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Teachers and Coaches

August 24, 2014 Leave a comment

2012-09-04_08-02-48_676Fifth grade was a nightmare for me. A year filled with stress induced migraines and a constant feeling of dread. At the center of my memories of this time stands the imposing image of a strict, red faced women who was my teacher and she caused me to hate school.

The reason I mention this is because I’ve been thinking about both teachers and coaches a lot lately. Partly because the boys just found out who their teachers are going to be this year, partly because of the video going around featuring the little league coaches post game talk to his kids and partially because of the constant attacks that our teachers seem to be under by media and politicians.

And I mention my fifth grade teacher because she serves as a contrast to most of the teachers I’ve been fortunate to have in my life and to highlight the importance of good teachers in the lives of our children. She was the rare exception in a long line of teachers that would become positive influences on my life.

There was Mrs. Cahill who welcomed me into her classroom in second grade when I was new in the school after moving to New Jersey from Colorado. She made sure to give me the attention I needed then as well as connected me with my earliest friends. She was tough, but always with a smile.

There was Mrs. K in fourth grade that would take breaks during the day to read to us from the Chronicles of Narnia. She could have sat at her desk and let us do busy work, but she chose to do this and my earliest interests in writing started there.

There was Mrs. Racioppi who became the first big influence on my writing. I initially dreaded her writing assignments, but I learned to love them as she encouraged creative writing and helped me start to develop my writing voice.

There was Mrs. Unger who’s eyes absolutely lit up as she talked about science in eighth grade. I don’t think she could tone back her enthusiasm if she wanted as she passed on her love and interest on to use. Even when our experiments failed (you can’t cook a hot dog in a handmade tin foil oven on a cloudy day), she was quick to help us find the lesson in the failure.

The list of teachers really goes on and on. Mrs. Eckle who scrapped her whole course plan when the Gulf War broke out to guide us through history as it happened. Mrs. Fitzgibbons who brought literature alive with such excitement that I learned to love Shakespeare as much as Salinger. Mrs. Casey who made religion fun and helped us figure out why it was important in our lives, dragging us out from under the fear the Baltimore Catechism delivered. Mrs. Lucas (who recently passed away) taught us the importance of how history still affects us in the present. Mrs. Wilmarth who patiently worked with me through the difficulties of Algebra, refusing to leave me behind as the rest of the class grasped it faster. And, of course, the Frank Zappa loving Mr. Setlock who made everything fun, cleverly masking the fact that we were learning important things like biology.

The very sad thing of it is that adults should not have to stand up and say that teachers are important and trying to remind other of that fact. They should simply be standing up and applauding our teachers. So many dear friends of mine are teachers and I see them struggle at times because of critical parents, a skeptical media and heartless, stupid politicians. I believe the average American would take their teachers and put them high on pedestals, but there are loud voices out there that want to tear them down and I cannot fathom why. The fact that teachers are important, deserve our respect and should be paid well should be a universal truth like water is wet and the sun is hot.

Good coaches are also important because they pick up teaching our children after they have left the classroom. The life lessons learned on the fields and courts become ingrained into the kids. I once read something about how athletes in high school tend to have much higher self-esteem than non-athletes. And I would think this would have to extend to other activities like forensics, religious groups, scouts, theater, etc. The importance of having someone that can help you learn the things you love is invaluable and can only have a positive influence on you. Coaches and advisors are teachers, as well, and become huge parts of who our children grow to be.

The past couple of years I’ve coached Little League baseball and basketball. While it is always rewarding, it is difficult more often than not. This past baseball season left a bad taste in my mouth and left me resolved to not coach baseball again even if my kids decided to play again. However, as I watched the little league coach video and truly think about how much the teachers and coaches of my children invest of themselves, I can’t help but re-think this. I watch the sacrifices that teachers and other coaches make and I feel like I need to do my part. I’m not saying I’m a good coach or looking for any kind of praise, but I can’t help but feel that I have a part to do.

I feel like if we continue to attack our teachers there are going to be less college kids that chose to become teachers and not only will the quality of education diminish, but there will be more teachers like my fifth grade teacher.

And Mrs. Racioppi or Mrs. Fitzgibbons, if you happen to be reading this…I am so sorry for all my grammar mistakes. And thank you. To all you other teacher, good luck and God Bless as you embark on a new school year.

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Growing Up with Crayola

crayola-crayonsEarlier today, I happen to be thinking about Crayola and it really got me thinking about their impact on my life and all the memories, both from my childhood and the kids, that I have around them.  So I thought I’d share some of those thoughts.

One of my earliest memories of school was sitting at my desk and sharing one of those big boxes of Crayola crayons with other kids who’s desks were connected to mine. Despite their being 64 or so Crayons (probably more like 60, because I think we all know a few were always missing and always the exact color you needed) I sat their waiting for a classmate to finish using the Peach colored crayon so that I could finish coloring my picture. I don’t know if I was coloring a family member, a teacher, a friend or myself, but I desperately needed that crayon at that moment. For some reason, that moment is burned in my memory. Of course, it wouldn’t be the last time I’d have to wait for a crayon.

And on the subject of missing crayons, was their anything better than a brand new box of Crayola crayons as a kid? I mean, seriously, all the colors in order and each with a perfect point? I still find myself filled with joy when I open a new box of crayons for Ben and Matt!

When I think back to my childhood and things I played with, I believe Crayola crayons are second only to Legos. However, I remember feeling like a “big kid” when I finally got to use Crayola markers and I think they taught me my first lesson about quality. Whether it was in grammar school or high school, I can remember thinking that when given anything but Crayola markers, I remember being disappointed. There are a lot of poor quality markers and just knew that if they weren’t Crayola, they were likely to be dried up or have a color quality that, for lack of a better word, sucked.

Now that I have children myself, Crayola is central to their interests and learning. My two young sons have had so many interests in their short lives, from dinosaurs to destructive birds to epic space adventures. However, no matter what the subject has been, Crayola has always been the medium that they have used to express enthusiasm. From crayons to markers to Model Magic, Crayola is central to their play and learning. I honestly stand by this. There are a million drawings in our house done with Crayola. There are weird little sculptures made from Crayola Model Magic (and a couple of cute little hand impressions) scattered around our house.

There are just so many times I have heard, “Oh, yeah, come on Matthew, lets get the crayons.” (Ben’s preferred medium is crayon while Matt insists on markers.) And the drawings are of Star Wars characters, Angry Birds, dinosaurs, the New York Giants logo (yeah), each other and so many more things. Their little lives and their little thoughts can be documented in Crayola crayon and marker drawings.

Sure, you can make a case that this could be true of any brand crayon and I’d say that is false. There have been times that the kids have gone to use another brand of crayon and have immediately been disappointed as they are either too waxy to fail to produce the color they expect. It is amazing at how early of an age they have been able to identify quality.

Anyway, I just felt inspired by Crayola today (as I have been so many other times)…I hope you don’t mind me waxing poetic about them (yes, pun intended but I will resist changing the title to “Waxing Poetic About Crayola”).

Darkness and Light

December 19, 2012 1 comment

darknessandlightThe other night, I sat at church and watched the Christmas concert for my sons’ Catholic school.  I watched with an overflowing heart as my kindergartner and my big first grader sang, one with a giant smile on his face, the other studiously singing the words as he seemed to be scanning the audience.  They stood among their friends and classmates, all of them decked out in their Christmas best. They were the very faces and minds and pureness of the innocence that the Christmas season promises every year.  Their equally well dressed parents, friends and teachers watched and reflected the children’s excitement.  It was a building that, even before the concert started, was rumbling in the excited talk and laughter of the children and parents alike, to the point where a member of the faculty had to remind all of where we were. It was a building filled with such joy.

And it was a night that was dedicated the the victims and families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.  It seemed like such an appropriate tribute.

Like much of the country and all decent human beings, I have desperately struggled against the sadness of this senseless attack.  It’s a sadness, I think, that may lie in our souls for a long time. A sadness that will fall to the depths of the scars that we all still feel from September 11, 2001. A friend of mine  recently talked how she will be walking around happy, having a good time and then think about what happened and instantly be filled with panic and sadness. I think it is a range of emotions that many of us share. As a parent, the thought of what those parents of those innocents are going through is unbearable.  It is impossible to not project those losses into our own lives and families.

My sons are the joys of my life. I have no doubt in my mind that the reason I am on this earth is to be Benjamin and Matthew’s father and to do all I can to give them a happy life.  If I accomplish nothing else in life except to raise two happy, loving boys into two happy, loving men then my life will have been a success.  The thought that one person in a single instant could wipe that all out is terrifying.  That fact that one man did exactly that to so many families has me living in a perpetual heart break.

In the days since the attack, I have found myself relishing in my sons’ laughter, love and even pestering.  I find myself just starring at them in wonder.  However, there are times when I need to turn away from them to hide tears because, it is hard to watch them without feeling a sense of remorse and guilt for all those fathers in Newtown that have lost their joys. I guess it is a sort of survivors guilt, even though my sons were secure and safe, hundreds of miles away.  I take some comfort in my belief that those 26 souls have made their way to heaven, but I mourn the hell that has been left behind in Newtown.  The fact that it is Christmas, the season that is suppose to be all about the children, these feelings get amplified to the point where I just want to take down the Christmas decorations and move on.

Of course, that is not possible because it is the season of children and forgetting that and not celebrating our children would not be honoring the memories of those lost.  For now, I keep my grief hidden away from them and do my best to repair my heart with their laughter.

I am doing all I can to make this the best Christmas my sons have ever had as some small way to honor the families of the victims.  It is a dark Christmas for them which makes me feel like I need to do more to make our Christmas brighter.  I’ve become more patient with them, taking time to help them fix the LEGO village under the tree that they destroyed.  I have stopped doing far less important things to check out how the Christmas pig is riding the crane (don’t ask). Last night, I walked into the family room where the TV was still on and saw a message on the screen that it was about to power down because there was no activity for four hours because we were all upstairs playing and talking and laughing.  The pile of presents from Santa in the basement seems to have doubled since last Friday.  There is little I can do for those Newtown families, but there is so much I can do for my own.

During the concert, the principal, used the metaphor of the children being the brightest lights in this world, and that is so true.

So often, we face evil and sadness and pain in this world. So often, there are people that suffer and struggle in the darkness that sometimes seems to dominate this world.  When the darkness lashes out at the tiniest, most innocent, yet brightest lights in our world, the sadness becomes that much more profound.

We struggle for answers on how to battle the shadows that live in people’s souls. I am sure the answer lies only partly somewhere between the polarized sides of the gun debate and how we help the mentally ill in this country.  I know that the biggest part of the answer lies in that raucous building of children, educators and parents and in similar buildings around this nation and this world.  Whether it be a church, temple, mosque, a kitchen table, a mud hut or any place that people gather in love and joy, embracing hope and faith.  It doesn’t matter if that faith is in God (or gods), science or ourselves.  We fight the darkness by passing that faith, hope and love on to the children with the hope that the next generation will grow up in a better, brighter world.

During the concert, I also found myself staring at my sons’ teachers and the rest of the school’s faculty.  I really wanted to go up and hug each one of them, because I don’t doubt the love they have for our children and what they do.  Many are parents themselves and I can only imagine what a painful time it must be for them.  Yet, there they were, smiling and laughing and celebrating our children.  May God bless them and educators everywhere and may God watch over our children and the families of Sandy Hook.

Journey into the Past; Glimpse into the Future

October 25, 2011 Leave a comment

This past weekend was my 20th high school reunion, as well as Andrea and I’s 12th wedding anniversary.  Needless to say, the weekend was dripping with sentimentality, nostalgia, flashbacks and, of course, alcohol.  A lot of it (not the alcohol, thankfully) continues to stick with me.

While the boys hung out at grandma’s house, Andrea and I made the trek up to my old high school  in North Jersey, a place that I’ve been to maybe twice in the last 20 years.  Since my parents moved away from the area just before Benjamin was born, I have only been in my hometown (extended hometown) just once in the last six years.  Even though the trip up was in the dark, it became a gut churning journey down memory lane that would serve as only the prelude to a complete time warp.

As I hung out in the “old gym” (as it is called now) and wandered the hallways with my wife and old friends, I marveled at just how quickly time can pass and just how much things can change while still remaining the same.  The school, while having undergone some dramatic changes, still retains most of the key areas that we knew as students…enough to make it feel familiar and even a bit comfortable.  The jokes and conversations echoed back through the last twenty years and while faces, hairlines and waist sizes have changed, the laughter hasn’t.  To see the faces of old crushes and ‘kids’ I admired and respected weathered by time (fabulously, I must add) and children warmed my heart…a few I had even known since I was seven years old (31 YEARS!).  It a was true joy to be there and catch up with these ghosts from my past.

And not all the ghosts were friendly, either.  When I think back to just how painfully shy I was in my first two years of high school, those halls, especially the “freshman” hallway, dragged up memories of hopelessness that I hadn’t felt in 22 years.  I can remember my very first day of school there, looking up and down that hallway and feeling utterly lost and confused, looking into some of those faces that felt comfortable now, with suspicion and maybe even a bit of fear.  While I was never bullied or even the butt of jokes, my own insecurities would beat me down on a daily basis in those hallways.

However, I shared the night with a few of the best friends I have ever known in my life, and while I’ve been in touch with them on and off through the years, there was almost a feeling of home to be back in some of the same places and talking about some of the same things that we did back then.  They were the ones that helped me through those early dark days and helped me create truly special memories.  I would see a couple of the biggest victories in my life as a result of these friends and even acquaintances in those hallways.  They were victories that would lead to so many more great memories and set the pace for the rest of my life.

And to be there, with the best friend I have ever known in Andrea on the eve of our 12th anniversary, really just made it that much more special.  I honestly believe that if it weren’t for those great (and even not-so-great) moments experienced in those hallways, my path would have never lead to the woman I love and the two wonderful children.

This is were my journey took me into the future and thoughts of my children.  (I do need to be honest, Andrea and I only get a night away from the kids maybe three times a year, so I wasn’t thinking too much about them as I drank down my wine and beer.)  I couldn’t help but think about the boys and what their futures would hold.  They should go through school just a year apart and while the potential of them being each others best friends is very strong, I can only hope and pray that they find a solid group of friends and their overall high school experience is just as memorable.  I hope that they surround themselves with the same caliber of friends I was fortunate enough to know throughout my life.  I pray they don’t struggle with the same insecurities that made some days darker than other for me, but I hope that if they do, they will have the friends to help them through it.  My biggest hope for them is that one day they find the love that I have known for the last 17 years (Andrea and I met in the fall of 1994).

I joked with Andrea as we drove there that her, Benjamin, Matthew and the Mets 2000 NL Championship ring on my finger was all that I had to show for the last 20 years.  If that statement were really true, you could take away the ring, include my friends and family and my cup would still “runneth over”.

Inside Out

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment

The other night at dinner, we were joking around with the kids about haircuts.  Andrea asked the boys if they though she should get her hair cut really short and the boys laughed saying, “No!”  So I asked them if I should grow my hair really long, to which they again said, “No!”

So I asked, “Why not?  Will it make me a girl?”

Benjamin said, “No, because you still won’t have an inside-out pee pee!”

Fascinating…I am still shaking my head and still afraid to ask any more questions about that subject!

Works with Dolphins

September 3, 2011 Leave a comment

As I mentioned before, Benjamin has been on a marine mammal kick with a side of pirates, sharks and squids thrown in.  Many conversations that start on dry land where it is safe, end up, somehow, with an epic battle for life and death between a Sperm Whale and Giant Squid.  So, it wasn’t a surprise when a conversation about kindergarten (we decided to have Ben repeat at his new school) ended up in Davy Jones’ Locker.

The other day, I was trying to get Ben excited for school and we were talking about it for a while before he asked, “How many years do I have to go to school?”

“Nine years for elementary school, four years for high school and then college.”

“How many years is college?”

“It depends on what you want to study.  At least four years and then probably more if you still want to be a scientist.”

“What about a Marine Biologist?”

“Yeah, probably a few more years for Marine Biology…where did you learn about Marine Biologists?”

“I don’t know…I think I just figured out that’s what those scientist must be.”

“Oh…Anyway, a friend of mine that I grew up with went to college for Marine Biology.”

“Really?”

“Yup. When he finished school, he worked with whales and dolphins.”

There was a brief pause in the conversation as the wheels in Ben’s head churned on this.  Then he replied, “He went to an office underwater where dolphins and whales work?”

I instantly had an image of my friend in shirt, tie and scuba gear doing paperwork at a desk in a cubicle underwater as a dolphin and killer whale also shuffle papers in adjacent cubicles.  I started to laugh.

Then Ben starts laughing and says, “That was a pretty good joke, wasn’t it, Daddy?”

What Focus Problem?

April 13, 2011 4 comments

As I have previously talked about in this blog, Benjamin has had some problems in school and with his teacher.  One of the issues she has cited is a lack of focus on his part.  The thing he has complained about the most is being bored.  Of course, I have seen no evidence of this, whatsoever(*sigh*).  This is a drawing he did on the back of his schoolwork.  You will notice the math problem in the middle of the Angry Bird’s face, as well as the broken pieces of wood the Blue Bird has just smashed.

Needless to say, when I pulled this out of his folder, it took Andrea and I a good five minutes to stop laughing…You just never expect to see something like this staring at you as you go through your kids schoolwork.  He admitted that the green “C” from his teacher, indicating he solved the equation correctly, was the last think drawn on the page.

Lately, a lot of his school work has come back like this…Some drawings more intricate than others, like, for example, the exploding volcano that has a variety of Angry Birds flying out the top and the piggies fleeing from the base.

On a serious note, this is more evidence that his teacher doesn’t recognize that Ben is bored.  Not only does he have time to do these drawings as the rest of his class finishes their work, but he is also doing the extra work (the simple equation in the center) that the teacher is putting on the board for kids that finish ahead of time.  It seems the only challenge he is getting at school is how to best incorporate the school problems into his drawings.