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And You Are…?

interacting-with-peopleWe meet in crowded spaces, in off track places, in shadowed halls between sturdy walls. We see each other across rooms, through windows, across streets, and through doorways. Sometimes we are attracted to the strangers we see, and other times they might as well be invisible. But one thing is true: we meet (even in passing) many more people than we actually talk to.

I work retail, and the larger part of my job is to meet new people, even if it’s just a quick “Good morning,” or “Yes, the ice cube trays are in Aisle C23.” And I’ll admit with each person I meet during the course of my day I want to ask them “And you are…?”

They all know my name. It’s on my name tag. Some of them even call me by name, as if they are familiar with me, as if they are my friends instead of mere acquaintances. So I am at a disadvantage from the outset, but that doesn’t stop me from being my authentic self. Because in some respects I was tailor made to work retail. I am outgoing.

It is this outgoing nature that aids me well in my “day job,” teaching English at a local community college. Except, instead of meeting people in passing, teaching offers me the opportunity to form connections over the course of a semester with 75 students. I know all of their names from the start. The difficult part is just matching those names to faces.

And I love both forms of communication: talking to anonymous strangers for mere moments at a time in one job, and communicating closely over a semester with students who look to me for expertise in the other. It’s a complicated dance between who I am in one place and who I am in the other, but I’m still the same person, still the same personality.

We meet so many people every single day, even if we don’t realize it most of the time. What kind of an impression do we make on others? What kind of an impression do they make on us? Sometimes we never find out what they really think of us, and that’s okay, but imagine if life was like Tinder. Think what it would be like if we could glance at someone and know how they felt about us with one theoretical swipe.

And you are…?

Sam

Kid A

ignoremeIn this age of immediacy, we crave constant feedback. We send a text message, then we stare at our phones, readily expecting them to vibrate, to ding, to acknowledge a response of some sort from the person we swear must be on the other end of the tenuous connection. We post a tweet, then we hold our breaths waiting for that first person to retweet it, for that spark of communication that tells us we have been accepted.

Because it really is all about acceptance, isn’t it?

When I was in elementary school, at gym time there was always this anxiety. That’s because the gym teacher would put us in a long, thin line, and pick two kids who were suddenly team captains. Then they, in turn, would pick each kid one by one that they wanted on their team. Inevitably I was last, or second to last (thank god for that kid with the inhaler), and my self-esteem would take a massive hit. Each and every time.

Just for once I wanted to be Kid A. I wanted to look up in surprise as my name was called before anyone else’s, to raise my hands in triumph. But it never happened. So I began to hate gym class. I began to get acid in the pit of my stomach when I thought about it. That was no way to live. And yet, here and now, there is a new kind of acid we get in our stomachs, and this new social revolution is to blame. Or maybe it is we who are to blame.

Because we all want to be Kid A. How many likes did our latest Facebook post get? Who else is sharing our Spotify playlists? Why haven’t our friends texted us back within five seconds? Is something wrong? Is their house on fire? Have they *gasp* left their phone behind to melt in the flames?! We finally exhale when our phones eventually vibrate, telling us everything is still right with the world. Telling us we aren’t last to be picked for a kickball team.

Patience is a thing of the past. Why can’t it happen now? Why can’t we be loved now? Now, now, now! If it doesn’t happen now then it’s irrelevant. If we can’t get instant feedback it means our lives are meaningless. Maybe it’s time we take a breath without holding it, just to feel it go through us, to feel how calm we can be when we’re not living between moments. We don’t have to be the top dog, the best in class, the one with the most likes. We can be our original selves and be okay.

Sam

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It’s nice to be a fly on the wall here sometimes, because I can hear the most interesting things. This morning, for example, the girls are getting ready for school, which is usually an individual experience, with one zigging while the other one zags. But this morning they were in the bathroom at the same time, having a conversation.

Maddie: Close door.
Lexi: You want to close the door?
Maddie: I want to close door.
Lexi: But I want it open.
Maddie: No. Close door.
Lexi: Can’t we compromise?
Maddie: Huh?
Lexi: Compromise. You know, when we both can get some of what we want.
Maddie: I want to close door.
Lexi: And I want to keep it open. Soooooo, we can keep it halfway open.
Maddie: Half way. [She eases the door halfway closed, measuring it like a pro.]
Lexi: Yes. Just like that. It’s called compromise. Can you say compromise?
Maddie: Com pise.
Lexi: That’s pretty good Maddie. Now say the middle. Com-pro-mise.
Maddie: Com-po-mise.
Lexi: Great Maddie! [The sisters hug.]
Maddie: Com-po-mise! [She begins to close the door more, giggling.]
Lexi: Nooooo, Maddie. When we are in our new house we will have our own rooms, and I will sometimes keep my door closed. You can keep your door closed too.
Maddie: Own room!
Lexi: Yes, and when it’s just your door, you can do anything you want with it.
Maddie: Anything I want.
Lexi: Anything! Well, except slam it and stuff. But you can’t come in my room without permission?
Maddie: Mission?
Lexi: Yes, Maddie. If my door is closed you have to knock first.
Maddie: Knock first?
Lexi: Yes, knock, Maddie. You knock, like this [She raps twice on the bathroom door]. And I will ask who it is.

[At this point, of course I am having flashbacks to that Cosby Show episode where Rudy and Vanessa are being taught a similar lesson by their parents. “You say who it is.” “Who it is.”]

Maddie: Who it is?
Lexi: Yes, I’ll ask who it is, and you tell me your name.
Maddie: Mad-uh-lynn.
Lexi: But louder. Scream it because I might not hear you through the door.
Maddie: MAD-UH-LYNN.
Lexi: Just like that. And if I say “come in,” it means you can open the door, come in, and nicely close it behind you. But if I say “not right now,” it means you turn around and nicely walk away.
Maddie: Nicely.
Lexi: Yes, nicely. We can still be nice to each other, even if I don’t want you in my room. That’s why we are going to have our own rooms. And in your room I’ll do the same thing.
Maddie: Knock first. [She knocks on the bathroom door.]
Lexi: Exactly! And you can let me in or tell me nicely to go away too. That’s what’s so cool about having our own rooms.
Maddie: I love new house!
Lexi: Me too! But always remember to knock first.
Maddie: Knock first.
Me: Yeah, it’s time to get ready for school.
Lexi: We’re good. Maddie gets it now.

Sam

english-language-day“I know English,” he tells me. “I was born here in America.”

“Then why don’t you use it correctly?” I want to ask, but I don’t. I don’t because I’m a teacher, and I’m worried that he won’t be receptive to the learning that’s about to take place.

“A lot of people who were born elsewhere can use English better than you can,” I want to say, but I stop myself. It’s not about others. It’s about him, and why he’s so resistant to getting better at the language others will judge him for in the future.

“There’s a difference between knowing English and being able to utilize it correctly in your writing, and we all have work to do that way,” I say instead. I can tell he’s trying to process that. Then he nods, and I know there’s still a chance for this kid.

He is a college freshman. Most of the kids I teach are. I am a writer, but teaching writing is a completely different animal. It takes a patience, a perseverance, an understanding, and a diligence that I’m not sure a lot of other professions have, because semester after semester there are always a few who feel they have nothing left to learn about the language we all love. They are wrong. The key is figuring out how to show them that without wounding their fragile egos.

If it’s in the dictionary that means I can use it.

The kids I teach today learned how to write using text messages and emojis. It has been an integral part of their world since day one, and auto-correct is their king. If auto-correct changes something they go with it, regardless of how ridiculous it sounds. If spell check says the word is “its” they’re going to rock with “its” until the day they die, no matter the circumstance.

“If it’s in the dictionary that means I can use it,” she tells me, turning her phone to show me that urbandictionary.com backs her up. I’m afraid to tell her that urbandictionary is not a real dictionary, that its words are largely made up and its definitions are wholly untenable.

“The dictionary has certain colloquialisms in it that, while they’re used in informal speech, have no place in formal writing,” I say, instead of telling her that she’s bowing down to a false idol.

grammar_timeI’ve learned a fascinating truth over the course of teaching for 10 years: It’s very difficult to teach people something they already feel they know. Learned habits and grammatical mistakes are compounded because they don’t listen when something is explained the correct way. They believe that having English as a first language makes them experts when it doesn’t. It hinders a lot more than it helps, especially in the classroom when I’m trying to remind them how to construct complete sentences.

I fell in love with English because of its complexity. I knew from an early age that the language identified as national by our country was a complete behemoth, that in order to tame it I would have to focus and understand just as much about the pitfalls as I did about the correct usage. I was enchanted by its idiosyncrasies and thought that to be its master would take a lifetime. It does.That’s because English is constantly changing, even from the time these college students were children to now.

“You know what I meant,” he says when he once again fails to capitalize the word “I.” And he’s right. I definitely knew what he meant, but that won’t help him when he does it on a cover letter for his dream job and that letter gets quickly recycled.

It doesn’t care that you learned English as a first language if you don’t use it correctly.

Because the beast that is English grammar cares not two whits about intention. It only cares about what resides on the page, what was actually written down. It doesn’t care that you learned English as a first language if you don’t use it correctly. And it matters. When there are 300 people applying for 10 jobs, and so many of them are comparable in terms of skills and experience, many resumes and cover letters are weeded out based on errors.

It’s called taking care of and cultivating this glorious language we’ve been entrusted with, not making excuses for why we haven’t done so. That’s why I spend so much time and effort working hard to make sure my students understand how massively important it is to master English, regardless of where you were born.

Sam

Standing Still

a-man-grows-most-tired-while-standing-still-quote-1“Stand still with me.”

Someone once said that the only thing constant is change, which makes absolute sense. We are born, and from that moment we shift, we grow, we change, from day to day, from year to year, and for the rest of our lives. We encounter others who are also growing and changing, becoming their supreme selves, and then shifting some more. It’s fascinating, really, the processes that move us along through this thing called life.

And this universe we live in — it also changes. It moves at a frenetic pace, even if sometimes we seem like snails on its surface, even if at times the clock never seems to move. Somewhere, somehow, things are happening. People are born every millisecond. People die nearly as fast, dropping like flies all over the world. The job market shifts like sand, morphing into new jobs every day, phasing out old jobs that are now irrelevant.

We get older and we realize the things that are most important to us change as well. Friends come and friends go, while some stay around and change with us. Our relationships move and adapt themselves to us or they disappear. Sometimes it’s years later before we understand that anything has happened. That’s how dynamic change always is, in that it sneaks up on us, then blows by us in a whirlwind.

I heard somewhere before that if we’re not moving forward we are just standing still. But that’s not true. It’s impossible to stand still in this world, in this life. When we stand still we are really just moving backwards, perhaps infinitesimally, but true nonetheless. That doesn’t stop us from trying to stand still, from trying to make the world stop for just a second, for just us. So we can exhale.

Sam

Decision Point #2

14117785_859652594165372_7006477255984829209_nI always second guess my decisions. It doesn’t matter how simple they are, or how stress free they should be, or would be for others, I somehow find myself grappling with them long after the outcome is already set in stone. There’s just something about the alternatives that are fascinating to me, the idea that a seemingly simple decision could have far-reaching implications I couldn’t even fathom at the time I made it.

Someone once told me to imagine a decision as a stone, and the future as the surface of a lake. Toss that stone into the center of the lake and you’ll get a different reaction, a different set of ripples, than if you dropped it anywhere else. And then every subsequent decision disturbs those ripples before they can complete their waves, shifting them into other patterns that wouldn’t have been possible if they were created on a quiet lake surface.

So I second guess my decisions. For ages after I’ve made them I expect to be disappointed for various reasons. If a decision I make doesn’t drive me insane with its possible implications it’s a rarity indeed. I find it fascinating, then, that some of my biggest decisions were made without much forethought, that they were manufactured on the fly, and the results have been obviously mixed.

I sometimes wish I could have someone to make my decisions for me. That would accomplish so much. For one I would have someone else to blame if things didn’t work out the way I wanted them to. For another I could rid myself of all the second guessing; if the decision was made by someone else my conscience could be clear. But I could never do that in the end because I would regret not being involved. There really are no shortcuts.

Decision #2 – It’s spring, 2004, and I’m in a room surrounded by other teachers in training. We are here to divvy up assignments for student teaching that we will all complete in the fall. Three of us are English majors, and there are five placements on the table that we need to sort out. We each need two of them, so someone will have to find a second placement, but I’m not thinking about that right now. I’m reading the school district names on the cards in front of me: Remsen, Waterville, Utica, Westmoreland, and Sauquoit. Decisions, decisions.

Quickly Westmoreland was gone. One of my colleagues lives there, so we let him have it. Then Utica and Sauquoit follow as they are close in proximity to the other two. Waterville is 50 minutes away from me, and Remsen closer to 30, but my other colleague lives in Remsen so I resign myself to Waterville, and the long commute. She offers to go there instead, seeing the look on my face, but I decide to let her have her hometown. Little did I know then that my chivalrous attitude would lead to a long term job, and would open me up to getting my own hometown school as a second student teaching placement.

It’s these decisions that shape our future, and Waterville definitely helped to shape mine.

Sam

Decision Point #1

CosmoDNA2When I was young I remember reading a series of books called Choose Your Own Adventure. They were fascinating because they weren’t just by one author, and yet they all carried the same theme, or gimmick — the ability of the reader to determine how the story would unfold. I loved to reach the pages where the choices were outlined for me, to make one decision and move to page 50, or make another and move to page 56.

I never cheated either, going both routes, one after the other. I always took the one path to its inevitable conclusion, whichever page it happened to end up on. And when I was done with that path I was done with the book. I knew some kids who did cheat, who read the entire book, who took every single path. They were gluttonous, probably the same kids who grew up to be in front of me at the Harry Potter book premiere and gave away the ending.

The charm of Choose Your Own Adventure books was that, unlike regular books, the progression seemed like it was my own choice instead of something prescribed by the author. It gave me the feeling that I was in control of the experience, something that was pretty huge in the mid-80s when I first read the books.

It’s the feeling of control that makes me think of my own life, and of the decisions I’ve made along the way that brought me here. I had a conversation with my daughter the other day about how our lives might be drastically different if my wife and I had simply made different decisions along the way, things that might have seemed innocuous at the time but in hindsight were incredibly important.

Decision #1 – In the spring of 2002 I was faced with a difficult choice. Should I make the safe move back to Philadelphia or should I take the risky path to Newport? Everything would hinge on it because while Philadelphia was safe, and had my support system intact, it was five and a half hours away from the woman I knew even at that point that I loved. But in Newport she was the only person I knew. She would be my entire support system, a woman I hadn’t even known existed 8 months before.

I chose Newport, and that changed my life.

Sam

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