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Is Suicide Ever Right?

17 Jun

I would like to open a discussion on the topic of a person taking his or her life. We call it by the term “suicide.” The suicide recently, of a friend has spurred the revisiting of an older post. On the heels of California becoming the fifth state to legalize a “right to die” for patients, the events of this trying week beg the question: Is suicide ever the right thing to do?
Before I move into a bit of conversation, I would like us to make certain to spend a little extra time lingering over those hugs with our kids, spouses, families, and friends. We must state our love in words and in actions. One never knows how long we have on this earth, which leads me to the next point. The facts are that even with all of these loving expressions, we live in a world that is tainted by evil and sin. We live in bodies that are faulty, and riddled with chemical imbalances, at times. We are frail and all of us one breath from the end of life here on earth. We also live in a world that would swallow us up, as a vortex vanquishes its volume. The pressures are great on us all.
For me, there is no mistaking the fact that evil exists, and that some people are tempted by internal and external forces to end their lives. The culture of death and abuse in which we live is pervasive. Many young people are not seeing their futures as full of purpose, and that is our fault as Americans. There is also no mistaking the fact that there are other factors that can cause people to “feel” hopeless, and convince themselves there is only one way to deal with this hopelessness. These feelings are real. These feelings are heightened beyond reality, sometimes. They are feelings, nonetheless. I am left to wonder the extent that biology plays into depression and destructive thoughts.
With that last query in mind, I know firsthand the thyroid deficiencies that cause irrational thoughts and bizarre behaviors. I am aware of the depression that haunts some people, due to chemical imbalances, bipolarism, or PTSDs–and even child sexual abuse. The threat of suicide by all should be taken seriously by loved ones and friends. A person living with “harmed and fractured insides” sometimes believes that such harm is a norm and that what we would call “additional harm” may be viewed as that person’s “additional norm.” When this happens, something is wrong inside the person. Add to this some form of chemical or substance abuse, and the brain is all cross-circuited, and emotions are imbalanced. The brain both affects and is affected by biology and chemistry. Emotions and the brain are inseparable, especially so for girls and women.
As a Christian man, I can assure you that praying for people is the right thing to do. Miracles do occur. I have seen some. But God gives us common sense also, and sometimes prayer has to be coupled with professional assistance and treatment. Asking a person to simply pray their way out of depression, or for healing from a fractured youth is one thing. Walking through these issues has to be accomplished by the person first admitting there is a problem. This is where there is often a hang up.
As quickly as we go to the doctor for a physical disease, the same should be done for something problematic emotionally and mentally. However, getting the right help with the right worldview is critical. I am no physician, and certainly I am not a psychotherapist. But I am a man of common sense and signs of trouble are perceptible if we take the time to see them and act accordingly. They are easily missed, and even more easily dismissed–until it is too late. Having said all of this, permit me to address some issues for additional conversational purposes.
First, Jesus, in offering up His life and being in command of the moment it ended, has been accused of suicide by some critics. I would like to know the differences between giving up one’s life by choice, and ending one’s life by choice. They are both ends of life by choice. Is it in the purpose that we consider one not as suicide and the other, as such? Love to know your thoughts.
Second, if a military person charges directly into the line of fire, we call this person a hero—even if it means his life is ended. Is this suicide to do so, knowing the outcome is certain death? On the other hand, again, is it in the purpose for which the life ended that allows the removal of the label of suicide? Can it ever be heroic for a person to take his or her own life, albeit for a higher cause–even if it means pain in the present? I have heard people say, “They would be better off without me, in the long run.” Some people actually think they are choosing a higher path, in their own minds. That is the issue. They see this negative as a positive. In a disabled mental or emotional state, one’s mind can confuse purposeful actions.
Therefore, third, is it possible for a person to be in such a confused state that ending his or her own life is to be viewed as equal to sacrifice for a higher cause? The converse of this is whether suicide is a cheap and selfish way out of problems a person sees not end to, and it is ultimately purposeless, irrational, and devoid of anything heroic. I have always said, if those who kill themselves by their own choice, could float above the room in which their family and friends gather, and see the devastation and grief their actions leave behind in the people they claim to love, they might very well wish to un-choose their actions. Yes, this is only speculation. But, we struggle to understand reasons why people would be tormented by thoughts of death and destruction.
If we trace the family history, sometimes is seems as if others in the family’s past have also committed the destructive act. But this is not always the case for the first person in the family to carry out the act. But now there is a precedent and a bridge crossed for others to more easily justify the action for themselves. I have heard people say, “I have suicidal thoughts because my mom and grandfather committed suicide.”
Some argue this is a spiritual issue. Others argue it is genetic and that mental illnesses are passed on. I think there is a sensible position in the middle, where both explanations might can fit as factors. Certainly drugs can cause a person to commit irrational acts—whether prescription or not. We must understand that death is not a part of life, like a nap from which we awaken later. Death is the cessation of physical life. Taking one’s life with the hope that there is an eternal life, lessens the value of this temple we are given–the very house of the Holy Spirit and new creations, at that! This leads me to the ultimate question: If the last act committed by a Christian is a sin—in the case of suicide, which a crime against oneself and a sin to God, as well as the stumbling other believers—does this person find himself in the presence of the Lord, and ultimately heaven? I do not know the answer to this question. I have my beliefs and these are strong beliefs–but I simply do not know. This is where my faith comes in.
I did not originate life and I do not control its ends and the eternal state of created souls. Certainly we cannot practice anything we want at any time, and think our lives are in line with the Almighty. What is more, we cannot expect those in their right minds, who rake their lives, to be accountable. Inasmuch as a small child’s brain is not fully developed to be accountable for his or her actions, I also believe there are probably some adults whose brains, hearts, and minds are so injured that they are not accountable for their actions, either. My only dilemma is whether or not all suicides fit this accountability factor. Again, that’s up to the Almighty.
In summation, here are six questions to consider:
(1) How is killing another the same, or different from killing self? Is killing still killing?
(2) If suicide ever justified for the believer, if it means saving someone else from harm?
(3) Is suicide an unpardonable sin, since the person deceased cannot repent and ask for forgiveness, after the fact?
(4) Is there purposeful suicide to alleviate suffering, whereby the person saves others from having to deal with the individual any longer?
(5) If a physician assists in a patient’s suicide, by his or her choice, is that really suicide, or murder—or both?
(6) What reasons are there biblically, and what theological context is there, to say categorically that suicide keeps one out of heaven, or does not keep one from heaven?
Thanks for reading and thanks, in advance, for your comments. Please keep them respectful.

Coming Out . . . The Genius of It All

2 Mar


A few years back, our school newspaper published an article titled, “Sexuality loses meaning as it becomes career booster.” The title, in-and-of-itself, was an oxymoron. The very thing that enhances careers is indeed meaningful. In fact, the claim of “sexuality” at all has become and “enigmatic enhancement” of the first order. How’s THAT for an oxymoron?

But semantics aside, titles are meant to catch people’s attention. What is it about today’s culture, anyway? Everyone seems to be defining themselves by their sexuality. The stars in the media always have to come across as sexy. Clothes have to be sexy. Food has to be sexy. Then there are mouthwashes, toothpastes, cars, whatever! Sex sells, I guess. Being sexy-gay, and metro-sexual also sell in today’s culture. Even Facebook has caved to the pressures of sexual expression, called by progressives as “gender identity.”

In that issue of the school newspaper, comments by students were printed in response to others, who have chosen alternative lifestyles. Isn’t everyone’s lifestyle an alternative one? Titles really do not define us, and neither do nicknames. What they do, though, is capture attention. Consequently, if a person favors traditional marriage, he or she is labeled “anti-homosexual,” or a homophobe.” Attention pushes emotions and thus, fads are born. High school campuses are replete with fads. Sex is just one more fad. However, fads based on sexuality are just a bit different, in that people seem to think their sex and gender are who they are.

The Genius of It All

Here is an example. If I call myself a genius, a born genius, and I am someone who joins up with groups of geniuses—and even begin to wear the “attire of the genius” groups, use the language of geniuses, etc.–I am perceived by these actions as a genius. But am I truly a genius? Would a genius seek to be one so desperately that he must come out as one and join a group?

Taking things even farther, I could even have participated in a community parade of geniuses and protested people of ordinary intelligence, calling them all hater of geniuses, if they dared to speak of the ordinary in ways that validated their ordinary intelligence. All things considered, do any of these actions mean I am a genius? Participation in the actions that some equate with lifestyle does not necessarily equate to the conclusion that I am a genius. I could bear the title of GENIUS and not be one. What is more, I could claim to have been born a genius, only to arrive later in life at the realization that I am quite an “ordinary genius.” Talk about oxymorons?

We live in a heightened state of sexual identity today, media-driven to be sure! How else would high schoolers—or anyone for that matter—know their sexuality, absent the practice? In my opinion, the titles we ascribe to our identities are not the real points of identification. Just like one’s beliefs, names are just that—NAMES. It is the actual, continued practice that defines us, in my opinion. Attraction is not the main issue. In the same way no one can claim to be a potato because of one’s regular cravings, attractions–and even addiction–for french fries, no one can say they are heterosexual or homosexual merely by attraction, or sexual lust. I’ll return to this conclusion a bit later. One thing is certain: We are all born sexual.

In case no one has paid attention yet, allow me to open a door and reveal this truth. We, the human race, are sexual creatures. Did you hear me? WE ARE SEXUAL. Why should we have to go around labeling ourselves by culturally-spotlighted titles? Why should heterosexuals and homosexuals have to somehow be certain that their sexuality is front-and-center? Think about it. Why do we have “sexuality clubs” on school campus? The Gay and Straight Alliance (GSA) is a club titled after sexual orientation and practice? Is being “straight” a belief or a practice? Or is it a world-view? Or better yet is it an inalienable right to be homosexual, found somewhere in Jefferson’s Declaration, or Locke’s Natural Rights?

Considering Teenagers

How do teens ever know what they are, unless they practice something long enough to know? Are high schoolers even oriented yet? Their brains and bodies are changing daily. Do we expect that teens WILL inevitably experiment with sexuality to discover their orientation? I hope not. That is quite dangerous. So, what purpose does a “sexual-titled” club have? I’d love to hear of the celibate homosexual–talk about the ultimate in doublespeak!!!

Any Google search will produce the answers to the questions just raised. There are places all over the nation popping up that base their identity on sexuality—as far down as middle and elementary schools. However, instead of going Google, many young people are going “Gaga.” Here is one such recent example:

The Youth Empowerment Summit (YES)

YES took place at Everett Middle School, just one of dozens of locations in the past few years. YES remains a FREE conference, sponsored by GSA Network for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, questioning, and straight ally youth dedicated to fostering safe schools and youth activism. The conference is open to all youth and allies, with a focus on middle school and high school. Adults and teachers are welcome. Under the guise of “bullying,” the homosexuality agenda has made its was into all the corners of our kids lives.

It is not a moot issue to ask why not have a BSC Club too (Bi-Sexual Curious club). What about a Transgender Club? Many GSAs include these other orientations and lifestyles as protectionary, for those choose to proclaim a different sexuality. If gays do not feel comfortable in places, based upon their sexuality, then bisexuals and transgenders will probably feel just as uncomfortable. Should all sexual expressions have their own club? I would like to know just what “alliance” is formed between students of different sexual expressions? What about the “teenagers with crushes on their teachers clubs”? I’ll stop there at the edge of absurdity.

Why can’t we just stick to clubs period, you know, those that enhance civic participation and not sexuality? Why does sexuality have to be the open door? I shudder to think that demonstrating sexual practice is somehow one’s civic duty. Does there have to be a heterosexual community service club and a homosexual service club? Could we ever envision a non-gender club? Hmmm. How about naming it the Interact Club, where everyone interacts? What about Rotary, or Lions Clubs?

What About the Celibates?

What I am pointing out in this article, and hopefully the reader is catching some of my sarcasm and facetious allusions, along the way, is that we are all sexual creatures– including celibates? Those folks are defined by their LACK of practice, or orientation. Are they born that way, or is it a choice? Do we have opportunities for them to be celibate, and are they offended by all of this intolerable sex-talk? Celibates are still male or female, therefore sexual. I would like to see the statistics on gay celibates–those who have never had sex before. I would enjoy a discussion to discover how celibates know they are gay. The norm never has to explain itself. It is pure silliness to think that just attraction and even physical lust makes one gay, yet these are the primary determinants of one’s “same-sex-ploration,” if you will, all pigeonholed by the phrase “born that way.”

We live in a society that is so afraid to discuss the gay-issue, for fear of being labeled a homophobe (fear of gays). Labels, Schmabels, Carling Black-Labels (Calm down; The latter is a beer). As a person, I dislike bashing of any kind. Bashing heterosexuals who speak out as activists against the gay-lifestyle, with labels of bigotry, is as bad as heterosexuals who bashing gays at every opportunity. I agree with my colleagues that bashing and sexual slurs have to stop. But, I will go one further. Defining oneself by their sexuality invites polarization, and that also has to stop, unless we are going to allow additional marginalization of Americans with whom they choose to love and with whom to have sex. I call that form of identification quite shallow. But we live in a culture of labels and shallowness, and it is as if people are so uncontrolled in their desires they cannot help themselves and have little choice in their actions. Additional labels are assigned when one finds heterosexuality, and comes out of the homosexual lifestyle. It seems that with sex, you can’t have it “both ways.”

Lost and Found?

Anyone who comes out of the closet to admit their sexuality is somehow viewed as a person who has found himself, or herself. When were they lost? Many gay-adults are people who had opposite-sex spouses and families, children, and were involved in mainstream American life and living. Suddenly some of these folks walk away from marriages, many of their responsibilities, and those they reared, in order to pursue themselves? That is quite the height of selfishness, if you ask me–another hallmark of the current culture.

Do I have to admit to being a heterosexual for the world to accept me? Am I intolerant if I have different set of beliefs about sexuality? Not at all in either case.

New Civil Rights?

I have heard it said that the gay rights issue of today is a new “race” issue, like unto what the blacks faced in earlier decades. I think that argument is a red herring. No one I know has chosen to leave the Asian, Black, or Caucasian races to join another. Slaves were property with no rights, no freedom of speech, etc. Gays have all of these constitutional rights and more, depending on the state–where the Constitution grants everyone the same basic rights. Your skin color and DNA are what they are. If just one person leaves homosexuality and lives a heterosexual life, then there goes the ALL GAYS ARE BORN THAT WAY.

If a person uses race as analogous to sexuality, in order to define or identify oneself, then a coming out of one race to realize he or she is not truly that race, would suffice. Many of us have heard about, or know gays and straights, that have chosen another lifestyle. Trust me on this. There is nothing Eminem, Madonna, or JT can do to be Timbaland, “no matta how day dress wiff dare cloves.” I know we are “One Nation,” but don’t ask the aforementioned to “Apologize” for their own identities. They did NOT choose them. I reiterate, if just one gay or straight has chosen the alternate lifestyle, then the “birth” argument needs to be reexamined. And believe me, it does need to be reexamined. There are many reasons for “being” homosexual, departing from the norm. Maybe I have it wrong. Maybe we are all born homosexual, and because of abuse, social conditioning, or gender identity maturity, we just come out as heterosexual–even though we say nothing about it. Are you shaking your head yet?

Today we have gay sports teams being sued by bisexual players for sexual discrimination. Homosexuals are demanding that marriage is a right, when it is clearly NOT a right. Government might grant a legal right, but it can never be “right.” Gays in Texas want to divorce there, even when they were not married in that state. They’ll try anything to get a state to recognize marriage. If states against gay-marriage grant divorces from OTHER states’ marriages, then they (1) would have to recognize the marriage for a divorce to be granted, and (2) “the full faith and credit clause” would be implied, opening the door to federal decisions to bring the “doctrine of incorporation” into the mix. Having said that, it is just a matter of time before homosexual marriage (notice, I did not say same-sex marriage) is brought to the Supreme Court. The trend is that soon, homosexual marriage will be a legally done deal, and incorporated into all 50 states. Then it will be like abortion–forever an issue that will raise anger and disgust for many.


We have proms being cancelled because lesbians and gay teenagers want to make it a point to being same-sex dates. Things are so out of control that there is little sense anymore. It’s all about the individual and not the common good. Soon there will be heterosexual proms, homosexual proms, bisexual proms, transgender proms, etc. There are already proms and graduation parties designated by race and ethnicity. I am starting to see some reasons why some Muslims of the radical sects want to destroy the western world. But they don’t have to do it. We are doing it to ourselves.

In closing, I reiterate, we are all born sexual, for that is what being male and female imply when you check the gender box. I know it is popular today for people to define gender and sex different ways. Expressing that reality with sexual practice, or not expressing that is mostly about one’s choice. Without the practice, who knows? We all have our feelings and passions. How does anyone really know what his preferences are, when they are based in experimentation? I would not trust a teenage mind to make a lifelong determination about sexuality.

Teenagers and Life-Altering Decisions

I would hate to define anybody by their feelings and passions—especially high-schoolers–whose brains and bodies are changing every day. Here’s the bottom line. Am I against gays, or somehow a homophobe? Nope. That would be silly. I can easily separate issues from people. What I am against is this notion that somehow we must accept that everyone’s individuality who is either born gay, straight, whatever–over and against the vast majority of others. I am against a group hijacking sexuality and calling those who speak out, all sorts of names. It is classical republicanism versus individual rights all over again. Common good for the majority, versus the individuality expression of one, or a group. This is a good struggle to have in a democracy, as long as the struggle is not enjoined by haters using media and politics to ruin dissenters.

Coming out of the closet is a choice. I repeat, coming out in a “choice.” So too, is coming out of, and entering a lifestyle. No one is so compelled and driven to practice a lifestyle, unless there are issues of abuse, self-control, or some other sociological or personal concerns, such as addictions. Does this mean that out of all homosexuals, NONE are born that way? Probably not. However, no one has discovered the “gay gene,” yet. But does that mean all are born as such? I would reject that notion, because humans are not so bound that they cannot un-choose, make new choices, or choose not to choose, at all.

Speaking of such concerns, I want to go on record and come out and state that I am a “caffeinexual.” I have been hiding this fact and been cavorting with tea drinkers. People think I actually am a “tea-drinker.” I feel highly empowered, after having written this piece. I also feel like a parade is “brewing.” Coffee drinkers unite! We are all born this way. I can now check the gender box as a caffeinexual. But I can both ways, honestly–and I have! Coffee or tea? I am attracted to both, depending on my moods and the days of the week. Come and join me in my classroom any morning in my new Coffee-Tea-Alliance, to celebrate my “phreshness,” as long as you have “grounds” to do so.

Is Suicide Unpardonable?

6 Apr

I would like to open a discussion on the topic of a person taking his or her life. We call it by the term “suicide.” Of course, the suicide of Pastor Rick Warren’s son, Matthew, age 27, has spurred this post. Is suicide ever justified?

I am saddened about the death of Matthew Warren, and I am dedicated to praying for the family. I hope you are also.

Furthermore, let us make certain to spend a little extra time lingering over those hugs with our kids, and making certain to state our love in words and by actions. One never knows how long we have on this earth, which leads me to the next point.

The facts are that even with all of these loving expressions, we live in a world that is tainted by evil and sin. We live in bodies that are faulty, and riddle with chemical imbalances, at time. We also live in a world that clamors for our lives. There is no mistaking the fact that evil exists, and that some people are tempted to end their lives. The culture of death and abuse in which we live is pervasive. Many young people are not seeing their futures as full of purpose.

I am left to wonder the extent that biology plays into suicidal thoughts. I know firsthand the thyroid deficiencies that cause destructive thoughts and irrational behaviors. I am aware of the depression that haunts some people, due to chemical imbalances, bipolarism, or clinical depression. The threat of suicide by all should be taken seriously. There is the reality that the brain is affected by biology and chemistry, and emotions and the brain are connected.

When these connections line up and negative emotions emerge from angry moods and language of destruction, we all must listen. However, what happens when we are all blindsided by irrational acts?

Having said all of this, permit me to address some issues for conversational purposes.

First, Jesus, in offering up His life and being in command of the moment it ended, has been accused of suicide by some critics. I would like to know the differences between giving up one’s life by choice, and ending one’s life by choice. They are both ends of life by choice. Is it in the purpose that we consider one not as suicide and the other, as such?

Second, if a military person charges directly into the line of fire, we call this person a hero—even if it means his life is ended. Is this suicide to do so, knowing the outcome is sure death? On the other hand, again, is it in the purpose for which the life ended that allows the removal of the label of suicide?

Third, is it possible for a person to be in such a state that ending his or her own life is to be viewed as equal to sacrifice for a higher cause? Alternatively, is suicide a cheap way out of problems, purposeless, irrational, and devoid of anything heroic?
We struggle to understand reasons why people would be tormented by thoughts of death and destruction. Yet, if we trace the family history, it seems as if others in the family’s past have also committed the destructive act. Some argue this is a spiritual issue. Others argue it is genetic and that mental illnesses are passed on.

I think there is a sensible position in the middle, where both explanations might fit as reasons. Certainly drugs can cause a person to commit irrational acts—whether prescription or not.

This leads me to the ultimate question: If the last act committed by a Christian is a sin—in the case of suicide, which a crime against oneself and a sin to God, as well as the stumbling other believers—does this person find himself in the presence of the Lord, and ultimately heaven? I do not know the answer to this question. I did not originate life and I do not control its ends and eternality.

Additional issues for concern:

(1) How is killing others the same, or different from killing self?

(2) If suicide ever justified for the believer, if it means saving someone else from harm?

(3) Is suicide an unpardonable sin, since the person deceased cannot ask for forgiveness after the fact?

(4) Is there purposeful suicide to alleviate suffering, whereby the person saves others from having to deal with the individual any longer?

(5) If a physician assists in a patient’s suicide, by his or her choice, is that really suicide, or murder—or both?

(6) What reasons are there biblically, and what theological context is there, to say categorically that suicide keeps one out of heaven, or allows one into heaven?

I do not pretend to know everything, and I am neither a medical doctor nor a psychiatrist. Nevertheless, I have opinions. I shared some of mine. Now, I would like to know yours!

Interesting Times: 2013

17 Feb

These are interesting times.  Two-thousand-thirteen has been quite eventful, thus far.  Somewhere between the words “interesting” and “eventful” lies the reality that affects us all:  Nothing in this world stays the same.

Friends retire from their lifelong vocations and press into their permanent vacations.  Others have medical issues arise and leave work, and full-time ministry.  Personal and moral issues drive a certain number into involuntary retirement way too soon.  Still others switch jobs and look for additional excitement.  Whether work or ministry, such revelations seem the pointers that guide each sunrise during the early days of this current year.

The possibility exists that many of the changes I write about are age-related, and that this is the season for change for those in question.  However, most are changing by choice, and doing so for a variety of reasons.  For example, I have lost colleagues and co-workers, pastors and friends, and sports buddies to change.  Some of these changes are conscious and weighed, others compelled by circumstances.  Even sickness and death have reared their ugly heads in 2013.  In fact, far too many of my family and friends are now ill and battling with one dreadful thing, or another.

In the midst of all of this change, so many wonderful opportunities have emerged for so many–even for many of those I reference above.  We could easily find ourselves mired in the negative aspects of life’s shortcomings.  That would be understandable.  However, in so doing, we would miss the blessings of each moment we are granted.  I use the word “granted,” for none of us are guaranteed any breaths or heartbeats.

Focusing on despair means sometimes missing out on the joys emerging, from within whatever struggles we face.  We will have them, and most of us will endure.  Those of us who are older are realizing the blessings of new family members, grandchildren, job-changes, ministry opportunities, writing ventures, and the  joy of realizing we have affected many lives for good, along the way.  I thank God for the people in my life.  Specifically, for example, I am grateful for people who decide to overlook what I do, in favor of whom I am.  Aligning these two, indeed, takes more than a life time, and is accomplished best by the Almighty.  This year the losses might be great, but we are all dispensable in this world.

I was reflecting on this very truth this past week.  My wife and I arrive at work very early each morning.  One day this week I commented, “imagine putting a sign up on your classroom door that read, ‘Mrs. Z’s classes will not meet this week.  See you next week.'”  She smiled and then laughed.  We both understand that laugh.  I then said, “You know, within 24 hours of your last day on this job, the system will continue like you never existed.  Things will change and the new students and teachers will have no idea of your life’s work.”  In her wisdom, my wife replied, “I know.  But hopefully what I do will live on in the lives  I affected.”  She is absolutely correct!

I share this brief conversation to say that we are products of the many people who left us long ago.  We are also living proof of those who left us recently, as well as emerging souls by the efforts of our contemporaries, including family and friends.  In change, and in God, there are always remnants–seeds planted–that germinate and flower through the efforts of others, later in life.  We owe much to those who gave their lives–only to be left along the trail of dusty memories.  Soon we will all be in that class, as we are mere passengers on this planet, transients, and this is not our home.  

At the sunset of one phase of our lives, where will we stand?  In the words of John the Baptist, when asked about his followers, directed all of his affection toward the Lord:  “He must increase, I must decrease.”  Therein lies the beauty of a life-in-focus, and priorities-in-line.  Life is not about my presence.  Life is about His presence in me.

The tabulation of the bottom-line for 2013 has begun.  No one knows what lies out there for any one of us.  However, I can assure you that making choices to thwart the status quo, and comfort, is what drives my passion for life.  Care to join me in the possibilities?

Open the door, God, if only for a moment . . . Walking by faith and not by sight, should get easier with age and diminished eye sight.  [smile]

Enjoying People

4 Feb

There is an old saying which I have found quite accurate, although often a bit bumper-sticker-like and too dichotomous for my liking.  But it reads something like this.  “There are two types of people in this world, those who like working with people, and those who don’t.”  Have you ever heard this phrase?

It seems that my youth was marked by dichotomous axioms such as these, as was my parents before me.  Somewhere along the line I began to challenge the black-and-white nature of my parent’s philosophy with certain fundamental differences I ascertained along the way.  Apparently, to some, where they seem black-and-white, I tend to see color.   Maybe this blog comprises the strokes of your life’s canvas as well.  If so, you are probably a Baby Boom child.

 “There are two types of people in this world, those who like working with people, and those who don’t.”

All criticism aside, there is some truth to the people and work axiom stated above.  There are times when I step back and wonder whether it is a personality issue, or a focus issue that keeps people from experiencing more than a business-like relationship.  Aside from the grumpy and coarse personalities of the world, I wonder, at times, whether some people are just wired to see “everything” as an issue, or a “thing,” as opposed to beyond the tangible to the human elements.  I wonder also, “Are some people unable to find the joy in working with others, or are they just unwilling to do so?”  Maybe it is both; maybe neither.  I think there is a lot that goes on within our brains that is yet not understood.

But this I do know to be true:  There is joy in Mudville, for some, whether or not Casey strikes out.  And here is why!

Life is not a game, although some refer to life in this way.  People are not just clients, or networks.  Yet, how many of us miss out on some much more when we see humans as things.  Making money off professional connections, or for clients, is quite shallow and feeds the notion that making money produces all the depths of emotions required in human-to-human relationships.  I guess if “things” are a person’s focus, then such is life for those folks.  But joy is not found in treating life as things contracted, bought or sold, or the conclusion of a contract.

Recently, the Komen Foundation bowed to political pressure and restored funds to the abortion providers Planned Parenthood.  I mention this because their philosophy is to provide women abortions, in claiming that fetal life is secondary to an already born human.  There can be no joy associated with abortion, even under the guise of breast exams.  Human beings are not things to be disposed of by a choice.  We coin terms for this kind of approach, and I think you’ve heard most of them already.

Each day I thank God for the people in my life.  At work, I do not know of any of my colleagues who dread their work.  At church the people express joy for others and value each life for its own at every level.  Those who know me from days of coaching and playing athletics found in me a fierce competitor, yet protective of the lives that entrusted their “lives” to my leadership.  I am not ashamed to admit it:  “I am a people person.”

People like me do not often have serious riches amassed, for we see needs and try to meet them.  People-lovers tend to find each other through smiles and eye-contact, hugs, and sincere handshakes.  Like-attract-like.  Truthfully, those who are a bit gregarious tend to gather momentum as a unit and the fun begins.  I have heard some comments like, “I wish I could sit in a cubicle for today and just spend quiet time.”  There is a down-side to being what we all call “people-oriented.”  The down-side is physical and mental exhaustion.

There are times when the mind and soul–as well as the body–need time and space to recharge.  But after being recharged, we go back at life and, as the Sandals commercial implore, “We do it all again!”

The joy of being with people, whether at work, or anywhere, is such a kick!  My wife recently said that when I walk into a room that it does not take long for me to have greeted everyone around me.  I just love being with people.  I am not alone.  Most of my friends online are the same.  I think this is just the way God made us.  We are all meant to discover the basic elements of happiness over things and the deeper elements of joy with people.

A word of caution to the gregariously natured reader.  A very dangerous trend can be found in using this tremendous tool for communication, called the Internet.  We sit here and type words and read things others have written, like this blog, and  sometimes never have truly know the “real” person on the other end.  That has both good and bad written implications.  But make no mistake about it.  I am very happy to have friends online.  But from within this happiness springs joy, when I know people in real contexts day-in-and-day-out.

I guess what I am saying in all of this is that I am wired for joy, and joy comes from people and not from material things.  No apologies here!  This is why I teach.  This is also why I serve others in need.  Some do not like that my joy extends to the womb on behalf of the losses of people to future generations.  But that’s the way I am wired:  I see people when others see things.

When it is all said and done, I do not know anyone who would ever say, “My goodness, that abortion provider sure made a difference in my life and in the life of my family.”  Unless, now, that difference is meant as an answer in a mathematical sense.

I love being with people–the more, the merrier.  If I am obnoxious to your personality, it’s all right.  You’ll get over it.  <smiles>

Education By The Numbers?

4 Jan


Like many professions and vocations, we have reduced most of life’s complexities and subjective aspects down to one or more numbers.  We operate by a percentage, a significant correlation, and extrapolation, and seek to find security in the larger context of life, in so doing.  Whether in the education business, or the political, sociological, medical, or psychological disciplines, it has become mostly about numbers.  After all, when it is all said and done, our epitaph is summarized by two numbers and a hyphen.  As I begin this piece, allow me to provide some examples.

  • What are your good and bad cholesterol levels?
  • What is your weight?
  • What is the likelihood you’ll contract this disease, or that?
  • Does your DNA have markers that predispose you toward cancer?
  • Are your hormone levels within the normal range?
  • How about your IQ?  Do you still have one after raising teenagers?
  • What is the president’s approval rating for today in the latest tracking poll of likely voters?

See what I mean?  The numbers we seek are seemingly endless.  We’ve reduced our lives to measurements, numbers, and assorted percentages–complete with a range, standard deviations, and margins-of-error.  We do this with prices of goods and we even rate people on a scale of 1-10, and we even paint pictures by using numbers correlated to colors.

Some of these numbers are quite important and maybe even life-saving, most.  For the record, I consider myself a tech-nerd, and I love the toys we use.  Isn’t computer language and programming about codes?  Numbers are ubiquitous!

As professionals, we all have to stop to think about the relevance and importance of numbers qualitatively, as well as quantitatively.  Honestly, some numbers are just plain pieces of data and we seek to validate their application somehow and somewhere.  One of these places where we seek to “fit numbers” is in education.  So much time is wasted on crunching numbers in education today.


First, an analogy.  Let’s say a person takes an IQ test from a psychologist.  She gets a respectable number, say of 120.  She feels pretty smart.  But what does that say about her intelligence?  What does the number imply?  How long is that number applicable to the person’s life?  In my mind, the number is as good as her blood pressure reading right after the test.  In other words, the number is only good for today, compared to others who took the same test on the same day.  Without a comparative aspect, the measurement means little-to-nothing.  Is she smarter than two others who tested at 110, or 95 IQs?  Maybe so; maybe not.

Second, let’s say different people read these numbers and begin to study to take an IQ test next year. The test is taken and the results are higher than 120 for all three students. Are we to conclude that the current year’s test-takers are smarter than last year’s test-takers?

Well, here is a numeric glitch and misuse in education today.  Using test data from one year’s test-takers, and comparing to a different groups of test-takers, who take different tests proves nothing.  In fact, even if they were identical tests from one year to the next, one cannot conclude intelligence is better one year to the next, because the students taking the test are a different population each year.   The same students scores are not measured against themselves.

Third, to put things in common language, let me say it this way.  Gertrude’s 2010 IQ test of 120 is not at all related to Sandy’s 2011 IQ test of 125.  One cannot say Sandy is smarter, unless one tests Sandy in both years separately.  But if that is done, then a person has just as much of an argument that maturity plays hugely in intelligence, as much as education. It is all smoke and mirrors and apples and oranges in much of education today.  Having said that, so much rides on testing under state and federal mandates.

Next, here is another example of the frustration of using test scores are measures of growth.  The Junior Class of 2011 has taken their national standardized tests, as required under No Child Left Behind.  The 11th graders tested out above last year’s 2010 Junior Class.  What does that tell us?  Nothing really.  Does that show growth to measure two separate entities?  Nope.  It’s just numbers.  Measuring the same entity twice or more shows growth, or not, which is why factoring in maturity, familiarity with content, and repeating the same test would provide more accurate data.  But we cannot test the same students each year on the same tests.  Sheer recognition and familiarity will skew the scores terribly.  But testing different populations and proclaiming we know more than testing the same population twice is a kind of professional silliness that is acceptable.

Finally, schools publish numbers in the newspaper and on their school websites, and parents somehow seem to think schools’ numbers indicate whether or not their schools are of quality to be distinguished.  I have a major concern with reducing schools to numbers.


Tests are like snapshots in a photo album–they are not the photo album itself. I know NOTHING about Bobby’s growth last summer, when I photograph Fred’s growth this summer, even if they started out the same age, the same height, and were from the same family.  I have to assume that Bobby has grown, as I look at Fred’s growth.  Would I then change Bobby’s diet, because of something good or bad in Fred’s diet?

Not only are using numbers in ways that cause some of serious concern, what we have in schools today is more than their usage.  We now that this reliance on these very numbers.  We accredit institutions who show growth in numbers, and believe me, I know what I am talking about as recent co-chair of our school accreditation team.

What we should rely on is the overall educational value of the school and its students, families, and product.  Overall school accreditation does look at these factors, but will put a school on probation if test scores are not headed in the right direction, or their API scores do not hit their targets suggested by their states and federal government.


Teachers measure students in class, for about 185 days.  They are the best gauges and are best equipped to measure student’s growth and progress.  Why, then, do we default to one test, given over several days, to determine growth?  The fact of the matter is, we even give these tests in March and April, one full quarter before school is out in most cases, and before academic curriculum is even completed.  Does this sound ridiculous to anyone besides me?  You think I have a beef with standardized tests?  You bet I do.

In all of my 32 years of education-related experience, I can tell you that students at the upper grades often do not take these tests seriously.  For example, back to the Junior class of a few minutes ago.  As juniors in high school, they take their last standardized tests, and there is no impact on their college admission, or anywhere of personal import.  The facts are, freshman and sophomores are still naive enough to think that the word “test” means something important.  What is more, Seniors take no standardized tests, that count toward an NCLB measure.  This means the entire school is judged on only 75% of the population being tested, and of that group, one-third are not as highly motivated about the tests as are the underclassmen.

By their junior year, students have figured out that SATs and ACTs are where it is at.  In fact, colleges use their junior year are the true “measure” of most students, in their applications to college.  Senior year is basically when they find out admission or denial.  So, what does the senior year measure?  Great question, and I will tackle this question in a subsequent blog.

Let me address what affects test scores in high school, so he reader will have a better understanding why many of the numbers should be reevaluated.


First, if there are any pregnancies of veteran female teachers, which results in a change of teachers for extended periods of time, those students affected will test differently–especially in elementary and middle schools.  Would we conclude that lower, or higher test scores are the result of a teacher’s pregnancy?  Is there mere correlation, or is there cause and effect to consider?

Second, students cut classes today like they are heading for a drink of water–casually.  Cuts affect students learning and knowledge and test scores.  Is it fair that students cut classes and school, and then punish the schools for low scores?  Whose responsibility is it to get kids to school, anyway?

Third, a large population of certain ethnic groups do not value education as some others might value it.  Work, having babies, dropping out, etc. are part of certain cultures.  Add to that migrants and illegals, whose L1 (primary language) is probably not English, and test scores drop.  Is it fair to punish schools with students in these categories that affect outcomes?

In California, illegals in schools are having a direct effect on test scores for many reasons. We cannot be jaded into thinking that the few that have overcome can truly transcend the mass that has not.  Still, we educators are held accountable.

Fourth, how in the world are school expected to raise test scores if students do not have an excellent command of the English language?  If they cannot read, they cannot test well. Case closed.  Yet, schools get tabbed for lower scores and parents see that and compare the numbers.

Fifth, families today, “en mass,” are not supportive of the tests, and spend little time making certain their children are ready to be tested.  The vast majority of parents have defaulted to the schools for the primary education of their child.  The reason students of the past were better educated, overall, in my opinion, is because schools received kids from families who made certain their kids could say the alphabet, know their colors, and do basic math.  Today, with the way many families are in my world, they don’t even feed their kids breakfast.  Depending on whether their families are together, or split up on every other weekend, breakfast becomes optional.  Many parents expect schools to feed kids, and they do.  Tests mean little in the homes described because the adults involved do not necessarily cultivate the importance of the tests.  So, how important are these test results, if the adults do not think they are important?

All of these factors affect test scores. Yet, there are no excuses allowed, no waivers given, and the data are skewed from year-to-year.  Admit it, when you select a school for your kids, or grand kids, you look at achievement test scores.  I know I did!  More and more, today, parents are looking for “safe schools,” for their kids.  The measure of success for these parents is whether their children are bullied or not, assaulted, or allowed to live each day.  Using numbers to measure schools is one thing.  Using numbers to conclude what humans do differently each day, is another.


All things are glorious if our football team wins each Friday. After all, school spirit is important.  Again, numbers call the shots.  I apologize for putting on my work hat during vacation.  It is just a bit unnerving to be judged by numbers and scores by those who have no clue what is behind them.  For the record, I work at a highly competitive high school in my county, have great test scores, and we rank first in API (850) . . . But so what?  What does this mean?

I will let the reader decide.  I welcome your comments!

Thanks for reading!

The State of American Education?

3 Jan

“The renovation of nations begins always at the top, among the reflective members of the State, and spreads a lowly outward and downward.  The teachers of this country, one may say, have its future in their hands.” 

[William James (1907), Talks to Teachers on Psychology, p. 3]

“Inevitably, a theory (stated above by James) of such radical conditioning requires that power, however used, always emanate from the top down.  Thus James called the school, not common or public schools, but . . . the State school system.” 

[Rousas Rushdoony (1976), The Messianic Character of American Education, p. 112]

This blog is not about seeking Superman.  It is not about becoming Superman.  This blog is not even about putting on a cape.  Beyond momentary inspiration, there is not enough motivational rhetoric that can convince mere humans of the need to be something other than what they are in their own perceived strengths.  Despite all the pressures placed on schools, teachers and educational institutions are not the social saviors of children.

Children are not the progeny of a system, or a state.  This is not the say that each of the former is without impact upon the futures of children.  But education is not the salvation of our nation.  Likewise, teachers are not the saviors of a generation, but both are complementary and quite valuable.  What teacher is his or her right mind would sacrifice one’s own family to do the work of parenting students?  Contrast that with any teacher in his or her right heart that wouldn’t?  So, who or what gets the blame for the current state of education in America?

The truth is, “We teach children, not subjects!” 

(Carol Cummings, 1990, Teaching Makes A Difference, p. 13)


Educational fads are not the saviors and cures for what ails education today.  New programs are really nothing new.  Those of us who have been around awhile have seen fads come and go.  But wait!  With each new buzz-word, or every new-and-improved program, we are told “this here new one” is here to stay and that it is not going away any time soon.

Education is not a fad.  It is not gimmickry and a process that fishes for results only.  Education is not annual; it is lifelong.  And yes, education is first and foremost about people.  It always has been and always will be.  This is the reason I choose to be part of this profession.  However, I have to be honest.  Lately, I have been examining my personal commitment to the classroom.  Teaching people still rocks my world, but “education,” as an institution, has become quite annoying.


Teachers are part of the problem, though.  All of us share in the problems that have led to the issues in education.  We are easy scapegoats.  Frankly, teachers are not the ones to receive all the blame.  One of the major reasons that education is in such a mess in public schools is because the bureaucrats and secularists have made certain that schools “cater” to children, thus reclassifying education as part of a catering business.  When teaching goes against the catering, teachers are called out.  In secondary schools, for example, counselors are becoming more concerned about the smorgasbord than passing the boards.  States and districts are responding to lawsuits and leaving behind common sense.


American schools have both undermined and recognized the value of the American family.  However, twenty-first century public schools have done more than support families, as they have done in the past.  Schools have become their families.

Communities are being told that schools are the places where students are raised, fed, and patted on the head for a job well done, kept safe and secure, allowed “free things,” places to excel at sports, and where their true mentors exist.  Then when violence occurs on a school campus, the blame shifts.

For example, during the years, 2009-2010, educators were told about the merits of the Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and how they could help students’ test scores.  In 2018, teachers are being motivated by psychology, “moral purpose theory,” social emotional theory, and social justice programs.

Michael Fullan understands this:

“The argument is somewhat subtle, so let me make it more direct.  If concerns for making a difference remain at the one-to-one and classroom level, it cannot be done.  An additional component is required.  Making a difference, must be done explicitly recast in broader social and moral terms.”   

Schools know what to do to raise test scores:  Give assessments along the way.  Teach to the assessments to ensure good results, and the conclusion is that students learn.  Tomorrow, do it again.  Schools also know how to cheat to get similar results, something Fullan and the PLC advocates would find quite disturbing.  But as long as test scores are raised, no one is asking the fundamental questions pertaining to ethics and honesty.  This leads to a final source of blame.


Along the way, Caucasian teachers are now being told that they do not understand the cultures of students of color and that it is the white dominant culture that needs to understand, change, and accept responsibility for the past discrimination and unjust treatment of students.  Also, teachers are being told that they are the heroes of kids and that they touch the future.  We are being prodded to learn what motivates students and touch that part of their educational lives.

How in the world did teaching go from a professional learning communities to motivational experts in human development to speaking kindly about fundamental moral problems in our society?  Is that the saving message for families, schools, and ultimately the American education system?

Schools are not the places to experiment with all sorts of things to simply raise test scores and graduation rates.  Such a focus misses the point.  The point is moral purpose, which most teachers come with into the classroom.  But moral purpose comes from home.  It is where teachers learned it.  It does not appear suddenly from within a vacuum, or from thin air, or at graduation for a teacher-training institution.  It certainly does not appear from teaching tolerance of practices that are contrary to one’s fundamental moral upbringing.  My goodness, how things have changed in the past few years–and much of it because of slippage in culture and changes at political and policy levels.


Schools that have to raise children will never be the places of higher learning and achievement they need to be.  Certainly, things have changed.  In over thirty years in education I have seen so many changes in schools and families.  Families that entrust schools to raise their kids will never be the bastions against negative culture that they need to be.  Schools are not parents.  If children are supposed to be the focus for us at school, then I ask these same children be the same focus at home.  Parents, they are YOUR kids, after all.  Should we hold parents accountable for their failures to “raise” their kids properly?  No one seeks that policy change (though secretly many educators might wish it was true)


The old gray mare, She ain’t what she used to be Ain’t what she used to be, Ain’t what she used to be The old gray mare, She ain’t what she used to be Many long years ago. (Anonymous)

In 2011, I, along with 1700 other teachers and administrators, were subject to the following topics in required education seminars (see me own sarcasm in parentheses that follow each:

  • Is education good enough for “your own child” principle?  (I’d ask if the children’s home lives were good enough for my own child.  What is fair is fair.)
  • What if we teach like we really mean it?  (I resent the implication that many teachers do not teach like they really mean it.  How many of us are just there for a check?  I don’t know any in my sphere.  What if students were raised by parents that meant it?  What if students studied and acted responsibly as if they meant it?)
  • Norms of a meeting are extremely important and groups should hold each other accountable.  (Norms police, but we don’t dare do that to the students who truly need policing; May we police the parents at home to make sure that students are prepared each day with a stable home life?)
  • Collaboration is a systematic process in which we work together as interdependent agencies . . . (A process established by whom?  “Are Schools, departments, and local “professionals” already knowledgeable and are they free to establish them?  Top-down education is dictating and not collegial.)
  • Focus on results more than process.  (But we are supposed to touch the future?  Is the process of learning honesty NOT more important than doing something honestly?  It is the old give a person a fish and feed him for one day; Teach him the process of fishing and feed him for a lifetime.)
  • Dream a dream and be a kid’s hero.  (I am a hero to my own children and family and that is my first priority.  The moment i forsake my own family for another person’s child, what is the lesson I have just taught?)
  • Ensure that all of our students learn at high levels.  (There is no way possible to do this.  Students miss school.  Families do not ensure what it takes to work together to achieve this.  “High levels” is subjective.  In the “age of measurement,” with multitudes of testing, we must ask what students are learning and to what is this learning attached?)
  • Impart confidence to students.  (They have to choose confidence, take risks to grow it, and demonstrate it.  I can only model it.  I cannot impart anything as a human to another human who must choose to own it.)
  • Analyze small and formative assessments (Piece-learning demonstrates memory for the moment.  Real learning without using linkages from days past is only piecemeal.  I cannot tell you how many teachers review the very material over-and-over-again, that is to be tested.  Then they issue the test.  Is this the learning we seek?)
  • Do all things similarly in pacing, decide what knowledge is important, use same tests to measure these.  (Cookie-cutter education, replicating from an autocrat removes what is probably best for students at any given time.  No two groups are the same, so the pacing might very well be different.  If pacing is different then so too are the tests.  Students are all different and cannot be assumed to think the same way about facts and content.  If a student “thinks” and comes up with a wrong answer, if he penalized for not “knowing” the right answer?)
  • Teachers determine the weather in each classroom.  (True to some extent.  But if students enter the class with the storms from home, then how the “hail” are we supposed to shape sunny-blue skies out of 15-20 gloomy horizons and teach content too?)
  • Motivate discouraged students.  (Motivation is momentary.  Continued motivation is exhausting, assuming most students are extrinsic.  Relationships last well into the future.  People who are not coaches are being asked to motivate?  Think about a football team that did not want to play.  What could a coach do to motivate the players against their wills?)
  • Do whatever it takes and approach work like it’s a religious experience.  (If I could, it would be moral, spiritual, consequential, and purposeful.  So, is “one nation under God” all right to use?  How about teaching against the principles of a local community, in terms of terrorism and homosexuality?  Am I supposed to teach a universal approach, or is there still right and wrong, morally?)
  • How would we rate our own personal intelligence?  (We are to rate our intelligence as teachers, and compare it to the students’ intelligence?  We are now to use psychology to identify with students.  No one thinks they are below average as a teacher or a student, do they?)
  • How do we respond to students who do not care?  (We care.  Do the parents care enough to stay in a relationship to work things out for the sake of the kids?  Or are teachers just asked to stay in a year-long relationship with kids who don’t care?)
  • Build strong relationships with all students.  (Impossible to do in 50 minutes a day, with over 40 per class.  But I would like to know what “strong” means.)
  • Changing mind sets.  (I can change no one’s mind.  If I try to do so, I can be accused of biasing education.  What am I supposed to change from, change to, and why?)
  • Think like a mediator.  (Why?  I am a teacher.  Let me teach.  Let other professionals mediate.  Let parents mediate.)
  • The 100-point, A-F grading scale is flawed.  (Just because someone says so?  I think saying the system is flawed is flawed thinking.)
  • Use standards-based grading.  (Why?  Is there nothing else a student should learn?  The common-core curriculum will be tried and will fail, due to all the states having different educational emphases.  A national governmental education system is not what this nation was founded on.  Private schools will continue to take the best students and get a better product, as long as the national government thinks it has the answers to educational problems.)
  • Create quality instruction. (No, never!  Everyone I know creates crap and teaches that everyone else’s poop smells.)


Families are not doing their jobs at home.  So, are schools to do the work of the family?  Sending kids to schools from fractured homes in turmoil does not lead to good outcomes.  Is it any wonder that schools can do their jobs?  Look at the following list of facts:

  • Schools and teachers are working harder and harder, with less and less return on their work.
  • Children are coming to our schools with serious and deep concerns.
  • If schools were just failing, that would be one thing.  But there is a decline in the American family structure and it is little wonder that this decline is seen in the children of these same failing families.
  • Teachers are supposed to find ways to go around the real issues that affect our classrooms.
  • Schools represent communities.  Are schools meant to be the places “of” community?
  • Solid families have solid values.  A family that values education is obvious.
  • Families are looking to schools for help today, unlike in generations of the past.  I implore families to stay together until their children are raised.
  • How is this done?  Place personal gratification on the back burner.  Somehow parents expect teachers to center on their kids, yet they do not exemplify or convey this same message.  Rather, chasing personal desires trumps many kids’ as the priorities in families.
  • Sports have become the gods of public schools, and the vehicle to college.  Parents need to stop living vicariously through their children.


If we are to believe the media, then adults are more concerned about their sexuality and orientations than they are about the effects their revelations have on the families.  If we are to believe the children we teach, then parents are more concerned about their personal relationships than they are making sure homework is finished.  If we are to believe the state, then millions of non-English speaking illegals are receiving all sorts of tax-payer funded entitlements and that this is a benevolent thing.


The truth is that students come to school unprepared in many places across this nation.  Families are frightened in inner cities just to let their children go to schools.  These things are not the schools’ fault.  How does one even talk about a “professional learning community,” in terms of academics with so much community-at-large baggage?

There is no teacher and no school that can make up the deficit that exists in communities such as these.  Families make up communities.  Men and women have children.  Children have children.  Families break up.  Abusive relationships, along with addictions and cultural cycles mark educational terrain across this land.  Whose responsibility is it to ensure the success of a child?  What professions are stepping up to ensure such success?  President Obama wants “Win the Future.”  But is winning the future with such a diverse and heterogeneous population just more rhetoric?  China, Japan, and Korea are quite homogeneous and place the teacher in roles that are quite unlike where teachers are in America.  Where the student is front and center, and not the teacher, what is the result?  I went into teaching to do just that.

Schools are expected to teach students by somehow meeting the needs that are best met by families, minus the discipline and self-control that are required for adulthood.  How in the world can students learn these very important traits, if they are not being modeled at home, and we are forbidden by law to do what is truly necessary to endure their occur in the classroom?  How can we inculcate and motivate beyond cultural differences, when we are told to celebrate cultural differences?

Teaching right from wrong is supplanted by secularism.  Judeo-Christian ethics are replaced with “it’s all about the child-centered environment” of self, and not love your neighbor as yourself.  Cultural differences breeding loud-mouth kids that back-talk and show belligerence–all while being told teachers don’t understand and appreciate certain cultures–press things beyond the pale.   Generally, students show disrespect for adults, they use language that, at one time, would get them expelled, come from families that have been taught to “tolerate and mediate,” rather than discipline, and own a host of “technological toys” that are their rights to use as they see fit.  Contemporary pop-culture impacts students more than classrooms and teachers.

Teachers know all of these things and yet we are told that we are responsible to make sure students learn and that they learn at rates that show marked improvement.  Does anyone ever stop to ask us what is needed?


Please note very clearly that I love my work, I love my students and hold the highest of affection for my colleagues and the school where I am employed.  I am not alone.  This is not about one or two localized issues, or schools in the inner city.  There are real battle zones in this nation, that’s for sure.  No place is perfect and as long as I am anywhere in this world, imperfection will be the norm.  But make no mistake about it; I will never give up on anyone.   The school at which I am employed happens to be top-notch in many areas, but the problems addressed throughout persist each and every day.

However, this is about so much more that those that care and refuse to give up.  In an area in which I agree with Michael Fullan, he writes:

“The Building block is the moral purpose of the individual teacher.  Scratch a good teacher and you will find a moral purpose.” [Michael Fullan (1992), Change Forces, p. 10.]


It is no great secret that I have spent my entire working career in the field of education, in various positions.  Most of my years have been spent in secondary education, with adjunct work at university a close second to that.  However, I have taught every grade level from first grade through graduate school, in my tenure as an educator.  I have been privileged to have spent time in both private Christian and public schools.  I have a vast array of education experiences, personally and professionally.  Although I feel somewhat qualified to address common issues across the national landscape, I always keep in mind that experts are labeled by others, not selves.  Be that as it may and take it for what it is worth.  I am about to embark on a serious critique of my “profession,” so-called.  Such a critique is not the first and it certainly will not be the last.


We have many problems in our nation today, and education is just one of many.  Problems are not the same at all levels of education, so a one-size fits all is not the answer for what ails of national’s education system.  But, unlike other areas, education affects children and adults, families and friends, and touches the present with implications for the future.


Education is fundamentally about about and should always be as such.  I am afraid that today’s brand of education is becoming less about people and more about people as a “product,” and “new-and-improved” commodity to refine into a better product, all supposedly measurable by a formulaic process.  So, this is about the latest educational fad to come down the turnpike.


A professional learning community is made up of team members who regularly collaborate toward continued improvement in meeting  learner needs through a shared curricular-focused vision.  Facilitating these efforts are:

  • Supportive leadership and structural conditions,
  • Collective challenging, questioning, and reflecting on team-designed lessons and institutional practices/experiences and
  • Team decisions on essential learning outcomes and intervention/enrichment activities based on results of common formative student assessments.

The PLC movement that is sweeping this nation is top-down, autocratic, and uncompromising in its expectations and foisting of requirements.  We are being told in education that this model is the only way to get students to where they need to be.  Elementary, middle and high school districts are adopting this model.  There is also great resistance to this model–particularly at colleges where there is a movement toward professional development schools, in teacher education training institutions–where schools and universities partner, especially from grades 6-16.


Has anyone stopped to ask whether education is a profession, or not?  Has anyone ever stopped to consider who decides what is to be learned at schools, and why someone’s notion of community is better than someone else’s’ notion of the same?  Consider Fullan, as he writes about “change” in education:

. . . the old and dead wrong paradigm is still being promulgated, such as Beckhard and Pritchard’s (1992) recommendations for vision-driven change.  There are four key aspects, they say:  creating and setting the vision; communicating the vision; building commitment to the vision, and organizing people and what they do so that they are aligned to the vision.  (p. 29)

Fullan describes the PLC phenomenon quite well in his words above and he describes such a model as “dead wrong.”  After adopting the PLC model, districts are told to adopt others models to massage into the previous model.  RTI (Response To Intervention), ILPs (Incentive Laden Programs), CAHSEE and SAT Prep and tutorial programs, etc., are all safety nets for a variety of students.  It is all about passing a test to raise rates.  Massage, massage, massage . . .

In some states, there are tests being administered to students that do not match their grade levels, so as to enable passing rates.  This is not sensible.  Students are coming to us with a host of problems never seen before, yet test scores rising is an indication that our school is “performing” well?

May we please step back and ask some serious questions?  I know the “powers-that-be” get their way, but we do have a responsibility to question validity.  In all of my years in education, I know without a doubt that programs come and programs go.  I also know that not one idea or “revelation” fits all schools in all states at all levels.  Would anyone want to dispute those pieces of history?  I doubt it.

Some states are adopting the education model in question, others are not.  Leaders are raking in millions of dollars writing books and training the masses in things they have always done, yet somehow it is all brand new.  Administrators are the ones who always seem to present at seminars.  Teachers are never asked to present.  I have my reasons as to why this is the case.  One of these reasons is that teachers view hierarchies from the bottom up, and work together.  Administrators in the PLC have already said it is top-down requirements that work.  Think for a second.  How professional is it to tell teachers it is all about their importance, require them to make it all about student learning, and do not live them a say as to whether they wish to be lock-step in such a “community”?


Colleges are not concerned with the PLC model, as it does not fit their “style,” of education to their students.  So, what do students benefit from when they go to college and realize that testing is not the measure of their learning and that from one year to the next is suddenly is not all about them?  Many high schools do not like this model, as it is quite restrictive.  As a secondary educator, an education expert with a Ph.D. in teaching and learning, I have personal and serious reservations and major concerns with the “Professional Learning Community” model.  Allow me to explore a few of these concerns.


I ask one question at the front of this critique.  If bureaucrats removed annual test scores, or NCLB went away–or teachers did away with conventional grades in favor standards’ achievements, what then do we make of the PLC phenomenon?

We are told that the teacher is the most important person in the classroom and in the lives of students.  We are told this, yet education is all about the student, student-centered this-and-that.  Student learning is important–so much so that if they do not learn, it is our fault, as teachers.  I find this ludicrous.  Is it the coaches fault when the quarterback did not learn his plays, or throws an interception?  How about when the quarterback knows everything and is the best athlete, but gets sacked by a better team’s defense?  What is the conclusion then?

What I really think rhetoricians mean by their double-speak is this:  Teachers are the most important person in the classroom and this importance is demonstrated by their environment that caters completely to student-centered learning. Teaching is not the focus, student learning is the focus.  Silly teacher that I am.  I thought both were important and came with responsibilities implicit in both.  But the responsibility placed upon the teacher is greater.

I cannot hold tardy students accountable for work.  I cannot hold absent students accountable for work if their parents excuse them for a trip to an amusement park on a school day.  I cannot hold students accountable for their lack of attendance in class.  Suspended students must be able to make up work, even if the reason they were suspended was a refusal to comply in one of my classes.  You know, it’s all well and good that people say the most important person in the classroom is the teacher, but it is not the truth here in California.  So, how do these realities play into a professional learning community?  Is this the way professionals act in the business world, or at college?


In California, we are legally responsible to educate so many illegals that it is no wonder the budget is a mess every year.  Other states face similar issues.  Education is just one of the many entitlements that illegals receive.  Governor Brown has threatened to cut education to the bone, reduce our incomes, and affect our pensions if we do not vote in favor of increased taxes this next election cycle.  So, as illegals sit in our classes and receive all of the educational and health benefits of American citizens, including mandated foreign language communications, conferences, and many other perquisites, does anyone want to argue it is NOT all about the student?

Would anyone please point to another profession that gives transportation to illegals, feeds them at no-cost, or little cost to them, and provides text books, allows them to participate in athletics, graduate, and occupy seats in colleges, buy homes, etc.?  If you say medicine or law, then the state pays for these considerations as well.  It only adds to the problems.  But what profession caters to students–both legal and illegal–then wants those who lead to believe they are most important in the process?


I am not against people in any way.  Legal status is the issue.  There is no teaching strategy that can overcome students going to Mexico for 6-weeks just because family wants to.  There is no legal accountability for students whose families keep them home, excuse them from school for a variety of reasons.  So, please do not even imply that the most important person in the classroom is the teacher.  The student is the most important.  Students do not even remember what we teach them the previous week, let alone the entire year.  But there sure remember their dances and games, the jokes and social fun times.  You see, education has become all about them.  We are told “just get them in class.”


Along comes this professional learning community and tries to sell us a bill of goods that teachers are the focus.  Just look at the name of this fad.  Why is it not named “professional teaching community”?  We are professional educators, or professional learners?  Student learning is what it is all about.  Boiling student learning all down to a test, or series of tests called common formative assessments, is the focus.  And if a student does not do well on tests, he or she can take them as many times as needed.  In addition, we are all supposed to consider changing our current grading system because Yale University came up with it many years ago and it is unfair to students.  Notice the emphasis on “students”?


Teachers teach people.  Students are taught by people.  Who is directly responsible for the learning?  Right now, it is teachers who are directly responsible for the learning.  Annual test scores have to show improvement or the community thinks the teacher, or school is “bad,” or underperforming.  The state sets parameters of growth and targets of this growth.  If schools do not hit these targets, then can they be considered as underperforming?  Teachers and schools take the hit for students who underperform.


We were told that students should be able to test the “essentials” as often as then need in order to pass.  We were told that this places the learner first, and is the way it is in the real world.  Learning does not present itself on multiple choice tests, or in one-to-five questions every session.  Many times second chances are not offered.  Failure occurs. Success occurs.  We are late on bills and we are most often fined when we are caught speeding.  I teach high school, so this “retaking” concept is viewed a bit different than it would be viewed by elementary teachers.  Brain development and human biology will both play differently into the picture.

I have a serious beef about tests.  I had this discussion with a colleague who said that a teammate wrote a serious of tests in language he used, rather than in language the rest of used.  Good luck coming to a consensus on language for assessments and questions.  Add to this the possible answers and everything can be confusing.  Can you see how a teacher’s style of teaching, use of terminology, and style of thinking, can cause others who take the test great concerns?  It is not true that students who know material can answer pretty much any question on the way it is worded.  All students are different and such outcomes can cause teachers to think students do not know the material, all while they do.

Another point to be made is that I have absolutely no idea whether students have learned material, by getting the right answer on a multiple choice test.  I learn by asking students in person, or as they explain on paper, something I ask them about.  Common formative assessments are too often in multiple choice, easy-grading format.  Then the data is tallied, discussed, and many times we conclude something about which we speculate and other times have no idea.  Giving all students the same test, after the same length of time of learning, and concluding they learned something is way too risky.  I contend all students are not common, even if the information is.  I contend they all test differently, and that real-life does not throw the same tests at everyone on the same day to provide learning opportunities.  Colleges do not do this, and we are doing a disservice to high school seniors especially, if we do not wean them from the CFA (common formative assessment) quick-approach.


Students drop out for a variety of reasons.  The numbers change according to certain ethnic and racial groups.  I will use California for the sake of discussion.  Observe the following recent data:

Comparing Dropout Rates Chart

Type 2006-07 2007-08
African American 35.8% 34.7%
Asian 9.0% 8.4%
Latino 26.7% 25.5%
White 13.3% 12.2%

Tracking California Students Chart

Type Percentage
Graduates 68.1%**
Dropouts 20.1%
Other*** 11.8%
Total 100.0%


Beyond PLCs, we are now being told that unless there is a program of intervention for students, that our school and PLC is coming up short.  It is not enough to endure student learning.  We must now directly intervene to make certain of school attendance, assure every effort possible to enhance student achievement, improve graduation rates and reduce dropout rates, and a bevy of other “social” awareness prompts.  What is not a centerpiece is that the groups in trouble need to step up and do their part, as well.  Regardless of race and ethnicity, dropout rates are problematic.  But can I ask the magical question:  Where is it written that everyone should finish high school and go off to college?  If parents do not seem to care enough about their students, and teachers do as much as possible–and STILL dropout rates remain high, what are schools to do?  Is it the school’s fault?  Is it the student’s fault?  Is it the community’s fault?

There are many factors for student’s dropping out of school.  For a large group of them, I think the sitting in rows model just isn’t their thing.  For others, gangs are alternatives.  I could go on.  But what does an intervention program and a PLC have to do with students making choices, at the legal age and without parental guidance?  Should we spend more time on those who learn and want to learn? I am just asking the questions.

PLC/Intervention groups now want to burden schools to ensure that kids graduate, as well as learn.  Where the parents are and what shall they graduate to?  Colleges do not care one iota about the group that high schools lose every year.  The work force does not care.  Families do not seem to care.  I submit that something has to be done way earlier than at secondary levels.


  1. PLCs cannot change poor attendance habits by students.  Absences and cuts drag down entire classes and reduce overall learning.  This show up on each and every assessment.
  2. PLCs cannot force student to do anything against their wills.  Students today are soft when it comes to studying.
  3. PLCs cannot change family dynamics for students.
  4. PLCs cannot work all that well across content areas, as standards at the secondary level and grade levels are not consistent.
  5. PLCs cannot convince colleagues of certain temperaments to buckle down simply by enforcing norms.
  6. PLCs cannot expect that using previous data of old adequately informs instruction for new students.
  7. PLCs cannot expect that test results actually indicate what students learn or did not learn.


  1. PLCs force colleagues to meet with each other and participate in discussions.
  2. PLCs use data, attempting to analyze problem areas and issues across schools.
  3. PLCs can assist toward changing instruction for the better, if a student group is identified as below proficient.
  4. PLCs enable colleagues to become better at writing common formative assessments.
  5. PLCs promote team-oneness across content areas and bolsters academic purpose.

In closing, I offer the following terms for consideration:

  • For Teachers . . . Practical and Relevant Teaching Community.
  • For Students:  Purposeful and Responsible Learning Community.
  • For Parents:  Hold You All Accountable Community.
  • Psychology as it is, moving anyone from the “I choose not to do something, ” to “I choose to do something,” is no small matter.  Owning the choice after it is made is another story altogether.

“The future ain’t what is used to be.”  (Yogi Berra)

People Come and People Go, But Persons Last Forever

31 Dec

The title of this blog might come across as redundant to some.  But it is not meant to be redundant.  I enjoy parsing words and drawing out certain distinctions.  Therefore, I draw a distinction between “people,” the actual humans that cross my path each and every day, and the impacts their actual “being” has upon my life.

Certainly, in some ways most everyone we come in contact with leaves an impression upon us.  Some are quick; some are lasting.  Others are fleeting.  But impressions, however memorable, usually do not mature into deep and lasting connections, or interpersonal legacies.  Allow me to elaborate.

Aside from the obvious eternal dimension, to which “remaining forever” often refers, there is something else to personhood in my mind.  It has been said that very few people cross our paths in life, with whom we find deep and soulful connections.  Whether it is the persons tone of voice, interests, passion, jovial nature, or spiritual depth, we find there is something quite deep that ties humans together.  In addition to the eternal realm, this is in the vicinity of what I mean when I say that “persons last forever.”

Hyperbole aside, no one lasts forever in the state in which we presently find ourselves.  However, not having gone on into eternity as of yet, and to exaggerate the point, we use our lives are the only forever we know.  This is just how we roll.  Therefore, someone who impacts my life is deep and meaningful ways remains “forever.”

Now, who exactly leaves such an impact in my life, and who does not?  You can relax.  There will be no specific names mentioned, with the exception of my wife, kids, and family–as well as my students, my church family, and my friends, both online and in the flesh.

Consistency and stability are hallmarks of deep relationships with loved ones.  Certainly, love takes many forms.  I think there is little disagreement that personhood is unique.  What I understand clearly is that close friends have a different depth with me, usually formed around an interest, or a passion about life or work, or some other area that complements my family.  People come into our lives for many reasons, and friends may be lifelong, or maybe last only in the short term.  I’d like to believe each had a divine appointment for just the right length of time.  What we do with the appointment is the “good stuff” and the stuff of human drama, at times.  But we take it and roll with it, don’t we?

People come and people go.  We all make choices and we all eventually realize the consequences of these choices.  Sometimes our choices are what make people go away.  Persons come into our lives to enable our growth.  They also come into our lives to knock us around and bring us down.  Whatever the case, we learn lessons from people.  But the real lessons that change lives are best learned from the “persons” in our lives.

Here is an example, so that the reader doesn’t think I have somehow lost my crackers.  Let’s say one of my students has an issue at home, and asks for assistance.  I do my best to assist.  The parents are thankful.  My student finds a solution and life goes on.  To the family and the student, I might have been the “person,” they needed at that moment.  But when the year is over, they and I move on.  The years roll on.

Students come and go, yet to some, what we teachers have done remains in their person, helping still to mold their character and their lives.  Unfortunately, there are some students who slip in for a year, remain under the radar, and whose lives simply move on into the future.  These are the people in life.

I guess what I am saying is that when people become “persons,” there is a connection beyond what is required.  This person-to-person connection is what remains.  It consists of more than an influence, or a few memories.  The connection is life-changing.  This is the same with God.  When there is a personal relationship with Him, “persons” last forever, eternally.

On a more personal note, the saddest part of all of this is when people exit my life.  Death is the worst.  But I am not referring to death.  Try as I might, I find it quite difficult to accept that people simply leave and are never heard from again.  I wonder if I messed up, or whether I offended someone, or whether there was no connection due to some sort of shortcoming in myself.  I have to admit that missing out on a connection cuts several ways.  But I ceased taking such wonderment beyond the cognitive realm.

We won’t connect with everyone in this life, certainly not everyone will desire such a “forever” connection with us.  To be honest, not every connection turns out to be a healthy one.  We are, after all, only human.

There are a couple of things I have learned over the years, and permit me to share these revelations with you.  First, I have found that connections that are based in negativity, abuse, or founded in a set of emotionally bad circumstances are probably not the healthiest of connections and will not last once a person finds his or her way out of the negativity.  Connections are meant to enhance, and not to subtract.

Second, try as we might, we simply have to allow the natural course of disconnection to occur.  Some people come into our lives for shorter periods than we would like.  So, allowing the presence of the people to dissipate, might just enhance the person’s legacy and lasting connection in our lives.  So, we need to learn to let go.  It is, after all, quite healthy for all parties.

There have been many people whose lives have crossed paths with mine.  I have had the privilege of working with thousands upon thousands, and my words both audibly and in print have touched a million or more.  Of this group, how many have I had deep connections with?  In addition to my family, there is probably a dozen, or two.  The number of people I have influenced is hopefully much greater.  But those who will remain forever . . . I am still wondering.  There is more life yet to live.

Yes, people come and people go.  God is good that way.  If we take the one as from Him, why not accept the other as within this same goodness package?  I am learning to do this better and better, with each passing year.  I suppose it will never be easy and the pain of letting go will be as real next year, as it is today.  But being open to the next set of deeper connections is one reason I exist.  That being said, I truly believe that connections last forever, because within the connections are “persons.”

May 2012 find us coming to terms with the differences between people in our lives and those who are there for deeper and lasting reasons?  May God help us to see those whom He has brought our way?  Finally, may we have the courage to let go of those negative and damaging people.  It is healthy for us and for them.

Happy New Year Everyone!

Here’s to Everyone’s Health . . .

Weird Parking Lot Experiences

7 Jul

Just yesterday afternoon, I was out and about after work.  I had just parked my
car in a shopping center parking lot when a man walked up to me and asked me
what my doctoral degree was in and where it was from.  My car license plate is
personalized, and I guess the man was quite curious about my pretense.

This was not the first time I was asked about my license plate, or about
my name.  One other time I was asked the genealogy of my family and the
etymology of my last name–all while pumping gas.  The man said that his wife,
who was sitting in their car, was curious.  I am sure we all have our parking
lot stories.

I have to laugh about the gas station confrontations I have had in my
life here in California.  About 5 years ago, I was pumping gas (Yes, the state
trusts us to pump our own)–and I was staring off into the distance and letting
my mind wander.  Suddenly, I heard this voice off to the right of my
daydreaming.  This mid-20s young man challenged me, “What are you looking at,

I removed my sunglasses and said, “Excuse me?  Are you talking to me?
If you are, thanks for the compliment.”

He realized I was much older than he thought, and his bravado fell way
short.  Looking back now, it sort of reminded me about “Men Without Chests”
(C.S. Lewis).  I will save this analogy for another time.  But I went home and
told my wife I was a “punk.”  She replied, “You just found that out after all
these years?”  Wiseacre . . .

So back to my original story.  The man who questioned my degree gave me
a certain degree of his own–a bit of scrutiny.  He made a couple of loaded
statements of accusation that ended with question marks.  You know the kind.
Here is what he said:  “You are not one of those liberal, closed-minded
public-school teachers who indoctrinates our kids are you?”  Notice the
accusation with a question-mark?  I replied, “That’s an awfully closed-minded
thing to say.”  He was quiet, but he followed me into the same store.  Ironic,
yes. But that’s OK.  I don’t mind intellectual confrontations.

After a couple of minutes in the store, I ran into a friend and we began
to talk.  I don’t think I can go anywhere in this town without being known by
someone, or knowing someone.  While I was talking with my friend, the man
blurted out, “So, what do you think is the best thing to invest in, today, since
you teach economics and government.  Is it gold, silver, or some other precious
metal?”  My friend looked at me and smiled.  The other shoppers standing in our
vicinity were just looking.  I mean, the man’s decibel level just about made the
arugula and eggplant jump out of my cart.

My reply to the man’s question went something like this:  “I think the
most important thing to invest in is human lives.  These are the most valuable
resources in this world and in the next world, as well.”  He replied, “Can’t
argue with that answer.”

My friend winked at me.  One other woman adjacent to us spoke out the
words, “You got that right.”

So off I went.  But I did forget the fresh basil.  Dang!

Moral of the story?  Sometimes California fruits are misplaced and found
in the vegetable section–which happens to be one aisle over from the nuts.

Help! I Smell Like An Old Person

26 May


© 2009, Ernie Zarra

My sisters and I refer to the smell as “old person’s smell.”  The odor in the house of my slender, gray-haired 75-year-old grandmother never seems to disappear.  With the windows open, or with them closed, the smell is always there.  Some days the smell is so strong that I am able to taste it.

The “old person’s smell” in Grandma Maggie’s house is actually a combination of several strong scents–at least I think so.  It is so strong that my friends always make fun of me after I return home from visiting.  As a 12-year-old, I hate that.  But my friends and I all share the same problem:  our grandparents houses smell like old people.

           Grandma Maggie has the most wonderful crushed-velour sofa.  Every time I visit, I pounce on the left side with my bottom, and slid into a well-worn corner.  This is grandma’s favorite corner of the sofa.  I stand up in the center of the sofa, when grandma is not watching, and jump up and down, as if on a trampoline.  The springs are so lively that I hear their baritone “boi-yoing” sound, at times, when I jump really high. 

           The gross part of the sofa is that with each plop onto the sofa, my nose catches a scent that is forever part of the pillows.  Grandma’s pillows smell like an old person.   So, when my face touches any of them, I wrinkle my nose and try not to breathe too deeply.  The pillows smell like a combination of moth balls, lilac toilet water, chicken soup, and hand cold cream from the super market.  Old people have funny smells.

           Like her house, my Irish grandmother seems to have a scent that hovers over her all day long.  It is like an invisible cloud of scents.  Every time she walks by, or every time she grabs me for a kiss on the cheek, there is that smell—the old person’s smell!  Now, the smell is nothing terrible, and she is my grandmother.  But sometimes, I am afraid to let her kiss me.  Even her breath has a funny smell.

           Grandma Maggie washes clothes by hand in the large, black, stone wash-basin in her downstairs utility room.  In order to fill the basin, she must turn on the valves for the hot and cold water.  The water from her Artesian well always rumbles and screeches through the shaky, old metal old pipes as it fills the water heater.  The water heater makes popping and snapping sounds inside, as the water begins to heat.

After a few minutes, grandma squeaks and tweaks another valve, and then turns the old galvanized metallic faucet knobs to just where she wants them.  The hot and cold water faucets begin exhaling air.  The water begins to come out, mixed with air, first with a sputter.  Then, it is followed by a loud spurt or air and a forceful flow follows.  Eventually there is a steady stream. 

Sometimes the water looks brown and rusty, so grandma has to let the water run and run to become clear.  Rusty water tastes like metal and has a dirty smell all its own.  Ewww, more old people stuff.

           One late October weekend, while the fall leaves are quickly dropping from their trees, my parents drop me off for a weekend visit with Grandma Maggie.  She lives in the country, where the temperature is always cooler, and the air always fresher. 

Grandma is in the bathroom fixing her hair when I arrive, so I head to the sofa to make my presence known.  I have a routine to follow, you know!  So, I enjoy a few private minutes of sofa jumping.  While jumping, I can actually feel the gusty drafts coming from the window that is directly behind the sofa.

           Before Grandma comes out of the bathroom, I get bored and run outside to enjoy the wind and to play “catch the leaves.”  It’s fun to catch falling leaves and crinkle them into small pieces, by rubbing them between the palms of my hands.  As the wind gusts, leaves fall quickly to the ground, in large numbers. 

I enjoy standing under the large, twisted branches of a 30-foot tall oak tree, which is 50 yards from grandma’s house.  This tree is my favorite tree to climb in and pretend I am a bat, by hanging upside down by my legs.

           The branches of the oak tree are so long that they shade the ground for over 30 feet.  But its branches are also very creepy.  They are shaped like the arms of monsters, with long, gangly, claw-like features. 

           This oak tree is the kind of tree where the roots are like octopus tentacles, reaching out of the ground, searching for whom to latch onto.  At night I am afraid to go near this tree.  But during the day the tree is fun. 

While standing on several of its bulging roots, I try wrapping my arms around the tree trunk, but my arms are far too short.  My arms are always too short.  Old people don’t have this problem.

           The wind is now blowing strongly enough to shake the large branches.  Even three bushy-tailed, gray squirrels are bobbing their furry heads as they cling to the dark-brown, bark-covered branches with their tiny claws.  One gust of wind blows a smaller squirrel right off its branch and it falls several feet onto the ground.   Off it scampers, unhurt. 

           After playing with the falling oak leaves for a several minutes I am bored again.  So, off I run toward grandma’s house.  I decide to enter through the utility room screen door.  I grab the handle and quickly fling open the door.  I step into the soap-smell-filled utility room and immediately the wind slams the door closed, behind me.  I am afraid of that screen door.  I jump forward.  That door always seems to scare me. 

Grandma is leaning over the wash basin in the utility room when I enter.  Her feet are firmly planted on the freshly painted “battleship gray” color floor.  She shrieks and squeezes a bar of soap extra tightly in her hands.  The screen door always seems to scare Grandma Maggie too!

As she squeezes, the bar instantly fires across the room like a rocket, hits the nearest wall, and drops to the floor with a soapy thud.  But that does not matter. 

Grandma picks up the soap and giggles with a high-pitch sound, which almost sounds like her old tea kettle spout as it begins to release steam through its nozzle.  She just shakes her head.  I am watching as Grandma scrapes her dirt-covered overalls across the ribs of her well-worn washboard.  Brown lye soap is being brushed into the stains with a boars’-hair bristle brush.  The clothes are sloshing around in the basin, as grandma dips them in and out of the water. 

Grandma is forcefully rubbing each piece of clothing across the ribbing of the washboard.  I watch her arms move back-and-forth quickly.  Then my eyes open wide.  Grandma’s upper arms have lots of loose skin, and the skin flaps side-to-side, in unison with the back-and-forth strokes of the bristle brush.  Grandma switches hands and her arms really get a workout.  Grandma Maggie sure has old person’s arms and her hands smell like soap—brown, lye soap.

Wanting to get a closer look, I jump up onto a three-step stool and politely ask grandma if I could help her.  She smiles and nods her head.  When she nods, the wrinkles of her neck have a way of bunching up right under her chin.  When she smiles, the wrinkles seem to stretch and disappear.  Grandma Maggie has old person’s wrinkly neck.

           As I stand on the three-step stool, I lean over into the wash-basin to begin my work.  Grandma hands me the bar of slippery, smelly brown soap.  Then she hands me the washboard and her bristle brush.  I rub some soap into the firm bristles of the brush, dip the brush in the basin water and begin to brush away a stain on one of grandma’s kitchen towels. 

           I am so confident that I could easily handle this chore that I rise up onto my toes, grab the washboard with my left hand, and slap the towel onto the ribs with my right hand.

           I begin a rhythmic-like stroke, up-and-down, dragging the brush bristles over the washboard ribs, with only a towel separating the two.  I bear down and, as I do, slip my tongue out of my mouth, to wet my upper lip.  With one strong down-stroke of my right hand, my body weight shifts and I slide off the stool and land head-first into the half-filled wash basin.  I thought I was going to drown.  I was gurgling soapy water and it tasted awful.  I even hit my head on the bottom of the stone basin.  I am afraid of that stool.

           Grandma Maggie lifts me up by my shirt collar.  I am dripping wet and coughing very loudly.  I look over at grandma and she is laughing and smiling, which means the wrinkles on her neck are gone.

           Besides being wet, I quickly realize that I now smell like an old person.  I smell like Grandma Maggie’s house and hands more than ever.  I smell like her!  I am afraid at what my friends going to say about this?  Oh well!  I accomplish one thing by falling into the basin.  I won’t need for a bath at the end of the day. 

Grandma Maggie hugged me later that evening and said I smelled really good.  I asked myself, how can an “old person smell” be good?  Then it hit me.  I was busy wasting far too much time on what I did not want to smell like that I missed something very important.  If being old, and smelling like an old person, was good enough for “my” grandmother, then it was good enough for me.

I am trying to remember to ask Grandma Maggie one question before bedtime.  “What is Fels Naptha, anyway?

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