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Profile Name: Chris Bowen
Year: 2007-2008
District: Downey Unified School District
School: LEWIS
Grades Taught: K-5
Subjects Taught: English, Math
Email: cebowen@peoplepc.com
Additional Info: A former student writes: "If there was a Coolest Teacher of the Century award, I think he would be deserving of that as well!"

A LITTLE TAPE AND GLUE 

Sunday, July 08, 2012 4:43:00 PM

     Third period.  Ten a.m.  Last week of school.  One of those mornings that has that soft smell of spring, but feels like summer.  It’s a good one.  And Dennis has a girlfriend.  Fine choice, too.  Sylvia.  I’m assuming if I were thirteen, Sylvia would be the kind of girl I would be too shy to talk to.  I would pine away in silence and obscurity.  A goth-style yearning.  But Dennis took a leap.  Fortune and fate tend to favor the bold.  And Dennis has clearly been shined upon.  The two of them are holding hands off and on.  He keeps looking back, making sure I don’t catch him.  Here’s the thing.  I immediately look away every time.  I don’t want to catch him.  I don’t want him to even know he’s been caught.  I refuse to ruin his morning.  Because holding hands at thirteen with a pretty girl might just feel like the greatest moment of his life up to this point.  Really?  I’m going to go against that.  For Dennis, the world is a much better place this morning.  The Hot Cheetos he scarfed down for breakfast tasted a little better.  He hated math class just a little less.  He walks over to me, hoping fortune will reward him just one more time this morning.

     “Uhm.”  He stammers, with a little hesitation.  “Uhm, I really can’t see the movie from my desk.  I was wondering if I could sit on the other side of the room when we start to watch.”  Now, I’m above ruining his morning.  But, I’m not above making him squirm a little.  I smile.

     “You know, I’d respect you way more if you told me that you desperately want to sit next to your girlfriend, instead of this bad angle routine.”  I think I see a little sweat start to form on his brow.  He leans in.

     “Can I please sit next to my girlfriend?  Please?”  I nod.  Go big or go home, right?  The best moment of his life up to this point is about to taste just a little bit better.

     And so it goes.  And, I have to be honest.  Watching him lifted my mood a bit.  It reminded me of the first hand I ever held that wasn’t about crossing the street.  Hard to be in a bad mood reliving one of those.

     So, I’m still smiling when I’m walking with a bunch of kids at the end of the day.  I’m herding them to the front of the school.  And what I see next, literally happens in slow motion, like those moments before an accident.  I spot Dennis about to turn a corner.  And when he does, he’ll see Sylvia holding hands and smiling with another boy.  It’s middle school.  A lot can go down in a day.  What’s worse is that I can immediately tell from Dennis’ big goofy grin that he is still glowing from the morning.  The corner is turned and all the joy leaves his face.  I can already feel his heartache and that cold ache that will seep into his gut in about fifteen seconds.

     He sees them a split second after I do.  His eyes begin to swell.

     “Dennis!”  I say sternly.  He turns to me.  At ten in the morning, he was a young man in love.  Now, he’s the saddest little boy you’d ever want to see.

     “Dennis!” I say again.  “Get over here!”  He looks confused.  “Now!!”  He walks over, baffled.  I lean in.  “Walk with me,” I whisper.  After a few steps, he finally asks.

     “What did I do?”

     “You didn’t do anything.  She just doesn’t need to see you cry.”  Realizing that he’s not in trouble, his body relaxes, and his total grief from a minute before comes flooding back.

     “I shouldn’t cry?”  He asks, his eyes too gone to pull back now.

     “No, you should cry your eyes out.  I just didn’t want you to do it in front of those two.  Trust me on this one.”  And the tears start falling.

     “I’m going to be late for the after school program.  I’m going to get in trouble.”

     “No.  You’re with me.  And, you’re not going back in until you can hold it together.”

     “I feel like I’m going to throw up,” he says.

     “I know,” I say.  “Just keep walking.  Deep breaths.”  Not much sound.  Just the final stages of this first good cry.

     “Why do girls do this?”

     “Dude, I have no idea.”

     “But I mean, like when do you figure girls out?”  I have to chuckle at that one.

     “You never really do,” I sigh.  He shakes his head.  If he were older, this would be the moment we went for a beer.  Maybe several.  But, I’ve got a job to keep.   

     “That’s the bad news,” I say.

     “What’s the good news?”

     “The good news is that you only have to figure out a few of them in your lifetime.”

     “God.   This sucks so much.”

     “Yep.  You will feel better, though.  That, I can promise.”

     “Have you ever had your heart broken?” he asks.  I nod and he looks genuinely surprised.

     “I know.  Even with this face and this hair, my heart has been badly broken many times.”  He rolls his eyes.  Color is slowly returning to his face.

     “Yeah, right.  You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”

     “Dude, my heart has been broken so many times, it sometimes feels like it’s held together with tape and glue.”  I’m an adult and we have the same problem.  He’s having a hard time wrapping his brain around this one.

     “When was the last time?”

     “Just a few months ago.”

     “Whoa.”

     “Did you see me cry in class, or crawl up in a ball on the floor?”  He shakes his head.   “See?  I save that for home.”  He smiles.

     His eyes have dried.  This first cry is over.  We’re about ten yards from the after school program.  He can’t wait out here forever.

     “Okay, look.  You need to walk in there with your head held high.  You gotta fake a big smile.  None of this bothers you in the least.  Got it?”  He nods and takes a deep breath.

     “Anything else?”  Okay.  There is a lot I’d like to tell him.  And, I’m walking that line between teacher and guy.  I know.  I should go teacher.  I really should.  But he doesn’t need a teacher.  He needs a guy.

    “Yes,” I say.  And he’s waiting.  Hanging on my every word.  He’s not a kid.  I’m not a middle-aged man.  We are two guys with very recently wounded hearts.  I pause.

     “You know her good friend, Maria?”

     “Yeah?”

     “Date her.”  He looks confused.

     “Sylvia would hate that,” he says slowly.  I just nod.  For the first time, he actually smiles.

     “And, you didn’t hear it from me.  This part of the conversation?  This part never happened?  Understand?”  Now, he smiles almost as big as he did that morning.

     “Maria is pretty cute,” he says.  Now, it’s my turn to smile.

     “You ready?”  He nods.  “Remember, none of this bothers you.  Smile.  Say hello.  Got it?”

    And into the room he goes.  I watch him for a moment.  This stuff never gets any easier.  Maybe it shouldn’t.  You can’t know the light, without some darkness.  Beautiful new beginnings can come right up out of this sort of dead ash.  And, without the evil queen or the dragon to slay, Prince Charming is just a guy trying to get a date.  The human heart is, above all else, resilient.  I have known the horror stories behind some kids and they still shine with hope.  And, I know older folks, trampled and stampeded on the road of love.  Yet, given a little time, they start again.  We are all resilient.   “It’s just a little tape and glue,” I tell myself.  It’ll hold up just fine.

 

If you're enjoying the blog, my first book of classroom stories, "Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom," is available at Amazon.com.  Now available for the Kindle.  Happy Reading!

A MOM LIKE MINE 

Thursday, April 05, 2012 12:58:00 PM

 

 

     She never mentioned her mother in her essay.  Not once.  But her mother was all over the pages.  Between every line.  She never talked about her mother.  Not ever.  But her mother was in every conversation we had.  Every time she adamantly told me about things she would definitely do with her life and all the stuff she would definitely not do with her life, you could feel her mother’s influence in her conviction.  Her mother’s shadow would start to hover just over her shoulder.  And it wasn’t necessary.  It was all over her face as well  She had actress eyes that seemed to say a whole lot by simply blinking.  Angelic and fierce all at once.  In most pictures of angels, the angels always look lazy to me, lacking purpose.  No drive.  Like they need boot camp.  Jordan had that angel face, but fire in her eyes.  Always the fire.  I was told by her previous teachers that her face was all her mom, too.  A little uncanny.  But I never would’ve found that out from Jordan.  Like I said, she never spoke of her.  Never wrote about her.  Never directly, anyway.

     It is that way sometimes.  We talk or write all around the pain because it has to leak out.  But we never let it out directly.  There is that fear that if it all just came out at once, the pain would swallow anything else we ever were.  We would be known to others as only that person with all that pain.

     “There goes the new professor,” someone would say.  “I hear he’s pretty smart.”  Quickly, your achievement would be brushed over.  “Hmmm, that’s the one with that big, broad pain.”  And there you’d be.   Known only as that pain.  So, we circle it.  Let it out in small doses.  Just enough for the soul to safely digest.

     Her essay was a winner throughout the district.  Fifth-grade finalist.  It was written during Red Ribbon Week.  It’s our “Say No to Drugs” program.  Just about all schools have one.  Tobacco and alcohol are thrown into the mix as well.  And every year, at least one child confesses to you that a parent or grandparent smokes, as if you have the authority under a provision of Red Ribbon Week to bust them.  Sometimes they cry because you’ve done such a fantastic job of convincing them of the evils of tobacco that they are certain their known smokers will perish before Red Ribbon Week is up.  There’s never as much clarity as you would like when it comes to kids.  At ten, they’re still pawing their way through a grey world with a black-and-white sensibility.

     Jordan knew the crippling effects drugs could have on a family.  Her mother had drug problems all of Jordan’s life.  In kindergarten, Jordan’s mother came to school to volunteer.  She staggered into the room.  Eyes unfixed.  Speech slurring.  Words toppling into one another.  Heightened baby babble, really.  Alcohol just seemed to fall out of her mouth in puffs of warm breath.  Her hair looked slept on.  She hadn’t been home yet.  It was still the night before for Jordan’s mother.

     She was escorted out of the room and asked to leave.  Really, she needed to go home and sober up.  She chose not to.  Instead, Jordan’s mother stood across the school and screamed about the school, the teacher, and the principal.  Twice, she slipped off the curb and staggered into the street.  Though muffled, the class could hear her taunts and jeers.  But Jordan kept it together.  This was her normal.  So, like the rest of us, when things are normal, we simply go about our day.  Letter sounds and numbers.  Morning snack and the jungle gym.  So it goes.

     I looked for her mom in that essay.  I really did.  I scoured both pages for clues or inferences.  I was a Jordan scholar, dissecting her work.  No trace of Mom.  Without the word-of-mouth accounts, Mom’s influence would have been lost forever.

     Finally, I just ask her.  “Can I ask you something about your essay?”  Jordan nods, not knowing what’s coming.  “You didn’t mention your mom in it.”  Jordan freezes up a little.  “Why not?”  I ask.  Jordan thinks on what I’ve said.

      “I was thinking about it.  Then I was thinking that it would sort of be like cheating.”

     “How”” I ask, confused.

     “Well, most other kids don’t have a mom like mine.  So it be like I had an unfair advantage.  And then I might just win because people felt sorry for me.  And that’s kind of like cheating.  I want people to know I can write.”  And they did.

     A few days later, I was sitting in the audience.  A proud new teacher.  And there she was, my fierce-eyed angel, bunched up between nylons and hair ribbons.  Everybody was there.  Her grandmother.  Uncle Bob.  Her younger brother Miles sat and fiddled with the oversized knot of his tie.  District personnel, teachers, principals, assistants, and friends.  Everybody but her mom, who went undetected by most.  But I sat and listened while Jordan’s mother hovered quietly between every line.

 

If you're enjoying the blog, my first book of classroom stories, "Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom," is available at Amazon.com.  Now available for the Kindle.  Happy Reading!

A PAT ON THE BACK 

Sunday, May 01, 2011 7:28:00 PM

     He needed it.  He really did.  Everybody rides him.  Sadly, it is as it should be.  See, it’s middle school.  Sometimes it feels like a modern day version of forty days in the desert.  The place to go to become young men and women.  The handholding is coming to an end.  And the world is waiting.  By the time they reemerge from our hallways and classrooms and quads, they must be responsible for themselves.  Their assignments.  Their work.  Their time.  Their management.  Sure, it needs to be age-appropriate.  But, they can’t come out the other end still thinking the world revolves around them.  They must leave with grander ideas and broader understandings.   And, in a bigger sense?  They must own their own hopes.  They must own their own dreams.  We can no longer dream their dreams for them.  So?  We ride them a bit.  Lean on them.  Sink or swim sometimes, and sometimes we let them sink before we pull them back up to the surface and try again.

     That’s Steven.  He can’t sit still.  Backpack is a disaster.  It’s the place important papers go to die.  The mouth is always moving.  So?  We need to ride him.  Remember, it’s just a few years stay, and then the world is waiting.  Practically everybody graduates from middle school.  Everybody moves on.  You do your time and you come out the other end either way.  But, that’s the last time that will ever happen.  You hear so much about standardized tests and results.  But, really, all of this is of equal value.  No.  Greater value.  There isn’t a multiple-choice answer to pulling your own weight or making your own way.  We will prepare them and test them.  But please be mindful of all of this “other” we know we must make happen.  And, in the middle of pushing on them, when the opportunity arises, you’ve got to build them back up.  And the obvious way to build them up?  Jousting.

     Of course, it’s jousting.  All educators know that challenging a child to a joust is the best and most recommended way to give a kid a boost.  It’s the big testing assembly.  We pull out all the stops.  A rock band made up of teachers has reworked the words to Queen’s, “We Will Rock You,” so it talks about how well our school will do on state testing.  Teachers throw fistfuls of prizes into the crowd.  To an outsider, it may seem a bit over the top, but if the kids know we think it’s important, many of them will think it’s important, too. 

     After the first round of prizes has been tossed and the band has finished its set, it’s time for the jousting.  The jousting arena comes from a company that rents this kind of stuff out for parties and smaller carnivals and fairs.  It looks like the floor to a huge bounce house.  Two, small circle podiums stand in the middle.  The jousters stand on the wobbly podiums.  They strap on their helmets and pick up the big foam jousting sticks.  First person to knock the other guy onto the treacherous bounce house flooring can claim victory.

     We have some good matches lined up that day.  Grudge matches between staff members from last year’s antics.  Counselor pitted against counselor.  The one that causes the crowd to stir is our vice principal verse our principal.  The clash of the disciplinarians.  Our VP proves victorious.  As the true face of discipline, there is a slight wave of disappointment with his victory.  But it’s not over.  Our vice principal still has one challenge left.  Steven.

     Steven has been chosen, allegedly at random, to battle our VP.  Now, our VP is well over six foot.  If you didn’t know he was such a nice guy, he might seem pretty menacing.  And then there’s Steven.  Steven very well may be the smallest guy in our school.  It’s like that in middle school.  Guys hovering just over four feet thrown in with guys well over six.

     Like I said, we lean on Steven.  Ride him.  And our VP no doubt has assigned him detentions, maybe Saturday school a few times.  He’s tiny and likes to talk.  And he doesn’t always have much of a filter.  So, plenty of kids are riding him too, and not for the right reasons.  It’s got to be a lot of long days for Steven.  He is shocked to hear his name.

     So are the kids.  Instantly, he is seen as lucky.  One out of fifteen hundred.  The kids start chanting his name.  After some shock wears off, he starts to beam.  It’s already the best day of school he has ever known and he hasn’t quite made his way to the jousting area yet.  Classmates high five him and slap him on the back as he bumps his little body through the crowd.  Kids seem to have instantly forgotten he was their favorite target just hours ago.  With kids this age, the tide can change in a flash.

     The helmet comes down over his eyes.  Steven has to stretch, practically crawl, to get up onto the podium.  Once he does, he stands in our VP’s shadow.  The countdown begins.  The kids chime along.  I can see that his little arms are struggling just to hold onto the jousting stick.

     “Steve!  Steve!  Steve!”  The kids chant.  When the buzzer goes off, you can see his strain to hoist the stick up past his waist.  He swings it, almost falling off from the weight of the foam.

     He does connect.  The pole brushes against our Vice Principal.  That’s enough, though.  Our Goliath does a fine acting job, flying his body into the air and onto the inflatable floor.  It’s obviously fake, but no one seems to mind, least of all Steve.

     He can’t pull his helmet off fast enough so he can take in the crowd.  For one glorious moment, he is in.  He’s accepted.  The kids accept him.  The teachers and the administrators and the counselors that are constantly pushing and pulling on him to walk the line, smile and cheer. 

     Our Vice Principal raises Steven’s hand in victory, graceful in defeat.  The kids love it.  It’s a good day to be Steven.  After about 150 days into middle school, it is finally a good day to be Steven.

     It’s true.  They are in middle school for such a short amount of time, going through the metamorphosis.  And it’s true that we must make them far more responsible.  As I watch Steven make his way back through the crowd, basking in a moment of fame that may not last until the day’s final bell, I know we can’t hold their hands anymore.  It has to be that way.  But sometimes, when they really need it, we can still let them know that they are loved.  We can still give them a pat on the back.

If you're enjoying the blog, my first book of classroom stories, "Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom," is available at Amazon.com.  Now available for the Kindle.  Happy Reading!

 

THE ANTI-STANDARDS 

Sunday, April 03, 2011 11:00:00 AM

 

     I hear like most men do.  Most women think of it as simply not paying attention.  I don’t see it that way.  I just have a great ability to edit as I listen.  I am listening only for the essentials.  The rest, I can effectively tune-out.  See?  I am listening AND I’m using a highly evolved skill set.

     So, in a grade level meeting, I mentally come and go.  We start discussing dramatic irony and I’m back in.  It’s only my second year at the grade level, but still, the standard doesn’t strike me as familiar.  And, that’s a meaty standard, wrought with critical thinking possibilities.  It ties in nicely with sarcasm.  And really, what seventh grader doesn’t relish sarcasm?  It is a language where they have true fluency.  So, why don’t I remember teaching dramatic irony last year?

     Here’s why.  It’s not a seventh grade content standard.  So, why are we brainstorming a good lesson?  Because it’s on the test….sort of.  See, on our benchmark test it is listed as a possible multiple choice option, and it will throw off the kids.  Dramatic irony.  It’s a phrase that sounds very official.  Full of pomp and circumstance.  It potentially could steer a bunch of kids away from the right answer.  If it’s on the benchmark, it very well could look that way on the CST.  So, the strategy here is to teach it so the kids can know that it is NOT the answer.  Yes, you heard me right.  They have to know it to best understand that it is not the answer.  To put it another way, they have to know it to know that they don’t have to know it. 

     Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce to you the anti-standards.  They are a new, mutated form of standards that the kids must know so they know not to know them.  Really, I could play with this sentence all day.  I’ll stop.

     In a winner-takes-all-grab for CST points, and in order to help ensure that more of our kids got the figurative language questions (trust me, we hit that one pretty hard this year), we taught something that wasn’t a standard.  We taught an anti-standard.

     Some perspective here.  It was a great lesson.  We found the perfect story, too.  We used, “The Story of an Hour,” by Kate Chopin, written in 1894.  The story was dense and very short.  Small enough for those second and third readings it took for kids to really understand and appreciate its moments of dramatic irony.  I would do it again, for sure.

     But, when formatting and wrong answer options start to dictate what’s being taught, maybe it’s time to seriously rethink testing.  I know.  There is a long list of reasons already.  Add this one, too.  And yes, I have to say it.  Teaching concepts that the kids need to know so that they can understand that they don’t need to know them, might just qualify as irony.

 

If you're enjoying the blog, my first book of classroom stories, "Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom," is available at Amazon.com.  Now available for the Kindle.  Happy Reading!

ONE FROM THE RUBBLE 

Sunday, March 27, 2011 8:56:00 PM

 

 

     I’m looking at pictures of Detroit on line the other day.  It’s not third world.  It’s other world.  Buildings, grand and gothic, decay and sag.  Look at photos from natural disasters.  Mix in a few from Detroit.  You man not notice.  Probably just effortlessly blend.  The big difference?  Detroit’s disaster is man-made.

     An American symbol.  The Motor City.  Of course, this would be the spot to throw down about unions and livable wages.  Maybe hark back to a time when we really made stuff with our backs.  And our hands.  And our pride.  For all those social troubles of past generations, assembly lines and unions were like battlefields and the fronts.  Unifiers, if only from eight to five.  Americans.  All of us.  I’ll leave it at that.  I’ve got a grander story here to tell.  Something bigger to tackle and lay open.

     Dance competitions.  Until my daughters got involved, I had no idea how much of a moneymaker these competitions can be.  Cash cows.  Almost recession proof.  Parents will cling to the dreams of their children until there’s nothing left.  God bless every last one, struggling to make the ends meet, but holding on to what’s a cut above for the kids.  As a former Jersey boy and Springsteen disciple, I always think of his struggling mother and the young Bruce mesmerized by the guitars hanging from the Pawn Shop windows.  Somehow, some way, she found the money.  So the legend goes.  That’s real devotion.  I am grateful for this woman, this mother I never met, every time I hear one of those songs.  They are the sound track to so much of my life.

     A friend of mine helps run these dance competitions all across the country.  Every weekend the recession stays at bay, at least a little longer, in high school gymnasiums and civic centers.  Recently, they were in Detroit.  Like I said, the dying American legend.  My friend didn’t know what to expect.  He too has seen the photos.  Heard the word.  Would anyone show?  Maybe the company shouldn’t come next year.  Maybe Detroit really won’t be here next year.  He pondered what’s best for business.  He got his answer.

     One thousand.  Over a thousand, really.  Over one thousand families came to compete.  They came to dance.  From the rubble of the forgotten city, over a thousand families, holding tightly to the dreams and hopes and aspirations of their children, showed up.  Wanting more.  Despite it all, they came wanting more.  Demanding more.  Most of the shine has come off the phrase lately, but they came with the audacity to hope.

     Simply put, we can do better.  When we forget one population after another, they only leave our view.  They do not disappear.  Forget enough of them, and there won’t be room enough for the new ones to leave our line of sight.  When we cut budgets on the backs of the disenfranchised, and eliminate devoted public servants and services, we leave behind thousands and thousands of hopes and dreams.  We lose our moral compass.  Keeps getting harder and harder to find our true north lately.

     My friend and the crew had to extend the competition an extra day.  They raced out and had “Detroit Rocks” t-shirts printed.  An unsung moment of solidarity.  For a weekend, it was truly a unifier.  Young kids.  Young kids from Detroit with their dreams, determined to see them through the decay.  They took their shinny trophies and medals back into the rubble.  We have forgotten many.  Masses.  But the masses have not forgotten us.  I am proud and deeply grateful that they maintain their audacity to hope.   We are all better for it.  Detroit rocks.

 

If you're enjoying the blog, my first book of classroom stories, "Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom," is available at Amazon.com.  Now available for the Kindle.  Happy Reading!

A FRESH DREAMER 

Monday, February 28, 2011 10:20:00 PM

 

 

 

     Four bucks.  Right around four bucks.  That’s what it costs me for the pack of awards certificates I use at assemblies here at school.  Nice paper.  A thick bond.  Standard print.  A place for the student’s name.  Space for the date.  Places for both the teacher and principal’s signatures.

     I normally don’t think too much about our monthly awards assemblies.  I sometimes see them as a nuisance.  It takes a chunk out of our sacred, instructional day.  One less spelling pattern gets taught.  One less problem-solving skill gets examined.  After all, we’ve got testing out there on the horizon.  The countdown has started.  No margin for error.  Scores must go up.

     The kids claim they like these assemblies, but they only like walking to them.  Then, they spend the next forty-five minutes picking at the loose threads in their carpet squares.  In theory, I appreciate the value of these assemblies.  Award achievement.  Catch a kid being good, and hope it takes.  You hope they make it a habit.  But secretly?  There are times I wish I had an old carpet square, too.  I’d pick the thing bare.

     I’m daydreaming my way through this month’s awards assembly.  One of my kids is so bored, he’s now sitting partially on his head, and I can tell that he is seriously considering doing a roll into the row ahead of him.  I tap him on the shoulder and just stare.  It’s an intense stare, and I really lay into him pretty good, without saying a word.

     On my way back to my post, I hear something over the microphone about a little girl who has made remarkable strides learning English, and a father bolts up, rocking his chair some.  He looks too proud to speak and gives me a gentle look to move out of his way.  He’s got a camera that looks like it still smells new, and these very well may be the first pictures taken by this camera.  And something tells me that these may also be the first pictures taken by this father on American soil.  His fingers flop and stumble over the camera as if they too were brand new to him.  And all at once, I remember something.  It’s a very broad déjà vu.  It’s as if I am having it for more people than just myself.

     You see, millions of us don’t sit around and watch moon landings together anymore, so the reminders are fewer these days.  But there are still American Dreams out there.  And, despite how jaded we natives get, there are still fresh dreamers who come to dream them.

     I watch the father walk down to where parents snap photos and build scrapbooks.  Posture straight.  Chest about to burst.  Education and immigration.  They’ve become dirty words here.  Drop them into a conversation, and things are likely to turn awkward or ugly.  But for now, I’ve forgotten all of that.  My little guy is back on his head, threatening to forward roll, but I pay him no mind.  Everything’s a wash behind me.  There’s just a small camera-click, a seven year-old grin to die for, and my own mind’s eye.  And somewhere, inside of me, in some fresher, untouched place, I’m watching a new American Dreamer quietly, without notice, move the dream along.

 

This story, along with thirty-six others, are included in my book, "Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom," at Amazon.com.  Now available for the Kindle.  Happy Reading!

Moving Mountains 

Saturday, January 01, 2011 12:07:00 PM

 

     You’re never quite sure what you’ll be called on to teach.  Sure, there’s always reading, math, and writing.  But then, there’s always something hovering between the lines.  Sometimes it’s tangible.  A clear value.  Honesty.  Sometimes it’s just modeling adult behavior.  Good adults give you a smile, appropriate attention, and they show up on a regular basis.  Sadly, the kids don’t always know what that’s supposed to look like.  Other times, it’s nothing tangible at all.  You’re just there to guide someone’s epiphany.  You’re a catalyst.  Ad idea, or feeling, has been coming into slow focus for a kid, and you’re just there to fine-tune it.  Knock the lens up a notch.

     Over at our hospital school, it’s been more of what hovers between the lines, and not quite as much reading and writing.  Rancho Los Amigos.  It’s one of the top rehab facilities in the country.  You don’t go there for aches and pains.  It’s the place to go when your life has been changed permanently.  Spinal cord injuries.  It can get difficult catching a kid at the beginning of this sort of tragedy and then trying to convince them that books still matter.  So, you’re constantly searching for what’s hovering between the lines.  But the kids aren’t letting on.

     From the outside, the building still has its shine.  New, clean brick and freshly paved parking lots.  When I first saw the place, I immediately did some profiling of the facility.  Inside, I assumed I would find the upper end of Middle America, gritting their teeth, collecting themselves, and getting on with their lives.  Pristine faces getting the best possible treatment.  That’s not what I got.

     Sure, no doubt this was excellent care.  But up on the second floor, it was haunting.  Loud, angry voices.  Menacing, home – grown tattoos, up and down every arm.  There’s a prison quality here.  And with every wheelchair that blows by me, I look away first.  Every time I look down first, worried that eye contact might be taken as aggression or disrespect.  I had heard that those small teardrop tattoos just below the eyes symbolize that you’ve killed someone.  I notice four teardrops and stop counting.  I’m told that years ago, most spinal-cord patients were birth defects or car crashes.  Now?  Now, it’s gunshot wounds.  And even though I’m the only able-bodied guy there, I am the only guy that shows signs of fear.

     I remind myself that this fear I have, this fear that shows in my eyes, is a luxury item.  It’s a fear that says, “I have things in my life worth losing.”  The simple fact that I am able to have a feeling and identify it as fear is a luxury item, too.  My life hasn’t had many hard knocks.  Luxuries.  All of it.  But in that moment, stumbling awkwardly down the hall, it didn’t feel that way, and I wished just briefly that I was harder.  Maybe a bullet wound to show.  But only for a moment.  To be afraid all the time, as many of these guys were, is to become the monster so as not to lose your min, or to die more deaths than the one you’re allotted.

     I come bearing a bagful of books.  And these aren’t younger kids.  You can still open up a younger kid with a good book.  No matter how desperate their lives, younger kids will still let a good book wash over them and make their worlds a little bit better.  There’s still enough hope inside a little kid that a good book can attach itself to.  But here on the second floor, we’re running low on hope.  So I know my books are just props.  It’s like holding a drink at a party.  You just need something in your hand.

     I find the right room.  A gentler face than those in the hallway greets me.  First thing I notice?  No tattooed teardrops.  I take it as a good sign.  I don’t really ask.  I just know.  This guy was peripheral.  Wrong place.  Wrong time.  I don’t feel such a need to look away, either.  Eye contact seems okay.  And maybe I have a shot at this guy with the right book.  The conversation is badly stunted.  Who am I?  Why am I here?  I get a lot of pauses that tell me I’m not wanted, and keeping up his grades while he’s learning to lead this new life is ridiculous, and I can’t possibly begin to understand any of it – not where he’s come from, and not where’s he’s going.  And that’s just from the pauses.  So, I stare out the window looking for small talk.  It’s a damp February afternoon.  Gray clouds hanging low, mixed with So. Cal soot and exhaust.  It’s a pretty good view from the second floor window, and I digress right into weather.

     “Looks like rain again, tonight.”

     He gives me a polite, “hmmm.”

     “You can’t even see the mountains today.”  Something about the mountains has caught his attention.

     “Mountains?  What mountains?” I point north through the windows.

     “Those mountains.  Right over there.  You can’t see them at all today.  Completely covered.”  He cranes his neck from the bed.

     “Mountains?  There are mountains in the parking lot?”  He smirks.

     “No.  Right through those trees,” I say and he laughs.

     “You’re crazy.  There are no mountains here.”  And he’s not kidding.  He’s a Southern California native, and he really has no clue that you can usually see mountains on a good day.  No idea.  His world is so small that he missed the mountain range sitting in his own backyard.

     “Look,” I say, “it’s going to rain tonight.  Tomorrow morning, look right out past those trees, and you’ll see mountains.”  Again, he cranes his neck, this time squinting into the gray sky.

     “So now you’re a mountain – mover.  You just gonna woop up a mountain out there.”

     “That’s right,” I laugh.  “I’m the mountain-mover.  I’m going to move a mountain just for you.  Put it right out there for you to see.  Faith of a mustard seed,” I add, but he misses that one.

     The next morning feels a bit like Christmas for me.  Before I’ve poured that first cup of coffee, I’m standing northward in my driveway, searching the skies for mountains.  And there they are.  You can’t miss them.  I actually feel as if I’ve had something to with those mountains showing up.

     Me and my bagful of books trot through the hospital school’s lobby that afternoon, all the while craning my neck northward, making sure my mountains are still right where I left them that morning.  Still there, looking as if they’ve grown  during the day.  When I walk into the room, he’s sitting straight up in bed, pointing out the window.

     “There’s mountains out there!” he says with his voice jumping octaves along the way.  I nod and point, too.  We don’t say anything for a while.  It’s as if we are keeping a secret, staring over at mountains nobody knows are there.  As I watch, I’m reminded why I’m there.  I recall an old sales technique I used to use.  See, when you’re closing a deal, and you’re at that critical moment where they may buy or walk away, don’t talk.  Talking at that critical moment suggests that you’re back-pedaling.  It’s as if you’re condoning their buyer’s remorse.  At that moment, you don’t say a word.  You simply push the contract and pen in front of them.  And you wait.  In silence.

     So, while my student stares out at the new mountains, I quietly, almost unnoticed, pull a book from my bag and place it on the tray table in front of him.  And then I don’t say a word.  The deal hangs in the balance.  He picks it up and checks out the cover. 

     “I think we were reading this one in my English class.”  And the deal is closed.  A lot of times these are deals I’m not able to close.  I’m the telemarketer that has invaded their rooms.  But in this room, the deal is closed, and the book is open.  And it feels a lot like moving mountains.

 

This story, along with thirty-six others, are included in my book, "Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom," at Amazon.com.  Now available for the Kindle.  Happy Reading!