In Response To: Quiet Mornings

I wake up and I t’s dark, a rather disorienting blanket still covering me. How unnatural it is to wake up when you feel you should be sleeping. Struck with a conflicted feeling of being simultaneously grateful and hateful for the extended light that I will have today because in this moment, all I can think about is that without sun, nobody should have to be awake and trying to begin their day.

My wife has one of those projector clocks, the one that reminds you immediately, laser beams across the ceiling, upon opening your eyes that you were either waking up way too early, or late enough that there’s no point in trying to go back to sleep.

See option two: today the clock said 6:13. My alarm goes off at 6:15.

I rollover, as gently as possible. Owning one of those mattresses that doesn’t transfer movement, I turn smoothly but carefully. My four-year-old has an arm, a leg, and a teddy bear all slung halfway across my body. It’s these moments that I like to hang onto, but the day calls. There’s somewhere to be, there’s someone to provide for, and there’s a whole day ahead of me that I have not yet accepted I have to live.

My clothes wait for me in the bathroom, draped over the shower rod. Taking them out the night before, I avoid the extra five minutes it would take me to select what to wear in the morning. Scratch that; it would take an extra 15 minutes. I’m indecisive. Selecting clothing is tantamount to making a major life choice. Any choice, really, is painstaking. Did I mention it’s still dark?

Tiptoeing through the quiet darkness of the house, I slink through the early morning, a ninja-in-training, careful not to stir even a mouse. In this case, my mouse is a fluffy, black-and-white, and about 50 pounds. My seven-month-old Sheepadoodle sleeps in her crate in the living room. Even worse than waking the child right now would be disturbing her. If she’s awake, everyone’s awake.

Some people appreciate the wee hours of the morning, the fleeting minutes they have for just themselves. They take their coffee and newspaper at the kitchen table while others catch up on “correspondence.” Never have I ever felt that these moments are special. They are just that, minutes. I have reduced my schedule to allow me approximately 10 efficiency-demanding minutes to get ready in the morning and get out of the house. It’s either a mere 10 minutes, or I sleep less. In my life, Sleep is at a premium, so whatever I can do to extend that time period, is welcomed. Regardless, I will arrive to work bleary-eyed, with just enough blue and purple beneath my eyes to show that I haven’t recovered from the four years since the birth of my child.

He’s not always to blame. Sometimes my wife and I actually have a conversation over a glass or two or a bottle of wine at night in which case, waking up at any hour is unpleasant. No matter. I shake it off and continue my crawl to the restroom where the first part of my routine still awaits.

I don’t turn on the light. I barely close the door. That would make noise. Noise wakes people. People who wake up not ready to be awakened are generally unhappy and unpleasant. That’s me, unhappy and unpleasant and awake.

Oh – and just to be clear: I have a toddler and teach middle school and I don’t drink coffee. Never have.

95% of my days, i’m awake without any prompting other than biology. What’s the point of an alarm when my body has a natural alarm clock

I’m that guy who has dreams, has hellish nightmares really, about being late. Never having anywhere special to go or anything worth anticipating, ironically, I have this overwhelming anxiety about being tardy to the party. That is so ingrained in my humanity that I get that you’re-going -to-be-late dream at least once a week. Sometimes more. Inevitably, I wake approximately two or three minutes before my alarm goes off.

Damn you, nature. I could’ve use that two minutes. I would’ve treasured them.

Getting dressed is a fairly silent activity. Who makes a lot of noise when putting on socks and pants? It is not until I make my way out of the restroom in the morning that I then contemplate where to put my shoes on. I don’t worry about packing my bag, everything is ready to go from the night before. Again, I’m obsessed with saving time. I’m efficient. Obsessively so.

I’ll put the shoes on right before I walk out the door. That’s a good idea.

The dog is snoozing in her crate. Luckily her face is towards the other direction and maybe she won’t sense me. Wandering through the kitchen, I cautiously, oh so cautiously open the refrigerator door. Extracting my food for the day, I crawl my way back across the tile to grab my things. Taking a deep breath – a very deep one  – because I’m going to hold it until I exit the house.

Towards the door I go. The first door is our front door, heavy and secure. It almost forms of suction every time it is closed so I know there will be noise when I go to open it. Still holding my breath, I begin to turn the knob. Slowly, my fingers wrapped themselves around the knob. While balancing all of my materials, work bag, keys, lunch, anything extra that I need to take with me to work, I hear the first creek. I inhale more deeply. It’s almost a gasp. The door opens fully, as if in apology for making a sound, as I reach for the second door, the security door that will eventually lead me outside. Metallic as it is, it is relatively quiet. Releasing the lock and grasping the handle, I simultaneously hang onto the front door, making sure to slowly close that one while squeezing as neatly as I can between the next.

When I close the front door, I exhale, and my lungs burn, a tiny fire turned to ash. I’ve made it this far, but my morning escape is incomplete.

Not out of the danger zone, I need my sneak my way into the car. The remote makes a beeping sound whenever my door is unlocked, so in order to reduce the amount of beeps, I only press it once, opening only the driver’s door. This way, I can slide all my things into the passenger seat and only have to close one door, that’s only making one sound. Ridiculous? Maybe. In order to be a ninja, however, I need to make it out completely unscathed and inconspicuously.

My bedroom window faces our driveway and consequently, my car’s engine faces our bedroom window. Holding my breath again, fingers fumble for the ignition, turn it as quickly as possible, and start the car. What happens next: foot on the brake, release of parking brake, transmission in gear. I roll out the driveway.

My success is gauged based on whether or not I see tiny finger is parting the blinds in my bedroom. If not, I have made it out without waking anybody.

This folks, is how I gauge success at 6:30 in the morning.

Maybe I should start drinking coffee.

In Response To: Newly-Minted Dads

Congrats, newly minted dad! Now you’re a dad. Next comes eighteen years of fabulous parenting. That’s when you must do what most new fathers do: freak out on a daily basis and wonder what the heck you’ve gotten yourself into, like Kanye West in a bookstore.

Panicking is a fairly common reaction for new parents, most of whom don’t know the first thing about rearing children. The few who do are still terrified by the newly-birthed meatloaves they bring home at two days old.

It’s not just new fathers who are as clueless as Ariana Grande watching Jeopardy. New moms can be overwhelmed, too. They, however, cannot show this. The good news? If there are over seven billion survivors on this planet, you can (probably) raise a child. By following this free-to-you advice, you’re assured to have some success with little Johnny or Suzie (or whatever New Age, hipster, or unpronounceable, made-up amalgamation of letters you’ve chosen for your progeny).

Ten essentials, just to get you started:

    1. Try, really hard, then try again. Babies are confusing. One moment they want one thing, the next, they’ve changed their fickle little minds, like tiny drug addicts looking for a fix.

    2. Buy so much crap, you feel like a good parent. Let all of the baby items pile up and take over your life so you can’t find your keys, wallet, or sanity anywhere in your home. Make sure your kid gets the best of everything (as recommended by an arbitrary online resource) so you can keep up with the Joneses, that annoying family down the street you think has it all together, but probably doesn’t. Your baby needs a swing and a bouncer and a bassinet and a crib. There is no expense too great for your little leech.

    3. Read every single parenting book and memorize the baby diagrams. These pictures are particularly helpful because you won’t have any time to read again – ever. Also, they tell you the parts of the baby so you don’t forget what goes where.

    4. Take lots of photos of your friends. Hang them up on the walls around your home and try to picture their faces when you close your eyes. Caption the photos. It is likely that you will not see them again in the near future as being a new parent is similar to being the last remaining leper on Earth – no one will come near you for fear of catching “it,” as if child-bearing is  contagious. Remind them that you are still the person you were before you had kids, except that you have a kid, so basically, you are nothing like the person you once were. You are now a diaper-bag—that-looks-like-purse-carrying, bottle-slinging, ABC-singing skeleton of the man you used to be. You won’t even recognize yourself.

    5. Buy under-eye cream by the gallon. Since you won’t be sleeping, it gives people at work the impression that this parenting thing is no big deal. You must appear well rested even when you can’t remember the last time you slept more than a four-hour stretch. Use it nightly because missing a single application may result in reality: you look terrible, as if approaching an untimely death.

    6. Hire a babysitter to watch your kid so you and the Mrs. (or baby-mama) may go on a date. It’s okay if you’re being very selective, so take your time for that “just-right” fit in your caregiver. You have at least five years before you’ll have desire to go outdoors and see each other in the light of day, let alone have a “romantic” evening. That’s how the first one happened, remember?

    7. Don’t make plans. Ever. Pretty much forget about predicting anything. You have no schedule and writing it down will only further depress you.

    8. Learn how to answer “when are you having a second one?” in creative ways. For example, say “when you pay for it” or “a second what?” or my personal favorite, “when we go to the pound and pick one out.” Everyone will tell you to have a second. Misery loves company.

    9. Know that you will never, under any circumstance, regardless of what you think, matter again, to anyone, but you. Your own parents will ooh and ahh and go ga-ga over every little thing their precious grandchild does. Your wife will look at you, often, as responsible for her corporal demise and rapid aging. You will become (insert child’s name here) father and when people ask you how you are, they mean how is he or she.

    10. Most of all, set up a huge support system around you. It’ll be a long time before you recognize that you need help because you’ve tried to self-convince that you have it all together. You’ll need people with more experience than you for placation and to tell you you’re doing a good job, especially when you’re considering running away to Canada to join the Royal Mounted Police or to Nicaragua to traffic exotic birds.

See, dad? You can manage it. Do these things now along with follow every piece of unsolicited and unwanted advice thrown at your exhausted feet, and the next 18 years will a piece of cake, unless you have a second one, then you’re screwed.

In Response To: Children’s TV

Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? That is a great question? Who in the hell?

SpongeBob SquarePants is someone’s acid trip come to life, one hallucinogenic-laced-joint-induced creative endeavor. Yet, this show is marketed to children on a kid’s channel.

Insert puzzled shrug here.

Aside from the obvious weirdness of a talking, pant-wearing sponge whose best friend is a starfish with minimal IQ and irate neighbor is a clarinet-playing squid, SpongeBob’s content begs a lot of questions (besides what are the ingredients in a crabby patty). Its innuendo is lost on children, and maybe, that is where parents get a subtle nod, a subliminal shout-out from writers that says, “Hey. We get it. We’re here for you, too.”

Occasional inappropriateness for children aside, SpongeBob isn’t the only program that makes me go, “Huh?”

My son is four, and with four comes toddler TV. Yes, I am aware of the arguments backed by both scientific evidence and remarkably judgemental parents (who have nothing to do but demean other parents’ choices). Ezra does not get more than two hours of screen time, but in the collected hours of viewing, I have come to wonder a great many things. While my son enjoys the bright colors and compulsory talking animals, I ponder both the creative decisions and remarkably strange content of children’s TV.

Did I not notice this stuff when I was a kid?

Anthropomorphism, for one thing, is rampant, in the shows my tot watches. Defined as the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object, humanity in the non-human is a standard trope. This, to me, is nothing new. Of course shows I watched as a kid had animals that did human things. The great Mickey Mouse, who must have been perpetually cold, wore gloves, but he did (and still does) live his life as a human. That, on the surface-level, is an odd choice for Disney to make, but it’s pretty innocuous. But what about Donald? Aside from his clear lack of anger management, his fashion choices are mind-boggling. He can manage to wear a gold-buttoned Navy-like top, but lacks pants. If I were to walk around with only a top, I would get a few glances cast in my direction, if not also arrested. Pants are a requirement for being in public. Who wants to sit in a chair after Donald? That’s just gross.

The inconsistencies in anthropomorphism is one thing, but another is the social dynamics and hierarchies amongst the characters. I genuinely don’t understand who gets to be top dog, so to speak, in the social structures of anthropomorphically-rich television. Again, let’s consider Mickey Mouse. This human-like rodent has a pet dog, Pluto, who demonstrates the same kind of loyalty to Mickey as we would expect man’s best friend to do.  His girlfriend Minnie (who he still hasn’t married after sixty years – Minnie, move on!) has a pet cat, Figaro. This role-reversal is confusing and unnatural, and repeated throughout children’s programming.

Peppa Pig, the adorably pretentious sow, irks me. She’s such a snob, a know-it-all, yet children adore her. Maybe it’s her British charm juxtaposed to her bossiness, but her empire has been built on immovable foundation. Although kids dig her, there is some plain weird shit that happens in this show. Her friends are incredibly diverse, a veritable zoo of baby animals: goats and zebras and rabbits. Why, then, does Peppa have a pet turtle, Tiddles? She has somehow outranked a turtle on the hierarchy of Peppadom. Apparently, all animals are not equal, and speciesism abounds, and while Peppa and her select animal friends frolic off to primary, Tittles swims helplessly in a bowl. Poor Pluto and Tittle, languishing, resigned to their caste.

There aren’t just animals who demonstrate human-like qualities, but also foods lik a potato. Yes, a spud. A talking tot – for tots. Assuming, he is based on Mr. Potato Head and ‘healthy eating’ mascots that inspire children to view good food as not only edible and worth eating, it’s disturbing. He is so friendly, too! Who wouldn’t feel bad submerging him in a vat of frying oil?

Is this counterproductive? Does any of this anthropomorphism make kids more or less likely to eat? Would they eat pork if they they associated it with Korean Barbecue Peppa? Miss Piggy chops?

Again, this is a nod to parents: “Our show is good! We teach your kids to eat healthy.” The moral authority, existing parallel to the oddities of anthropomorphism, is supposed to make us confident in allowing children to watch television. If we are going to let our kids watch TV, at least let them learn about healthy food options (as if we can’t teach them ourselves), and cooperative diversity between species – some species.

Our role as parents is under constant scrutiny, most so by other parents.  At least Peppa has parents that care about what she eats. They are present in their piglet’s life, and at least this mimics the idealized notion of a nuclear, human family.

Where, then, are all the other parents?

Take, for example, Paw Patrol. The main characters are five rascal pups, heroic in their deeds, steadfast and brave in their actions. Chase, Rocky, Rubble, Zuma, and Sky (along with Tracker and Everest, occasionally), assist a young human, Ryder, in overcoming obstacles in Adventure Bay. Something gets lost? They’ll find it. Someone is stuck on a mountain? Don’t call for Lassie. Paw Patrol is on a roll. As their clever slogan suggests, “Yelp for help.”

The character traits modeled, the courage, the perseverance, the selflessness, are positive attributes I’d want my child – heck, I want for myself – to possess. Yet, as Ryder manages leading his five pups and caring for them, his independence is terrifying. As he speeds on to city streets – on his hovercraft, mind you – where in the hell are his parents? There are other grown-ups present on the show, the mayor, the guy who fixes stuff, or someone selling ice cream, but who is responsible for Ryder? Who is making sure he eats his potatoes? I wonder if he even brushes his teeth at night. I can feel my overprotective instinct of worry kicking in, and I cannot focus. Ryder is in danger, and no one is helping him! He has a helicopter, but no helicopter parents. I cannot abide!

Parents, I know you are thinking the same thing, especially now that I’ve brought it up. If you’re not, the next time your child tries independently rescue your neighbor’s cat from a tree with nothing but a pair of chopsticks and a grappling hook, blame Paw Patrol.

But TV cannot be the scapegoat. Obviously, I wouldn’t rely on a device to raise my child, but I can’t help but wonder about the underlying messages that are communicated in the time he is exposed to programming.

Or maybe I’m reading too far into things. I tend to do that. Until then, the “Free Tiddles” shirts I’m screen-printing are $10, shipped. Let me know if you’re interested.

In Response To: The Smell of a Peach

Every now and again, I happen to catch a faint whiff of something like apricots or peaches, some sort of skincare product, likely worn by a woman of advanced age. It’s subtle, unimposing; it doesn’t announce with intensity the presence of its wearer.

I don’t find the smell something that attracts me to these women. The smell is a trigger, giving me the chance to savor the soft, similar scent of my grandmother’s skin.

Instantly, I am transported, back in time to one of those rare days in my childhood when either my grandmother came to visit us, or we her. When she’d come into town, my parents always gave up their bed to let her sleep more comfortably. I, in turn, gave up my bed (to no one) to sleep near her. She was a treat, and I liked being close to her. She smelled good – something like apricots and peaches, although I’ve never been able to specifically identify the specifics. It was her.

There was just something about my grandmother, a woman who had a knack of making every single person around her feel special in some way. With ten children and an already burgeoning list of grandchildren (with more to come after her death), everyone felt her affection. Her ability to be kind and generous knew no limits, her boundless love spreading through us all.

I still see us, sitting in our backyard, her in a lawn chair, hunched over some makeshift table. She’d play cards with me. Only me. Of all the people she had chosen, in that moment, I had her undivided attention. The game, I can’t recall, but the feeling, that I do: cared for. Appreciated, She enjoyed spending time with me because I was her grandson, and I absolutely adored her.

Grandparents are also quite good at spoiling their grandchildren, and my grandmother was no exception. I wasn’t the kind of child with perpetual desires. No pony ever made it on my Christmas list, or remote-control car, or Lego set. My adulthood is the byproduct of an unadventurous and relatively desire-free childhood. Wanting for few things, I rarely asked for something, and consequently, was rarely told now. Taking grandma to Toys R Us, however, was a story altogether different.

Down some numbered aisle, I had the notion that I wanted a toy – a very specific toy. Someone of my age can recall these particular toys, even if my inaccurate description doesn’t do them justice: a tube to be filled with water with thin plastic “shelves” on which items like rings or tiny balls would rest. At the base of the tube lay a button and when pressed, air would pulse through the toy causing the items inside to shift. They were quite popular. I had to have one, but mom said no.

Grandma, however, did not.

Retrospectively, the joy likely came less from the toy itself than it did from watching my grandmother overrule my mother seeing my mother as someone’s child. Now, as an adult, I see with my own mother what she probably did with her own in this moment: being a grandmother means you get to do the things that mothers and fathers do not, and that makes you remarkably cool, and incredibly idolized.

“Don’t open it in the car,” my mom instructed. Grandma already handed me the pieces.

“Don’t fill it up yet,” she said when we walked through the door. Grandma was already at the sink.

The irritation on my mother’s face was only slight. The joy on my grandmother’s, spreading cheek-to-cheek with a rosy glow, was immense. A singular, shallow memory persists, yet it is clear as glass, perfectly transparent and extremely delicate.

The funny thing is I can also still recall her voice, a warm blanket of comfort, though I cannot recall anything specific being said. For years after her passing, I remember hearing her voice on a typical-80s answering machine message wishing happy “birsday” to me, the first syllable thick with her accent. To this day, I still possess a bow from a gift she bought me as a child, and a greeting card from my first birthday. I still see the way her letters looped on that card – Care Bears, wishing me a something sweet.

But the smell, somehow that’s what gets me.

Science says that smell can trigger memories and emotions, and there are rare but welcome occasions that I am taken back to those times. It may not be the actual scent at all, but rather a ghost-like essence conjured up to trigger a particular association so as to remind me that our loved ones pass, but never really leave us. What I have are my forever memories, and sometimes, she says hello with her scent. My favorite ghost smells of apricot and peaches, and visits me far too infrequently.

In Response To: How Are You?

Even when being verbally economical, I’m rarely at a loss for words. In fact, my entire blog is predicated on the fact that I have something to respond to. Yet, there seems to be one frequently asked questions that always stumps me: how are you?

If ever there were a perfunctory question, that would be it.

Think about how many times in one day you were asked this question. It may be from someone that loves you dearly, or a cashier who you approach at a register somewhere, a kind customer service agent just going through the motions.

Consider, if you will, the amount of times you actually answer that question sincerely. If you’re anything like me, you probably never do.

Every afternoon, when my wife gets home, she tends to ask me how my day went. I answer this question in the same way are usually answer people when they ask me how I am doing. I simply say, “I am fine.” Fine. Four nebulous letters, but what, exactly, does that mean?

Technically, it’s in a satisfactory or pleasing manner. Wrestling with the appropriateness of this word, I give up. I guess when it comes down to it, it would take more time to explain how I am really doing than I feel like spending.

Then I wonder, do people actually care if I give the correct answer? Would they be prepared? Would they empathize, or they dismiss me as an over-sharer? on a a given day, my response could be “terrible,” and I’m sure it would catch the asker off-guard.

Most the time, I am not fine. I am far from fine. Average, maybe? But fine? Rarely.

Why do we ask questions for people that we are not prepared for the response?

Whenever I talk to my mom, she asks me that question. How are you doing? And my response? You guessed it. Fine. Except when my mom asks me, she doesn’t really want to know about how I’m doing. She wants to know about how I’m feeling, how my disease is treating me. You see, since I was 19, I’ve been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Although my disease is stable and on a daily basis, I feel fairly average, I know when my mom question, she wants to make sure that I am actually as fine as I’m claiming to be.

The question isn’t open-ended enough, and we are falsely polite in its asking. We aren’t equipped to handle any answer other than something like fine.

We need both a better question and a willingness to address any response.

In Response To: Staring

It’s an understatement to say that kids can be cruel. Adolescence is not only a time of finding yourself, but can also be a time to challenge and question the emerging identities of others. Sometimes those identities are shaped by a series of conscious choices, but other times, who we are is subject to what’s in our DNA, complicated strands of heredity that express themselves in a modicum of ways.

Is certainly hard enough to respond to the ever-changing landscape it is one’s body during the middle school years. Puberty. There. I said it. Navigating the complex social and emotional dynamics amongst one’s peers can further complicate matters. This is true even for the “normal” children, those born without anything that truly makes them “different.”

When I think about what I observe on a daily basis, many young people make a choice to make them stand out in ways that are not always positive. Some attention, it seems, is better than no attention. Unfortunately, seeking acceptance from peers is often more important than welcoming those who are different from ourselves. Sacrificial lambs are made of social pariahs. The outliers.

I remember being in high school, now thinking about those students who stood out, ostracized by my classmates. As shameful as I am to admit it, I was definitely a bystander. Heck, I may have even been the perpetrator of some of the cruel jokes that circulated. Now that I have my own child, and 100+ more children for whom I am trusted to care, I am hyper-aware of the cruelty of young people.

It is 2019: there are children who express themselves in ways that I would’ve never imagined. The bravery it takes to be who you truly are is challenging as an adult, but even more so when you’re doing it on a very public, schoolwide stage.

In my time is a teacher, I’ve had students who self-identify as gay, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, and gender fluid. Young peoples’ bravery humbles me. Yet, these identities are easier for some people to understand than some of so-called disabilities in our school system.

Take, for example, autism.

Autism spectrum disorder covers a wide variety of traits. I’ve seen students on the spectrum who are cognitively challenged to a degree that they are not mainstreamed into a general education classroom. I’ve also had students who are cognitively brilliant, but lack basic social skills, placing bullseyes on their backs, target practice for bullies. They simple do not fit in with their peers. School becomes a war zone, the most treacherous of circumstances.

This year, I have a student who is incredibly intelligent, GATE-identified, and also on the spectrum where he was placed during his fifth-grade year.

He doesn’t fit in. Not even close. He doesn’t try.

He sticks out like a sore thumb. Often, he finds himself alone in should-be group settings. After my many observations during the school year, I have noticed that he self-isolates just as often as he is isolated by his peers. I can’t tell if he is an island that has been tragically separated from the mainland, or a ship that has gone rogue from its fleet by its own choosing. Either way, he often finds himself in a solitary position. When it comes time to self-select groups, he is out.

On a particular occasion this year, he found himself at a table with three neuro-typical, female students. After sitting together for about 20 minutes, one of the students speaks up, rather loudly, and exclaims, “Stop staring at me!” Being the student he is, he doesn’t seem to be much bothered by it. In fact, he barely seems to notice. He carries on with what he’s doing, regardless of how flustered she seems to be. As her face reddens, I can almost see the smoke coming out of her ears. Seeking to diffuse the social bomb, I wander to her, leaning in, and ask her, “Would you mind staying after class for a moment?” I assure her she’s not in trouble.

Soon, the bell rings. Doing as I asked, she stays. “Mr. Ferro, do you want to talk to me?”

“Yes,” I say, “I want to talk to you about what happened little while ago at your tables.” She thinks she’s in trouble in spite of my assurance. “I noticed you seemed a little frustrated with (insert student’s name here). What’s the problem?”

“Well,” she thought for a moment. I heard the ellipses. “He stares. All the time. I mean like a lot. And it’s not just at me.”

“I see,” I empathize, “Why does this bother you so much?”

“Because it’s not normal.”

There it is folks, not normal equals unacceptable. This could not be more middle school if you tried.

Teachable moment alert: I thought to myself, what if she’s not aware of why he stares? What if she’s not aware of why he’s different? What if no one’s ever explained to her that this difference is OK?

Under this assumption, I had a bigger epiphany: our schools do not do enough to explain that disability takes away our focus on what students are able to do. Their abilities are overshadowed by what makes them different. We do not have the capacity to have a discussions, as courageous as they need to be, about things like autism. I understand why it may be confusing to a peer, a student who is intellectually capable, yet so socially different, yet, our schools do nothing to educate our kids about other students in their classroom.

We also do very little to educate our own staff on the matter.

Our education specialists, what you would probably consider special education resource teachers, have to hold an autism certificate, but I have received zero training on how to better work with the students in my own classroom. Everything I’ve learned has to do my own reading or my own interest – my own sense of obligation to these students.

“Have you ever wondered why he stares?” I asked her.

She looked at me blankly. She blinked. This is what all teachers wait for: the golden opportunity. I have to make a decision, take a plunge. “He’s autistic,” I explain. “Do you know what that means?” Watching her mental cogs turn, she continues to sit quietly. “I don’t know,” she says, “I mean, I’ve heard of it before.”

Immediately, I realize my responsibility, how important it is for me to get this right. This is my one shot, like a rocket trying to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Either get it right, or burn up.

“Autism is another way in which people can be different. He happens to express himself in ways that we don’t understand. For him, staring isn’t necessarily at you, it might be through you. Socially, he has some challenges that make him appear awkward. Does that make more sense?” She nods her head at me. “Just because he’s autistic doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have feelings, but he may not be as good at expressing that as you or me.”

Immediately upon explaining to her, I have mixed emotions. For one, I’m glad that she has a better understanding of what the other student is going through. Yet, I feel as though I just outed him, like I told a secret that he doesn’t want anyone to know. I’m conflicted, but it’s too late to turn back. Is it better that I said something, or did I violate some sort of privacy, some confidential information that wasn’t mine to share?

Maybe if we stopped making differences taboo I wouldn’t have to do this in the first place. Maybe instead of saying disability, we said ability with differences. Maybe, then, the world of middle school would be somewhat more navigable for our left-of-center children.

Since that day, I have noticed a marked change in the interaction between the two students. He continues to stare, and she continues to be uncomfortable. The difference is, she can live with that discomfort because she understands what is causing it. He can continue to be himself, and she can coexist with that, providing him the space to be who he is, in spite of differences.

Middle school is still the proverbial gauntlet, and each student is a gladiator facing his or her own battle. Some these conflicts are personal, while others interpersonal, a complex amalgamation of social eggshells. Although many young people face the daily micro-arguments deciding who they need to be, many already have these decisions made for them, like my student with autism: he does not get to choose who he is, but the student at whom he stares? She now gets to choose.

It’s unrealistic to avoid responsibility to all parties on the matter. Will she choose kind? I hope so, but there are hundreds of other kids who still lack uninformed empathy. What will we do about it?

In Response To: Big Fish

Sitting in my boss’ office, I began to feel thirteen again. Although a grown man and a teacher, there was something about sitting in a principal’s office that reminded me of my first experience in such a room. My mind wandered off, and I was starting to feel an old ache , like a bum knee on a cold day, creeping up stealthily. It was in a room like this – cramped, poorly lit, and symbolically authoritative, that I learned a valuable life lesson: big fish make ponds feel small.

Standing near my principal Dr. Sellers’ office, waiting for her to call me in, feeling the occasional assault of the fan positioned strategically in the hallway, I thought about why I might be there, and I watched some troubled-looking kid I didn’t know exit her door. He had a weary look on his face and a detention slip crumpled in his hand. This office was not a place I frequented, and I was hesitant to go in when I was called. It was the end of the school year, I was about to go to high school, and this is what I believed: my place was in a fish bowl – a small one – and I had always been a big fish.

My neighborhood elementary school was also my neighborhood middle school. Grades K through eight coexisted awkwardly on the same small campus. I entered school there as a shrimpy first-grader, quickly establishing myself as a strong student.

On a perceivably average day, Dr. Sellers walked into my eighth grade language arts class. She was an imposing figure, not because of her size, but because of her authority and her notorious reputation for never smiling. She was like a hurricane: a force that you could sense coming before it touched down. When she opened the classroom door, I thought it was typical principal posturing, entering to make sure the students – and teacher – were on task. Foolishly, I looked her way and made eye contact with her; I was caught, trapped like some tuna in a fisherman’s net. She sauntered over to me with a small envelope in her hand, placed it gingerly on the corner of my desk. I pretended not to notice, but my curiosity got the best of me. I reached out and poked the note with my finger, then tried to lift the mysterious paper. As I did so, Dr. Sellers gently placed her hand on mine and said, “Not now. You can open it after class.” The anticipation killed me, but being the attentive goody-good that I was, I agonizingly heeded her request.

As soon as I stepped out from Mrs. Flynn’s classroom door, I tore open the envelope, not really understanding why I was so eager. Most kids would be terrified: a note from the principal, the person who you intentionally tried to avoid, the disciplinarian and adult figurehead who represented everything totalitarian and evil on a school campus. This note, however, was addressed to me, not my parents. In my mind, I was probably the smartest kid in the school. What did I have to worry about? I read her neatly drawn scrawl: “Come see me after school.” Those five vague, terribly non-descript words, lingering like gray clouds over my otherwise sunny day.

When the last bell rang, I quickly packed my things and hurried to the principal’s office, an act most students would commit to by dragging their heels, heads down, posture slumped. When she dismissed the student who was in her office before me, his eyes met mine, both silently begging the same question of the other: what is he doing here?

“Come in, Joseph,” she beckoned. I entered and sat in the aged chair, wondering how many other butts had sat there today. It was still warm.

I looked around her office and realized that, in eight years’ time, I had never been in there before; I had only seen it from a distance. Now, I was an invited guest, close enough to read the spines of the books on her shelf, still in the dark as to what my purpose here was. “I called you in today to congratulate you,” she began. There it was, praise. I liked praise. There was more for her to say. “I have had the pleasure of having you as a student on our campus for the past eight years. I’ve watched you grow into an intelligent and capable young man,” more praise, “but,” there’s a but? “But I wanted to remind you that you are entering a new chapter next year.” Yes, I understood this. “You’ve always been a big fish here, but Wildflower is a very small pond. What you get to high school, it’ll be different.”

My petulant, middle-schooler, internal response was, “Duh,” but clearly she was doing somewhere with this.

“This isn’t to be discouraging, but you may have to adjust. You’re used to being known and succeeding. You may have to share that limelight with others.” I stared at her blankly, blinking, my silent signal for her to continue. “Don’t be disappointed if you’re not as successful, you may have to settle for ‘Top 10,’ that’s all.” There it was: her telling me that I wouldn’t be a big fish any longer. Was this supposed to be encouraging, some cautionary tale to help me avoid deep disappointed?

“May I go?” I asked, not waiting for an answer as I walked out her door, for the first, and last, time. I could feel my face getting hot, reddening with anger. Who was she to tell me what my future would be like? Was she hoarding a crystal ball that told only her of events to come?

I stopped; placing my backpack on the nearest flat surface, I unzipped it and pulled our a piece of lined paper and a pencil. As quickly as my hand could fly, I drew, as best I could, an oversized goldfish squeezing its way out of a way-too-small bowl. Beneath the picture, I wrote, in very large letters, all capitalized for emphasis, “YOU’RE WRONG.” Finding a piece of tape inside my binder, I recycled it, placing it on the corner of my artistic endeavor.

Quickening my pace, I reached Dr. Seller’s door, and with an open palm, I forcefully smacked the page onto its surface, shaking the door with a loud boom. I pivoted and walked away quickly, turning a corner as I heard her door creak open. Peeking around the corner, I saw her grab the paper and look up. From a distance, I could see the corners of her mouth bend slightly upward, forming the closest thing to a smile that I had ever seen on her face. As I turned and walked towards home, I decided my goal, for the next for years, and forever after, was to prove her wrong, and be the biggest fish I could be.

When my boss walked in the room, he said my name twice before I snapped out of my memory. His face looked gray and tired beneath the fluorescent lights, and I was mentally swimming into the sides of my bowl.


In Response To: Why I Write

We know the scenario: the teacher asks a question. The students raise their hands. There, front and center, waving hand right to left, is me. I know the answer. I have a response for that.

This routine repeated throughout my educational journey. Whether in sixth grade, answering questions about ancient Mesopotamia or Hammurabi’s code, contributing to a class discussion on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school, or interacting during a seminar at university, my participation bordered on obsessive, and my seat remained front and center. If a teacher or professor were to ignore my obvious desire to respond, my posture would shift: I’d begin to slump in my chair, disengage from the flow of discussion, and doodle in the margins of whatever paper lay before me – well, until I could raise my hand again.

I’ve also been on the other side of the raised hand. A major, contributing factor to my becoming a teacher was my love for school. Some people follow their passions. Some people take risks, venturing out into the real world with a hope and a dream and some coin in pocket. I took a route that reflected my need for a sense of security and protection of my self-esteem. School was the thing I had always been good at, so I selected teaching.

From a very early age, much of my healthy ego was developed through my interactions with teachers and my classmates. My passion for learning was fueled by my academic achievements, and those achievements were fueled by my passion. Being a super competitive, overachiever type, school gave me a platform for my intellectual curiosity. This reciprocal relationship made being a student enjoyable for me and with each task assigned, I made the best effort to “autograph my work with excellence,” a phrase often used by my sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Poe. That saying became a mantra for me, and I have repurposed it as a phrase I use with my own students.

The classroom is a place where I always felt my shine, and my childlike eagerness to be an active participant certainly hasn’t dulled with age, except now I find myself being more reactive. A raised hand isn’t always a sign of critical thinking, but rather a signal to enter the conversation, a way of saying, “I’m here, now you better pay me some damn attention.”

Nowadays, finding myself triggered to respond by any number of stimuli is not uncommon, but I raise my hand, so to speak, by picking up the proverbial pen.

My daily life is filled with catalysts for commentary, and I’m still that precocious kid trying to find some way to enter a conversation that either already exists, or should. As a teacher of writing, encouraging my students to find inspiration in their daily lives, for substance and content, is my job, but I embody the practice I expect, writing beside my students, serving as a model of the writing process. Regularly, there are any number of scenarios worthy of my attention, and I seem to have a endless supply of fodder to cultivate thought. Whenever anything seems noteworthy, I think to myself: let me respond to that.

For example, there are innumerable occasions on which I am unprepared, or unable, to write. So many distractions clutter my writerly path. Being a parent accounts for much of my writing content, my small human-in-training serving as chief muse. Raising a toddler requires a lot of reacting, but he’s also the rodeo clown to my bull. Parenting is survival, and I want to document its finest moments for posterity: the tantrums, the laughter, the remarkable shit my son says by which I am caught completely off-guard. I want to talk about that, document it with the discipline of an archivist. Yet, time is a slippery fish.

Teaching adolescents also provides for an endless pond in which to throw a line. Almost daily, there is some tasty tidbit dying to receive some social commentary: the fickleness of teenage love, the “it” dance of the minute, or the memes. So. Many. Memes.

And then, there are adults.

Spending the vast majority of my day interacting with people under the age of 15 makes me hyper-aware of my surroundings, and the snatches of adult conversations often pique my interests. Inevitably, something someone says or does beckons my response, and I constantly find myself scribbling down things, thinking to myself, “I want to respond to that later.” Usually, later never comes. Derailed by one thing or another, all those precious moments for pondering become merely static on a screen.

Until now.

Sitting in front of my laptop, my purpose becomes clearer. The world is my classroom, and my readers become the teacher, asking endless questions. Here I am, again front and center, waving my hand back and forth, waiting for someone to call on me. When they do, I will have something to contribute, and  I know just how I’ll start. I’ll say, “Let me respond to that.”

And, I will.

In Response To: Teacher Hearing

Do you ever get the sense that someone is talking about you?

If you are a teacher, that happens pretty much every single day. From students complaining about something you said, an assignment that you’ve given them, or just using your name in conversation for who knows what, it’s very easy to become paranoid in your own classroom.

What students don’t know, but no one ever tells that, is that teachers are blessed with hyper-hearing, sensitive to anything that even remotely sounds like his or her own name.

From the back of the room, I hear it: A whispered “Ferro” and my ears perk up. I don’t know the context, but I’m not sure that I care. It isn’t accompanied by hand-raising to get my attention, so I’m suspicious. My defenses are triggered. I lean closer, hoping to get the rest of the conversation. No, I can’t make it out so rather than try to understand the context, I immediately say: “Did I hear my name?”

Now pardon me if this seems an accusatory tone, but I’m a little sensitive about hearing my name when I don’t think that I should be hearing it. Of course, they could be complimenting me, but I teach middle school. What is the likelihood of that? Pretty much slim to none, especially when not aimed directly.

Usually, I catch them, those name-whisperers, like deer in headlights, trapped in my gaze. Immediately, after recovering from the shock, the student usually asks, “How did you hear me?” Notice: the student does not apologize. Notice: the student does not try to explain what he or she said. Notice: the kid acknowledges my superhuman hearing. Suddenly, I feel a bit like the narrator in a Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart,” not the completely-mad-so-I-stalk-and-kill-my-neighbor lunatic part, but of all my senses, my teacher sense of hearing is certainly more acute, and I hear all things in room 501.

“Don’t you know,” I begin to question, “That teachers can hear their name in pretty much any noise level? It’s something that we are taught in teacher school.” I know that they don’t buy the second half of the remark, but the first half makes them think. After all, I did just catch them sullying (aren’t they?) my name.

“Here’s something to think about,” I continue. “If you ever want to talk about your teacher,” I tell them, “You use some sort of code word. Something super innocuous like, let’s say, ‘basketball.’ If you’re talking about basketball, it’s likely that I won’t suspect anything.” In most settings, talk of basketball would be, at most, off task, but not suspicious, and it wouldn’t warrant the hyper-vigilance of saying my name.

“So what you’re saying is that we should have a codeword for our teachers?” asked with a level of incredulity.

“Well,” I go on, violating some unspoken teacher code, “Yes. Unless you want to explain to everyone of your teachers what exactly you were talking about when you say our names.”

I won’t lie, I probably will react this way as long as this scenario persists, but I haven’t heard my name as much lately. Come to think of it, there’s been a lot more talk about basketball.

Maybe, I tell myself, it’s just the March Madness. Yes, I insist. Madness.

In Response To: Why Are You A Teacher?

Adolescents are curious creatures. One minute, they avoid you, the leper adult that you are. The next, they overwhelm you with sincerity or genuine interest in your humanity.

There’s at least one student every year who asks me,”Why do you teach?” Usually, I give some sort of snarky response, saying something like, “Because I want to be rich,” but I always follow it up with some more detailed, legitimate answer.

This year, a young lady in my third period caught me off guard. While doing research on how artificial intelligence will impact education, raised her hand. I walk over to her desk, lean in and indicate I am listening. Then, the bomb explodes. “Mr. Ferro, does it bother you that people are trying to replace teachers with AI?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it,” I reply, honestly.

“Well, if it does, what would you do? I mean, why did you even pick teaching in the first place?”

“Well,” I begin, “I think teaching chose me.” She looks at me, dissatisfied with my vague answer. I do admit, this answer seems like a cop out, but it is true since I didn’t come to the profession by a traditional route.

Maybe a better question, then, is why do I stay in teaching?

When I think about the time I spend with my students, it is considerable: 55 minutes times 130 days (approximately). That’s 7150 minutes, 120 hours, or five, full days. Some of them have been in my classroom for multiple periods a day and lunch (because it’s a safe space), so the minutes add up.

In this time, I sincerely hope that my students learn something that they consider valuable. To be honest, however, I would be disingenuous if I said that I cared only about their academic progress or achievements. It would be far more truthful to say that their growth and development as humans, citizens of this world, and as critical thinkers, outweighs any ambition I had (or have) for their knowledge of things like parallel structure, identifying theme, analyzing symbolism, or evaluating an author’s word choice. Yes, this content represents some concrete academic construct a consortium has determined they should know, but here’s a secret: there are far more important lessons I want them to learn.

These humans-in-training are future voters, leaders, and decision-makers, and my responsibility in the role in preparing them for whatever path they choose is something I take seriously. I teach because I can be the person I needed at their age.

There may come a day that the dust of their school career will settle and a sense of understanding will come upon them. They will be a bit travel-worn, likely exhausted from the journey that is compulsory education, but then: clarity.

The best lessons of life are those that are not academic in nature, yet often take place within the fences of our schools. The best teachers don’t just teach content, but are also those that we know and understand as people – flesh and blood humans – not just the Mr or Mrs so-and-sos who peer viciously over shoulders as students perform some perfunctory task, wielding officious red pens and distributing complicated rubrics.

Maybe my students see me in a flattering light, but maybe not. If nothing else, I want them to know I cared and that I always will. They may not ever re-enter the doors of my classroom as a student of mine, but they will always be one of my students. Within the four walls that support my room, I hope they learn, but also laugh, grow, change, and feel safe, welcome, and secure.

Some of them may think this makes me a good teacher, but It would be impossible for me to be so without wonderful young people to inspire me.

Just as I said they will always be my student, I will always have been their teacher, and I’m being so, there’s the potential to affect infinity. As a moderately-experienced adult, there will be times in their lives when some failure occurs – they don’t pass a test, someone breaks their heart, they don’t gain admittance into the college of choice, are turned down for a job, et cetera. This world may not always accept their offers, leaving stars unaligned, but as a teacher, as their teacher, I know that they all have the potential to learn and develop into the people who will lead our world in a direction that values progress, individual spirit, intellectual endeavors, and beauty. This gives me purpose. This makes me happy.

So, the next time a student asks me asked me why I became a teacher, I have this to reference, a straight answer (if not a short one). My students, ultimately, are the reason. They are why I became a teacher.

Now try to get some robot to do that.