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I Am the Captain of My Soul

553152_10201873988749120_967075786_nI was having a conversation with my parents today that bounced from life to travel and politics to education. We don’t talk on the phone often but when we do, we’re usually all over the map as we catch up and try to solve all the world’s problems. After I hung up (Do we still say that with cell phones?), this phrase popped in my head:

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

My fourth grade teacher, Mr. Hill made my class learn the whole poem and recite it, day after day, in class until we all had it memorized and could repeat it by memory on our own. It was the first thing I can recall being asked to memorize and I spent hours at home reciting it from the tattered mimeographed page we’d been given.

Before I looked it up, besides the above phrase, all I could remember was something about a gate and the line, ‘black as the pit from pole to pole’. I’m not even sure I ever knew the title of the poem until now. I just remember Mr. Hill telling us we should live our lives by this. That, we were in charge of our lives and responsible for how we lived.

Mr. Hill was a big, strong African American man teaching elementary school in Florida in the 1970s. I’m sure that, in itself, had its challenges. His larger-than-life presence was enough to scare us at that age and he was the only male teacher I had until middle school. He was both nurturing and warm but he had the ability to scare the bejesus out of you with his intensity. He was also one of the best teachers I had in all my years of public schooling.

I remember he loved math. He taught us well — not to memorize numbers and equations but to understand how and why the equations worked. He made us all feel, no matter how much we struggled, that we could all learn. We were all individuals and our feelings and our experiences mattered. He never treated us like a bunch of bothersome kids he was stuck with for an entire year.

Mr. Hill taught us our subjects and he also related them to life. Which bring me back to the poem.

The poem is William Ernest Hensley’s Invictus. As it turns out, it is not only considered to be one of the best poems ever written by many, it is also considered highly controversial in some circles.


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

— William Ernest Hensley

Choosing that poem for fourth graders, is pretty extraordinary by today’s standards. Even though I didn’t understand the whole poem then as I am able to do today, I did understand that last phrase. It has popped into my thoughts repeatedly throughout my life.

Today, we undervalue the importance of true learning in the classroom. Students aren’t taught how to think. We undervalue great teachers that go beyond the rigid curriculum to teach students morals and responsibility. Most of them are gone now.

Today we simply medicate unruly kids that need focus and guidance. We discourage the question why — or any original thought. Individuality is frowned upon. Just do it has replaced how and why we do it. We aren’t relating studies to real life. We definitely aren’t nurturing life-long learners.

That’s not education.

I guess I was lucky.

September 11, 2013 : Twelve Years Later

I didn’t wave any flags this year or post any inspiring patriotic posts on Facebook or Twitter. In fact, for the most part, I tried to avoid social and new media coverage. It’s twelve years after the 9/11 attacks that claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 innocent people and the images of that day — the feelings of loss and mourning — are still fresh in my mind.

Instead of letting others tell me how I should feel, remember or memorialize those events, I chose to grieve privately. I chose to focus on the memories of the lives that were lost, the families that were broken apart and the heroes that will not live to see another day.

I chose to remember the husbands, wives and children whose lives have been forever altered by that single moment in time– loved ones suddenly stolen from them. Their lives will never be the same — our world will never be the same.

In the days leading up to this anniversary, I heard people suggest that maybe it was time to move on. Tell that to families. Yes, it’s true that life goes on, must go on… but to suggest that we can, or should, put that day behind us, is not only insensitive but also ignorant and disrespectful.

History repeats itself when we choose to forget.

Last January, I was privileged to accompany a group of students to New York City and that visit included a visit to the 9/11 Memorial. A handful of those students had been in my play, September’s Heroes, a docu-drama surrounding the events of 9/11 in the fall of 2011. Even though we spent two months working, researching and then performing the play– I think it was still somewhat distant to them.

Visiting the 9/11 Memorial brought that all together.

Standing on that hallowed ground, realizing that the two massive pools were the footprints of where those two towers once stood and reading the names etched around those pools made it real for them. It was emotional. It was extremely emotional for me, seeing that link come together. It brought history to life for them– a moment in time that they were almost too young to remember.

There are now school-aged children who weren’t even born when those towers fell. They need to know what happened.

They need to know why we are talking about our rights to privacy, why there’s an ongoing war on terror and why they have to remove their shoes at airports. They need to know.

We are the memory of those that were lost. We are the link to that moment in history that has led to significant changes in all our lives.

We are the storytellers.

Don’t Forget Me

I couldn’t feel more humbled or honored than I do right now from all the love and support that has been expressed in the few short hours since my announced departure from Bartlett High School. Reading all the wonderful words of support, the song Don’t Forget Me from the TV series SMASH is stuck in my head… Not because I’m afraid of being forgotten or have a selfish need to feel appreciated but because there is something to learn here.

In our lifetime, we meet so many people. The impact they have on us may be immediate or may take years to realize. We are who we are because of the people and experiences that make up our lives.

I sometimes feel like I have the gift of being able to see into people’s souls. I look in to the eyes of students and I see their potential for greatness. I know some will think I just mean talent but it’s much more than that. There’s nothing more exciting than talking to a student and then thinking, “This is our future. This person could change the world.” That’s what I see. Some may only see a stupid action or a mistake but I see heart, passion and hope. Sometimes I see frustration and the struggle to fit in. No one likes to see that– but then that’s where I have had the chance to try and make a difference. I’ve always thought, maybe by reaching out to them, their whole world will change. In the long run? I have been given back more than I have given, tenfold.

Watching students move on through their high school years and beyond, I sometimes feel like the Bette Midler character in the movie Stella— when she’s standing alone in the rain, watching the daughter she gave up, get married (through the window at Tavern on the Green. ) There’s a moment of sadness but then her face brightens with a brilliant smile knowing she did the right thing.

I have watched so many go on to start amazing lives. I rejoice in their successes and my heart breaks when they feel defeated. In both cases, I am now, the observer and I feel great joy that if even for a brief moment, our paths have crossed.

One of the most amazing experiences in life has been the realization that you can never predict where your source of inspiration or support will come from. I couldn’t have gotten through the past year as easily, had it not been for two high school friends that were there to cheer me on via the magic of Facebook. One, was really more of an acquaintance in school but has turned out to be a wonderful friend today. The other was someone who played a huge part in my discovery of who I was but we lost touch and only recently found each other again. In both cases, I never would have thought (back then) that their real purpose in my life was to be blossom into an amazing support network today. Both are beautiful strong women.

We are trained to be an emotionless society– especially in Education. We are told, Don’t get close to students and You can’t save them all, so don’t get involved. I say this is exactly the time TO get involved. I always felt I was at Bartlett, not so much for my creativity, as my chance to make a difference. I was able to do that. Maybe I didn’t impact the masses but I know I was able to help a few.

What did I do at Bartlett High School? I worked. More importantly, I helped students to not drop out of school by making them feel they belonged. I encouraged them to think outside the box and look outside themselves for answers. I recently had a former student tell me they were suicidal in school and that having a safe place to go and talking to me every day helped them to get through. That is what I did at Bartlett High School.

So when I say, don’t forget me… what I’m really saying is: I won’t forget you. I won’t stop caring and hoping and wishing that you find the perfect place for you to belong. I won’t stop praying for your dreams to come true or your lives to be filled with love and light.

When you land that big job, find love or have your first child… I’ll be there– Perhaps standing on the outside looking in. But I’ll be smiling.

You are loved. We are loved. Remember that. Don’t forget me.

You Are What You Eat – Body & Mind – Part Two: Mind

It’s pretty easy to understand the relationship between food and our bodies but what about how we are feeding our minds?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we become who we are, how we live and how we think. There’s been many studies on how the stimulus young children receive establishes who they are.  Though I think this is really interesting, I think overall it’s a little shortsighted. We frequently hear, you can’t change someone or people don’t change… but I don’t believe that to be entirely true. People can change but only if they really want to… or are forced to change.

First, I want to talk about the mind food we don’t ask for… the stimulus we receive from others and from our environment.

I think we can all agree that how we behave is closely related to how we think. Take education for instance. Because we think differently, we also learn differently. Most schools are not equipped to accommodate different learning styles. They have one set way of teaching and you either learn it (temporary memorization, in most cases) or you don’t. This has a direct relationship with our behavior. Some students seem to absorb information easily and others require hours and hours of studying. The third group are those that don’t even seem to try. This third group is made up of students that either don’t want to learn or more likely, are unable to learn in the style they are being taught and just give up. I can’t even being to tell you how many students I’ve met that have brilliant minds but are labeled ADHD or special needs because they can’t be forced into the strict mold our education system requires of them. Their brains just work differently.

Words, actions and events have a huge affect on us. Our interactions with others, intentional or not, mold who we are, or at least how we behave throughout our lifetime. I wrote a little about this in a past blog post. Negative input tends to cause stress, a lack of self confidence or self worth or even cause people to shut down. Harsh words from a teacher… the boss who tells you, you can’t do anything right… the experience of a tragic event… all are stimuli that can have a profound impact on us. Unfortunately, we can’t control these types of experiences from affecting our brains and they can have life changing results.

What about what we choose to put in our minds? We are able to make choices of what we do, who our friends are and what we read or watch for the most part. We can also choose to experience positive activities that will have a major effect on us. Our attitudes are shaped by what our mind consume. This, in turn, can change us.

I believe our spirituality is the essence of who we are. It is our inner path. Our spirituality is the most important part of our character. Religious beliefs can be an important part of our spirituality but it should not be misconstrued as the only part of it. Many people wear their religion on their sleeve like a badge, yet when it comes to who they really are, it may not be quite as visible. Our histories can cause us to put up walls blocking the world from seeing our true selves. When I hear someone referred to as an old soul, I think of someone that has moved beyond those barricades and is unafraid of revealing their inner self. It’s a gift to be able to live without fear and to look beyond the facade of others and see the true person that might be hidden behind layers of hurt, anger and betrayal.

Feeding the Mind

We are surrounded daily by negative mind food. Especially in this political year, the news is bursting with negativity. It’s important to at least balance the negative content we absorb with positive thoughts and behavior. We can’t find positive solutions when we focus on the negative. Unfortunately, our society loves to complain about all the problems that surround us but seldom take action to find solutions. If we’d focus on the solutions, we might actually be able to make some progress.

I see too often that people say they don’t like negative people, and then they surround themselves with them. Some people like to wallow in negativity. It feels good to vent frustrations but we all have to be willing to take the next step towards resolving our issues.

Our survival relies heavily on the strength of our body, mind and spirit. We tend to overlook the latter and that have serious implications on our overall health. Focusing on diet and exercise is only the beginning. We also have to feed and exercise our minds. Having a victim mindset is unhealthy. We must strive daily to look for the good and conquer our problems. With a positive outlook– reconnecting with our spirituality– we can overcome any obstacles and live healthy, meaningful lives.

Back To School… Back To Class

Back to School

The 2012-13 school year is well underway and as usual, there’s always something new to make things interesting. I have a new boss– my seventh since I’ve been at the school and I’m starting my fourteenth year– which is pretty hard to believe. Three of the teachers I work with the most are retiring at the end of the school year, making this year bitter-sweet in many ways.

Auditorium Before

Over the summer I started painting the auditorium. It was looking pretty drab and I’ve been wanting to paint the proscenium walls since I started working there. The original fifteen-plus year old paint was really looking dingy and outdated, plus it reflected a lot of the stage light. The new grey actually ties all the colors together and has a more modern feel.

Our fall play has been pushed out of its normal time slot in October, to the weekend before Thanksgiving– by an outside organization in a disappointing and unprecedented move by the school and district. Reportedly, the group is going to ‘make a donation’ and this was the reasoning behind allowing this to happen. I think it is a

… and after

dangerous move to start giving priority to non-school-related events over student activities in order to make a buck. Especially when all of August and September were wide open. Once again, the arts get pushed aside.

Back to Class

I’ve decided to take more classes online to further my education. It has been a year since I finished my Masters and I’ve found I really miss class. Currently, I’m taking two classes, with a third starting next week. We’ll see if I can keep up with all the work. The structure is slightly different from my past studies but so far all is going well.

I’m taking the classes for FREE through Coursera.org. It’s a great opportunity to take a wide variety of courses from major institution around the world.

Imagine taking a course with over 26,000 students from around the world! That’s the enrollment in my Introduction to Sustainability class offered by the University of Illinois through Coursera. One of the drawbacks of this type of learning opportunity is that its hard to get to know any of your classmates. One of the pros is that you get unique perspectives from students of all ages from all over the world.

I’m also taking a course in Securing Digital Democracy offered by the University of Michigan, and Monday I start Networked Life offered by the University of Pennsylvania.

Many, but not all, result in a certificate of completion form the institution offering the class. Grading can be different from course to course and most classes provide all the study materials needed with optional texts that can be purchased from major online retailers. Many different courses are offered year round, though they do have specific timetables for starting and completion. They also can range from a few weeks to a full semester in length.

If you are looking to expand your knowledge or perhaps a career change, you might want to check it out.