from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Monday, May 22, 2006

A Very Merry Unbirthday ..... 

I have always been very fond of the song from the Mad Hatter’s Party from the film on Alice in Wonderland. After all, we have 264 ( or 365) of these to celebrate each year. Today is the last unbirthday of this my 60th year. I have just a few thoughts I wish to offer today. Since most who will encounter this will not commemorating a natal anniversary, perhaps we can share our celebration of our joint unbirthday. If however you are one of the less than a third of a percent for whom this day is significant, you have my sympathies, for you share the day with Richard Wagner, whose music may be glorious but who as a person was not particularly nice. Still, that lets you give the day more honor on your own account.

For the rest of us, please join me in my brief reflection. Tomorrow I will offer a different kind of reflection, but for now let me like Scarlett O’Hara and not worry about tomorrow.

Each morning when we awaken we are offered an opportunity. It can be a day of blessing or a day of cursing. Unlike most of my unbirthdays, I will have far more time to reflect today than usual, even though as a Monday it is a school day. In Maryland today commences our week of mandatory High School Assessments. We will offer tests the next four days. Today will be English, with our 10th graders being assessed, plus any upperclassmen who have not previously sat for the test. Since the other seniors are now finished except for graduation exercises, the only students I will see in 5 of my classes are about 3 juniors total, I will not be teaching. Students will be tested periods 1-5, and eat lunch period 6. My last class is period 7 (out of 8), but I cannot really impose instruction on the 16 who will be present. I will listen to music, read, and reflect.

On the one hand today will be a blessing. There will be no stress whatsoever. And yet I delight in interacting with my students, so there will be some sadness that I will not have that opportunity. It will be a strange day, which will not pass quickly. And yet, I shall enjoy the relaxed nature. I prefer to focus on the opportunity for reflection, so that will be a blessing.

Tomorrow I will see those students not sitting for Algebra. Most of my AP students will show, which will keep my morning busy. Wednesday is our course, Government, and all but two of the students in my first 5 classes will be taking the test, one class in a room with me supervising. For Thursday’s biology test I will see a pattern like today - about half of my students will be out of class. For those two days I cannot really instruct, although tomorrow will be one last time to answer any questions or concerns they may have about the Government test and Thursday can be used to debrief.

This is the last year that this test will not have high stakes. For now the graduation requirement is that students pass the course and sit for the test. Their scaled score will appear on their transcripts, but that meaningless piece of information has no real consequences for them. How they do does affect our school, and to a degree defines how much flexibility I and the other teachers are allowed. We traditionally have scores significantly higher than any other school in our district. I will be shocked if any of my AP students does not reach the cut score, and probably 70-75% of the regular students will pass as well, with those not achieving success correlating heavily with those who do not do the assigned work. I know that they have hd the opportunity to be well prepared, so I won’t obsess over how they do. Not this year. I could be looking ahead 12 months and worrying about next year’s students, but that would take away the pleasure of this year, so I will not. And that test is two days away, on my first unbirthday of my 61st year, so concern now is inappropriate, and would be a futile expenditure of emotional resources, since there is little I can do about it now.

How does one celebrate an unbirthday? Or put another way, borrowing form the Pesach liturgy of Judaism, why is this day different from all other days? I don’t yet know, although I am sure it will be different, just as each of my students is different. Think about that for a moment - I teach 153 students, and were they all to show up each of the 180 school days, I would have something over 27,000 student-day encounters each academic year. If in a class of 30 one student is out the dynamics of that class are changed, however subtly. Given field trips, illnesses, college visits, athletic events, the possible mix within one classroom is amazing. And even if every day all the students show up, they are different, each with one additional day’s experience brought with them to our joint encounter. And I am different, because my life has been enrich with another day’s experience: whatever I have read, what I have been able to reflect upon and process form the previous day, whatever i encounter in the few hours between when I awaken and students walk into my classroom.

Those of you reading this have most likely encountered it on a blog largely devoted to politics. In our political concerns we too often are consumed by our focus on a specific forthcoming event, or obsessing about what could have been different about some event in the past, even if in the latter case we avoid the quicksand of elaborate conspiracy theories. Those professionally involved in the political process, as many of us at least in part are, often find our days consumed with minutiae of campaigning, fund raising, legislating, communicating, and so on. Some candidates may find they have little time for any reflection. Perhaps this is a day for phoning -- make 50 calls to potential contributors. Or perhaps there are 6 events in 5 different towns during the space of 12 hours. How is this day different from all other days, you might well ask with a certain sardonic quality. It is as different as you allow it to be. One can have a “stump speech” or a set of “talking points” for any subject that might arise. One can then be smooth in one’s response to questions and challenges. And I think one will fail to connect with the questioner and the other listeners. It is possible to offer precisely the same information but to do so in a fashion that invites those being addressed in, which acknowledges their presence,which honors the uniqueness of the interchange.

I teach the same courses 3 times each (my AP and non-AP classes are quite different in content). In previous years I have on occasion had 6 classes covering roughly the same content, then only real difference being the skill level of the students. I could easily approach teaching the way I see some politicians approach their public encounters -- how can I minimize the preparation so that I can “get through” what on the surface appears a numbing series of near-identical encounters. And we can approach our unbirthdays in a similar fashion -- yet another in a series of never-ending workdays. Our minds will not be completely in the present, but instead will be thinking back on what we could have done differently, or looking ahead to something we value more. And thus we will miss something of great value, even a pearl of great price. Every encounter, every moment, can potentially enliven our existence, enlighten our mind, inspire our hearts. But only if we are present to the possibility, only if we are willing to be vulnerable to the persons we encounter in each absolutely unique situation.

This understanding of the need to be present is a major part of many spiritual traditions. In Christianity we can read of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, or perhaps we can reflect upon the Rule of St. Benedict, where we are urged to treat the ordinary implements of the garden or kitchen with the same respect we tender towards the sacred vessel of the altar. Those of a Buddhist persuasion have the concept of mindfulness, especially emphasized in teaching of exemplars like the Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Ngat Hanh. Or we might reflect upon the words offered by Jacob after his dream of the ladder full of ascending and descending angels that “God was in this place and I did not know it.”

I am talking about something that may seem simplistic -- that each day, each encounter, each moment, is absolutely unique. But true simplicity is something difficult for most of us. Instead of opening ourselves to the possibilities that present themselves to us, we complicate by attempting to analyze, to weigh benefits, to understand as things are happening what it means. In the process we often miss the true experience available to us.

Please note, I am not arguing against reflection. This essay exemplifies my strong belief in the importance of each of us taking the time for reflection. But to that process I would apply the same advice -- when doing reflection, do so with attention, with focus, and open oneself to that experience.

As a teacher I am often operating on multiple levels. I rarely have the luxury of complete attention to one aspect of what is occurring in my classroom. I must be aware of the passage of the period and make choices constantly on whether to move on or to remain on an issue just raised. I am able to do this only because I remain open to what is happening around me, and not solely focused on getting through the material. While this may seem contradictory to the idea of the practice of the present moment, it is in fact its very essence. Nothing occurs in isolation, and were I shut down my senses to ‘avoid distraction” I might well miss the truly teachable moment that leads to real understanding.

Most who read this will consider themselves neither as teachers nor as students, although each of us is constantly cycling between the two roles, and sometimes in the same interaction is both simultaneously. But I grant that the formal description of the role we fulfill may lead us to believe that we have a responsibility to shut certain stimuli, that it might be irresponsible or rude were we to do otherwise. Perhaps, and I acknowledge that I am subject to such demands upon my attention and energy. After all, in this writing about today’s unbirthday I am also reflecting on tomorrow’s celebration of 60 years of life and the test on the following day. Recognizing and honoring the uniqueness of each moment does not mean that we ignore interconnectedness -- how would we know something is unique unless we could also see it in the context of other moments, on the surface perhaps greatly similar? We bring to each encounter the knowledge and experience of the past, and the awareness of the probable future (for we do not know what that will entail). I am suggesting that even as we recognize the interconnectedness, the ongoing flow of time and experience. we leave ourselves open to the absolute uniqueness -- of each moment to be sure, but of each person in that moment, including ourselves.

My favorite Talmudic tale is of Rabbi Eliezer, who was asked when a man should repent. His response was that a man should repent on the day that he dies. But, he was then asked, what man knows the day of his death. His response was that the questioner had grasped the essential point of his remark, and it was precisely why one should repent each day, because I might be the day of his death.

I have spent much of this year reflecting upon my life, past, present and possible future, because tomorrow will mark a significant birthday, my 60th. And yet, as Rabbi Eliezer would remind me, and as an Epicurean would surely state to justify his focus on wringing the last possible enjoyment of the present, tomorrow may never come. I have little control of the possibility of tomorrow. I am aware of its potential, as I should be. But I have 17 hours left of today, of this, my final unbirthday of my 60th year. Were I totally focused on the celebration of the morrow, I would deprive myself of the possible celebratory moments of today. I might miss the unique experience open to me because in my first period I will have very few students.

I do not claim wisdom. The experience of 60 years can be enriching and offer the opportunity of openness and wisdom. But it can also serve as an excuse for closing oneself off, it can be depriving because of the parsimonious attitude of one who sees life as hostile, and threatening, and wants to hold everything close.

Imagine that you like Alice have now gone through the looking glass. You are at a tea party. This is not the Twilight Zone. It is an opportunity. You can enjoy and celebrate, or you can decide that the festivities over which the Mad Hatter is presiding do not include you. You can reject the opportunity to celebrate with the vast majority of your fellows this common occasion. I choose celebration. Today includes us all. For a few of you, I offer you my wishes for a very happy birthday, and many happy returns.

For the rest, at this moment I cease to be teacherken and temporarily assume my alter ego of being more than a little nuts, as my students are fond of noting. I temporarily assume my persona as the Mad Hatter and invite you to join in:

“A very Merry Unbirthday, to us, to us.
A very Merry Unbirthday, to us.”

Whether birthday or unbirthday, may your day day be rich and joyous.


Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.
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