True Love and the Tides

When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity -- in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern. The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now.

--Anne Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

I'm not sure how I made it through a decade of marriage without these words. But I'm grateful to have them now.

The Classroom in Cinema

It's a strange thing, as a teacher, to have time on your hands, but it so happened that during a recent free period, I had nothing to grade, plan or print. So I reached for the huge stack of educational articles I have been meaning to wade through all year. At the top of the pile was the annual AATF review, including articles in both French and English. I flipped through it at random and became engrossed in a piece about a recent Quebecois film, Monsieur Lazhar, about an Algerian emigre who fills in as a substitute teacher. Although the article concerned the use of formal and informal address between teachers, colleagues and students, I found myself so interested in the characters that I sat down that night and watched it.

Later, as credits rolled up the screen and tears rolled down my face, I thought about how many dozens of movies I had seen about teachers. Some have been good and some very, very bad. Just for fun, I made a list. 

Good: these movies are not only realistic in their depictions of classroom struggles, but they are also inspiring and uplifting -- even when they're tragic. 

  • Butterfly: Although the politics of the era in which it's set (the Spanish Civil War) heavily influence this movie, it remains for me a story about the profound wonder that makes education so beautiful and necessary.
  • Dead Poets Society: I still remember sitting in shocked silence with my best friend in high school after having watched this movie. It had such an effect on us, especially because of our interest in the arts. Robin Williams manages a completely, disarmingly honest portrayal.
  • Monsieur Lazhar: As a fairly strict teacher myself, I appreciated Lazhar's high expectations of his students (he has them practice dictation from Balzac on the very first day; they're in the third grade.) Of course, they come to appreciate his desire to see greatness in them, just as he comes to appreciate their forthright affection.
  • The School of Rock: This may seem an odd choice, but Jack Black is completely convincing as an awful substitute teacher whose students end up teaching him how to educate them. It's also a fantastic, if unrealistic, advertisement for project-based learning!
  • The Wave: Based on a novella I read in grade school, this German film examines the sobering possibility that a new Nazi Party is just one ideologue away. The teacher who starts the experiment, although he fails in many ways, gives his students an invaluable lesson in the sinister power of solidarity.
  • To Be and To Have: In a tiny town in rural France, a one-room schoolhouse is about to shut down. Modern amenities notwithstanding, I could have been watching a dramatization of Little House on the Prairie. It was inspiring to watch education unfold the old-fashioned way.

Bad: don't waste your time here; these are the same tired Chicken Soup for the Soul cliches you've already heard too often.

  • Akeelah and the Bee: The main character was really adorable, and Laurence Fishburne cannot turn in a bad performance, but it was just too trite to enjoy.
  • Children of a Lesser God: I had such high hopes for this film about a hearing teacher at a school for the Deaf, but again, I felt it was trite, especially the affair between the professor and student. (Sorry for the spoiler. No, not really. Now you don't have to watch it.)
  • Freedom Writers: I am making it a personal goal to warn lovers of this movie and / or book that it's NOT ALL TRUE. Students in her class did keep journals, but they edited them as a group, placing emphasis on powerful writing rather than truth. I will never understand what makes people desire to blend fact and fiction. Also, Hillary Swank just comes off as insincere: um, what happened to that husband she moved to LA with?!
  • Mr. Holland's Opus: Could Richard Dreyfus ever be a teacher? No. The end.
  • To Sir, With Love: My cousin and I watched this with our moms when we were young. I actually liked it right up until the end when one of the characters sings an ORIGINAL SONG by the same title as the movie. I'm feeling sick just remembering that awful moment.
  • Good Will Hunting: Robin Williams is a caricature of himself in this movie. Not to mention, the distillation of an entire profession into one simple, repeated question that magically causes an emotional breakthrough?! (I think this is a real improvement.)

Unqualified: although these are not movies about teachers in the classroom, they are compelling enough that you should watch them anyway!

  • Lean on Me: There are plenty of cliches here, too, but Morgan Freeman has enough memorable lines to redeem it, and I'm partial to the true-to-life story that's close to my church home. Bonus: the faculty meeting that ends with the kind of verbal dressing-down most teachers dream of delivering.
  • Waiting for Superman: The only movie that ever inspired two blog posts, it is more about the educational system than education itself -- but still, everyone should watch it, because if you think you're not a part of that system in some way, you're dead wrong. 
  • Spellbound: This movie is actually a complex character study cleverly disguised as a documentary. The only downside is the knowledge that, out of eight charming children, only one will win the National Spelling Bee -- and truly, you are rooting for them all.
  • The King's Speech: Out on a technicality, because an SLP is not the same as a classroom teacher, the recent Best Picture is one of the few winners that actually deserved that honor. Geoffrey Rush is transcendent, and Colin Firth is maybe even more attractive with a speech impediment than as his normal brooding self.
  • The Life of David Gale: A bold political statement about capital punishment, this sleeper is only tangentially about a wrongfully-accused college professor. Kevin Spacey doing his in-your-face Kevin Spacey thing, and Kate Winslet being the luminous, visceral presence she always is, makes the film riveting to the last moment.
  • Rushmore: I am sorry I waited so long to see this movie about a bizarre love triangle between two teachers and a student. I thought I wouldn't like it. I was so wrong; in fact, it opened the floodgates to a long, torrid affair with Wes Anderson's work. Bill Murray is inimitable. Jason Schwartzman redefines precocious. Be ye not so foolish: watch it now!

Cheerleaders, Not Helicopters

Well, isn't this something:

When we examined whether regular help with homework had a positive impact on children’s academic performance, we were quite startled by what we found. Regardless of a family’s social class, racial or ethnic background, or a child’s grade level, consistent homework help almost never improved test scores or grades. Most parents appear to be ineffective at helping their children with homework. Even more surprising to us was that when parents regularly helped with homework, kids usually performed worse. 

I can't say I'm surprised. At the high school level, many of my students regularly receive help from their parents, and the results are frequently negative:

  • Parents complain that the work is too hard or the assignments are unclear. Since they have never attended my class or received my feedback, I can see why they think so! But, likewise, I find this kind of criticism unfair. I would much rather hear from my students.
  • The corrections parents make to their children's work are often incorrect. In particular, they have a predilection for the passive voice (e.g., "Edgar Allan Poe is known for his impressive writing,") which I have made it my mission to eradicate in student writing.
  • If students assume their parents will be helping them with their assignments, they will put forth less effort in communication, time management and locating resources -- the three main components of a successful homework assignment.

The article goes on to say that parents can be great motivators, and that they should go out of their way to communicate the value of education to their children -- insisting they keep their grades up, limiting leisure and extracurricular activities during the school year, and choosing schools where their children will be able to succeed with hard work and determination. But this helicopter parenting, in which parents are constantly communicating with teachers about their nearly-adult children, is detrimental to all three parties -- children, parents and teachers.

As Robinson and Harris conclude, "What should parents do? They should set the stage and then leave it."


Grudgingly Vegan

Although Lent is first and foremost a time for spiritual growth, there is no ignoring the practical reality of 49 days without animal products. (Curiously, shellfish are allowed, most likely because ancient Christians considered them one step above insects. Fish with backbones are permitted on two days.) We don't eat a ton of meat, but I do miss the freedom to exercise the option, and I eat eggs, cheese and yogurt nearly every day. It's difficult to plan around this without overindulging in the permitted luxuries of flour and sugar. But, over the years, I have come up with a few standbys that I can pretty reliably enjoy:

Easiest (Someone else cooks)

  • Chipotle's Sofritas salad. If I add guacamole, I can barely finish the whole thing.
  • Mussels, preferably from Victoria
  • Falafel (current favorite, Nora's, is Armenian-owned!)
  • Shrimp Ceviche from the Mexican restaurant I just discovered EIGHT BLOCKS away
  • Any Thai curry: also fairly easy to make, but then it would jump to the next list.

Medium (Under an hour)

  • Roasted cauliflower with tahini sauce; green salad on the side
  • Kimchi rice (Trader Joe's sells it frozen) with stir-fried baby bok choy
  • Turkish lentil soup with French carrot salad
  • Quinoa tossed with cucumber, avocado, tomato and a preserved-lemon dressing
  • Curried tofu salad over arugula (I add chopped apples and grated carrots)

Hard (but worth it, if there's time)

  • Hummus, Mahammra and Baba Gannouj from this book
  • Gypsy Beans (I like to serve them over spinach as an entree)
  • Asian Shrimp Salad (this is not difficult, but involves a lot of prep as it's served with a platter of fresh vegetables, herbs, rice noodles and fruit.)
  • Vegetarian Pho (the broth takes awhile, but I make a ton, so subsequent meals are faster)
  • Broccoli Aglio e Olio (technically this is not Lenten because of the anchovies, but it is amazing. You absolutely must use Aleppo pepper.

Having a list like this is comforting for that point in the fast when absolutely nothing besides bacon sounds appetizing. Now, if I can just remember that I posted it next year . . . 

On Taking Your Own Advice

I had a wonderful conversation today with a new friend who recently began teaching. She had a bad week, almost quit and called me to talk. Her words were so familiar that hearing them was like hearing myself a decade ago.

After listening with complete empathy, I replied, in essence:

  • The devil sows confusion. Whenever there is hearsay or gossip or implication, there is room for misinterpretation and divisiveness, the enemies of progress. Do your best to cling to the truth and to let everything else fall away.
  • Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young. They will, St. Paul notwithstanding, but you must dismiss their criticisms. Age does not guarantee maturity.
  • When people say cruel things, they often speak out of envy. A young, talented, wise leader is a target for all kinds of hateful comments. Pray for those people, remembering the worst things you have said with a jealous heart.
  • If your supervisors really wanted you to leave, they would have asked you to leave. Instead, they have said that they're proud of the work you're doing and that they believe God has called you to minister here. Write down as much as you can remember of those positive, encouraging thoughts they gave you. Re-read them anytime you are feeling persecuted. They are the reality of your situation. The rest just doesn't matter.
  • Remembering David Foster Wallace's words about worship, choose to worship God and to view yourself as He sees you -- flawed and struggling, but always with your eyes fixed on Him.

After talking with her for several hours, we hung up both feeling deeply nourished: helping is at least as gratifying as being helped. It occurred to me later that what I said was very good advice, but that none of it was my own; reading back over it, I can hear my mother, my priest, several dear friends and my extraordinarily wise husband. 

It also occurred to me that, if I took my own advice, I would be a much more joyful, loving and Christ-centered person. Not a bad thing to learn this week, halfway through Great Lent.

Lent, Anew

This is my seventeenth Lent as an Orthodox Christian -- which means I have now been Orthodox for longer than I was not Orthodox. But this is the first year I have really looked forward to Lent. I know I need it. My life feels out of balance, drifting, directionless, turned inward. I crave the peace that comes from humility, that only the most focused, demanding spirituality can provide. I think of Saydeh's words: "Lent is a joy." Yes.

Last week I rediscovered the Audio Bible I bought for Rob years ago. I decided to start it from the beginning. At first I found Jon Sherberg's voice uncannily dramatic, distracting. But after the first handful of chapters, I didn't hear his voice at all -- just the stories. Wow. It's been decades since I heard some of them, and it's as if I'm hearing them for the first time. They floated back to me in clumps as we sang the Canon of St. Andrew last week:

  • I have rivaled in transgression Adam the first-formed man, and I have found myself stripped naked of God, of the eternal Kingdom and its joy, because of my sins.
  • The Lord once rained down fire from heaven and consumed the land of Sodom. O my soul, flee like Lot to the mountain, and take refuge in Zoar before it is too late.
  • Leah is action, for she had many children; and Rachel is knowledge, for she endured great toil.  For without toil, O my soul, neither action nor contemplation will succeed.
  • Once Joseph was cast into a pit, O Lord and Master, as a figure of Thy Burial and Resurrection.  But what offering such as this shall I ever make to Thee?
  • David, the forefather of God, once sinned doubly, pierced with the arrow of adultery and the spear of murder. But thou, my soul, art more gravely sick than he, for worse than any acts are the impulses of thy will.
  • I have put before thee, my soul, Moses' account of the creation of the world, and after that all the recognized Scriptures that tell thee the story of the righteous and the wicked.  But thou, my soul, hast followed the second of these, not the first, and hast sinned against God.

About halfway through the 90-minute service on Tuesday, I finally started to pray, really pray. And just then, I caught the eye of a tiny baby who was nestled in a blanket on the floor, on the other side of the wooden lectern where my music rested. As I bowed and reached for the floor with my fingertips, she gave me the full-body smile only a baby can deliver, and I had to smile back. There is joy, too, even in the midst of repentance. Maybe the repentance is what brings the joy in the first place.


What Abraham Meant

And besides all this –

Besides wars and floods,

Besides illness and death,

Besides storms and earthquakes,

Besides random and orchestrated violence,

Besides the sinister, rippling presence of evil,


Between us and you –

Between east and west,

Between young and old,

Between shunned and shunning,

Between fruitful and barren,

Between colored and colorless,


A great chasm has been fixed.

In the passive voice:

We don't know who fixed it,

or why,

or how.

Just that it’s been fixed.


In order that those who would pass –

Would transcend difference,

Would accept a new perspective,

Would warm stone and soften iron,

Would build ladders and weave bridges,

Would step outside of their other-ness,


From here to you –

From then to now,

From imprisoned to free,

From stuck to inspired,

From rocky to smooth,

From one to two to ten,


May not be able –

Able to embrace,

Able to understand,

Able to smile bravely,

Able to foster renewal,

Able to see through the fog,


And none may cross –

None of the lonely,

None of the trapped,

None of the repentant,

None of the ordinary,

None of the suffering,


From there to us.