getting the best of me.

It’s the damn trees, Mr. Lorax, and right now, no one needs to speak for them.

Upon buying our house 3 1/2 years ago, we inherited a plethora of fruit trees and garden space. Don’t get me wrong, the bounty is beautiful, and we love having the mature trees bloom and bear fruit. The problem: I seem to be hypersensitive to every pollen that blows around our yard, swirling in nature’s calculated pattern, a barrage against my breathing. The smell of the sweet citrus blossoms waft on gentle breezes, ethereal its scent, hellish with its impact on my nose. An Anna apple tree on a hill is abundant with blossoms, explosive with tiny white flowers accented with pink edges, which, ironically resemble the outside of my eyes. The bees swarm, pollinating and buzzing, ensuring that in a couple of month’s time, fruit will be heavy on the branches. I’m heavy on the snot.

I don’t find anything super about this super bloom. Well, maybe the tissues are super, if for nothing other than their size, seeing as how I’ve upgraded from the Kleenex to an entire sheet of paper towel. The roughness has begun to chafe my nostrils, but their increased surface area makes for frequent use a possibility.

A 24-hour histamine blocker I took this morning has failed me, a pharmaceutical lemon. I made it six hours until the red, puffy eyes joined the allegiance of symptoms. Grouped together, I look not unlike a zombie, walking through the springtime meadows only half-alive, juxtaposed to the plants boisterously blooming around me. While the flower fields beckon tourists to come and sit amongst piercing beauty, I ignore their call, enjoy the photographs I see from people online. Even this induces sneezing, and the mere thought of bringing myself within 50 feet of a blooming flower triggers the roof-of-the-mouth itching.

Managing to best Mother Nature for a moment,  I took this photograph, which led to a sneezing fit that lasted about five minutes.

Spoiled as we are, never really having a true winter, those of us in San Diego are extremely sensitive to any shifting weather. We are the people wear a sweater when the mercury dips to an icy 68, and complain it’s too hot at 72. That four-degree window is all we are acclimatized to, but even fluctuation in temperature is preferable to the hostile particulates that I find particularly unpleasant.

Nasal spray in hand, the refreshing mist is a soothing reminder of regrowth and renewal that harbinger spring ushers.

If only tissues grew on trees.

In Response To: Making A Kid Cry

Today I made a kid cry. This curly-haired child, with a cherubic face and bright blue eyes, bawled at my admonishment. No, it wasn’t my child or one of my students, but rather a random child at the indoor play structure in a Chick-fil-A.

Because it represents both a time for us to eat together and for him to play after he finishes his lunch, Chick-fil-A is an ideal outing with my favorite dining partner, but I have to quell my parental stressors. Robust with a high quantity of germs and the unnecessary volume produced by energetic little ones, the complete and chaotic cacophony of children, play structures induce anxiety in my, and are consequently not my favorite place for my child. Since he’s four, Ezra could care less that I suffer from an acute sense of hearing or an overly sensitive aversion to bacteria.

Negotiating with the toddler terrorist that he is, I begrudgingly agreed to allow Ezra to play while I waited for our food, parked between chick goodness and playing kids. As part of our settlement, we would return home to eat our lunch when his playtime ended. For the first two or three minutes that he was in the play area, it was delightful: there were two other appropriately-sized and supervised children, well behaved and relatively quiet, and Ezra is having a wonderful time.

That was until the curly-haired, chaos-creator entered the picture.

An estimated one year younger, but equal to if not surpassing the size of my own pint-size child, I watched this burly brute of a baby bounce into the designated area. Ezra, being the greeter that he is, welcomed the child only to be met with swinging and flailing arms, affixed like angry propellers to the child in question.

A look on my own child’s face spread as he observed windmill Willy’s flails. It was a mixture of terror but also a look that said, “Get the hell away from me.” Since he’s so much like me, I could tell that Ezra was going to boil over, and I could hear a high-pitched tea-kettle whistle that accompanied his facial expression. Even though my child may be small, he is fierce, and I have no doubt that most children will not mess with him, but this child, unknowing of play-structure etiquette, looked unsatisfied that my child was not only verbally explicit and posturing in a way that communicated the unwelcome swinging and chopping was not going to be allowed.

That’s when I stepped in.

Since I am professionally credentialed to manage other people’s children’s behaviors, this toddler terror was no imposition. Opening the door, I lean forward, wagging a teacherly finger, pointing in a manner that we sometimes do. “Do not put your hands on another person.”

Stern. Effective. Tear-inducing.

That was all I said before child’s crystal blue eyes teemed with tears, dam broken, streaming down his chubby cheeks. In a manner consistent with a fouled soccer player, he fell to the floor, convulsing, then shrinking into fetal position.  The evil adult, me, retreated to the safety of my dining table, obedient to my hunger pangs.

The table I selected for us was right outside the door to the play area, so I could see when the child, still in a fit, sought his mother, running through the lunch-hour traffic.

As luck would have it, she chose to sit at the table right beside us, divided only by a tinted partition, the only thing separating me from what I had assumed it would be an angry mother bear.  Child sobbing on, Ezra and I inconspicuously unpacked our lunches, mutually but silently agreeing to not discuss what went on beside us. I guess we’re eating here, I thought to myself. Just as the final french fry fell upon the table, she leaned over and asked, “Can you tell me what my child did?” Her voice was non-threatening, not accusatory, just a simple parent-to-parent inquiry. “Can you tell me what happened?” she asked Ezra. Shocked, I needed a minute to recover.

Yeah, this surprised me, as though such an exchange is abnormal.

Being a teacher has sort of jaded me in the way parents handle, and often defend, their children.

In my school days, if my parents even sensed that I had gotten in trouble at school, they immediately took the side of the adult in the room, the teacher. I knew better than to come home with a red card in elementary school, or to talk about any detentions I may have received, living in a state of parentally-created fear. Lo and behold, those things weren’t as issue for me, but I also know my parents would each grab an arm and swing me under the bus if needed.

Somehow, the shift has occurred where, many times, we as teachers, are not seen as allies, but the enemies. Battle lines are drawn, and we find ourselves unprepared to fight wars we did not suspect. Defensively posturing, teachers are the France of parental wars.

Here’s the thing that we parent/teachers, doing dual duty, get, yet cannot communicate to parents in a impactful enough way: we realize that although your children are reflection of you, you cannot control every aspect of their life. Therefore, do not let your ego get in the way if your child gets in trouble and earns a consequence. Just because they do something wrong does not reflect that you are bad people or have done a bad job raising them. If you can step aside for a moment, let’s discuss the behavior and not your parenting.

Stop taking your kid’s bad behavior personally. It’s not about you.

That’s why I attempt to address the child first, and the behaviors second. There is a human behind the action, after all, and if we neglect this, we are doing a disservice to the small person in question. A child is more than just the sum of his or her parents.

As I proceeded to tell the mother that her child was being overly physical with my son, she kindly thanked me for talking to her. I wasn’t France! Since the partition shielded sight and not sound. I could hear her discussing with her child that I was not mad at him, but that I had to use my stern voice to let him know that his actions were not okay, and not safe. Shortly after that, she brought the little boy over to my table, red faced and sniveling, snotty post-sobfest.

“He’s not angry with you,” she said, “He was just being a good dad., right?” Reassuringly, I agreed, and the rainstorm that occupied his face cleared.

So, even after I made a child cry and Chick-fil-A today, my parenting ego felt a boost. If only more parents responded like the mother one partition away from me did, kids might actually learn to be responsible for their actions.

If not, at least my sandwich was good, and so was my company.

In Response To: The (Im)personal Statement

I’m currently working on a personal statement. It’s become increasingly complicated because I’m limited to four pages. That’s funny, I think to myself. I’m supposed to make a bold and memorable statement about who I am and what’s important to me, but I only have four pages? That seems fair enough. Something will be axed in order to make this work, but what?

In a way, personal statement seems to be the most dehumanizing writing task possible. Tell us all about you, but follow these three prompts, and make sure that you stay with in the page, spacing, and font requirements. No one really cares about you, after all, in this personal statement. We are looking for people conform to our goals and regulations.

Because I need to be certain I am doing things as expected, in an effort to better clarify the audience and purpose of this particular impersonal-personal statement, I spoke with someone who could give me some guidance. “Make sure you answer the questions,” she told me, sounding a bit like the scripted language we read for standardized testing. Laughing to myself, the teacher in me didn’t take this as an insult. Many people who don’t see themselves as writers probably gloss right over the intended prompts without even realizing it, highlighting aspects that they feel are poignant while missing the point.

“I wrote as a holistic narrative,” I told her.

“Oh,” she paused, “That’s fine too.”

This is how our students feel every day: robbed of the personal in their personal works. Many times, the writing tasks we give them don’t leave a lot of room for their identity. For example, I struggle with the whole response to literature genre. Inauthentic, it begs students to analyze text, usually those within a canon that also robs students of choice and identity (you know, the canon from which you also read as a student). Predetermined by other people, the characters and authors often look very little like the students assigned to read and respond to the works. Moreover, tasks and prompts are recycled, annually reused, hundreds of times over. When teachers wonder why the character analysis of Scout and To Kill a Mockingbird lacks depth and inspiration, it’s probably because they’ve just read 100+ papers on the same thing this year alone. The students probably spent the majority of their time reading the Cliff’s Notes (while watching Netflix), and searching for similar essays online (because they’re saavy) so they wouldn’t have to actually write their own.

We’ve academia-ized the student out of the student’s assignments.

Who says we have to take the I out of writing?

If there is no personal connection, I challenge you: why do we still do this? Sure, there are plenty of analytical skills in critical thinking that go into genres such as response to literature, but it, and I, I’m tired. Let’s freshen things up a bit.

A San Diego Area Writing Project colleague, who I admire dearly, teaches a course on the personal statement during the summer prior to its enrollees’ senior years. When I asked what the single most difficult thing for students is when writing a personal statement, she says something that now seems obvious, but should not at all be the case: “They have a hard time writing about themselves, or feeling like they have something genuine to say.” Elaborating she emphasized that most students are never asked to do anything like this in school. College is expecting the personal statement to not only be powerful and reveal something about the identity of its writer, but also exciting, written it in a way that makes its author stand out, a pop of color in a dull room.

All you need is one slice folks, maybe even just a pepperoni.

Tell me again why we claim to prepare students for universities when we beat the ability to make a personal statement out of the person?

Maybe I’m taking this personal statement thing a bit too personally, but shouldn’t I?

In Response To: Picking Up A Book

Hello there. I couldn’t help but notice you, sitting there, all attractive on the shelf, in your best jacket. You’re getting stares from across the room. Pardon me if I’m a bit forward, but I think you might just be my type. Maybe you haven’t noticed me, but I’ve been watching you for a while, waiting for the right moment for us to be a thing. I know they say never judge anyone by their appearance, but something says that I’m going to like you, that you’re in my current genre of interest. You’re going to make an impression on me.

Consider yourself lucky. I hope you know that I picked you, out of a group of your friends, to spend the next few days with me. I know, I know, I’m coming on a bit strong, but I want you to appreciate the depth of my commitment to this relationship. I’ll get to know you really well, turning your pages and reading between the lines, making inferences and drawing conclusions.

You know you’re beautiful, so don’t act coy. You were designed to be attractive to someone like me, who voraciously moves to something like from another. I’m a bit of a playboy when it comes to your kind, not committing to one for too long. In fact, my longest relationship this year lasted no more than two weeks, and that’s only because of the complexity of that individual. Peeling back the layers of that one took me longer than most of its kind.

Trust me, I’m really good at this. Every evening, I will dedicate time to you, at least 15 minutes, where it’s no one but you and me, one on one, maybe some mood lighting, background music. Undivided attention? It’s yours, just don’t disappoint me. This may seem like a one-sided relationship, but if this works out, I promise to share you with my friends, to tell everyone just how great you are, and to write a review for you on Goodreads.

Please remember that I don’t have a type, regardless of what you’ve heard about me. Sure, I’ve bounced around between literary fiction, memoir, nonfiction, and young adult, but it doesn’t mean that you won’t be special. Sure, you may be used, a little tattered on the edges, but that only means that multiple people have the opportunity to love you, to cherish you and your individuality. That’s what I most appreciate about you. Don’t be self-conscious if you have yet to earn any awards, I love you just the way you are, so don’t go changing. And, let me tell you, some Pulitzers or Man Booker prize winners don’t do it for me. All the pomp and praise doesn’t mean anything if we don’t connect.

Abandon you? I would never do that, especially only after a chapter or two. We’re just getting started! It takes time to fall into a syncopated rhythm, me understanding your narrative, you understanding the pace of my eyes gliding across the page. When I say I’m in this, I’m in this.

Look, I know you had others before, and everyone of them has made the same promise, but I’m telling the truth. I really am different, a true reader, not just one of those guys who borrows you from a friend, reads reviews or synopses online, and pretends to really know you. I’m going to read you, all of you, including the author’s notes, and when I’m done, we will both be changed. If it doesn’t work out in the end, it’s not you. It’s me. We might just need to go our separate ways, but we can’t worry about that now. All we have is this moment. Right here, right now.

So, what do you say? Do you think you’re ready to leave with me, or do I have to walk away from the shelf empty-handed and brokenhearted? There are plenty more books on my shelf, and if it’s not you, it will be another.

Text me when you’re ready. I’ll be waiting.

In Response To: Kid Jokes

Knock, knock. Who’s there? The answer? A terrible joke.

Kids are the worst at delivery, but in their awful, non-sequitur way, it still makes them funny. We are all laughing, but for different reasons.

Anything my child does is adorable, not necessarily to me, but certainly to my mother who he lovingly calls Gaga. While on FaceTime today, he offered to tell her a joke. Of course, she instantly obliged to listen, hanging on each of his words like laundry on the line. He insisted, and forceful in the obnoxious way that toddlers are, that I tell a joke first. I started with a simple format of what did one blank say to the other blank, a classic, clean go-to:  What did one piece of paper say to the other? You’re terrible!

Of course, my joke was “dad humor,” funny only those who appreciate that sort of thing. Following my comedic debut today, Ezra delivered an original joke of his own: “What did the peno say to the other peno?” He held his breath, awaiting her entry into the conversation. My mother confused, responded, “I don’t know. What?”

Insert something unintelligible and making sense to only a toddler here.

That’s the thing about kid jokes: they don’t have to make sense to be funny. It would have been much better if her were making humor out of pinot instead of some combination of sounds that lacked meaning in the adult brain. What does impress, me, however, is his ability to recognize the simple format and to regurgitate it in an attempt at humor. A failed attempt,

Gaga laughed heartily.

Cue the next 10 or so minutes of knock knock jokes. Again, I got the honors of going first, the opening act to warm up his audience.

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there”

“An unsharpened pencil.”

“An unsharpened pencil who?”  Wait for it…

“Never mind. There’s no point.”


You have to admit, as far as knock-knocks go, that was pretty great. Ezra, rolling on the couch, thought it was a good one. Even if he doesn’t understand why it’s funny, he knows he’s supposed to laugh. My ego is thankful.

Because I’m an incredibly tough act to follow, Ezra took a moment to think. With a twinkle in his eye, and a smirk on his face, his joke commenced:

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?'”


“Parsnip who?” Again, wait for it. 

“You’re not very smart, are you?”

Ezra breaks into hysterics.

Believe it or not, this is an insult. Gaga, of course, is beside herself with laughter, bubbling over the semi-cleverness demonstrated by her grandson. There is some context to be understood here.

In an Oliver Jeffers book, Once Upon an Alphabet, he writes 26 stories, one celebrating each letter of the alphabet. For the P, he tells the story of a particularly daft parsnip, struggling with its identity, unable to recognize that he is indeed, a parsnip. Once he’s confirmed his specific vegetableness by way of a more astute parsnip, he says to a peanut,  “Did you know that we’re parsnips?” The peanut, in return, replies, “You’re not very smart are you?” Comedic gold. This is Ezra’s favorite story in the book. For some reason, he gets the humor, but not the limitations of its context. Hence, he attempts to use it at the end of his knock-knock joke. In fact, he uses it at the end of every knock-knock joke.

“Knock, knock.” Who’s there? “Donkey.” Donkey who? “You’re not very smart, are you?”

“Knock, knock.” Who’s there? “Carrot.” Carrot who? “You’re not very smart, are you?”

This continues for the next 15 minutes, receiving positive reinforcement and ego feeding from his small but appreciative audience. Championing the arts is big in our family.

Integrating new vocabulary with comedic timing, he makes me laugh daily, a recent favorite being a one-liner. “I farted… recently.” Sure, my child is no Groucho — yet. Knowing that a particular brand of humor seems to be inherited, pairing this with his tendency to be verbal, Ezra will not only be funny, but witty, using his knowledge of language to make other people laugh. He already possesses the knack for making me crack a smile when I’m attempting to reprimand him. As displayed in the picture below. Cuteness points a plus.

For your next party, I suggest you look no further than a toddler for entertainment. Of course they go to bed early, tend to be total divas, and have limited content, but your audience will certainly be pleased, especially if my mother is any indicator.

I also serve as his booking agent and do a mean opening act, so inquire within.