Things teachers can’t say (but I just did)

It’s hard to teach kids right from wrong when the adults around them are terrified of the very words.

Several teacher friends say they are no longer permitted to say a student’s behavior is “wrong” or even that a student has made a “wrong choice.” Instead, when a child makes a wrong choice, engages in bad behavior, is unruly or noncompliant, teachers are to say such behavior is “unexpected.”

Teacher to child: “Please sit down.”

Child does not sit down.

Teacher to child: “My, that was unexpected.”

No doubt a cold chill races down the child’s spine. Hardly. For most children, “unexpected” would be an extended lunch period, a snow day or finding the spelling test has been cancelled.

For adults, “unexpected” usually refers to something along the lines of a surprise party, running into an old friend or a payment not clearing the bank.

Of course, there are committees, groups and studies funded by grants that stand behind the new nomenclature of “unexpected.” But that doesn’t negate the fact that it is painful for adults to wrap their heads around such convoluted thinking, let alone children.

“Unexpected” is a stray hair, or a poppy seed between your teeth, not a framework for social conscience. In the real world, people navigate mazes with turns and corners that wind up being right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, prudent or foolish.

Along the same convoluted lines as “unexpected,” teachers are also being told they are not to say a child “lied.” Instead, they are to say a child has told an “untruth.”

It is hard to imagine “untruth” catching on, yet I can hear the words of George Washington retooled for the 21st century: “I cannot tell an untruth.”

Courtroom dramas will need revising as well. Prosecuting attorney to the witness on the stand: “May I remind you that you are under oath and untruthing on the stand is a punishable offense.”

And then the jury breaks into laughter.

Lying is out; “untruthing” is in. You might also say a child is veracity-challenged, or has limited abilities conveying the full scope of reality.

If a lie is now an “untruth,” then cheating must be viewed as utilizing unapproved outside resources. Fighting in the cafeteria becomes exercising the full forward thrust of arms and legs.

Silliness proliferates. When a school sexting scandal broke out in Vermont, an article quoted a communications expert as saying that parents should talk with their sons and daughters about sexting, but they should not use the words “right” and “wrong.” Instead, parents were advised to use terms like “cool” and “uncool.”

Why not call behavior what it really is? Why not simply speak the truth? Playing games with words, clouding a child’s mind, and obscuring the consequences of choices will produce results that will be anything but unexpected.

A brief history of selfies and narcissticks

There was once a time when we took pictures of other people, but now we mainly take pictures of ourselves. Sometimes we take pictures of ourselves with other people, but usually (hopefully!) with us in the center doing something more clever than the other people—things like crossing our eyes, flaring our nostrils or sticking out our tongues—so that the other people are not much noticed. They’re called selfies for a reason.

There was also once a time when we took pictures of interesting places and historic monuments. Today we take pictures of ourselves in front of a mountain carved with four presidents nobody can name, and a couple hundred snaps of ourselves in front of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Or is it the Lincoln Monument and the Washington Memorial? Who knows and who cares? All that really matters is that we were there and we have the selfies to prove it.

There was also once a time when we took pictures of architectural and natural wonders. Today many people consider their own bodies to be among the most amazing natural and architectural wonders of the world and, therefore, focus on taking pictures of themselves in various states of dress. But mostly undress. Then they share those selfies with others and then others share them with others and then, when the natural wonder-of-the-world selfies go viral, the people who took the selfies become indignant and garner massive amounts of attention and sympathy, even though they were the ones who took the selfies and shared them in the first place.

Don’t try to follow the logic. There isn’t any.

Today, everyone who is famous takes selfies, which inspires people who aren’t famous to take selfies, hoping that the accomplishment of taking a selfie will somehow make them famous, too.

And we question if a college education is still worth the money. Probably not. Especially not when you take good selfies.

And now, being that some people (those naturally clumsy or cursed with short arms) were previously at a disadvantage for taking selfies, we have the selfie stick, also known as the narcisstick. Simply mount your camera on the end of the selfie stick, with the remote control trigger, raise it overhead in a crowded tourist spot and watch it crash to the ground and shatter as another camera on a selfie stick whacks into yours.

Disney’s Space Mountain and Thunder Mountain rides have banned selfie sticks, as have the Kentucky Derby, the Smithsonian, Rome’s Colosseum, the Palace of Versailles, a host of museums worldwide and all of Brazil’s soccer stadiums.

Sure, it is a disappointment and a setback in the ever-evolving advancement of selfies, but who needs to go inside the Colosseum when you can take cool selfies on the outside?

Clearly, the most pressing question of our day is whether we can ever have enough pictures of ourselves, taken by ourselves, and clearly the answer is no. Never, ever, ever, not in a million, billion, trillion selfies.

Kindness on Aisle 14

We’re all a little on edge these days with tense race relations in many quarters, strained police and community relations, and the outline of a mushroom cloud hovering over the culture wars. You wonder who and what will explode next.

All of which is why I felt terrible about an incident at a big box home improvement store recently.

We were with a handful of the grandkids who had signed up to make a free Mother’s Day craft. We spare no expense for loved ones in this family. If it is free, we will be there.

The girls had finished assembling their little wooden planters, or rather they had finished watching adults assemble the planters, and we were ambling out to the garden center so they could pick out little plants for the planters.

The 2-year-old wanted to be held. I hoisted her in my arms, but within the length of one aisle it felt like I was carrying a sumo wrestler. I spotted an empty cart and put her in it. She tried to resist, but I stuffed her little legs in and plopped her bottom down.

Relief. Free arms once again. Maybe I wouldn’t need back and shoulder surgery after all. And then the husband called my name. He gestured to a man and said, “You just took that man’s cart.”

The man looked stunned. I was mortified. Having been the victim of shopping cart theft myself, I would never intentionally take another shopper’s cart. And being that the man happened to be black and I happened to be white suddenly complicated things in a way they would not have felt complicated even a year ago. These days the world is ripe with tension, innuendo and unspoken implications.

Did he think I was some uppity white woman thinking I could do what I wanted and take what I wanted? I apologized profusely and attempted to extricate the 2-year-old from the cart. Naturally, the kid who didn’t want to go into the cart, now didn’t want to get out of the cart.

Plus the twins had now plastered themselves to either side of the cart. We were shopping cart squatters, attempting to take something that rightfully belonged to another. “Off the cart, girls! Now!”

The man said it was OK, and I said it wasn’t OK. Other shoppers were looking now; we had managed to create a small scene among giant bags of Bug B Gon and Weed and Feed.

While I was still attempting to peel three kids off the stolen cart, the man walked over and put his arm around me. He smiled and said, “Happy Mother’s Day.”

Kindness. Like a hot knife through butter.

For a second, I thought I might burst into tears. Not because of the cart, but because this world is so broken that something like a shopping cart could be ladened with hidden messages and hurt. But the man graciously, and firmly, put an awkward situation to rest with the simple power of kindness. We could use a lot more kindness these days.

Thank you, sir, for showing how its done.

Departed Dad’s voice a gift at son’s wedding

We tend to associate friends by the places we’ve lived, a shared season of life or the similar ages of our children. And then there are friends we associate with music.

One such friend was one of the musicians at church, a gregarious personality with a rich, powerful, deep voice. We knew him through the songs he composed for our worship services, many of which became part of the repertoire.

Not long after he died, we sang one of his songs in church. His wife’s straight posture and stoicism collapsed under the weight of grief, her shoulders shaking and her body wracked with sobs.

Time passed and when the couple’s four stair-step children were with her and when we sang one of his songs, there would be stirring and whispering and excitement among them. More time passed, the kids entered high school and college and still they recognized their dad’s music, but without the stirring and the chatter.

I heard our friend’s deep, rich voice again recently. At his son’s wedding. He had recorded some books of the Bible on tape, which is how he came to have a part in the wedding. There he was, or at least seemed to be, reading from 1 John about loving one another. He’s been gone a dozen years, but it was as if he weren’t gone at all, simply standing out of sight, speaking into a microphone, reading from the book he loved.

It was startling to hear his voice. Disconcerting even. But then, the phrasing, the tones, the richness of his voice rekindled a wonderful warmth and familiarity. It was fitting that he was part of the service. He was passionate about his role as father and husband, seeing himself not only as a provider, but as a teacher who could shape minds and open doors to discovery. That passion reverberated through his voice as instruction to his son.

No matter how much time lapses, we can hear a voice and instantly recognize the speaker. We hear personality in voices, confidence and enthusiasm or worry and fear. We can hear mood and outlook, sleepiness or alertness, kindness or harshness, patience or contempt. Tone of voice is nuanced and telling in a way that email, tweets and texts never can be.

It’s been years since my parents died, but I often pictured them once again at our kitchen table talking. Talking, talking, talking. It wouldn’t matter a bit what either of them said; it would be their voices, a certain confidence punctuated by a lilt that said life might get hard, but keep slugging because it isn’t over.

Strong and loving voices from the past are a comfort and a treasure, whether they’re piped in at a wedding or only in our memories.

The sweet side and the other side of motherhood

Every Mother’s Day we honor moms with cards filled with warm sentiments extolling our many wonderful and loving qualities that make us sound positively divine. We rarely acknowledge the fact that mothering isn’t always pretty.

One of the unforgettable images from the Baltimore riots will forever be of the mom moment when Toya Graham chased her 16-year-old son out of the brick-throwing mob, whacked him alongside the head and gave him what for all the way across the street.

It may not be my style or your style, but she was in mom-mode doing what needed to be done.

My own mother was legendary when it came to getting the job done. She was in the hospital once and caught wind that my brother, then underage, was in possession of some alcohol. From her hospital bed, the woman was able to issue a threat of such substance that he relinquished the booze.

A friend around the corner once intercepted some teenage communication leading her to suspect that her daughter was at a movie she’d been told she could not see. My friend got in her car, marched into the darkened theater where the movie had already started, found her daughter and marched her out.

The Baltimore mom who hauled her son out by the scruff of the neck is being heralded as heroic, with some suggesting she be named Mother of the Year. She did a good thing, but what she did should be commonplace and ordinary, not jaw-dropping and extraordinary. You see your kid headed in the wrong direction; you call the kid up short. It’s called parenting.

When you’re raising kids (as opposed to letting them raise themselves), every moment counts. Teachable moments count double and triple. The teachable moments are often hard, frustrating for both the parent and the child. But you hang with it; you don’t quit. Anybody can love a kid from the heart, with the soft and sappy, indulgent love, but loving from the gut means you’re willing to enter the fray, you determine not to give up and not to let the kid slide. You may not win, but you give it your best shot.

The thing with parenting is that you get one chance. There are no do-overs. You get roughly 18 years to set the ship on course.

The young man whose mother stood him down in Baltimore said that when he saw his mother, his first instinct was to run. But he knew that running would only make it worse. Smart kid.

You could see anger and embarrassment on his face and then there was a moment when he winced and displayed what appeared to be a twinge of regret. He knew he was busted because he knew his mom has standards, and at that moment he was on the wrong side of them.

When a kid knows that you love him and want the best for him, you can get in the kid’s face. It is that moment, when a kid finally understands that you’re doing what you’re doing because you’ve got his back, that you’ve also got his heart.

O Canada, please take your geese back

Let me make three things clear: I like birds, I like Canada and I like Canadians. That said, would you Canadians please take your Canada geese back?

I don’t want to cause an international incident—goodness knows Canada might be the only country we’re not at odds with right now—but the geese have to go.

Yes, yes, I know Canada geese are at home roaming red, white and blue turf and they are federally protected here in the U.S., but Canada is part of their name. Obviously, they hold a deep and abiding allegiance to Canada. Being that you Canadians have a reputation for niceness, I’m sure you will welcome them back with open ponds.

Canada geese have taken over parks, ponds, golf courses, shorelines, subdivisions and airports. I hate to say this, Canada, but we might need a wall. Maybe even a fence—a really, really high fence.

Oh, let’s cut to the chase. They identify with you, so take them.

They’re nesting again. Nesting is completely natural for geese; what is completely unnatural is that Canada geese are shopaholics. They nest in every planting bed and small green space bordering every strip mall. This means that to get to a store you have outrun a gaggle of aggressive, territorial, giant Canada geese in attack mode. They’re large, they’re loud, they have extremely disgusting tongues and they’re intimidating. They own the west entrance to Macy’s as well as every grocery store parking lot on this side of the city.

I’ve given up on new shoes, but we need milk and eggs.

And then there are the sidewalks. I took some of the grandkids for a walk and we had to play a little game called “Don’t Step on the Droppings.”

“Step over or between them, girls. That’s it, you’ve got it! Oh, NOOOO!!!”

Walk on the grass, you say. Impossible. The grass is slick with droppings. Walk on a grassy incline and you will slide downhill. It’s like skiing in spring without the benefit of snow or slopes.

Here’s a fun fact from National Geographic: “Just 50 geese can produce two and a half tons of excrement in a year.” Why is that not a surprise? Walk a mile in my shoes. Make that rubber boots.

Canada geese used to be a novelty—pretty birds flying in a V-formation that you’d catch a glimpse of now and then. Now you see them all the time, marauding about on land in large, boisterous groups taunting vehicles and pedestrians.

Today’s Canada geese have attitude and it’s because they’ve been away from Canada too long. Everybody knows Canada doesn’t do attitude. It’s illegal. Take them back, Canada; make them maple syrup sweet.

Please. Do it for world peace.

Finders, but not keepers

I have a knack for finding money and things. It’s not like it would be worth following me around because I find great treasures, but it is often more than chump change.

I found $8 on a shelf at a craft store once. The bills looked like they’d been rolled up in the hand of someone who didn’t want to bother with a wallet. I asked the manager to announce over the speaker that some money had been found. She said, “If I do that, everybody in here will charge up front.”

She suggested that she take it and ask the employees if any of them lost it. I declined. She suggested that the money belonged to the store since it was found in the store. I suggested the money belonged to me because I had it in my hand. I left my phone number in case anyone reported losing money. Nobody ever called, so a few weeks later I gave it to some boys at the grocery store manning a fundraiser table.

I found $5 in a gravel parking lot at the fair once. It probably fell out of someone’s pocket when they were fishing for car keys. The husband and I bought an elephant ear figuring the money came to the fair and that way it stayed at the fair.

One time I found a Hello Kitty coin purse at a sparsely populated New Jersey outlet mall. Ten minutes later I saw a forlorn little girl about 7 and asked if she lost a coin purse. Her face lit up like a Christmas tree. It was a great moment, until her mother started unloading on her for being irresponsible. An older sister mouthed thanks while the mom was still railing.

One of my more valuable finds was a new iPhone in the middle of a busy intersection one Saturday morning. The phone was locked, so I had to wait for an incoming call to identify the owner. A woman called with picture ID, and the name on the screen was a derogatory term for the phone owner’s mother. The mom was glad to pick up the phone. Her son had a few more calls before she got here (I didn’t answer) from girls with picture IDs that looked like bad news. If the girls called again while the mom had possession of the phone, I’m guessing the young man wasn’t going to be that happy to see his phone. Or his mom.

Last spring I nearly ran over a weed eater in the middle of a side street during a pounding rain. It turned out to be a commercial Weed Eater worth nearly $400. The ink on the tag had run in the rain, but the city and first letter of the business were legible. The business owner was ecstatic someone tracked him down and picked it up that night. In thanks, he offered to later trim a tree, but he never did.

It’s satisfying when you can reunite someone with something they have lost. I’d do it full-time if I could, but there’s no money in it and the finds are few and far between.

Going toe-to-tail with a mouse

I went nose-to-nose with a mouse last week and I’d rather not say who won.

I was taking a meal to a friend recovering from knee surgery when my cell rang.

“There’s a dilemma,” she said, “and it involves you. My cat found a mouse and I don’t know how you feel about cats with mice, although I have the impression you are afraid of bugs.”

“Your impression is wrong,” I said. “Bugs are afraid of me.” I used to be afraid of bugs, but I flipped that equation after I was bitten by a brown recluse. My new philosophy is simple: get them before they get you.

“I’m not afraid of bugs and I will get the mouse, but there may be screaming.”

The mouse was under the ‘fridge when I arrived. The cat was standing guard, slowly swishing its tail. I tried to shove a broom handle beneath the ‘fridge to force surrender, but there were too many coils. My friend pulled up a chair at the table and I pulled a chair beside the ‘fridge, armed with a plastic box as my trap.

It was a good plan, but like most plans, it didn’t go according to plan.

As we were chatting, the mouse poked his head out. I knelt down on the floor in front of the ‘fridge and angled the box to create a no-escape trap. The mouse ventured out farther and I slammed the box down, closed my eyes and internalized a scream. (An internalized scream sounds like a car that won’t turn over in 20 below weather.) Unfortunately, the only thing inside the box was the mouse’s tail, still attached to the mouse, which was now spinning its little legs in an attempt to escape. (More internal screaming.) The cat just sat.

Meanwhile, I had the impression my friend was going soft on the mouse. “Don’t you dare name it,” I said. “Once you name it, this is over.”

The mouse crawled up on the broom handle I’d used earlier and we were now eyeball to eyeball. If I’d wanted to – and I didn’t—I could have grabbed it with my teeth.

I yelled that I needed something else to get the mouse. My friend hustled over, as fast as her post-surgery self could, and a spatula descended over my shoulder.

“A spatula? This is a MOUSE not a MOUSSE! We’re dealing with one S here, not two!” She handed me another container. I lowered box two over the mouse’s body, still on the broom handle, with his tail still in box one. Despite my two-box move, the mouse escaped and shot back under the ‘fridge.

I told my friend to leave the kitchen light on and maybe the mouse would stay under the ‘fridge and not wander into her bedroom at night.

Shortly after I left, she found the mouse. It was in her bedroom basking in a patch of sunlight. The cat was sitting next to the mouse soaking up the rays as well. She said they were a cute couple. Learning from my mistakes, she got a box—and a lid—and said the mouse all but jumped in the box and helped her seal the lid. She tossed him into a field.

His name is Mortifer.

Mud prints on Hoosier Hospitality welcome mat

Many of you who read this column assume that I live in your area. I take that as a compliment. Let’s do coffee.

I actually live in Indianapolis where, until a few days ago, we were known for Hoosier Hospitality. Hoosier Hospitality is a Midwestern kindness exemplified by getting to know the greeter at Wal-Mart by name, offering jumper cables to anyone with a car hood raised, and opening doors for others wrestling packages and small children.

In recent days a firestorm over a Religious Freedom Restoration Act engulfed our state legislature and we have been anguished to see our great state smeared as a hate state. Any potentially polarizing legislation is worthy of debate—civil debate—but this debate turned into runaway disparagement. Falsehoods, fabrications and outright lies about who we are popped out faster than buds on the maples.

We’re not paradise, but we’re probably pretty similar to the people you know and the place where you live—with the slight exception that we may be more likely to bring a loaf of banana bread when someone new moves into the neighborhood.

We haven’t recognized ourselves in recent days. We’ve been portrayed as low-IQ buffoons who can barely string a compound sentence together, let alone tie our own shoes. For the record, we do have electricity, running water and indoor toilets.

Some of the chatter has made it sound like we offer welcome packets at the state line with tips on hating puppies and kittens and guidelines for taunting the disabled and infirmed.

We’ve been slandered, maligned and unfairly portrayed as bigots, unfit for business. As companies, organizations and activists jockeyed to cover their backsides and denounce us, it quickly escalated into a contest to pile on and smear. We’ve even been mocked by a graham cracker.

It hasn’t mattered one bit whether the trash talk was true or not; all that mattered was that the fire burned brighter and the flames leaped higher.

It has been a surreal and stunning experience. A lot of us have been wondering whatever happened to truth.

Truth was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail on this one. She was trampled by lies, hypocrisy and hysteria fueled by “deep thought” social media. Yeah, complex issues resolved in 140 characters or less. Perception trumped reality. Facts didn’t matter. It was all about cramming every person in this state into a bigoted narrative marinated in hate.

Image and reputation that took decades of vision and hard work to build were vandalized in mere days. Millions will be spent repairing the damage and it won’t be a quick fix.

For now, there’s a lingering disbelief. It all happened so suddenly. It was like being sucked into the path of a tornado as we went from everyday people to pariahs within minutes. Those winds had the distinct feel of tyranny. That’s a specter you don’t forget.

Why does any of this matter to you? Because it was us and our good name this time, but it could be you and yours next.

Easter reflects new life, second chances

She’s tiny and light on her feet, darting about like a butterfly that never lands for long.

Bubbly and outgoing, she doesn’t know a stranger—sometimes to her own peril. Boundaries are an issue. There have been calls from the teacher that she talks too much and sometimes struggles to stay on task. It was only natural that someone so effervescent would tell her classmates about the adoption and her new last name.

Her story paints a broad-brush parallel to the story of Easter, of darkness giving way to light, of pain and fear giving way to restoration and hope.

Long-time friends could have sailed the seasons of life with the sun in their faces and the wind at their backs. Their children were mostly grown; they were what we’d call “comfortable” in this life. They could have eased into the expected things that come with middle age and beyond. Instead, they trained to become foster parents and willingly entered turbulent waters.

She came to them when she was in kindergarten. It took no time at all for a judge to sever all ties with the place (it would never deserve to be called a home) from which she came. Her file revealed gut-wrenching details. The compilation of notes was sickening.

This little girl endured evil that makes sane people grieve for the world as it is. Others might have turned away from her, but they determined to never let her go.

Exercising the most radical and genuine form of love known to man, they took in a hurting stranger and made her one of their own. They promised before a judge and God to care for her, love her and provide for her. They adopted her.

Easter is a story of adoption as well. Christians believe that on Good Friday, a judge from a different realm allowed His son to endure death on the cross, becoming the ultimate sacrifice for sin, and in so doing bridging the gap between man’s sinfulness and God’s holiness.

The debt was paid and a door opened, the pathway to adoption by a Heavenly Father. He, too, is a judge, one who offers mercy, grace and the promise of new life to all who will come.

It was cloudy the day that little butterfly was adopted, but the sun broke through as they walked up the steps to the courthouse. It was a resurrection morning of sorts as she left the old behind and embraced the new. The judge was kind and gracious, posing for pictures with the newly expanded family.

Summer came and went. When she returned to school, one of her classmates asked, “Are you still adopted?”

“No,” she said, “I’m just their regular kid now.”

Grafting into a family comes with growing pains, realignments and the putting down of new roots grounded in love. As the grafting takes hold and the roots strengthen, you no longer think of yourself as adopted, but simply a member of the family.

The branch tips bud, gently unfold and once again, new life blooms.