Sitting in the Kitchen

(First posted online August 24, 2013)

My Uncle Gordon, (may he rest in peace) was an unassuming man who, on the surface, lived a simple life as a United Methodist minister.  He was not a very good preacher, honestly, but he was a top-notch pastor.  His abilities as a pastoral counselor are somewhat legendary among those that knew him. He had an interesting perspective on joy and sadness.  He said that we all had our favorite things to feel happy or sad about and that we tended to repeat those patterns.  I believe he was right.

He also thought that sometimes we just needed to face up to our sadness and stare it in the face for a bit before we moved on. Sometimes those strokes of sadness come from unexpected directions at unexpected times.  Sometimes you can just work right through them.  But at times, according to Uncle Gordon, we just needed to go sit in the kitchen and do our best “sad” for awhile.  Just go sit down and feel terrible for a bit, long enough to know you are a human being and not some kind of robot.   Cry if you need to.  Get it over with. I think he was right about that too. (True grief can take longer, but it is still something to be worked through. This is not about that.)

I teach a lesson on Elijah sometimes in adult Sunday School that was inspired by my Uncle.  He reminded me that when Elijah was calling out to God as he sat in misery under a broom tree that God, when he finally spoke in that still small voice, gave Elijah a list of things to do. If I seem l am happy person it is not because I have no sadness. It is because I give my sadness its chance.  I experience it and thank God that I care enough about someone or something to be sad when it is gone or when it ends in disappointment.  And then I move on.   In truth, emotions are a gift from God, both happiness and sadness.  They are different sides of the same coin. Sadness cannot be successfully avoided, but it can be experienced in a better way.  This seems an odd statement.  But I contend that sadness is to be a part of the life experience and not a way of life. Once you have given sadness its due time  get your to-do list out and get after life again.

Taking the time to experience the  the joy is an important part of moving through life.  One can also get stuck in the joy of a good moment  when it is time to move on to new joyous adventures. Live, experience, and take time to feel lie a human being, whether good or bad. Cherish the ability to care enough to feel. Denying and repressing feelings can lead to a bad end.   But so can wallowing in them.  It is all about balance.

I just had a moment this evening and when I got up from the table I knew I needed to write this down and share.

Coming Back From The Edge (Revised frequently.) .

A friend oClose to the Edge (2)f mine and I were commenting to each other about a mutual acquaintance.  I said that he seemed to be an unusually deep person, someone who had figured out a lot about life.   We all know those people who seem to have it all together.  If not all together, then a whole lot together. She commented, “You know, he has been to the edge of the abyss.” I didn’t know.  In fact, I still don’t know exactly what she was talking about.   But I did steal her phrase.   There seems to be an abyss out there and humans seem to regularly travel towards the edge.  Not always right up to it, perhaps.  But they do move in that direction.   Sometimes, the abyss seems to seek us.

Some people will be living a seemingly charmed life when the worst things come calling.  Sometimes the bad results are self inflicted.  Sometimes not. Sometimes a person may be doing all the right things and all of a sudden some people decide to nail them on to a cross and hang them up for public view and humiliation.  We know this.

And, sadly, when they get close, some folks actually do go over the edge in a seemingly irrevocable way.  This essay is about those who return.  Those who make it back react differently than those who are permanently derailed.  Often, it just seems  permanent. At some point the decision must be made to resist the strong winds that blow us back.  Napoleon Hill says, “Remember that the “Kite” of Success generally rises AGAINST the wind of Adversity – not with it!” (Just  a quick reminder that The Happy Rock Way allows you to define “success.”)    If you are going to try defying gravity (I love that song) you are going to face the storm and be lifted instead of holding on and being battered.  Or letting go and being swept away.  This is a pillar of The Happy Rock Way.

When the storm is challenged and beaten the rewards and satisfaction are great.  The growth can be astronomical.  It is earned, however.  This is not a comfy cozy method of growth.   The eventual calm at the eye of the hurricane is worth the price.   But if one escapes into substance abuse or other forms of escape from life we experience the pain without any gain.

There is more about how this process works here.  Please have a look if you are still in a cycle of despair.

As I write this, I have had some occasion to be in touch with a couple of people lately who appear to be getting it back together.  This such a joy.  They are not all the way back, but they are gradually moving in the direction of strength and understanding and away from weakness and confusion.   This isn’t a devotional, but a lot of those who come back in a big way, who seem to be deeper and more solid than life, are those who have a strong religious faith.  I can’t say for certain about other belief systems, but many strong Christians  are indeed made from weak Christians who have been through the fire.   They are not strong in their judgement of others. But they are strong in their own ability to live life to the fullest, to be there when others need them, to give timely advice when asked, and their ability cope with big challenges the way waterfowl cope with rain.  Their faith is like the current of a deep river that flows into everything they do.  This is a wonderful thing to possess, but I can’t imagine that anyone would wish the experiences that lead to this kind of strength on anyone.   It does seem to be the only way to gain this kind of strength.

This has been a very full year for many of us.  I am ready to say goodbye to it and move on.  But I wish everyone a full year of life and the skill and faith to cope with everything that it brings.

Go fly like your kite and find strength in the midst of the storm.

——–>Last Revision 7-27-2015

On Teachers

February 26, 2014 at 12:04am (With subsequent edits.  I am a compulsive reviser.)

As I write this, I am in my thirty fifth year of teaching music in the public schools of Oklahoma.   I have worked in very small school systems which had twenty to thirty students in their senior class.  I have worked for schools that were too small to field a football team.  My current school system is home of the largest high school in our fair state.  My experience includes five years in an urban school system, three of them in an at-risk school has since been closed.  And I have have taught, at one time or other, in grades 1-12.    Never Kindergarten.  Ah well.

I think I am qualified to make some observations about teachers.

If you are down on your luck and need a friend you are in really good shape if your friends are teachers.   They will care and care and help and help to the point of exhaustion.  And, in fact, during the school year many of them care so much they border on collapse much of the time.  They teach all day long, stay late answering emails, entering grades, and getting instructional materials ready for the next day, and then take a pile of papers home to grade.  Or videos to preview.  Or supplemental materials to read and evaluate.  They go home and prepare and eat dinner, talk to their own families, and then grade all those papers etc, and then go to bed.  After they go to bed they lay awake at night worrying about their students and how they are going to get them to learn anything.

They are teachers 24/7.   It is literally amazing that, to my knowledge, no one has ever been slapped silly after telling a teacher that they are lucky they only have to work nine months out of the year.  The fact that this has not happened also says a lot about teachers.  They would really rather avoid confrontation if they can because no one learns anything when there is fighting.  And even though you might not get slapped, you should (pardon my manners) really shut up about the thirty hours per week and summers off thing.

Teachers, are, at the center of it, all about doing what they can to teach students what they need to know.  I watched a teacher in the workroom in an urban middle school prepare a handout.  She was making a hand copy of a page from a workbook the school would not buy for her class.  This was in the old days of the evil spirit duplicator.  She carefully wrote out all the questions in long hand and then even drew in the attractive graphic in the upper right hand corner.    Then she ran it off for her students.  I noted that it seemed a little easy for middle school.  She said, “This is where my kids are so this is what we are going to work on.”  I was so impressed!

Many teachers, especially in elementary school, spend a lot of time in their rooms over the summer getting it ready for class.  Posters on the wall, things hanging from the ceiling…. Little by little they turn the entire room into a 3D work of art.   (I have no skill at this, being a music teacher, and I am constantly in awe.)  But students will learn better in a friendly environment, so they go to school in their “summers off” and make this happen.

Experienced teachers also have an amazing skill which is somewhat hard to label.  There are so many demands placed upon them to do things a certain way or to implement someone’s new idea of “the next big thing” that teachers must learn how to get their student’s taught in spite of all the education-ese garbage (nice way of saying it) that comes their way.   They have had to deal with Madeline Hunter, Marzano, New Math, Old Math, Thinking Skills, Outcome Based Education (Oh, that was a real winner!), No Child Left Behind, and now No Child’s Behind Left Untested (also called Common Core and many other things by teachers in private).    And they still manage to teach students to read, write, be nice, stay in line, and have a semblance of good manners.

No, not everyone learns all of these things, but if they do learn them it is because a teacher figured out how to teach them, hopefully with a little support from the parents and school system.

This is an example of how it works:   There is a professional development (“training”) meeting.  Teachers are given a large bag of oranges and some little cups and are told to go make lemonade for their students.   In a normal office people would throw a fit and point out that the bags were “full of oranges!! Hello?!?”  The teachers will send looks around the room and, if they are not facing the speaker, they roll their eyes.  But it is probably more subtle than that. Then they leave the meeting and start talking to each other about what to do.  They go to the grocery store and buy a bunch of lemons (with their own money), judiciously use some red food coloring to dye them orange, and sneak them into their room at school.  And on the appointed day they manage to actually make lemonade out of the “oranges.”  The powers that be rejoice that their idea worked out so well.   The teacher gets back to teaching things that students might even need to know.

If you do not work for a school you should know that the building level administrators are usually just passing the “oranges” down.  They are equally mystified about the purpose of the workshop and the teacher’s creativity and resourcefulness.

Teachers would much rather teach students than call their legislator to complain about education policy or funding.  They think that the work they are doing is important enough that someone else should take responsibility for making sure it gets funded while they give their lives to teaching.   They would rather make lemonade from oranges than confront people about how stupid it is that anyone would even ask them to do such a thing.

When they do get upset about the way things are going they do not always make the best politicians.   This is not what they do.  They teach.   But, if pushed, if classes get too large and the support what they do is just not there, then they will speak up.   As teachers, not as sound-byte politicians.   People should listen and ask questions.  Not try to shut them up by insulting their thirty-hour-a-week-overpaid life and profession.   People should listen to teachers about teaching.   I have heard businessmen get upset about EPA or financial regulations that were made by people who never bothered to ask the businessman for input.  I have heard doctors complain that national health policy is made without asking doctors OR patients.   Ditto for farmers on agriculture policy and economists on economic policy.

I think it would be a good idea to listen to all of the above about their areas of expertise.   And I think it is high time that the political class show teachers some respect for the work they have done teaching children and for the things they have learned about teaching and learning.  Listen to the teachers.  They know more about teaching than Jeb Bush or Bill Gates.  It should not be necessary for teachers to go to Oklahoma City (or any other state capitol or Washington, D.C.) and have a big rally to get this done.  But teachers will go. (See “lemonade” story…)

Some closing thoughts:  I am tired of hearing people say that you can’t solve the problems of public schools by “throwing money at them.”  We have never thrown money at the schools in Oklahoma.  When I first started teaching my superintendent bragged that 80% of the budget was spent on salaries.  Schools in Oklahoma now spend 90% on salaries and run the school with the remaining ten percent.   When I started, schools would normally purchase things like school buses or even build small buildings with general fund or building fund money.  Now even the “rich” schools have to borrow money with school bonds to do that.  And we seem to be getting ready to build storm shelters with borrowed money as well.   And as for all those “raises” for experience, I did some work with an online inflation calculator. (US Bureau of Labor Statistics)  I started teaching in 1978.    My salary was $12,500 per year.   Using an online calculator, I kept increasing the amount to find out how much more I am making now in 1978 dollars.  Guess what?  In 1978 dollars I am making almost exactly $2,000 more than I was when I started teaching.   All of the rest of the “raises” I got just covered the increase in the cost of living.   $2,000 in thirty six years.  (Yes, that’s right,.an average of $55.00 per year in 1978 dollars.)  Other teachers can tell similar stories, I am sure.  All those  experience raises the current crop of reformers are so worried about were mostly cost-of-living raises.

I know…  Since that isn’t insulting enough, let’s make teachers pay more for their retirement, invest their money in a risky market, and ultimately retire on less money.  Even though financial state of the teacher retirement system is improving each year and will be 100% funded in around twenty years.   Higher contribution, more risk, less money for teachers – That is sure to draw more talent into the classroom.  And it is all not needed because our system is improving each year.

Sure, there are some “bad” teachers.  And policemen.  And fireman.  And insurance salesmen.  CEO’s.  Politicians. Dentists.  (!!!)   Mechanics-cable guys-bakers-cooks-preachers andandandand.  But considering the low financial investment we have a lot of darned fine teachers in this state.  It is time we started focusing on them and showing a little appreciation.

I should stop now.

Post Script:  I know that some of this is Oklahoma centric.   Perhaps it will speak to teachers everywhere with their own unique challenges.

The Story of the Happy Rocks .

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The Story of the Happy Rocks

I have been teaching music in public schools for a long time. Long enough that the new teachers were born after I started teaching. As a young teacher I tended to really internalize stress. I don’t think I would have kept at it so long and so happily if I had not learned some ways of dealing with the everyday stress of teaching. Did I say I teach at the middle school level? Some people will notice their stress level going up just communicating with a middle-school-aged student, much less a room full of them. This is about one of those ways of dealing with stress.

 

I am not a visual person, really, but somehow I got the idea, from a lot of different directions, that it wold be good to have something on my desk that was both a relaxing color and perhaps a point of focus when I was having a long day. Our school colors, black and gold, translate into a lot of black and yellow paint. These are stress colors in nature. One of my friends pointed out that this is why these colors are used for crime scene tape.

I can’t really pinpoint the source of this idea. It grew over time after talking to a number of people who are artists, both friends and relatives. I thought maybe some kind of inexpensive gem stone from a hobby store or a crystal (like they sell in the roadside stands on the way to Hot Springs, Arkansas) would be good. I rarely go to hobby stores and then not by myself. And I have never stopped at a roadside stand on the way to Hot Springs. So it didn’t seem likely that I would find anything that I could try out.

 

One day not so very long after I decided this might be something I perhaps might sort of like to try, I was shopping in one of those stores where everything is a dollar. There are a few things I buy there from time to time. And I was walking down the aisle and noticed that they had bags of various kinds of decorative stones for, of course, a dollar. I had a look. These were nothing fancy, obviously, but I did find a bag (almost a pound…) of little round and oval (or oblong) stones with rounded ends that were a blue or aqua color. So I spent a dollar for a bag and another dollar for a little parfait kind of glass to put them in. I put them in the back of my van and, true to my form, forgot about them for awhile.

 

But one day when I was unloading an instrument into my orchestra room at one of my schools I noticed the bag of glass gems and the parfait glass and I took them into my office. There were way more of the rocks (gem stones, glass thingies, whatever) than the parfait glass would hold and I it took less than half of them to fill the glass. I put the rest in a file drawer.

 

I have to say they did look nice and, true enough, it seemed to be a calming color as I had hoped. I don’t really have any decorations on my desk. The pictures of my family sit up on the computer monitor. So it was kind of obvious to anyone who came into my office that there was a parfait glass of aqua colored stones on my desk. They are out of place amidst the clutter and no mistake. I had not thought about how others would react to this, but, sure enough, one day a student asked me, “Mr. Reck, what are those?”

 

I really did not know what they were. Since I am a creative person and crazy enough to teach middle school, there is no way I was going to say that it was a parfait glass with colored stones I bought from the dollar store. Before I even had a chance to think about it, I said, “Those are my happy rocks.”

 

Can I have one?” I hadn’t thought about that, either. Who would have thought that would happen, really? Certainly not me. I took awhile to answer to develop some sense of suspense, and finally said, “I suppose…” And I let the student pick out a rock. This happened more than once. More than twice. The first student brought in a friend to get a Happy Rock. Then both of them brought another friend. And then students I had never seen before found my office (it is really out of the way) and asked for a Happy Rock. So, of course, I had to up the ante and have some fun with it.

 

Eventually, it became sort of a ritual. If there were other students around who already had Happy Rocks they encouraged the student and we were all happy.

 

Mr. Reck, can I have a happy rock?”

Who told you about happy rocks?”

Your orchestra student, _____.”

Hmmmmm….. Well, you know, you don’t actually choose your happy rock, your happy rock chooses you!” (This also just happened one day.) The other students would murmur in agreement after we had been doing this for awhile. “Close your eyes and reach into the Happy Rocks. When you find the one that makes you laugh, that is your Happy Rock.”

 

What if I don’t laugh?”

Someone would say, “Everyone laughs..” This has turned out to be true.

 

And the student would reach into the glass, giggle, and pull out a rock. Some students did not giggle. They laughed out out. Some of the students named them. Some students have told me that they took their happy rock to class when they had a hard test. Some use gender pronouns when they talk about their happy rock. Some of them take them places like all-district band or orchestra auditions. More students who had a Happy Rock bring other students in to get one. So this has moved way beyond the orchestra program.

 

Last summer(2010 as I write this) I taught a class called “Psychology of Performing Music” at the SWOSU (Southwestern Oklahoma State University) band camp. This class is for students who, like me, have had issues with performing in pressure situations. The last day of camp I dumped a bag of rocks purchased just for the occasion on the desk at the front of the room. This, by the way, had been a most excellent and awesome class in every respect. It was a joy to teach. Someone in the class finally asked, “What are those?” “Those are Happy Rocks. You can have one if you like.” Many of the students stopped by and picked one up on their way out. Since then many of them have gotten in touch to tell me that they took their happy rock to all-state and all-district auditions. This has also made me happy.

(Note: As time has progressed, we now tell the Happy Rock Story and and hand out the Happy Rocks as part of a class session. I sing the Happy Rock song while they pass a drawstring bag of Happy Rocks and pick theirs out.)

 

A few weeks ago my wife, a band director whose band room was down the hall in the same school, came into my office and saw the parfait glass on my desk. “What are those?” “Those are my happy rocks!” “Can I have one?” “Sure.” She keeps it on her dresser.

 

There are lots of ways you can use a stone as an object of focus or as something to hold in your hand and “worry”. Someone in the family gave me a worry stone when I was a child, as I recall. I talked about some of these ideas with my camp students when I was visiting with them individually. But for the most part it is just about having something to remind you to think happy thoughts.

 

That is the story so far. Maybe there will be more to say some day.

 

Rob Reck

Tulsa, Oklahoma

February 9, 2011

 

I would like to update this story:  I told a teacher friend of mine that I had a happy rock for her if she wanted one.  She was in the middle of one of those stressful times that happen to music teachers.  We never see each other, but one day we ran into each other so I gave her her happy rock.  She seemed more than glad to get it.  And also one to a member of her family who was with her. (I happened to have some in my coat pocket because the bag broke…)  I can’t remember who said what, but we agreed that it would be cool if I kept some happy rocks with me so that I could spread more joy. I don’t know why I didn’t just think of that.  

 

I keep some in my van most all the time now and I have an old draw string bag with some in it as well.  I gave one away to a friend at the National Memorial in OKC last week.  It made her laugh.  I laughed too.  

 

I’m still working on the song…

 

 

It might seem trivial

But you could do worse

Than to spread some joy

With a rock and verse

 

Well what could it hurt

Who would it shock

To make someone smile with

A Happy Rock

And now, click the link to hear The Happy Rock Song