Friday, June 22, 2018

A Respite



If you've been reading here this week, you'll know that I've been reacting to the horrible news of the day. (Please click here, here, here, and here in case you don't know what I'm talking about). I've been so absorbed that I forget to recognize the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, which happened yesterday here in Seattle at 3:07 a.m.

"Solstice" is Latin for "the sun stands still," which is derived from the fact that the sun appears to rise and set in the same place twice a year. Whereas the Winter Solstice tends to be a time of hunkering down and taking stock, this one tends to be about celebration. Our school is in a neighborhood called Fremont, an inner-city neighborhood known as "The Center of the Universe." We are a place of trolls living under the bridge, communist-era Vladimir Lenin statues, and the Fremont Summer Solstice Parade, a 30-year-old annual community art parade that has evolved to be lead off by some 3000 naked cyclists, followed by a slew of floats and ensembles created by folks from the neighborhood. When you look at the top of this blog and see me in a cape: that's me in the parade, something I've participated in for the past 15 years.

This year, I was out of town, in the Southern Hemisphere, Australia and New Zealand specifically, where I experienced the coming of the longest night of the year before winging my way back home to enjoy the longest day of the year. This seems auspicious somehow.

Today, as a kind of respite, I'm going to re-post one of the very first posts I ever wrote, one that still speaks for me today:

"Participating in the Fremont Summer Solstice Parade has become an annual tradition for my family.

Our school being located, as it is, in the heart of Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, many of our Woodland Park families are regular attendees, if not fellow participants, in this one-of-a-kind, homemade procession of music, dancing, oddities, titillation, and unbridled joy. It’s a pure artistic expression by a community, which is what appeals to us most. There are no commercial sponsorships (although local businesses chip in to help with the $30,000 cost of producing the parade), the floats must be human powered, and the audience is encouraged to leap out into the street to participate in the festivities.

For those who’ve never experienced this quintessential Seattle event, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. The parade is kicked off by a sea of naked cyclists – over 500 this year -- their bodies transformed into beautifully painted canvases. This year featured a larger than life puppet of Pope Clementine VII and a macabre band of undertakers, a 25-foot beach ball that was rolled over audience members who lay down in the street, a cadre of “Ice Queens” wearing 10-foot wide regal courtesan dresses, a life-sized elephant puppet, stilt-walking crows, “sustainable” bull fighters, hundreds of musicians and dancers, and countless other strange and beautiful things.

I was one of about 60 Superhuggers. Clad in tights and capes, our mission is to simply hug as many people as we can. I’d say I got in a good 200 hugs throughout the parade, so if everyone else did the same, that’s a good 12,000 hugs. Not a bad day’s work.

My favorite hugs, of course, came from the dozens of current and former students who lined the route. What fun it was to hear the cry of, “Teacher Tom! Teacher Tom!” There were 50,000+ people out there yesterday, so I know I missed some of my friends and I’m sorry about that.

And while I love finding friends in the crowd, it was the strangers – who for a brief moment ceased being strangers – that are ultimately the most meaningful. Hugging that many strangers is an act of subversion, I think, one that pushes through our tendency to erect barriers between ourselves and those terrifying, unknown “others”. When I talk to people about Superhugging, they warn me that I’ll catch cold, contract lice, get punched out, or worse. This is our third parade hugging those thousands of strangers and none of those things have ever happened. Sure there were a handful of rejections, but each time I waded into the crowd it was into a flurry open arms. I hugged men, women and children. I was part of large and small group hugs. I saw strangers in the crowd hugging one another.

I tried to make eye contact with each person I hugged, saying things like, “I’m so happy you’re here!” “Happy solstice!” and “I love you!” And every word I spoke in those intimate moments in the middle of a parade was echoed back to me, “I’m happy you’re here, too!” “Happy solstice to you, too!” and “I love you, too!” Amazing.

I’ll never forget the developmentally disabled girl who struggled to get her arms around me as I knelt in front of her wheelchair. When she finally succeeded in getting her hands on my shoulders, the crowd around us roared. Or the little boy who remembered me from a prior parade, “Last year you hugged my dad!” That I’d made a memory for a stranger that had lasted that long touches me to the core.

After last year’s parade there was a photo in the Seattle Times of a man, his hands thrown up over his head as he was surrounded by red-caped huggers. In his open mouth you could see the gaps from missing teeth. He had the look of someone who has had a hard time of things. The paper quoted him as saying, “This is the greatest day of my life!” Holy cow! And sure enough, there he was again along the parade route this year, reveling in hugs once more.

Today, some of my fellow huggers have shared their experiences with our group via our email list. They speak of feeling exhausted, yet “full” and “exhilarated”.

One of them wrote: “I’ve been teary all day. I have many snapshots in my mind of people who “lit up” when asked if they wanted a hug, especially the people who looked so closed.”

What I’ve learned from being a Superhugger is that we’re not as afraid of each other as the news of the world sometimes leads us to believe. We are born to love. We are all in this together.

Here are some photos of the Woodland Park community in the parade."

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Raising Holy Hell




In democratic societies, we educate children so that they will learn the values, habits, and skills they will need to be good citizens; so that they are capable of undertaking their role as citizens in a self-governing society. That is the ideal, at least, and one that I seek to fulfill as a preschool teacher. There is a good debate to be had about whether or not the United States is a democratic society, and we unquestionably fall short at times, but whatever the case most of us still place a high value on democracy, both as it is embodied in our Constitution as well as in how we live our day-to-day lives.

Yesterday, the President, after weeks of claiming that his hands were tied, that the law required him to separate the children from their asylum-seeking parents and put them in concentration camps, signed an executive order, ending the policy with the stroke of a pen. He had this power all along, just as the cruel policy itself was his and his alone. This is an admission that he and his entire administration has been, and continues to lie to the American people, inflicting irreparable and unforgivable abuse on children. The good news about the executive order is that children will, for the time being at least, be allowed to remain with their parents. It is a win for these kids no mater what, even if this dark period in American history is far from over.

We can all take a moment this morning to acknowledge that we made this happen. One of the skills required of full citizenship is to raise holy hell and we have done just that. It was our emails, phone calls, social media rants, and street protests that made this happen. We may not have them on the run, but we have knocked the forces of evil off balance. We have made them flinch, we have backed them down, and made them afraid. We have proven that we are legion, a force to be reckoned with, we the people.

But let's not get lost in patting ourselves on the back. Like I said, this is far from over. It seems that the administration now plans to basically imprison entire families, not for crimes, but for coming to our nation's border to seek asylum, a perfectly legal act. And even if there are some who have crossed the border illegally, this is still not a crime under US law, but rather a misdemeanor, which is why past administrations have cited them, set hearing dates, then released them until their cases could be considered, the way one does with misdemeanors like writing bad checks or disorderly conduct. And while kids will get to stay with their parents, children will still be imprisoned in our name; these will still be concentration camps.

The current law, as detailed in a court agreement referred to as the Flores settlement (the very law the President lied about tying his hands) only allows them to hold children for a maximum of 20 days, after which they must be released. Government lawyers are apparently going to court in an effort to have that changed so they can imprison these families indefinitely, but from what I've been reading, they are not likely to be successful. My take on this is that the executive order, as imprecise as it is, is designed simply to create breathing room for the administration, to allow them to catch their breath after the holy hell we've raised. We cannot give them breathing room! From where I sit, the next front line is to demand that the 2,500 children who have already been stolen from their parents be returned. These children have already been brain damaged, and it is getting worse with each passing day. Please don't let up. These kids need us.

They cannot enact their evil policy without the help of corporations. Here is a partial list, including emails and phone numbers of companies known to be collaborating. This is an effective way to raise holy hell. Yesterday, American Airlines announced it will not continue transporting these children. Apparently, United Airlines and Southwest have joined them.

There has been a lot of misinformation (and flat-out lies) being spread about this. Here is fact-checking by the ACLU that addresses most of the major lies being told. Despite knowing better, I have found myself trying to persuade people that they are wrong, but they seem to be immune from facts, calling everything I say "fake news." We don't engage in these debates on social media in order to persuade the people with whom we are debating, we do it to inform and persuade the third-parties who are reading along: fact-checking does persuade the undecided.

There are a huge number of street protests happening every day all across the country, especially in places where there are ICE facilities. A national day of protest is being organized for June 30. Let's put our feet in the street for these kids.

There are also opportunities to make financial donations, including the ACLU who are fighting for these children in the courts. You might also want to consider this group: they have raised over $15 million to date and the number is growing by the minute.

And finally, of course, continue to call your representatives, even if they are already on our side and raising holy hell of their own. Let them know you want them to keep going: don't let them catch their breath either. And if your representatives are still siding with the President, it is even more important to continue to hammer them with your moral outrage. This is what has knocked them back. This is sometimes how things must work in a democracy.

No one ever said that democracy would be quick or easy, but it only works when we the people step up to the responsibilities and challenges of self-governance. As the grandfather of progressive education wrote, "Democracy has to be born anew with each generation, and education is its midwife." Those of us who work with young children, whether teachers, parents, or grandparents, are the midwives of democracy, and part of that is to raise holy hell. So let's keep raising it!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Because We Stand Together




For the past two days, I've written about the tragedy taking place along our southern border, where children, infants even, are being torn crying from their parents' arms, and being confined in concentration camps. The administration is clearly feeling the pressure as citizens continue to call, write, and protest, but sadly, the evidence is that they are attempting to double down. I urge you to continue to apply pressure to not only our elected representatives, but also the businesses that are helping them do this. If you need help in how to get started, please click here and here. Here is a good place to make a donation. Here is a good place for information about businesses that are complicit. Here is where you can learn more about feet on the street protests being planned in your area. If you care at all about children, if you care at all about your own humanity, there is nothing more important to be doing than this. Please don't let up. Not for a second. Thank you.

In the moments I've been able to step back from the abuse happening our name, it's hard not to connect this to a wider societal problem. As I've heard the callousness, the heartless jokes, and the grasping-at-straws excuses being made by those who support the administration's border policy, I am more aware than ever that there are too many Americans who devalue, and even hate, children and childhood. This is the most recent, horrifying, example, but it crops up every day in the form of those who advocate for "tough love (which isn't love at all)," spanking (which is child abuse), and high stakes standardized testing (which, among other things, destroys the love of learning, steals childhood, and raises stress levels into toxicity). All of my efforts on this blog are attempts to push back against this.

I am obviously not the only one. Indeed, we are an army of parents and other advocates who daily champion the view of children as fully-formed human beings, worthy of our respect, our genuine friendship, and our love. We are the defenders of childhood and my fellow teachers stand at the front. Last week, for instance, the Seattle Education Association, our local teacher's union, voted for a resolution calling for a two year moratorium on all standardized testing in our schools. This comes after years of effective protest by these teachers on behalf of their students, an effort that has involved a strike, boycotts, and facing down the threats of disciplinary action. This latest resolution does not come without risk, but I am confident that as they have done in the past, parents will rally behind them. That's what we do for our children: stand in solidarity in their name, fighting together for what is right.

I take great comfort in knowing that I am not alone, that we are legion, and that ultimately, no force on earth can stand long in opposition to children, parents, and teachers united. We will prevail because we stand together. It's the least we can do for children.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Be A Bringer Of Light




I spent pretty much the whole day yesterday doing whatever I could to put pressure on those who are aiding the US government in its terroristic policy to rip children, including nursing babies, from the arms of parents who are seeking asylum in our country and confining them in concentration camps. In particular, I focused on exposing corporations that are helping our border control agencies in their evil. Here is a list of companies that have so far been identified as collaborators. This Facebook page is also doing a good job of tracking down companies that are profiting from this. I shared the information I gathered via social media throughout the day and did what I could to track down opportunities to put feet on the street in the form of actual physical protest. 

The administration has pushed back with flat-out lies. They claim that their hands are tied, that they are only following the law, but legal expert after legal expert has asserted that there is no law requiring families to be separated at the border.

They claim that these people are entering the country illegally, but time after time we find that most of these families are coming to our border seeking asylum, which is not illegal, but rather a foundational tenant of our nation: we have always provided refuge for those fleeing violence, oppression, and grinding poverty. And even if they have crossed the border illegally, under US law this is not a crime, but rather a misdemeanor, an act not worthy of imprisonment, let alone the torture of children.

They claim that Congress must pass a law to stop them, but legal experts, political pundits, and even Republican Senators, call this a lie: the President could stop this with a single phone call.

I don't care what Obama did; this is about what's happening right now. I don't care about border security; there is nothing that justifies stealing children from their families and putting them in concentration camps and anyone who defends this is no better than apologists during The Holocaust. Every company, contractor, or business that aides in carrying out this policy will be held to account; saying "I was just following the law" or "I didn't know" are not acceptable.

From where I sit, this is all-hands-on deck time. We don't have the luxury of feeling helpless or of shutting out the news or of worrying about the ugliness of political debate. This is about the abuse of children in our name.

I'm hopeful that today will be the day that things start to turn around. I know that the administration is feeling the pressure. They had their emissaries out in force yesterday on all the news shows, trotting out their bald-faced lies and I saw reporters pushing back, calling them on their lies, challenging them, making them sweat. Some of them even looked like they were about to cry. The pressure is working, but we can't let up for a second. I reckon I have lost readers in my advocacy. As I wrote yesterday, I'd already lost friends. I also expect that I've made some mistakes by pointing fingers in the wrong direction, and for that I will apologize both in advance and when I've learned of those mistakes. But, I can't sit idly and, I hope, neither can you.

Please join me. Please do not let up. History will remember this as one of the darkest periods in our history, but we can be the bringers of light. Be a bringer of light.

UPDATE: A nationwide protest day is in the works for June 30. Please pledge to participate. 

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, June 18, 2018

These Children Are Suffering In Our Name




I've been out of the country for the past two-and-a-half weeks. I've watched from afar in a state of both disbelief and helplessness as evidence of the current administration's inhumane policies have lead to thousands of children being forcibly separated from their parents and confined in concentration camps. Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that children are being kept 20 to a cage in 100 degree plus weather. This is inhumanity on the level of the worst atrocities ever committed by our country. I will not stand by as it happens

I've already lost friends over this and I'm prepared to lose even more. I will not broach any person who seeks to excuse or defend this practice. It is a policy based on lies, fed by hate, and driven by a desire to inflict as much pain and suffering as possible. Yesterday, a former friend accused me of being a "tool" of the left when I asserted that these children were being "ripped" from their parent's arms. What do you call it when they are taken from their mothers while in the process of breast feeding? What do you call it when they are told their child is going to be bathed, then informed "you will never see your child again?"

The lies begin with the word "illegal." Many if not most of these families, have come to our borders seeking asylum, fleeing dangers in their home countries. There is nothing illegal about seeking asylum. Indeed, that is what this country is supposed to be about: providing sanctuary for those fleeing violence, political oppression, and poverty. These asylum-seekers are voluntarily turning themselves into border authorities who are, on the spot, declaring them criminal, taking their children from them, then labeling the children "unaccompanied minors," which is the cover (the lie) they need to warehouse them in abandoned Wal-Marts. And what if they have illegally crossed the border? According to US law, that is not a crime, it is a misdemeanor, yet this monstrous policy rips (yes I'm using that word) children from their parents, perhaps the worst punishment imaginable without judge, trial, or jury.

The hatred behind this policy is clear. These are darker-skinned people from nation's that this administration has labeled "hell holes." This is not happening to white people who have, say, overstayed their visas or who are likewise seeking asylum. No, they continue to enjoy the rights and protections of our laws. It is only at our southern border that this is happening.

When I think of these children, I cannot think of anything else. These children are suffering permanent brain damage from the trauma that is intentionally being inflicted upon them. Every week, every day, every minute they spend in these concentration camps is making that brain damage worse, something from which most will never fully recover. The cruelty being done in our name cannot be tolerated.

It's easy to point fingers at the administration, but every single person involved with this is to blame in the same way that even the secretaries at the Auschwitz concentration camp are guilty for the Holocaust. Everyone who works for the Department of Homeland Security must be held to account for the abuse and terrorism. Every individual who works for the companies contracted to build and run the concentration camps, from those that supply the beds and food to those providing the fencing with which the cages are constructed, must be held to account. They know what they are doing and they are doing it for money. I will not let them off the hook. "I was just following orders," or "I didn't know," are not acceptable answers.

Several within this administration have asserted that what they are doing is "biblical," claiming the moral authority to commit these atrocities in the name of Christianity. I've not heard enough from Christians. Is this really what your religion is about?

I was relieved to see street protests over the weekend, but they were pathetically small compared to the horror of what is happening. My social media feed has gradually begun to be filled with outrage, which is a good sign, but still not enough. Our elected representatives have begun to speak out, but I've heard almost nothing from Republicans who seem determined to support this administration no matter what kind of hell they are bent upon. I've been calling my elected representatives to demand an end to this, something I know that many others have done, but that is only a beginning. We must also start to pressure the people who are enabling the abuse and terror.

A company called Southwest Keys is running the Brownsville Wal-Mart facility I posted about last week. They must be called to account, and not just their CEO, but every single person who takes a paycheck from them. Defense contractors are also cashing in on the cruelty. I have committed myself to further research into who is profiting from this. I am pointing my fingers at them. I will not forget their complicity, nor will I forget those who, in full knowledge, continue to aid and abet these monsters. Indeed, they themselves are monsters.

Today, I am calling on every other education blogger, every education leader, every parent, every person who cares about children, to step up. There is nothing more important than to end this. Our outrage is not enough. Our social media posts are not enough. Our phone calls are not enough. Our donations are not enough. These children are suffering in our name. We must move heaven and earth to end it. Whatever it takes.

UPDATE: All of the photos and information we have so far is about where they are keeping boys aged 10-17. Where are the girls? Where are the young children? We need to know.

UPDATE: Here is a list that is being regularly updated of companies that are collaborating in this evil.

UPDATE: Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen is claiming that these asylum-seekers are just "posing" as families. What a pack of lying sacks of sh-t these people are. And even if they are posing, that still doesn't justify putting children in concentration camps.

UPDATE: Yes, some Republicans have spoken out, but none of the leadership, and even those who have expressed "sadness" have thrown up their hands as if there is nothing they can do. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is flat-out lying when he says that the only way to fix this is through legislation. The President can end this with one phone call! Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell has been silent. This is evil.

UPDATE: A nationwide day of protest is finally in the works. Please pledge to participate and share the word!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Best Preschool App Is Here! Download It Today!





Let me state right up front, it wasn't my idea to download this latest app for the preschool. It was Luca's mom Megan who thought the school just had to have it. Her own kids had really enjoyed it, it was sooo educational, you know, the usual blah, blah, blah.


I guess I should quit fighting it. After all our kids are growing up in this world, and huge sheets of cardboard are going to be part of it, but I worry about what it's doing to their brains. Still, for better or worse, there we were, taking part in this grand social and developmental experiment.


It didn't surprise me, of course, that the kids took to it right away. I mean, it's cardboard, right? They all seem to be drawn to it.


Honestly, it's amazing how they somehow intuitively knew how to turn it on and start using it.


It only took a few seconds for them to figure out how to get to the napping function where they all cozied in together and made me turn off the lights. I have to say, that doesn't happen often without the app!


But what really impressed was when they discovered the fort building function. How they did it, I'll never know, but, I mean, there they were, 3, 4, and 5-year-olds already learning their forts! And I don't think they even knew they were learning anything. I mean the cardboard app can't be all bad if they're doing forts as young as three years old -- that's a lifelong skill there, people!


They started with the upright, roofless kind of fort. Like I said -- three years old. If you could see my face right now, I'd be raising my eyebrows at you in a knowing way.


Then, get this, they figured out another kind of fort that involved getting low and adding roofs! I mean, I'm an educated guy, but these preschoolers took to the technology as if they were born with it in their genes.


And I have to say, they didn't seem to be turning into cardboard zombies the way I'd feared. Only time will tell, of course, but for now they seemed quite actively engaged: not only with the cardboard, but with each other, and it really looked like it was involving their whole minds and bodies. 


I asked Megan if she'd found any need to set limits or anything, but other than "not in the living room," she hadn't so far. And she guiltily mentioned another feature that I'd secretly been enjoying myself: it really kept the kids occupied when she needed to get something done. I mean, let's be honest, that isn't always a bad thing.


Then they figured out the slide, human sandwich, pig-pile function, which made them squeal. Anything that can make children laugh like that can't be all bad. Still, I had some questions.


I decided to ask a few experts about their thoughts on young children and cardboard, starting with a psychologist who sighed, and said, "Well, it's cardboard. What can you do? You can't ban it. That will only turn it into forbidden fruit." The neuro-scientist perked up when I asked him for his thoughts, saying, "There's actually some very compelling evidence that early exposure to large sheets of cardboard stimulates not only the part of the brain that makes you feel good to be alive, but also seems to have some effect on the every other region of the brain worth developing."


This information in my pocket, but still not entirely convinced, I returned to school determined to try my own experiments. Of course I didn't tell any of my fellow teachers about this in advance for fear of being ostracized, but I took the cardboard outside.


That's right. I was nervous about it, but the kids knew just what to do, discovering the paints and painter's tools function and transforming the cardboard into everything from a bus stop to a castle to a maze to a work of art.


They engaged as if they were born to do it, creatively, scientifically, and socially. 


It's a brave new world folks. I'm a convert. Download this app today! You won't regret it.



I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

"I Won't Go, Go, Go"




At the moment, the song "Rehab" by Amy Winehouse is stuck in my head, not the whole song, but just the chorus. It's not there all the time. For instance, it goes away when I'm speaking or right now as I'm typing these words, but the moment I stop using my brain, there it is: "They tried to make me go to rehab/I said no, no, no . . ."

I reckon at one time or another everyone is plagued by one of these "sticky" songs or "earworms," but I sometimes wonder if maybe those of us in early childhood are more prone. I'm traveling right now and haven't been around the kids for a couple weeks, but during the school year, more often than not, the song that's going around and around in my head is one from the classroom. 

Researchers have studied the phenomenon and it's real. It seems that our auditory cortex tends to keep singing certain songs after their finished, resulting in what some refer to as an "auditory itch" and the only way scratch it is to keep singing it over and over. There are many theories about why this happens, including obsessive-compulsive tendencies or stress or tiredness. Some have found that musically-incline people are more prone to earworms, while others link it to the songs themselves, some of which appear to be more parasitic than others. Maybe it's just a way to keep our brains busy during down moments. No one knows for sure, but some 99 percent of us have experienced it and it can be maddening.

I sometimes wonder about the evolutionary purpose of this phenomenon. I mean, it could just be a side-effect or the vestige of something human's no longer need, like our little toes which I've read are getting smaller with each passing generation or our appendix which is useless except for filling up emergency rooms when they swell and burst. I wonder if other animals experience a similar thing: do birds, for instance, get their songs stuck in their heads or is it unique to us? We could blame the modern world and the fact that recorded music somehow causes it, but then how do you explain similar stories about Schumann and Mozart, classic music composures who lived long before the advent of recorded music? 

I often think that it must somehow be connected to how our brains learn. That is certainly something we see around the classroom. Most children learn their A-B-C's through a song, for instance, but that example has more to do with memorization than actual learning. That said, I have learned things from songs, but then again, that usually has more to do with the lyrics than the melody, rhythm, or harmony. 

I figured that by the time I got to this point in the post, I'd have a working theory, but I don't. The reason that humans do this remains a mystery, but that's hardly the point. The point isn't always to answer our questions, but rather to wonder, because if there is an answer that's the only way we have ever found it. Nevertheless, I thank you for reading because writing this has occupied my brain, taking up the space that was previously full of Amy Winehouse.,

And now I'm at the end and there she is again, singing that she won't "go, go, go."

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The "Bucket List"



When I arrived in Dunedin, New Zealand last Friday, my host Susan Puha, the director of Wild Things Home Based Childcare, asked me if there was anything I particularly wanted to do while there. I answered without hesitation, "I want to see a kiwi in the wild." When she informed me that they were very shy nocturnal creatures and that this might be next to impossible given my limited schedule, I went to the next item on my list, "How about a penguin?" She said she would see what she could manage.

After a full day with the brilliant and enthusiastic Dunedin early childhood community on Saturday, I had the opportunity to be a night time tourist in the downtown of this charming university town. I made my way to what is called "The Octagon," the eight-sided public square where Susan had told me I could do a little sightseeing and find a decent meal. I wound up in a pleasant-looking pub, full, but not too full I thought for a Saturday night. Dining alone, I played the game of telling myself stories about the other people in the place.

There was a young couple who might have been on a first date. There was a group of guys who seemed to be either colleagues or teammates celebrating something or other. I spied an elderly couple who were sharing a fine looking order of fish and chips. Inspired, I placed my own fish and chips order along with that for a second beer. By the time my food arrived, however, the place had begun to empty out, leaving me more or less alone for a time, which I thought odd for a Saturday night in a college town. I was a bit disappointed. I'd been seeking a bit of night life, but then, as if responding to a cue, the doors burst open and the pub began to re-fill, urgently. Indeed, it got so full, so fast that I wound up sharing my table. Then I realized that everyone's attentions were focused on the television screens where I saw that the world famous All Blacks rugby team was warming up to play against the French side.


I'm not a rugby fan, but even I know about the All Blacks, perennially one of the world's top teams, and undoubtedly the rugby world's most revered dynasty. New Zealanders, even those who are not particularly sports fans, are understandably proud of this national team and all it has achieved. Their matches are a unifying national event. What unexpected fun, I thought: watching this game in a pub full of Kiwis. The men with whom I shared my table were a university music professor and one of his graduate students and between their side conversations about their art they helped me understand the game. I got to cheer with the local fans, adopting the All Blacks the way sports fans do, even catching myself referring to the team possessively as "we" and "our side." This was not something that was on my "bucket list," but I realized that it certainly should have been,

The following day, Susan and her husband collected me for a drive to a place called Sandfly Bay Wildlife Refuge where they were hoping to help me fulfill my goal of seeing penguins in the wild. Particularly exciting was the prospect of spotting some of the endangered yellow-eyed penguins, or hoiho, that are known to nest on the cliffs adjacent the beach. It wasn't an easily accessible place, requiring a long, steep decent on a challenging path, much of which involved sand into which we sank up to mid-shin. The rainy, cool weather contributed to the challenge. My hosts informed me that the name "Sandfly" didn't come from an insect, but rather the fact that when the winds were up, it caused the sands to "fly" which stung one's exposed skin like thousands of little needles. Thankfully, the wind was minimal. Once at the bottom of the dunes we hiked the length of the beach where several sea lions lounged as if basking in mid-summer sun.

There were no penguins in sight as we made our way to the most likely spot. Susan warned me that we may leave disappointed, that the adult penguins were currently out feeding, that they tended to return at dusk, that we were hoping to see them, but there were no guarantees. We had to cross a shallow beach stream which, of course, drenched our feet. And then we waited, standing in the cold, rain, and occasional wind. We waited and waited. At one point I thought I saw something in the waves, but it turned out to be a young seal. We speculated that maybe the penguins were staying away because of the seals and sea lions. We waited and waited. And waited. Then, disappointed in our quest, we returned home.


We climbed the steep hill back to the top of the bluff, fighting deep, shifting sand, gravity, and the limitations of our lungs and legs. At the end of the outing I was tired, sore, damp, and sweaty. My legs ached and my feet were uncomfortably wet and sandy. Before leaving the beach, I'd stopped to photograph penguin footprints in the sand, the closest I was going to come to ticking this experience off my bucket list on this day.

We talk a lot about our bucket lists, but even as the term is relatively new, the concept is not. We set our goals, we make our plans, and we strive for success in terms that we've pre-determined. Sometimes we achieve them, but more often we don't. The preceding evening I'd actually discovered a "bucket list" item, to watch the All Blacks in a New Zealand pub, even as I was achieving it. Then the following day, after much trial and effort, I'd failed in another. But I don't feel a lick of disappointment because it's never about our goals as much as it is about the setting out, the climb, and the joy of doing it in the company of others. I didn't see penguins, but I have another story to tell, a memory to reflect upon, and, most importantly, a new person to call "friend." And in the end, those are really the only goals worth pursuing.

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