Random Thoughts about Libya

After studying history at UC Berkeley, Chris…epitomized the best of UC Berkeley’s graduates, a commitment to excellence at the highest level and a passion for making the world a better and more peaceful place.

— UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau

On another September 11th, eleven years ago, I stood, alongside 3 colleagues, as we watched the attack on the Twin Towers play themselves out on my classroom television.  Arriving into work yesterday, Tuesday, September 11th, one of my new teaching partners came over to my room asking me how I planned to commemorate the day, offering me the chance to have the kids work on American flags to commemorate it.  I respectfully declined the offer, if only because I already had a full day planned, and I had reached the point where simply commemorating the day without a full explanation to my students had always struck me as being somewhat intellectually dishonest.  And at a new school, in a new situation, rather than invite any sort of controversy about what I might end up saying, I chose to take the path of following through with my original lesson plans.  I knew I couldn’t oversimplify things adequately.  I knew better than to do that.  9/11 has never been *that* simple and the intervening 11 years have only served to make it even more complicated to explain than it was at the time.  If there was one thing I took away from my years as a Berkeley undergraduate and carried forward into teaching my own students, it was to never accept the easy explanations for complicated issues.

Meanwhile, yesterday in Libya, at around the same time I began to go about my day, as has been reported, an attack on the US Embassy, resulted in the killing of 4 Americans, one of whom, J. Christopher Stevens, was the American ambassador.

Unbeknownst to me, until I was driving home this afternoon and listened to various news commentaries about the man, Ambassador Stevens was one of my classmates, a fellow Old Blue from Berkeley.  

Stevens graduated in 1982, after studying history, a year before I did.  But what stood out to me was that he and I were on the Cal campus at the same time. He was one of my contemporaries.  To read about him and both his academic and diplomatic career is to read about one of the best my alma mater had produced.  He made me proud to be a fellow Golden Bear if for no other reason that he understood the inherent danger of trying to seek out oversimplified solutions to complicated problems–the very sorts of things that have bedeviled American foreign policy since 9/11.  Rather than being content to score cheap political points by grandstanding about a world he choose not to understand like too many Americans, rather than being disengaged from world events and watching them disconnectedly on television, or filtered through talking heads, Ambassador Stevens instead went out into the world to not just learn more about it for himself, but, once there, to ultimately work to make it better.

I know, in my heart, that the sort of career he choose to have, once he left the Berkeley campus, embodied the very best of a public school education that the state of California can provide a young man.  Ambassador Stevens went to North Africa not through any sort of entitlement, but to simply make things right.  The true measure of a diplomat rest with those very reasons why he felt it necessary to be in Libya.

Tomorrow night is Back-to-School night at my new school.  In introducing myself, I will, of course, talk of my years at Berkeley.  But I will also make sure to make mention of Ambassador Stevens.  What he did with his Cal degree took far more courage than I could ever imagine having myself.  Honestly, prior to the events of yesterday in Libya, I fretted over what might happen Saturday morning when a struggling Cal football team travels to play a nationally televised college football game against Ohio State.  In learning about my tiny connection to the events in Libya yesterday, I was able to remind myself that the true legacy of a Berkeley education lies not with a sports team’s won-loss record but with the integrity, honesty, and willingness to sacrifice that J. Christopher Stevens himself characterized.  That is exactly the sort of thing I think I need to share with my parents tomorrow night.

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Mother of Re-invention

It’s getting better all the time / I used to get mad at my school…/  You’re holding me down
Filling me up with your rules / I’ve got to admit it’s getting better / A little better all the time
The Beatles, “Getting Better”

“Daddy, you’re getting us lost!”

“Katelyn, STOP IT!  I don’t like it when you act like Mommy…”

But she had a point.  I was driving through the town’s main drag, looking for a recommended local charity to drop off some of Katelyn’s old clothes that she’d outgrown over the summer.  Along with those toddler togs was a bag filled with my old school shirts–blue and red bulldog wear now a personal anachronism at a new school amid a sea of green instead.  Like a snake, I was having to shed a skin in order to grow.  I was pressed for room in my closet as it was, and this obsolete spirit wear were a proper candidate to move away.

Nevertheless, Friday morning saw me face a moment of truth that I had dreaded even more than unpacking my room: the terror in realizing that I might backslide into some of the same cranky hermit habits that had characterized my interactions at my old site once I determined that lying low was a better survival tactic than trying to make my general presence known.  As my time there dwindled, I chose to simply avoid interacting with as many people as I could, choosing to spend time with either my kids, or in my classroom.  Truthfully though, I realized at that time that it was hasn’t a healthy type of behavior, even for an introvert such as myself.  While I still had dear friends on that staff, they were in primary grades, and my little petty complaints to them could never be met with any sort of useful steps to ameliorate my situation.

I was ready for a change, both in work site and in my personal attitude.  As I often told my students at the beginning of every year, past was not prologue.  What happened before did not have to happen again in terms of self-defeating behavior.  The summer work spent at the credit union was huge in moving me out of my comfort zone.  My team members welcomed me from Day 1 there, making it easy to actually focus upon the work and less upon worries about interpersonal relationships.  The instant acceptance at face value was a huge factor in moving me from someone who tended to shy away from engagement towards someone who felt he was now in a place to try to present a different side of myself at a new school site to get the fresh start that I desperately needed to have.

So, there was a moment on Friday morning, when I could feel old feelings creeping back.  I was already struggling adapting to life at school starting at 8:10 am when 15 years of habit had internalized 8:15 am start times.  It was the occasion of the school year’s first school assembly.  As the bell sounded to go get the kids, I saw other classes streaming out to the playground’s black top in an organized way, each carrying small carpet square on which they would sit.  I was dumbfounded.  I was not told that this was protocol.  I had seen the carpets in my closet, and had assumed they were for situations where the students sat on the floor in the room itself; I had no clue that they were for outdoor assemblies (especially since the regime at my old school had done away with outdoor assemblies and moved them into our school’s multi-purpose room).

I felt resentful at not knowing, to be perfectly honest.  Whether justified or not, I had already felt isolated, and not knowing simple protocol like assembly habits made me begin to feel if I would be frozen out, when my intent all along was to not isolate myself from my teaching partners and try to integrate myself into the staff’s normal interactions.  For instance, I had already brought lunch to eat in the staff lounge at lunch time–something I almost never did at my old school site.  I did it as a promise to my fellow refugee, but I also know that the credit union experience made me feel more comfortable with the idea that I had a better chance of gaining acceptance by simply “being there” not choosing not to be.  If I was going to do this, I needed to go all in.

Still, I stood up behind my grade level at the assembly, questioning everything about how the school year might develop.  I was already questioning one of my partners, fairly or not, about how this morning had gone down.   “Talk to me”, I pleaded.  And, given that old habits die hard, I could see myself convincing myself of various paranoid conspiracy theories–totally unjustified, of course, at a new school site where I hadn’t been around long enough in the first place.  “Relax, and then ask what happened, when you get the chance”, I told myself.  But I also began to wonder if I, like two older teachers at my old school site, was about to be seen as the designated “cranky old person” within the teachers in my building.  I sighed at this thought.  I had never felt my age before, but I sure as heck did now.

Finally, as if she could sense my self-imposed isolation on the edge of the grade level grouping my other partner came over and immediately launched into an unsolicited apology.  My partners were just as frustrated as I obviously was.  While they knew the assembly protocol, they had no idea about how this particular assembly would take place, such that they had little time to tell their own students what they needed to do, much less tell me.  If communication had broken down, it wasn’t anyone’s fault at the teaching staff level.  To my relief, my confusion was par for the course for everyone.  In circumstances begging for an ice breaker, on a warm humid September morning, the ice had broken in terms of my dealings with my grade level team.  I immediately felt better.  More importantly, my presumption of isolation was not only unfair, but reconfirmed what the credit union experience had taught me. “Face Value” meant that actions did not necessarily carry an ulterior motive.

By the afternoon, when we met to sketch out the coming week, I felt better about being forthcoming about my role within this new grouping for me.  While I still don’t know how my warped view of the world would play with my two teaching partners going forward, at least I now felt a more open line of communication than I had before.  I returned to my classroom to grab materials to finish my week’s lesson planning and instantly saw that yes, the light I felt at the end of my tunnel transition was the other end out, not the front of an oncoming train.

When I got home Friday night, I gathered up my old school spirit wear to take to my car for the thrift store donation bin for Saturday morning.  The next day, Kate and I finally located the store after some morning errands, and after she stopped play acting as my wife with respect to my geographic literacy, we finally located the thrift store we had driven up and down the block trying to find.  To my disappointment though, I discovered we were 15 minutes late for the store’s hours.  I had thought it would have been 4 pm, when I realized that the store’s hours were cut back on Saturdays until 1 pm, not 4 pm.  My donation would have to wait for another day.

Nevertheless, I had gone a ways towards shedding some other skin I didn’t need any longer at my new school site.  That I couldn’t literally dispose of it the way I was trying to do with my old school shirts, didn’t mean that I couldn’t mentally toss it away.  Like so many other things during this first week of school, I was taking another step forward.

By Necessity

I just want to thank everyone who made this day necessary.
Yogi Berra

To paraphrase Carl Sandburg, the school year did not so much creep in on little cat feet as much as it did stalk in.

And as it stalked in, I was doing anything in my power to bring forth that moment when I met my class.  I was entering unknown emotional territory.  These kids had the advantage of being familiar with the rhythms and personalities of the school more than I had, but, more critically, not knowing what to expect from my new group of students at all, had me on edge.  My principal had called for us to meet up in the center of the school for a staff photo, and a chunk of us had traveled over to the lunch tables there to do so.  Unfortunately, he was nowhere to be found, nor was there the parent volunteer to photograph us.  I sought out my fellow refugee, CBC (who had also transferred over from her old school), and confided to her that my anxiety level was rising.  School was supposed to have already started at this point, and I wanted–and needed–for the opening moments of my day, and school year, to finally begin.  Some teachers began to move towards the playground, rapidly filling up with students and anxious parents, to go pick up their classes.  But, as if in anticipation of our need to take our leave, our principal came jogging up to us, trying to corral us back for the photo.  As if on cue, our photographer at last arrived at around the same time.

At last, we were free to go.  I closed my eyes, even contemplated crossing myself, dismissed the thought, and began to walk towards my new class at my new school.  The first step of my new life was here.

Once I had my kids, once I had sent off parents with reassurances and closed my classroom door, I looked across at the 25 kids who now sat wondering who this man happened to be.

“I am even more nervous about today than any of you might be of being in 5th grade.  This is your school, and for one of the few times in your career as a student, you have an advantage over your teacher…”

After admitting the truth so baldly, I began to slowly find my teacher voice again.  Expectations first, an introduction, followed by rules and responsibilities, and ultimately, content.  Nevertheless, almost as if I had flown across time zones, with a different recess time, and a different lunch time, my normal timing patterns were way off.  Still, I gamely put on my happy face, tried not to let the uncomfortableness show, and I even kept my promise with my refugee colleague to actually eat lunch in the lunch room–something I never, ever did at my old school site.

By the end of the day, I was finding stuff to complain about that made it seem like a new year truly had started.  I couldn’t get my computer printer to work.  My planbook software had been upgraded and seemed unfamiliar.  And there were no school shirts available to wear tomorrow morning for the school’s first Spirit Day of the new school year.  I teased my  principal that while I didn’t have green, I still had a number of bulldog shirts.

But, on second thought, I made it a point to remind myself that when I got home and found a green shirt I could wear tomorrow, I was also going to bag up the last of my old school’s spirit wear, 15 years worth, and donate it to charity this weekend.

I grabbed my backpack and headed towards the parking lot.

“See you tomorrow”, my principal called behind me.

I paused, smiled, and replied, “Yeah, yeah, I think I’ll come back again tomorrow.”

I walked out the door to chuckles following me.

Hello Kitty

Getting the dogs out…

A late August morning brought a break from the humidity that seemed to have descended upon Southern California like a damp dish rag.  A slight Autumn chill was present in the breeze I felt, as I gathered up my rolling cart and grabbed my backpack, preparing to drop Kate off at the babysitters.  I was heading off to my new classroom at my new school.

This was happening.  I was no longer a bulldog.  I was now a snow leopard.  Hello Kitty, indeed.

Boxes needed to be moved in order to get to the shelves we needed to use in order to empty out the boxes

Squeezed in between days off from my summer gig at the credit union, the race to get my classroom ready took on added exigency because I really only had 3 1/2 days to do a job that normally was something I would take 2 weeks doing.  Gone was the idea to put new fabric on the walls.  I’d just pull down the previous teacher’s flowerly borders and replace them with some mix of solid border in school colors.  But that would have to wait.  While my boxes had been moved from my old school to my new classroom, I needed to move them out of the way to get to my bookshelves to place them where I needed them to be.

Short on time, I turned to recruiting former students.  Summer plans and band camp got in the way for two of them, but talking to moms and older sisters finally got me 5 eager helpers to do what would amount to be the slow but necessary job of unloading the majority of the boxes that 2 of these same students had helped to pack back in June–the boxes which contained my classroom library.  As I drove into my school’s parking lot, there they were.

Two of my former students unload boxes, while the others tear down the decorations left behind by the former teacher, now retired.

After catching up with these 5 girls, ranging in age from middle school to college sophomore, we got to work.  Eventually, the bookshelves were moved into place, the classroom library was unloaded, and by the end of the first day, thanks to these girls’ help, the remaining tasks were those types of things that I pretty much had to do on my own.

While not obvious, we were making progress on that first day…

Eventually, my help had to leave for the day, and I continued to work on my own.  Offloading more boxes on my own, I determined that I needed to get an additional bookshelf to replace the several which had belonged to my old school site. Already the mental list of must-buy stuff was growing longer.  And while friends at my old school site were crowing on Facebook about how finished their own classrooms were, I was just starting.

With each new box opened, it seemed as if there was something else that needed to now get done…

The need to be at my summer job made me more and more apprehensive about what still remained to be done in my classroom.  I was now facing the emotional transition between leaving behind the wonderful people at the credit union where I had been encamped the past two months, trying to finish my classroom, and trying to make the emotional transition between where I had spent the entirety of my teaching career and this new room in this new school.  I am not even factoring my general nervousness of needing to prepare for Katelyn’s own transition into kindergarten in the midst of this career chane. Still, slowly it seemed, but quickly, given the little time I had to work, I could see things some together.  I re-bordered the walls, tearing down the final traces (save for her fabric choices) of the previous teacher.  I got the new bookshelf and continued to off-load books.  When a group of the staff gathered to review goals and objectives for the year last week, despite being dressed for the credit union, I tried to grab every moment I could during breaks to move a few things from my car to the room, or putting stuff away from the room. Admittedly, as the photos suggest, the school is organized around “pods” of classrooms.  They are open, with common areas in the center of each of the two buildings which comprise the school site.  I was still adjusting to the new site when my next-door neighbor came by to ask me to turn down my music, as I forgot the basic rule of shared space and the need to keep peace with the neighbor.  Meanwhile, more and more emptied boxes began to pile up outside my door.  I finally told my new principal, who had come to check on myself and other teachers working in their rooms, that I finally had the crap out of boxes and on top of desks.  Yes, progress was being made.

In the meantime, I slowly began to adjust to the different atmosphere and personality of this school.  Along with a fellow refugee from another school, both of us agreed that we were lucky to be here, along with other items of agreement that we had in common.  Summer was rapidly ending, and the school year, as is its wont, was coming on like a train.

By late this afternoon, I had moved out the remaining empty plastic storage containers that could find use in our garage at home.  I threw away remnants of old things I would no longer be needing, along with finding uses for some items that I hadn’t used in a number of year.  Our class lists arrived, and after meeting with my new team members at my grade level, my new circumstances were becoming more real by the moment.  By the time I was ready to leave, by 4:30, I had laid out my opening day, and I had even managed to sharpen my pencils early rather than waiting until the final moments before school started.  My room was ready for children, even I wasn’t quite there yet.

Close enough for government-subsidized work…

And as I walked out, I grabbed the last of the stuff I needed to throw out, some of which had sentimental value of a sorts, but were reminders to me of what I no longer was.

Whatever I was to become, now lay on the other side of tomorrow.

Summer, Outside My Window

EDD Visa Card – The Employment Development Department (EDD) Debit Card is now the way of delivering California Unemployment Insurance, Disability Insurance, and Paid Family Leave benefit payments. I had never seen one prior to this summer’s experience working in financial services; this was as close to a view of California’s outdoors that I would get this summer…

“I…I, use to be a real JERK! But now I’m a people guy.” 

– ZedPolice Academy 3: Back in Training

The member comes to my teller window with a large wine jug half filled with coins.  She’s dumped about half of the coins into the  branch’s coin counter, saving the rest for later, and is now looking to get her cash credit from her receipt.  As she attempts to balance her glass jug between her body and the too-small ledge of my teller window, the jar cracks, its integrity about to comprise itself by spilling the remaining contents on the floor of the at thread of the member line.  I tell her to hold tight, and I race to the back of the teller area, grabbing a salvaged cardboard box from a credit union supply order, and I bring it around in an effort to give her something with which to carry the now-useless jug back to her car.

I am being a people person.  It’s what I’ve been hired to be.

Member:  “Looks like I have to go get me a new bottle for these coins.”

Normally, I have nothing to say in response.  But not today…

Me:  “just imagine the fun y’all’ll have emptying the contents!”

Trying not to say anything in response has been a recurring theme in my summer.  This has been my summer job.

A random check of my checking account balance one night, took me to the link on the credit union’s home page that told me that my credit union is looking to hire educators as summer temp workers over the summer.  With my only summer school opportunity offered ultimately being a kindergarten class, and being inexplicably (or explicable, if I’d just ask them…) passed over for a second consecutive year of the UCI Summer Youth Program, I send my resume–primarily geared for teaching opportunities, not banking–in to their Human Resource Department for consideration.  This isn’t a lark, mind you, but I plan on not losing sleep on this sort of summer work opportunity that I feel is clearly out of my league.  There’s no flipping way they’d hire me now, right?

When the phone call comes to ask me to interview, I am stunned.  This has become real.  Especially when, during the actual interview, that I realize that my interviewer is probably going to offer me the job, calling me the type of “people person” that the credit union is looking for.  At this point, not wanting to blow this opportunity, I decide it best not to say anything.

As it stands, while not initially intentionally, I learn that the path to being successful at a teller window lies with not saying anything about what I will see just of outside of it.  My branch manager emphasizes that I should focus upon keeping the line moving, but, nevertheless, I have a front row seat for just about every type of transaction, human and financial, you’d expect to see in a credit union lobby.  Outside of my window, I witness real life.

On the surface, it’s ordinary going about one’s day: checks get cashed, people using the coin machine in our lobby, loan applications, loud children running about, questions about an account, members forgetting their ID in the car and having to answer personal questions about themselves that they have to rack their brains to recall.

You observe from your side of the window, but the unextraordinary nature of a day’s rhythm begs no comment–most times.

But there are still other things that I watch daily, where it’s best I just watch, and keep my words to myself.

For starters, I wordlessly admire my fellow team members go about their day  of member service.  This is a mixed group of personalities that I work with daily.  They range in their personalities from bubbly and hyper to quiet and patient.  I am still so impressed by how well they make things work on a daily basis.  I think to myself how I could internalize those lessons for my own use.  Part of me wonders if teachers, isolated for huge chunks of their work day in their classrooms with their students, miss out on the key moments for true teamwork that occur as we work through our day at the credit union.  No one in the branch seeks any more added attention that couldn’t be given to the member first.  While we swap experiences behind the scenes in place like the break room, the talk always finds itself back to deriving ways to maximize the member experience by increasing the quality of their service.  These are all good people, and I look forward to working with them each day I have a shift.

From watching my 11 fellow team members go about their jobs interchangeably and seemlessly, I realize that this summer had slowly become the best professional development I could have ever asked for.  In order to justify the credit union’s belief in what they seemed to see inside my own personality, I learn quickly to become that very person they think they’re getting when they hired me.  It is virtually impossible not to internalize their overriding memes towards outstanding member service.

Still, honestly, at times, it seems, as if the members view us less as an assistance, and more of an obstacle.  For instance, there was one member, dressed for that night’s Dodger game, in cap and dark sunglasses, visibly irritated when I  have to ask him for his ID when he asks for several hundred dollars out of his account.  There are other members who come to any of the teller windows, tossing their driver’s license and member cards into our trays.  Another member brings his son to my teller window with dollars so folded and bent that we have to manually, rather than electronically, deposit them into our vault that night.

We say nothing throughout this, because it would be commenting upon the unexplainable.

But even more striking to me is the ringside seat we are given to member’s daily financial struggles.

Several mothers  routinely come in to withdraw the small amounts in their children’s accounts,  juggling what she can to just to get through the week.

I see teachers and classified school district employees, slowly empty their summer saver accounts, even though we’re nowhere near the end of August.

I see the coin machine busy most days, as coins get converted into more liquid assets, often to just help a member get through to the end of the day or week.

I watch a member nearly break down, happy that I voluntarily reversed NSF fees on her checking account, because she needed to cash a $30 check the next day from a part time job that constitutes her sole source of income until the school year starts.

I see more than my share of cash advances on credit cards, or checking accounts slammed by NSF fees because some members fall prey to the storefront payday advance loans.

Another member comes in with a large check to deposit, out of line with her normal banking pattern.  Before we up the funds on a 2-day hold, we learn that the large check is her severance pay.  The member lost her job earlier in the day.

Several members come in with postdated checks written by their companies, because their companies lack the funds to pay them outright.

Finally, I hear another member blame all of these financial issues upon the influx of “illegal aliens” into California.

While all of these, and other, observations give me cause to comment, I keep them to myself.  I am learning that in order to be a people person, it’s often best to say as little as possible.

But then there are those times when there are no words.

One day, I am working my window when a member comes in to make a large withdrawal after cashing a check.  We talk for a moment, as she asks to put a note on her account that she’s traveling to North Carolina.  The note is so that she can have unfettered access to her ATM card.  She’s on her way to visit with her son’s military unit, about to return to Fort Bragg from Afghanistan.

She wants to pay her respects to them, to thank them.

It seems that early last year, her son, while on patrol as a gunner in an armored personnel carrier, was killed in action.

I wish I could find the words to say something.