I am NOT a Euro-snob…well, maybe a little.
In 2003, I got to do three amazing things many people only dream about. First, I flew to California and cheered from the 50-yard-line as my beloved Tampa Bay Buccaneers won their first Super Bowl. (Thanks to my awesome sister-in-law and father-in-law for making the entire trip free). Two weeks later, I was watching the rain-soaked Daytona 500 with a free ticket from my boss. In October, my wife and I went on a two-week Rick Steves‘ tour of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Shortly afterward, I quit my $70,000-a-year, 5-minute commute software programming job to become a teacher.
There are moments in your life when you realize you are experiencing something you will remember for decades. Events so rich you know you will be telling them to your grandchildren or to anyone who will listen at a retirement home when your life is in its twilight. Such were the multitude of moments from those three trips. I drew on those incredible memories in my first year teaching on my own. I vowed to teach these kids about the pure joy of celebrating a victory with lifelong fans, the magic of medieval castles along the majestic Rhein River, and the horrors of the Mauthausen concentration camp. I wanted them to know the world was their oyster and they could go anywhere and do anything they wanted. They did not have to live the same lives their parents and grandparents did. As it turned it, they taught me more about their culture than I taught them about mine.
I was lucky. I did not have a class of my own to manage the entire day. I moved from class to class, working with individual students or groups of students. The students ranged from kindergarten to fifth grade and had difficulties ranging from behavioral issues to learning problems. I enjoyed the variety and movement my position afforded me. I got to know more students and teachers than anyone in the school. I got to learn the culture of the school and how it operated. That first year, the teachers were so grateful for my help in their classes, it never mattered how long I was there as long as I was supporting them. The second year was very different.
Meet the new boss. NOT the same as the old boss.
We had a new principal and several new teachers. We also had more students. My first year our school population was around 650 yet our overall building capacity was around 1,000. We were a magnet school in a high-poverty area, so we used the magnet program to draw students from other areas of town to our school. But we weren’t drawing enough. At the same time, several smaller schools in the area were overcrowded and could not accept more students. So the school district decided to create a village of schools were students from the surrounding area could go to any of the schools and they had priority over magnet students. As a result, our population increased to nearly 900 students in one year, most of them neighborhood kids from the other schools. So much for the magnet program. Also, our new principal had just come from a very small school. Now she was taking over a very large school with almost 300 new students on top of the 600 already there.
When I met my new principal, I was thrilled. She was the polar opposite of my former administrator: open, easy to talk to, and she listened to me. I used to say to my friends that I used to carry a shield when I walked to my former principal’s office. I used the “shield” to protect myself because she would immediately start attacking me for something before I could even sit down. I’m still convinced the only reason she didn’t fire me that first year was because I was a male and special education certified, a combination so rare in elementary schools that should have convinced me to play the lottery. This new principal actually smiled and asked my opinion on school matters. She even called me by my first name for a little while.
The impossible caseload
Happy as a clam, I started working on theoretical time travel cloning, also known as my student contact schedule. Those of you who have written schedules for elementary schools might have some idea of what I am talking about. Scheduling reading, math, writing, gym, music, art, lunch in a six-hour day for a class of twenty students is nothing short of a nightmare. Now image you have to do the same thing multiplied by 6 (kindergarten through 5th grade). Then consider the students you have to see are in different classrooms within different grade levels. But wait, there’s more…you have no planning time and have morning, lunch, and afternoon school duties to perform. Good times. During my second year, I was supposed to service 35 students every day: helping them with work, modifying their tests, helping the teachers grade their work. etc. I actually calculated it at one point and determined the only way I could legally service all of my students was to make FIVE copies of myself and send each clone to a different classroom.
Somehow, I managed to get through the year keeping most people happy. I even wrote 15 additional Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for a teacher who quit in the middle of the year. I was on fire and loving every minute. It was the high point of my time at this school. But the end of the school brought a major change: I was going to be a father the next year.
Next: Who’s Your Daddy?
On November 5-6, I went to a conference called Geekend in Savannah. After going last year and really learning a lot, I went again and here are my thoughts.
Straight from the conference program:
What is Geekend?
Geekend is the annual gathering of the geek tribe in Savannah, Georgia. Geekend is what you might call an interactive conference with some truly awesome parties. It’s the kind of event that you’ll be texting, Tweeting, and Facebooking about, making all your friends back home super jealous. Geekend is a mashup, a meetup and a Tweet-up all mixed together in a delicious Lowcountry boil of innovative ideas. It’s networking, Savannah style. It’s a veritable supermarket of fresh idea ideas. To sum up Geekend up in one word is really quite impossible, but we tend to use this one: Fun.
Is Apple More Open Than Google and Why Should You Care?
This session was clearly aimed at software developers interested in writing software from freely available open source code. While the answer to the question might be obvious (Google is clearly more open than Apple.), the presenters explained that both companies contribute quite a lot to the open source community either with money or source code themselves. For example, Apple’s OS X operating system is built on open source code, the BSD kernal. Also, while Apple and Google are fierce competitors in the iPhone vs. Android cell phone market, Google uses Apple OS X servers for their development. Several examples of companies were given as truly open. Photo-sharing application Flickr is a good example because of the way their photos use the Creative Commons content rights method and how their entire database of photos is searchable to anyone. Another example they gave was Twitter. Twitter was fully open from the very beginning and they allowed users to use Twitter tweets however they wished. In fact, the hashtag (#) and reply (@) features were not a part of Twitter originally. Users added these features and then Twitter brought these features into the core of the application later. In fact, Twitter is so open that 70% of all tweets come from user-created Twitter applications, not the Twitter site itself.
It’s All Social: How to Succeed in Today’s Connected World
This presenter was Phil Peterman, the head of social media at Paula Deen Enterprises. He spoke about how a brand’s social media impact can be measured. Good metrics: sales, time on the site, bounce rate (when they leave the site), amplification (retweets in Twitter or forwarded links in Facebook or email). Bad metrics: sentiment, authority, and number of followers. He stated that having a quality message on social media is not a measure of success. For example, more people know about LOLCats than how much the Gates Foundation is spending on medical research. People want to be entertained on the Internet. The incident with Paula Deen accidentally getting hit in the face with a thrown ham was an example. Paula’s response of, “I should have ducked”, showed responding to something potentially negative in a positive way gave her brand even more credibility. The brand’s biggest failure in social media was when she tried to use her authority to influence a contest one of her relatives was participating in. The backlash from the user community was swift and harsh.
Paul also touched on web site analysis from Google Analytics, Alerts, Sprout Social, and Clicky. Every brand should be using one of these measuring tools. The key to social media success is to find the conversions and engage. Do not try to control user conversations. Let them create buzz for you and continue to respond.
- The average person sees 3000 advertisements every day
- 78% of people trust recommendations from peers
- It’s not about the product; it’s about the relationship to the brand
- The Paul Deen brand has 1.2 million Facebook users and 200,000 Twitter followers
- The Facebook users tend to browse the website but rarely buy products
- The Twitter followers tend to buy more products than the Facebook users
- Why? Twitter followers may be younger, more affluent, and more tech-savvy.
Do You Have a Power Adaptor I Can Borrow?
The presenter spent a great deal of time going through the multitude of cell phones he has owned over the years. He displayed how cell phone towers are now disguised as trees and are even inside of church steeples. He raised the question of whether we are too connected and our phones need to be simpler.
Teenagers: We Get It
The presenter was Parth Dehbar, a high school junior, who created simple-reviews.com, an iDevices review site. He went over all the pressures teenagers go through each day: peer pressure, parents’ pressure, and grades. His advice was to constantly write your ideas down. He also mentioned the three biggest hurdles of being an entrepreneur: money, time, and infrastructure. He said he hired all of his writers and developers for simple-reviews.com through Twitter. He said when you have an idea, just start something small, don’t be afraid if it’s never been done before, and expect criticism because that means your are doing something right. His advice for teachers is to create an entrepreneurs club at school to give students the chance to work on their ideas.
The War on Stupid Needs You!
This session raises the issue that we are so inundated with information from biased sources we cannot make sense of any of it. We are reaching the biological limits of what the brain can process. We are also suffering from three limiting factors: cognitive bias (we believe what we want to believe), option paralysis (we shut down when given too many choices), and information buffet (there is too much information from too many sources). The traditional sense-makers (media, academia, government) are now highly mistrusted. As a result, we are living in an echo chamber where we read only what we agree with (example: liberals read the Huffington Post and conservatives watch Fox News). Consequently, we have seen the rise of pundits giving their opinions instead of reporting the news. Also, a loss of civility has occurred with the left and right becoming more hostile toward each other. Solution? We need creative people to create forms of media we can easily digest (Jonathon Jarvis explaining mortgage crisis with animated pictures, The Story of Stuff by Dan Roam). We also need journalists to create the content that gets closer to the truth. What kind of journalists can be trusted? Presenter’s answer: non-profits like NPR are trustworthier than for-profits like Fox News. Other resources: Radiolab and book I Live in the Future
Keynote Speaker: Oscar Gerardo from NBC.com
Oscar is the Chief Architect of NBC.com, which has won numerous awards for interactive content. The site has created several successful projects based on primetime shows including:
- A virtual social network based on the show The Office. Fans created a persona with a virtual job and had to perform tasks to earn points and gain levels to create a virtual desk.
- An information weight-less and nutrition education program tied in with the show The Biggest Loser.
What Instruction Manual? Interactive Process and Education
A coordinator of interactive media at Elon University gave this session. The speaker quoted Marshall MacLuhan frequently, the most notable quote being, “If it works, it’s obsolete.” He was referring to interactive projects always being in a state of flux and never being truly finished. He talked about how most people are visual learners and vision controls 50% of the brain’s resources. He referenced books such as Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud and Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug to illustrate teaching visually and information overload are changing the way we understand information. These presenters stressed to save everything you create: projects, ideas, etc. so you can refer back to what you have done and create something new. He also talked about the repeating three phases of a project: revise, rework, and refine.
Job Search and Recruiting With Social Media
Social media experts in health care and employment resources presented this session. They claim social media is a window to the culture of a company. When employees give updates about their companies, they should include non-business related updates to give a prospective employee a view of how the day-to-day life is at the company. As for employees concerned about employers constantly spying in their social media updates, they suggested people read and set privacy settings accordingly. The also used the simple advice, “Be smart.” “If you are posting pictures of yourself hung over on Facebook six days in a row, you can expect employers might not be too happy about that.” They mentioned Germany is introducing legislation limiting how much social media information employers can access about their employees. They advised using social media site LinkedIn to network. They also advised updating your social media profile every 30 days to show you are an active member of the community. Finally, they recommended spending one hour per day to read blogs and tweets about your industry.
Your Social Media Soundtrack
While pictures, video, and text are used for most social media, audio is sometimes overlooked. This session explored the role of audio in social media. The presenter talked about the old school mix tape as the first version of social audio, where users created their own media of songs to fit a certain purpose. He went on to talked about a few social audio tools like Chirbit, twtfm, and Trottr. He discussed sonic branding. Companies like Audi have used sonic branding to develop a corporate sound for the entire organization. The sounds of the car engine, doors, etc. are used extensively in the company’s marketing. Another example of audio in vehicles is Microsoft’s Ford Sync where the drive only needs to speak and the vehicle will respond. Apparently there is a term for everything. Ever had a song stuck in your head? It’s called an earworm. Like to have an audio diary? Try AudioBoo. For recording audio, tools such as GarageBand and Audacity are good for voice recording and podcasts.
Mobile Application Development for the Web Developer
The New Human: Technology, Social Innovation and Intentional Evolution
Two futurists spoke at this session and used many terms you might have to look up: mindjacking, zettaflopping, lifelogging, datascaping, neuroplasticity and singularity. They mentioned humans need four traits: transformational, adaptive, resilient (instead of sustainable), and possibilians. We are heading towards multiple futures created with every decision we make.
Four rules of the new human
1. The revolution will not be organized optimized
2. Your future is data exhaust (e.g. Foursqure check-ins)
3. The new you is an exoskelton (created by your Facebook account)
4. Change comes from the bottom up, not the top down
Finally, we need to embrace diversity because it breeds creativity.
Keynote Speaker: Noah Everett from TwitPic
Twitpic was a weekend project and completely self-funded. Noah was working a full-time job and living with his parents when he created Twitpic, a photo-sharing helper application for Twitter. The company now has 12 million users. The site rose to prominence during the airplane crash in the Hudson River. A passenger posted the picture on Twitter through Twitpic and the company became massive overnight. Further pictures from the Iran conflict and election made the Twitpic what it is today. Twitpic also works with many non-profits to help their causes. Noah is creating a new project called Heello which will be out very soon.
My mom used to say I could get along with anybody. “If the devil himself came to Earth, Mark could find a way to get along with him.”, she used to say. Maybe it’s because I’m the textbook middle child: the peacemaker who follows all the rules. Or maybe it’s because I abhor open conflict and want everyone to like me. Whatever the reason, I was able to work with and work for some very difficult people in my previous 12-year career. I’ve worked with people who were openly bigoted and sexist. I’ve worked for bosses who loved me like a son and ones who wanted to fire me every day. So when I heard the principal I was working for was difficult, I thought to myself, “If I can work for her my first year and survive, I’ll be ready for anything.” I was right….almost.
After she moved me from a classroom teacher to a resource teacher, I was so grateful to my principal that I didn’t care about anything else. She had saved my teaching career. I didn’t have to go crawling back to the business world as a failure. All the encouragement and admiration from my former co-workers would not be in vain after all. But I began to notice things happening at my school that bothered me. Teachers would be moved to different grade levels with almost no notice at all. Teachers who I knew were getting fired every week. Whenever I was called to the office, it was to substitute a class at the expense of servicing my own students or to be berated for something I did wrong. Worst of all, everyone was so paranoid about getting fired that we were too afraid to help anyone else. The constant daily fear was so pervasive you could cut it with a knife. I’m convinced the only reason I didn’t get fired that year was because I was male and special education certified, two rare commodities in an elementary school.
When you met my principal, you had no idea at first all this was happening. She was like your little grandmother, but she had a large presence. Like a real grandmother, you deferred to her no matter how old or big you were, and woe be the person who makes grandma mad. At the time she seemed overly harsh to teachers, parents, and students. But as I look back five years later, I see her in a different light. While I still see using fear as a motivator flawed and counter-productive, I now see the benefit of running a school like that with an iron fist. My principal talked about the book A Framework for the Culture of Poverty by Ruby Payne. In that book, she said we as educators were responsible for breaking the cycle of generational poverty our students live in. We break that cycle by teaching them middle class values, which is how the business world operates, in the hopes the students will leave the culture of poverty and be successful after school. She was using her forceful leadership style to break that cycle. Instead of the chaos of a poverty home life, school life was orderly and predictable. While violence and disrespect were commonplace in poverty, in school neither were accepted in any form. To us as adults, the culture at the school was stifling, but to the students, it was comfort. Behavior problems were minimal. Belligerent parents were non-existent. I rarely saw either of those things because the administration tightly controlled it. But that control came at a high price. When you have a staff so fearful for their jobs, they do exactly what they are told and nothing more. New and innovative ideas never surface because the staff are too afraid to speak up.
After that year our principal moved on to a different school. To my shock, several teachers left with her. I guess they liked the order and protection she provided. As for me, I needed more open leadership. And it did come the next year….with a very high price……..
Next: I am NOT a Euro-snob…well, maybe a little
The Classroom From Hell
I’d heard the story many times: the principal hands you the keys to an empty classroom, wishes you good luck, and then disappears. Sink or swim. It wasn’t going to happen to me. I’m no fresh-out-of-college twentysomething who had a cushy three-month internship teaching angels. I was a Computer Science graduate, mid-thirties, married, and had twelve years experience in the business world. Corporate takeovers, layoffs, bigoted bosses, company politics were all notches in my belt. Plus, I’d spend an entire school year interning at a Title I school with some pretty tough kids. I could handle a classroom of 8- and 9-year-olds.
First up was the classroom itself. It was a train wreck. Three teachers had come and gone in one school year and had left remnants of their hasty exits everywhere. I should have known then. So I set about sorting through the mess as best I could. I made cute bulletin boards, arranged textbooks and desks, the usual new teacher stuff. I remember going in to school each day that summer and passing by another teacher’s classroom on the way to my own. Every day I would peek in her door and marvel at what her classroom looked like. One day, I got up the nerve to knock and introduce myself. She was wonderfully nice and had been at the school for a number of years. As I gawked at how perfectly decorated her classroom looked, she complained that she still had much work to do and the room wasn’t ready. And this was in June. I felt about 3 inches tall.
At last the first day of school arrived. Somehow I had managed to make my room look presentable. The colors and decorations look sharp, students’ names were on their desks on on the board, book were neatly arranged for each of them. I taught a special education class with students in the 1st and 2nd grade. I had 10 students and a full-time teacher assistant. This should be no problem…
Then the children arrived…
Those first two weeks were a blurry nightmare. The girls cried and had bathroom accidents at least once a day. The boys enjoyed stabbing each other with sharpened pencils, screaming profanity, and diving headfirst from their desks. I was in utter hell. My teacher assistant tried to help as best she could but it was more than she could handle too. My carefully crafted lesson plans were forgotten as I struggled to keep the kids from killing each other. Eating and sleeping were unknown concepts to me, as I tried to figure out how to survive this daily horror. My wife did her best to support me, even getting me a shiny new color iPod to try to cheer me up. Every time I would turn to the teacher next door for help, I would have to walk away because I would break down with frustration. Yes, these children made a grown man cry.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I went to the principal’s office and prepared to leave the teaching profession. As I sat down, the principal looked at my face and said, “It’s too much for you, isn’t it?” I didn’t even have to say anything because it was so obvious I was in far over my head. I couldn’t believe this was ending. I had invested almost two years of my life to get to this point and it would be over after two weeks. But luck was on my side. Incredibly, the resource special education teacher, who serviced students in other classrooms throughout the school, wanted to have her own classroom. The principal proposed this teacher observe my class and, if she wanted to, we would switch places. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I quickly set things up and it worked out.
I felt like I had been released from prison.
Goodbye, Cube Farm
I wanted so badly for someone to call me crazy: “You are leaving a high-paying, steady job that is five minutes from your house to go work for a third of the pay in some of the toughest areas of town? Are you nuts?” But it never happened. Instead, I got comments like, “I wish I had your guts.”, “I’ve always wanted to do that!”, or “You are going to change the future!” I had no idea how many people wanted to be teachers but just never took the leap. But after 12 years sitting in front of a computer screen in a sea of office cubes, it was time to jump. I knew I wasn’t a good programmer my junior year of college. But I wanted to make good money and minimize how much speaking I had to do. People who stutter like me tend to go to great lengths to avoid certain speaking situations. I decided it would shape my entire career….and I was dead wrong. So in 2004, I validated my mother’s advice from many years before: I decided to become a teacher.
I Don’t Care What Your Background Is
So I went down the list. Bachelor of Science in Computer Science: check. Twelve years of experience programming software in multiple businesses: check. References from several successful people in the technology field: check. It seemed like a pretty good arsenal to bring to job interviews for high school computer science teachers. I should have no problem finding a decent job since computer skills are in high demand and I have the background. Dead wrong again. I arranged to go to the teacher “job fair” in the summer. I put job fair in quotation marks because I found out later that instead of “job fair”, the event should have been called “the crap that’s left over”. You see, a week earlier the school district had another event called the “transfer fair” where teachers who had had enough at their current schools after 3 years could get the pick of the job openings. Principals had little choice but to accept some of the experienced teachers no matter how bad they were. So the newbies like me had to fight over the bottom of the barrel like hungry dogs. Even still, I was confident that my background would shine. When I met with the time-stressed principals, I got the same answer each time, “Have you taken the computer test? I can’t even talk to you until you take the test.” What test? Little did I know that the state had a mandatory test you had to pass to be considered as a computer teacher. The hiring people at the district office conveniently failed to tell me this minor fact. Meanwhile, other teachers were getting hired after only 10 seconds of conversation. I left dejected and angry. I was even more frustrated when I saw a study guide for the computer test: it included questions about vacuum tubes and other questions that were completely obsolete. Is this the information that is being taught to our kids? At this point, I decided to go into what I dreaded the most: substitute teaching.
Substitute Teachers Taste Like Chicken
“If substituting doesn’t make you run away screaming, then you might like teaching as a career.” This sage piece of advice came from another substitute teacher in the faculty lounge of a nearby school. I had spent the previous three months taking substitute positions at high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools in several parts of town. My high school experiences ranged from classrooms that practically ran themselves to ones where students were crawling in and out of windows right in front of me, laughing when I tried to stop them. My time in middle school was even worse. Breaking up fights between teenage girls who were bigger than me was not my idea of educating our future. Elementary school was a different animal altogether. I took a week-long position at the same school and taught a different grade level each day, beginning with kindergarten and ending with 5th grade. If you’ve never spent any time in a kindergarten class, I highly recommend it. It’s one of the most unique experiences you will ever have. I remember reading a large print book to the children and how they were interested in every detail, especially when I acted out the silly parts. And when I saw the class again on Friday when I had my 5th grade group, the ENTIRE slew of kindergartners gave me a big hug. If that doesn’t melt your heart, you aren’t alive. Not every class was perfect, but the experience stayed with me, especially my time with the teachers. I’ll never forget walking my 5th grade class out to the playground with another teacher, a seasoned veteran who looked to be in her 60’s. We were exchanging small talk when a kickball come out of nowhere and struck her in the back of the head, driving her to her knees. Horrified, I helped her up and asked if she was okay. “I’m fine”, she said, dusting off her dress. “That happens a couple of times a week.”
Coaching Soccer is Easy
“I know you want to be an assistant coach to a boys’ team, Mr. Meyers, but we have a girls’ team that really needs a head coach.” “How old are the girls?”, I replied. “There seven girls, all age 6, and none have ever played soccer before.” Very long pause. “Please, Mr. Meyers, we really need your help.” Of course I accepted: I loved soccer and I had some spare time between substituting gigs. How hard could it be? Throw a ball out there and make little girls go kick it. Easy. After spending the entire first practice tying shoes and wiping tears, I realized I was in over my head. Thankfully, my awesome wife jumped in and things got more fun…..until the first game. Watching the opposing team practice made my jaw drop to the ground. “Good, aren’t they?”, said an admiring father as the girls passed the ball around in short, crisp kicks. “They’ve been playing together since they were 4. Good luck!” Predictably, our team was slaughtered by these future Olympians. As I struggled to find positive words for my confidence-ravaged girls, I realized they were learning hard lessons, even at this young age, and it was only the beginning. As the season went on, my wife and I watched as these girls grow in confidence and learn soccer faster than I ever did as a child. It gave me hope that I could teach students the same way.
I’ve watched Billy grow up in my neighborhood for the last 11 years. He has a developmental disability, but he has a wonderfully sunny personality. Always quick to smile, he makes your day every time you see him. His parents and older sister are wonderfully supportive and I admire them greatly. I happened to be substitute teaching at Billy’s school for a week. When Friday rolled around, I walked my class into the cafeteria and noticed a microphone on the stage. And behind the microphone, in front of hundreds of his peers, stood Billy. He was trying to get the crowd to hush while he set up a surprise. When they finally did, Billy motioned toward a side door where a woman was just entering. As every head turned toward her, Billy started singing…..Happy Birthday….to his teacher….in front of the ENTIRE school. I was floored. If a kid like Billy had the courage to do something so wonderful in front of all of his peers, I could do something meaningful too. At that moment, I decided to become a special education teacher.
It’s Only a 4 Year Commitment
The substitute teaching was starting to wear on me, but I wasn’t about to quit trying to find a permanent position. The hiring process for teachers was still the most obscure experience I have ever had. Every day, I would log on to the school district’s web site and search for positions. Every day, nothing would be updated. Yet I had friends getting hired all the time. I didn’t understand. I called the staffing supervisor at the district office and asked if the positions would be posted online. He said that job openings happen so fast that they don’t even bother updating the site. I asked if he had an updated list of positions I could apply for. He said no and I would have to call each individual school’s principal and ask about open positions. I paused for a moment. Then I said, “There are over 200 schools in the district and you are the staffing supervisor and you don’t know where the jobs are? What exactly do you do all day to earn your paycheck?” Yes, I said that….in the shower to myself that evening….
It was about that time I found out about a program called Transition to Teaching. Basically, it’s a federal grant that places people with four-year degrees in high-need schools in the areas of math, science, and special education. We are paired with experienced teachers and take graduate level courses for free while being paid an hourly wage. The catch? We have to commit to an entire year of apprentice teaching in a high-poverty school and then another 3 years at a different high-poverty school. Overall, a 4 year commitment. After much thought and discussion with my wife, I went for it. And I was placed a tiny school that was built in the roaring 20’s.
How Old Is This School?
School number 12, built in 1921. Spiral staircases and cinder block everywhere. It was small, cozy, in an older neighborhood and I loved it. I was apprenticed to a teacher who had just moved from Arizona but she had many years in special education under her belt. I remember clearly what she said when I was sick the entire month of November (yet still at school), “I’ve been teaching so long, it would take the plague to keep me from coming to school.” She was great and I learned so much from her I can’t even begin to say. She saw the shell-shocked look I had on the first day of school with small kids everywhere, and she taught me well. Of course, this was the year that we had to open and close school three times because of the multiple hurricanes that seemed to hit every part of Florida except Jacksonville. We had the tornado drills down pat. When the year ended, I was sad to go, having made so many good friends and learned so much. But I felt I was ready for anything any school could throw at me.
Little did I know the toughest part was yet to come…..
As I watch my 3-year-old son Luke water his garden, I’m reminded of how life renews itself. The young carry on for the old and keep the memories and traditions alive. Luke is a part of the newest generation of Richbourgs. He will carry on for Elizabeth, his great-grandmother, who passed on. He will have few memories of her, so I will share my memories with him and also with you now. These memories start with three things: books, butterflies, and California.
Although I’ve been an avid book reader most of my life, I contribute much of my love of books to my mother and my grandmother. Every time I visited her, we would have book discussions about what each of us was currently reading. She always seemed to be reading a great book long before it became popular. The first time I ever heard of “The Da Vinci Code” it was in her hands and she was explaining it to me. She was reading the fourth Harry Potter book before anyone had ever heard of the series. But the book that will forever make me think of her is David McCullough’s “John Adams”. She knew I was a great fan of American history and recommended the book to me. It was a very long book and it took me some time to get through it. But I’m so glad I did because we had wonderful discussions about one of America’s most important founding fathers. Our discussions also turned to politics and education, two subjects we talked about for hours on end. Her grasp of current events on both subjects was far beyond mine. I hope to be as lucid as long as she was. Even the very last time I saw her with my sister, her mind was razor sharp as we talked about education and careers.
Butterflies. Everybody loves them but no one more than Elizabeth. To me, butterflies will always symbolize my grandmother: beautiful, elegant, graceful, and nurturing of life. She had books on butterflies, she painted butterflies, she adored them. For that reason, I decided to start a butterfly garden with my son in her name. I call it the Donee Butterfly Garden. I hope she likes it.
Finally, there is California. As a child, California was always a faraway mysterious place to me. When Donee came to visit us in Pensacola, she brought a little bit of California with her. I remember her husband Sam Fidone and their blind poodle Pierre. Pierre was very old and had been to my parents’ house years before. Even though he could not see, he still remembered the layout of my parents’ house, much to the amazement of us all. Sam was a wonderful man who hailed from Sicily. He cooked incredible meals for us including a honey-glazed braided baked bread that was the best we had ever tasted. My mom took furious notes on his cooking and even audio-taped him through the recipe.
Donee flew back to Florida after Sam passed away. She came to my brother’s high school graduation. Even though he was the oldest grandchild and the first to graduate, I think I’m the one who got the true gift. My parents decided to send me with her to California to stay for the summer. I was 13 years old and had never left Florida, much less flown on an airplane to California. It was thrilling to get my Continental wings and experience flying for the first time, especially with my grandmother. That summer, I stayed at her house in San Jose with my Aunt Linda, cousin Angie, and Uncle Mickey. It was one of the greatest times of my life. She took us to see San Francisco, Carmel, Monterrey, and the giant redwood trees. I spent many days with my California cousins, some of whom I had never met before. Elizabeth was the center of it all, and I came back home to Florida changed forever.
Today as we all have gotten older and had families, I think of the legacy Elizabeth has left behind: eight children, twelve grandchildren, and even more great-grandchildren. This legacy includes doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, and many others who do great work. Her memory lives on in all of us and our children. I know she is very proud of us and rightly so. I believe she is in heaven right now quietly reading a book in her butterfly garden and looking down on all of us….smiling.
I started my morning out on Pensacola Beach documenting tar balls. About 5 today I was doing an interview with Waterkeeper Magazine around Avenida 16 when I saw 4 young men walking down the beach picking up tar balls, none over 20 years old. They all had on one latex glove, similar to the ones you have seen at the doctor’s office and that was the extent of their Personal Protective Equipment. I sat through three 4 hour classes and although all three were a complete joke, I did learn enough to know that a latex glove does not constitute PPE.
I approached these healthy youngins and asked them why they did not have tyvex suits on, or at least gloves and boots. One replied that they were not given them, this same one had oil all over his white shirt, and all of them had at least some oil product on them and their clothes.
By some freak coincidence their supervisor came up in an ATV to deliver water. I asked him why his employees did not have PPE. This is where the story gets interesting. I will spare you the details but will say that this supervisor for Southern Cat was inexcusably rude and would not give his name and refused to give me any answers nor a number to call for answers. Actually he told me to call BP and other unacceptable comments….
So, I went to SRIA hoping Buck Lee and/or staff could help these young fellas. No luck. I went to the Sheriff station on the Beach, however, because this is not a “crime” they could not do anything. So I called Florida Department of Environmental Protection and got the message spread (everyone in meetings). I then called OSHA, had to leave a message. Finally I found the good folks at Channel 3 and filled them in on the situation. The feelings of helplessness compounds….
Maybe it was the mother in me coming out, maybe it was the rage of seeing tar balls all over my beach, maybe it was because I want my life back. Whatever the reason, the fact that not only are we dealing with BP’s inability to stop this leak and our government’s inability to take control of a situation out of control but now add to it worrying about the health of these teenagers being paid pennies compared to what their boss contractors are getting paid made me lose it. It is bad enough we have to stand up and scream for the helpless creatures impacted by this mess, now we have to worry about youngins trying to find work and not being taken care of.
It is sad what the Gulf Coast is being put through, it is heart breaking what the innocent creatures are enduring, it is SHAMEFUL what people are doing to make this ridiculous situation worse!
Emerald Coastkeeper, Inc.
“When I was a boy, I played outside…all of the time”. http://www.fishingband.com/