I wrote the following personal essay because I believe one of the best ways to teach writing is by writing. I ask my seniors to write This I Believe essays to help us get to know one another and to give them an opportunity to receive some authentic feedback — we share them as a class — on the sort of essay (sometimes the essay) they submit with their college applications. I’ve written several of these over the years; this is the first I’ve posted.

I believe in sunshine.

That big, yellow fusion-driven ball of fire is a darn good thing for our planet, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

My sunshine is my husband of fifteen years, Stanley. We met on an overcast, wintry day in December, but the weather outside did not reflect the immense positive force he would become in my life.

Stanley is one of those people who see the world through rose-colored glasses. If his soccer shoes were on sale for $59.99 then they were a steal, “only fifty bucks!”

His outlook applies to sports too. If he caught a few runs of powder at Buffalo Ski Club then the powder was knee deep and he was getting blasted in the face the whole time. Never mind that I skied the same runs and I can attest to the fact that we were lucky if the four inches of fresh snow made it to the tops of our knees.

Surfing is no different. When we are out on Lake Erie, every wave he catches is super smooth, super long and he makes “at least four turns.” Surfing Lake Erie is an incredible experience, but mostly because it is an anomaly. The Great Lakes don’t have the fetch necessary to build the long, smooth waves surfers live for. Rides are short, choppy and cold.

But my point is this: to Stanley, it just doesn’t matter. In his eyes, the waves never end, the powder is deep and his favorite Adidas kicks are always on deep discount because his world is full of sunshine. And, at some point, I realized that my world should be a sunny place too.

For years I reveled in my realism. I was the teller of truths. I was all facts, no fiction. I wanted the real story, not the Stanley-mark-down version. But then I started to hear the message beneath my quest for the factual accuracy. It was not a pretty picture. Instead of reveling in the moment, I was judging it, measuring it, comparing it to other moments. I was the cynic, the one who rained on the parade.

Now, like my husband, I live in the moment. I don’t worry about other moments, or whether or not this particular moment measures up. It’s the moment I have and I make the most of it. I get to ski four inches of fresh powder before anyone else hits the slopes? That’s the bomb. Surfing Lake Erie in 20mph winds? I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

I believe in sunshine and if the yellow globe in the sky doesn’t cooperate, it doesn’t matter because I’ve got backup.

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This was due for an update!

  • soul surfing
  • being a kook
  • surfing vacations
  • big wave surfing
  • waves
  • traveling
  • the importance of education
  • my philosophy of education
  • the Common Core standards in education
  • New York State’s new education legislation
  • engaging teenage learners
  • YA literature
  • what I’m currently reading
  • the media
  • eating well — fresh, local, mostly vegetarian
  • films & movie reviews
  • concerts
  • music reviews
  • outdoor emergency medicine
  • winter in New York — please snow this year!
  • finding balance in life — work, play, learn, sleep
  • goals and aspirations

(I asked the juniors to come up with one word they would like to define them for this academic year. We brainstormed words and then ideas, trying to get a sense of the words we chose, what they meant to us and what we hoped they would mean to us. We challenged ourselves to write descriptively, fleshing out the details of the images we create. I chose the word flow. This is my “One Little Word” essay on it. I’ll share it with them and talk about why I chose to construct it as I did.)

I am a rock. I am hard, stubborn, recalcitrant. I push past what is difficult, survive periods of drought and batter down what stands in my way.

In the immortal words of Simon and Garfunkel, I am a rock, I am an island.

There are no bridges off this island, no tunnels into this rock. My natural, impenetrable defenses keep me safe. I withstand the ravages of time. Humanity flows around me, skimming my shores, barely altering my landscape.

I stand alone.

I am alone.

The current moves past me, taking in my jagged edges, wondering at my solidity. Continuing downstream, other obstacles place themselves in its path, and the current examines them with similar curiosity and detachment. It passes no judgment. It flows on.

I wonder at this current, lapping my shores and retreating out sea, returning later in another guise, forceful waves that batter against the stony fortress that girds me, flinging themselves across my shore, waking me. Beckoning me. Inviting me.

I accept. I leave. I flow.

I am not longer the island, but the current that surrounds the rock. I move in a stream continuously changing places with the objects and structures that share my path. Momentarily I am the rugged exterior of the island. I taste its permanence, its earthy shores, its wind-sculpted coast. I flow past, taking the memory of its piney scent with me.

I meld to my environment, blend in, share space, embrace difference, soften rough edges of rocks and islands. Invite them out to sea. I lose myself in the faint line of the horizon, that liminal space between ocean and sky. I become part of the amorphous molecular structure that is world, distinguishing not between subject and object. I flow. I am and I do.

It seems to me that one of life’s great ironies is that the grass always seems to be greener somewhere else. Don’t get me wrong, the grass is plenty green in my field right now; I love what I do and I’m challenged by my students to be a better teacher. And since I seem to thrive under such pressures, I really couldn’t be happier. However, every once in a while I miss the luxury of thinking for selfish reasons.

Heather, Justin and I have rolled out a new unit for the seniors using Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted as the central text. The goal of the unit isn’t to teach literary analysis, or literary techniques, rather it’s to challenge the students to think about what books do, what they’ve done, how they’ve altered the face of our society and culture and how each of us is influenced and impacted by what we read. The final assessment for the unit is a Howard Gardner styled project that asks students to take action, to do/create/change something as the result of their reading.

Creating the opportunity for them to think in this fashion has reminded me of all the subjects that I’d “do” something with, if only I could find the time. First is to reply formally to David Brooks’ Op-Ed piece in published online today in the New York Times. I’m a fan of David Brooks. He writes about education although it’s not his area of expertise, nor is it his job. As someone who believes fervently in education, I’m grateful for the exposure even though, like many pundits and politicians who dabble in educational criticism, Brooks makes several common mistakes. He (and they) equate test scores with student learning and believes that awarding merit pay to individual teachers will somehow magically solve the problem of troubled schools. So if I had more time, I’d ask the following questions: How did NCLB policies fail? How can those failures instruct our federal government’s next approach at educational reform? What discrepancies exist between the reports and my own, real classroom experience? How can the classroom teacher use this data to shape her own practices?

I’d also research the Facebook phenomena. It has been really weird to “see” people I haven’t spoken with in twenty years. Of course, I’ll see many of them at my twentieth–that’s a tough pill to swallow–high school reunion this summer, but that’s a one-time thing. As someone who deals in high school drama on a daily basis, it’s not a little ironic that I’m once again immersed in the social fabric of my own adolescent years. I’d like to think that we’re all above drama, but are we? Is Facebook really nothing more than a digital record of our place in the social pecking order? I’m sure sociologists are already madly conducting studies on this, so I would like to read their analyses about how it’s changing our social fabric. Does Facebook bring us closer together, or is it a poor substitute for more in-depth person-to-person communication? What human interactions does it replace? What human interactions does it supplant? With the advent of social networking, I assume there are whole host of anthropological implications being rewritten on the fly also. Has the structure of what we call “community” shifted? Because I’m now ostensibly in touch with people I haven’t spoken with in twenty years does this expand my community, or is Facebook little more than window dressing?

Well, I had more to say about that than I thought. I could keep going (technology in education, the gender gap in education, the implications of a flat world), but in the interest of keeping the one reader I have–love you Stan–I’ll call it quits now.

This is a variation on Nancy Atwell’s Writing Territories. Writing Territories are just that, a list of territories or areas one might write about. However, instead of just listing writing topics, Heather Fowler, Justin DiLoro and I are encouraging our students to think outside of themselves and begin to make connections between their interests and the larger dialogue on those topics. Therefore, this writing territories list includes not only my interests, but those places (print or digital) where I might find additional information about those topics. The purpose of this list is to act not only as a writing prompt, but one that encourages me to deliberately include and acknowledge the ideas of others in my reflection and writing.

Triathlons

http://www.buffalotriathlonclub.com/

Training Plans for Multisport Athletes: Your Essential Guide to Triathlon, Dualthlon, XTERRA, Ironman, and Endurance Racing by Gail Bernhardt

Politics & Current Events

http://www.nytimes.com/

Blogs I read

Well: Tara Parker-Pope on Health

Think Again: Stanley Fish

Domestic Disturbances: Judith Warner

Swimming

http://www.usms.org/

http://www.usaswimming.org/usasweb/DesktopDefault.aspx

Newspapers I read

The New York Times

Literature & Fiction

The New York Times: Books

http://www.salon.com/

The New York Times Book Review

Whatever I’m currently reading.

Backpacking

http://www.backpacker.com/

Outside Magazine

The Adirondacks

Climbing Mount Marcy

Walking Treks in the UK

http://www.hightrek.co.uk/snowdonia/walking.htm

http://www.lakeswalks.co.uk/walks/

http://www.walkingbritain.co.uk/walks/walks/walk_a/1169/

http://www.walking-routes.co.uk/

http://www.ramblers.org.uk/

Education

National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Blog

Dana Huff’s Blog

The New York Times: Education

English Companion ning

Technology

2cents Worth

Film

http://www.imdb.com/

The New York Times: Movies

Films I’ve watched

Music

Buffalo Summer Concert Series

Ron Hawkins

Wilco

Red Hot Chili Peppers

Janis Joplin: Buried Alive by Myra Friedman

Scar Tissue: Anthony Kiedis

American Literature

Romanticism: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott

Realism: Elizabeth Phelps, Mark Twain

Naturalism: Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser

Modernism: Virgina Woolf, Willa Cather

Beat Generation: Jack Kerouac

Postmodernism: Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace

Feminism: Marilynne Robinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Multicultural: Louise Erdrich, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Bharati Mukherjee, Zora Neale Hurston

World Literature

Slavenka Drakulic, Manju Kapur

Non-Fiction

Jon Krakauer

Favorite Contemporary Writers

Louise Erdrich

Barbara Kingsolver

Making jewelry

http://www.firemountaingems.com/

http://www.artbeads.com/

BeadStyle Magazine

Reflecting on this process, I think this list is interesting in that it’s a snapshot of me today. I’m reading The New York Times a lot. I’m actively preparing to compete in a triathlon. I’m planning a vacation to the UK. I’m trying to extend my breadth in American Literature to include postmodern writers. I am learning to make jewelry. If I were to repeat this process in two years, I’m sure the list would look completely different.

It is closing on 11 PM as I sit and write this and I feel comfortable trusting the predictions being made by the news stations, then quickly snatched up and put into greater circulation by the bloggers (ain’t technology grand?), that Barack Obama will be the next President of the United States. This is a no small moment for our country. And regardless of how you voted, you were part of an election that will be recorded in history for a long time to come.

I’ve been on the phone with my mother, and we’ve been following the election coverage together. Well, I’ve been following it and reporting what I see to her. She still lives without a TV. As I grew up in that same house without a television, neither of us are TV watchers, so I followed the votes as they came in on The New York Times’ home page. She grew up in Virginia and therefore we watched with particular interest the tight numbers as they slowly crept up in favor of Barack Obama. We also kept an eye on Ohio, and cheered as it swung over to blue.

Mr. Obama has some extraordinary challenges ahead of him, but I’m very excited to begin the process of rebuilding the infrastructure of the government, foreign policy, domestic policy, environmental policy, pretty much everything that has been ravaged by the past adminstration. As I told my mom, I think Obama’s days as a community organizer (read about them in his first book) will serve him well as he starts to contemplate and execute the extraordinary task of running the country. His ordinary beginnings and multicultural family give him insight both into the live of average Americans as well as those whose lives have been historically marginalized, to say nothing of his insight into world culture.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve been around students for several presidental elections now and this is the first time I’ve witnessed the majority of my students fully engaged in the election process. I teach seniors, so many are just a year away from voting, but historically (in my experience) that hasn’t mattered. Barack Obama is the first candidate I’ve seen galvanize and keep the attention of today’s teens. This is truly something; he’s competing with a lot for it. Their attention to this election is essential. Our youth is what we will all come to depend upon to carry us into the future. If Barack Obama is the man to light the way for them, I salute that. I also salute the citizens of this country in their choice of the first African American to be elected President of the United States. It’s been a long time coming.

PS. It’s now 11:24 PM and it’s official. Barack Obama has captured 273 electoral college votes. The Times’ headline reads, “Obama: Racial Barrier Falls In Heavy Turnout.” Oh, happy, happy day!

For the most part, I grew up without a television, but there were two notable exceptions at my father’s house: the Olympics and professional tennis. To watch or not was never a dilemma at Mom’s because we didn’t have a TV. As a result, I’m an inefficient TV viewer. I find it nearly impossible to wrest my focus from the little buzzing box and therefore I generally choose to forego it entirely. However, I’ve been following the swimming events closely this summer mostly thanks to Dara Torres. I’ll save my rant on ageism in this country for another post, but I couldn’t be more thrilled to watch a middle-aged woman make her teenage and twenty-something competition look slow. In the process of following the swimming events, I’ve been moved and amused by the antics of human beings everywhere. Here’s a sampling.

Bob Costas, do your homework. I, along with the studio crew, applauded gymnasts Nastia Luikin and Shawn Johnson following their interview with the NBC anchor and Bela Karolyi. The poise of these two remarkable young women saved what has to be one of the worst performances from a experienced news anchor I’ve ever witnessed. Shawn Johnson, in particular, never let the smile leave her face as she patiently answered a series of the exact same question from Costas. What did you think Bob, that a young woman who races top speed down a runway to throw herself at a vault and land solidly on her feet after performing two somersaults with a couple twists thrown in for good measure is going to buckle under your inexpert questioning? Next time, instead of digging for dirt, try for a little substance. Here are a couple of suggestions: What event made you the most nervous? Which element were you particularly happy to stick? What advice would you offer to young gymnasts who would like to follow in your shoes? Put things into perspective for our audience, how many hours weekly do you spend training? I could go on. Why couldn’t Costas?

Out-touched. In swimmer parlance, this means being beaten just as one touches the wall. In a sport that is regularly decided by tenths of seconds, these are not uncommon, but we’ve witnessed some particulary spectaclar touch-outs at this meet. 1. Jason Lezak’s surge to the finish in the men’s 4×100 free relay. 2. Natalie Coughlin’s picture perfect underwater thrust to the wall (with a dolphin kick for good measure) in the 100 back . 3. Michael Phelps’s mid-stroke finish in the 100 fly. The latter was particularly unbelievable. For a man who typically stays underwater longer than most of his competitors, his instincts proved spot-on allowing him to beat Milorad (Mike) Cavic by the slimmest of margins.

Kobe Bryant is fluent in three languages. How cool is that? Is this common knowledge? If it’s not, it should be. Bryant’s tremendous star-appeal would go a long way sending a powerful message to kids about the importance of education.

Mom on deck. When the suits of the one of the girls in Dara Torres’ 50 free semi-final heat tore, guess who kept the other swimmers from hopping up on the blocks until she could wiggle into a replacement? You’ve got it, the only parent in the pack. The NBC commentators made much of her sportsmanship, but more remarkable is the decisiveness with which Torres sized up the situation, communicated the plan with the other swimmers and the starter, and kept confusion from ensuing. Easier said than done! Torres was dealing with potentially eight different languages and a bunch of keyed-up swimmers focused only on getting from one end of the pool to the other as quickly as possible. The experience necessary to deal with the unexpected and then hop on the block and post the fastest qualifying time in your event only comes with age.

American sportsmanship. Perhaps more than anything else, I’ve been impressed with the poise, humility and statemanship exhibited by the American athletes. At a time when this nation’s ideals were taken hostage by an administration crippled by the fear and ignorance causing tremendous damage to our reputation abroad and placing us in further jeopardy from extremists, there are no better ambassadors to repair the damange done.

All in all, this time in front of the TV has been well spent.