But…What If I Don’t Have a Third-World Immigrant’s Story?


AP Tests ended a couple of weeks ago, and with them the inevitable entropy of released expectations. All year, my students have performed with laser-like focus on their academic goals while also shouldering the burdens of normal teenage hormones, finding the perfect prom dress, handling the expectations of their parents, and facing many of the other curveballs life can throw any of our ways. But with the passing of those hurdles, focus shifts, we loosen our metaphorical ties, and reorient our gaze to the next markers in the near future: the end of the year, summer plans, the college application process.

It’s at this point where I try my little part to shed a little candlelight into their darkness. They’re very, nervous, you see. Now that they’ve done all this work, the looming process of realizing their goal—college admission—is a daunting, haunting, path, not the reward they should see for all their hard work, but rather a mysterious process of cutthroat competition.

And their fears are not unfounded. From a very young age, they have any number of adults attempt to impress upon them the benefits of success and the dire consequences of failure: I jest often that falling short of perfection will not leave them homeless, living under and overpass, but the joke is founded in the penumbra of their anxiety, so much so that when I told my class this year that “there are unhappy people with degress and happy people without them” that I provoked a temporary full-blown existential crisis in at least one of my students.

So, I try to be open and let them ask as many questions as they can, give them the best advice I can. Some advice is practical—ask for recommendations before summer vacation; some is more spiritual—if the checking the computer causes you dread, perhaps you should step away from the computer. And they have lots of question, from the mundane to the mystical.

In the course of last week, there were two particularly articulated student frustrations that stuck most at me, two questions of which I could not dispose so easily, not because I couldn’t give an easy answer, but that they gave me a small window into the struggles of my students. 

First, on the day we discuss college recommendations, students realized that their counselors often must write recommendations for them, and at that time they also realize that their counselors likely don’t know them from Adam’s housecat. It’s not really their fault. Each counselor at our school has hundreds of students on their caseload, and often their counselors may switch on them two or three times over the course of their high school career. Even the cliché’, “maybe you should swing by with some breakfast for them” doesn’t always help: after all, a guidance counselor can only eat so many chicken biscuits, am I right?

Following that question, two classes later on college admission essay day, we read sample best essays published by the New York Times. That my students belittle their own talent (“I could never write this good” “You mean well?”) and think they are not capable of such writing is one worry. Perhaps more worrisome for them, however, is that they fear they have nothing on which to build such a great essay, that their life bears no great tragedy they have had to overcome, no mythical ocean to cross, no great struggle to stand astride as defining to who they are as a person.

This fills them with dread. If they lack these elements of their profile, they are at a competitive disadvantage to a rival who does. What can they write about?  How much they love pizza?  Surely, they will be excluded from the college of their dreams, the door of success slammed in the face, down the slippery slope under that overpass.

This seems a hardship for them, but perhaps this is a good time for a lesson in empathy, to look beyond themselves, and recognize the good fortune that many of them have. For here is truly the root of this disparity. I’ve had lots of students whose counselors know them very well, who have such stories of resilience and fortitude on which to build a personal narrative. They may not have litterally grown up under and overpass, but many have struggled with stable housing, have borne the burden of being a quasi-parent to their younger siblings, have endured the specter of actual violence, have faced the daunting climb of becoming a first-generation American. They have relationships with their counselors because they have needed them. They have their narritives forged in the crucible of conditions that we would never want for ourselves, even if it gave us a strong essay topic to stand out in college admissions.

In his 2005 commencment address to Kenyon college—which was later convereted to an essay titled “This is Water”—Amercian author David Foster Wallace identifies this type of thinking as a default setting. We see ourselves in constant competition with others, and thereby see others as an impediment to our own success, which is pretty twisted when you’re thinking, “Man, I wish my parents had floated me across the Mediterranian on a raft so I could have a good college essay.” The obsession over grades and GPA’s certainly nurtures this default setting, but nothing may solidify it at such a young age as this grand passage into seeking white collar, first-world nirvana. And while I try to calm their nerves, a small part gnaws at me. By teaching in this system, am I complicitly perpetuating this rat-race mentality or am I doing my small part to diffuse it by answering these questions in the first place?

There is, however, a deeper question that lies beneath this. I teach in a school diverse in many ways, but there is certainly a sizeable portion of students for whom want and discomfort has rarely been a part of their existence. Their parents have worked tirelessly to give them every possible advantage. Sure, taking upper-level classes may have been a challenge for them, but as they look around at their peers, they recognize that this doesn’t make them any more special, more definite than anyone else. It would be easy to mock their privelege and relative ignorance about the world that it affords. But these students, too, are perhaps as needing of our empathy as any young person. They are entering that crucial stage in their life where their actions, their choices will define them as adults. As they pass beyond public school, into the university, it will become much easier for them to innoculate themselves against the varied struggles of other human beings, easier for them to disdain the shortcomings of “the others” as being lazy or ignorant. Instead of wishing they had a great third-world immigrant story, they may self-righteously jest to their similarly priveleged friends that the guy who works the campus convenience store should learn to speak English better.

I hope they wont. But those choices are out of my control. In a few more weeks, they will be out of my charge, and my ability to influence them will diminish greatly, ready for the next cohort to enter the gauntlet of junior year. So it goes. However, something about this week of exchanges will stay with me into the summer, into the planning for next year, into thinking about how I prepare to send teenagers to the four winds as they come into my classroom as fresh, driven young faces, hoping to make their mark on the world, just like all of those who have come before them.

New Year’s Resolutions:  The Paradox of Intention

New Year’s Eve yoga. Whether people are getting a jump on a New Year’s resolution or trying to pre-detox before a night of revelry, the class teemed with wall-to-wall yogis. Nary a space for privacy or comfort, and “see if you can touch your neighbor” became less of a cliché challenge and more of a direct instruction.
Such was also true for “set your intention,” Sometimes it’s a mere feathery overture at the beginning of a class. Often, it is a buzzword in the jargon of the trending “mindfulness” movement . At times, it is rooted in the traditions of a directed word and scripted meditation: concentrate on a word and you will direct yourself toward it. But today, on the day before every Jane, Joe, and their brother decide to take on the mantle of self-improvement, “setting an intention” takes on a certain new kairos, dovetailing nicely into the more modern New Year’s Resolution.

It’s a funny pairing in the yoga class. As yoga has adapted to more modern society, it is often paired with transformation, rebirth, “being the change”—all the things that New Year’s Resolutions represent. The hope of a new you. So, when the teacher(s) exhort us to set an intention for our practice, to think about what we want for the new year, yoga seems like a catalyst to that change, to become the you who you want to be as you sweat and twist and breathe.

Older philosophies, the ones in which yoga was first born, take a slightly different path to this change. In many ways, yoga was not employed to spur a change that the individual wants, but to remind the individual of who they truly are—an extenstion of the divine. Thinking about what “the individual” you wants seems to run antithetical, even misleading to this more divine interpretation of the Self. By this more ancient idea, the struggle of becoming something is often a trap that leads us from the knoweldge of who we truly are by worrying the ego about who we are not.  Trying to change ourselves, trying to outwit life by making ourselves better, detracts from the knowedge of who we are all along.

Hence, the paradox of intention as I move into the new year. Last year, I made something of a resolution, and for the most part I was pretty good about sticking to it. Instead of rising from bed each morning and rushing into a routine or a list of tasks, I resolved to take the time to center myself—through silence, through meditation, through yoga, through scratching my dog’s belly–if even for ten minutes, before I got into the basics of rushing around for the day.  Most days, I followed through on the resolution.  Some days, it didn’t.  Most days, it bore fruit.  Some days, it was more of a struggle than others. Some days, I forced myself to do it–a ritual without meaning, the finger and not the moon–and the beautiful fruit was not always on the vine. What’s more, I look back on a resolution accomplished not necessarily feeling any different, better or worse, than I was a year ago. On the other hand, when I think of places I want to go or changes I want to make, they all require effort, moving in a particular direction, they require intention of thought as the seed to intention of action. Thus, to do something, we must have it; but even if we do, we can’t be sure of the outcome.

On the way back from Chapel Hill this week, my father-in-law and I got into a protracted conversation about much in the spiritual realm, including the nature of change and sin and karma, how the outcomes of our efforts to change are often unpredictable, the seeming futility of making ourselves and the world better through sheer effort, and the difficulty of accepting grace we don’t earn.  And as the arbitrary cultural marker to reflect on the last and plan the next trips around the sun approaches, I am drawn to these ideas over and over. On the one hand, we are who we are. On the other hand, we have aspirations of who we wish to be. Those two don’t always jibe. Intentions are slippery. I could set a goal to make more money, eat healthier, exercise more, be more politically active, further my education, learn a new language, or give my time to charity work. Or I could strive to hone character qualities: gratitutde, love, charity, patience. Any of these changes—accomplished or not—could lead my path in a new direction that at the end of 2017 I may look back and decide I need a new direction all together. I could follow an intention, achieve it, and get further from who I need to be.

 This sounds like it could just be a Homer Simpson cop-out. But that’s not what I’m getting at. I have some ideas of things I want to accomplish in 2017, but I also want to make sure that these intentions are not just the vain desires of an striving ego, but rather outward manifestations of the divinity within. New Year’s Resolutions made to satisfy questionable desires are just as likely to bring more need for change. For example, let’s say I want to exercise more and eat healthier. This could be great as I would feel better, think more clearly, have a mind and body more receptive to a balanced and happy life. On the other hand, I could pursue that same goal out of some misplaced vanity or unresolved feeling of inferiority, and I might find myself at the finish line of that resolution no better than I was when I started.

I know. I tend to overthink things, and that includes New Year’s resolutions. Maybe that should be my resolution. Don’t think. Feeeeeel. But, that is in some way a true expression of the Self that I don’t wish to compromise. So, then, here’s to a resolution or two borne of healthy soil, sound mind, and open heart, and may all thirty of my readers have a prosperous and beautiful 2017.

Dancing on the Edge of the Event Horizon

Math and Science people don’t always like us Humanities people, taking their objective scientific laws and converting them into subjective ambiguous metaphors.  But in a pre-Thanksgiving warm-up, we decided to bring the tribes together–Physics and Philosophy–to see if we could find some common ground exploring the infinite minutiae of space and time.

Black holes.  That’s what sucked me in.  Gravity consuming.  Time dialating.  There’s so much of the normal confluence of our everyday existence that they turn on its head.  A student asks Mr. Shoaf why light is lost, since it has no mass and is therefore immune to gravity.  “It bends space-time,”‘he says.  “Imagine a bowling ball falling into the sheet of space-time.  It pulls everything down.  So photons follow the curvature of space.”

Science people and their metaphors.  Poor photons.  Creatures of light, still incapable of escapable of keeping their trajectory out of the black hole.  A student of mine asks Mr. Shoaf what this means for free will.  In the philosophy class, The Physics Master is appropriately philosophical:  analyzing the multiple possibilities of the answer, hedging a committed yes or no, laying out how the proposition is both true and false, dancing on the edge of the event horizon.

It’s a beautiful place to be, skating that very line between grave and certain philosophical positions.  You’re floating through time and space, believing you’re in complete control, the possibility that you’re not begins to exert its gravitational pull, bending your universe.  You can let yourself get sucked through that hole.  Unlike real black holes, you won’t die, shredded by the unfathomable force it exerts upon you, but you will come out the other side a bit different, a bit out of step with your contemporaries.  Time has slowed for you.  The thought has changed you.  As you yield to this contemplation, the rest of the world has continued at its normal rapid pace while you have deepened experience in your still body.

Thoreau, himself an intellectual time traveller, mused this possibility in one of my favorite parables in Walden, the artist from the city of Kouroo.  He posed the idea that we can get lost in contemplation or in the pursuit of some perfection and time slows down for us.  While the world wastes away around us, we exist out of time.  On the surface, it sounds like a magic elixir for staving the ravages for mortality.  But as Thoreau discovered, such timelessness has its cost: you find yourself somewhat isolated from the community.  In a very real sense, it’s the surprise Cooper in Interstellar finds as he eventually returns to communication with his family to find they have all lived full lives, reproduced and grown old without him–the other side of the travel through the black hole of timeless pursuit.  Thoreau venerated this as non-conformity, which is great when you choose it, but it could just as easily be labeled as a crippling isolation if you’re nothing more than a photon getting tossed around by the curvature of space.




Thanksgiving break thankfully came right after this intense lesson, so as I took long walks down the greenway with my dogs, I watched the leaves fall, the seasons slowly rotate, and mused about black holes, physical and metaphorical.  Don’t go for the easy interpretation:  this is not where this blog slides into depression.  Rather, I mused on the time-warping nature of seeking a goal or idea at the exclusion of all others.  How there are endeavors in life that we commit ourselves to wholeheartedly, and then come out the other side recognizing how much the world has gone on without us as we have followed our single minded pursuits.  Sometimes, these are obligations, like when I go into a paper grading hole for three days to finish up a set of essays I need to return.  Some of these are thrust upon people, like when a loved one becomes ill out of nowhere and we are forced to re-order our lives to participate in their care.  These seem out of our choice.  But some of these are pursuits we willingly enjoy, like learning an instrument, planning a wedding or vacation, or exploring a new hobby.  At least on those, we are choosing to move in a new direction, intentionally re-ordering our life, becoming who we more want to be?  But even as I followed that line of logic down the black rabbit hole, I ran into a personal conundrum as  I found myself agreeing with David Brooks.  Even as I look at the pursuits I want to enjoy–deeper companionship with my wife, with my friends and family, improving my middling guitar skills, furthering my yoga practice, writing more, pursuing higher education–I wonder how much I’m setting sail on a new uncharted course of self-exploration and how much I’m following the sheet into the bowling ball.  In either case, I ponder the opportunity costs.  I wonder once I follow those pursuits and I come up for air on the other side, how will the universe have followed its own course as I have been pulled into my own  personal black holes.

Somewhere on my mat at my favorite Saturday morning yoga class, this all comes rushing back on me.  It’s difficult to find balance, and my upper body and lower body seem out of harmony.  But I try to stay faithful to the process, though I find my muscles quivering at times.    I step back from the gravitational pull that black holes have been exercising on my imagination.  Backwards I pull to the lip of the Event Horizon, the millisecond before dive is made.  Here, on the rim of possibility, I see I have perhaps been staring into the abyss for a bit too long.  Here on the rim, I feel the pull of possibility on one way, and the awareness of being in the world in the other.  Can one develop the strength to skate over the surface, to look  into the abyss but daintily dance on the edge?  Here on the edge is the birth of the ecstatic shivering.  I find this in my practice this morning.  I come with my will and push myself to the limit of my will: forced to yield to limitations of body, I yield, only to find a deeper place of understanding, this gentle oscillation of the will and the not-will opening new windows.  As the Tao says, know the male but hold to the female.

Soon, class is almost over.  The woman on the mat next to me utters a gentle imprecations:  “my mother muscles are shivering.”  She has pushed herself to the limit.  Our society venerates it as the athlete pushes themselves just to the edge of breaking.  Einstein talks about pursuing cosmic wonder in the name of science to the point of spiritual edification.  In our common parlance, we hear this cropping up in the exhortations to “find balance” but this seems insufficient, especially in a society that seems to put such a premium on identity based on what we achieve, so much so that we blindly dive down rabbit holes unconsciously to fulfill these needs, treating our limitations as mere suggestions that keep us from having it all.  Often this is more juggling than balancing, trying to keep all our balls in the air and not letting any of them fall, we touch them just enough to keep them afloat, working to counteract gravity at the last possible second.  But sometimes, attuning our will to the curvature of space might yield us more than a simple juggling and balancing circus act could ever do.

It’s a week later on Saturday morning as I wrap this meditation up.  The musing on black holes that captured my imagination last week seems far in my rearview mirror, though I have to admit that by throwing myself pell-mell into a week of work that included grading, lesson planning, meetings, student conferences, and talent show practice, the universe has continued its workings while I’ve tended to my little plot of existence.  But as I take one last look at this meditation, I consider the strength necessary to pull one’s conscious mind out of its pursuit and will to be aware of the universe around it.  Perhaps pursuing its will while maintaing this awareness is the greatest trick of all, exercising control while yielding to the lack of it.  Simultaneously in and out of time.  Dancing on the edge of the Event Horizon.


Past the Point of Nostalgia

I knew it was time to go when the posters came down.  Tipping point on a Thursday morning: the day before, stormy with sunshine, the building to myself, Thank You for Smoking on the projector.  The walls are bare.  Nothing left but Taoist blocks and boxes.

Six years in this classroom.  Nine years in this school.  Seventeen years in this career.  Another move, and it’s about time.  In any move you pass the point of nostalgia, where packing and sifting and trashing puts your fingers on items long forgotten, tucked away for rainy days that didn’t need those umbrellas:  half used reams of paper, CD’s of old computer files.  And then at some point, the nostalgia begins a slow fade.  The best memories have been packed or discarded to make room for the new.  The old and familiar becomes colorless white walls, void of meaning, primed for demolition.

If you’ve ever moved, you know the moment I mean.  Moving, like grief, has its stages.  For years, I’ve been hearing they’re tearing this building down–with its glorious windows and thriving cockroach population–and for years I’ve denied it would ever happen.  But the boxes came, and with them a six-month flurry of email instructions contradicting the previous ones.  I put off packing for another day.

But the building is up, and the date to abandon these old walls has come.  There are only these brief hours to stand–as Thoreau once said–on the brink of these two infinities.

Gone to the waste or recycled are old papers I once felt important.  Old student projects. Resources used rarely if at all.  Books that went from workshop to shelf, never to be cracked again.  Two LCD projectors and fracked, fifty-foot cables that I used to drag my classroom’s 20th century ethos into a 21st century digital technology through one dusty, misplaced internet port.

The future is new, clean, technological.  The past is faded bricks, large windows–beautiful light and vistas with horrible energy efficiency.  A two-tiered HVAC that roasts or freezes.  Tall ceilings.  Wood paneled walls.  Ceiling tiles where a yearly battle against the mold is waged.  Cockroaches and dead mice. Pat’s face.   There is no room for these beautiful inefficiencies, in the new and modern world.

As we move into new space, there is an attempt to bring continuity from the old.  Perhaps the water is the same, if just in a different container, one with newer pipes that I’m not so leery to drink from.  There are still lessons on rhetoric, discussions on dualism, viewings of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  There are essays submitted in the old building that will be returned in the new, passed out and cringed over on new and shiny desks, devoid of drawings, ongoing interclass conversations and “Thug Life” etchings.  Behold the old become new.

Inevitably the last purge comes, where the wheat and the chaff, the necessary and extraneous are divided.  A roll of white bulletin board border.  On the surface?  Valuable.  But as I drag it from the recesses of my wardrobe, four adult cockroaches scurry up my arm and shoulder, angry I have disturbed their ancestral home.  I’m fuming.  I’ve lost all  nostalgia.  I want to strike a match and walk away. But I must push through the anger and revulsion. There are more decisions to make.  The cardboard guitar–a gentle exchange among friends, changing hands for over fifteen years.  It goes down with the ship, standing proud stop the bow until the bitter end.  

 And then I find the jewels, tucked away in the top left drawer of my desk.  My secret stash.  A treasure trove of cards and messages from student’s past:  Hannah’s philosophy puns, Shelby’s stick figure cartoons, a grad invitation to the Kumars, Anna’s get well soon from my bout with pneumonia, my department’s sympathy card when Dad died, a newspaper article that Nic submitted after our wedding, thanks and thanks for letters of rec.  So many moments frozen in time, snapshots of full-fledged adults, many now graduates of college or nearly there.  I see them online in their current iterations, but here our interactions, our moments of dynamic learning, sit memorialized.  It’s not the lessons you teach, it’s the people you touch, and who touch you.

Monday. Move in day.  Everything is a flurry.  Old teachers come in to wish one last good buy and marvel at the new ivory tower.  We work all day to make a new conducive environment for our current crop.  Tuesday comes, we meet once more for twenty minutes to give our students new marching orders.  Then the building clears.  One more trip to the governor’s mansion.  There’s no space for Pat in the bright new future.  We say one last glance of good-bye. The building is locked.  The east sun now rises through a hermetically sealed window in my room.  The dawn of a new day, acceptance of the present day, looking oddly askance at the infinities beyond.

1 down, 179 to go…

Monday’s got me in a weird place…an out-of-body experience.  I look at my hand, moving across the page in a foreign way.  What are you doing?  What is this strange motion you are under taking?

Oh.  Right.  Grading student essays.  I almost forgot how this felt.

After stepping off a plane two weeks ago and moving right into a three-day PD workshop, I haven’t really had time for the typical bemoaning of the end of summer.  No ritualistic last day celebrations.  No symbolic funerals for the summer sun.  Just the quick passing of one phase of life for another.

This is probably best for me.  Teachers can be downright cranky about the end of the summer, worse than the students sometimes.  At least students can claim the excuse of compulsion.  Legal or parental, they will argue, this is not their choice.  The argument from necessity.

Teachers try this trick sometimes.  We have to go back.  And sure, in contrast to a whirlwind vacation, honeymoons, or even lying on the couch binging Bob’s Burgers, rising before the ass-crack of dawn, putting on “real shoes”, and being conversant and authoritative over teenagers can seem something of a drudgery.   So, up we rise, if somewhat resignedly, to face our destiny.  Sometimes, you just gotta get up to make the doughnuts–our own argument from necessity.

These were the type of arguments that used to piss Sartre off before he became a full-blown Marxist.  Acting from “bad faith”.  Acting like you have no choice.  Making excuses so you can bemoan you life.  What a slow, sludging march the grave.  I know.  Sounds depressing.  But too many days where you get up and go to work because you have to eventually leads to a life that you meet begrudgingly, morning after morning.

But I can’t say I don’t embrace necessity at some point.  When I was twenty, I had accepted a NC Teaching Fellows (May it Rest in Peace) to school, but was still unsure that this is the path my life would take.  And somewhere in a dark night, after drinking entirely too much coffee, after reading entirely too much 17th century British Literature, I knew that my life would somehow serve in the vein of transmitting knowledge to the younger generation.

At different points in my life, I’ve fought this idea that this was my place in life.  Other friends have left the profession for more lucrative or at least less stressful occupations.  What can seem like daunting futility in trying to reach an unwilling audience can breed a special spark of soul-crushing nihilism.  Sometimes the flashy cars you’ll never drive and the jet-set life you’ll never live becomes more confrontational than you’d like.  And if you’ve put in the years, the thought of jumping ship and starting a career anew sounds like a poor financial decision on top of a daunting existential one.

So, resignation becomes a weird form of gallows humor, a sarcastic protection against the struggle.  Teachers know how many years they have to retirement on command (13, in case you’re wondering).  We can get cagey against change because the old and familiar is so…well…old and familiar.   After all, we’ve got all the lessons down, so why do more work?

For me, however, I suppose I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where teaching still fulfills my intellectual curiosity.  Sunday morning before the first day of school, I lay down in yoga class, and the last thoughts on my mind before it emptied for a bit were all the strands of thought and idea that I had for my class this year, brimming with possibility, busy  but not anxious.   That evening, I took my kayak out to paddle on the waters in a bit of solitude.  Not because it was the “last day of summer”, but I wanted some time and silence to prepare my mind for the next day.  When Monday rolled around, I woke excitedly.  (I can’t say I’ll still be doing that in November, or even next week for that matter).  And by 8:00, I thought about what I was going to get to talk about for the next four hours.  Theorizing about democracy in Philosophy.  Analyzing Speilberg in film.  Discussing rhetoric and speech in English.  God, I’m such a dork, but this sounded exciting to me at 9 in the morning.  Say what you will about this job, but it is rarely monotonous.


I don’t want to get preachy and say we should relish our opportunities or that our day is what we make of it or attitude makes all the difference.  Because that’s the kind of stuff that makes up cheesy affirmational yoga blogs, the kind of talk that makes people want to punch you in the grill, especially if you pull it before they’ve had their morning coffee.  But for all the crappy back to school ads, for all the late sleeping in the middle of the week that I won’t see until next summer, for all the blog posts postponed two weeks and completed only after two hours of grading essays, I’m trying to embrace the ups and downs of the struggle, in all its absurd glory.  At the least embracing this life in all its foibles is worth a good chuckle at least once a day.

Here’s to the new year, fellow teachers:  11 down, 169 to go.



Surfing the Seas of PD

It’s a bike challenge.  District-wide PD is at a school close enough to my house that I can pedal there in under 15 minutes.  But predictably, I’m still late, and I scoot in near the back corner a little sweaty to an already-begun presentation on writing revision.


The axiom “teachers are the worst students” is proven true every year.  There’s a faux TED banner in the front lobby, but there’s one notable difference here:  TED bans tech use in the lecture hall.  Not here.  From my perch in the back, almost everyone has at least one screen going, maybe two.  We all think we’ve got lots to do, and could all justify individual work over being here.  But the book looks good.  It has good resources and ideas.  I’m going to try to be good.  Try to pay attention.  Try to learn something I can use in my classroom.

But the ladies behind me are having a riveting discussion, re-capping word-for-word a conversation someone had in church last week.  So, I’ve got the presenter through the left ear and “So I told her…” through the right.  The struggle to pay attention has begun.

The presenter is reading a children’s book about Pablo Neruda, while a friend sends me a Sporcle game.  I’m drowning.  Throw me a life jacket.  I’m trying to suppress my snarky urge, but it’s threatening to overwhelm me.  I decide that blogging this one out might be my saving grace.  If everyone else can multi-task, why can’t I?  If this is about writing revision, is blogging about it meta-learning?  I grasping for a raft anywhere I can.

9:05:  We’re into some pop-neuro-biology:  playing music, being nice to your students, lighting candles release dopamine.  Think of ways to release dopamine in your classroom.  That could get dangerous.

9:10:  First clever teaching acronym of the day.  Think about the TOE.  T is for talk.  I’ll tell you about the other toes later.  Just stick your toe in the water.

9:15:  I give into the Sporcle urge and fail.  I can only name one RedSox 3rd Baseman from the last decade.  My right ear is a PowerSchool conversation and student gossip.  So, at least it’s kind of work.  But Little Pablo has been put to bed; there’s some playing with student stereotypes and boilerplate inspiration.

9:20:  The waves of cynicism subside as I begin to see some value.  I start to get into this.  I start seeing how this can fill a need in my classroom.  My kids often fall down at revising sentences.  I mean…revising sentences often befuddles them.  I stop blogging and start using my phone to shoot these seeds of beautiful lessons to my colleagues.  This is called “back channeling”.  Instead of snarky ways to release dopamine, my brain is creating masterful syntactical mini-lessons.

9:40 Attrition has begun.  I see the first person leave with all their gear.  In my right ear, somebody’s on Prozac.  I think it’s a dog…or at least a child who goes through a bag of food every three weeks.  I don’t know.  I’ve started closing my right ear to amazing efficacy, and one of my Park homies sends an authoritative “Shh” and stank eye across the bow.  The harpies lower their cackles to a grating whisper.

9:50:  We have a quiet free write based on a passage the speaker has read.  He’s done some neat things with books.  I write about invisibility.  I’m not sure I can see where I’m going with this, but I let it roll with the current, not looking for a reason to hate this.

10:00: Break 15 minutes.  Lots of people pick up all their stuff and swim off under the cover of temporary exodus.  I walk and get sunshine.  Streams of teachers to the parking lot like rivers to the ocean.​

This school has great rain barrels and gardens.  I walk around and meet a guy who used to teach with me, now here.  Learn lots just by talking for five minutes or so.

10:20ish?:  I’m really bad at coming back from break on time.  But by the time I dive back in, it’s clear how many people have jumped ship.  Thankfully, the harpies behind my backpack  are among them.  I sit down and we’re re-arranging syntax on our pre-break freewrite.  This is a pretty good activity, and I feel like my treading water all day, resisting the urge to bail, to swim away, to hide in a well of sarcasm has been rewarded by some boon.  I start recording lesson ideas and collaborating on anti-plagiarism seminars at the same time.

I don’t want to act like I’m walking on water, but the room has become more productive.  People volunteer.  Somehow, everyone who couldn’t make it through seems to have left, and the people who have bobbed along this long have begun to see some value.  This is no small feat.  Most teachers see early year PD with a mix of dread and revulsion, and can often react with grudging contempt or outright rebellion.  Lots of times, you can’t blame them: presenters often affix new buzzwords to old strategies presenting the new and improved wheel.  And in our system, there have been epic fails–the presenter who led off to an auditorium full of English teachers with “we’re not teaching novels ’cause no one reads them” comes to mind.  

Teachers aren’t perfect in PD, either.  This cynicism–often well-placed–can make us miss some valuable tools as well. Luckily, mine didn’t capsize my boat, and I made it to safe port after all.

11:20:  He ends early.  No sense in drawing this out.  The crowd is generally satisfied.  I find some former colleagues and catch up–the only time I see some of them all year.  My buddy and I walk out, bullshitting about Ryan Lochte and how his idiocy is  likely to drown out his success in the pool.  Pedal home.  Surprise the dogs.  A good morning that included District Wide PD?  It’s a miracle.

Insert Your Outrage Here: Learning to Argue in a Digitally Fractured World

Despite my verbal diahrrea of “analysis” as I tortured myself watching the RNC Monday night, I’ve actually tried to keep this blog apolitical.  All my homies IRL know that I watch politics like a junky with a monkey.  Hell, I’ll DVR Meet the Press just so I can yell at Chuck Todd at my leisure after sunday morning Yoga class.  But this blog?  I’ve tried to stay out of the fray.  Let’s be frank: people can easily turn into self-righteous jerks when they discuss politics online, (myself included) and they also attract similar self-righteousness from those who disagree.  While maybe being politically controversial might garner a few more readers, it’s not really the vibe I’ve been looking for.

That said, it’s been really hard to keep my mouth shut with all that seems to be going on in the news.  Por ejemplo, last week I was working on a post about introducing nature in classrooms when two more police shootings went viral.  Then there was shooting of officers in Dallas and then Baton Rouge.  All of this was set in the backdrop of the most bizarre political season in my lifetime.  Suddenly, a blogpost about paddling my little kayak down a little river and those subsequent meditations seemed…well…little.

Usually, I have one of two reactions when the world of social media gets hot with rage over politics and current events.  One is to jump into the fray with both feet, posting articles I support and arguing against those I don’t, often devolving into quibbles that drag for days.  The other reaction is to completely disengage.  Take a Facebook vacation.  The last few years have seen me lean much more to the second option as a salve for my mental health.  While I still think it’s a civic duty to stay relatively informed about what is going on in the world, I’m not sure arguing on social media qualifies, and it sure as hell doesn’t help my peace of mind.

But there’s one trend I can’t ignore any longer.  I know it because every time we have a major tragedy in this country, every time a major political story breaks, I keep coming up with this observation: people respond to the events of the world in very predictable ways.  Think about it.  You know which of your friends will post the liberal spin.  You know which ones will post the conservative spin.  You know which ones will react to the emotional tragedy.  You know which ones will cry for peace.  You know which ones will say, “I don’t usually talk about this, but I’m about to speak my mind.”  And you know which ones will write long, boring blogposts acting like they’re watching it all from above, like some half-enlightened jackass who sees what others doesn’t.

But–as always I digress.  I keep seeing this pattern over and over.  I’ve had the idea for this post for a year, and it keeps coming back.  Benghazi.  The Paris Shootings.  The lack of attention on Turkey after the Paris shootings.  The entire Presidential campaign.  Black Lives Matter.  Every mass shooting in America ever.  And most recently, the police killings.  There’s always something shocking in the news, and this is not to belittle the importance of any of these events.  But what never shocks is the predictability of our online reactions.  Tragedy strikes.  Insert your outrage here.

As a result, people can come off like real assholes on the internet.  There, I said it.  The intransigence we revile in our politicians is complete child’s play next to the vituperative arguments that occur online.  In the world of the internet, we don’t have to look at people when we argue which makes us gauge reactions from others less, and in many ways technology encourages us to look at people who disagree with us as uninformed rubes worthy of scorn and contempt.  Indeed, this is not always a problem with human nature.  At times it is the nature of the internet itself.  Consider the TED talk below (one of my favorites to show my classes)  It poses that the way that many search engines and social media algorithms are created, you are more likely to get information that confirms your bias than information that contradicts it.  So, if you’ve been reading that Hillary kicks puppies every day for six weeks (or as Ben Carson just suggested, she worships Satan), you’re likely to decry an attempt to show her in a more flattering, humanitarian light as being a hoax perpetrated by the “librul media.” Or if you’ve been reading lots of “little hand” jokes about Trump, you’re less likely to believe he can handle foreign policy.


The result?  We end up arguing as teams.  We see winning the argument as more important the solving the problem about which we are arguing.  We increase the possibility of confirmation bias.  We become as politically divided as ever.

Never fear, fellow citizens.  I’m a professional.  This is, after all, why you’ve read this far.  Most of my days are spent teaching teenagers how to argue, and by proxy how not to argue.  Amazingly, as I pondered the weight of this problem, I realized that the tools with which I equip my students are the same tools that can help us navigate our way out of this swamp.  The list below is by no means a comprehensive tool box, but merely a starter kit to improve your online arguing experience.



Surprisingly, this shows up on the ACT writing rubric, yet few adults know how to use this handy tool.  Qualification means you make a claim, but acknowledge the limits to it being true.  Consider the difference between the following claims:

Donald Trump is a divisive and dangerous candidate.

While Donald Trump is a divisive and dangerous candidate, many of his positions on international trade deals have merit.

The statement in bold is the qualifier.  It states that though the main thrust is a dislike of Trump, there are qualities of his agenda that are agreeable.  I borrowed this from a video posted below (it’s 23:00 minutes, but I found it both enlightening and encouraging).  In it, Van Jones and Newt Gingrich, two political commentators who often butt heads, spoke in tandem after the Dallas Police shootings.  Both talked extensively of how after this period of turmoil in our nation, people of all political persuasions will need to work together to move forward.  Jones, usually liberal, talked about how he often feels cognitive dissonance over Trump: he finds him to be racist and offensive, yet Trump’s economic ideas mirror some that Jones has held his entire life, using this example to show that though we disagree on somethings, we can find common ground on others.  Qualification demands that we see the limits of our own claims and also demands that we see the validity of claims of others where they exist.



The internet has put information at our fingertips that our parents’ generation could never have imagined.  But as Eli Pariser claimed above, the internet often conforms to fit our own personal biases.  Often times, we must remember that for every article we read that fits the narrative we hold about the world, there is one that will spin it the exact opposite way.  Sadly, it becomes our responsibility to wade through the bullshit of the political class to actually find the truth.  Perhaps that has always been the case.

Consider the following video, which came out before the RNC started.  In it CNN anchor Don Lemon interviews Millwaukee Sheriff David Clarke.  In the span of a few hours, I saw friends re-post interview, either saying that Clarke owned Lemon or Lemon owned Clarke…as if who “won” this argument–as opposed to the recent deaths and how to prevent them in the future–was really the issue at hand.

My interpretation was that this is one of the most awkward interviews I have ever watched for nothing more than the fact that the two men are talking about the same thing, but are not talking to each other.  Clarke doesn’t listen to Lemon’s question.  Lemon gets defensive.  In the end, little is discussed, and various sources side up with their team to spin the interview.

It’s really easy to get stuck only on the sources we click frequently, to rely only on the interpretations we read regularly.  But we have to remember that there are other interpretations out there, and that some voices are more credible, more reasoned than others.  Some are factual.  Some are informed opinion.  Some are straight up propaganda.  Clicking and reposting or re-tweeting the first thing that catches our eye is not being an informed citizen.


When I teach logical fallacy in class, the one that students struggle with is “Appeal to Emotion.”

“What’s wrong with emotion?” they ask.

“Nothing,” I reply, “Unless emotion is all you have to go on.”

Emotion in politics is so powerful.  Logic may convince you of the right and wrong, but emotion gets you butt off the couch to do something.  Unless you’re on social media.  Then it just makes you stay on the couch in perpetual indignant rage.

Consider the video below.   Marcus Luttrell is the retired Navy SEAL veteran who authored the book Lone Survivor on which a subsequent Hollywood film was based.


By most accounts, Luttrell’s speech was the highlight of the night, which could be as much of a condemnation of everyone else’s lackluster and plagiaristic performances.  But placing veterans on the Rostrum is a shrewd political move.  Audiences respect their military service, which brings a certain gravitas to their words; patriotism, after all, is a powerful in-group emotional response.  Moreover, Luttrell ( in a part before this clip) damned the teleprompter and went off script, which provided some great “plain folks” appeal.

Granted, this is a political convention speech, so it’s main purpose is to emotionally rally the base and motivate the uncommitted to vote.  But so much of politics and the news is emotionally driven.  It’s the basis of click bait.  It’s the reason Bush the Elder used Willie Horton.  Unemotional people don’t get to the polls, but they also don’t hastily re-post things on the internet.  Why is the dictum “If it bleeds, it leads” so popular in news? Because death and blood shocks, horrifies, provokes empathy and sorrow, all of which makes us stay tuned through the next commercial break.

I would suggest that we should always be aware of our emotional reaction to the news, and how our emotions are being targeted.  My biggest critique of the Luttrell speech is his line that “the world is a dark place.”  Are there scary places in the world?  Of course.  But there are also warm-hearted, welcoming people as well.  The fear is an effective, time-honored political tool.  “The world is a scary place, and only candidate/policy X can make it safer.”  Fear, anger, and disgust have been identified as the primary emotional reactions that precede moral reasoning.  Trigger any one of these buttons and our brain begins to rationalize moral condemnation on its object.

Being aware of our emotional state is perhaps even more important when we recognize that we suppress our own emotions to fit the beliefs we’ve professed.  In the week that was…the week that had highly publicized killings of African American men followed by the killings of police officers, I struggle when I see my fellow humans find ways to rationalize the death of any of these.  In a cosmic sense, we all die some time and death is inevitable.  But people will minimize their empathetic reaction toward death based on the framework of their political belief.  We need to be conscious of how we are manipulated through emotions by politics, but we also need to be conscious of times when our politics limits our ability to experience emotions, when we see people as an “other” so much, that we forget to remember their humanity.

The problem with not understanding our emotions in our political beliefs is that they allow us to be susceptible to the worst fabrications of our political class, they allow us to continue to believe ideas that may have been proven untrue or no longer useful…just because we are defending our own personal political dogma.  When someone challenges us politically, we should engage them with the desire to learn, not out of anger.

Bertrand Russell once said

“If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do…So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on you guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.”

Indeed.  What does our outrage solve?  We often think of argument as something that inherently divides us.  Undertaken in the spirit of learning and empathy for our fellow humans–and done skillfully and honestly–it can be something that can help bring us together.


The Natural Classroom



A girl sits in a high school library, headphones in, connected to the computer where she sits.  The empty glow of the screen rests on her apathetic gaze.  Beyond her–twenty feet to her right–sit a bank of windows, twenty feet high and fifty feet long, a portal on a beautiful summer morning–trees and birds and sunshine– to which she is oblivious. Sh has to be. She needs to push through, to answer the pressing question on the screen.
“Which statement best characterizes Dickinson’s view on nature?”


Ah, Emily Dickinson.  No doubt, the student would find answer choices that had to do with respect for nature with a sprinkling of morbidity and death for good measure.  Here, in her summer credit recovery program, she would sit in the air-conditioning, figuring out the answer to nature, while nature itself went on–largely ignored–outside.


I’ve had this picture with me since the beginning of the summer, when I witnessed it as I was teaching a summer enrichment camp at my school.  At first, it was a humorous tidbit of teacher irony, but the scene has been tenacious in my imagination: I keep coming back to it as a meditation on my own classroom practice.  You see, over the last few years, I’ve made it a point to incorporate the outdoor space at my school as part of the my “classroom.”  We are very fortunate to have a large wooded campus with an expansive quad and winding cross-country trails that are all a short walk from my classroom door; and whenever an activity lends itself to using that space, I try to take advantage.

I started this a few years ago on a whim, and it seems to work well.  Most students, for no other reason than a break from monotony, like to go outside.  A few years ago, I went on an Outward Bound teacher trip and began to think more how the outside space could be used for lessons that need more room than a classroom provides to incorporate experiential learning.  However, if you were to ask me why I take kids outside, the answer may not be as pedagogically sound as I would like: sometimes, I just need to go outside and stop staring at the same four walls, stop breathing the same recycled air.

Perhaps to justify this  bias,  I’ve crafted a belief that being in nature is an inherent good in and of itself, and this belief has looped back on itself to motivate me to find more ways to take my students outside of the physical classroom.  But not all students share my belief.  Some dislike the heat (or the cold, depending on the time of year).  Some vocally hate the bugs (and have the bugs that have flown in their face to prove it).  Moreover, there are sound pedagogical reasons to not go outside: students are more prone to distraction, and “classroom management” can be more difficult when spread out.  Even morally and spiritually,  the Puritan strains of American Lit attest, evil lurks in the woods, while the good and upright stays in “civilization,” a motif supported by the fact that few of the “good kids” even know we have cross-country trails while many of the “not so good kids” know them all too well.

So I have a personal urge about the student condition shown in the girl at the computer it is less important that she can answer a question about how Dickinson feels about nature and more important that she can go out and experience how she feels about it herself.  On the other hand, my professional responsibility calls this into question.  Would just telling her to go walk around in the woods for an hour really teach her anything of value?  Does the choice of a 30 minute nature walk over 30 minutes of explicating a poem about nature make that much of a difference?  Is this a form of professional malpractice for my own peace of mind?

A friend and colleague of mine turned me on to a book this summer that helped me gain a little perspective on this.  In Lit Up, David Denby follows a handful of high school English teachers over the course of a school year, analyzing their practices and reading lists and the effects the teaching seems to have on the students.  Mr. Leon, an energetic man from New York’s Beacon High, is the main focus of the story.  Seen through the author’s lens, Leon seems to place a high premium on assigning challenging  literature (Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, and Beckett, to name a few) for his 10th grade class.  However, he does not choose the literature because kids need challenging work to perform better on tests and build “21st century, workforce ready” skills; he chooses the books he does because he wants the students to find meaning in what they read, to be challenged in ideas as well as skill.

For the girl in the library, I feel sure that reading that Dickinson poem had little impact or meaning for her life.  Is this an obvious point, as she was likely slogging through summer school just to get credit?  Of course.  But the experience of reading in this manner is not too removed from an everyday classroom experience.  Increasingly, large scale testing and a focus on work an college preparation can pare down education to answer guessing and skill development.  Texts can be analyzed but never understood.  In essence, the student does not learn about nature (or death or technology or whatever else we are reading about on that particular day).  Rather, she is playing a game of semantics, matching word patterns and incomplete images about nature but ultimately divorced from it.  She plays the game and then moves on.

The problems becomes, I think, the longer we teach in this manner, the less meaningful the content becomes for students.  French philosopher Jean Baudrillard anticipated such a problem in his book Simulacra and Simulation  (If the name sounds familiar, it’s in The Matrix, and this essay was very helpful in forming this idea).  Words represent reality, but we often lose sight of the reality we represent and only play with the words, devoid of their connection to anything actual, tangible, or in many ways meaningful.

I know.  It seems paradoxical to have a bookworm English teacher trying to pull students’ heads out of books, as much as reading about nature on a computer screen.  My classrooms is a setting where we manage  student experience to lead them to an intended outcome.    Nature doesn’t always work that way.  It doesn’t always have clean edges and correct answers.  And when I put myself out in nature, I never know exactly what kind of knowledge or contemplation will take place.  But Emerson once wrote of this, of a person finding their interest in the world and letting that be the root by which we learn excitedly and passionately.


Consider the following contrast:

Most students spend 7 hours a day in school.  In my school, it’s 90 minutes per class with brief breaks for lunch and class change.  In those 90 minutes, I sometimes try to throw as much as I can at them.  Analyze sentences for structure and meaning.  Discuss the readings they had for homework.  Do an activity that asks them to analyze or construct arguments.  Definitely some writing.  Then the leave the class and have another planned educational experience.  Maybe they stare at a screen.  Maybe they click another answer. Some times I hit home runs and they are invigorated all class long.  But on other more common days, even when they are patient, they and I are both conscious of passing time.

In this last week, I went to my own outdoor classroom twice.  On Tuesday, I kayaked the Rocky River through the southern Piedmont.  On Sunday, I hiked to the Linville River at the bottom of the Gorge.  All told, probably nine hours of time in nature.  Not once did I wish the time would go faster so I could leave.

I had physical education: rowing, swimming, hiking, climbing.  Navigated a boat through Rapids, learning to better read the flow of water.  Took a fish’s life in my hands and then let him go.  Read maps, calculated time, distance, and altitude.  Watched hawks dive for fish and egrets swoop the river. Packed supplies.  Practiced first aid…yet again.  Paddled by the remains of two dead deer buzzing with flies consuming their bloated flesh.  Napped in a hammock.  Wrote.  Paddled through slow water and thought, both deep and shallow.  Learned to fall and pick myself up again.  Identified fungus.  Trained dogs.  Laughed.  Paddled in solitude: hiked in great company.  Remembered it’s always better to jump straight in the cold water than ease yourself in.



It’s probably the dead deer that stuck with me the most, a mix of revulsion, reverence, and morbid fascination.  I heard a thousand flies buzz where they died.  Emily Dickinson, I think, would’ve had a field day.  But her poem would not have been my poem, nor the poem of any other person who happened to float by. Even if I had snapped a pic to illustrate what a memento mori is, for example,  I would be reducing it to a symbolic meaning, and for that matter reduced all the thoughts and impulses and feelings I had as floated by these deer.   This spontaneous reflection couldn’t be planned, even if I had snapped a picture, written a poem, or brought the deer in itself for a lesson.

Taking that girl out of the library and telling her to walk the cross-country trails may not have made her any “smarter” by any measurable standards.  It surely wouldn’t get her any closer to graduation, which…let’s be honest…is the only reason she was at school on a summer day in the first place.  But there are also lessons that we don’t plan.  When I wade in the deeper waters and wonder what the most important lessons a student can take from school, I hope that I have continued to encourage their sense of wonder, not reduced it, and that they continue to be adults who are open to unplanned lessons.  To make that happen, sometimes they have to step back from objectives and screens and see the larger world that they inhabit every day.

A Healthy Game of Hoops

Fist bumps, Marcus Paige.  Heal quickly.

Fist bumps, Marcus Paige. Heal quickly.

I dragged ass getting out the door to play hoops this morning.  With three no-shows, I was the ninth to hit the gym, so I had to sit while they ran “fours” hoping a tenth would walk through the door.  No worries.  I hadn’t touched the ball in two weeks and my left foot’s still balky from overtraining, so I thought a little more time to warm up was in my best interest all the way around.

A double-play team of baseball seniors came in.

“You playin’ today.”

“Nah, Mr. J.  Goin’ to lift those weights.  Gotta get big.”

“Right on.  Happy Friday.”

“You, too.”

The first game was over, and I got in on the next run.  Not a bad game.  A lay-up in motion.  Some sneaky transition defense.  A no-look, through-the-wickets that would’ve made Marcus Paige proud.


Next game.  Players change, and now I’m D-ing up a guy who’s much better than me.  Hell, everybody’s much better than me.  I had to face that a couple of years ago when I started playing pick-up after a multi-season hiatus.  And even in my “hey-dey,” I was a streaky shooting, stubborn pick-setting and rebounding player at best.  So, in my return to playing on a weekly basis, I had days where I stunk: I couldn’t catch a pass and I would lose my man getting back on defense.

I still do that sometimes.  Everyone does.  What made it worse? I would beat myself up about it.  About a Friday-morning pick-up game.  Replaying my personal “not Top-10” in my head, I’d kick myself, remembering every turnover, every ugly shot.  And there were lots.

But today, I was feeling all right.  Until he started laying it up on me.  And shooting on me.  And hitting everything on me.  Everything.  Whether he beat me off the dribble or I was in his hip pocket, it was nothing but net, nothing but net.  And of course, this challenge impaired whatever little offense I have, blowing rebound stick-backs, clanging the deep ball off the rim, airing turn-around jumpers.  As days go, it was a clunker of a game.

Still, I don’t linger on that so much anymore.  Too much good life to live to dwell on a bad game.  And a bad game still beats not playing at all.  Plus, I have kids to teach, lives to shape, the future minds of America to edify.  Shower up and the day goes well.  Yummy breakfast and brilliant debate about V for Vendetta with my colleagues, killer observation in class about the post-9/11 implications of the film,and then a good class with quiet timed writings at the end..  I’m on my post as 3rd Period bleeds into Fourth.  2:15 is in my sights.  My former student from the double-play duo comes strutting down the hall, loving senior year, loving life.

“How’d the weights go.”

“Good.  Real good.  Got big.  How was the ball?

“Man, I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, and the guy I was guarding couldn’t miss.”

He shrugs.  “Had days like that before.”

“Yup.  Me too.  Have a good weekend.”

“You, too, Mr. J.”

The Summer of Former Students

In my younger years, I approached public places with ninja-like exactitude and stealth: upon entering the coffee shop or restaurant or grocery store or music festival, I would scan the premises, head on a swivel, quickly seeking to identify potential conflict. Often I would take to wearing a hat slammed low and be sure to bear no identifying insignia so as to maintain a low profile. I always wanted to see them before they saw me, so that I could always control the interaction.

Using these ancient techniques, I was a shadow. My first success came as a student-teacher. Even after a couple of beers with my friends, I spotted one a hundred yards away. She saw me only when I was ready to reveal myself—a sly smile and a hello—and she stood agape, embarrassed that her teacher caught her being unruly in public.

Then there was a time when my wife somehow cajoled me into a blissful Saturday morning at Ikea. I forget what we were looking for—I somehow always do—but I knew it must have been early August, because I found myself in close proximity to not one but TWO of my former students, recently graduated seniors, who were shopping with their entire proud families for dorm furniture. With one path through Ikea, winding through the entire store, you can imagine the level of subterfuge I had to employ to stay beneath the radar, once even lowering my standards so far as to acting like I was interested in a new flower vase for the living room.

Other times I have been less successful in maintaining my cover, stoking my most paranoid fears: the public embarrassment, the loss of my privacy to simply walk free in the world. Once I had just left a bar on Friday afternoon happy hour when an angry “Mr. Jenkins” bellowed across the street. When tone led to recognition—a student from year one, who I threw out of class about once a week—I actually thought he wanted to throw down. Luckily, he was friendly, doing well, surprisingly happy to see me. Another more surreal incident happened in the aisle of a grocery store, where a former student stood in shock, pointing and shouting at me. “I know you!” he exclaimed. “I know you!” Others began to put down their Corn Flakes and watch the spectacle—reminiscent of the Madison Square Garden scene in Coming to America. But the student couldn’t remember my name, so he kept repeating himself, and then I realized that this could end very badly if, people thought his flashback were for something more traumatic than a weekly grammar quiz. “It’s me,” I whispered. “Mr. Jenkins. I taught you in 2nd period 9th grade English five or six years ago.” And I walked my basket to the front and hurriedly left the amused public display.

(Sorry about the crappy audio.  It was the only file I could find.)

Age and progress have tempered this paranoia. I used to guard the privacy religiously, but so much has changed since I first entered a classroom. For one, I’m older and am less worried about students actually wanting to hang out with me and be my friend. More importantly, however, is rise of social media. Though I once swore I would never broach that wall, I’m now connected with scores of former students.   I get to see pictures of them graduating and having kids. I see them making asses of themselves. I see them open, both intelligent and witty and willfully misinformed; and sometimes they even share things with me saying, “I thought of you when I saw this,” which always warms the heart. Even if it is only a digital connection, they are no longer static memories; they are growing dynamically into people, and I still get to see them change every day.

But more importantly, I suppose, is that I’m just getting to the point where I’ve taught enough people in this city—at two different large schools—that I’m not really surprised when I run into people I’ve taught before. If I had any reservation about this phenomenon, this summer has made me far less touchy on the subject. My wife and I have decided to spend most of our summer at home, doing work and saving money, which means that I’m going about a pretty normal routine in the city. And these days it seems like there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t stop somewhere and see someone who once occupied a desk in my classroom. Everywhere I go, they are unavoidable. They are either working out at the gym or working there. They are working at the grocery store, the bookstore, the bakery, the coffee shop, the camping store, the bar. They are everywhere.

The summer of former students touched off early, before school was even out. A couple of my cousins were passing through town for a family reunion, where I took them to a street festival in the uptown part of the city. We took a break in a local park to play cornhole when I heard my name across the park. I remembered his name, and knew that he must have recently graduated college. And as he was in the midst of a wedding celebration, he seemed to be more of the spirit than I was. So we chatted and departed with smiles. I don’t remember all their names, however. There was one who ran the snack bar at the gym whose name I couldn’t remember, nor could he remember mine, as he called me “Mr. Teacher.” That worked in my favor though. His gratitude for my education—as well as his profuse apologies for being out of kale and bananas—scored a breakfast of a smoothie and egg wrap for free.

Many of these encounters have been this memorable, this wonderful, this edifying. The student who talked maps with me before I went on a hiking trip. The student who I saw just as she was about to blow this town and leave for college. The student who was just wandering through the bookstore and gave me good book recommendations.

Most of the encounters have been a bit more pedestrian, however. And while feeling loved and useful in public is nice, it is the everyday encounter that has given me pause to think. Sometimes, we don’t even talk. Sometimes I see somebody walking a hundred feet away and I get the premonition that I know them . Sometimes, I just catch someone looking at me in that “I know that guy” way, and I probably am returning the favor. Sometimes, it’s a polite wave across the coffee shop or a “How are you doing?” in the checkout line at the grocery store.

Most of my friends—former students or otherwise—know I tend to overthink things, and I’ve been grappling with this Summer of Former Students for some type of cohesive meaning, something I can take back into the classroom to improve my practice, or even deepen my understanding of the human condition. And there have been lots of little glimpses: the ephemeral nature of the teacher/student relationship, the empathy to imagine my students as actual people who exist in a universe outside cliché’ academic conversations, a critical re-evaluation of how important or influential 90 days worth of language or philosophical instruction can be in the grand scheme of things, the knowledge that my identity as a former instructor an evaluator can make someone feel like they’re being judged, being evaluated, all over again…like I’m judging their grammar or they have to justify their life choices.

Which of course, they don’t. School will start tomorrow. I spent most of today…a Saturday…in my classroom getting ready for Monday morning. On the way home I stopped at Earth Fare to get some dinner, and there was another one, behind the lunch counter. It had been close to ten years since our paths had last crossed. Timed had kept on moving, and we had both been changing. An interaction that had been so structured, so intense, had diffused in the waves of time, changing as we both encounter new moments daily. We caught up on how we had changed, then I headed home. Summer is almost over for me, and time for me keeps rolling along, into a classroom with 170 new faces that will enter and exit and go out into the world, 170 new bundles of aspirations and anxieties for whom my guidance and instruction is but one step in the path they walk, one influence of many. And perhaps if the wind breaks right and we are fortunate, some of us will cross paths again in a way that we can both enjoy, fondly remembering the past but also enjoying the wonder of the new and unique spot in time in which we find ourselves.