Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Week of Epic Fails

Well, just packed away a very busy week. How about you? But after last night's episode, I decided I would share a few occurrences with you. Think of it as my being on stage, and you being in the audience. How I wish we could have traded places. Here we go.

Epic Fail: School

Any teacher will tell you that the last nine weeks of a school year are challenging. Educators just want to be done, principals are fretting over what has to happen before school is done, and the kids are, well, done. So, after I get my seventh grade kiddos finally quiet, I started in with, "I have some very important news I need to share with you." All eyes were on me, and they sat there expectant, curious, entranced. As I opened my mouth to speak, I realized I had no idea of what was to come out of my mouth. Why I didn't just make something up is beyond me. After I admitted that I had lost my train of thought (and it was not coming around the tracks anytime soon), one of my boys decided to cheer me up: "That's okay, Mrs. Hall; this happens to a lot of people when they get old."
I felt better already. NOT!

The next day, I entered the classroom with hair that was foreign to me. I mean, it was on my head, but it looked like thatch on meth. But, the kids filed in, all excited as they knew we were studying electrical current and would be conducting an experiment with a device called a Van Der Graaf generator. Now... one of the highlights of this activity is that kids put their hands on a big silver sphere that is electrically charged. Their hair flies out in all directions; it is great fun, and puts the shock and wonder into science. Well, one of my lovely lads walks in, takes one look at my hair and says, "Mrs Hall! What is going on with your hair? Oh---did you already try out the Van Der Graaf generator?" Being honest, I explained that no, I was just having a bad hair day. He looked at me, furrowed his brow, and said, "Yeah.....well, I would blame it on the generator." Thanks for that alibi, young mind of tomorrow. Wait until I plug that puppy in and it is your turn for a bit of electric charge.

Epic Fail: Grocery Store

Let me just say: this could happen to anyone. Why I am seemingly that 'anyone' is still a mystery...but I find myself in yet another grocery store mishap. I was minding my own business, doing random product acquisition. This means, I had money, some vague notion of what I was buying, but no list. However, I did have that noisy cart: this one sounded like a NASCAR misfit. It was really loud. I meandered down one aisle and then another--squeaking and squawking-- and decided it was time to check out. I put the little bar thingy in place and grabbed a box of crackers to place on the belt. That was problem number one: I did not put crackers in my cart. Nor did I pick out the 2 liter of grape soda, packages of soft taco shells and healthy cereal. This was not my cart. I placed the crackers back in the mystery cart and started towards the back of the store.

 Oh my goodness! I had taken some else's cart and had no idea where I had left mine. But here is the part that reveals how 'out of it' I was. This cart was the cadillac of grocery carts! Smooth steering and silent. How could I have pushed this quiet cart to the check out and not realized it wasn't mine just adds another layer to my dismay. Too much cranium clutter, you might say!

Now let me tell you, as I was wheeling that cart back to Unknown Shopper Land--- I was feeling like a thief. And I was pushing my cart like one....humming "Do-de-do-de do" trying to push said cart so no one could see me, feigning innocence. Think of a cartoon character tiptoeing across the screen, trying to sneak past the villain. I could not remember what aisle I had been in for my last selection....but out of the fog I recalled being back by the dairy department. So I pushed the stranger's cart to the back of the store, looked around for mine and made a decision: I would just ditch the stolen cart near the butter.

I walked fast from the cart and started my search for familiar cargo such as: cat food, bananas, and mandarin oranges. I avoided eye contact with anyone and smiled up at the surveillance cameras. Kindness counts. Finally, I spotted my collection of goods, and paid for them directly. The next words to my co-shopper, my sister, was "Let's get outta here!" I was so fearful that I would hear a shriek, "THAT'S HER! THAT'S THE SHOPPING CART SERIAL CEREAL THIEF!" I was so glad to be out of there, but I truly hope the owner of the cart needed butter.

EPIC FAIL: Driving

I spend a lot of time at my church, doing volunteer work, going to meetings, youth group. Well, at 6:20a.m. I am not really accountable for my actions. I was mentally processing some activities coming up on the calendar at church, when I realized that I was heading in the wrong direction to go to school. I teach south. I worship north. I was about four blocks in the wrong direction when it hit me that I was not to be at church, but was surely needing to greet middle school students in twenty minutes. Thank God (really!) I turned the 'space shuttle white' Dodge into the right location and made it to the classroom in enough time to grab coffee. Lord help me! And He always does.

Sure wonder if God will forgive me for taking other folks' grocery carts. I mean....Epic Failures are kind of His business. And Lord knows, I keep Him busy with mine.

Here's to a better week.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

April: Time to Look at the Puzzling World of Autism

You just might know that April is the month for many observances. Daylight savings time change, Easter, remembering the crew of the ill-fated Titanic, and of course, the day IRS officially puts their hand in our pockets. But April is also the month that we honor a very special group of individuals.

Yes, April is also Autism Awareness month. You may have seen the puzzle pieces which form the ribbon for autism awareness. It is so appropriate that puzzle pieces are used; there are so many varying degrees on the spectrum of autism, and its cause and treatment is just like that of a puzzle. You won't find any empirical data from this writer on the cause, but better screening, knowledge, and diagnosis sure points to the increase of children believed to have autism. There is a common saying among the autism community that goes like this: "If you have met one person with autism, then you have done just that: met ONE person with autism."

Having a daughter whose life's work has focused on these individuals, these are some things I have learned:
        Do not say an individual is autistic; it is far more sensitive
        to say they have autism. The 'is' defines who they are; the
        'have' leaves room for their many other gifts. Just as it is more
        kind to say a person has diabetes than labeling him or her as
        a diabetic. Remember, they are still individuals with
        successes and struggles just like everyone else.

         Autism and Aspberger's is a complex diagnosis and                                                  
         individuals range from being very, very low functioning to
         having such slight effects that they may just appear to be
         socially awkward. And aren't we all at varying times in our
         lives? This is why you may hear that an individual is "on the
         spectrum" which allows for vast degrees of this diagnosis.

        A child who has autism is not just an under disciplined brat.
        Their neural pathways can be so ultra-sensitive that the tag
        in clothing can be such a distraction that they barely can
        function. The sounds of fluorescent lighting, the high-pitched
        squeal of an air conditioner or loud noises and flashing
        lights can be physically painful to one living with autism.
        When these 'meltdowns' occur, the staff/parent may refer to
        these as 'behaviors' which means they are behaving adversely
        to an event or stimuli. This is not the time to stare and judge
        the individual or the parent. Offer assistance (if you so
        choose) or walk away saying a silent prayer of
        encouragement, but not pity.Ever get a cramp in your toe? It
        comes on suddenly, is both painful and annoying, and nothing
        will get done until you get that toe to relax so you can
        continue on. This is a lame illustration, but you get the idea
        on how encompassing it is to have an individual experiencing
        a 'behavior'.

Autism is one of the many medical diagnosis teachers contend with in public education. The law calls for "the least restrictive environment" and so these individuals are often mainstreamed into regular classes. What these kids bring to the educational setting is amazing! No-frills, no 'politically correctness--' straight forwardness is refreshing. Kids with autism do not lie. They are no real friend to figurative language but often have incredible memories. While some individuals may be short on language abilities, and even just echo what they hear....they can be very proficient in using non-verbal queues to let you know what they need, want, don't like. Often, a kid 'on the spectrum' will go to any length to be obedient, correct in classroom protocol--often wanting fairness for all. Many have absolutely no sense of malice and treat everyone with kindness--or indifference---but never mean spirited. This is such a refreshing brush of paint on the educational canvas.

Sure...any child with a disability can be a challenge (or a blessing) for a classroom teacher. But really, the way I see it, we all are both challenged and gifted in some area or another. And a true educator embraces all the kiddos who walk through the doorway and focuses on helping that kid reach their potential.

A child with autism becomes an adult with autism, and must be taught to compensate, cope, but more, to be accepted by a world that has no corner on perfection.

Include yourself in solving the puzzle of autism; be accepting, loving, and kind. This contribution means more than you can ever April and all months to come.

***Many thanks to my daughter, Kristen Coffing-McCarrick for her help with this blog. She works in Alabama at a residential facility for individuals with autism, and has great insight into the puzzling world of autism. Kristen is a blessing to the many families who need a competent and understanding therapist in their family member's life. She is a piece of the puzzle that makes the whole picture of autism one of hope.  

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Culture of Hope

On the weekend of March 16th, 2013, a gathering occurred in Lake Hughes, California, that world changers dream of happening. Four bus loads of folk descended on a camp in the mountains of the Angeles Forest for an unforgettable weekend. These children and adults came from the Watts area. If you know your history, you may relate the location of Watts to riots, gang warfare, and four major housing projects. For years, this underserved population has resided in these four projects: Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Courts, and Gonzaque Village. And other than poverty and violence, they share one common thread: they absolutely hate one another. Children have morphed into adults with gang affiliation and retaliation in their DNA as surely as ethnicity. And somewhere along the line, some of those adults decided enough was enough. Enough hate, death, riots, gangs; it was time to talk.

So on this weekend, a camp in the mountains of the Angeles Forest, opened their doors to what might be considered the most risky, intense social experiment of all times. Kids were put in the same cabins with their hated neighbors. Yes, there were fights, arguments and comments that challenged the staff at every turn.
The number of 'campers' that showed up was nearly 100 more than expected...every cabin was full, meals were managed---amazingly---and counselors slept where ever they could find a spot to crash.

Law enforcement was present--- not to make arrests, but to be  part of a dialogue that would change lives forever. Add in a few felons on probation and you can get a sense of the population. Oh...those 'new releases' from incarceration? Their experiences contained so much validity on why young people need to tame their hate and absolve their love for a life of crime. One older gentleman, who had a hand in the leadership of those Watts riots, was now a ringleader in this vital dialogue. One activity, which raised awareness for all present, was for folks to say, "If you really knew me then you would know..." and anyone who shared that same experience stepped over a rope lying on the ground. How sad to watch adults and youngsters stepping across that rope; the shared experience of death of loved ones due to a daily regimen of violence.

But the faces soon had names, the story tellers had histories, and the common element of children laughing at camp and making new friendships emerged. Adult men listened to one another without judgment and the walls began to crumble. Mothers were finally free from the moment-to-moment fear that they would be burying their child. Sure, it looked and felt like camp: ropes courses, hikes, games, campfires, laughter. But it was so much more. This was a culture of hope.

One of the gentleman, who abandoned his gang affiliation (and is alive to tell it) is now foremost in the community to offer youth alternatives to gang membership. He said to the camp staff:

      "So many wealthy folks give us money. It is as if they
       are standing on a mountain, throwing their funds down
       to us. And yes, we take it and build community centers
       and such. But this weekend, all of you at this camp--you
       came off the mountain top and joined us down here. We
       don't need money for more equipment, really. We need
       people. People who are willing to risk a lot to change the
       Watts area. This is Watts United."

Indeed, the entire weekend was called 'Watts United'. And in a small way, this is huge. Changing how folks have felt about one another for 2-3 generations; for felons, gang leaders and law enforcement to utter...."I never knew you felt that way. Now I get it." For a child, raised to hate another just because of his/her address, to now bunk with that kid and share breakfast; this is how we change the world: one heart at a time. An area known for riots, was now having a riot, captured in the laughing faces of kids, adults and camp staff. I guess there is great entertainment in watching some 25 year old camp director doing the hilarious 'milkshake' skit with a former gang leader. One LAPD officer remarked that he NEVER thought he would see this! Good stuff to write about? Sure...but amazing stuff that truly occurred.

Mothers who came to the 'Watts United' weekend, were hoping for a change that would impact the lives of their sons and daughters. When we strip away all the clutter, chatter, the labels and the looks, we can truly see the scars of another. If we listen to their stories, we may hear the echoes of our own. Idealistic? Certainly. But, oh so necessary.

A "culture of hope" is what unfolded at Canyon Creek Sports Camp" in March, 2013. I know how an experience such as this is life changing. I claim this as an 'ordinary miracle' in which individuals will be changed forever.

I spent one week as a camp counselor when I was in high school. I did not like school and struggled to get the grades. But the Almighty whispered to me and said, " can do kids." While college was hard and landing a teaching job was as well, I retired from public education after thirty-two years of teaching. I loved it. I speak with certainty when I say that a single experience at camp can become one's personal compass, pointing to a future of joy, success, and freedom from the past. Each of my own four kids can point to their weeks at camp as being life changing.

And now, one of those four has made it his life's work. I can't begin to understand it, but I believe in the power of camps. Of leaving one's home, sharing life with strangers, and being one with nature; all held together by the influence of a camp staff that begs to make a kid's week at camp The. Best. Ever. It is an odd dynamic, but is an everyday occurrence at Canyon Creek Sports Camp. I have seen it in action, as one weekend I was invited to teach some science lessons to a group sponsored by the Harold Robinson Foundation. I do not know who was changed more: the campers and their parents, or me. I have no doubts that every event, experience, and emotion that the folks from the Watts area took from this weekend was authentic, powerful, and transforming. This camp just does that to a person.

It will be the vision of youth, tempered with the harsh stories of the elders, that will step up to speak to the history of violence, and rewrite it.  Look to 'Watts United' as a model on how this happens. We must come off of our selective mountains and gather at the bonfire and reflect on how our collective actions impact a community; take responsibility for such and create bridges where there were barriers. Oh, such pretty words! But it can---and has---occurred.

Watts United. A paradigm shift of the greatest, and most necessary of its kind. Just ask the kids, look at the photos, watch what will happen. A culture of hope, indeed.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

From Grades to Guns

**This is an official disclaimer that this author is not making light  of the recent discussions/legislations for educational staff to carry weapons to safeguard the school population. I AM however, making fun of ME should I ever have to carry a gun to school.

So this is what it is coming to. Educators are now faced with the possibility of coming to school armed. Hmmm. I think about how this could play out if I was told: you're the one, Deb. You get to bring the gun to school to keep your homies safe. Uh huh. Think of Deputy Barney Fife on Red Bull and you get a mental picture of this hot mess. Let me explain how this would not work out for me.

* I can't remember where I park my car in the Kroger parking lot. So....I can safely bet I won't remember what I did with said handgun.

*I tend to find creative uses for ordinary things. My new Glock is now a paper weight or a door stop.

*Do you really want any school personnel to have a gun the day before school vacations, especially after room parties? Those kids are wild and dangerous! Just saying.

*If you are the teacher, who always gets stuck behind the same same staff member running 9,000 copies of next semester's test, when you are pleading to run just 4 copies for kids who were absent, well, that gun just might go off accidentally. My turn!

*So, you know that parent that thinks their little darling never does anything wrong and the school staff is always picking on their child? Well, at that next parent conference, you just might want to reload that revolver. Just for effect, mind you.

*Okay...the administrator arrives at your classroom door for that all important teacher evaluation. You report that you will be ready to teach, as soon as you clean your firearm. Safety first. And then, if it were me, I am sure the Dawn detergent, Clorox wipes and Tide would delay things until tomorrow. Cleanliness is next to Godliness.

*I am presently teaching Science. There is much discussion on topics such as evolution, global warming, and the big bang theory. Outfit me with a gun and the 'big bang theory' becomes reality. So much for that hypothesis.

*I have never had much experience with guns. They kind of creep me out. So I am thinking that my confrontation with an intruder will go like this:

       "I have a gun and I am trained to use it. I am going to show    my school board how proud they can be that I am the 'DD' ----Designated Dummy. You may not see my weapon, but it is...well someplace. I know that it is loaded because I put the bb's in there myself. I am armed and dangerous. But we all know that I was dangerous way before I started packing' heat. Speaking of heat, do you think it is hot in here? These hot flashes make me want to kill.  You had better hope your life insurance policy is in force and that you have made peace with your Maker. Know why? You are SO wasting my prep time and I have 15 sets of papers to grade, three parents to call, and I have not peed since 7:40 this morning. And my Zoloft prescription has no refills. And if that is not enough to convince you to leave the premises, picture this: my students may be in PE but if I am late in picking them up, that teacher will come in here and make you dress out for gym and put you through the most sadistic warm-ups ever. You will be begging me to put you out of your misery."

I am pretty certain I do not fit the profile for the safety officer of my school. But that's okay. I am much more of an Aunt Bea than Sheriff Andy Taylor.

But come near my Opie, and you'll be sorry! Just as soon as Barney brings me my gun.