Say Again?

Last night was certainly interesting.

It started when I was told to, “Grab a bat.  Put it on and make sure it doesn’t wobble.”  

Um, okay.

Then, “Smack it down. Smack it down hard!  Hit it a couple of times, just to be sure.”  

Wow.

“Push with your left and cradle with your right.”

I think I can do that.

Imagine my raised eyebrows when I was admonished to, “Really get your knuckle in there and lift your bottom up.”  

Cringe!

“Keep your fingers together as you pull.  Be sure to keep your fingers together.”

Simple enough, right?

“Smooth things out with the metal rib of death, but be careful: That thing will cut you up.”

Duly noted.

“Railroad tracks and compress your rim, and a gentle touch to finish things off.”

Smack it hard, compress, then be gentle.  Check.

“Slice it off with a wire and slide it with plenty of water to keep things lubricated.”

Gulp. 

From the outside looking in, a pottery class must be really interesting to watch!

 

We’ve got a Lulu

My wife and I are dog people.

We’ve had a cat in the past, and enjoy our daughters’ cats now, but we’re dog people.  That one cat? My wife was pregnant with our first, and she wanted a baby right now.  So, we got one.  17 years, and she was a good one.

Dogs, though.  We love ‘em.

Last night, I found myself laughing the kind of laugh that’s usually reserved for the classroom.  Sometimes, during those times, a student will ask me what I’m laughing at.  

“My lot in life,” I’ll reply.  “My lot in life.”  

I always say it with a smile.

A number of months ago, maybe eight, the family two doors down went through an extremely difficult time.  Knowing they had a small dog, my wife went over to ask if they needed help with it during what was a painful transition.

My mother, in town for a visit, and I were sitting on our side porch enjoying the day as Lisa walked down the sidewalk.

Five minutes later, much to our absolute amazement, my wife came walking back down the sidewalk, a small dog crate in one hand and an even smaller dog tucked into her other arm.

We, it seemed, had a Lulu.

Lulu.

She answers to that name, so it’s stayed.  I’m all about other folks having a dog named Lulu, but I’ve got to confess I never thought I’d have one of my own.  

We’ve always been medium-sized dog owners, but now we had a little mostly-Maltese mix.  Named Lulu.

The neighbor on one side of us has a former military working dog named Ivan.  The neighbor on the other side has an aging beast that goes by JD, named after the popular sipping beverage distilled in Lynchburg, Tennessee, some 20 miles to the north of us. 

We’ve got a Lulu.

I love our dog, but that laugh?  The one I mentioned earlier? Every once in a while it hits me hard as I’m standing at the back door, yelling loud enough to be heard at the far end of the yard.  Loud enough for Ivan’s owner as well as JD’s to hear me if they were outside.

“Lulu! Lulu!  Come on, girl!”

I’m glad she’s got me.  You know I am.

 

These are Difficult Days

My hands sort of hurt, and that’s making it all harder.

There’s not a pain, per se, but a mild ache and my fingers are a bit swollen.  I (after the fact) read the label on the container, and there’s not supposed to be a problem.  That’s reassuring.

I’ve been using disinfecting wipes.  A lot of disinfecting wipes.

If you’ve read a few of these Slice of Life posts of mine, you might know that I’m a STEM coach working in a few different elementary schools.  

I use iPads with my students, since I teach a lot of computer science.

My students are mostly kindergarten through second grade.

Have you ever seen a kindergartener use an iPad during cold and flu season?  One hand is on the device most of the time, and the other hand is somewhere around his or her nose and mouth.

I’ve been using disinfecting wipes.  A lot of disinfecting wipes.

I’m not going political here, so it’s okay to keep reading.  There are two general sides to the current situation that, just today, was labeled as a pandemic by the World Health Organization.  I’m interested in hearing what both sides have to say, but mainly I’m interested in teaching kids during a difficult time that is falling during a traditional season of sickness.  In an elementary school.

Hence the wipes.  And my sore hands.  

Here’s hoping for the best.

After reading anything I wrote, if I were you I’d go wash my hands.  Just to be safe.

 

Tunes and Technology

It’s hard, sometimes, to keep track of where we are these days with technology, especially the everyday kind.

Take music, for example: We’ve got vinyl experiencing a minor resurgence in popularity, but eight-tracks are nowhere to be seen.  Cassettes are done for outside of the occasional Bruno Mars video, as are MiniDiscs (they died quicker than betamax video). CDs are apparently on their way out–but I can’t bear to throw them away–and streaming services are approaching the point of being ubiquitous.

To complicate the streaming scene, are you listening on a phone? A tablet?  A desktop? Or, and this one is new, a digital assistant like Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa?

In my house, we’re doing a little bit of all that.  Well, mostly I am.

My wife, I like to think, enjoys being married to a husband who makes it all work.  Well, technology wise, that is. She’s a successful tax accountant, an incredible wife, mother, and nana, and  is someone who can do–and does–just about anything she sets her mind to.

All that said, she occasionally still asks me what kind of phone she has.  As in, Android or iPhone? She sits on a computer all day at work, yet sometimes technology escapes her.

This morning, I’m standing at the sink listening to some music, not really thinking about much. Suddenly, she bursts into the room, proclaiming, “Hey Google, turn it up!”

The volume doesn’t go up.  I’m listening through Spotify on my phone.

“Hey, Google, turn it up!” she commands, just a little bit louder this time.

Nada.

As she’s getting ready to go louder, I tell her that it’s on my phone, not through the Google assistant.

Without skipping a beat, she looks at me and commands, “Hey, Tim, turn it up!” and walks back to what she was doing.

What do you know?  That worked!

Let your love fly like a bird on a wing

And let your love bind you to all living things

And let your love shine and you’ll know what I mean

That’s the reason

   The Bellamy Brothers, Let Your Love Flow, 1975

 

Be Careful Little Eyes

When I look back over my posts to this blog, I rarely see stories that aren’t positive.  Happy, even. Sometimes reflective, but not in a “downer” way.  

I’m not the first to wish they could all be happy.

So, I’m at one of my schools today, walking down the hallway pushing a cart full of iPads, heading toward my next class, and there’s a little guy walking my direction in the kindergarten hallway.  

I recognize him from a class I’ve taught in the past (I’m a STEM coach), and I get ready to give him some sort of greeting.  There’s no way I know everyone’s name, so my greetings are usually along the classic lines of, “What’s going on, Sport?” Or “Tiger.” Or “Champ.”  In a pinch, “Good morning!” works, too.

As he gets closer, though, I realize he’s crying.

Okay, I’m an upper elementary grades guy, so this isn’t a normal thing for me.  

I’m also well over six feet tall, so the first thing I do is drop to a knee as he stops beside me.

“Hey, what’s wrong, big guy?”

Quiet crying.

“Are you okay?  Did you hurt yourself?”

He’s getting it together and doesn’t appear to be hurt, so I wait.

After a few seconds: “I’m… I’m afraid.”

“Afraid of what?  It’s okay here. You’re okay here.”  I’m trying to be reassuring, and he’s getting his 6-year-old composure back.  Slowly.

His words are painful to hear, made all the more so by having them come from a tear-stained face.  “I’m afraid of Pennywise. I keep thinking about Pennywise. I keep hearing the Pennywise music.”

This is tough.  Now I have to be compassionate and reassuring, all at the same time I feel anger welling up inside of me.

“Hey, it’s okay.  Sometimes we see things that are frightening, but that’s a movie.  You know that’s not real, don’t you?” My delivery is slow and deliberate, and I’m doing my best to do that reassuring thing.

“I know.  I know.”

There isn’t anything else to say.  We stand there for a while as the features on his face ease and the crying stops.  I’m not in a hurry to get anywhere, and give him the time he needs. Eventually I leave the cart in the middle of the hallway and walk him back to his class.  A quick whispered conversation with the teacher, and I’m back on my way.

From somewhere in my past, I hear the only words I remember from what I’m pretty sure is a classic kid’s song.  

Be careful little eyes what you see.  Be careful little eyes what you see…

Sigh.

 

My Favorite Words

I love words.  

Everyday words are okay, but I like the big ones–not the big pretentious ones, like pretentious–but those words that add just a little extra to what I’m saying.  I enjoy telling my students that they’re loquacious, then telling them what the word means.  I get the same kick out of magnanimous, and really enjoy using it as a compliment. Okay, sometimes I’ll use pretentious, too.

Despite what I said just a few sentences ago, some of my absolute favorites are words that I hear a lot.  Actually, those are the words I can’t get enough of: “I love you,” and, “Hi, honey, you’re home” (family joke), are near the top of my list.  

I love hearing my wife say my name.  I read somewhere that we all like hearing a loved one saying our name, and I believe it.

One of my all-time favorites, though?  

“Grandpa.”

I absolutely can’t get enough of it, and I sometimes chuckle at the memories that go with the word.

I was born and raised in a small town in southwest Ohio, and almost everyone had a grandpa or two, at least.  I wasn’t even aware of the fact that in other places kids had “Pops,” “Paps,” or “Pawpaws.” I didn’t know about “Big Daddy,” “Pop Pop,” “P-Paw,” or “Papap.”  No one I knew had a “Granddaddy,” “G-Dad,” or even “Pa.”  

No, everyone–at least everyone I knew–who had a male grandparent had a “grandpa.”

Now I live in a different region of the United States, one with lots of different names for grandfathers.  When my daughter became pregnant with her first child, several people asked me what I wanted to be called. That was easy: “Grandpa.”

“The kids aren’t going to be able to pronounce that,” I was told more times than not.  I was incredulous. That’s another one of my favorite words, by the way.

I developed a joke about it, saying those kids had better learn it if they wanted Christmas presents.  And they did.

This morning as I walked out of the front door to greet them, neither of my two granddaughters just said it, rather, they actually sang it out!  I listened with my smile beaming as I heard, “Graaandpa!”  When they say it that way, stretching out the first syllable, I love it even more. 

In case you’re wondering, they do indeed get Christmas presents.  Every year!

 

An Unexpected Pleasure

“Would you like to hold Cody after the program?”

My answer to the question took about three-tenths of a second to formulate, plus that long again for it to come out of my mouth. 

“Yes, please–I’d love to!”

Those who know me might not believe it, but I honestly wasn’t expecting to be asked.  It would have been great if I was, but I certainly wasn’t anticipating it.

“It,” in this case, was being asked to stand and hold a red-tailed hawk for photographs after my friends from Wings to Soar gave a birds of prey presentation at Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, just outside of Decatur, Alabama.  Would I like to be a part of what they were doing? There was no doubt about it.

A quick aside: John and Dale of Wings to Soar are a team of environmental educators who present wonderful birds of prey programs all over the country.  Their presentations are chocked full of information, and are highlighted by a number of free-flying birds. If you ever get the chance, definitely check them out.

The program was nearly over, so I headed back to the room Dale and John were working out of to pick up Cody.  Cody is a male red-tailed hawk that they’ve had for several years. He’s a non-releasable bird that was originally found in Wyoming (I’ll let you guess the city), and he’s one of their free-flyers.

Now, I’ve never worked with Cody before, but I did know a couple of things going into this situation.  First, I have a few years of training and experience working with a number of different birds of prey, from the diminutive American kestrel to the Eurasian eagle owl, the largest of the owl species.  

I also knew that Dale knows her birds.  She knows their temperaments and their quirks.  I know she wouldn’t put her birds–much less me–into a bad situation.

All that said, Cody is a red-tailed hawk, so I was more than respectful of him.

Things were going fast.  I slipped on the falconry glove, with its three layers of leather constructed to protect my hand from the bird’s talons.  

Talons: the business end of a bird of prey.  

John took Cody from his travel enclosure and with a practiced move brought him quickly to my waiting fist.  I took the offered leash, clipped it to the ring on my glove, and allowed Cody to step up to his new perch.  

He looked at me from a range of about 12 inches, his dark eyes peering out from beneath the supraorbital ridges of his skull, his head canted slightly to the left.  I looked back at him, trying my best to appear benign and non-threatening. As I placed the leather of his jesses between my middle and ring fingers, he stepped high with his left, and then his right, leg.  He was settled, I was settled, and it was time to head out to the waiting guests. 

I love doing presentations like this because they give people the opportunity to do something they rarely ever get to do: See these incredibly beautiful birds up close, with nothing between them and the raptors but the occasional camera lense.  I’m in awe of these birds myself, and I love to share the experience.

The next 15 minutes were filled with questions, many photographs, and a large flying insect near one of the overhead can lights that seemed to beg for Cody’s attention.  He was a champ, though, and a pleasure to work with.  

As the crowd thinned to just a few who couldn’t bear to leave, I walked with John to get Cody back to his enclosure and waiting meal.  The hand-off was smooth, Cody was safely tucked away, and my excitement level was starting to come down. Another few minutes of conversation, and my other bird-loving friends and I were headed out the door toward home.

I am thankful for the opportunity, and–while I won’t expect it–I hope to do it again some day.

 

Tests and Tech

“You have got to be kidding me.”  

The silence between us was palpable, and one of us wasn’t happy.  Not mad, but not happy–a kind of a stunned disbelief was clear on her face.

Again, I could hear her look loud and clear: “You have got to be kidding me.”

When I get uncomfortable, I almost always fall back on humor.  It’s my defense against just about everything.

“The good news is, you don’t have to remember a thing I just said.  I’m going to put it all in an email,” I said with a smile. I was hoping to see one on her face, too.  Not quite, but close. A softening, perhaps.

Whew.

Like many of my readers, I’m a teacher.  I’ve been in and out of a formal classroom for 14 years now.  And you know what?

(Hold on, let me get in my rocking chair as you start to imagine my gravely voice.) 

“Back in my day, the only thing we used to take a test was a pencil!”  

Oh, how times have changed.  My district is in the process of moving into a new learning management system (LMS).  Today’s LMSs have more bells and whistles than I could ever imagine, and one of my jobs is to help teachers learn how to use them.  That’s where I was at the beginning of this story.

Giving a test: 

  • You create the questions–no small feat to learn how to do so.
  • You create the assessment from the questions–again, another skill to learn.
  • You assign the assessment (“release” it, to use the correct term).  That’s another separate process with its own learning curve.
  • You take your students through the process: After you learn how to do that, you need to figure out the best way to teach the kids to do it.
  • You monitor the process and reassign as needed.
  • When it’s all said and done, you need to know how to locate and look at the results.

Easy, peasy…right?

Please.  Don’t look at me like that!

 

When the Story Comes to Me

I love it when the story comes to me.  As in, physically comes to me. Well, by me, I suppose, in this case.

Earlier this afternoon on the way home from school, I turned into my neighborhood and waited while a school bus and car drove past before pulling into my driveway.  

“What to write about?” I muttered to myself.  I had been thinking about a topic over the course of the day, but just wasn’t feeling it.  I was, however, apparently talking to myself about it.

Spending the day inventorying equipment wasn’t exactly inspirational, the day’s drives were uneventful (okay, I’m normally good with that), and I was at a loss.

As I turned the engine off, my phone gave a quiet ding, letting me know an email had arrived.  This afternoon in my part of north Alabama was absolutely beautiful–upper 60s, not a cloud in the sky, a gentle breeze–and I wasn’t about to sit in my little truck reading an email. I opened the car door, stood up in the driveway, and turned my head down to my phone.

I read the short note, and the thought crossed my mind that I still didn’t have a story.  It wasn’t that kind of email.

As I slowly brought my head up, though, I was surprised to see a black streak cross my line of vision just a few feet ahead of me.  Within the span of just a few seconds, there was another, yet another, and then more, many more. Suddenly, hundreds more.  

Without trying, I had gotten out of my truck, stood motionless, and placed myself in the flight path of a large flock of grackles that were making their way through the neighborhood to land in my side and back yards, many of them less than a few dozen feet from me.

Their bullet-shaped bodies with fixed wings came gliding in for a landing, silent except for the occasional call, graceful and beautiful as the sun glinted off of black and deep purple feathers.  I was stunned, and only the clipped beginning of a laugh came from my mouth as I did my best to remain unthreatening to the flock.

Once the birds were on the ground, the air erupted with the cacophony of hundreds of individual voices all calling out in unison.  My dumbfounded disbelief turned to awe, and I silently revelled in the glory of what was going on all around me.

Inevitably, after just a few seconds an unseen neighbor slammed a car door, and I knew in that instant what was about to happen.  Hundreds of wings beat the air in unison, each pair of them lifting the body of a bird into the sky. The sound reminded me of countless flags battered by the winds of a gale, or the raucous applause of innumerable gloved hands.  

And it was over.  They were gone, over the treeline and into parts unknown and out of my sight.

After a few seconds, I was able to breathe.

“Thank you.”  

“Thank you,” I whispered and turned back to the truck for my book bag. 

 

Hug Avalanche

As an itinerant science coach, observational skills, keen intuition, and a practiced execution are musts if I’m going to go through my day avoiding what is the bane of the early-childhood classroom teacher: The dreaded hug avalanche.

Preparation is key.  I know I’m about to leave the classroom, but it’s crucial the students don’t.  They’re watching for a sign, any kind of sign. Me saying, “See ya later” to the classroom teacher, a hurried glance at the clock followed by a flinch, and even a contented sigh as I end a lesson: All of these and more can trigger the event. Five-, six-, and even seven-year old students are sitting on the carpet or at their desk, living coiled springs ready to slip the bounds that normally hold them in place.

A smooth exit is also important.  A forgotten coffee cup or phone? All could be lost.  No hesitation: start to move and don’t look back. Don’t forget the follow through, because a door left open is an invitation for disaster.

During my last class of the day, today, I failed miserably.

The students knew it was time.  The lesson had clearly ended when iPads were collected, but not all was yet lost.  The classroom teacher had launched into the next activity with perfect timing, and the situation was still under control.  It was me. It was my fault. I paused at the door, giving a glance back into the room as if to silently say goodbye.

The first student–a smallish girl who sat by the door–seized upon the opportunity, jumped from her chair, and pushed past my iPad cart to hug my leg.  

“Good bye, Mr. Gels!” she cried.

No, not that.  Anything but that.  In the name of all that’s good and orderly, please don’t verbalize a good bye.  But, she did.

From the back of the room, the second student sprung.  The classroom teacher’s gaze momentarily off of him, he knew it was now or never.  Pushing classmates aside, he lunged through the room to grab my other leg.  

“Good bye!”

I know that fear was starting to show in my eyes.  Weakness. Those kids ate it up. The veneer of conformity was breaking down before me.  A third student, followed by a fourth and a fifth, made a move in my direction as I was peeling the first two from the lower half of my body.  

With a panicked expression, the classroom teacher did her best to make up for my shortcomings.  

“Boys and girls, please take your seats!  Mr. Gels needs to go to another classroom!”

Oh, all was lost, and it was all my fault.  One glance, just one glance, and the world was collapsing around me.

Nearly every student was on his or her feet, flowing toward the door, mindless in their desire to be a part of what was going on.

“Boys and girls!  Guys and Gals! Please, go ahead and take a seat!” I blurted, hoping to stem the tide.

And.  

And it did, just a bit. The tumult started to calm, and some of the students paused, unsure of their next move.  

To paraphrase the ancient rock philosophers of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd, that was the break I was looking for.  

Peeling the last student from my waist and (carefully) pushing the door closed behind me, I was free, standing in the now-quiet hallway, the teacher’s voice ringing through the heavy wooden barrier.

What’s that noise?  Oh no, another class has just rounded the corner and I think they saw me!