To my future child

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It is something magical, to be able to peer inside of your mother’s tummy to see your perfectly forming outline shimmering in sepia.

The technician pressed the little ultrasound knob harder and harder, jiggling it around impatiently atop you, to try and get you to turn, as if she were trying to entice a fish, but you shrank away into the depths, as if you knew you were being looked at. She slowly took the measure of each and every one of your bones, and we could see your little feet and hands flailing, lit like candescent bulbs. You liked curling around yourself and kept turned towards your mother’s spine. We could see your brain, the flow of blood through your developing veins. We could see and hear the fluttering of your heart, still split into halves. The technician kept making your mother turn from side, to side, and back again, to try and see you in profile.

You were still sort of amphibian, a primeval force swimming in the darkness, your segmented spine twisting like a little stem.

But then, finally, there was your face, already singular, universally human, projected as an image before your mother and father and a weary technician, holding hands in this little room on the 10th floor on the east side of Manhattan.

It struck me then that I too am developing, shedding my vestigial self-involvement to become a father. I will be your father. This is no longer a thought, a hope, a fear. This is what will be. My soul grows towards the moment when I will see your face in the light of the sun, and hold you and speak to you and call your name.

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A letter from beyond the walls

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It’s been a while since I’ve scribed anything of any sort over the last god-knows-how-long. I wonder sometimes if I’m experiencing the addictive satiation of social media that everyone with a smartphone seems to be so haply skewered by, whether it’s reducing my cognitive and spiritual capacity. As of late, I feel often unfocused, tired, and unwilling to engage in much beyond the reading of newsfeeds, science and education articles, because there’s always something critically important just beyond the next scroll downward.

Perhaps I’m simply getting older. It’s harder to get myself out the door for a run (it is “winter,” if you can call what NYC has been experiencing thus far as such, but still). It is harder to feel compelled to respond to emails from anyone asking for my time and energy for things that don’t relate to what I need to get done tomorrow. Or maybe I’m just simply depressed.

Full disclosure: last month I discovered myself standing in the middle of my living room weeping, not entirely certain why. When I examined the blubbering’s antecedent, I had just gotten off the phone to my parents. So I guess I realized just how much I miss my family, way out there on the West Coast. I’m not a sentimental sort of person, so this was surprising to me, this missing of family.

And maybe I just felt overwhelmed and stressed at work, because Novembers in any school year are always hard.

Or maybe I was just feeling old. I’m nearing what statistically speaking could be determined as the median of my life’s parabola.

Perhaps it was also that I realized, 8 years into living in NYC, that I’m lonely. I know people, but I don’t know people. Hell, I don’t know myself anymore.

All of those things.

So I’m growing a beard. The un-manicured kind. It now feels like a ginger mat of fur splayed out my chin, which is fun to rub.

I furthermore obtained a set of tabla drums, and assuming I can force myself to haul them downtown on a Thursday night, I’ll begin taking lessons. I’ve decided that my brain has been getting too set into narrow ways, and I need to wire some new connections.

Teaching is certainly a rewarding profession, but I’m missing having any sense of self or capacity that extends beyond the work that I do. Which brings me back to this.

Writing.

The toughest damn thing in the world.

If it was easy, I would have written that book I was supposed to write 4 years ago already. Writing a blog post that nobody ever reads is hard enough as it is.

I know enough not to make myself any promises, but it’s clear that when I fail to write regularly, I lose an essential connection to myself. It is through this mundane connection that I no longer feel alone.

Here’s to continued future scribblings of the soul.

Smoothing Out the Kinks

The Path

I’ve sustained an injury that has prevented me from running most of this summer, and in some ways, the story of that injury serves as an adept allegory for larger issues ongoing in my life.

First, for those of you (i.e. ALL of you) who haven’t been following this blog since 2005[1], I’m a runner. Not a marathon running-check-my-heart-rate[2]
kind of runner, just someone who runs. Because it brings joy and fosters well-being. I don’t run far, but I run fast, and I like running alone and somewhere peaceful, like by the water or in the woods.

I had major shin splints in high school while running track and cross-country, and discovered (thanks to a well-informed employee at my local shoe store) that I was over-pronating, so I got a shoe that fixed me right up and has served me well in the 15 or so years since, such that I haven’t ever sustained ANY injuries until now. Pretty amazing for a runner, apparently. That shoe is the Brooks Adrenaline GTS, and I highly recommend it if you are a runner and require more support in a shoe.

Two years ago, I got swept up in the barefoot running craze, as I have documented on this here blog, and shucked my ample GTS cushioning for the unsupportive, callous inducing barefoot lifestyle of running. Not completely barefoot, mind you — I’ve been running in Vibram FiveFingers. It was rough at first–it took me a whole summer to adapt– but once I broke in my feet and adjusted my form, I fell in love. Not only does barefoot running appeal to my philosophical biases for self-sufficiency and natural principles, but it also just feels really good, as it seems to better stretch and work out your feet and legs during a run.

The injury that has reared its evil head is a muscle strain in my right leg, which tells me that something has been wrong for some time in the way my right foot has been striking the ground. The symptoms are inflammation right under my kneecap and–especially–on point of my hip. When this started up, I first tried to run through it, but it only got worse. So then I gave in to the inevitable and stopped running to see if some R&R would make it go away.

It didn’t. I tried running after a break of 2 weeks and it flared right back up, as if it had never subsided. The frustrating part about this is that the summer is the one time during the year that I can finally run consistently almost every day and get myself back into shape. What happens when I don’t run? Beers go straight to my belly. It’s disconcerting how quickly my gut begins to protrude. Now, yes, I COULD go to a gym, but that goes against my aforementioned philosophical bias for self-sufficiency. Plus, I just think they are nasty and don’t want to be around a bunch of stinky strangers when I work out.

So my belly has been slowly distending as I’ve been waiting, fruitlessly, for my injury to subside. I finally realized that I had to do something about it. But I’m wary of doctors, and I’m skeptical of the ability of a doctor to tell me much that I don’t already know. I decided that I would find a good deep tissue massage therapist, instead. I like getting deep tissue massages, and I get them for myself as a treat once a year or once every 2 years, depending on my budget. I see it as a necessary “defragmenting” of my body, a way to purge built up tensions and knots that accumulate over time. But I’ve never gone specifically to a masseuse for the purpose of physical therapy for an injury, so I wanted to make sure I got one who was decent.

I found one via a quick Google Maps search for “deep tissue massage,” and after checking out her website and seeing that Trey Anastasio had given her a positive review, I figured she must be aight. She was. She pinpointed some major knots in my back I wasn’t even cognizant were there, as well as introduced me to the incredible pain that is the IT band massage.

She informed me that as an active person, I should really be getting a massage more frequently. When I delicately let her know that I can’t afford such luxuries, she charitably gave me an insider tip about using a “foam roller” to give self-massages[3].

I don’t know about you, but I’d never heard of these things (probably cuz I’ve never gone to the gym). Given my proclivity for self-sufficiency, it certainly seemed right up my alley, so I went ahead and ordered me one. They’re cheap.

I’ve started using it, and let me tell you, rolling around on your IT band is no joke. It’s incredibly painful[4]. It brings tears to my eyes. But it’s made it fairly apparent to me that my right IT band must be getting strained and perhaps at the heart of my injury, because there is major pain all along it. I’m thinking that if I continue to iron it out, it should do much to alleviate the strain keeping me from running.

So I ordered me a new pair of Brooks Adrenaline GTS 12. I’m not giving up on barefoot running completely, nor do I blame it for the injury, though I think it played its part (I’ll get more into that in a moment). I plan on easing back into running with daily foam rolling as physical therapy, and the increased cushioning of my running shoes to help to ease the strain. Once I’ve gotten back into rhythm, I want to go back to my Vibrams, though I might never go back to full-time barefooting. I’ll see how it plays out. All I care about, at the end of the day, is that I’m running.

What are the causes of the injury? Is barefoot running to blame?

There’s a number of factors that could have played into it. They are as follows:

  • During the school year, I run more and more inconsistently as the year progresses, due both the shortened days and coldness of winter, and because of an increasing exhaustion. Teaching special education in the South Bronx, in case you didn’t know, is demanding work
  • When I did go out for a run, I was most likely going out harder than I should have, given the time that might have elapsed since the last run
  • I wore old dress shoes with heels to work intermittently, and I had a bit of a walk from the train station. I generally tried to wear a barefoot style shoe that I have, but they look kinda funny, so when I wanted to look good for whatever reason, or if there was ice on the ground, I wore my dress shoes
  • I am getting older. I know 33 isn’t that old, but I ain’t no spring chicken anymore, neither. I may not be able to get away with the same level of body stress I once could
  • A few months ago, I sliced open my big toe on my right foot, had to get 7 stitches, and apparently severed some kind of nerve, because I can no longer bend the toe completely, which may have subtly altered my running form
  • I think either my legs are different lengths, or my hips are askew[5]

Any or all of these factors, combined with the reduced support of barefooting, could have easily resulted in the strain that I have incurred.

Well, OK, so now that I’ve thoroughly bored you with the details of my diagnosis, how does any of this serve as an allegory for other life issues, as I suggested at the outset of this post?

Basically, it has to do with the principles of myofascial release that I’ve learned from my massage therapist and from foam rolling. When you hit a point of stress, you press on it until it relaxes, then you iron it out through the length of the muscle, kind of like rolling out dough. It’s akin to exorcism. By calling out the point of stress that had been hitherto unnamed and stepped daintily around, you then force it to abandon its temporary abode. The longer that you’ve ignored this encroaching negative spirit, the more painful it is to dispel.

How apropo this concept is to our emotional lives, is it not? In terms of my own life, I’ve been under a lot of stress. This year in my job was easier in some ways, but harder in others. This is something I’m still trying to work through and write about. And I’ve been letting many of my feelings remain unvoiced. And over time, those feelings began to get knotted, and embedded, and tangled, and then began to seep into and infect other areas of my life, such that eventually all I knew was that I felt tired, unsuccessful, unsensual, unmotivated, and uncentered.

This dim feeling and lethargy has pervaded even my summer, and in this way, my injury serves as its allegory. As if the strain in my leg embodied the strain in my heart. I had gotten to a point where I felt as if I could no longer write, no longer run; in short, I had lost my mojo. This wasn’t any form of overt depression, by the way. It was more like something that lurked behind every day, but was easily subsumed behind the hustle and bustle of my busy mind and life. In this way, it gathered. It gathered, and I ignored it. This is how storms gather in our bodies and in our hearts.

And so the allegory of this injury is the allegory of an emotional life. We must go to our points of pain, and we must lay them bare, push them down until they run. And that alone is not enough. We must then pursue them, all the way down along the path from which they’ve mounted, until we have pushed them out, evicted them, banished them. But we must be ever vigilant, for each new day brings new barbs of tension, and the longer we ignore them and wish them away and pretend, the deeper they embed themselves. Until we find ourselves, one day, in that place of hopeless despair, and must reach for help from another, and others reach down their hands to us and help us back to our feet, and then inform us, gently, that the path to healing is our own, and we must go back to that place of darkness alone, but here is a gift of knowledge to support you on your journey.

Here, this is my gift. Thank you for following me thus far.

1 Before blogging, I sent out emails of my writing. I have most of those logged here as well, dating back to 1998

2 I did purchase a heart rate monitor recently, but I’ll post more on that later

3 Just as a side note, now that I’ve found her, I will certainly go back to her when I am able to afford it. I highly recommend her if you’re in NYC.

4 Painful doesn’t quite do this feeling justice. It’s not quite pain, so much as being extremely uncomfortable and wanting it to stop. It reminds me of the feeling of sitting in an ice bath up to your hips. Our gym at my high school had a giant ice bath, and after a few minutes, right before you go numb, the same feeling of burning discomfit hits you. You have to force yourself to stay in until it goes away.

5 Interestingly, I haven’t really thought about it until now, but when I was younger, I ran to jump over a tennis court net, and my foot got caught in it, so I landed right on my hip. I was too embarrassed to tell my parents about it, and though it hurt for a while afterwards, eventually it went away. That’s the exact hip that is hurting now. Possible I may have fucked it up that long ago and it just showed up now after moving to unsupportive shoes.

The MLK Memorial and Me

In February, I went to a conference in D.C. My wife came down to join me afterwards. We don’t get out much, and I’ve barely seen much of my East Coast environs, barring last year’s visit to Philly. At the top of our list of things to see was the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial. It was the newest memorial, and also slightly controversial.

As we approached the memorial, we read quotations from MLK’s speeches that are engraved along a wall that leads up to his statue. We then walked around the central monument, which depicts MLK with his arms crossed, embedded in a chunk of granite mountain that appears to have slid forward from its face (Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope). His hands are sinewy and strong, veins bulging, and his eyes gaze stoically across the water. There is a sense of calm and might, but also a deep sense of tragedy. The unfinished look of the overall work contributes to this sense.

We took our obligatory picture, and then my wife asked if I could take her picture in front of one of the quotations we had passed earlier along the wall.

“It reminds me of you,” she said, somewhat shyly. We walked back over and I took her picture in front of the quotation, which reads:

“I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their heads.”

She seemed to feel that the reason why I am a teacher and work hard each and every day related to something like the sentiment expressed in that quotation. I couldn’t quite see myself in it, however.

This post is my explanation of why.

A little further down the wall, I saw another quotation that did speak deeply to me and about what I am passionately committed to in my work:

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalty must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

I took a picture of this one as well. We then walked away from the MLK memorial towards the Roosevelt memorial, which is a long, meandering wall and pathway of red stone with various niches and spaces for reflection along the way. Quotations from F.D.R. are sprinkled next to reflective pools, waterfalls, and scattered stones. But it was a quote in a little niche from his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, that reached out most to me. And it links together in theme with that quotation from MLK:

“The structure of world peace can not be the work of one man, or one party, or one nation . . . It must be a peace that rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world.”

This theme of common purpose, of a struggle for a global, overarching vision through cooperative effort, is what drives me and motivates me to do the work that I do. I was flattered by my wife’s belief that I do what I do because of a deep-seated passion for social justice, but there was a cognitive dissonance I didn’t feel comfortable with in that first quote. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but it seems to have to do with some underlying sense of martyrdom (“I have the audacity to believe. . .”), a stance of personal virtue, nobility, and provocation that I don’t fully identify with.

A passion for a moral mission, bordering at times on the messianic, is a trait of some that enter into teaching or social service as a profession. It is common for teachers to speak of teaching as a “calling,” as if they have been drawn into the vocation by a force beyond their ken. I am frequently talked to by others who are not teachers as if I have forsaken the realm of mere mortals and ascended into an alien sainthood, given the wary respect and sympathy attributed to a monk — that is, with an incredulous, I-would-never-do-that-myself-but-god-bless-you sort of attitude.

This has always rubbed me the wrong way. Teaching is a profession. It is a career. And yes, it is a tough one, and it is especially tough when teaching special education in a high needs school in an impoverished inner city area. But I moved into this tough career not simply because I wanted to make my world a better place (yes, I am an idealist), but because I wanted — purely selfishly — to develop myself as a leader and a person, to learn firsthand the ground level effects of political and policy decisions, and become a part of something much greater than myself.

I have no illusions that I am changing the world simply because I may impact a handful of childrens’ lives in the confines of one classroom. I realize this is sacrilegious to say. This is critically important work and the impact on one child’s life cannot be diminished. But I believe strongly that the larger system within which we work impacts our nation’s future ever more greatly. We can change the world by working together with others to alter aspects of that system we work and live within. Teachers, parents, children, policymakers, state legislatures, mayors, citizens, these are the people that collectively can change the world. I want to learn to look beyond my individual self and work towards a common, global purpose.

This is why the second quotation from MLK and Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotation spoke to me. I’d like to think that I as an individual can influence great change, but realistically speaking, I know that whatever impact I can have on my own is nothing in comparison to what we can achieve when we work together.

Assaulted

It was a Saturday afternoon, 3:30. I was returning from a long overdue run, a habit I have difficulty maintaining in winter. I could tell something was going on in the courtyard in front of my apartment building, because people were ambling over to it, as people are wont to do when drama is occuring in public spaces. I circled around them and approached around the side. Some guy in a baseball cap was screaming at a girl.

My mistake was in not taking the situation seriously enough. It was my building, after all, on a Saturday afternoon. This guy and his problems were in my way.

These are mere excuses.

Think of how I must have looked to him. A white boy, wearing strange running clothes, my old lightweight jacket much too small. Vibram FiveFingers on my feet. In the midst of the gathering handful of Dominican men, I was the one who stood out. I’ve learned, since moving to NYC, that I am much smaller than the average city male. I was a perfect target in that moment.

In that moment, as men gathered to watch him in his turmoil, his eyes locked on mine. His face was bloodied. He had been in an altercation. He was charged with anger and shame. He was taller and heavier than I.

“What the fuck are you looking at, white boy?”

He charged. I backed up, not quite believing that anyone would just begin assaulting a stranger without any reason. He did.

I ducked and backed up and ran a little bit. Apparently, this was an invitation to him for full on onslaught. On hindsight, the smart thing would have been to run completely. I would have easily outpaced him. But part of me was outraged. This was my building! So I stopped and faced him, as he commenced swinging. He missed most of his punches, but grabbed my jacket and threw me down on the sidewalk and dragged me down to the corner of the street.

I managed to mostly maintain my balance and get back to my feet after landing on my knees, but he was on me, kicking and punching. I was able to avoid any serious blows, but I could sense in that moment that I was utterly overpowered. I was a victim.

“Fuck you, cracker! Fuck you, cracker!” he shouted with every attempted blow. I was the representation for him of everything that had gone wrong in his life. The vessel for his release of anger, shame, and fear.

Before he could cause any serious damage, a couple of the bigger bystanders chased him away.

“Never come back here again!” two of them shouted, as the guy backed away down the street cussing them out.

One of them made sure I was OK, and continually assured me that this sort of thing doesn’t happen around here (unfortunately, not entirely true. My neighborhood isn’t exactly the pinnacle of peace. My wife witnessed a man stabbed in broad daylight last year). I nodded and shook his hand. I wasn’t all that shaken up, all things considered. In my last 2 years in the classroom, aggression and violence were unfortunately somewhat common, so perhaps I wasn’t as prone to getting emotionally aggravated (at least, not immediately). I was bleeding in places, but otherwise intact. He seemed to have landed a kick or punch to the back of my head, and a few on my body, but nothing on my face.

It turns out that he had been in some kind of fight with his “friends” who lived in my building, and had been beaten up with a glass bottle (hence the bleeding face).

Later that night, as I lay in bed, I kept reliving those moments in my mind. “Your heart is racing,” my wife told me.

This was the worst aftereffect of senseless violence, the replaying, over and over. Asking myself why I didn’t immediately attack. Angry at myself for letting myself get into the space of a person who was obviously in a heightened state of aggression. I recognized that if this hadn’t happened in the middle of the day, I knew that I would have been seriously hurt.

I could tell myself that I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the fact is, I let my guard down and I walked into a situation without better assessing the danger. This could have been avoided.

Lesson learned.

Reflections on 2011 and Beyond

Reflections on the year entire and milestones reached, and a special goal for the oncoming year shared.

It’s the end of another year, and rather than compile a numbered list of the best of 2011 or make predictions about the year to come, I’d like simply to reflect on what this year has been, and ruminate on what my goals might be for the oncoming year.

My sense of this year–in the traditional sense of a year–is somewhat skewed, since January through June was still “last year” as far as school life is concerned, and that last school year was vastly different than my current school year. So I’ll start there. For that stray, wonderful soul out there that already knows this information, just skim over it.

I am now in my third school year of teaching special education at an elementary school in the Bronx. My first two years, I was in a self-contained setting, which meant that I was the sole teacher with the assistance of a paraprofessional in a classroom of up to 12 kids (I think my first year I had 9, then last year I had 8, so I guess I was fortunate in that sense; though something you quickly learn in special education is not to gauge solely by numbers) some of whom were undergoing acute emotional or psychological stress or dealing with early childhood trauma. So at the beginning of this year, 2011, I was struggling with meeting the needs of my second class of students. Compared to my 1st year, these students were collectively less aggressive and they were generally a pleasure to be with, though we certainly had some rough days. I had two very challenging students in the emotional sense, though they all presented great challenges in the academic and social needs sense. Some refused to do any work at all, and some worked very hard, yet demonstrated little progress.

I obtained my master’s degree in June from The City College of New York. Not really an accomplishment in and of itself, but an accomplishment in the sense that I was taking those classes on top of the already plentifully demanding work as a full time teacher in a high needs school. So that’s my first personal milestone of 2011.

My second personal milestone is that during the summer, I got married to a wonderful broad from New York City who crossed my star out in Lake Tahoe 5 years ago, and who ended up lugging me out here to the East Coast. We were fortunate enough to get the chance (thanks to my parents) to honeymoon in Kauai. Truly a marvelous cap to a challenging 3 years since moving out here to NYC.

Then I commenced my 3rd year teaching. In all respects, it’s been something of a honeymoon there, too. I was shifted from a self-contained setting to an inclusion setting, where I now am a co-teacher in a mixed classroom of 19 special education and general education students. These students might be far behind academically speaking, but they do not have the kind of aggressive behaviors I was dealing with prior. I have not been assaulted, and they only rarely get into verbal tiffs with each other. They are truly sweet, lovely children to be around (though they can’t stop talking), and I know I am lucky this year and I try to cherish it as much as I can while in the thick of things.

Working with another teacher presents its own set of challenges, but it provides a relief from administrative burdens. I’m not good at communicating with parents on the phone, and she’s great at it. She helps plan lessons and grade assignments. I also learn from my co-teacher and appreciate the perspective she brings to our classroom, given that she grew up in the same neighborhood as our students and can tap into that experience to connect with them. We have lunch together and I learn just from listening to her crazy stories. All in all, I get the impression that the South Bronx today–though it certainly isn’t topping any Yahoo lists of best places to live–ain’t nothing like it used to be.

My third personal milestone this year was that I turned 33. Nothing special in particular about that, except that 3 is my lucky number. Hoo-rah!

But now it’s a new year (almost), and I know that I am not the best educator nor person that I can be. I feel like I’ve reached some sort of plateau, in which I am in danger of falling into complacency. If I am not challenging myself, nor being challenged, then I question my purpose, my identity, my integrity.

So I enter the new year with some trepidation, but also with the firm resolve to do better. Better for my wife, better for my students, and better for myself. I’m not going to burden you with a laundry list of my personal or professional goals, which I’ve already done plenty enough of throughout this year, but there is one goal that I would like to share with you:

This year, I am going to write a book. You heard it here first.

Happy New Year to all.

My 3rd Year in Teaching Special Education Commences

A new school year hath begun. Thankfully, this year portends to be dramatically different then my last 2 years of 5th grade special education teaching in the S. Bronx have been. This difference is largely attributable to a change in setting: I’ve been shifted from a self-contained classroom to an inclusion classroom. On top of this, I have more experience now — even though it sometimes doesn’t feel like it — and I have a co-teacher to help alleviate the burden. I am also no longer taking Master’s classes during the week. All of this has converged to provide an experience that is substantially less stressful and emotionally/physically devastating.

Realizing just how big a difference in challenge the change in special education setting really is, it makes me all the more appalled that we send our most inexperienced educators into classrooms with the students with the greatest needs. It’s a disservice to new teachers, but more importantly, it’s a disservice to our students.

But such is the crash course into the dire reality that exists at the core of a loosely run and obesely large educational system. I’ve gained a newfound depth of respect for the public educators and social service workers who are out there in the trenches everyday doing their best to carve out spaces of safety and sanity for children with exceptional learning needs. And I’ve gained a newfound respect for the families and children that live under conditions that test their strength of character and resolve in ways unfathomable to those who have not struggled with the chronic and acute stress of poverty combined with learning challenges. I’ve learned that we have to be simultaneously systematic and radical in our approaches to working within these conditions. Rigorous and flexible. Unwavering, yet relaxed. Loving, and firm. In short — tight-wire balanced. Kind of like running barefoot.

My goals this year for my school:

  • Push for democratically appointed grade level team leaders who will act as a liason between the team and the administration (distributed leadership)
  • Leverage grade level teams to develop curriculum collaboratively on the Google Docs infrastructure I set up last year
I’m leaving it at that this year, because I’ve realized that less is more when it comes to trying to implement change within a school. The marathon battle begins.