Specks of Significance

Finding Meaning in the Mundane

That stinkin’ piece of dirt followed me everywhere for days. Its resilience impressive, its ingenuity unparalleled, its resolve intimidating. Three days, three pairs of shoes, three completely separate but equal segments of my life lived with the same piece of dirt.  

To chart its course would be impossible, but if I had to guess, the dirt first entered my life during my weekly baseball game. Likely, I acquired it while playing, it glommed onto my sock, transfered from my cleats to my slides, and came home with me that Sunday. Once it had successfully infiltrated my home, it lied in wait until it could make yet another move, this time to my comfy slippers, which I wear ad nauseum. Once inside, that sucker set up shop, making itself known intermittently, mocking me mercilessly.

Now, the layperson might ask, “why not just shake it out of your slipper? Why live with such a menacing presence when you were wholly capable of removing it?” Good questions indeed, but here’s the thing: I didn’t always know it was there. The brilliance of the dirt was that it made itself known when it felt like it, at odd times when I’d be in the middle of something else. Like a song lyric or childhood memory that arrives and leaves fleetingly, so you can’t remember what it was minutes later. That was my dirt companion. So while I could have easily shaken it out any number of times, for some reason, I didn’t. Maybe I grew to accept the dirt as part of my life. Maybe I subconsciously began to need the dirt like some demented Stockholm Syndrome sufferer. Maybe I live in such a perpetual state of doing that the thought of stopping to remove the dirt terrified me.

Finally, after three days, the Biblical implication of which is not lost on me, I finally bid the dirt farewell. No speeches. No pomp and circumstance. No vigil. Just an upside down Ugg shaken loosely in the middle of my kitchen. I often think of that piece of dirt and wonder where it is now. Does it like its new home? Does it miss me?


As educators, we have the ability to become the pieces of dirt for our kids and for each other. While that may not be the most glamorous analogy, think about something you said to a student, in public or in confidence, that will always stay with them. Think about how, to extend the analogy, as students travel through their lives, the impact you had on them transfers from shoe to shoe, life event to life event. Like so many granules of dirt, we may not consider ourselves special, we may not understand how we function as part of a larger collection of dirt, and we may not purposely attach ourselves to the bottom of feet, but that doesn’t make any of those things less true.

In fact, it’s often the insignificance that is significant. I can’t tell you how many times a former student has referred to something I said or something we shared as being momentous, something she’ll “never forget.” 

Because for us, there are millions of those moments, those pieces of dirt, so it would be impossible for us to keep up. But for them, what they’re referencing is their experience, their unshakable nuisance, their piece of dirt.

And maybe they don’t want to get rid of it just yet.

 

A Preposition Problem

Start The Year ‘With’ Not ‘For’

Conventional linguists and defenders of Standard American English will argue that formal writing, and to a lesser extent speaking, should not include prepositions at the end of sentences. In an oft cited, and basartized, quip attributed to Winston Churchill mocking this rule, the prime minister said, “this is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.” Whether he said it or not doesn’t change the fact that the rule is, if nothing else, a bit snooty.

Still, regardless of their placement in a sentence, words matter. When we speak to our students, each word acts as both an independent contractor and as part of a larger corporation. When we speak to our colleagues, our words convey our willingness to collaborate or a lack thereof. When we speak to our parents, our words are heard only in the context of the children about which they are spoken. Sometimes, those pesky prepositions can make all the difference.

Last year, I was asked to supervise, formally, a dear friend. So dear, in fact, that when I left the classroom five years ago in a school in which we taught together, she inherited my schedule and my classroom. Now, truth be told, I suggested that she would be perfect to scoop up my seniors and our school newspaper, but that didn’t mean the administration had to listen. Thankfully, they did.

A few years later, that same school created a leadership position for her. Immediately, we scheduled regular meetings to compare notes, to bang our heads against the wall, and to support each other. This year, she joined our team, and I was asked to supervise her. Without blinking, I accepted and we got to work immediately. She didn’t need my help as much as she may let on, and while I did have to click some buttons to formally evaluate her, our relationship, then and now, is firmly rooted in a preposition that will appear at the end of this sentence: with.

So when I announced that I would be changing my role in the district, which meant I would no longer be her supervisor, she penned a thoughtful poem in which she wrote: The year I worked for my friend. Before I could continue, my eyes fixated on that proprietary preposition.  After gathering myself and reading the rest of the beautifully written piece, I texted her.

Thank you for the poem. I’m going to frame it and hang it at Tatem. But you never have and never will work FOR me. We will always work TOGETHER. <3”

In this case, the difference between for and with is reflective of seeing ourselves as managers or as leaders.

No one will ever work for me.

That is an idea up with which I will not put.

 

O Carrigan, My Captain

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series during which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do.

For our next installment, we hear from Robert C. Baumgartner. We all know a student like Bob. He boasts a dry wit, a deep passion for history and social studies, and a contagious affability.  I remember him, where he sat, and what we shared in 2002. He is an amazing person. In this piece, we are reminded of the power of human connection, a far greater content than that for which we are paid to teach. 


The United States Military Academy at West Point has a poster adorning the walls of the history department with the words, “Much of the history we teach was made by those we taught.” Typically, such a poster might seem overzealous and belching of one’s own platitudes, but in the hallowed halls of the Point, rightfully so.

Perhaps, as a teacher, one could amend the phrase to, “much of my history was made by those I taught.” Think for just a moment: every year a new mandate arises, whether it be from the state or a new district initiative, so some evolution is needed in our own teaching. However, I feel I owe most of my teaching evolution to my students. There were those who presented me with situations so outlandish and so preposterous that I learned better classroom management. There were also those who presented a situation so challenging or so rare that I carefully and thoughtfully intertwined compassion with duty.

During my undergraduate years, I had a professor at Rowan University named William Carrigan. He once told me that it was best to take a professor and not a class for you could learn anything from that professor since you embraced their methodology. Dr. Carrigan is to this day a cherished friend and mentor. I model much of my teaching philosophy from him and that is largely due to our relationship.

When I was a junior, I  experienced a grand mal seizure. I had e-mailed Dr. Carrigan to let him know I would not be in class and to discuss the make-up work. That was that, or so I thought. He had mentioned my absence to my class, all of whom were shocked as I was usually the first one there. Again, I thought nothing until a classmate told me that he was really upset about it.

This all made sense in 2011. I was completing my thesis for graduate school and undergoing radiation treatment at the time for a lymphoma. My thesis analyzed faculty attitudes in relation to intercollegiate athletics at the university level. Part of that research would be to poll the faculty about athletics. One evening I received an e-mail from Dr. Carrigan, but it was a group message. Unbeknownst to him, he had hit reply all by mistake and I read a letter to the faculty from Dr. Carrigan telling them that he had known me through 3 major medical issues, epilepsy, testicular cancer, and lymphoma, and attested that I was a diligent research student imploring them to take part in my survey.

Later, in my third year of teaching, I became the high school version of what Dr. Carrigan had been to me. I had lived how a teacher gave me such a tremendous gift because he thought highly of me. That never would have happened if he did not take the time to listen to what I was going through.

My students past and present have divulged things to me that I never thought I would hear. You cannot be prepared to be a teacher through classroom lectures on pedagogy.   It is the classroom of life that prepares you. Much of who you are comes from those you have met. If I hadn’t had Dr. Carrigan, I probably would be a different teacher. Not better or worse, necessarily, but I know I would be different.

That is how we we are changed. We pay attention to something important to our students. I challenge you to reach back into your memory of a teacher who did something special for you and think, how did that impact me? It was your impact on them as much as it was their impact on you. Remember:  you once sat in your students’ desks, just as your colleague, who is ready to retire next year, once did. We are not different inherently, only through our experiences.

Our students shape us far more than we may realize.

Robert C. Baumgartner is a history, law, sociology, and psychology teacher at Triton Regional High School in Runnemede, NJ. He is a member of the faculty advisory board of the Declaration Project at Harvard University where they are currently creating an educational video game for the American Revolution. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Camden County College and a member of the adjunct faculty pool at Kapio’lani Community College in Honolulu. He has been featured on The Rogue Historian Podcast and has spoken on several instances at the Old Baldy Civil War Round Table. He is currently working on a research project dealing with geography education in the United States.

The Edu Sunken Place

Appropriating PLNs Without the Pesky Hypnosis

I miss the movies. I don’t mean the novelty of going to the theater, the nervous excitement of a teenage first date, or the ginormous tub of popcorn and seemingly bottomless soda without which the whole experience would be ruined.

I mean sitting down to watch a great film. I mean having that film stay with me for days. I mean scouring IMDB and blogs to discuss the film with other cinephiles. I mean being able to stay up past 930 to actually finish a film.

For years, I would make it a point to find and watch films that were off the beaten path (Frailty, Her, The Machinist, to name a few). I would set my watch by my favorite director, Christopher Nolan, and carve out time to watch, consider, and discuss each film. I would participate in discussion board threads on nuances, I would analyze ambiguous endings, and I was the “Have you seen…” guy at parties.  

Now, because of work-life balance, two small children, and Netflix true crime documentaries, I may watch two or three films, in their entirety, a year. Of course, there are two inherent flaws to such a myopic approach to cinema. First, how do I choose what makes the cut? Oscar buzz? Lead actors? Secondly, it’s entirely possible that what I do choose to watch is awful and wastes my time (looking at you, Wolf of Wall Street).

Sometimes, however, a perfect storm forms and I get it right. I choose something that has folks talking, that I can digest and analyze, and that I would watch again.

For me, Jordan Peele’s 2017 directorial debut, Get Out, checked all the boxes.  

Director? Check

Recognizable but not necessarily household name actors? Check

A perpetual watercooler buzz? Check

A socially relevant message? Check

Without question, Get Out is one of the best films I’ve seen in years. While I realize that such an endorsement is watered down by how seldom I can make such a claim, I do encourage readers to check it out. I would love to discuss it with the #leveluplead faithful.

I’ll spare the elevator pitch plot summary and teasers, but I will sum up the film in a single word: appropriation. The film, through clever writing and sleight-of-hand storytelling, examines how often and to what lengths people will go to experience life a bit, er, differently.


In the Eduverse, teachers and leaders, at least the ones who are obsessed with growth and improvement, appropriate with impunity. We appropriate each other’s followers, ideas, professional development strategies, discipline referral forms. Look, we basically appropriate everything.

The difference, however, between what we do and what Peele’s film mocks sardonically is that educators invite appropriation. We recognize, in a truly egoless way, that there are countless people doing what we do just a little bit differently. A little bit better. So when we seek counsel from these folks, as I did with Rich Czyz of Four O’Clock Faculty fame, they are all too willing to share.

When I hear folks discussing how difficult a time it is to be in education, it’s hard to argue. With so much imposed upon us from on high, so much riding on flawed, one-off assessments, and so much nonsense that removes us, literally or figuratively, from the kids, it’s no wonder so many people throw their hands up in resignation.

But we could also make the case that there’s no better time to do what we do because a new idea is only a couple of clicks away. While we may have to bob and weave around red tape, we can do so with an ever-growing tribe of shameless appropriators. With a band of outlaw poets, scientists, yogis, historians, and student whisperers. With follows, RTs, likes, and shout outs. With hand-written thank you notes and clever hashtags. With virtual support and real life conferences. With each other.

So while Peele’s film plays on the idea of “getting out,” appropriating PLNs is all about getting in. And all it takes is hitting that blue Follow button.

 

I Needed To Go Back

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series during which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do.

For our first installment, I turn the keys over to Elyse.  Like so many of us, she has become reflective since her time in high school. Through age and experience, we often look back at who we were during those formative years with equal parts nostalgia and nausea. Her message speaks to appreciating from where we came, giving back to those who helped us along the way, and, ultimately, living our best life.


Now fourteen years out of high school and, like most people I know, I have regrets. I don’t regret nights when I stayed home to study instead of going out to party. I don’t regret working overtime to afford the down payment on my first home.

I regret not returning to Golden Slipper Camp, to the place that changed my life.

I was a camper and counselor, from the ages of 13 to 16, at the overnight charity camp in the Poconos. It was an amazing experience, and it left a mark on my soul that time can never erase.

I was a really awkward kid, was heavy, and was not very cool. So I got teased a ton, was really shy, and had no confidence. Golden Slipper changed everything for me. I found friends who loved me for who I was despite the ugly glasses and constant silliness. I came home a completely different kid.

During the summer between junior and senior year of high school, I decided to get a job near home to make more money, so I could buy a car. Camp didn’t pay enough, and I really wanted that green 1995 Ford Contour. What I didn’t realize is that job would be the first of many, all of which were chasing money that I thought I needed for whatever it was I thought I wanted at the time.

Now, years later, I have had to make hard decisions and huge sacrifices to get back to the camp that I love so deeply. I drive hundreds of miles each summer, splitting my time between camp and my full time nursing job. But I get to provide kids, who are just like I was, with an experience that shapes who they are and who they will become.

I would give anything to go back in time to spend more summers at camp. Looking back on it all, I’d be happy to make significantly less money to have spent more time at a camp where I felt such love and empathy. Sadly, I chose to put more value in money and material things than in people and relationships.

Whatever you do in this life, you need to do it for the right reasons. Go to summer camp, go on the road trip, take the vacation, see the band you love live in concert. But make sure the things you choose bring you joy. You don’t want to look back years from now, like I did, and think, “wow I wish I had done it differently.” You have the time now! You have the freedom now! You’ll never be so unencumbered as you are right now! So go out and find something that makes you insanely happy and throw yourself into it.

Elyse Realey is a 2004 graduate of Audubon High School. She is a critical care nurse in New Jersey. 

Change Your Bat Angle

Imperceptible Adjustments Are Key To Professional Growth

Read this blog long enough and you’ll realize how obsessed I am with baseball. Inevitably there will be posts devoted to baseball, anecdotes will center around baseball, and metaphors will be drawn from baseball.

Barguments often focus on which sport is the most difficult to play, the most demanding physically and mentally, the most failure heavy. As a lover of all sports, I can appreciate that an argument can be made for each of the four major sports: baseball, basketball, football, and hockey but, to me, there’s really only one answer.

Baseball.

Because of the physics (round ball, round bat), the variables (pitcher, weather), and the psychology (streaks, slumps), there is nothing more difficult than hitting a baseball consistently. A monster game at the plate can just as easily be followed by a soul crushing slump of weeks, or months, the time in between at bats seeming equal parts interminable and immediate as you perseverate on what went wrong.

As a 41 year old weekend warrior, I only get a chance to play games on Sunday mornings. While my preparation for each game often dictates some midweek tee work or live batting practice, I’m still only playing once a week. Admittedly, I take baseball too seriously, but part of me doesn’t apologize for that because I don’t understand why folks would set out to do anything poorly, so I want to play as well as I can each week.

A few years ago I suffered through my worst season ever, and I’m including my high school playing days, during which I hit a paltry .179. During that summer, getting on base was such an anomaly that I can recall when I did reach base because it was only a handful of times. That ain’t good.

Deflated but undaunted, I continued to work that offseason because I was not going to return to my team the same player. At one point, I sent a video of myself taking swings off the tee to a friend who is a hitting tactician. In seconds, he responded with a diagnosis and, ultimately, saved my swing.

“Dude, look at how far you’re wrapping the bat around your head. Change the bat angle to 1 o’clock before you load, and you’ll be quicker to the ball.”

Change. Your. Bat. Angle.

Changing my bat angle has improved my game and my leadership.

No amount of work on my own would have led me to that conclusion because, though I would have been working hard, I would have been working incorrectly. There was no way for me to self-diagnose my own flaw, so I had to ask for help.

Now,  I “change my bat angle” all the time.

When I’m struggling with a certain colleague, I change my bat angle.

When I’m trying to convince my five-year old that he can, in fact, put on his own socks, I change my bat angle.

When my early morning writing process stalls, I change my bat angle.

As you approach the upcoming school year, I challenge you to change your bat angle. Reflect intentionally on that which you have done the same way each year and change it.

  • Experiment with flexible seating and let the kids help you design the classroom’s layout
  • Revolutionize your “Back to School Night” by asking parents to leave their kids a video via Flipgrid
  • Reframe your instructional walkthroughs to focus on the kids, even a specific kid, in each room and then write those kids a note of appreciation
  • Flip and hang old posters and allow kids to recreate them using their own words and images
  • Print, laminate, and hang Tweets or blog post excerpts about which you want your staff and students to think
  • Use a mobile desk so you’re in the hallways more and in your office less
  • Take time for yourself each day, even if it’s five minutes of nothing but sitting and breathing

Baseball is a game of failure, and in many ways, so is education. In each, the best players make adjustments all the time in order to best help their team. In each, those who refuse to make adjustments all the time don’t often have teams for long.

Change your bat angle.

 

Debarked

Provide Student Voice in Everything We Do

When we arrived at the rescue shelter that Sunday morning, I knew I didn’t have a choice.

Surreptitiously, my wife had begun graduate level research on what would become our next dog, and though she couched the idea to visit a Philadelphia shelter as “just a visit,” I have a feeling contracts were already drawn up and that everyone was in on the ruse. Except me.

With pinpoint accuracy (how many times had she been here?), she directed us to the kennel of a sweet, malnourished, Bichon Frise named Polly. Instantly, Polly meandered over and lent credence to the power of the expression “puppy dog eyes.” At that point, I was convinced that even she was in on the con. She knew she was coming home with us.

Debarked Daisy (left) and her alter ego, Sassy Daisy (right).

After spending a few minutes with her outside, we requested the paperwork to be drawn up.  It was our 11th anniversary, and our kids didn’t know we’d be coming home with a new dog. Clearly, it was going to be a good day.

However, something about Polly, who would quickly become Daisy at our daughter’s request, was off. Sure she was underweight, she needed a haircut, and her eyes had dark patches under them, but it was something else.

She didn’t bark. At all.

While the thought of a silent dog does have its merits, a dog without a bark is like a child without a voice. Daisy had been debarked. She had no voice.

Without being too graphic, the Pennsylvania Amish Country puppy mill from which Daisy was rescued was horrifying. My wife found pictures of it, of Daisy, online shortly after we brought her home. Among other atrocities, debarking dogs is fairly common. Frankly, the whole idea of puppy mills is unconscionable to us both.

But a funny thing happened a few months into her transition into our family. When she gets excited to go for a “walkie” each day, like most dogs, she prances around, pants, and leads one of us to her leash and to the door.

At first, she just jumped up on my legs to affirm that she was, indeed, interested in the walk.

But then one day she barked.

It was strained and almost scratchy, but make no mistake, Daisy had found her voice.


The importance and power of student voice has inserted itself into PD plans, book proposals, and Twitter chats across the nation. It’s about time. Finally, and in some deeply entrenched traditional districts, begrudgingly, adults are starting to frame their thinking around student voice. Decision making committees are beginning to include kids. Class libraries, Makerspaces, and common areas are taking shape with students at the helm. Social-emotional learning strategies and practices are considered by kids rather than for kids.

At long last, adults who have preached their love of children as the driving force behind their careers in education are replacing themselves with children as they look in the mirror.

We cannot underestimate the power of voice.

To return to Daisy, she is a completely different dog. The same dog who didn’t know how to go up or down stairs, who longed so desperately for human affection, and who had no idea Beggin’ Strips were a thing, is now playful, spunky, and, quite frankly, proud of her voice. She uses it with impunity, believe me.

Now, think about all the students you have taught, and have yet to teach, who found their voice. There’s an authentic glow and a stifled smile that accompanies that realization. For some, it happens, well, in utero (see: my own kids). For others, it happens in elementary school as they feel their way through letters, sounds, and numbers. For still others, it happens much later when they meet a teacher who gives them agency and audience, perhaps for the first time.

Voice, even in bark form, is the purest form of identity. Without it, students are reduced to a SMID, a plotted point on a data table, a standardized test score. With it, they are elevated and empowered; they are resilient and fierce; they are who we want them to be without us telling them who we want them to be.

They’re us before we became us.

As you plan your PD for the year, as you look at your budgets for next year, as you devise your district’s strategic plan, as you do anything that directly affects kids, give them a voice. Call them together, form a student leadership team, ask them to complete a Google Form. Take them seriously, praise their contributions, compliment their parents.

Then do it all over again.

Let the kids bark.

 

We Are All In a Megaband…

Never Take Great Teaching For Granted

Remember when we were kids and two of our favorite shows would surprise us with a crossover episode? You know the one.

Josie and the Pussycats help the gang from Scooby Doo solve a mystery.

Those silly kids from Beverly Hills 90210 found themselves caught up in the tempestuous lives of Melrose Place tenants.

Or when Family Guy and The Simpsons squared off in the courtroom over copyright laws.  

We love when our favorite shows, which often take place in the same “universe,” team up for an episode because we feel like we’re in on something, like we’re part of something.


In November 2016, Seattle megaband, Temple of the Dog, played its only tour together: eight shows in five cities, beginning in Philadelphia. Combining members of grunge icons Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, the group recorded only one album, in 1991, in memory of their mutual friend, Andy Wood, the frontman for an earlier Seattle band, Mother Love Bone. Wood died of a heroin overdose in 1990, the ominous harbinger to the birth of what is now Pearl Jam.

But this crossover experience is just getting started.

Seattle megaband, Temple of the Dog (from left): drummer, Matt Cameron; guitarist, Stone Gossard; bassist, Jeff Ament; singer, Chris Cornell; and guitarist, Mike McCready.

The show was transcendent. Equal parts an escape from the present and a return to the past, the band’s frontman, Chris Cornell, who also fronted Seattle’s Soundgarden, was on fire. Though I had just seen Cornell live a couple years back as part of a solo tour, this was something different; he was something different. He evoked his friend Wood, he gave us chills, and he reminded us all what it was like to be a teenager in the 1990s.

Six months later Cornell hanged himself after a show in Detroit.

When I reflect on what had to go right for me to be a part of that crossover experience, it is always sobered by what had to go wrong for Cornell to commit suicide months later.

A month earlier during his speech in honor of Pearl Jam’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, David Letterman noted, “Never take the opportunity for live music for granted.” I didn’t miss my chance to see Cornell live, but if I had, I would never have gotten a chance to see him again.


In education, we get to see “live music” every day. Sometimes we are the conductor, sometimes we are the rhythm guitarist, and sometimes we are in the cheap seats just happy to be in the room.

We cannot take our role in the lives of our kids for granted. Furthermore, we cannot take our role in each other’s lives for granted.

Teachers: Go see colleagues teach. Co-teach with them. Guest teach for them. Get off campus and see other teachers work. Investigate powerful PLNs on Twitter like #4OCFpln, #ProDriven, or “Like a Pirate” groups like #tlap or #LEADLAP.

Leaders: Provide opportunities for your teachers to form their own crossover experiences. Offer to teach a lesson with or for them. Celebrate your teachers when they form megabands. Find more ways to say yes than to say no.

Ultimately, crossover experiences allow each other and our kids to see the same thing from a different perspective.

As I sat in the Tower Theater watching some of my favorite musicians on that November night, I knew all the words to all the songs, but they were somehow different, somehow better.

As our students sit in their classrooms and participate in a read aloud led by someone other than the lead teacher, they know what to expect and how to engage, but it is somehow different.

It may even be better.

 

What I Forget…

Forgotten Memories Are Still Shared Memories

Remember that time…

I can’t count how many times a former student has started an exchange, email, or tweet with this trio of words. After fifteen years in the classroom, most of which was spent with seniors, there’s certainly no shortage of inside jokes, heart-to-heart conversations, and class-specific memories to go around.

The problem is I don’t remember them all.

Remember when you gave that fire and brimstone speech after the Heights game and you thought I was smiling? No.

Remember when you did that silly dance in the front of the room? Negative.

Remember when we had that discussion about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and you said I made a point you’d never considered after teaching it for so long? Sorry, nope.

Because there’s only one of me and well over a thousand former students, math and cognitive psychology alone dictate that I can’t possibly remember all there is to remember. For a while, I begrudged that immutable fact. I cursed myself for not storing up all the memories and all the feels in the same way my students did. I wondered how present I was during those fifteen years.

Then I got over it.

It doesn’t matter if I remember what my kids remember. What matters is that I gave them something to remember. Our shared experience is really only based on circumstance. Our association with and contribution to that shared experience is wholly personal.

So let it be.

Let your students and colleagues remember what they want to, how they want to. Absent a floating, omnipresent scoreboard indicating how often you actually remember what others remember, being a main character in someone else’s memory should be enough.

Teaching and leading are deeply personal endeavors because they include people every day. How we choose to interact with those people, to treat those people, and to honor those people will shape their memories whether we remember them or not.

So the next time a former student or colleague starts a conversation with “Remember that time…” I’ll be honest if I don’t.

But I’m glad you do,” I’ll tell them.

My Origin Story

How an NBA point guard, a mundane essay, and a cosmic influence launched a career

I became a teacher because of Isiah Thomas.

In 1991, while the Hall of Fame NBA point guard for the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons was adding to his legacy as one of the greatest players in the game, I was watching. When uniform selections were made for all the various teams for which I played as a kid, I always chose #11 in honor of Isiah. For my high school graduation, a friend’s parent gave me a gold necklace with that number dangling from it; I wore it for years.

Like most kids, I was obsessed with someone I could never be.

By that point in my life, I was certain of only a few things: I loved to read and write; I loathed all things math; I had terrible hair and acne. Only the first one matters now, though I would argue the other two are still relevant.

So when my freshman English class was asked to write an essay using the prompt: If you could trade places with anyone in the world, who would it be and why, I didn’t blink before I started to write about Isiah.

NBA point guard, Isiah Thomas, a central figure in my origin story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Sue McKenna, then head of the high school English department, walked into my classroom a week later, arms full of loose-leaf paper and gravitas, I thought nothing of it and prepared for a lecture.

But when she started to read my piece on Isiah Thomas, stopping for effect at several points and rereading my last sentence, “But why, I wonder, would Isiah want to trade places with me?” I sat near the back of room C209 blushing through a combination of fear and pride. On the one hand, I didn’t want anyone to know how insanely excited I was for fear of (further) social isolation, but on the other hand, I wanted everyone to know how insanely excited I was that an adult chose my work to use as an exemplar.

Roughly 43 minutes later, I walked out of the classroom as the still anonymous writer of the Ode to Isiah. It didn’t take long for my friends to catch wind of the experience and to out me as the writer, but by then, I was too euphoric to care what people thought.

I was a writer.

That, by way of an otherwise mundane writing assignment the likes of which kids today are still completing, is how I knew I wanted to become a teacher.

I was 14.


From that point on, my focus was razor sharp; my life’s plan was myopic. I would teach high school English. For me, making a conscious decision to never leave school was made with clarity, confidence, and cause. I knew teaching was what I was supposed to do. Nothing else mattered.

Four years after that watershed moment, I was declaring a major at Rowan University while friends were still trying to figure out how to scrounge up enough money for a 12-pack of Natural Light.

Another four years later, as a (still pimply) 22 year old, I was a month into my student teaching experience at Pennsauken High School when I received two calls from two separate teachers at my old high school. The first was from my former basketball coach, and now close friend, Casey Clements, who told me, rather bluntly, “I need a JV coach. Job’s yours if you want it.”

I knew that, for whatever reason, teaching was what I was supposed to do. Nothing else mattered.

Then, hours later, the true measure of the cosmic alignment of my teaching career occurred when, my mentor, John Skrabonja, who served as my real-life John Keating, called to tell me that he was being pressed into emergency action as a guidance counselor after the sudden death of a beloved counselor and that he was recommending me as his replacement.

So on February 1st, 1999, a cool eight years after I wrote about Isiah Thomas, I walked into room C206 on my first day as the new high school English teacher in my old high school. I replaced my hero, in his room, in which I sat, just a few years prior.

Sure, Isiah helped get me there, and I still do wear the #11, but, unlike so many others, my destination had been signposted for me long before I had anything to say about it.

What’s your origin story?