A message of hope for all those stressed-out teachers…

The other day I felt that familiar hot streak of panic rush through my chest as I stared down a mound of ungraded assignments, as a slew of unanswered emails festered in my inbox, as the guidance department requested a meeting for that “special” student.

To all those stressed-out teachers… I feel you.

Make no mistake, we’re in the armpit of the school year.

Winter break is over. Spring break is light years away. It’s a stretch of time where the teaching blood runs cold, where like sunlight, hope and motivation work in slivers, and where June seems like an impossible dream.

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But I reassure you friends…there is hope. There is good news.

The calendar will continue to turn over. Spring break will come. Summer will happen.

But in order to get to our flip-flopian paradise we must roll up our sleeves, roll back our shoulders, and stare down some hard truths…

You will lose your lunch and prep periods.

Administration will make decisions you don’t agree with.

You will spend hours completing nonsensical, state-mandated paperwork.

Your students will celebrate when you’re absent.

You will consider a career change.

Your coffee will turn cold.

You will disagree with your observation.

You will want alcohol before lunch.

You will hear the upcoming grade is worse then the current grade.

You will get sick.

You will be overwhelmed by acronyms (PLC, SLO, SGO, PAARC, CST, CCCS, IEP, NCLB)

A colleague will stress bake, deliver a plate of confections to the faculty lounge and you will stuff your face. Then you will feel guilty. Then you will ponder a diet. Then you will realize you don’t have time to diet.

Your students will fail the test you spent weeks preparing them for.

You will compare yourself to your colleagues and convince yourself you’re the worst teacher in the world.

Your printer will run out of ink.

The school copy machine will jam at the most inopportune time.

You will spend hours writing and editing an 8 sentence email to a parent. And after you send it you will find a grammatical error.

You will endure uninspiring professional development.

Just when you get your class settled and focused there will be an unannounced fire drill.

You will call a student by the wrong name.

You will submit your lesson plans late.

You will be more excited about your lesson then your students will be.

On Friday, you will convince yourself that you will spend the entire weekend grading. On Saturday, you will convince yourself you will grade on all day Sunday. On Sunday, instead of grading, you will drink wine and binge watch Lifetime movies.

You will lose your favorite pen.

Students will dispute grades.

Parents will dispute grades.

You will feel like crying when you learn there’s 20 full school days in March.

You will lose sleep over things that won’t matter in a week.

After 13 years of teaching, here’s what I’ve learned– acknowledging these inconvenient truths is the first step in overcoming them.

Worrying about them will instigate ulcers.

Avoiding them will incite paranoia.

Remember, you are a teacher. You are a problem solver. The only thing we can do about our inconvenient truths is address them, solve them, and  resolve them.

And if you can do that my friend, you will emerge from the murk. You will find yourself, many days from now, lounging on a sandy beach, sipping that alcohol you desperately craved on that cold January morning, bathing in the dreamy June sun.

Be well,

Jay

PS… If you know a stressed-out teacher who would enjoy this post,  by all means, be awesome and share it with them!

 

So…when do we become adults?

16 years ago I’m jammed in a Penn State frat house with my buddies Pete, Jack and a few hundred other rambunctious Nittany Lions.

There’s cans of Natty Light and shots of Jagermeister and a cover band thrashing through a version of Blink 182’s “What’s My Age Again?” in the living room.

We’re young and thin and wild and drunk and clueless and unconcerned with mortality and consequences.

Suddenly, 16 years later, Pete, Jack and I are crammed, shoulder-to-shoulder Puerto Rican nightclub. La Factoria is a decaying factory that was converted into a labyrinth of bars, cocktail rooms and dance floors. The three of us, each a little softer around the waist, stand in a tight circle like we had done 16 years earlier. Our shirts are collared and tucked. Pete is bald. Jack is sporting streaks of gray. And I take the same medication as my 63 year old father.

La-Factoria-Bar-Old-San-JuanThe speakers thump Hispanic dance music. No lyrics. No chorus. Just a relentless thump thump thump that instigates an earthquake in my prostate. We shout about how loud and how crowded it is, how it’s hard to breathe and how young these “kids” look.

We look out of place. We look like we should be on a golf course. Or waiting in line for cornbread at the Golden Corral.

We acknowledge that La Factoria’s emergency doors are not properly marked and there’s exposed wiring snaking across the ceiling.  Above the thump, someone shouts, “What if there’s a fire?” We shake our heads. We stretch our legs. Someone yawns. Someone checks their watch. We calculate the hours of sleep we could get if somehow, in this very nook of time, by clicking our loafer heels we would be magically delivered and tucked into the embrace of our clean hotel bed sheets.

Over the course of the weekend Pete and I held a semi-serious conversation about making good decisions. A conversation that began when we had the intelligence to forego shots of some back alley Puerto Rican liquor distilled in a spackle bucket.

Pete and I have a long history of bad decisions and spackle bucket liquor that when we finally made a collectively good decision, we were so excited, so proud that we called our wives the next morning and told them all about it.

And yes, in the star-spangled eyes of the United States of America–we’re both adults.

I know (and certainly feel) that I’m not 20 years old anymore (just writing “Jagermeister” gives me chills) but it’s hard for me to believe I’m 36.

36.

It just sounds so mature and sophisticated and yet I find myself thinking, “Ok, so I’m 36, like when do I officially become an adult?”

I don’t know.

Maybe you become an adult when you truly understand that your choices have consequences.

Or maybe when you accept that your choices are your responsibility.

Or maybe when you attest that every choice you make is fixed with some weight of importance.

Or maybe when you finally have the maturity to realize that your choices are a reflection of who you are.

Or maybe, just maybe, even though our bellies swell, our eyesight diminishes and our bladders cop an attitude– no one actually ever grows up.

Be well,

Jay

What it’s like to write and “parent” at the same time

keep-calm-and-carry-on-1426602_960_720Last night I sat down at the kitchen table to write a post. I was armed with good intentions, a good idea and a good cup of coffee.

I wanted to write a post themed on why during these days of political and social turmoil it’s crucial to reminder yourself that…

“Yes Dylan, I’ll get you a drink.”

…to breath and to remind you that it’s moments of great emotional discomfort that…

“Yes, Chase 7 plus 8 is 15.”

…provide us with an opportunity for growth. And we must remind ourselves that…

“No, Haley this is how you spell continent…c-o-n-t-i-n-e-n-t”

“Yes, Dylan mommy is in the shower.”

“Yes, Chase you can have a bowl of Fruit Loops.”

“No, Dylan you can’t go outside.”

“No, Dylan you can’t watch TV.”

“No, Chase I didn’t get your Fruit Loops yet.”

“Why? Because I’m writing a kick ass blog post about staying calm during this season of political turmoil.”

“I know I just said a bad word.”

“Turmoil is anger, confusion”

” Confusion is… just ask mom when she gets out of the shower.”

…See, I’ve learned that the only thing we can control in life is how we react. Our reactions…

“Haley, can you please chew with your mouth closed.”

“Because I can’t hear myself type. Literally. The keyboard is 6 inches from my ears and I can’t hear the little clicks. And I want to hear the little clicks. I need to hear the little clicks.”

“Because those little clicks are much more soothing then you sucking the gluten out of that pretzel.”

… Our reactions define us. And though we can’t predict what happens next– in our lives, in the world around us, our power lies in how we respond when…

Dammit…Chase just fell down the steps.

I’ve got to go.

Be well,
Jay

P.S. He’s fine.

The Write on Fight on Essay Contest Winner-Siret Mann

The winner of The Write on Fight on Writing Contest is Siret Mann! 

Siret is an 11th grade student at Robbinsville High School.  Siret’s story was chosen by a panel of judges for its “emotional depth and maturity.”

The writing contest, held on during the December 8th Write-a-Thon, required students to write an original, personal story about one important lesson they learned and how that lesson changed them in some simple or profound way.

Hope you enjoy!


The first time I realized that my mom would die I was in fifth grade.

The details of my dream have blurred, but the feeling of terror it brought hasn’t. I used to share a room with my sister and my parent’s room was across the hall, across the pit of darkness that’s only seen in the middle of the night. I don’t think I’ve ever woken up that quickly. I quite literally bolted upright, feeling the wetness of my eyes and the pounding of my heart with an almost detached confusion.

Turning right, I could just barely see the outline of my sister’s body, sleeping peacefully. I relaxed fractionally, relieved at the fact that my nightmare had been just a figment of my imagination and nothing else. However, my fear hadn’t been for my sister. It had been for my mom.

Reluctantly, I swung my feet of the bed and stood up, senses on high alert for the evils of the dark that every child is afraid of. Inch by inch, I crept across the wide expanse that separated my mom from me, holding my breath and freezing in place every time a floorboard so much as creaked. Finally, I reached her door. I pushed it open and padded forward so I was standing over her head. I have no doubt now that if she had woken up, she would’ve screamed bloody murder, terrifying both of us. As I watched, she took a deep breath and turned over. The pressure in my chest lifted instantly and I mimicked her deep breath.

My mom was alive.

Satisfied, I ventured back to my room and slipped under the covers, a smile on my face.

The next morning, I awoke as usual to the sound of dishes clinking and my mom talking gaily. My throat constricted and I rushed out of my room, tripping over my feet in my haste to get downstairs. Spotting her by the sink, I flung my arms around her waist and refused to let go until she forcibly pried me off. “Well, good morning” she said, eyes crinkled in both amusement and irritation. “What’s gotten into you?”

I took a step back and looked at her solemnly. “I dreamt you’d died.” I said and broke down crying.

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Before this point in life, my only interaction with death had been in Harry Potter. Death was something I related to fiction, a thing I’d heard of but could never fathom affecting my own life. After my nightmare I was shocked.

My mom would die someday? I would have to live in a world without her?

We as humans are uncomfortable with the notion of death, the idea that one day we’re here and the next, we might not be. Since we fear death we choose to disconnect from it, seeing it as something that can happen to other people but never to us. Unfortunately, this means that when death does touch us, we’re completely unprepared on how to cope.

We take life for granted, never really appreciating the time we have or the people we share it with.

Sitting upright in bed that night, a cold sweat shivering down my back and tears still falling for a reason I couldn’t remember, I realized death couldn’t be removed from my life. Rather than push it away and refuse to accept its existence, I had to learn how to live with it. So I began to tell my mom I loved her more often, to let my brother pick what we watched on tv, to let my sister have the last cookie.

The thinking behind these actions was simple; who knew how much time any of us had left? Rather than take the people in my life for granted, I started trying to appreciate them, to really feel thankful for them. I told my friends I cared, complemented people in the hallways, and made an effort not to let a quick temper get the best of me.

I’ve tried to carry these efforts out over the years. Every now and then I’ll slack, and then I’ll remember the nightmare. “Mom?” I’ll say. “I love you.” She’ll smile back. “I love you too.” That nightmare hasn’t haunted my dreams since, and I sleep peacefully at night knowing that death is not coming for me.

Not yet.

What’s the one message about life you would share with your family?

I recently packed up the suitcase, left Cindy and the kids behind (with her permission, of course) and met up with a bunch of long-time friends in Puerto Rico for our buddy Marc’s wedding.

It was a stunning little ceremony, staged outside on a horse farm nestled in the lush Puerto Rican rain forest.

wedding1My friend Jack, a world-renown scientific program manager, a guest on the Power of Creativity podcast, and possibility the world’s worst basketball player delivered a mic-dropping best man speech. A speech fused with the right amount of humor, honesty, and whimsical little narratives to give the Puerto Rican cicadas pause.

wedding2As the speech unfolded, Jack recounted the subjects of the late conversations he and Marc had shared over the years. Dream cars, dream girls, million dollar inventions they should invent ( but never did).

He also relayed to the reception how he and Marc, both who had lost a parent to the ugly antagonist known as cancer, would often discuss the poignant question of…

“What’s the one message about life you would share with your family?”

In March of 2014, after I was diagnosed with cerebellar atrophy, Cindy and I flew to Las Vegas to attend the National Ataxia Foundation convention for medical professionals as well as patients of neurological disorders and their caregivers.

The NAF is tremendous organization dedicated to the “improving the lives of persons affected by ataxia through support, education, and research” and their conference provided Cindy and I, both green in the gray world of neurological disorders, a wealth of valuable information.

Ataxia is neurological disorder, of known (cancer,  MS, ALS) and unknown origins that causes incoordinations, tremors, weakness in all areas of the body.

My ataxia which effects my eyes, hands and legs is attributed to my cerebellar atrophy. And what caused my cerebellar atrophy? That’s the unknown. That’s the question no neurologist, psychic, or holyman as been able to answer.

Like hundreds of others, Cindy and I descended upon the desert looking for answers, harboring hope. A hope of hitting a jackpot of sorts.

Many people at the convention had been living with ataxia much longer then I had. Some were stricken to wheel chairs, some had gone blind, others had lost the ability to articulate words, their speech as inaudible as an tequila fueled wedding crasher.

At one point in the program Cindy and I were assigned to a conference room with people whose genesis of their ataxia was unknown.

We held hands, cleared our throats and listened to people share their stories of their eroding motor skills. How they feared leaving their house. How they lost their job. How ataxia ruined their marriage. How they can’t have sex. How they can’t hold their grandchildren. How they can’t tie their shoes. How they suffer from depression. How they tried to kill themselves.

And as I listened to their stories, watched the confusion and frustration and utter desperation snake across their face, bend the corners of their mouth and fill their eyes with tears, I began to wonder– if this was my future, was life worth living?

Three years later.

A warm, light breeze sweeps across a marble dance floor.

And I’m dancing.  

Or doing something that resembles dancing.

As Ice Ice Baby  fills the DJ’s speakers, as a full moon shifts through a leafy canopy and pulses a hard white light across the night sky, as I’m met by the unsolicited smiles of my friends in the heart of the Puerto Rican rain forest, it’s clear in that moment– a moment mixed with just enough absurdity and transcendence to make it seem like something I dreamt– that the one message I would share with my family is that life is absolutely, positively worth living.wedding3

Be well,
Jay

 

What’s the point of school?

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As I was packing up my desk on the last day before winter break a former student knocked on my classroom door.

“Mr. Armstrong!”

“M!”
For the next few minutes, M and I did the former teacher/student small talk thing. After we covered such topics as about the weirdness of walking down the old high school halls, college campus food and absurdity of dorm life  M gathered a serious expression on his face and said, “Hey Mr. A., I wanted to talk to you about something.”

“Sure.”

“Well, see… I really didn’t do well this semester. I got three Bs and two Cs. My parents are pretty pissed. But I got all As in high school. Honor Roll, you know.  But now I’m lost. I don’t know how to manage my time. I don’t know how to study.”

M looked down at his shoes then back to me. His eyes had grown deep and serious.

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll drop out.”

I leaned back in my chair, crossed my arms and kept quiet.

“Mr. A, you’re a teacher right?…”

“On the good days.”

M smiled then looked around the empty classroom.

“So what’s the point of school? Because I always thought it was to get good grades. Follow directions. Get a diploma. A means to an end, you know. That’s what my dad always says. But after twelve and a half years of schooling I’m really confused.  I mean really, what’s the point of school?”

Though I was flattered that M entrusted me with such an important question, I was overwhelmed by both the magnitude of the question and how incredibly heartbreaking it is for a student to endure 12 years of schooling and have no reason why they are enduring.

What’s the point of school?”

M and I held a conversation for almost an hour.

See, M was a “good student”. He was respectful, compliant, met deadlines and studied all his notes. And the system rewarded him for with a diploma for his obedience.

Unfortunately, the system never challenged him how to think on his own, to problem solve beyond rudimentary worksheets or to provide himself the audacity to question.

M was lead to believe that a grade of an A meant perfection. It meant there was nothing else to learn.

M admitted he was scared to death to be wrong, to make a mistake. For years he equated his self-worth with his grades. He believed success in school meant success in life.

M never learned how to fail. He never learned that failure is the first step in learning.

Sure, he was familiar with the old adage, “Nobody’s perfect.” But M, like us, had just enough ego (like we all do) to believe that he was exonerated from such advice.

The system failed to teach M self-reliance and resilience and problem solving. It taught him how to manipulate and work the system.

The system failed to teach M that the questions asked are always more important then answers learned.

“Well, Mr. A I’ve to get going.”

M and I shook hands and parted ways.  As I watched him pass through the threshold, into the hallway and into his young life I felt a sprout of reassurance that M was going to be ok.

Not because of our conversation. Not because I offered him some advice. No, I believe M is going to be ok because he finally has the courage to question.

Be well,

Jay

Couples Who Watch TV Together Stay Together

Over the last few years I’ve made a concerted effort to watch less TV and spend more time reading and writing.  Why?

Because that’s what all the productivity experts on the internet told me to do. Less leisure. More work. They told me if I want to become a successful writer, I’d have to eliminate distractions, turn off the boob tube and get serious because writing is serious business, only the truly dedicated welcome success and no legit writer spends their Saturday afternoons watching four hours of Impractical Jokers when there are things to write.

So I severely cut my TV hours. No Breaking Bad. No Walking Dead. No Game of Thrones. (And thankfully the Philadelphia sports scene has been pretty grim lately so it wasn’t terribly hard to miss a few games).

And I’m pretty sure that when I told people I didn’t really watch TV, while they politely nodded they were secretly saying, “You think you’re better then me?” (Ironically, a line made famous by the last show I was ever addicted to–Seinfeld.)

For years Cindy hinted that we should find a show together. Our show. Curl up on the couch, husband and wife and experience one of our great American privileges…TV.

But nothing ever came of it. We never found a show to satisfy a mutual desire to veg.

Recently, Cindy asked me to watch NBC’s This is Us. She kept telling me how good it was. How much I would enjoy it since it’s about thirtysomethings. People with jobs and kids and family drama. People like us.

“People like us?”

“Yeah, people like us.”

“That sounds terrible.”

And on I went, not watching TV.

But finally, on a lazy day between Christmas and New Years ( I say “day” because between those two holidays no one really knows what day it is) I submitted. I put down the books and laptop and sunk into the couch to watch an episode with my wife.

And 20 minutes later, I was hugging a pillow and wrestling tears.

This is Us is fantastic television. It’s a masterclass in storytelling.  The show examines the disjointed lives of the Pearson family and it’s episodes seamlessly weave together the past and the present with humor and gravity.

The characters are conflicted and tortured people. People like us.

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Over the next few days Cindy and I binged the last 10 episodes together. ( Yes, my first TV bingeing experience… And no I don’t think I’m better then you!)

After us married folk meet the demands of our day, marriage is often attended to meagerly, if attended to at all. And the more children, the more responsibilities we stuff into a marriage, the less attention the marriage receives.

And the glint of those early honeymoon years– the quiet candlelight dinners, the weekend trips, the romantic rendezvous become amazingly distant and almost forgotten memories, like scenes from your once favorite but now canceled TV show.

Twelve years and three children later, most days Cindy and I struggle to find our time. After we both come home from work, “our” time is often a quick recapping of the day’s events while we clean up dinner dishes, coach our children through math homework, referee wrestling matches and do other adult things like pay bills, fold laundry, pick up toys and clean up spills ( I feel like I’m always cleaning up spills).

As life unfurls, I can feel the dynamic of our marriage changing. Changing in that we see and speak to each other less. It’s not intentional. Trust me, I love spending time with my wife, but our life, our responsibilities demand that we give our attention elsewhere.

Since it’s genesis, from tube to plasma, TV has had great bonding power.  TV watching is always best when its a shared experience. But binge watching This is Us with my wife, a show about the importance of family and community, reminded me that marriages, even stable ones need new, shared experiences.

So maybe the living room couch doesn’t sparkle with romanticism. In fact, our couch sparkles with forgotten Lucky Charms and lost Shopkins. But maybe the couch is the weekly (and not so secret) rendezvous we need.

Be well,

Jay