Monday, December 16, 2013

Birthday Poem for Dad

All Bran and Beets
 (Happy Birthday 2013, Dad)

I would not eat the All Bran.
You said, “Sit there until you do.”
I sat. But would not eat.
I was late for kindergarten that day.
You finally brought me to school when it was painting time.
I walked away from you as I heard you explain to the teacher,
“A battle of wills.”
I thought I had won.

I would not eat the beets.
You said, “Sit there until you do.”
I sat. But would not eat.
Everyone left the table.
I finally took a bite because I wanted to watch Happy Days.
You came in baffled when I was finishing the plate.
“I like them.”
I thought I had won again.

What I won, I would not know.
Until I stood above a small child
And her plate of green beans.
A child who sat. But would not eat.
And I would think fondly
“A battle of wills.”
You made me strong.
Which made her strong.
Which means we all win.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Year Without A Thanksgiving: A Speech

     The following speech was given on Monday, November 25th at the Annual Ranney School NHS Induction and Thanksgiving ceremonies.
First of all, I want to thank Mr. Zanowski and let you all know how honored I feel to be asked to speak today. However, when Mr. Zanowski asked me to speak, little did he know that I’ve actually been contemplating and reflecting about this holiday since 1981, which, for me, became the year without a Thanksgiving. I was a sophomore in high school, my older sister a senior. I was hyper-involved in activities like marching band and technical theatre, so Thanksgiving came upon us all somewhat unaware due to the chaos of the Fall term. That may seem familiar to some of you. My parents were equally busy handling not only two teenaged daughters but also my 10 year-old brother and our two-year-old sister. It was Thanksgiving morning and we were unaccustomed to the melee that ensued with all of us home at the same time. I am not sure what the initial argument stemmed from, perhaps not wanting to go to the in-laws for dinner, someone forgetting to unload the dishwasher, the other someone not appreciating the first someone, but my parents were in an increasing state of dissent. Without over-revelations, suffice it to say, that my older sister and I had seen enough of the parental dynamics over our short lives to know the ominous outcome was not going to bode well for a Norman Rockwell family dinner that night.
My older sister thought fast and got herself invited to a friend’s house. Her quick thinking paid off because by 3:00 that afternoon, my mother had already stormed up the stairs and slammed her bedroom door tight, simultaneously we heard my dad pull away in the driveway. My sister looked at me and our younger siblings with sympathy for a fleeting moment, but that did not stop her from bolting out the door when her friend’s car honked.
So there I was blinking down at my little brother and sister, thinking, mmm, I don’t think we’re having turkey tonight.  Now, I want you to know, at this moment I was neither distraught nor melancholy. I had prided myself on my existentialist philosophies at that age and was fond of saying “what’s the big deal, it’s just a day like any other day.” In fact, just two days prior I found myself in debate with my US1 History teacher about how fake Thanksgiving seemed to me.  I readily dismissed the trappings of tradition, pomp and ceremony that surrounded birthdays and holidays. Besides I never really liked turkey that much, anyway.
So that night I heated up a can of Campbell’s split pea soup and sat eating quietly with my little brother and sister, thinking smugly to myself, see, who needs Thanksgiving anyway.
My older sister came home a few hours later and I handed off the sibling caretaking duties to her and left the house for a brisk autumn evening walk. And this is where I found myself slipping into my own bizarre nostalgic holiday film scene.
You know the moment I’m talking about:  lonely jaded person walking through the streets, hands stuffed into coat pockets, collar turned up, misty breath swirling out of lungs. Cue: violins or folky acoustic “poor me” ballad.  Lonely person looks from the sidewalk into the warm glow of other people’s homes, seeing smiling faces, imagining the sound of glasses tinkling, of laughter and love. Finally, lonely jaded person realizes the meaning of it all.
For sure, I had some strong emotions on that November night. At first, I was only slightly willing to acquiesce to the idea that Thanksgiving was necessary in any way, but my previous debate with my history teacher began to resonate to me “if you do not celebrate something, you’ve rendered it non-existent.” So when Mr. Semptimphelter put me on the spot that Monday morning,  “So, tell me about your Thanksgiving. . .”  There was an awkward silence.
“I didn’t have one.” And astonishingly to me, my eyes began to well with tears.
Mr. S. furrowed his brow questioningly.
“Yep, I didn’t have one,” and in a sudden epiphany, I added. “And I’m pretty sure I don’t want that to ever happen again.” 
My year without a Thanksgiving taught me to value tradition and celebration as a key human quality. Humans give special meaning to every thing in our lives. I would argue that creating meaning is the essence of humanity. It’s what gives us art and music and poetry. We name things, we establish habits and patterns, we give certain days weight above other days in a calendar. And it is important. It represents a kind of magic, I think. We can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, just because we deem it so.  And this holiday, above other holidays with its emphasis on gratitude weighs heavier in meaning as I often think of the ultimate gifts for which I’m grateful and these are life and the family and friends who continuously shape me in this life.
I’m happy to report that I’ve never gone without a Thanksgiving again. Despite several years living away from my family in other states or foreign countries, I have made an effort to always celebrate this day, even if it has meant sitting in a Japanese KFC with colleagues going around the table with our drumsticks and mashed potatoes expounding upon the things for which we were thankful. My whole family, too, has come to see Thanksgiving as one of the most important holidays in our year. We have taken to a tradition of inviting different people to our house for Thanksgiving each year. And my father has now, at least since 1983 established his own tradition of reading Vermont C. Royster’s  “The Desolate Wilderness” and “This Fair Land” reprinted in the editorial section of the Wall Street Journal annually.  In our family this
has come to be known -- insert full eye roll here – as “The Reading”. And my siblings and I joke that we need to invite new people to Thanksgiving dinner every year, because no one would want to come back a second year, after having to sit through “The Reading”.
I will not indulge in excerpts of this piece, but you’ll see it in the Wall Street Journal this week, as it has been reprinted every Thanksgiving since 1961.  Although if there’s someone out there that knows exactly what I’m talking about, please find me after the assembly, we can commiserate, and know that  you’ll have a standing invitation to my parents’ home for Thanksgiving dinner.
In truth, however, I, personally, love and enjoy “The Reading.” I revel in the tradition, the pomp and ceremony, that surrounds the whole day, but especially this climactic moment after dinner, because it imbues the day with a meaning that becomes increasingly deeper each year as my parents age. The existence of the tradition insures that Thanksgiving will always happen, and will always have some kind of poignant meaning.
And so I hope if there is anyone among you who has scoffed at tradition, or asked “what’s the point of this anyway” that you were able to vicariously walk for a moment with me as the “lonely jaded person looking through the happy windows.” I hope you can recognize (without the split pea soup) that family matters, gratitude matters, and Thanksgiving,  because it’s a day that tells us to stop the frenzy, to slow down a bit and think about these things that matter in our lives – well,  this makes Thanksgiving worthy of all the pomp and ceremony it receives. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

When you just don't feel like being conventional---

After spending hours filling out different school applications here's my current answer to "What do you think makes an outstanding teacher?" in honor of National Poetry Month and the fact that my brain does not want to write another "essay."

By Leslie B. Patient

Outstanding teachers don't think they are
Outstanding teachers are in the building when the sky is dark.
Outstanding teachers want their students to challenge them
to question them
to make them be better teachers,
better people.
Ms. Patient, I think you might be wrong.
Yes, I very well may be. And I thank you for having the courage to correct me. That means I’m doing my job.
Outstanding teachers believe that their students can achieve.
All of them.
When you walk into an outstanding teacher's classroom you cannot find her for the hubbub of activity and collaboration of which she is in the middle
Or on the side, like Merlin watching his magic take hold.
Outstanding teachers love to learn
They are math teachers who read poetry for fun;
Poetry teachers who do math for fun.
Lifelong learners enthusiastic about proselytizing the joy of learning to a whole new generation.
Year after year after year.
An outstanding teacher embraces change knowing that the world always does
And that’s ok
Because the outstanding teacher knows that some things will remain constant
Like critical thinking
And collaboration and deep revisions and multiplication tables and variables.
Variables are constant, yes. Paradox.
The Outstanding teacher recognizes another paradox
Outstanding teachers don't think they are
Because that would mean somehow that they were outside or other or beyond
And if anything
An outstanding teacher is right there with
With her student
Until that moment when the student needs her teacher no longer
And at that moment the outstanding teacher knows
She has truly done her job.