Hiding in the Secret Attic of School

Sixty five years after the anniversary of Anne Frank’s death in Bergen Belsen,  the young girl remains a teenager forever, her memory kept alive by the millions who  read her story.
My 9th grade English class try to comprehend the atrocity of world history. We not only analyze the Holocaust ; we also visit a concentration camp. « It is so depressing, » Invariably students say, « why do we have to study. This ? »  Yet, painful as it may be  a young minds, we must bear witness  to the past.
I told the class that they could ever play a game by my rules or  take a test. « The game starts when we walk outside this door.  No talking.  If you speak, you will be sent back to the class room.  Bring your journal and a pen; leave everything else in the room. » 
Single file, 18 students followed me down the hall, up two flights of stairs and down a narrow passageway under the sloping roof of the old building.  I unlocked the door to an empty room, no bigger than a boxcar.  When I close the shutters on the dormer windows, I say, »This is like the black out of houses during WWII bombings. We are in the secret attic of the school.  Write a descriptive piece using all five senses.  You can imagine you are writing a journal entry during the Holocaust, you can invent a story of the Swiss hiding from their French neighbors, former oppressors, or you can pretend the teachers turned against students and I am  hiding you to save you from being taken away.  You have to survive one class period in without a sound. »
Students slouched against the sloping walls.
A couple boys scuffled  over the three wooden chairs.  Others lay on the floor.  Only the rustle
of paper and pens scratching across the lines breaks the eerie silence.  No one spoke.  Even my hyperactive drummer boy stopped tapping. 
The air was hot and stuffy from too many bodies crowded into too small of space, squeezed
so close together our elbows touched. I felt like I was suffocating.
My thirteen-year old students were the same age as Anne Frank when she went into
hiding.  How different their lives?  Affluent kids from privileged backgrounds dressed in designer jeans and shirts, feet clad in various name brand of tennis shoes in rainbow colors.  My six girls, a minority, stopped writing occasionally to brush their long, luxurious hair from their bright, inquisitive eyes.
 I glanced around the room at my students -American, British, Czech, French, German, Guadamalean, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Scandinavian, Swiss , Trinidadian, -not long ago we were divided by ideology in a world war.  Allies vs. Nazis, the axis of evil, set to annihilate all but the Aryan race. Today we are classmates and friends at an international school without walls in Switzerland, a neutral country without borders.
« I feel locked, not in a room, but within myself, » one Israeli student wrote. « Even though we are not alone without communication we’re not together. The intense atmosphere of silence can quickly make the toughest mind fragile. »
« I feel oppressed. » wrote another.  « My back hurts  from sitting on the floor.»
I cannot help but compare these kids to those of Anne Frank’s time or to my generation coming of age at the heels of the Civil Rights and Women’s movement.  I pods, I pads, Internet, cell phones,
television, today’s teens connected 24/7 by instant messaging and the world wide web.  When was the last time these children listened to silence, turned out the universe and tuned into the self ? 
These multi cultured, multi ethnic, children are our future.  They are the ones who will stop nuclear war, negotiate peace, end terrorism, prevent oil spills and contain other man made disasters with more cooperation, better technology, brighter minds.
And I the aging teacher will become a shadow of the past, a faded memory of an era when I
tried to change lives  the old fashioned way, one idea at a time.

Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks

You can stave off a midlife crisis by following this tried and true advice. Want to turn back the years stay lean and mean, learn something new? How about Downward Dog? Yep, yoga for the flexibility impaired. Never mind that even as a two-year-old, I could never touch my toes. And I have no balance. Though in my mind I define myself an athlete, my body would disagree. I no longer have muscle, so how can they be toned?

During my first yoga lesson, I got stuck. I kept hoping that my instructor would demonstrate an animal or plant shape that I could will my body into. On my belly, back arched, shoulders off the floor: Cobra. Don’t think so. I hate snakes. Hands over head, one foot bent onto knee, balance on one leg. Nope don’t make a good Tree either. Feet and hands on floor, head back, arch back. Bridge, un uh…not for me.

The tenets of yoga insist – go at own pace, never compare yourself to others. I couldn’t help noticing that I was the only salt n pepper haired participant in the group. While young supple bodies around me twisted into pretzel shapes, I remained locked in place like The Tin Man. I peeked at everyone else gracefully posed in a perfect posture, and felt like a loser. It’s hard for old athletes to quit competing.

I still have the ball player build, long and lanky. Ever see a tall Yogi master?Most yogis have the short compact build of gymnasts, not basketball players. Makes sense, the closer to the ground you are, the easier it is touch Mother Earth. My former head of department, a dance specialist, told me 85 % of flexibility is inherited, so we can only improve on that 15%. Go ahead, like everything else, blame it on your parents. It’s genetic.

Remember Gumby? Well I am not Gumby.

My spine has been broken, my feet deformed. My second toes are longer than my big toes, so I clutch land with hammertoes. Just staying upright is challenging. Like a monkey, my crooked toes curl and cling to edge of the yoga mat.

Inhale. Exhale. Right leg back. Inhale. Left leg back. Downward Dog. Exhale Plank. Inhale Cobra. I am sweating, and gasping, and my muscles are trembling and we just started saluting the sun.

The best part is at the end of the lesson. When we finish the session, we lie flat on our back, feet splayed; hands at our sides in the corpse position. Yep, I like this one. I make a good dead body. Only my inhalation and exhalation remind me I am still of this earth. After class, I stand, bow, and float out the door as if otherworldly.

Forget improvements in flexibility, balance, strength, and endurance, at fifty something, I am grateful that I can still breath. I am a good breather. Inhale, exhale. Ommm

I still can’t touch my toes, twist my body into any shape, animal or otherwise, and I am far from enlightenment, but I am starting to feel good about myself.As someone who confuses left from right, north from south and is always lost, the yoga mantra is appealing, “wherever you go, there you are.”

Carpe Diem

As usual, I was moaning about my students, my lumbago, my work load and then I almost lost my bro. Dick was a dead man walking with 99% blockage of not just any old blood vessel, but of the Widow Maker, left anterior descending coronary artery, so named because if the artery gets obstructed the result is usually the Big One, sudden death.

The doctor said that my 54-year-old brother in law has the heart of 70-year-old man and wonders how a man who lives so right, could have a cardiovascular system so wrong. Dick, a non-smoker, exercises daily and eats veggies grown in his own garden. Good habits. Bad genes. His dad died at a massive heart attack with no warning at age fifty-four. Dick’s only warning was strange pain in the neck.

Dick, cheerful, outgoing, athletic, is a wonderful husband and father, a soccer coach, and businessman, who loves the outdoors. He’s always the first to do someone a good turn for no ulterior motive. He donates gallons of blood, gives his Christmas check to the underprivileged and contributes to church and community service projects. A good man.

He’s the kind of guy who takes a thousand pictures of his nephew’s first U.S. college ball game, to capture one perfect shot, so that Nic’s parents in Switzerland could feel a part of that milestone. The guy that buys his in-laws (he named Outlaws) goofy gifts like matching shirts with gaudy fish patterns. That drives 500 miles to surprise a friend. That never forgets a Mother’s Day.

When my sister, Karen, called to explain the crisis, the only time she broke down was when she said, “I would have been lost without Nathalie by my side.” Our daughter, Nat, in her last year of Medical School, moved into Karen and Dick’s basement to help defray expenses. Nat was working ER at the hospital where Dick underwent emergency surgery. Dick, a man of great faith, knows God was watching over him. And Nat was at the right place in the right time doing what she was born do – console, comfort, guide – people through the perils of the medical world, that other planet where they communicate with doctor-speak, another foreign language.

Last week, Dick comforted Nat after a tough day when she came home distraught, after they tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate a Code Blue baby in a case of child neglect. This week, Nathalie held my baby sister’s hand when the cardiologist explained her husband’s alarming test results and requested his living will before the procedure.

Forty-eight hours later, Dick is home with a stent restoring the blood flow to the heart. When people call to wish him a speedy recovery, he doesn’t lament the diseased heart, medical bills, or pills for-the-rest-of-my-life regime; instead, he rejoices in the miracle of being alive.Ever positive and upbeat he tells you, “I guess God still needs me here on earth.” As do his wife, daughters, mom, sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews, in laws and out laws, neighbors and friends.

In the aftermath of almost losing a loved one, we face our own mortality. Dick inspires us; he always lives each moment as though it may be his last. With a broad grin, The Dead Man Walking wraps you in a bear hug and shouts his motto, “Seize the day, Sista!”

Stranded- Flying the the Not So Friendly Skies of Europe

Living with one foot on two continents, I’ve crossed the Atlantic so many times I thought I had encountered every obstacle that exists from the fallout of delayed, detoured, and cancelled flights. I’ve flown through electrical storms, landed in snowstorms and endured turbulence caused by every kind of weather condition, but I’ve never been grounded due to volcanic ash.  When Iceland’s Eyjjafjallajokul Volcano erupted, spewing ash into the stratosphere, European governments not only grounded planes, but also closed airspace.
Flying these days is not for the weak-hearted.  When northerly winds blew a 4-mile high black horizon of volcanic ash across Europe, 17,000 flights were cancelled daily in the past four days leaving roughly 6 million plus passengers stranded.That is almost the entire population of Switzerland or all the residents of Chicago and Houston put together.
The cloud cover, which caused shutdowns in N. Europe bringing Europe’s largest airport, Heathrow, to a standstill for days, has spread as far south as Italy and Spain and east to Russia and Turkey. Within 48hours over 90% of French airports ground to a halt and its southern most terminals closed today.
A triple whammy hit France.  This weekend marks the end of a spring break for one zone of France and the beginning for another zone, leaving millions of families stranded on route to or from somewhere. On top of which workers of the SNCF, French rail system, notorious for staging protests, have been on strikes for the past 11 days.
Now almost all airways over Europe are affected and all airports across Europe are closed, which wreaks havoc far beyond the airline industry.
“I’ve worked at Geneva Airport for 43 years, “ Francois said. “And never seen anything like it. Not only are passengers stuck, but we have nowhere else to store cargo while we wait for trucks to pick up perishable products.”
Chancellor Merkel flew from Washington to Portugal to Italy then drove back to Germany.  She is lucky; a chauffeur is driving her home. The everyday citizen is stuck sleeping in airports, waiting for information, and fighting for tickets on Euro Star, ferry boats, and buses.
Right now no one, not even the experts, can predict when the cloud will dissipate or where it will travel next, perhaps, gradually blowing around the world. Air France, Lufthansa and KLM Airlines have begun test flights to determine the impact volcanic ash can have on plane safety.
Travelers will not only worry about terrorist threats,seasonal storms, bird migration, pilot errors, mechanical failures, and air traffic controller mistakes, we will now wonder when the next volcano might erupt.
My mom said it best,  “We humans think we are so smart, but Mother Nature trumped us all!”
While stranded passengers wait and pray for the big black cloud to disappear, I hope that big bad volcano goes back to sleep, so my college kids and their globetrotting grandparents can fly over in May.

March Madness My Way

Gotta love it! So what if the Americans go a bit bananas over basketball this time of year. What’s not to love about basketball ? I am the biggest fan overseas, though I never fill in the NCAA brackets and rarely know who is rated in the Top 20. I have so many favorites; I always pick a winner. I love the Big Ten, naturlich. I love the overdog, like UConn, and the underdog, like Butler. I love all colors! The red and white of Illinois State, the purple and gold of University Wisconsin- Stevens Point (my daughter’s old team,) the orange and blue of Macalester (my son’s team.)

UWSP women made it to the NCAA Elite Eight. ISU Redbirds got knocked out in the N.I.T. semi finals. I joined the millions checking game results on Internet as soon as my feet hit the floor every morning. And if I burn the midnight oil, I can hook up to the game’s live stats or on-line video (seven hour time difference in Switzerland.)

Every year is filled with drama – broken hearted losers who sacrificed just as much as the ecstatic victors. Everyone anticipates beating the odds, knowing on any given day a Cinderella team can upset the shoo in. That is what makes the Big Dance so exciting.

The way I see it everyone is a winner. In 2010 men follow women’s college ball and boys request female hoop stars’ autographs. Families, friends, neighborhoods, cities and states support female athletes in packed arenas. Today little girls grow up dreaming of starring in their own Final Four.

Yet only yesterday society forbid females’ presence on any playing field. The full court game was considered too strenuous until my former ISU coach, Jill Hutchinson’s, dissertation proved a woman’s heart would not explode by playing 5-on-5 basketball, leading to the official rule change in 1970. Girls never got off the bench, until 1972, when Title IX passed requiring equal opportunity – regardless of race or gender – in publicly funded schools. So what if it took another decade until funding caught up. It’s showtime baby!

We have come a long way from a day when women were relegated to sideline because medical professionals maintained playing sports could cause a girl to collapse in the vapors. Every March along with the players of the day, I applaud the pioneers, coaches like Jill Hutchinson, Vivian Stringer, Pat Summitt, who fought so hard for the rights female college athletes enjoy today.

I have a 54-year-old buddy still kickin’ butts 3 on 3 in Boston, a sister making lay ups in Minneapolis, a daughter shooting hoops between her hospital rounds, a niece in college racing across hills in Wisconsin and a niece in high school playing, get this, tackle rugby.

So go purple, go gold, go, red, white, and blue! Go Pointers, go Redbirds, go Scotts. Go fans. Place your bets. Fill your brackets. I’ll put my money down on a sure thing. Everytime. Women. No one should go home feeling defeated. Win or lose today, women will reign on center court again tomorrow. Go girl! Bring it on. March Madness 2011! Gotta love it !

Nightmares Teaching Today

In theory, teaching looks like the ideal job. All those school holidays. In Europe, every six weeks we have vacation. We even shut down for the week long ski break to hit the slopes. But there is no escape. Even on mountaintops, teachers obsess about how to reach kids. For today’s students, conditioned by instant gratification in a society wired 24/7, attention spans last no longer than 15 seconds, the time it takes to microwave a muffin.

Academic staples like reading, writing, ‘rithmetic? Forget it. Kids learn grammar off twitter, spelling by MSN, and math on calculators.
At conferences, parents plead, “Rescue our child.”How do you save a kid that hates to read and write?   Fill the house with books and unplug TVs.Students that read the most, write best.Children who were read to in homes with books learn to value the old fashioned printed word.At the rate we are going, I fear that reading, like letter writing, will become a lost art!
At my school, report writing requires a special language degree.Every trimester, teachers write novelettes on each child’s progress in all disciplines. Between marking periods, we remain on call available round the clock via email and cell phones.
Teaching is tougher than ever.Even once loved courses, like physical education, are a hard sell.Getting kids to move these days is like pulling teeth. Why put one foot in front of the other when the world beckons at one’s fingertips without budging an inch? Competing with Internet, wifi, and 1001 channels on television screens the size of football fields; teaching has become a losing battle.
In real life drama, people relocate, families’ collapse, loved ones die; educators deal with the fall out.Sh** happens.

Educators fill gaps in a world gone wild. As kids whiz through childhood at a reckless pace during rapid social change, teachers’ roles altered drastically.Information abounds.Yet kids still need adults to help interpret the « info-net. » With more attention deficit kids (i.e. regular children craving adult attention not ADD), never has the need for good teachers been greater, the kind of teacher that lies awake at night concerned about students’ well being.There is no time off.Teachers are always updating lesson plans, grading papers, counseling kids, answering late night phone calls and early morning emails.

Yet the worst part about teaching is not the day, but the night. In endless nightmares, I thrash about, looking for classroom doors, searching for mid term papers, forgetting locker combinations(I don’t even own a locker!) One night I dream that I lost control of a classroom full of ADHD kids while my new principal observed. The next, I am scribbling on the board with my hand severed at the wrist.  Then, I wake up and start over again.After a gulp of coffee, I head back on the front line, saving lives, one lesson at a time.
No child left behind…