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Monday, October 3, 2016

The Metaphors of September

On the last Wednesday of September, a living metaphor played out right before my eyes. I was a reluctant observer at church that evening, listening to the music and trying to get into a spiritual groove from a long few weeks. A young father sat in front of me, his two sons not much older than kindergarten age, maybe younger. He would keep one on his hip, and had he been a mother the hip would have been a welcome place for a boys’ bottom. Instead, the kid slid down the father’s body, legs dangling into superhero shoes.

While one kid was leaning on his dad, the other would lay on the pew or stand and demand attention the brother was getting. The father would lean down and whisper in the attention-getter’s ear, and the boy would grunt, shake his head, cross his arms in baby-faced defiance. So the father would set one boy down and pick up the other. Immediately, the boy would bury his head into the father’s neck, legs dangling.

The young father did this probably 10 or more times during the service. Not once did he roll his eyes or look back at me with that look that fathers give one another when they just can’t win, that I-wish-I-had-a-beer look. He never sighed and he never raised his voice or pointed a finger. I watched amazed at his juggling act. It reminded me of my life at that moment. Except I wasn’t as calm and collected as this father. It was as if God purposely placed him in front of me, wondering if I’d get the message. Life’s events and responsibilities were much like those two boys vying for attention, vying to be close enough to bury its face in the crook of my neck. Up to that point, I wanted nothing more than to just throw my hands up. I would have placed the boys in daycare that night and enjoyed the service. Place those responsibilities elsewhere. Let someone else do it.

The Friday previous I had the closest thing to a mental break. I sat in a professional development meeting at work. I was supposed to be listening to the latest list of testing procedures that all schools have to undergo. It’s easy to zone out in these types of meetings, but I had been feeling like I had not been much of a teacher.

Ther move to second grade had been fairly uneventful for the first 2 weeks of school. I loved getting to meet the kids each day, their enthusiasm to enter the room. I loved how they were mini perfectionist who wanted to spell every word correctly, wanted every math problem checked for accuracy. They tattled some, sure, but they smiled and hugged their way from hour to hour in an endless dance of joy.

Then the curriculum hit. I’m a big picture thinker, and never having experience with grade 2, all I had to go on was what my 5th graders had been able to do over the last few years. Fifth graders were independent workers, they move fairly seamlessly from one project to the next and they finished their work. Second graders are a much different story. They are one task-oriented type of kids. They lose things. They can’t read very well, at least half my class is reading at a firestorm grade level or below, so independent work takes time and effort. They don’t move seamlessly from one place to the next. They shout sometimes, or they tattle if they even perceive something wrong.

Throwing in a new curriculum for me on top of the stress of testing the kids became much more stressful than I bargained for. Once a child enters our school, we have 30 days to test them in reading and math. This includes one math diagnostic with about 15 questions and a computer based test with 50 questions. The reading test is done one on one and they have a computer based ELA version as well. My desk for 2 weeks was a stack of testing materials, scantron sheets and ungraded papers. Eventually I found myself ditching testing during the day because they kids simply weren’t ready for seat work, which is basically all I could really give them. All my teaching experience was whittled down to busy work while I tested them. As I eased my way back into full teacher mode, I was using my planning time during lunch or art class to get these kids tested. Not exactly an ideal situation.

I felt my expertise slipping away, and I began to question if teaching this young of a student was really what I was equipped to do. My big picture focus mired me in concerns and outcomes I couldn’t predict.

My home life, which typically can be an escape from a stressful day, wasn’t much better. I know dear reader that you are used to me being transparent about my home life but for the sake of this particular blog, I’ll try and keep it focused on work. Needless to say, the encouragement that I wanted to have for my family became more critical. My uplifting tone of voice became harsh and overbearing. I was barely a father and not much of a husband. Any task at home felt like a boulder being pushed uphill.

At one point that day, I found myself looking out the window during lunch at Red Lobster. Our lunch dates have been a 9 year tradition each professional development day we have been together, and alI I could do was look away from her face, unable to bear the weight of my own failure of expectations.

After that weekend, I had to start thinking of what was really important. For every big picture frustration, I began chunking up my day into segments of success. I bore down in the beginning of the day repeating expectations and routines. I front loaded my lessons and then broke off into small groups, applauding their successes and being more patient with their challenges. Little by little I could see the tide beginning to turn. By that Wednesday I had my first evaluation meeting with my boss. He had been seeing the necessary strides in the class and offered a discerning ear to what I was feeling.

And now it’s October. I still have much to do, both at home and at school. While I may not always get the desired results, each day is another lesson I’m learning about myself. I’m working my way out of the negativity and back into the promises that God wants for my life.

So, how’s teaching second grade coming? Today was a win. Even though I had to send a kid out for a timeout because of incessant crying (the first ever in my 16 year career), today was a win. After a day of teaching, I coached my daughter's soccer team at practice for an hour and then watched my son play baseball under the lights on a cool fall evening. And I enjoyed myself. Life is back as it should be. For that, I’m thankful.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Panning for Gold (Within the Land of Quitters)

The look on my mom's face was priceless the day we heard 2 Live Crew on the car stereo. I think I was being picked up from school perhaps (7th grade?), a hot day in Houston. Little did she know, or come to understand, that their hit song Me So Horny had hit the airwaves in a rush of adrenaline. The song was scandalous at that time. Explicit lyric rap songs were almost like stealing looks at dad's skin magazines. I would hang with my friend Brent who seemed to have the lineup of everything foul--Too Short, NWA, Ghetto Boys--and we would laugh at the lyrics like we knew that life. We were basically fringe suburban kids who dressed in preppy clothes but lived in apartment complexes--him in a ranch off Aldine Westfield that was neither a neighborhood nor a reclusive shack--me in a townhouse down the road. We didn't think anything of that kind of music then, just that it fed into our fantasies of what we wanted out of girls at our age.

There were many kids like me who were raised on the same type of music. Later it was Tupac and Biggie, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. Don't know these artist? Well, millions of kids like me did. I don't remember any warnings besides the labels that accompanied the CD's when we bought them. I guess our parents felt that the music we listened to would have no ill affect on our character. Some, I assume, didn't much care.

I remember Tipper Gore leading the charge for censorship back when I was in high school. I wrote a paper about the 1985 era Parents Music Resource Center that aimed to control what children bought and listened to over the radio. Whether it was overtly sexual lyrics like Prince's Darling Nikki or more innuendo-laced songs like Sugar Walls by Sheena Easton or She Bop by Cyndi Lauper, the battle lines had been drawn. Artists claimed their rights to freedom of speech and mothers claimed indecency.

I'm not proud that my generation grew up on Tupac, NWA or The Ghetto Boys.Watching the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton adds fire to the social justice agenda of today--police corruption--topping these sentiments off with Ice Cube's Fuck Tha Police. While the arguments has certain credence within the LA community (see the doc on OJ Simpson that just aired on ESPN), I wonder what the image of this means to today's kids. I had several students of mine see Compton with their families. If my 7th grade son would have seen the movie with me he would have asked, why do they hate the cops so much? Is he out of touch with his brownness? Doubtful. But as a home we have a healthy respect for authority figures, cops being one of them.

Today's culture has replaced common sense with a whatever-is-good-for-you mentality. There are almost no restrictions on the amount of pornography, death, sex, or violence one can attain. As a parent of a kid who has access to the internet through his iPod and iPad, it's almost impossible to block adult content. If you call attention to these facts, these truths of our lives, you get things like--

Well, he's going to watch porn anyway
Just teach them right and wrong.
No game/movie/song ever made me want to kill/rape someone so he should be okay.

I read comments on group pages like Common Sense Media and One Million Moms or the American Family Association that are inundated with intolerance towards their views on what is acceptable in our media. It's not as simple as if you don't like it turn the channel any longer because when the channel is turned, there's something on that channel too that's probably even less family friendly. I can barely watch popular "family" shows with my kids. Blackish, while positive in its portrayal of an African-American family, makes every white person on the show out to be a buffoon, racist or just plain tone deaf. This has no bearing on actual reality.

I don't believe that our culture of entertainment has led to the destruction of cities like Chicago, Baltimore, or has led to the violence we have seen in Dallas or Baton Rouge. But it is one of the many thorns in a bushel of problems America now faces. Fatherless families, which is almost never talked about, has destroyed countless lives of youth in the urban areas. Poverty too. The educational system is fighting this too, and coupled with a humanist philosophies, have basically bankrupted the faith that was so important in our beginnings.

I find it ironic when popular celebrities like Beyonce and Snoop Dogg hold a press conference to promote unity, when the lyrics they peddle undermines the very authority figures they want to be united with. But that's what this world has done. Our president invites Black Lives Matter groups (and other controversial celebrities) to the White House, while our kids demand products from Dr. Dre that keep him well into the multi-millionaire bracket. It's funny how his headphones are called beats when that's what he's been accused of for most of his younger life.

Before I end, I want to reiterate how I feel about our law enforcement personnel. Being a public employee, teachers are under the same microscope as cops, but in a different vein. We must educate all children, despite their lack of parenting, reading skills or home training. Just today I was confronted with the news that one of my incoming 5th graders who I taught this summer, probably had no formal schooling for almost 3 years. He’s living with his father now, but the time he lived with his mother is vague. It’s like the kid fell off the grid. His writing and language are like looking at struggling kindergartener. How the hell did he get all the way to 5th grade? You don't much hear about what happens in our hallways, or stories like those, except for when we screw up--sexual allegations or some poor sap losing his mind on youtube. You don't see the disrespect we face each and every day, the apathy, the disregard for authority, the body language of a nation of quitters. All my summer school students can Dab and Nae Nae but they have no perseverance when it comes to decoding or answering to a prompt. This lack of self-respect is not just focused on these particular kids, but it has been my experience over the last several years as a 5th grade teacher.

Perhaps I will see the hope again when I return to school in August. I’m moving to 2nd grade. I’m anxious to see their little faces. I want to cheer them on when they reach the next reading level, or learn to play a game at recess. In the meantime, I hope to filter out what they’ve been watching on the tv with their parents. It was said to me this summer that to build character is like mining for gold. Imagine the panning of a California settler, sifting through the mud and dull, earthen rock to find one sliver of gold. It’s easy to mine the rock and debris and soft mud that seems to melt between your fingers. None of those characteristics, like greed, laziness and apathy, are long lasting, nor do they offer stability in the long run. But good character sustains a person their entire life. Honesty, integrity. There’s gold to be mined. Surely there is, even today.

Monday, June 13, 2016

For A Friend

Sitting alone in a crowded cafeteria was by far the most fearsome of landscapes I faced growing up. It beat anything that Camp Crystal Lake or Elm Street had to offer. I moved from school to school as a kid. When you're in elementary you sat as a classroom. There was no fear of the lunch room. Perhaps we had fear of being on the losing end of the dreaded “silent treatment” but I knew enough in elementary to keep me from being a pariah. Don't pick your nose, don’t mix up chocolate milk with your food and don't be gross to girls. In junior high it was a whole new ballgame. You didn't have to sit by classrooms. It was the beginning of the click system. Football players sat with football players. Pretty girls always seemed to sit together too, as if by natural magnetism of hair spray and make-up. Back when I was in school the black kids and Mexican kids all sat together too and very rarely would you see someone of another color sit otherwise. I wonder just how much time I spent in my early life trying to keep, maintain, gain or impress friends.

The idea of a friend has been cheapened since that time, but in essence I think it all goes back to those junior high lunch room days. We can amass thousands of “friends” on Facebook, but how many do we really know? Twitter classifies those friends as “followers.” Sounds even spookier if you ask me.  We have this God complex to surround ourselves with dutiful slaves of opinion. Like this picture, tag me in this, forward this message and share in the comments below what you really think.

This past Sunday I was reminded that the true friendships we have are but a taste of what God desires in a relationship with us. Perhaps I have a distorted view of God. While I don’t consider him a scorekeeper of wrongs or a God who is ambivalent to what’s going on in our world—like say, Supernatural season 5 God—I don’t consider God to be a friend. I’ve always considered God as someone to worship, my leader, my advisor.

Sometimes God, to me, is a disapproving parent, especially when it comes to my sin. God hates sin. In the Bible, there are some damning words when it comes to sin. It’s considered burdensome, to putrefying sores, to a yoke, a debt and a scarlet stain. Just why did Jesus ask God on the cross, “Why have you forsaken me?” Jesus’ death brought all our sin upon him in one fell swoop, the sins of those who had died before him, the current sins of those living, and all the future sins of those coming after, like us. For that one brief moment, God could not look at the sin that wrought Jesus just before he died. He hates sin that much that he couldn't even look at his own son.

But let’s get back to friendship. Our pastor this Sunday challenged us to rethink what having a relationship with God really means. How can you have that closeness with God when you don’t seek Him on a daily basis? This is why I feel so disconnected when I go a few days without devotions, or when I miss a Sunday service, or when I miss share group, and especially when I choose to sin. Sin is the ultimate separation from God. All God wants is to be reconciled with us. Sin disturbs that relationship. In fact, the more I think of a God who made us in his image, the idea of friendship becomes much more tangible.

Our pastor on Sunday used a few references that stuck with me. Consider Moses. In Exodus 33:11 it is said that God spoke to Moses face to face “as one speaks with a friend.” Imagine having that one on one conversation with God. I always felt I would bow in terror, feeling the terrible guilt of having carried this sin around with me. Or consider Abraham. in James 2:23 Abraham believed God and was considered God’s friend. In those relationships, there was reverence, obviously, but not one of a slave and his master.

Perhaps it was my view of what constitutes a friend that is the true distortion.

I think it has taken me a lifetime to find true friends. Outside of my wife, no one was as close to me as anyone outside of my mother. Considering the sermon, I happened to be seated next to what I consider my best friend. His name is Randy.

Randy helps me with projects I have here at the house, helping me put together a new deck after our porch fire a few years back. He’s taken our kids when my wife and I needed a date night. He’s been to my son’s baseball games, and I’ve been to some of his daughter’s soccer games as well. He’s shared in the spoils of his hunt, providing deer steak on occasion, to my son’s delight. We have gotten so close we even planned a vacation together with our families. More importantly, he’s prayed for me when I needed it the most. He’s been a soothing voice for my son and daughter when they have questions. It’s more than just meeting him for a movie kind of friend. This is the type of friend that our pastor was talking about. Being with him I get a glimpse of what heaven will be, surrounded by your loved ones.

During our week of vacation together, Randy was dealing with the loss of his uncle. All week he had been on the phone with family members and his father, trying to make arrangements for the funeral. I knew he was hurting being so far away. He decided to cut his vacation short one day so he could be back in time for the funeral, and I didn’t think twice about cutting mine short as well. Here was a guy who had helped me accomplish so much in my own life so it was the least I could have done. Mourn with those who mourn.

During that past week, Randy had been working on his uncle’s eulogy. I knew from our conversations with him that many of his family members lived far from Christ. We’ve talked about my family too, where I would say it’s a strong 50/50 chance.

Arriving at the funeral home, I felt this was going to be the type of ceremony I would not be used to. The funerals I have attended have always been ceremonial. A pastor speaks on behalf of the dead to give hope to the living. In this case, Randy’s uncle had no pastor speak on his behalf. His viewing had no more than 20 or so close members of the family. It was a feeling of mourning rather than a celebration. When my great grandmother died we had mariachis!

So the funeral home assistant brought up a lectern, checked the sound and abruptly turned off the instrumental music like someone who would skip a needle on a record. Randy spoke of sin and separation, of choices and heavenly consequences. I felt at that moment that God had made Randy to save the people in that room who were living far away from Him. Randy was speaking to his family like a friend. And it hit me, a true friend loves you so much he would do anything to make you happy. He would tell you the truth when you needed to hear it and under no circumstance would a true friend leave you behind. Isn’t this true of God as well? He doesn’t want us to be separated from him. He provided Jesus as our path to salvation so that we didn’t need the confirmation of a click a group or assembly to prove our worth. He wants us to realize he’s right beside us when times are tough and he will always tell us the truth no matter how much it hurts. In this one moment I had been given the best gift God has ever provided me—a best friend.

I don’t know the hearts of those in that room who decided to take a step closer in faith. I know Randy continues to have dialogue with many of them and he doesn't judge them for their choices. He weeps for them and he will continue to love them. I do know that what my pastor had to say on Sunday was perhaps a way for me to unwrap my stubbornness of late, my disconnect. When you begin asking God for that type of relationship with Him, you have to be willing to know that He’s coming into the house to do some structural damage. And like my friend Randy, he’s coming with his tools and expertise. When Randy helped me with my porch, he arrived so early on the first day I wasn't even dressed. Imagine not being ready for God, undressed before the world, your sin exposed. But friends reach out their hand, guide you, help you, lift you up. Friends help you build on your foundation. No project is too daunting for my friend Randy. No situation unmanageable.  That junior high kid who was afraid to sit alone will never have to worry about doing so now because this man of God decided that I was worth getting to know. For him I am thankful, and I know to be his friend is to continue to have those intimate moments with God. Randy deserves that above all else, someone to walk beside with, sharing those little glimpses of heaven.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Saturation over Sprinkles

As a teacher, you know you’re doing the right thing when your students hate you. And this week, they hate me.

This is not always the case. Former students who I’ve spoken to over the years, the ones I always thought hated me, didn’t really. I was always happy to see them. A few years back I had some real tough girls. They weren't like fighters, but the looks they would give me said volumes of the relationships I had with them. When their personal drama escalated amongst themselves, I intervened, and a times I acted like an angry dad who had enough. Wasn’t always the best course of action. When I expressed to one mom that I thought her daughter hated me, the mom replied, “She probably does.”

This year is a bit different. Like in those years, I’ve built in a system of rewards and incentives to keep the kids motivated. Sometimes it's been from prizes (mainly food--and don’t get me started on healthy snacks, that’s for some health nut blog and this isn’t it), sometimes it's from school store. The kids earn classroom money from their jobs, their homework and reading logs, their Dojo points (it’s a class management system that keeps the points they earn) and their weekly attendance. They get paychecks, have an account and keep up with their balances. There are rewards and bonuses for certain accomplishments and fines too.

My other big incentive are my yearly CHAMP awards. CHAMP is an acronym for my classroom procedures and it goes like this:
C is for Conversation--what level of noise do I allow in the room? A Level 0 is silence, a Level 1 is a whisper and so on. Lots of teachers use the “level” system.
H is for Help--when can I get help and who can help me?
A is for Activity--are we doing group work or independent work?
M is for Movement--Is this an assignment where i can freely roam or do i need to be in a certain area?
P is for Participation--What are the expectations? Is this a group project where we each have a job? Should I be ready when my teacher calls on me?
For the most part, the system works fairly well. Like any good management system it’s in how you use it. We have a second level CHAMP incentive we start after Winter Break. Now the acronym stands for this:
C is for Character--what is integrity? How strong is my word? What are my choices when no one is looking?
H is for Hard-Working--Do I quit when the assignment gets difficult? Am I trying my best?
A is for Actions--This component is more home driven. What healthy lifestyle choices can I make to ensure success? Do I help at home? Do I volunteer in the community?
M is for Motivated--We talk a lot about growth mindset here. It gets pretty involved and really tries to unpack how we approach our work, abilities and talents. We talk about intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. What happens when a teacher doesn’t give you a point or a treat for doing well? What happens at home when we don’t get an allowance?
P is for Perserverance--How do we handle daily drama? How do we handle adversity?

By the end of February we honor those CHAMP students with these shirts. 

On Fridays we all wear them. And these kids get certain incentives--school store discounts, water fountain stops when we’re in the hallways (you’d be surprised how powerful this is), extra recess and when the school has mass punishments (like when the entire lunchroom gets minutes taken off at recess for example, which happens here too much), the CHAMPS get to play.

Well the students who aren’t CHAMPS continue to try and reach that incentive because every two weeks or so we have a t-shirt ceremony. The group nominates individuals and along with my recommendation helps make those decisions. I’ve never had to take a shirt away and almost always they’ve done me and the school proud with their choices. This year is no exception, but the ones who haven’t made it yet have turned bitter. Their attitude has gotten worse, it seems, and their excuses more blatantly obnoxious or illogical. Two of my CHAMP kids were told they were “acting white.” (For the record I have 2 caucasians, 2 asians, 4 African-Americans and 1 Hispanic. Gender breakdown is 5 boys and 4 girls.) We had a discussion with handling the dramas from what the kids call “the haters.” I told them that being a CHAMP means you set the temperature. They’re like classroom thermometers. When they act up, it makes it okay for others to denounce them, or to act up as well. One of the kids said that’s what being Christian is like. As a Christian, everyone expects you to be perfect when that isn’t the case.

Since I started this entry, some other events have happened. The kids who have been doing the most complaining used the weekend to reflect. I began to hear apologies and amendments to their accusations. They wanted to clarify their statements like politicians. Their parents began reaching out to me, and not in a negative way. Parents don’t typically send messages to you about how much their kid loves school, or talks about their teacher often, or asks what their kid can do to make the cut. We hear so much about whiny kids who don’t want to work for anything. Fast food workers demanding higher pay for no skills. You hear the word “entitlement” and it gives you an idea that those on social programs are only in it because they’re lazy (which isn’t true). We live in a society where everyone gets a trophy, a medal, a certificate for being “good.” But for this one moment in time, the kids are learning from real adversity--at least the kind of adversity that feels real to them. Will they respond with defeat and negativism when they don’t get their way in middle school? Will they blame society, the white man, racism?

We had another moment in class. Three things in their lives will prevent success, statistically speaking--poverty, race and family make up. Statistics are stacked against those who live with just one involved parent, but have higher chances of success when there are 2 (go figure, God knew what he was doing when he made a man and woman). Poverty is extremely hard to overcome. It takes years, maybe generations to lift oneself from it. And race. I believe racial tension is a problem for people to cling to in order to prove their reasoning. It’s easy to blame your skin color for your lack of success. White Privilege is the phrase we’ve given for white guilt to manifest itself into some sort of institutional reparation. I don’t play the racism game much any more, but I know it’s reach. All these things are barriers in our lives. But the only way we can rise above those situations is attitude.
If you’ve lived in poverty all your life, one way to continue is to believe that there is no hope. I’ve found that the less one has the more generous they are. One parent homes are all across the country, mine was one for short periods of my life. But my mom’s attitude was never one of defeat. She didn’t have men come and go in the home, nor did she bear children and watch the men in her life leave (only once, my dad). Here’s an example:  A parent who has 6 kids, all different fathers. One kid was doing an assignment on counting their siblings and she raised her hand and said, “what about my mom’s abortions? Do I count those?” The teacher found out that the mother takes the entire brood to the abortion clinic, periodically, and enough for her to remember (she’s a second grader). That’s attitude, when you’re not being responsible enough with your body that eliminating a life is more convenient than raising one.

Not everyone in my classroom will be a CHAMP. I know that probably bothers some readers, educators or today’s college protesters. Some might say I’m “shaming” those that didn’t (That’s another social justice buzzword for blaming the victim or the oppressed). In high school, they award the top 2 academically gifted students. We all get to graduate, but those 2 are set apart. They deserve that. I never once thought, oh, they’re white and that’s why. It motivated me to get on the Dean’s List in college. Corporations do not always promote everyone. Only one person in a million wins the lottery. While making it means a step forward for some, I know that not making it could have the same effect. I had one kid last year that didn’t make it, but guess what, his silly self isn’t getting suspended every month like he did before he came to our school. He’s proving to himself that he has what it takes, despite his color, his family’s income and even his learning disability. He’s a real-life CHAMP.

The last month of the year brings its own set of challenges. They will all jump over hurdles of fire just to make Field Day or that end-of-the-year pizza party. They’ll be moving on to, and I’ll see significantly less of them than this year, a slice of their life. It’s all about watering seeds. Over and over again. Luckily I don’t have to pay a spiritual water bill. The spigot is always ready for a saturation over a sprinkle.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Smell of Victory (A Day in the Life of)

When I woke this morning I could still smell the lingering funk of last night. It wasn't my attitude, but instead was a rambunctious Shitzu-mixed-up dog of mine that decided the creature scurrying in the dark of our backyard needed special attention. Both my wife and I could smell the skunk as we watched tv. We knew what was about to come in running.. So this morning’s smell was not of the just-washed sheets. The familiar scent of a shower, my wife’s baby powder she applies, the distinct scents of my children’s hair and bodies (even my son’s breath!) did not persuade my nose that the skunk smell had dissipated.

We all sidestepped the dog’s cage. Poor guy, getting yelled at to “go potty” as if a bowel movement was a punishment. Coffee freshly brewed, papers signed and the van boarded. Turning towards the babysitter’s house, the defrost on the van had not yet unfogged the windshield. I’m driving blind towards the sun.

We kiss our little one goodbye. We’re off to work. No traffic this morning. We didn't even catch any lights. Still, the skunk smell had somehow attached itself to our belongings. As a kid, I always thought that no matter where my mom would drive, the moon would always follow. It was like that, only the moon was now an oppressive skunk-face, glaring down at everything I loved.

Arrived at work. Bypassed the mailboxes and the encouraging white-board message that greet us every morning. Our counselor updates the greeting white-board each day. Sometimes they make me smile and sometimes they make me roll my eyes (the old broken cynic in me still exists), but on this particular morning it gave me pause for thankfulness.

I wave at a few latchkey kids as I go towards my room. No Spotify on the iPad which means a quiet morning of prep. While our building has wi-fi, some sites like Spotify and Facebook are blocked. Sometimes I get lucky and I get about 2 songs into my Ultimate Christian Mix before the wi-if police realize I’m trying to uplift my soul. None of that around here, mister.

I spent the last Friday of Spring Break copying materials and readying the class. Print a few papers, orange out-of-paper light flashes. I’m copying on random green and yellows now. I grab some pencils and head out the door. I’m picking up the class in the gym in about 5 minutes, and the pencils need to be sharpened. Our classroom electronic sharpener died about a month ago. My students have been sharpening pencils with their scissor points, smuggling hand crank sharpeners between one another.

Time to line up. One of my students came back from Spring Break with a walker. He actually broke his hip back in the winter and he had another surgery. We send him ahead but we pass him eventually. I know he hates the walker. His student helpers treat him like he’s a crippled old man, walking ahead of him as if he doesn’t know where the classroom is located.

I apologize to another student. Yesterday I lost my cool and she spent her recess with her face buried in her arms. I hate that impatient part of me. She accepts my apology.

Lessons are rocking from the start. The skunk smell is evident but it doesn't permeate the mood. Our principal comes in to reiterate the new playground rules. Several fights just before Spring Break warranted a new plan—no more hanging out in the fields, no more football, no more fun—but the kids nods their heads and are back to work. Eventually I’m leading a small group through chapters a 9 and 10 of To Kill a Mockingbird. We get into the phrase “n-lover” and the roles of women and men in society. These kids are beginning to see that the world is setting them up for failure. Boys, if you're not an athlete you’re gay. Boys, check this girl out, but don't act too aggressively and be a gentlemen no matter what she wears. Girls, be strong and independent, but first be sexy. Girls, don't be a slut but watch as we dance in front of undressed men in music videos.

We start math—volume of composite shapes. We’re tracing lines and multiplying. We start Hands on Equations. They’re moving pawns and number cubes around their desks in various efforts to solve for X. They hold up their answers for me using their cubes, like 30 red eyes staring at me.

Lunch comes. My Shakeology shake has too-big ice chunks because our ice machine is withholding crunched ice. The straw I’m trying to drink through is causing a vein in my forehead to burst. I’m on a mission. I get supplies from the science supply room, have a quick conversation with one of the special Ed therapists about my move from 5th grade to 2nd next year. It’s also a way for me to witness. I know Jesus lives in all of my conversations, but He’s especially evident in the ones where my attitude reflects Him.

Lunch duty (I just said duty. Did you laugh? We have a kid in 4th grade whose last name is Duty. He was called to the office over the intercom and the entire 5th grade class laughed like they just heard the preacher fart). I try and get my FitBit steps in. I allow kids to go to the bathroom, extra mustards and forks. I pull on braided pig tails and continue ongoing conversations I’ve had with kids all year. Like the 3rd grade girls who put broccoli on everything—today it was hamburgers—and the bully free zone table who want to nominate more students to join them. I hi-five the same 5 or 6 kids every day.

Afternoon session. Finishing time trial in Science with the switch class. While my class has the token bully, maybe 2 that are silly in their bones, my switch class are like hyenas on steroids. Someone is always making noises, making fun of one another—shoes, edge ups, clothing—they make noises like zoo animals, bite their shirts when they’re nervous. I end up ranting to a few of them in the halls. Kids want to laugh but they know I’ll get even madder. I don’t hate the rant person, but I know that they've already tuned me out one sentence in. I am a righteous bully when I want to be.

School’s done, and we’re headed to our next event. Once a month our family serves meals at a downtown church. It’s a hustle to get there. Our house smells like skunk, so does the van. I keep smelling my hands as if the smell has attached itself to every fiber of my being. The dog looks at me when we arrive like he’s been tortured, like he’s in one of those animal cruelty videos.

There’s a wreck a few blocks from their church. We’re almost late. In order to to avoid wreck, we go the alternate route. Reynoldsburg cop pulls up behind and I’m ticketed for an expired tag. My kids get to learn how we treat cops when you’re pulled over, but they also learn something of our finances. It’s a sobering conversation, as if the kids just found out Santa and the Easter Bunny are just imaginary figures.

Serving meals goes smooth like gravy over cheesy potatoes. My little one claims it was much better than being at soccer practice. My son likes passing out the pre-packaged cookies. Have a nice day he probably says about a million times, ends up with leftover cookies that erupt from his pant pockets.

I separate from the wife and kids. She’s off to find the ingredients to ward off the skunk smell—hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and dishwashing detergent—while I’m back to church. I find myself singing with a group of men onstage. Victory in Jesus, my Savior forever! I look at the crowd and I’m ready to drop to my knees. How can performers not just utterly well up with emotion when they sing?

The sermon is about being in the shadows and prepping from an upcoming challenge. How many times do we pray for God to give us a challenge? I’m in tears again.

Back at home eventually. Pizza is baking. The dog knows the eminent bath is coming. My wife bathes him in the sink, all the while we’re talking to him as if he understands what’s going on. It’s like my rant this afternoon. No one listens.

The blessing by night’s end is that I’m stuffy from the weather, either that or my sinuses are protecting me from the residual smell of the skunk. That’s the only thing that still lingers from the day.

Sleep? Yeah, I’m about to finally do that. It’s a new day tomorrow and I get to wake up try again. Victory in Jesus, my Savior forever. I’m in tears again. Goodnight.

Thursday, March 24, 2016


There's a ton of prep work when you’re going on an Emmaus walk. I was called to serve on the live in team again back in January. At the time, I didn’t feel as if I was able to be the type of Christian leader it took to serve. I was almost done with facilitating a men’s Bible study at church, but I had yet to feel that closeness I’ve had before. I was faking it until I was making it, but that approach made me feel hypocritical and judgmental of myself. I was going through another binge with pornography, which in itself was another attack on how I viewed myself. My appetite for food was just as bad. When you tell yourself that you’re a failure, every vice you have becomes magnified.

In order to prepare for the live in team, you meet on Thursday evenings for about 2 months. There’s tons of logistics to cover. You hear previews of the weekends’ talks (think of it as a short course on Christianity.) and you have fellowship and prayer with the team. At home there's preparation too, getting the schedules right, spending time with your family, packing. The night before I was to leave I brought up my nice overnight bag (again, waiting till the last minute is not suggested!). Our family cat decided it was a good time to sniff around the bag. I was folding clothes (again, I waited until the last second to wash the clothes I needed) and noticed him sitting in the bag. My kids pointed and said, “Dad, look.” Indeed the cat was sitting upright and rigid, and I began to think, is he pooping? I run over and the cat leaps forward, leaving behind a puddle of pee. In the moment it was both funny and maddening. My kids were rolling on the floor laughing, snapping pictures for Instagram. Despite the fact that I was as ready as I could be, the cat reminded me that no amount of smugness and prep was good enough for what God was going to do. Here’s what I think of your Christianity. That pee was metaphorical!

The weekend did not go the way of the cat (my pastor says that cats are a product of the Fall and now I see why). God showed up big time. 17 men gave their life to Christ, sealing covenants that were made before they were a heartbeat in their mother’s womb.

There's a moment during the weekend when we release those moments that are keeping us in chains. I was reminded once again that God seeks the unqualified, the lost and the broken. We like to think, men especially, that we have to have it altogether in order to receive the love of Christ. Nothing could be further from the truth. God is the one that qualifies our calling, that shines light on our path and heals our brokenness. The same could be said for me. I was reluctant to take the next step in my faith, my calling, simply because I felt unqualified. I had this idea that by now I was supposed to be this Rock of a man. No wonder the cat decided to piss on my idealistic chest thumping!

In my talk this weekend (for those who have been to Emmaus, I gave the Growth Through Study Talk. For the uninitiated, it was a speech on giving your mind to God) I used a metaphor by way of George MacDonald in Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. In Mere Christianity, Lewis quotes MacDonald, who wrote, “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

Each word I spoke from the podium just seeped from a reservoir I never knew I had. The words weren’t just for the men, but it was for me.. Here I am thinking God is using me to change the hearts of the men all the while he was transforming mine. And that’s what the passage above meant to me. When I gave my life to Christ, I allowed God into my heart for the first time. I knew there were things to be fixed—the rotted wood of my foundation, the leaky pipes, the holes in the roof. My life after Emmaus has been God doing the house mending. But like MacDonald says, I was looking for the comfortable life. I wanted what I thought all Christians had—a life of ease and joy.

It’s funny what I project onto others. Just because I became a Christian didn't mean I swore off the lenses on which I viewed the world. The congregants that sat around me seemed so much “put together” than I was but I chalked that up to Christian maturity. I'll get there someday, I thought. I’ll be that elder that some young guy will look up to. I’ll have that look! You can see the family cat just getting ready for that chest pumper to open up his luggage!

I have heard time and time again that “God gives you only what you can handle.” It’s one of those Christian-ese sayings that make as much sense as hedges of protection, travel mercies and taking Bible quotes out of context. But God doesn’t want us to just “handle” life. MacDonald compares that to our “decent little cottage.” I so want the decent little cottage. But God is into big and bold. He’s building a palace! A palace takes new additions, a breaking down of walls, and a new blueprint. He’s the ultimate contractor.

So I had a chance once again to lay down my failures at the cross that weekend at Emmaus. Who else could take these chains? I took a realistic look at my 2015. Why was I still making these same mistakes? Why didn’t I believe in myself? Laying that failure down is giving the contractor of my life full reign to do what He desires. My life wasn't made for me just to handle, it was made to radically live out God’s plan.

I don’t know where that path will take me. Already I have a renewed vigor for my family. I haven't viewed porn for almost 3 weeks and I am making the needed heart adjustments to stave off my thoughts of lust (which is just another form of idol worship!). The Spirit has been at work, that's for sure. All the new, bold steps I took for God during this babe-in-Christ season was a step into the unknown—mission trips, work camps, facilitating classes, etc. I can't wait to see what He will do with this unqualified, broken, failure of a man. What he sees is a blueprint for success. It’s what He sees in all of us. Take that scary step, dear reader, into what he wants for you.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Cost of Nuetrality

Nothing really prepares you for teaching. This is a multi-faceted remark that envokes more than just one person's philosophy or pedagogy. It was obvious I needed more fine tuning of my classroom management when I first began teaching more than 10 years ago. I also had to work on my delivery, as yelling was my preferred method of control. Now many years later and I do not recognize the teacher I have become. I barely recognize the students.

My first teaching assignment was at Broadleigh Elementary. It is an east side school here in Columbus, nestled between the airport, a ghetto, an affluent Jewish community and a trailer home for immigrants and their families. It was a unique school environment, one in which provided the training ground for my methods and attitudes to be tested. My biases had to be melted away one by one. There were no teaching manuals or skills sessions that could have prepared me for the barriers we all faced.

When most problems arose, I yelled. When students stole from one another, I yelled at them. When they misbehaved in the bathroom or in the halls, I chewed them out. When they got into fights at recess, I got into their faces. I'm sure the Lord was looking at me and thinking, "I wonder if Reynaldo understands the irony of the situation." Especially when it came to bullying.

My first experience with bullying was with a student from Mauritania. He knew no English and had no background in schooling. Back home in his country, when students went to school, he stayed in the village and played soccer or ran with the boys. He could scribble, bob his head up and down and used a variety of simple phrases to get his point across. Two boys in room decided he was a vulnerable target. They harassed him in the bathroom and teased him at recess. Once I finally got wind of what was going on, I handled the situation like I handled all the others--I yelled. I made sure the bully boys had an audience when I did so. It was a rant so epic that I had one of them in tears. Teaching a bully not to bully by being the biggest bully of them all. Now that takes some special training! In a strange twist of fate, one of the boys in question moved. I used it as a way to conveneintly assert my authority. "Oh, you know what happened to Sam? He was expelled for bullying. Don't let it happen to you." I even had a student who contradicted that claim, saw Sam at the mall or something. "Mr. C, he said he moved." "When you get expelled youre not supposed to talk about it with anyone." Case dismissed.

So now what do I do in these situations? Just like then, the word bullying and the actual act of bullying resides in that grey area that's hard to pinpoint or evaluate. Everyone thinks they are being bullied. I always thought bullying was a continual and habitual teasing and threatening of someone over a course of time. I never considered what the kids do today as bullying. When you're making fun of one another's mothers, or your sarcastic comment about someone's shoes is met with the same sarcastic comment, it's not bullying--at least not to me. LGBTQ advocates used the word "bullying" as a way to garner sympathy to the effect it was having on gay and lesbian teenagers who were committing suicide at an alarming rate. What were we doing or saying to these children that was causing them to seek suicide as a solution? Christians took some heat too, as if we were the reason why these particular subset of kids were killing themselves. Had we been using the Bible to scare kids into conformity? Were we saying all the right things but secretly our fear and ignorance was being displayed on social media platforms. These kids who would normally go home to their safe environment were now being harassed 24/7.

Every counselor earned their pay on anti-bullying campaigns, posters, assemblies and lunch groups. There were Bully Free Zones set up in schools nationwide. People were beginning to have the conversation, and much of it was met with excuses.

Kids just need to have thicker skin.
I was made fun of when I was a kid and I did alright.
These kids today are pansies. Pussies. Faggots. Whiners. Anti-American pinko commies.

But kids were still killing themselves. And it wasn't just the gay kids. It was kids who you never thought would have been the target--popular kids, athletes, "normal" kids. It wasn't just the overweight girls we picked on, or the junior high girl who was called a slut just because she had a cup size, or the geeky spaz, the nerd. You know I was raised on a culture of movies that made it seem like making fun of nerds, spazzes, geeks and fat girls was okay. Revenge of the Nerds. Porky's. Ferris Bueller. Sixteen Candles. They all had their moment when we laughed at Joan Cusack (she seemed like she was in all of them!) for wearing a back brace or head gear for braces. But these students of mine have not seen these movies. Those movies are foreign to them. So why is the teasing and bullying so prevalent now than ever before?

Last week I reached out on Facebook on behalf of a student who has been a target all her life. She's the type of girl I would have made fun of when I was a kid. Listening to her story, I sensed more than just the usual they-won't-leave-me-alone phrases. I sensed a girl who was really hurting.

Mr. C, how can in just ignore it when it happens everyday?
My mom says their just jealous, just tell them "jelly" and walk away, but it doesn't work.

What was I to say? All the books and manuals are silent when it comes to these conversations you're having with a 5th grade girl, holding her hand while she cries. There's no chapter for that, no appendix. A girl who understands that fighting back isn't the only answer and that sometimes there are ramifications for those actions. Tough people like to tell me, "Let them fight it out. One punch to the bully's face and it'll stop." They were not raised in an environment where kids film other kids getting beat up on the street corner. They weren't raised where parents are not monitoring what their kids are doing, or simply don't care enough to realize what's really happening.

I looked at a blog almost two years ago. It barely mentioned one of my group lessons on staying neutral during conflict. I helped the kids understand that when Hitler came into power during WWII, there were those that suffered tremendously, too long, until other countries stepped up. Some countries joined Germany, like Italy under Mussolini. Japan took advantage of the situation to usurp their dominance by bombing Pearl Harbor. Other countries were helpless, like Poland. Other smaller European countries were waiting for England and America to pick up the fight. But Switzerland was something different. They remained neutral, but historians have proven that Switzerland had an interesting role. They refused Jewish refugees and continued to hold bank accounts for Nazi's. In a sense, these actions and inactions allowed Germany to reign with an iron fist.

I know this is a simplistic view of a complicated situation. But the point was made. When your classmates are being made fun of, are you remaining neutral, are you joining in or are you fighting back? So many of today's kids laugh when someone is made fun of. When my girl walks up in line, I have seen pockets of them move away like she smells, or that her presence alone is something of a disease. At lunch, they act like sitting on her row is something akin to washing a leper's feet. And all the while, the Switzerland's of the class watch it and do nothing. They know it's wrong, but to say something, especially when some of the hecklers are friends, would mean they too would lose something.

This conversation opened up the floodgates. Many of my Switzerland's wrote me notes and objected to excluding them from the Bully Free Zone lunch table later that afternoon. How many times has your classmate been made fun and you sat there and did nothing? My bullies claimed to be made fun of themselves. One bully said she didn't want to be one any longer, cried at my desk. Other kids wrote me letters that they had been teased too, thought about suicide. My principal thinks my students haven't made adequate progress when it comes to their test scores, and I'm in a sea of depression, wondering how I can counsel them through this time.

This saga is not finished. After posting on Facebook, I have several options I can now bring to the table to help this young lady. There's martial arts courses, church groups, middle school options and peer groups. The fight isn't over but I feel like I have more to offer. Yelling at the bullies isn't working anymore, if it ever did. These are a new breed of kids, ones who don't have work the empathy of their predecessors. If I can change the heart of one student, and provide a path to salvation for another, I can sleep at night. No test scores will matter in the end.