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A Sorry Safari for Lucy June 29, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Travel.
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Where on earth will Lucy sleep?  Our friends, Lesley and Ian, are coming from England with lovely Lucy, their vivacious 15-year-old daughter.  All Lucy has to do is say, “Mummy!” and I get goosebumps.   We planned to put her parents out in the room next to the garage, but that would leave Lucy couch surfing in the midst of the mayhem that passes for our life.  

Then I had the most brilliant idea.  We’d put Lucy out back in a tent.  No, I’m not talking about a tent like THAT!  More like a room with drapes.  I’ve seen outdoor rooms at Target that would fit the bill.  They’re swathed in mosquito netting with canvas sides that can be artfully tied back.  It’s an oasis, really, at a fraction of the cost.  

I proposed that we move the daybed out into the tent along with a chest of drawers.  Hang a portrait of Queen Victoria and Lucy could pretend she was on safari!  Richard suggested we paint a view of Lake Victoria on the side of the garage.  We even have a pig who can pass as a warthog. What luck!  And for a pittance, I’m sure my neighbors, Mark and Eunice,  would don tribal make-up to recreate that bush-like ambiance.

The wonderful thing about Southern California is there are no insects.  Oh, that’s Hawaii.  Okay, there are no insects that a sturdy fly swatter and a hammer can’t take out.  We could set the legs of the daybed in coffee cans filled with kerosene to discourage bugs or reptilian bedmates.  I know that works cause I’ve seen it in movies.

I emailed Lesley to see if she’d warm up to my inspired idea.  Her only suggestion was that we add a picture of Russell Crowe alongside the Queen’s.  I took that as an enthusiastic yes.

Unfortunately, like all visionaries, I’m subject to the stinging barbs of criticism from the commoners aka my family.  Alas, Lucy’s safari was nixed. Lesley and Ian will stay in our bedroom so Lucy can sleep – dare I say it? – on the couch in the den.  Doesn’t sound nearly as exotic, but at least she won’t have to fend off wildlife. And Lucy will also have access to a computer and a TV.  No “EastEnders” though, and that could be the biggest hardship of all.

Lawn Be Gone! June 26, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Gardening, Going Green.
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I should have listened to my son, Taylor, years ago when he suggested we just pour bleach onto the lawn to kill it.  Of course, his motives were not altruistic or even vaguely environmental.  He just hated getting up early. Fast forward ten years.  It seems that all my neighbors are going native, and we’ve finally decided to join them.

My neighbors down the street, Travis and Nichole, were the first to stop the IV drip of precious water to their lawn, which takes up an entire corner lot. This was cause for alarm.  My next door neighbor, Dex, took us aside one day.  “Have you talked to Travis and Nichole lately?” he asked.  “I’m a little concerned,” he added.  “Have you seen their lawn?  I think you might want to go round and check on them.”  I knew this was planned obsolescence on their part, so I played dumb.

You have to understand that Dex takes pride in still doing his own yard work.  He’s retired.  He wears the weekly chore of mowing, edging, and raking like a badge of honor.  Maybe that’s because he was invested in Boy Scouts for so many years.

Dex confided that when someone’s lawn looked as bad as Travis and Nichole’s did, it was possible that something “had happened” to them.  He was giving me permission to be the first one to discover their decomposing bodies.  When I finally told him what they were up to, he looked relieved, then puzzled.  Why would someone want to roll up the green carpet that is the hallmark of suburban living?

We’ve decided to leave the lawn out front alone – for now.  For one thing, our mower is almost new.  We traded in the old gas hog two years ago, when the city encouraged people to upgrade to an electric mower for $100.  We now have a mint-green lawn mower that looks like it was made by Fischer-Price.  It doesn’t roar and belch gas fumes.  Instead, it contentedly hums along for a week a time before requiring a recharge.  I feel like a model citizen whenever I’m out front using it.  Look at me!  I’m saving the planet!

The back lawn is an entirely different matter.  I’m tired of filling in the bare spots between the stepping stones with plugs of grass like a highly trained technician does at regular meetings of the “Hair Club for Men.”  We have a large patio.  But beyond the arbor, anything goes, as opposed to anything grows.

My approach is to simply rip out the grass and spread the dirt around like one big zen garden.  Bring in a load of decomposed granite and plug in a fountain.  Oh, and I’ll take some of those native plants too, the ones with the large saber-like leaves that you could become impaled on.  Voila!  

My husband is appalled by my lack of foresight.  He feels the need to purchase a hardcover book at Vroman’s so he can pour over gorgeous photographs of other people’s gardens.  Most likely, other rich people’s gardens.  People for whom price is no object.  Then he wants to spend his spare time (as in, I have no time to spare) working on a master plan.  Then…you get the drift.  At that rate, I can just wait for global warming to do the job.

Nichole actually took a class in how to plant a native garden and carefully selected the plants that are just now starting to fill in.  Why reinvent the wheel?  Talent borrows, genius steals.  No, I didn’t say that.  That’s T. S. Elliot, and I think he was onto something.  Our other neighbors, Stuart and Brenda, showed us their new backyard, which is awash in pea gravel and square pavers that float serenely in a sea of round black pebbles.  It helps that Stuart is a film set designer and has an amazing eye, along with a cache of props he’s collected off of TV shows.  I have Cost Plus.

Let’s just do it!  I think Richard is starting to budge.  I reminded him of how much it would cost in gas alone just to drive to Vroman’s to buy a book. He’s starting to cave…To Be Continued.

Pardon My Pig – Part 1 June 24, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Pets.
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After living with a pig for 12 years, I’ve come to think of it as almost normal. In the same way that having webbed toes is normal.  So, sometimes I forget to mention we have a pig for a pet.  This failure to forewarn visitors to our house of what’s in store, carries its own “shock and awe” factor.

One day the new neighbors stopped by.  As we stood talking in the kitchen, the back door flew open with such force, you’d have thought a bomb had detonated. There in the doorway stood…I could see from the startled looks on my neighbors’ faces that they were straining to make out just what “it” was.  The silhouette of this creature was backlit by blinding sunlight.  I watched as their eyes strained to adjust.  Dust was rising from this beast in swirls and the sunlight grew hazy. The visitors stood frozen, like ancient inhabitants of Pompeii, blanketed in the ash.   “Oh,” I said,  trying to sound casual.  “I forgot to tell you we have a pig.” Maisie, yes the beast has a name, strode into the kitchen like Gary Cooper entering the saloon in “High Noon.”  She looked like she was gunning for trouble. 

“Whatever made you want to get a pig for a pet?” I’ve been asked.  What a dumb question! Dumb questions are questions that I don’t have answers for.  I do remember thinking the little talking pig in “Babe” was adorable.  We’d also just bid on our first house.  The offer was insultingly low, so no one was more surprised than we were when it was actually accepted.  A celebration was in order.   What better way to celebrate acquiring the yoke of a mortgage, than by buying a farm animal!  This has got to be a sanctified ritual somewhere in the world.

The person at the pet store was convincing.  This “miniature” pot-bellied pig would grow to 33, maybe 44 pounds max.  So we acquired Maisie at the tender (no, not that type of tender!) age of 12 weeks.  She weighed in at a whopping 11 pounds with one brown eye and one blue one.  No sooner had we moved into our new house then Maisie began to grow.  And grow.  I used a Weight Watchers scale to monitor her food intake.  Carrots, Cheerios, celery, and a few protein pellets.  If I lived on that diet, I’d look anorexic.  But Maisie kept packing on the pounds.  We bought a larger pet door.

Richard stopped by the pet store to inform them that the pig they’d sold us was growing at an exponential rate.  “You must be feeding her too much,” the pet store owner scolded.  My husband mentioned that we’d measured her and she was now 41 inches long.  Silence.  “Wow, she must just be big-boned!” was the reply. The owner had a sudden urge to help other customers.

So we settled into the routine of having a pig for a pet.  This routine included breakfast anytime after 4:30 a.m.  We took to locking Maisie out of the bedroom, and then the den.  But it’s hard to just roll over and go back to sleep when you can hear the doors straining on the jams as she used her body as a battering ram. Our dogs followed her lead and joined in the charge. There’s a reason that when George Orwell wrote “Animal Farm,” he made pigs the ones in charge.

Someone once said that cats look down on humans, dogs look up to them, but pigs look at them as equals. This person knew a pig.  We thought it was adorable when Maisie was still small enough to climb into our son Ian’s, bed. It wasn’t long though until we’d come in and find Ian sleeping on the floor while Maisie snoozed with a contended smile, her head laying on Ian’s pillow.  Turned out she waited till he dozed off then gave him the heave ho.

Then there was the problem with the kitchen cupboards.  I know those clever Swiss got the idea for that nifty Swiss Army Knife by watching a pig’s nose in action.  There’s a swinging door between the kitchen and our dining room, and we could always tell when Maisie was up to no good because she’d shut the door.  We once caught her enjoying a 12-pack of beer.  She’d puncture each can with her hoof, then guzzle the beer as it spurted out.  I thought we’d finally seen the last of the child safety locks, but back on they went.  It took Maisie less than half an hour to figure those out.  Next I strung a large nylon cord through all the cabinet handles and secured it tightly at one end. Maisie gave it one tug and one of the cabinet doors popped off its hinges. Pigs don’t have time for finesse,  

The final straw came when a client of my husband’s stopped by.  We walked into the kitchen to find Maisie standing in a sea of brown mud.  No wait, it was chocolate!  She’d gotten into a huge box of hot cocoa packets and was mixing up a batch on the kitchen floor.  Exasperated, Richard spent the next day at the local hardware store coming up with a makeshift latch more befitting a submarine hatch.  I took to moving everything higher up, like you do when you’re camping and don’t want to put out the welcome mat to bears.  We’d underestimated out opponent.  It was Garry Kasparov facing Deep Blue and my money was on Deep Blue.

To be Continued in “Pardon My Pig” – Part 2

Bienvenidos al Los Angeles June 22, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Travel.
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The British are coming! The British are coming! One by land, two by sea. Okay, make that three by air. My friend, Lesley, and her family are flying in from the UK on July 8th. This is their first visit to the states, or the colonies as I refer to them, and they’re eager to see Los Angeles.

There are so many things to see and do in LA that I’m feeling overwhelmed by all the possibilities. Future diplomatic relations between the UK and its petulant offspring, the US, could hinge on my choices. I don’t want to muck this up like George W. And the timing couldn’t be better, what with the price of a gallon of gas fast approaching that of a vial of Botox. Of course, for each kilometer they fly west, their wallets grow fatter. So America beckons like one giant factory outlet.

I met Lesley on the internet late last summer. After a flurry of emails, and several conversations via SKYPE, she invited my husband, Richard, and I to come to England to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Crazy? Absolutely! But we had such a fabulous time now they want to see how how those wacky Americans live.

Yes, there’s lots of history in Pasadena, but really! As Eddie Izzard said, “I come from Europe – you know, where history is from.” When we were in England we toured the local castle, where Mary Tudor aka Bloody Mary (not to be confused with the urban Bloody Mary who haunts the bathrooms of elementary schools) mustered her supporters in 1553, before being crowned Queen. We walked the streets of Framlingham, their incredibly quaint 17th century village and toured the local church,  which traces its origins to the 12th century. No,  I won’t be playing the history card.

When we were in the UK, we trapsed through castles, and along the cobblestoned streets of Cambridge.  We queued up for fish and chips in Aldeburgh on the North Sea. But what do I remember most? The people! For one thing, I’d never seen so many people who looked vaguely like me or so many redheads, including Lesley. But mostly, I remember how lovely the people were. Once we’d mentioned that we thought George W. was the village idiot, people embraced us like the long lost relatives that we probably are.

It helped that Lesley is the town librarian in a town of 2600 people. The library is located in a 300-year-old building that’s a gathering spot for local folk. Think of it as Starbucks, only the books are free. No espresso, but there was a pot of coffee brewing. So much for the stereotypical, “Would you like a cuppa…?” People popped in to pick up DVDs they ordered or for just the chance to chat up Lesley and her co-workers, Sally and Crawford.  It was a delight just to walk about the town with Lesley, who knew everyone!

So what should I show my friends? It’s made me think about what it is I find so unique about this place called Los Angeles, the most multicultural city in America. The place I call home.

I definitely want Lesley and her family to meet our friends and neighbors, a diverse lot indeed. While they’re here, my neighbors, Chuck and Chris, are having a block party to celebrate Chuck’s 50th birthday. They’re also celebrating 10 years of being partners and their house’s 100th year. I’ll count that as history in the making.

And then there’s the food. In Framlingham, we ordered out from the “curry house” one night for fabulous Indian food prepared by the local Pakistanis. Since Fram is an hour east of London, that’s about as diverse as it gets. I recently sent Lesley an email detailing some of the food options. Mexican food and margaritas, Cuban food at The Cuban Bistro in Alhambra, Spanish tapas at La Luna Negra, Thai food from Saladang, sushi, Chinese dim sum, and kick-ass bar-b-q from the new Gus’s in South Pasadena, and a late night stop at In-N-Out Burger. Maybe we’ll get lucky and my next door neighbor, Stella, will whip up one of her Greek specialties which she loves to share.

If my house guests get homesick, we can always take them out for Indian food. But at our local Indian restaurant, the cook is Latino. Only in America.

I couldn’t believe it when Lesley told me she’d never heard of Target. And I thought England had come out of the Dark Ages centuries ago! After a visit to Target, I’ll take her for a look-see at Costco. I don’t think she believed me when I told her you can only purchase soy sauce in a gallon-sized gasoline can.

Then there are the artichokes and the avocados to be enjoyed on the patio with pitchers of sangria. Trader Joe’s alone is worth a trip across the pond. Oh, and I can’t forget the parrots!  We live in their fly-over zone. Not only are they loud and colorful, they too are immigrants, which makes them the consummate Americans. Of course, we’ll have to spend a day at the beach and wallow in the craziness that is Venice.

Come to think of it, I know now exactly what I’m going to show them. I’m going to show them what the New World looks like. It’s called Los Angeles.

Wrangling Dust Bunnies June 20, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Home Front.
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Summer Vacation is here, which means I have nine months of deferred housework to catch up on.  During the school year, I can make excuses for these lapses in basic sanitation, but come June I’m out of school AND excuses.  

The vacuum cleaner has been artfully positioned just inside the front door since the Christmas tree came down.  Think staging.  If anyone just stops by, this gives the illusion that they just interrupted my frenzied cleaning.  To sustain this ruse though, you have to remember to dust the vacuum cleaner itself and drag it around by its leash from time to time.  I have a friend who leaves her vacuum cleaner out so after a family member trips on the trip wire, I mean cord, they’ll become so fed up that THEY do the vacuuming.  I call that a plan.

You have to understand that we have two dogs.  Petey, the one we think is half coyote, sheds fur like a snow blower in Detroit.  Vacuuming, therefore, is our bedrock of home maintenance.  I do get around to vacuuming eventually, and isn’t it really the thought that counts?  

Years back,  I asked my then 13-year-old son, Ian, if he could tidy up the house and vacuum.  We came home and couldn’t believe what a fantastic job he’d done.   When his OCD kicks in, he’s a hard one to beat.  But the next day I started noticing there were cumulous clouds of dust on top of all the lampshades in the living room.  There were also dust drifts on the window sills.  Later, Ian confessed he’d gone out to the garage, gotten the electric-powered leaf blower, and taken it for a quick spin through the house.  The wooden floors looked fabulous, but for the next few months, I felt like I was living inside a snow globe as gravity took its toll. 

So, what am I doing right now?  I’m sitting on the computer with my back to the vacuum.  I’m snubbing it.  It’s not like it’s going anywhere without me, and with Edison urging people to cut back on the consumption of electricity during peak hours, I’m exercising restraint.  I will get to the vacuuming later, as soon as I finish cutting those crop circles in the overgrown lawn out front.  








Teacher Gifts June 17, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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At the end of the school year, when a child comes up to me with that gleam in their eye and says, “Teacher, I got you something special!” I cringe.  After only six years of teaching, I’ve amassed a small cache of “collectables,” which I suspect Chinese children, with their small nimble fingers, have assembled in windowless factories. Collectables that are then shipped to a 99 Cent Store by a school near you and destined for a yard sale even nearer.  

Least I sound jaded, or even worse, greedy, let me make one thing clear.  I love to receive handmade cards from students who profess their undying love for their “favrite techer” and then proceed to misspell my last name.  I carry a poignant letter my student Michelle wrote to me three years ago in case I need a reason to live, or just to survive yard duty.  And I always appreciate those student drawings of me that make me look younger, more glamorous, and skinnier than I ever was or could hope to be.

But what would I really like to receive?  Money!  Alas, cash is crass, so two words then…gift card.  No make that three words…Target gift card!  I can use it for luxury items like food and clothing over the long hot summer when I don’t get paid. This is even more important because of my pets’ uncanny ability to require emergency veterinary care only during the months of July and August.

I’ve been chanting the mantra of Target to my students for years and this year, karma came round.  Now I have a serene smile on my face, not unlike the one on that faux stone garden Buddha at Target.  Never mind that I used the last gift card to buy thank you notes for parents and then hit the $1 section to stock up on student “incentives.”  A gift card is the perfect gift because it provides me with the illusion of having options.  Still not a believer?

Then allow me, like the ghost of Christmas Past, to show you those gifts I’ve received from students past/passed.

First, there are the mugs.  Mountains of mugs.  A variation on the mug is the mug filled with Hershey’s Kisses or Tootsie Roll Pops.  I even received a mug during Teacher Appreciation Week from my school district two years ago.  Of course, no sooner had I received it, then a notice arrived informing me that the mug was to be used “for decorative purposes only” due to its high lead content. The mugs were eventually rounded up and presumably buried in a landfill near you.  

A close second to mugs are all things apple.  Except computers.  It doesn’t help that I don’t particularly like apples. I have bushels of apple pins, jewelry, you name it.  It has limited appeal (a peel?) on eBay due to a glut in apple-themed merchandise.  

Regifting is always popular.  I’ve received numerous clothing items that were brought in, wadded up in plastic bags, with the tags cut off.  One year I received a bat-winged sweater with a plunging neckline in a size that was obviously too small for the student’s mother, and obviously too big for me.  I convinced the student that the sweater was so fancy I didn’t want to wear it to school or the other teachers would be jealous.  Same for all the jewelry I’ve received, including the watch with the broken stem, and all of the sparkly earrings raccoons would salivate over.

And then there was the two-pack of paper toilet seat covers.  Rest assured, this is one gift I’ve received that’s provided the most laughs.  It was obviously “borrowed” from the mother’s place of employment.   Other teachers have suggested I could use them as bathroom passes, wreaths at Christmas, Hawaiian leis, or even as beards for President’s Day!  Leave it to those resourceful teachers to come up with so many creative applications. These are the same people who get giddy when presented with a bag of styrofoam meat trays.

If you multiply these “collectables” over years of  teaching.  Well,  picture the final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.   I did hear of a teacher who saved every student gift she ever received and displayed them in a room of her home.  I’m sure there’s a name for people like that and I’m betting it ends with Syndrome.  But I don’t want that to be my future.  

So, three words.  Target Gift Card.   






Quotation Rotation #3 June 14, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Quotation Rotation.
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“A bunny boiler”Lesley in the UK

A more colorful and cinematic moniker for a female stalker. Inspired by the movie, Fatal Attraction, in which Glenn Close played the one-night stand who refused to take a hint. The movie predated publication of He’s Just Not That Into You, so the character had no choice but to extract revenge on her lover’s family pet.

I first heard, “She’s a bunny boiler,” when I was in England over New Year’s. My friend, Lesley, said it was from some old movie… “Fatal Attraction!” I blurted out. Say no more. I thought it was interesting that it’s an American film, but the phrase has become part of the lexicon across the pond. While in London, I actually saw “bunny boiler” in the newspaper. A well-known playwright had an affair with a woman he met on-line who’d carefully cultivated this “relationship.” At one point she wrote him, “How do you know I’m not some bunny boiler?” Later, she published a scathing tell-all account of their disappointing encounter. So she WAS a bunny boiler, but no animals were harmed in the making of this very public fiasco.

Photo Credit:  Bunny Boiler by Vermin Inc on Flickr.

Let the “Screwball Games” Begin! June 13, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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The entire school year I’ve tested my students ad nauseam, so what do we do on that last day of school?  We test!  But this test, aka “The Screwball Games,” gives kids the opportunity to show off those all important skills and talents that standardized testing overlooks.   Skills such as the vastly under rated ability to cross your eyes, which sadly I am unable to do.  So each June I’m humbled by these children who only come up to my armpits, yet can cross their eyes, do the splits AND wiggle their ears.    

Students work in small groups and are so eager to participate in this freak show, they actually work cooperatively!  But as the teacher, you must set clear standards for each skill so it can be accurately assessed.  For example, staring intently at your nose is NOT crossing your eyes.  

The “Screwball Games” also provide the opportunity for students to demonstrate overlooked talents, so truly NO child is left behind.  One year four boys came to the front of the class and belched an entire song. That’s got to meet some Listening and Speaking Standard!  Because it’s the last day of school, don’t waste your time on such mundane skills as cartwheels, armpit farts, or being able to do the crab walk.  Encourage kids to go for the gold!  You’d be amazed how many kids can flip their eyelids inside out, or pop entire portions of their bodies out of joint.  Talk about multiple intelligences! 

Want to play?  Here’s how it works.  Students receive the following form:

The Screwball* Games

*screwball- Definition: odd and eccentric

Group Members: 






Who can:

Wiggle their ears?

Do the splits? (in ANY direction)

Sit on the floor with the bottoms of their feet touching while their knees are on the floor?  (you can’t use your hands to push your knees to the floor)

Raise one eyebrow?

Cross their eyes?

Roll their tongue?  aka “Taco Tongue”

Snap their fingers?


Put one foot behind their head?  Two feet?

Separate their fingers two by two?  (Also referred to as the Vulcan greeting!)

Stand on one foot for one minute

Please list any other overlooked talents:


Give students about 20 minutes to meet with their groups so they can each demonstrate their special abilities to the other group members.  Have one person write down the names of those who can. Then have students return to their seats and name a category.  All of the ones who can do it come up front and demonstrate at the same time.  The effect is fantastic!  When all of the them are hopping on one leg while you man the timer, it’s like watching a deranged performance of “River Dance.”  One year I had three students who managed to get their foot behind their head, but failed miserably at getting it out from behind their it.  This required a calm demeanor to extricate them from this rather embarrassing predicament.  Note:  Tell the girls ahead of time to wear pants.

The “Screwball Games’ provides a good hour’s worth of hilarity,  and more importantly, the chance for you to sit back and be entertained.  So let the games begin!




Quotation Rotation #2 June 9, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Quotation Rotation.
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“Having eye sex”Elisse in the OC

When two people exchange deep, meaningful glances while mentally undressing each other.  Best exemplified by the smoldering eye action on CSI Las Vegas between Gil Grissom and Sara Sidle.  If this is only one-sided, it not “having eye sex,” it’s simply leering.  Note:  Not to be confused with “I sex,” which is sex with a narcissist.

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Days… June 7, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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I’m really going to miss this year’s class of students, but I can’t miss them until they’re gone. The calendar screams June and even my students know that the little number at the top of the whiteboard is the number of school days remaining.  Yet there’s still a barrage of tests to administer, report cards to write, not to mention adding those comments to the cums i.e. “This will go down on your permenant record!”  How on earth will I get all this done?  The same way I get into my size 8 jeans.  I’ll just have to squeeze it all in.

The end of the school year is also riddled with assemblies, events, and even more importantly, non-events.  With all this work to do, teachers are looking for time fillers aka time killers.  

Someone wants to demo a sample lesson from the new music curriculum in my class? Come on down!  I know those books are behind my desk somewhere.  I was just too busy ferrying my students to chorus and practicing the recorder to crack them open.  Besides, I’m still suffering from flashbacks involving music lessons from my own childhood.  They include a teacher with tightly curled hair, who played a mean pitch pipe.

There’s a scientist who wants to make a presentation to students about sea otters?  Wait a minute, aren’t they those cute furry little guys who float on their backs and crack open mussels on their bellies?  They’re adorable AND they’re endangered?  Hey, endangered begins with an “e” and so does “educational.”  Pencil me in.

The key to surviving the final weeks of school is to keep students believing, until the last possible minute, that everything they do counts.  If they’re watching a video, you’ve got them convinced you’re grading them on their listening skills.  You can even up the ante, and fill/kill more time, by having them write a summary of the video.  But call it a critique because it sounds more important.  Better yet, have students storyboard the entire video and learn animation, which will especially be valuable if they ever move to Asia.   A really good teacher can shoot students a look that says, “Pay no attention to that man standing behind the curtain!”  while standing atop a student desk and prying staples out of the wall with ruler.

At our school, teachers are told everything must be taken off the walls or covered, so the custodians can “wash” the walls.  I’m sorry, but I haven’t washed the walls in my own house since the last century.  Besides, our classroom ceilings are 12 feet high and the periodic leaks in the plumbing wash away any pesky cobwebs.  The other thing I’m loath to hear is that my classroom will be used for summer school.  Everything must then be covered to minimize dust (as in dusting for fingerprints, because some of your stuff will mysteriously dissapear.)

Packing up the class for summer is akin to striking a movie set without the crew.  Some teachers pop in a video/DVD, dim the lights, and don’t look back unless they hear screams or gunfire.  Then there are those teachers who, usually out of sheer desperation, enlist the help of their students. WARNING! – This is a double-edged sword and someone WILL fall on it.  

Years back I volunteered to help out in a friend’s classroom.  It was the last day of school and the kids kept asking if they could help.  Finally, she acquiesced and what followed is still vividly etched on my mental hard drive. No sooner had she said yes then children swarmed like a plague of locusts and began ripping the butcher paper off the walls. They made soccer hooligans look like a bunch of rank amateurs.  Thank god there was no car in the classroom, or it would have been overturned and set ablaze.  At one point, I looked over and saw the the American flag falling.  I remember thinking that quite possibly, I was witnessing the fall of Western civilization. When all of the paper had been ripped from the walls, the children collapsed on the floor and rolled around in the scraps of paper like pigs in mud.  

There is also the, “Should we have an end-of-the-year party?”  dilemma.  My solution is to have a party on the second to last day of school.  I don’t want to be scraping turquoise cupcake frosting out of the carpet on that memorable last day.  By the end of the year, the cupboard is bare, so if students want a party, they better bring the food.  If they come bearing shrimp chips and Gummi worms, that’s what’s on the menu.  No plates or paper napkins?  Have a student bring back paper towels from the bathroom then show them how to fold and cut them into heart shapes.  It’s never too late to squeeze in a lesson on symmetry and for students to hone their cutting skills with dull, rusty scissors. 

Finally, there are always those kids who ask if you’re going to give them a present.  I blame this on those over-achieving kindergarten and first grade teachers, who are permanently stuck in precious mode.  You can count on them to send the kids off with some insufferably cute keepsake.  This ensures that later in life, their students will use the name of their first-grade teacher as the hint to recall a forgotten computer password.  

By the end of the year, if your students are still asking what you’re going to give them, you’ve failed at instilling the most important lesson of all.  That you’ve already given them the most valuable gift you have to give – your time.  

This said, I do stockpile blank journals from the 99 Cent Store and give them to students the last day of school.  I write my address on the inside cover and tell them if they write me a letter over the summer, I promise to write back.  And I do.  Now some teachers think this is sheer lunacy.  “What about those disgruntled parents?  They’ll know where you live!”  I choose to be an optimist.  I’m sure those shots fired on my street several years back were not intended for me.  A case of mistaken identity, no doubt.  Or teachers envision an even worse scenario.  “You don’t want to have to write letters to your students when you’re on vacation!”  I just smile.

The first year I gave out my address, I even enclosed a stamp in the journal, then waited for the letters to come streaming in.  I waited.  And waited.  The most letters I’ve ever received is three.  The first year I took it personally.  How could my students have forgotten me so quickly?  But now, I realize it’s nothing personal.  My students are just as eager to have a break from school as I am.  Knowing this, I remind myself to treasure my last eight days with them before I send them out the door that final time.

June Mao June 2, 2008

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Quotation Rotation #1 June 1, 2008

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“Being on Elvis time” –  Kristina in Pasadena

An expression best used when you’re so sick, you’ve lost all track of time, and don’t know whether it’s time for Dayquil or Nyquil.

Why Is Horniness Coming Out from My Mom’s Feet? June 1, 2008

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NOTE:   Desperately seeking information on Science Fair projects?  Check out the link at the end of this post.  Jan

Science Fair projects were due Monday with NO exceptions, so I was pleased to see my students lined up outside the class on Monday struggling to get get a grip on their oversized and overpriced presentation boards. American students lag behind the rest of the world in science, so this is serious business.

Teachers had already told students that we didn’t want to see the same old tired projects. After all, they’re third graders now. Time to move beyond the exploding vinegar and food coloring volcano or the emaciated plant that proves plants DO need sunlight. I’d provided an entire bin of books on science fair projects to stoke their imaginations, so I was eager to see what my students had come up with.

I have a cluster of English Language Learners in my classroom, five whose first language is Korean, and five who are native Spanish speakers. Some of my students hear no English once they leave school. Their parents have to ask friends or neighbors to help with translation. My Spanish is muy limitado. My Korean is kim chi.

My job was to sit in a chair at the back of the classroom and listen to each student’s presentation and ask questions. Some students are eager to get up and share. They’re the ones who excelled in show-and-tell in first grade. The shy students tend to stand behind their board, using it as a defacto human shield, and mumble inaudibly. Sometimes it’s all I can do to coax them to show their face.

The presentations began. “How are Crystals Formed?” One boy’s were home grown, the other’s from a kit. The ones from the kit hadn’t formed and the end product looked like an irradiated mashed egg yoke. The student had written under the heading “Results” that he’d followed the directions AND had witnesses to prove it. “Can A Needle Float on Water?” “Where Does a Carrot Store Its Food?” I can’t remember the purpose of one experiment, but it had great photos showing how far you can shoot a liter of soda using a Mentos mint. I made a mental note to buy a pack of Mentos and give this a try.

One of my Korean students – I’ll call her Esther since half the Korean girls in our school are named Esther, was reluctant to present. This is her second year in the U.S. and she’s made amazing progress this year in her ability to speak and write in English. Esther is incredibly bright, artistic, and eager to please. I’d take ten kids just like her in a minute, but like all ELL’s, at times she has difficulty expressing her ideas in English and navigating the intricacies of English grammar.

Esther was the last student to present. She set her board up on the front table for all to see. Without hesitating, I read the title aloud. My eyes widened and my jaw dropped. Could it be? No! I reread it again, this time silently. Oh my god! It said what I thought it said: “Why is Horniness Coming Out from My Mom’s Feet?”

Esther stood beside her board trembling with what I thought was laughter, until I realized she was crying. I thanked my lucky stars that no one in this year’s class had a clue what “horniness” meant. In years past, she would have been teased about this for years to come. No, Esther was crying because she realized her project was so different from everyone else’s. She’s a sensitive child and my heart went out to her. I reminded myself that Hari Kari is a Japanese, not a Korean, response to humiliation and shame. But I had to think quickly to help her save face.

“It seems to me that your mother has some problems with your feet,” was my response. Was that the best I could do?  My mind was racing. Who on earth had translated this for her? Did her mother have feet that looked like a horny toad’s skin? Thank god, she hadn’t provided photographs!  “Let’s see now,” I continued. I ticked off the list of materials, absolutely poker-faced. “Low hills, high hills.” She meant heels, of course. If I didn’t handle this deftly, Esther could spend much of her adult life in therapy dealing with my inability to protect her from the quizzical looks of her classmates.

“You know,”  I announced, “Foot problems can be very serious and I can see that Esther has put a lot of thought into how to solve this very important problem.” I was wearing open-toed sandals and took one off. “Now take my feet for instance.” My students stared wide-eyed at my feet. I might as well have stripped naked.  Third graders don’t even think teachers ever go to the bathroom, let alone have foot issues.

“You’ve seen me put band-aids on my feet when I’m wearing new shoes,” I added, and all of the students nodded. “I’ve even had athlete’s foot,” I offered. I described the symptoms, which some seemed familiar with though they were convinced it was called  “Athlee’s Foot.” All of the boys who play sports, nodded knowingly. Why couldn’t I have athlete’s foot now, when I needed a good visual aid? I looked over and noticed that Esther had stopped crying and was now listening.

I continued reading from her board. “Oh, I see you gave your mother a foot massage,” I said, looking approvingly at Esther. “Everyone loves a foot massage. I bet your mother enjoyed that!” Esther smiled weakly.

I decided it was time to pull out the big guns. These are those memories from your childhood that can only be expunged by retelling them to future generations. “You know, when I was about your age, my mother dropped a heavy mixing bowl on her toe. It got infected and started swelling.” I had them hooked now. “Pus!” a student muttered under his breath. “Yeah, pus,” I confirmed. “It happened on a weekend and my father couldn’t get a hold of the doctor. He didn’t want to take my mom to the hospital cause they didn’t have insurance.” Actually, they did have insurance because my father worked for an insurance company, but I think my parents were reluctant to use it. I know many of my students’ families don’t have insurance so this made for a better story anyways. “Finally, my mother couldn’t stand the pain any more so my dad got a needle.” All eyes were riveted on me now. They knew what was coming.

“I can still remember the sound of my mother screaming as my father slowly poked the needle through her toenail,” I said to audible groans. “But after he did, all of the pus spurted out, and she immediately felt better.” I glanced at the clock. “Oh, look!  It’s time for lunch.” The students sat stunned for a moment then eagerly lined up. I walked them down to the cafeteria. When I got back to the classroom, I folded up Esther’s presentation board up and set it behind my desk.

The rest of the day Esther was in great spirits. Just before dismissal, I remembered that I had a bag of foot care products in the bottom drawer of my desk, a birthday gift from the student whose crystals had refused to grow. The student who had witnesses. I looked through the bag and picked out a bottle of green Cucumber Foot Moisturizing Cream. When the bell rang, I called Esther over to my desk and discretely slipped her the bottle. “For your mother,” I said, smiling. Esther glowed with appreciation. I walked my class downstairs for dismissal, then staggered back to the classroom. I sat back and put my aching feet up on my desk. Boy, did I earn my pay today, I thought.

Note:  If you’re looking for information/ideas for Science Fair projects, a great site to go to is Science Fair Central