Monthly Archives: January 2011

Hold me closer, Tony Danza

Roughly 14 years ago, I was avoiding the front stairwell of my high school because my older brother kindly informed me that freshmen would be pushed to their humiliation or death (synonyms back then) if they dared to tread the steps reserved for upperclassmen.

Just last week, I narrowly escaped being asked for a hall pass during my first day as a student teacher and had to use my lunch bag to clear a path to the classroom.

A friend has predicted that I will become the female Will Schuester of this joint, but if we’re going for Glee characters, I’d give my prime parking space in the student lot to be like Gwyneth Paltrow’s crazypants in “The Substitute” episode. In truth, my high school musical’s opening theme song has proven to be a number I never anticipated.

Since my first concert experience was an Elton John extravaganza with my parents, I guess it should only seem natural that “Tiny Dancer” came to mind as I navigated the building. But to be specific, it was only one line from the song and also one of the most famous misheard lyrics that was on repeat in my head (and continues to be every morning of my commute): “Hold me closer, Tony Danza.”

I’ve yet to see an episode, but apparently the (other) Boss has a reality show out on A&E right now called Teach: Tony Danza. Last year, he spent a year co-teaching a tenth grade English class at Northeast High School in Philadelphia and it was all deliciously caught on camera. A guest speaker tipped me off on the show in one of my grad school classes in December. Intrigued, I did some research and found a Los Angeles Times review of the series the night before I started my student teaching practicum.  Among the highlights of the article:

• Danza cries no fewer than four times in the pilot.

• The boxer-turned-actor-turned-teacher credits President Obama for the career shift.

And this gem:

• “But what Danza does have is a situational humility—not only does he cry with alarming regularity, but he also often appears in early-morning close-up with his snore-strip still in place—and the genuine desire to excel. … The story is focused on his fears and frustrations, his stunning realization that teaching is hard, that wanting to ‘reach’ kids is not enough, and most important, that this job is not about him.”

That last part was the kicker.

In anticipation of this semester, I’ve obsessed over finding the right teacher clothes that won’t make me look like a teacher-teacher but will help me pass for more than a teenager, mourned the return of untimely zits, and worried how I might be perceived by guys and girls nearly half my age. But the reality is that it’s not my turn to survive high school this time, and the stakes are much higher for my students.

In my classroom, I have kids from Nepal, Mexico, Sudan, Thailand, Congo, Vietnam, Pakistan, Tanzania, Iran, and beyond. Some have only been in the country for a month and have had little exposure to English, while others can speak multiple languages with inspiring clarity, charm and creativity. Frustrations can range from checking out a book in the school library due to a language barrier to learning how to negotiate a new culture that prides itself on consumerism.

They don’t care what I’m wearing, and neither should I. They want to hear that I know their name—their native name—and see that I cared to prepare the content of the day to meet their very real needs and aspirations. They’re less concerned about what I have to say and more interested in what I’m willing to hear. If I’m to be effective, I can’t have any pride in the classroom. I have to risk looking like an ass every day and be OK with that. I can’t fit in.

I’d say Here goes nothin, but there goes my superlative in the yearbook.

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MLK

Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t have a dream.

I mean no disrespect with that statement, but it’s true.

He had hope.

That distinction is important and one to which I was only recently introduced while coffee potting my way through a research paper for grad school.

Bonny Norton and Farah Kamal write that in his book, Teaching Against the Grain, Roger Simon “draws the distinction between ‘wishes,’ in which there is no possibility for action, and ‘hope,’ in which action becomes central in the fulfillment of desire.”

Dreams are wild fancies and involuntary visions in which, at most, you can only observe yourself participating, but hope is tied to the belief that change is possible—inevitable—through collective and conscious action. To be hopeful is to be expectant… This will happen.

Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t have a dream; he had hope. He took action. It is up to us to ensure that fight against injustice remains a sustainable movement.

Crazy beautiful

Now that my mind is officially numb to every British television series on Netflix, all household items have been tested for sledding potential, and my re-entry to high school is on an indefinite hiatus, I’d like to dedicate this blog post to the Ice Queen in all of our lives. You know her best as Mother Nature.

Atlanta has been a bit of a Twilight Zone this week. With more than 500,000 residents and 10 snow plows, it doesn’t take flashbacks to my fall semester of starting every morning with a kindergarten dance to The Number Rock to do the math: People have gone crazy.

They’ve abandoned their cars to help push others over hills and on to their destinations.

They’ve forgone television to play cards by the fire or build snow forts and playfully pummel neighbors.

They’ve walked slowly through the streets and actually taken in their surroundings instead of road-raging through the quickest routes that Tom-Tom will take them.

They’ve dressed for the elements instead of for each other.

They’ve paused because there’s nothing else they can do.

They’ve given thanks for the warmth they know isn’t available to all and perhaps even acknowledged the injustice of that and taken steps to change it.

A friend recently posted, “Say what you will about us, Northerners, but there is something humbling about not being able to beat Mother Nature.” I love that southern-fried piece of wisdom and know it applies to more than just this region and level of precipitation.

Across the globe, my favorite Aussie is working to clean up the homes and businesses of fellow Brisbaners who have been blindsided by the flooding in Queensland. She, too, has been a witness to the beautiful madness that the weather is capable of inspiring in us when it seems we’ve grown indifferent to the stories, statistics, and images that already should have moved us to act with compassion and urgency.

I’m not saying we should be nostalgic about natural disasters, but this week has been a good reminder to be mindful of our true status in the scheme of things. We’re specks who are capable of as much good or bad as we want when we choose to amass or disband in the face of adversity.

Crazy can be beautiful, and I mean that in a non-Kirsten Dunst kind of way.

Stop the spinning

When a barrage of status updates, text messages, and holiday cards with families dressed alike were sent out last Friday to herald the arrival of 2011, one post by a friend stood out in particular. He relayed: “January – Janus – Janus is the Roman god of gates and doors, beginnings and endings, and hence represented with a double-faced head, each looking in opposite directions.”

The visual that this bit of mythology inspired seemed appropriate at the time, as it helped explain why I was feeling a lot like Linda Blair from the Exorcist… trying to get a hold of my crazy, spinning head and having trouble knowing exactly where to focus: Should I take stock of what happened in 2010 or list my hopes for the 365 days ahead? How am I supposed to beat Laurel at a game of Scrabble when I repel tiles with vowel letters? Did that first grade teacher really just ask me if I’m 17 years old? Natalie Portman is pregnant?!

Between mental rants, I expressed my frustration over the build-up and pressure that talk of the New Year brings with one of my best friends via Skype. Instead of feeling a sense of possibility and promise, I told her I felt stressed about finding the perfect way to ring in 2011, ready to get through the weekend, and guilty for my inability to get past this funk. This is what she wrote to me: “It’s okay to tell it like it is, however it is… really, it’s all we’ve got time for.”

And last night, as if being visited by a third Ghost of New Year’s, this Scrooge had the good fortune of dining with one of my favorite couples, who among many other reasons are most recently amazing for gifting each other stilts for Christmas. Jill, who is an ICU nurse, talked about how we can be so oblivious to the remarkable things happening within, to, and around us when we’re busy thinking about the past, worrying and planning for the future, or numb to the present. One moment in time holds so much power and can mean so many different things to a host of people and “we’re just not grateful enough,” she said, “for any of it.”

Perhaps that’s not a new thought, but it’s still a beautiful one… especially when set to pictures. Here’s to a year ahead full of MOMENTS and WORDS and to having the curiosity and compassion to find out what they mean to each of us. Check out these videos: