Monday, September 28, 2009

Finding Change


            There is a screwtop plastic jar in my kitchen.  It is slowly filling with crusty pennies and sticky nickels and dirty dimes.  An occasional quarter makes it in, but that is rare.  The jar itself is something I bought near Faneuil Hall in Boston when I had my class there for a sleepover trip a couple of years ago.  I am not allowed to take such a trip without bringing something home for my daughter, and this jar was her present from that particular trip.

            The jar is the size and shape of the mason jars people use for canning, but this jar has a twist.  The lid has a slot for coins and a digital display screen that shows a running total of how much money is inside.  Right now the total reads $8.24.

            The reason many of the coins in the jar are dirty is they are all coins we have found out in the world.  Many were on the ground near parking meters, some were under vending machines, and a few were on the floor of the supermarket near the CoinStar machine.  They have all been found since June 18, 2009.  That was the day I walked by a few pennies on the ground and then wondered exactly how much money I was leaving laying around in a year.  I vowed to pick up every coin I would ordinarily have passed by for a full year and add them up.

            I told Erica and Isabel about my plan and enlisted their help.  I also made what now appears to be a foolish bet with Erica.  In those early, overly-optimistic days I thought we might be able to collect as much as $50.00 in a year.  She thought fifty dollars was a wildly high guess.  We bet a backrub.  If I had slowed down even just a little I could have done the math and realized that a total of fifty dollars would require an average daily find of fifteen cents.  It has been about one hundred days and we are averaging only 8.2 cents a day. 

            So, it looks like I will owe my lovely wife a backrub come next June.  But in the meantime and much to my surprise this exercise is teaching me something valuable.  And it doesn’t really have anything to do with coins. 


            Finding all this lost change requires focused attention on the world around me and a willingness to change course in response to what I observe.  I am finding these very same skills really valuable to my teaching.  This year is going well in my classroom and, (even though it may sound ridiculous), I partially attribute this success to my newfound hobby of coin collecting.  In order to find change, I have to remind myself to look—to pay attention.  Often I just walk without anything in mind but the destination.  But now that I am looking for change, I have to remember to actually look for change.  I have to exercise mental discipline.

            The same is true in my daily classroom interactions with my students.  In other years I have been so focused on the destination—the skill to be learned, the project to be completed, the work to be done—that I have blown right through some ripe opportunities to connect with my kids.  Once I started shifting my focus from the horizon to my more immediate environment, I found a lot more coins.  And once I lowered my gaze from the goal and focused more on the immediate messages my students were sending with their questions and their body language, the more I have felt able to really give them what they are needing.

            I am giving more of myself to each interaction with my students and the payoff has been enormous.  I am noticing more and learning more about them.  I imagine they are feeling more seen, more recognized, and better cared for.  There is a feeling in the room that hasn’t always been here in the past.

            Don’t get me wrong—I have never been an uncaring, strictly-business sort of teacher.  I like where I teach partly because of the administrative and parental expectation that I get to know my students well.  What has made this year different is that I have gotten to know my students well AND I have realized that every interaction is a chance to get to know them even better.  Every interaction every day is a chance to find something new about my students.  I am no longer, (at least so far this year), leaving money on the ground.  Once I began to see the value in those small moments, those minor revelations, and those tentative questions from my students it became clear to me just how immensely valuable all those pennies and nickels and dimes are in building real and authentic relationships with my kids.  And that is worth far more than fifty dollars.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Reach the Beach 2009

            I stood on the roadside, breathing steam into the starry night of Laconia, New Hampshire.  I was peering down the road, back the way we had just driven, looking for Tammy.  Runner after runner came up the hill, red lights blinking, headlights bobbing—more, or less--depending on the runner’s form and efficiency of stride.  They all looked equally like Tammy in the dark.  The headlights of the oncoming support vans were blinding, making it all the harder to spot my teammate.


            As runner after runner plodded or trudged or jogged or sprinted up the hill, a teammate would pop out of the crowd and take the team wristband, slapping it on his or her own arm and heading further down the road, further into the night.  But still no Tammy.


            I had met Tammy only 30 hours earlier at an Appleby’s in Lowell, Massachusetts and now here I was, wanting to see her more than any other human being on Earth.  Funny, what life does.  Just that morning she had been moving to loud club music as our team registered, and I kept expecting to see that same vibrant woman come dancing out of the darkness and into the transition zone with a big smile on her face.


            Which is why I didn’t recognize her for a moment, even when she stood five feet away yelling, “Where’s my runner?”  The woman calling in the floodlit roadside transition area was wrapped in some sort of white blanket or something. She was sweating and looking somewhat disoriented.  It was then that I saw our team number, 269, on the woman’s bib and realized this was Tammy standing right in front of me, eyes swiveling with increasing panic as she searched the crowd for me.


            “Here I am—I’m here,” I said as I squeezed out of the crowd and became myself to Tammy.  Right away her face cleared and she smiled and she was that same dancing-on-the-grass girl I had seen back in the morning on Cannon Mountain at the start of this craziness.  She handed me the wristband, I slapped it on, adjusted my head lamp, and trotted on up the road, in the same direction Tammy had been heading.


            “This craziness” is officially known as Reach the Beach 2009.  It is a team relay race that starts in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and ends 207 miles later in the sands of Hampton Beach, on the Atlantic Ocean.  The race has been run every year since 1999 and each year there are more teams running through the night and through the state.  There were more than 400 teams this year, including our team, the Rosie Ruiz Fan Club.


            Team Rosie has now run the race three times and we are building a small but dedicated fan base who mostly appreciate the humor of our name.  Rosie Ruiz is the woman who won the Boston Marathon a few years back by cheating and taking the subway for some of her miles.  We have adopted her likeness and name, if not her ethos.


            So, there I was at 2:30 a.m. running along the shoulder of Route 106 South, heading for Belmont High School, 4.3 miles away.  My running shorts and shirt were already damp from my previous leg, (a 7.2 mile, moderately hard run just before sunset the previous day), and I was shivering.  My vanmates and I had just woken up from our only sleep of the race—a two hour nap in an anonymous hotel room in Laconia—and my mind felt as addled as Tammy had looked at the end of her leg just moments before.  I really did not know how I was going to get through the next few miles of my life.


            So I did he only thing I could do while I tried to figure it out—I ran.  The cold air quickly went from adversary to friend and my muscles, already warmed up from my earlier run, settled me into a smooth, fluid stride without me having to even think about it.  It was a clear night and there were far more stars than I usually see in New Haven, Connecticut, where I live in my regular life.  But if I looked up at them too long I strayed off the shoulder or onto the road—neither of which is a good thing to do.  So I focused on the shoulder just ahead.


            My headlamp threw a blue-white circle of light onto the tar in front of me and that well-lit circle quickly became my world.  It mesmerized me and so I chased it. I wanted nothing more than to step into that circle, but as I followed, it receded.  I sped up a little, but so did the circle.  My legs and my breathing settled into a pace that felt good.  I was pushing myself, trying to give what I had without wasting myself for my final 6.8 mile leg still to come that afternoon.  By the end of the first mile I was in the best rhythm of my running life. 


            The feeling of moving smoothly through a three-dimensional space that suddenly seemed alive and filled with darkness and cold and life inflated me.  I felt bigger.  The layers of commentators that live in my head and my heart all shut up for a few miles and left me in peace and in that peace my body did what it wanted to do.


            And what it wanted to do was to run.  So I went after that little circle of light until the end of my leg, which seemed to come far too soon.  I truly believe I could have gone on for hours.  When Tammy called me out of that crowd 32 minutes earlier she somehow worked some magic.  When I stepped out onto the road to answer that question, “Where’s my runner?”, I feel like I stepped fully into who I am.  I am not the fastest runner on the team, nor will I ever be.  But when it is right—and it most certainly was right in New Hampshire this weekend—running fills me up and quiets me and makes me feel what it is to be fully in the moment in my own skin, doing what I need to be doing.




As a postscript for those who care about the details:  The Rosie Ruiz Fan Club ran 207 miles in 27 hours and 32 minutes--an average of 7 minutes 57 seconds per mile.  We came in 25th out of 127 teams in our division.  My average time per mile over my 19.2 miles of the race was exactly the same as the team's. 


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Too Much Information

My daughter recently brought home a Leopard gecko from the pet store. (She named it “Cow.”) To be honest, I didn’t really care one way or the other about this new addition to our household. It didn’t seem like Cow’s presence would change my life in any appreciable way.

But now, ten days later, I find myself with an embarrassing problem.

You see, Leopard geckos are carnivores and they do best when fed live crickets. The crickets are easy enough to get from the local pet store. The problem is this: it is really fun watching Cow chase down, catch, and munch on these poor little hoppers. I spend far too much time squatting down by the ten-gallon tank, shaking out a couple of crickets, and then enjoying the show.

I didn’t really want to know this about myself.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Reach the Beach, 2009

            Two years ago this week I drove up to Hampton Beach, New Hampshire with my daughter so we could watch Erica and her eleven teammates finish their 200 mile Reach the Beach Relay Race.  I was not on the team because I had not been running much, due to two herniated discs in my lower back.  I was happy for them as they crossed the line as a group, but inside I felt entirely lame and left out.  I vowed in the van on the way home the next morning that I would work myself into the best shape of my life and then I would be in the race the next year, not clapping from the sidelines.

            Last September, I was indeed a member of the Rosie Ruiz Fan Club  relay team as my  teammate Aisling Colon crossed the finish line, bringing our team in in 28 hours, 23 minutes,  and some odd seconds. This was an hour faster than the year before, when the team ran an average 8 minutes and 33 seconds per mile for over 200 miles.

           It felt really good to be part of such a demanding undertaking—no sleep, no showers, no stopping for food—and it was so much fun that it ensured I would once again run the race this year.

            In the interim, I have decided I need to run a half marathon every three months in order to fight time’s and gravity’s ravages.  So, as this year’s Reach the Beach approaches, I am probably now in much better shape than I was for last year’s race.  And I am growing more and more excited day by day.  I just now finished a slow four-mile run as my daughter Isabel practiced her balance beam routine and her backflips and as I ran down the Farmington Canal trail for the hundredth time in the past year it struck me that one week from right NOW I will be running my first leg of the relay. 

It feels good to be excited about something.  It reminds me of the value of trying hard things with other people.  I will let you now how it goes when we get back next Sunday.


                                                     Rosie Ruiz Fan Club 2008