Monday, August 18, 2014

Time Well Spent

August 18, 2014

More than any summer in recent past, I feel this summer has been full of exciting and interesting adventures for us.  We went to my niece's wedding, I did two separate week-long curriculum development/work-enhancing sessions, took a photography excursion to Morro Bay with a fellow photographer and another friend, went to a couple of out of town soccer tournaments with Danielle, and went to a couple of different big gigs for Doug's band.  In addition, Nicholas completed summer school so that he wouldn't have to take P.E. this year (yay!) and got his driver's license (yay again!), and he and I got to take a mother-son trip to Monterey Bay, just the two of us, to visit the aquarium.  Danielle and Bree went on vacation with Bill in Oregon for a week, went to a weekend beach retreat with her church youth group, and then went on a week long summer camp for church as well.  Bree got a second job and moved into her new place, as well as continuing her work with the Associated Student Body and the Ambassadors at San Diego State.  Doug and I got to spend quite a bit of time together this summer, as we were both off work, and amid all of the flurry of activity with the kids, we managed to get away to Cayucos for a weekend with our friends Joe and Wendy.  And then, of course, there was Costa Rica!  Lisa and I spent five wonderful days in Costa Rica for a long-awaited, very overdue sister bonding excursion.  From start to finish the vacation was beautiful, and just made us vow to make these kinds of trips--checking places off our Life Lists--a priority again for us.

More than any summer in recent past, I feel fully rejuvenated and refreshed.  I don't feel like I wasted away my days sitting idly in front of the TV wondering what happened to my vacation.  And now, although I'm already planning some pretty exciting things to look forward to the next time summer rolls around, I am also more than ready to step back into school and kick off another fantastic year!  Today was my first day back--planning and prepping and getting back in touch with my work friends and my teacher-self.  We've got four more days of meetings and lesson designs and making the room welcoming and homey, and then the kids come bright and early next Monday.  I'll be ready!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Bill Cosby

March 19, 2014

I was flipping channels tonight and landed on Bill Cosby's "Himself".  If you've never seen it, you're missing out.  On the other hand, if you have children, you've lived it.  Heck, I was living it just last night.  Not so funny when you're in the middle of it, but when Bill Cosby reminds you that all children suffer from the same 'brain damage' and we parents are all in this together, it puts things in perspective.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

In Defense of Fiction

March 13, 2014

                I just finished reading a novel called Little Bee, by Chris Cleave.  I came upon this book accidentally, as is often the way I come across a particular book.  I’m a haunter of thrift stores, bargain bins, and garage sales for new and interesting titles to line my bookshelves with, both the ones in my home and the ones in my classroom.  I’m a big believer in the power of the written word to transport and transform, to ignite and incite, and to engross and entertain.  I believe in surrounding myself and my children with words, because I believe it encourages them to know that their voices, too, are powerful.  Entertaining.  Valuable.

                So I came across this book on one of my treasure hunts.  I looked first at the binding, then at the cover, and then at the synopsis on the back.  We tell kids not to judge a book by its cover, but my students—especially my reluctant readers—don’t often know where else to begin.  And if we’re honest, we adults who attempt to guide students through the world of knowledge outside their own worlds, we’ll admit that it’s often where we begin, too.  Why on earth else would publishers and artists expend so much time, energy, and money on what the outside of the book looks like?  If we want people to walk into our house and cozy up on the figurative couch with our ideas, we’re going to want our front porch to be inviting, right?  Of this particular book, Little Bee, I thought the graphics and the title were interesting.  The back cover summary, which intimated a dark secret that bound two women inextricably, was intriguing.  I dropped the book into my cart with several companions, made my purchase, and then set out to divide my new acquisitions between my classroom and home libraries.  Little Bee was one I couldn’t immediately place—not until I’d read it and determined what, in fact, was the secret, and whether or not my classroom was the right home for it.

                I dove in, not knowing what to expect.  Little Bee turned out to be the name of our protagonist, one of two alternating narrators in the work.  The world of Little Bee, a sixteen-year-old illegal immigrant fleeing the horrors of her native Nigeria, is shocking, unsettling.  How she comes to find herself connected to Sarah and her son Charlie is a series of choices, each one setting a subsequent one in motion, until their worlds collide and become simultaneously uncomfortably and comfortably intertwined.  The secret that binds them? I will reveal no more than the back cover of that novel did.  Suffice it to say the secret continues to be revealed and unraveled throughout the course of the novel.  Each piece of the secret that comes to light lays bare another part of the story—and it’s worth digging in deeper to find the whole story.

                It’s not a nice story.  In fact, it takes the reader to some very dark places.  I wanted to look away; I wanted to put down the book and be done.  But it was compelling, you see, shining a light on a place and an injustice most of us will, thankfully, never see in the kind of first-hand nightmare-you-can’t-escape kind of way.  We can put the book down—take a break from it for a while, live our reality, flawed though it may be—and remember that we are not in that place.  But the point is, there are people for whom this is a reality, an existence from which they can’t escape.  And in the end, I had to go back; I had to know what happened to Little Bee and to Sarah.

                In my neighborhood, there are no guerrilla troops raiding villages; there is not a violent power struggle between powerful factions that leaves torn and broken human collateral damage in its wake.  This world I stepped into as a brief visitor is, however, real.  The story is inspired by theft and greed and corruption over real crude oil in a very real Nigeria.  The true events are well-documented and thoroughly researched.  If I’d come across a news article online about the human injustice—the unadulterated disregard for human life at the expense of a land-grab that might yield financial gain—I would almost certainly flick the page or scroll past the story.  I would exercise the kind of purposeful ignorance that many who are comfortable in life often exercise.  If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.

                The book, though—it made it real.  Funny thing, that; a fictionalized account is what made the thing real to me.  Why?  Because it humanized the circumstances for me.  It made it personal. I cared about Little Bee’s experience; I cared about her life. I was invested and I was moved.  Her story continued to stay with me when I was not with her, and her story continues to affect me even though I have turned the final page. This is not to say that a non-fiction account couldn’t have done the same thing; this is to say that it didn’t.

                This perhaps sounds like a book review, or possibly the initial workings-out of an analysis.  That is not my intent.  What continued to reverberate in my mind for quite a while after reading the book in addition to the fact that I had been educated about a facet of the modern world I didn’t even know existed was something entirely outside of the story itself.  As teachers of English, we have seen a seismic shift in the past several years regarding the importance of reading.  What do kids need to read in order to be productive citizens?  What do students need in order to adequately and appropriately enter the work force?  Overwhelmingly, the answer from the world of business and even the world of academia has been a sharp aversion to the luxury of reading fiction ‘for fun’ and a turn toward non-fiction.  Functional, informative, necessary.  That’s what our kids need.  They need to be critical thinkers and they need to be problem-solvers.  Nowhere in their world, unless their aspiration is to become a stuffy and quaint 19th Century Literature professor, will they be asked to read novels to make a living.  Why on earth hold on to such antiquated ideas about English curriculum?  Why bother?  The novel is dead; no one needs to read fiction anymore.  It isn’t relevant.  It isn’t real

                Except that it is relevant; it is real.  Unrest in Nigeria is real, and citizens are dying.  Government tyranny and oppression, like Orwell’s 1984 or Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, exist.  Today.  Right now.  Compelling and disturbing choices have resounding and long-lasting effects on the human psyche, such as those illustrated in The Kite Runner or The Poisonwood Bible.  Real?  These authors aren’t writing about characters; they are writing about life.  Real life.  Issues in our world.  Problems that need solved.  Questions that need to be faced.  Questions that need to be answered.  Oh, they’re real, alright.  And although nonfiction writers write about some of these same issues and ask us to contemplate the hard questions, fiction writers dress up those issues in raiment familiar and close to us, so that we may examine them firsthand, walking hand in hand with the characters on their journey.  They allow us to see the human-ness behind the story and see the way in which a person can inhabit the experience in a personal way.  The fiction, in fact, makes it real.  We are drawn in by the cover or by the artwork on the front, and we are dropped headlong into a reality we might never have known we didn’t know.

Functional, informative, necessary.  That’s what reading should be, according to the pundits of the day.  And make no mistake; I am not advocating abstaining from reading nonfiction.  There is a wealth of fascinating, engaging, and informative nonfiction to take in.  But to sweep under the rug the vast landscape of literary fiction as a superfluous luxury is not only erroneous, but dangerous.  Fiction draws us in because we are human, because we want to relate.  And because it draws us in, it is able to delve into what connects us as human beings because we become invested in the lives of those we spend time with—in real life and in between the pages of a book.  Good fiction is functional; it begs us to think and draw parallels and understand what it means to be human.  Good fiction is informative; it shows us vast landscapes, both literal and figurative, that expand our horizons.  Good fiction is necessary; it connects us to each other across time and across place.  It reminds us that there is more that should bind us as humans than that should divide us.

 Functional, informative, necessary.  I suppose all depends really, on how you choose to define those terms.  If you boil them down to the lowest form, the most basic of terms, one might say you only need the barest of essentials.  On the one hand, perhaps one might define that as eliminating ‘superfluous fiction’.  Read only what you need to do in order to function appropriately within the construct of the job you’ve chosen to pursue.  Perhaps you only need to read science documents for your job, or perhaps read government policy.  I would agree that those are necessary skills.  On the other hand, might one not define the most necessary element of our future as the ability to read a common thread of humanity among us?  The ability to put a human face to the issues that need our problem-solvers and our critical thinkers?  This is not a luxury or a past-time for the idle; this is what we need as a society.  We need never to forget our connectedness, and fiction allows us to remember in a real and personal way.  It may, as it turns out, be exactly what we need.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Here's Why Danielle Doesn't Get to Start Driver's Ed Just Yet

March 11, 2014

My daughter cracks me up.  She had to write "10 Pieces of Advice" for an English assignment, and true to form, she decided to take a tongue-in-cheek approach.  Here's her take on being a good driver.

Danielle Lutjens
 3/12/14
Prd. 4
Ten Tips to Be a Successful Driver


1. Never stop for pedestrians
     The road was designed for cars, not humans; put them in their place. They have sidewalks, so if you need to nudge pedestrians a little, go for it.

2. Your horn is there for a reason
    It wouldn't be installed to just sit there; use it and abuse it. Horns are the way cars communicate. Be prepared for a full-on horn battle, but make sure that you can deal with what you dish out.

3. Turn up the tunes
    Don't be selfish, crank up the radio and roll down the windows. Let everyone absorb the glorious music that you have to share. Obviously all the surrounding drivers will be grateful for the obnoxious, heavy jams, that you too enjoy rocking out to.

4. When parallel parking, be encouraging 
    Believe in yourself and go for it. You're not THAT big, you can fit into the spot. Your car will eventually squeeze in. Who cares about the gaping holes and monstrous scratches in the adjacent cars?

5. Keep your phone in sight at all times
    Nobody follows the laws anymore, what harm will it do, your phone is way more important. I mean, what if you left your phone in the backseat and got a snap chat from your bestie, or someone comments on your post, and you just ignore it? They would hate you forever, and there would be a brawl of besties. Not having your phone causes drama. Keep it close.

6. Speeding relieves stress
    Do you ever just have a horrible day? Well the best way to turn that frown upside down, is to put the pedal to the metal. Make a game out of it. Set the timer on your handy dandy phone, and see how many small creatures you can turn into roadkill in ten minutes.

7. If you hit a car, drive like the wind
    Fast and furious.Test your car's limits. The fuzz will never catch you, and you will be good to go. If there's a crash, what's the point of staying; knowing how fast you drive, they are probably goners.

8. When you hear a siren, slow down
    Go as slow as possible, when any emergency vehicle is behind you. You need to teach them to go the speed limit, and shut off the blinding, patriotic lights. If they are the ones that want to keep you safe, why do they go so fast? They are going to crash. 

9. Always have alcohol handy
    Just keep an open bottle in the cupholder. You never know when you'll need an extra boost of confidence. Just think of the perks you could get if a thirsty police officer pulls you over and you conveniently have an ice cold beer saved just for him.

10. Resist police arrest
    Never believe what officers will say, most are high school dropouts. Get out of arrest any way possible; you'll never survive in jail. If you have tried every method, just request the striped jumpsuit; orange is so out of style.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Hittin' The Road

February 28, 2014

I finally felt up to taking myself and my FitBit out for a walk tonight (after being out of commission due to a very painful dental emergency for three days)---and promptly fell flat on my face. I mean, literally. I stepped weirdly on a rock on the sidewalk, lost my balance and suddenly pitched forward. In order to avoid landing on my surgically 'enhanced' knee, I landed instead totally flat-out on my face and hands--like I had suddenly decided to do push-ups on the sidewalk at 11:00 at night. Three days without taking my FitBit out and about, and suddenly it's like I've completely forgotten how to walk. On the bright side, my cartoon pratfall offered a little humor break to my hubby (before he so kindly checked to see if I was okay and then helped me up).

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

And It's Only Tuesday

February 18, 2014

It's been an eventful few days.

--Traveled to San Diego for the CATE conference with my friend Julie
--Met a vibrant and energetic new friend at CATE
--Met several authors and got signed copies of several novels
--Met an author/artist who designed some of the computer graphics on blockbuster movies who is interested in coming to talk to our robotics team
--Got to visit with Bree twice while I was down in San Diego
--Got pulled over by the police who let me know that unbeknownst to me, I was driving around with both taillights out. (He was kind and didn't give me a ticket, thank goodness.)
--Went to my fourth Rick Springfield concert with my friend Francine
--Had a beautiful belated Valentine's dinner at Capo's with Doug
--Woke up this morning to discover that my debit card had been hacked and frozen
--Got a letter from the school acknowledging Nicholas' Honor Roll from 1st semester
--Found out that as a freshman, Danielle beat out several upperclassmen to fall in the top five discus throwers who qualify to throw at the upcoming track meet
--Got a little bit of a family bombshell revealed this evening

All that and it's only Tuesday.

There's Got to Be a Book in Here Somewhere

February 18, 2014

For the conference I attended in San Diego this weekend, I traveled with a long-time colleague.  When we got to the conference, she ran into an old friend she hadn't seen in about ten years.  They fell back into immediate familiarity, and the three of us spent a great deal of time together over long, comfortable meals full of food, drink, and lots of conversation. As new friends often do, we shared quite a lot about our backgrounds and histories, tossing about the stories and anecdotes that shaped our particular paths in life.  Seriously, get three articulate, passionate, creative writers and storytellers together--the entertainment just keeps going.  We often think our own lives to be fairly mundane and pedestrian because we were there, of course, so it seems matter of course to us.  However, as I think back on the memories and situations that came up in the course of the conversation, I am struck once again that if seen by the objective eye, my life might not be quite so mundane as I often think it to be.
I shared stories, to name a few, about...
--the stream of illegal immigrants my parents hired as nannies when we were young in order to give them a start in their new country
--the morbid fear of knives I developed--and still have--because a babysitter (not one of the illegal ones) chased us to our neighbor's house, threatening to kill us
--the time my brother nearly blinded me as a very young girl
--the time my brother nearly blinded my sister as a slightly older young girl
--the time my brother smashed through our patio door to prove he had 'learned' karate
--the time we blindfolded and tied up my younger brother and left him, forgotten, in our attic for several hours
--the time I was homeless for a short while in junior high
--the time my parents bought a private school and we tried to make a run of it for the blink of an eye before they had to shut it down for financial reasons and we were shuttled back to public school
--the private investigator my father hired to spy on us during high school
--the time a party at my apartment (thrown by my roommate, who just happened to be my brother) very nearly ended my teaching career before it ever began
--the time I found nearly $4000 worth of drugs in my apartment
--the last time I ever saw my dad alive

We did, as I said, a LOT of talking.  My counterparts shared just as much of their own histories, which were fascinating and as foreign to me as my experiences were to them.  At the end of the weekend, we came away with two things: we all really enjoyed each others' company, and we all quite possibly have a book in us somewhere.  I mean, I could write a whole book on my brother alone!  Someday...

Monday, February 3, 2014

Now You've Done It

February 3, 2014
I’m not a Coca-Cola consumer in general—most of my soda dollars (which are considerable) go to Pepsico.  I just like the taste better.  Oh, I’m not one of those who would rather drink water than a Diet Coke; that would be silly.  I’ll drink a Diet Coke if Diet Pepsi is not available, but on the whole, brand me Ms. Pepsi.

However, during the Super Bowl yesterday, Coca-Cola did something that gained my attention.  It gained the attention of a lot of folks, actually, because naturally it happened during one of the biggest television-viewing events of the year.  What did they do? They aired a commercial.  It was a simple, feel-good advertisement meant to celebrate all the harmony and diversity in our country.  Or, if you ask others, it was yet another example of the insidious and intentional un-doing of all that makes this a great country.
Any guesses which side of the metaphorical fence I fall on in this debate?  Because there was a debate, of sorts: an immediate flurry of social media posts of both support of and outrage at the advertisement.  The issue at hand?  The commercial showed several successive vignettes of folks singing “America the Beautiful”.  The actors in the commercial were young and old, from the city and from the country, and represented several ethnicities.  And they were singing the song in lots of different languages.  It started off in English, and ended in English as well, but in between, several other languages were represented.  Beautiful, sweet renditions of people singing about the country that they love.

But they weren’t all singing in English, which was the heart of the matter.  I saw Facebook posts which read, “You’ve done it now, Coca-Cola!” and “I guarantee you not one serviceman died in the service of his country so that you could speak another language!”, among others.  Well now, I’m not so sure about that.  Since when is freedom defined as being required to speak one language?  I’m not saying that folks who live in the United States shouldn’t learn English; I think it’s the way one learns to navigate successfully in this society.  But do I think that means they must forsake any other language they might know? Effectively separate themselves from a culture, a history, a family they also call their own?  How arrogant and single-minded to want to negate the multiplicity of culture that is what makes this country so great.

Mind you, I am not here to engage in the “Official Language” debate, or the “English Only Ballot” debate.  Those are separate conversations that involve so much.  Economics. Opportunities for upward mobility. Business.  An informed citizenry.  Even the idea of nationalism and patriotism.   These issues and more all figure into the discussion of whether or not we should call for an “Official Language” of the people, and honestly, there are good, rational points to be made on both sides of that argument.  We are not, however, discussing that issue.  We are discussing how offended we are (or are not) that Coca-Cola dared to air an advertisement where people were singing—celebrating—this beautiful country in just a handful of the languages that represent the vast multicultural landscape of its inhabitants.

I am not offended.  I don’t think one has to forego one language to embrace another.  When one speaks Spanish, for example, where is it written that it means he or she refuses to learn English? Or is somehow ungrateful to have the opportunities they have in this country or is being disrespectful to servicemen who protect the freedoms afforded us here?  This is not an either/or, black and white world we live in.  The richness of experiences, including cultural and social experiences, is what makes this country beautiful, not the absence of difference.  Not whitewashed sameness.


Coca-Cola got my attention, and the attention of a great many others, for better or worse.  And the company knew that it would, and aired the commercial anyway.  They knew they might (and in fact will) lose some customers because of it.  They decided to celebrate diversity and simplicity by highlighting one of our country’s beloved ballads, letting many voices shine, rather than let divisiveness of potential detractors sway them, and for that I have great respect.  They may not always get my soda dollars, but yesterday, they did earn my respect.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Winter Formal Speech

January 23, 2014

This Saturday is our Winter Formal, and as is my tradition, I give my kids the Winter Formal speech in each of my classes.  It's my little way of trying to help them make good decisions and good choices on an evening when sometimes they get caught up in the moment and forget about potential consequences.  Do I think every single kid will heed my advice?  No, of course not.  But if the speech makes even one kid reconsider making a potentially devastating poor choice, then it's well worth the time I spend in class talking about it.  Here's what I tell them:

This is a speech I give every year in my senior classes, regarding a couple of things I find important to remind kids of before each of the Big Three: Winter Formal, Prom, and Graduation. Pay attention, because this is serious stuff. I give this speech because I'm a mama, and you'll just have to humor me. I have my own kids, but you're my kids, too, so you'll just have to deal with me being a mama for a moment. There are three things I'd like to address.

The first one is, I'm excited to see your pictures from the Formal.  It's wonderful to see you all looking so grown up, such ladies and gentlemen! It's one of my favorite things to see.(I'm sad that I didn't get selected for Formal duty this year, so I'll miss it in person!). However, that being said, one of my least favorite things about the dances is seeing the kind of dancing that goes on out on the dance floor. Having fun or being close and romantic is one thing, but the 'freaking' on the dance floor? Not pretty. Not attractive. Simulated sex on the dance floor is not dancing! And it totally undoes the elegant sophisticated look you took all day cultivating as you were getting dressed up like young ladies and gentlemen. Would you dance like that in front of your mama?  No? Then why do you think it's okay to put on that kind of display in front of your physics teacher or your English teacher.  It's just uncomfortable, you know?

The second part of the speech deals with a much more serious thing, which is the whole issue of drinking. There are a lot of you who think that because you're feeling all grown up and dressed up, and it's a festive time, that it's okay to drink. First of all, let me remind you that IT'S NOT LEGAL. But you know that, and some of you will choose to ignore that. So if you choose to make the first bad decision and drink on the night of the dance, don't make a second bad decision to get behind the wheel of a car. When you are driving home from the dance, so will lots of other people, all hoping and expecting to get home safely.  Don't be the one who changes that due to negligence. I want all of you to make it home alive and to be back here on Monday for school, safe and sound. I want you to make it to your graduation, which you have all worked so hard for.

This is not just about you drinking. If you are with someone who has been drinking, don't let them get behind the wheel. They might be mad at you, but that's okay. They'll get over it. Don't be the one who watches someone drive away, and then later finds out he spun out of control on the way home because he shouldn't have been driving. Decisions like that--one stupid decision--can irrevocably alter people's lives. Forever. Don't be that person. Don't let your friend be that person. Make good decisions. And if you make the first bad decision to drink, make a second good decision, and stay where you are, or have a designated driver. Call mom or dad to pick you up. Call ME to pick you up. I don't care if you call me a three o'clock in the morning. I would jump in the car and come get you to take you home, rather than have you driving out on the road, drunk. I am absolutely sincere about that. I'm not that hard to get ahold of.

The last word about drinking is please don't show up to the dance already drunk. I've had students who have been ejected within 15 minutes of their arrival because they had so obviously been drinking. This is supposed to be a fun night, and getting kicked out of the dance is not fun. Even really good kids sometimes have a lapse of judgment, but you don't want that kind of lapse in judgment to put to waste all the money and time you spent getting ready for this event. And what if you are the girlfriend whose date got caught, drunk? You are either stuck there to finish out the dance alone, or you have to go home. There's also the issue of having to face your parents with the bad news. Even worse, students who get caught drunk at the dance will get expelled under Zero Tolerance. After all those years of hard work, after all that time invested, don't make a decision that could lead to you not walking graduation with all of your classmates when you are so close to the light at the end of the tunnel.

And finally, speaking of graduation, let's do the math, shall we? We are about five months away from the big night, the culmination of all your years of academic work. Winter Formal night is a big night for a lot of kids. You're feeling grown-up, you're feeling you are on the verge becoming a fully independent young adult. And a lot of students feel that this is the perfect time to experiment with other 'grown-up' behaviors. All I'm going to say, girls, is that five months down the line, right about graduation time, you don't want to be the one who is suddenly starting to show evidence that you've accidentally come away from the Winter Formal with an extra souvenir----one that will be with you forever. Boys--you don't want to give in to temptation now to be left with a souvenir you aren't ready to be responsible for for the rest of your life. Be careful. Make good choices.

And have a great time!


Monday, January 13, 2014

Now We're a Matched Set--Or Maybe Tomorrow We Will Be

January 13, 2014

We got Doug a FitBit today.  He's been walking with me to help me meet my daily 'steps' goals, so he figured he might as well be logging his steps, too.  We've been really good about working toward our walking goals since Lisa got me my FitBit for Christmas.  Sadly, the one we got for him appears to have a previous owner, because he'd burned over 2,000 calories before he even got the thing out of the box.  Then, while trying to set it up and sync it to the computer, he kept hitting a brick wall--a non-functioning piece of technology.  Or at the very least, a piece of technology with its own agenda.  We just couldn't get the device to communicate with his computer correctly, although his phone showed some indication of stats logged in the device's previous life.  It looks like we're going to have to take it back and see if we can get one that doesn't have a past.  Maybe tomorrow we'll be a matching set.