The Benefit of Being Fair

A dozen years ago, before motherhood and after a calculated career change, I taught elementary school. Teaching consumed one hundred percent of my being. Working in a classroom with young people was all I cared to know.

For me, the first few days of the new school year were critical. They were my chance to set a tone with students and lay the foundation for an inclusive community. During the lead up to Back to School, I lost sleep mulling over Hi-lited lesson plans and rehashing ways to nip issues that come up with children in the bud.

One common cry in elementary school land was, “Not fair!” It was a catchy phrase that seemed to multiply when exposed to air. I liked to deal with the fairness struggle up front. And so, my week one repertoire included a story borrowed from a colleague about shoes.

A lot of times I hear students say, “It’s not fair!” So let’s talk about fairness. Say I was going to provide shoes for the entire class. Each person in the class wears a different size. If one student wears a size 10, I would get him a size 10. But I wouldn’t automatically get the others a size 10. I would make sure each child got the shoe size he needed.

My job as your teacher is to give you the pair of shoes with the best fit. Being fair is not about providing the same to all, it’s about giving each person what he needs so he can reach his personal best. In this class, I won’t always be equal – but I will always be fair.

I’m no longer teaching elementary school. Now, I’m on the receiving end of backpacks, homework folders and projects. My younger son, Skootch has academic needs which make him eligible for an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). He is taught in a small group, modified setting for reading, writing and math, receives help with speech and language and works with therapists during the school day to strengthen his hands, stamina and core.

Because G-d took a hole punch to the memory files in Skootch’s brain, concepts take longer to stick than for a typical 2nd grader. At 8 ½ years old, he’s still learning how to read and writing is a beleaguered task.

But these challenges have never deterred his thinking, attention to detail and capacity to be curious. As soon as Skootch figured out how to say words, he didn’t stop talking, questioning and trying to understand the world even when no one could understand him.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when he came home from school eager to enter a play writing contest for grades K-2 organized by the local community theater. The contest was the culmination of a series of workshops taught by the teachers and theater’s educational staff. Selected scripts would be brought to life on the stage by real actors. Each winning playwright would even be awarded with a certificate from the mayor.

Before I had a chance to pull the entry form out of the folder, Skootch was fantasizing about giving the mayor his autograph. I didn’t want to discourage such enthusiasm, but I didn’t encourage it either.

I was worried for the guy.

For Skootch to endure the process of transferring ideas from his brain to the page after having worked seven hours at school and having tackled homework would be physically draining and emotionally demoralizing. I presumed these contests were for rock star students who read chapter books with ease, wrote fluent paragraphs AND have a hardy imagination. Skootch only checked off one of the boxes.

I was also worried for me.

What would the other parents think? Would they say Skootch cheated if I got involved? And although it’s never been my personal experience with the community, I couldn’t help but anticipate murmurs of disgust at school pick up. My child wrote a play without any help. All the kids should be held to the same standard. That’s not fair.

I folded up the flyer and approached the garbage. But there was Skootch standing in front of me, shaking his composition notebook. “Mom. Did you hear me? I want to write a play! I started it at school. It’s called The Robbers and the Security Guards.”

I took one look at his sunshine smile and remembered the shoes.

Screw it, I thought. He deserves to feel proud.

“Let me see.” Inside the notebook, I saw that a grown up’s handwriting had scribbled down his thoughts. “You have four days. You’ll have to work on it a little each day before or after homework. You tell me what to say and I’ll type. Okay?”

I sat down at the computer. Skootch bounced, skipped, tumbled and talked around the living room. He relayed character names, outlined the plot and explained the story arc. The boy had the whole thing planned in his head. He gave me the words. I typed, asked questions for clarification and typed some more. Every few sentences, he’d ask me to read back the lines.

For the rest of the week, when Skootch came home from school I asked, “What first? Homework or the play?”

Each time he responded, “My play.”

In the end, he submitted a 4 page, 5 act typed play to a slush pile 80 scripts deep. After a several week review process, the theater’s selection committee chose about 20 to perform. The Robbers and the Security Guards made the final cut!

Upon hearing the news, Skootch pretended to faint. The proud playwright counted his sleeps until opening night of The Vision and Voices Playwriting Festival. When the evening arrived, our boy marched his size 4 shoes the two block walk from our house to the theater with a smile wider than usual.

Together with my husband and a packed house of young writers, moms, dads and teachers, we watched twenty children’s words come to life. Our son, who on paper, was never expected to realize such a Language Arts feat showed me what determination, hard work, talented teachers, a little faith and a side of help can achieve. As Skootch climbed on stage and smacked the mayor’s hand, I could tell he was very proud. We all were.

The festival was a magical reminder of how funny, thoughtful and astute very young children can be when given a forum and the freedom to express their voice. The experience was a reminder that under each surface, big ideas loom large. Imaginations are always racing, even when fingers and mouth muscles can’t keep up.

For us moms and teachers who share their lives with children who need a reassuring Yes you can, a typing hand or a custom shoe, don’t hesitate. After all, it’s only fair.

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Tribes, Crews & Cliques…Oh My!

A list of 34 Rules for My Daughters popped up in my Facebook feed not too long ago.

I don’t have daughters, but welcome wisdom I can learn from or pass on to my boys. So I stopped scrolling and began to read.

I couldn’t get past number two.

  1. Find your tribe and love them hard. True friends are hard to find. 

True friends, forever friends are hard to find and are invaluable. If one is lucky enough to have a few, I agree, they deserve to be loved hard.

But what’s with the word tribe? Why does a daughter, son or any adult need one of these?

I hear and see this word and a similar expression, crew enough as it relates to social aspirations, comradery and acceptance to make me wonder. Adults tag other adults on social media and refer to them as their tribe. Educators and parents want to know if a child hangs with a crew. Members new to a community go on missions to find their people.

Perhaps this language and approach encourages, as an acquaintance once explained, a sense of normalcy. She said, “If I have a tribe. My children have a tribe. Then by society’s standards, we are both doing fine.”

Or perhaps it’s rooted in basic human desire. A co-producer and writer for the television show Cheers commented on CNN’s documentary, The Nineties that “The legacy of Cheers is our need to belong. I think that’s what we as Americans are longing for.”

I’m no different. Part of me regrets not joining a sorority in college. I still sometimes think what my teenage years would have been like had I traveled with one pack instead of moving in and out of many. As an adult, one reason I drag myself to a CrossFit gym is because there, everybody knows my name.

But let’s say a daughter does find her coveted tribe, what then? Is she expected to socialize exclusively with tribe members or is it acceptable to make outside friends? Can she invite new people to join? What happens if she doesn’t want to be friends with a person in the group? Does she lose her place? Can the daughter take up different activities? Carpool with anyone else? Sit at a lunch table alone?

Many schools, communities and households make a point to foster inclusivity. Formal curriculum has been developed to teach children to Be the Difference, Be the One and Fill Buckets.

Last year, our local middle school launched a program spearheaded by the student council which required students to sit with different peers during lunch on designated days. Gossip and devices were not permitted. A student facilitator joined the table to help spark conversation.

I was disappointed to hear a few parents privately voice concern. They didn’t like the idea of forcing a child to sit with non-friends during her one, free period. Students also complained. They wanted to socialize with like-minded people and not be told what to do, when and with whom.

This year, I’m not sure if the council tried again.

To me, the lunch table switch was a great idea. Maybe it’s because I’m a kumbaya kind of mom with a kid who’s typically okay with floating. Or maybe it’s because I believe it’s healthy for children to learn about others and productive to go out of one’s comfort zone. I figured students might be surprised to find they get along with peers who they may not expect. The reality is, at some point they’re going to be required to work and socialize with all sorts of personalities. Mind as well get comfortable in a wider circle now.

Find a tribe but Be the One. Be the Difference but stick with your people. Fill Buckets but hang with a crew. Reach out, but huddle tight. The mixed messages confuse me. My guess is, they also confuse daughters on the receiving end.

Advertising that real friendship is best achieved in the form of tribes and crews belittles benefits gained from casting a welcoming net, implies self-worth is predicated upon the group and is just using benign semantics to endorse clique mentality.

Oh my.

 

What Really Happens Inside a CrossFit Gym

Courtesy: Lynda Shenkman

An excavator sits outside the ashen structure awaiting the command. A welcome sign still hangs above the door. The garage, once home to our local CrossFit gym, now a cement cavity of memories will soon be demolished, replaced by apartments.

On the last day of class, each attending member took a minute to reminisce during an icebreaker. I was absent, but watched the video on Instagram. The stories shared never highlighted the achievements of self. Members wanted to talk about their classmates; who made them smile, who broke through barriers, whose shirtless chest turned heads.

I replayed it a few times. With every rerun, my heart swelled. Change is bittersweet.

Nonmembers sometimes ask, What goes on inside those CrossFit gyms? I hear it’s a cult. I can assure the skeptics no one is fixing alters from barbells or sacrificing protein shakes to the fitness gods. Not yet, anyway. But a lot does happen.

Dreams happen

A man in his twenties left a budding corporate job to pursue a passion for training. He opened a CrossFit gym. Honed his skills. Built a team. Expanded a business. Stayed humble and kind. And in doing so, inspired clients to achieve little goals and big dreams.

Millennials quit secure careers to do what they loved. Young athletes competed alongside elites. A determined high schooler proved to her soccer coach she was good enough to make the team and an unsure peer found himself wrestling and winning. Many embraced healthy choices and most found their voice.

Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers learned to squat, clean and jerk. They climbed ropes for the first time, stood on their heads and jumped up on a box. They completed races, joined rock bands, sported bikinis, founded companies, sat for tattoos and concluded that age doesn’t define ability and intimidating does not mean impossible.

Love happens

As a new member, my friend was surprised at how fast she warmed up to people from the gym. “Is this normal?” she asked.

“Pretty much,” I told her.

Amid the pull up rigs, weight racks and wall balls, there’s no time to fear vulnerability. When the clock counts down, social norms go out the window. Strangers are thrown into a mental and physical predicament with a common goal; get it done and support a neighbor.

It started with fist pumps and cheers. Small talk came easy; CrossFit’s a built in conversation starter. Together, we rehashed workouts, movements, personal bests and rough spots until the non CrossFitting community told us to shut up.

In time, we stopped squawking about fitness, opened up and asked about a sick parent, a new job or a cranky toddler. And it didn’t take long before we were offering hugs, helping a teen find an internship, editing a college essay, buying from a buddy’s local business, sharing professional expertise, moving boxes, supporting a cause, hosting a dinner, celebrating a milestone or lending an ear.

We met for 4 years in the same space, during the same hour, several days a week. Friendships developed, spouses connected, siblings bonded, relationships bloomed, babies grew and grandchildren were born.

Fun happens

In an interview at Harvard Divinity School, CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman explained how CrossFit gyms emphasize camaraderie, which was once described to him as “agony coupled with laughter.”

I am inherently lazy. The first four decades of my life were spent avoiding exercise. But even when I’m feeling uninspired, CrossFit keeps me coming back because the people make it fun.

Beyond the crazy tights, silly tanks and occasional costume, our gym is a safe, happy escape. I can let curse words loose, chuckle at a double-entendre, lip sync to my heart’s content, whip out dance moves and laugh alongside friends who brighten my mood and let me be me.

Struggle happens

We failed lifts, lost to a workout, questioned our strength and ran out of gas. We agonized through divorce, mourned death, endured surgery and disease, emptied our nests and fought mental illness. But we did so side by side.

Perspective happens

We learned. To teach, coach and manage. About different cultural and spiritual traditions. To leave political divides at the door. To be students again. We learned about decency, respect and gratitude. That we are better as a team.

We strived. To find balance. To do our best. To try and to not be too tough on ourselves.

We recognized. The benefit of breathe, pace and letting it out of the tank. The value of stretching, the stupidity of sugar (even though we may indulge) and how, when done right, food is fuel.

We grew. To rethink Beauty, Age and Limits. To ignore scales and diets. To complain less and smile more. We grew to believe in ourselves. To know our bodies can generate power, that we can do anything for a minute and what it means to be a champion.

The closing doors were not a goodbye. The owner moved us into new, spiffy digs. Right up the block. With an open floor plan. Natural light. Fresh paint. Even showers. Just in time for the New Year.

The parking’s different. The entrance is different. The setup is different. But the faces gathered around the white board to receive the daily challenge are the same.

It’s during this accepted routine our surroundings seem to fade. As the coach speaks and we listen, one thing is clear – family happened.

These 5 Quotes Held My Hand in 2017. In 2018, There’s No Letting Go.

By December 31, 2017, I couldn’t wait to devour the cheese plate, suck down some champagne, watch Mariah redeem her lip sync and wave goodbye to what I found to be a distressing and draining year.

I’m not one for grand resolutions. In my experience, they tend to be over rated and short lived.

Instead, over time, particularly since I’ve started to write myself, I’ve found the words of others to be a reliable source. Words give me pause, hold me accountable and shape everyday decisions.

As I pray, hope and gear up to work for a better 2018, here are 5 quotations that summed up my mindset and kept me moving during 2017, and continue to offer inspiration as I brace for what’s next.

“This land was made for you and me.” Woodie Guthrie

Masses of pink hats sang this on the National Mall during the Women’s March in Washington DC.

“The words you speak become the house you live in.” – the Persian poet, Hafez.

My daily mantra for confronting CrossFit challenges, managing career expectations and dealing with general self-doubt.

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” – Lebanese artist, Kahlil Gibran

As my two boys continue to grow, Gibran’s words from his poem, On Children are a stab in the heart reminder to teach independence so when the time comes, Bubbe and Skootch can live life on their own terms. The poem also encourages me to do my part to leave our world a healthier place so they may have a fair shot at doing so.

“We the people of the United States” (we are a democratic republic, not a dictatorship) “in order to form a more perfect union” (we are a work in progress dedicated to a noble pursuit) “establish justice” (we revere justice as the cornerstone of our democracy) “insure domestic tranquility” (we prize unity and peace, not divisiveness and discord), “provide for the common defense” (we should never give any foreign adversary reason to question our solidarity) “promote the general welfare” (we care about one another; compassion and decency matter) “and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” (we have a responsibility to protect not just our own generation, but future ones as well).

The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution as dissected by Sally Yates, former Deputy Attorney General in her Op-Ed, “Who Are We As a Country? Time To Decide” was published just as the forces counting on me to feel complacent were winning. Seeing America’s core values written in simple terms was the jolt of stay woke I needed that day.

“Baby, I’m sorry (I’m not sorry).” – Demi Lovato

For any fellow human who at some point during his or her life, stood up, spoke up and refuses to go back.

“Use all your heart, all your might and everything will turn out right.” – Me (as far as I can tell)

The words heart and might may have come from the Jewish Shema or Deuteronomy 6:5 although that wasn’t my conscious intention. These are the words I say to my boys anytime they are in a position to learn, go out on the court, get nervous about peers or have to take on the world.

Perhaps during the next 365 days, I’ll try to heed my own words.

Consider it a small goal.

Welcome 2018.

Pass the Pierogis, Please.

Courtesy: R. Anscher

To experience the goodness of childhood through middle-aged eyes, to take a break from adulting and just get to be a kid again is a welcomed and sometimes needed escape.

Feeling drenched in joy during a stroll down Disneyland’s Main Street washed away the stress of cross country travel with young boys.

Watching Wonder Woman climb out of a fox hole and on to the battlefield left me invincible and ready to challenge any injustice.

And sitting nestled between the arms of a captain’s chair at my grandparent’s dining table snapping green beans and sneaking Italian chocolate dipped sprinkle cookies in earshot of my Gram as she masterfully labored over an anticipated holiday meal served in tight quarters to a dozen, boisterous relatives reaffirmed I was in the safest place in the world.

That wooden chair was a constant; as a young professional, newlywed and even a mom, always waiting on the edge of Gram’s small, square kitchen which opened into a dining area and an adjacent living room. Thick carpet, knitted afghans, framed needlepoint, family photographs and my Pop’s collection of electronic gadgets, projects and tools added to the cozy vibe. During the holidays, the air was warmer still thanks to a baking oven, charged discussions over football and war and shifting bodies in search of a seat.

When the meal was ready, generations crammed around the table in folding chairs, high chairs and stools. There was little room for lingering elephants. The trauma, addiction, abuse, divorce and rivalries that ran through my family’s veins were diluted by the pungent smell of eggplant, the sweet glaze of ribs and deep fried golden pierogis, Eastern European dumplings stuffed with potato and served with a side of sour cream. Holiday meals with Gram made each of us forget the rumblings in our world for a few hours. Unfortunately, after the pierogis ran out, the dysfunction remained.

Which is why, after she passed away a few years ago, holiday gatherings grew increasingly disjointed. Relatives branched off to do their own thing. My grandmother had been the glue holding the house together.

The week leading up to this Thanksgiving, I longed for a taste of childhood goodness. Really, I longed for my grandmother. I missed the lady who darted about her kitchen, supervising every boiling pot and baking pan. The butterfly who loved to gather with the women around the table and talk between basting, chops and stirs. The hostess who was happy to set an extra place or cook for a crowd. And the woman who helped me to feel connected and loved anytime I would have preferred to drift away.

This was definitely a drifting year. The heaviness in the world and the infected state of our country outside of my idyllic, suburban bubble compounded by typical life challenges and general parental angst has weighed on me. More than anything this Thanksgiving, I wished for my grandmother to drag me to shore, pull out a chair and hand me a bowl of unsnapped beans.

My husband, Mac suggested I fill the void by hosting a holiday meal for our entire extended family. I told him, “No.” I retired the art of pretend play after my grandmother died and have no desire to assume her role. The elephant figurines perched on my fireplace mantle are plenty enough. Besides, I wouldn’t even know where to buy Polish dumplings.

Then he proposed we visit my aunt and uncle’s farm on Black Friday since my grandfather, mom and a few regulars from Thanksgivings past would be spending the weekend there. Of my grandparent’s three daughters, my aunt is most like my grandmother: even, generous and welcoming. Turns out, she and my uncle were happy to have us.

Acres of space but as cozy as a three room apartment, their farm oozed with the goodness of childhood. A place with chickens to feed, barns to explore, orchards to roam and a wood burning stove to warm up with, Bubbe and Skootch dripped with joy as they talked to the animals, circled the pond, played darts with cousins and marveled over the Sgt. Pepper album spinning on a record player. They raced their parents down a gravel road and climbed the barn’s ladders to the highest loft, leaping from bales of hay to the floor below like Spiderman on a mission. And sat with ease amongst relatives nibbling on eggplant parmesan, gravy soaked turkey, beef stew and yes, potato pierogis fresh off the skillet.

For a few hours, rumblings disappeared and hearts filled. On the farm, Gram’s spirit was very much alive.

This holiday season, I’m grateful to my aunt and uncle; for sharing their home with us, for contributing to the goodness of Bubbe and Skootch’s childhood and for throwing me a life preserver by simply pulling out a chair.

Wishing you and your loved ones a wonderful holiday season!

Who My Son Saw at a CrossFit Competition

All photos courtesy of A. Osinoff

Little boy behind the barricade, who do you see?

A Competitor
Pressing alongside a Goliath. The playing field level. Shared load. Shared bench. Shared barbell. Same standards. Same reps. Same rest.

A Teammate
One who spots weight, tracks time and counts lifts. A partner who values the other’s emotional risk, ethic to prepare and commitment to try. A mate who listens to ideas, strategizes beforehand, encourages during and dances after.

A Woman
Eyes on the ceiling. Spread legs. Bare arms. Chiseled back. Flexed quads and seeping curves. A woman who trains her body as a machine, teaching it to breath, move and perform with power.

A Lady
Who is feminine, not despite but because she sweats, stinks, struggles and shakes. One who tapes her thumbs, wraps her wrists and grips the barbell with glitter, chartreuse nails. A person who considers sneakers, tanks, a weight belt and tights as fashion and is consumed by the task over her tousled hair, silver roots and exposed lines.

Your Mom
Who feels proud, accomplished, happy and hopeful that by watching me, her children are learning anything by anyone is possible.

Little boy, when you grow tall enough to see over the barricade, what will you do?

Be mesmerized no more.
Accept a person’s capacity, albeit female or male to be strong.
Expect equal partnership between genders as essential.
And assume that the only “it” any human ever asks for is respect.

To My Son: What I Found On Your Flickr Page

You posed the question after a sleep over with an old friend who has one. “Mom, can I open a Flickr account?”

Knowing Snap, Instagram and the like were out of the question, you settled on a place to store and show off your photographs.

My instinct was to say, “No.” I can’t help it but my brain works as such – Education first. Activities second. Apps later.

School wasn’t back in session a week, and I’d already joked with Dad about moving out until June. To confess, I’d been stewing and strategizing about how to help this year’s middle school experience be a good one since about mid-summer. The thought of you changing classes, managing assignments from multiple teachers, racing the bell, schlepping materials, decoding directions, and staying organized, focused and moderately positive for 180 days straight had me stressed out.

Dead set on prioritizing real experience over the virtual, we settled, Dad and me with enthusiasm and you with a grunt on a new plan to limit device use to the weekend. This wasn’t because we were trying to make you hate us, but rather to encourage you to find escapes other than Minecraft, keep life simple and not have electronics compete with other stuff. Text, email and music were still on the table, just not YouTube and video games.

So when you first inquired about Flickr, the last thing I wanted was to stoke the coals with even the most benign of social media. I was afraid if I let the string out, even a smidge, you’d unravel; sneak the iPad, choose Flickr over after school clubs, resent homework more and avoid opportunities to hang out with real people.

My mind was pretty much made up.

Then I quizzed you on your foreign language flashcards. As I read off the word and waited to hear the translation, you starred at the wall, fiddled with a bracelet, smiled, but said nothing. I observed the nothingness. As you well know, this was unusual. In the past, I would’ve said your name a thousand times. Not this time. I’m sure I was too tired to bother.

After 45 seconds you turned to me. “Huh?”

“I said the word,” I replied.

“You did? Sorry I was thinking about something.”

Dreaming. Fantasizing. Creating. I wondered, What goes on in that brain of yours?

Before going to bed, I stopped to charge your iPad and peeked at the camera’s photo album. I thought about your love of art, my tendency to hover and two speeches we heard when our neighbor’s son became a Bar Mitzvah a few months back.

During the service, the boy’s mom stood on the bimah and spoke to her son about the decision to stop forcing sports down his throat and let him pursue his interest in computers and video production even though she felt hesitant at first. “I had to trust you,” she told him.

The mom was followed by an aunt, a rabbi. She shared wisdom from ancient Jewish mystics, explaining how they believed a parent’s job was to help their children grow into who they were meant to be.

Trust.

Grow into who you were meant to be.

The mother’s and rabbi’s advice probably seems so simple to you. But believe me, it’s hard. At least for me, anyway. To heed their advice means I need to peel back my anxiety and let go of my parental instinct to protect, smother and steer.

The next day, as expected, you persisted about the Flickr. This time, I set up an account.

Right off, you and the iPad disappeared into the neighborhood shooting the landscape, buildings, everyday objects and our cat. I know very little about photography, but I knew one thing. This new freedom turned your wheels and left you charged up, focused and happy.

My proud moment didn’t last. Unfortunately, your mom was programmed to err on the side of control and mistrust long ago. I soon fell back into a familiar frame of mind after wrangling with you at the end of a long day of classes, first day religious school, a couple hours of homework and a late lights out.

Given the level of angst in our house after just one busy day, I figured there was no chance either one of us would be able to handle you having any amount of social media. To prove myself right, I logged onto Flickr to see what you posted, who followed your page, read comments and re-check safety features.

But all was quiet in photography land. I saw there were a few views, a couple of follows and even a “Like.” As I sifted through the slideshow, I also noticed something else in the pictures; something in hindsight, I should have known would be there.

You always find the light.

Discover inspiration in overlooked places.

And capture images from your heart.

“Sky during 9/11. May their spirit always be with us.”

Your Flickr page was filled with hope, perspective and love.

We’ve reached a new stage, you and I. You’re finding your way. I’m learning to let you go. You’re beginning to trust yourself. I’m practicing how to trust in you.

Over the next several months, no doubt you’ll complain, I’ll nag, you’ll forget and I’ll worry. I’ll hear my voice on repeat, you’ll lose your mind.

So let’s make a deal.

When work gets hard, the hallway’s too noisy, friends disappoint and the days are long. When I scream, pontificate or feel like we’re stuck, I say we make a date with Flickr. You can delve into your art. I’ll delight in your discoveries. And together, we’ll enjoy a welcomed escape.