Tag Archives: friendship

Lessons From Search Bombing

Image blatantly stolen from Ironicmom.com

Some folks are timely with their posts. They write about Christmas on Christmas. Me, not so much.

It has taken me until spring vacation to write about the shenanigans that occurred on April Fool’s Day, when Ironic Mom (Leanne Shirtliffe) and EduClaytion (Clay Morgan) got together and created a hilarious way for bloggers to have a little fun. They call it “Search Bombing” and it involves using Google to type in little things we bloggers know about each other and then intentionally searching for them in an attempt to have them show up on the intended bloggers’ “Most Frequently Searched Terms” lists. And since most bloggers are obsessed with moderately interested about their statistics, it is a fun little way to add a little personalized zing to each other’s pathetic lives spent chained in front of our computer screens.

If you want to know more about Search Bombing, check out this link here. The video kind of explains it all.

The following are terms that I’m pretty sure by which I was intentionally search bombed:

• Lessons in making out with a teacher
• Teachers lessons to dance get me body
• Pictures of hot teacher in Halloween costume
• Giving a cross for a bat mitzvah
• Calgary Calgarah
• The Conclusion for 2011 – kindle and nook almost in a tie
• Pictures of hot girls in graduation hats in space
• I was bullied by my zombie camp counselors
• Teacher fucks puffy coat in elevator
• Did William Golding have any siblings?

Now, people simply have to understand that the post that gets the most views every day is my piece on head lice. Okay, fine. I have an irrational fear about getting head lice. And even thinking about head lice totally freaks me out. That friggin’ post averages 147 hits a day, thus serving as a constant reminder of my neurosis. So I’m not sure I was actually search bombed, but the following are terms that showed up, and they seemed waaaay too detailed and each only registered only one search – which put them on my uber-suspicious list. These searches might have been intentional or not; either way, they are hilarious.

• My kid has head lice. Do I have to do something?
• I was around someone with lice. I use gel and two different hairsprays everyday. Am I ok?
• How do I know it is head lice or just dandruff?
• Has anyone ever tried to blow torch head lice?

So what is the point of today’s blog? I don’t know except to say thank you to Clay and Leanne and Chase and Carl and Jessica and Wendy and Larry and Kathy and Worst Professor Ever… and everyone else who regularly visits my blog enough to know that I loved overnight camp and that I have a thing about people in puffy coats on elevators, that I like to dress kinda slutty for Halloween and that I have a thing for Lord of the Flies.  Thank you for making my first year in the bloggersphere so memorable, for introducing me to your friends, and for letting me sit at the cool kids’ table at lunch.

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What the “Huck”?

Traditional raft, from 1884 edition of Adventu...

Image via Wikipedia

A few months ago, I wrote a tirade about the Alabama publisher who took The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and “sanitized” it because school teachers confessed they felt uncomfortable teaching it in their classes due to the  use of the “n-word.”

I ranted and raved about how wrong it is to alter books and how it sets a dangerous precedent.

I never posted it.

I realize that not everyone will agree with me, but I think much (but certainly not all) of the power in Huckleberry Finn is in Twain’s brilliant use of language and how the plot morphs from a story of one, young, rather selfish boy on a journey to a story about a boy and a man, together, against the world.

There is an incredible irony that engaged readers will pick up on that Jim, the slave, referred to as a “nigger” 219 times during the course of the novel, is the most moral, loving, genuine, forgiving, character in the entire book. He is probably one of the greatest father-figures in American Literature. And, if read correctly Huckleberry Finn stands as one of the strongest condemnations of racism in American literature as Huck recognizes Jim’s humanity and says he would rather go to hell than send Jim back into slavery.

I had written much more – about how it is important to discuss the power of the “n-word,” its origins, and its different contexts in different communities; how it is necessary to challenge students about the casual use of the “n-word,” to get them to consider if it is ever okay to use this word and if so, who can say it, when and under what circumstances.

I caught this bit on Huckleberry Finn and the N-word debate on 60 Minutes and about 7 minutes in, I just knew that this report was saying it better than I ever could. If you ever read Twain’s novel or have kids who read it or might read it, it is worth the next 12 minutes of your time. And if you are an educator, I recommend you see it – first, to think about your methods. Because this is a book where one has to be mindful. But this piece of journalism would be great to show in one’s class to get a real discussion on race relations going.

If you were an English teacher, would you use the version with the original text? Or would you choose the new version where the “n-word” is replaced by the word “slave”? Or would you avoid the discussion on race altogether?

How I Tricked My Book Club Into Writing

Cover of "Bitter is the New Black : Confe...

Cover via Amazon

My neighborhood book club has been going strong for nearly three years. A bunch of women who range in age, profession, religious background, and plenty of other things, we agree that we enjoy the following items (not necessarily in the order they are listed):

1. Periodically getting together at someone’s house (preferably not our own);

2. Eating chocolates;

3. Drinking wine;

4. Chatting it up a bit;

5. Discussing books we might not have otherwise ever picked up.

The last meeting was at my house. This time eleven people showed up for an hour of “eat, booze and schmooze” in the kitchen, and eight stayed to gather on the family room couches to “talk book.” Since the host selects the book, my selection was Jen Lancaster’s Bitter is the New Black : Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass (Or, Why You Should Never Carry A Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office).

Quick summary: Before September 11th, Lancaster worked as an associate vice president for a technology company prior to being laid off. In this capacity she made loads of many and acquired many pairs of shoes. After 9/11, the author whines – incessantly – about being unemployed, her boyfriend/fiancé/husband, Fletch, their neighbors, their pets, and how she can no longer afford the shoes she once used to buy so readily. I liked Lancaster’s wit and rampant narcissism.

And while Lancaster was not for everyone, we agreed the book was snarky and fast-paced: a good choice for February, when knee-deep snow and the winter white skies of Western New York provide enough gloom to make everyone question just how severe our vitamin D deficiencies might be. It’s hard to stay connected to neighbors in the winter; it’s just so friggin’ cold. People walk around with their shoulders up and their heads down. We rush from warm house to warming car. There is little time to casually chat at the mailbox when the wind is stinging your ears and making your eyes tear up. Our little club keeps us connected year round so that we remain in touch with our neighbors, something equally rare these days.

It is up to the host to facilitate discussion, and – big surprise – I have long wanted to infuse a writing exercise into a meeting, so I figured – since this book was devoid of any real literary depth – this was my chance.

“Okay,” I said brightly ,”Remember when Lancaster lists her ‘Jen Commandments’? The little quirks she possesses that people who know her and love her just have to accept?”

A few people nodded. (I had my suspicions that most people didn’t get that far.)

I referred to the text. I didn’t have to; almost no one brings the book to book club.  I could have said anything, but I quoted Lancaster:

I hate holding anything heavier than my purse. If I have something in my hands, I will attempt to trick you into carrying it for me?

A few people snickered then looked semi-spooked as I handed everyone one salmon-colored index card and plopped a pen onto each lap. As I stuck a small, non-threatening bowl in the middle of my tufted ottoman, I said, “I thought it would be kind of fun if each of us wrote one of our own ‘Commandments’ and put it into the bowl. Anonymously, of course. It could be fun to see if we can figure out who goes with what.”

Initially, some people looked panicky and began to protest, but thank goodness the majority was with me. A few women asked for extra index cards. At first, I thought it was because they goofed up, but for some people once the creative juices started flowing, the flood gates could not hold all our estrogen and soon the orange-bowl, index card confessional runneth over. I read the first one aloud:

I always sleep with 3 pillows. This is a need not a want. And, I will always travel with a pillow, even if it necessitates bringing another suitcase.

We laughed, especially because we were so dead wrong with regard to whom was attached to this statement. Surely our quiet, unassuming neighbor could never be so demanding. But there she was, shamelessly nodding her head.

I passed the bowl to my right so someone else could read another book clubber’s words:

If you say you’re going to do something, then just do it. If you talk about something but never get to it, then I start wondering about you.

Hilarious. And so true.

One woman wrote on the front of her card:

I’m in charge of almost everything… (and then on the back) … and I like it that way!

Another neighbor penned:

I obsess about making decisions and my good friends have to listen to me!

Everyone easily guessed mine.

I absolutely hate repetitive noises. If you tap something more than five times, I might have to kill you.

One that stood out was short and direct.

Do not screw up my coffee order.

This, of course, led to a hilarious story about how this neighbor had recently visited a local Starbucks where the barista dared to give her three squirts of vanilla in her mocha latte instead of one. There was hell to pay that morning. 😉 There were other “isms” that were equally excellent. And it was a hoot to hear each woman’s words read aloud. Everyone was honest and enjoyed poking fun at herself, sharing her quirks, her personal truths. As usual, book club was less about the book than it was about people gathering together to get to know each other a little better.

What my book club mates don’t realize is that they are totally screwed. Now that I have seen that they can write (even under pressure), the next time it is my turn to select a book and host, we are sooooooo writing.

Lessons on Slowing Down

Nearly every parent I know has wrestled with deciding how important it is to have their children take Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Parents want their children to have all the opportunities they can get so that they can succeed and be happy in life. (If only happiness could be achieved that easily!) Meanwhile, kids feel the pressure and report feeling exhausted, unhappy and anxious.

People often ask me, as a person who has spent nearly twenty years in the classroom, what I think about AP classes. Should their child take this AP or that AP. And they are often surprised when I respond with a question: “Does your child love French? Because if he doesn’t love it, why would you want him to take the AP which is going to require so much of his time and energy?”

What people (and by people, I mean parents) do not seem to understand is that the demand of an AP class is designed to be similar to a 100-level college class. The difference is that, in high school, that class will likely meet every day – while in college, there is usually an “off-day” where students have time to read and generally better manage coursework.

In RACE TO NOWHERE, filmmakers Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon speak to educators, parents, tweens, and teens about the pressures they face academically and emotionally, and the physical toll these expectations exact. What results is a picture of a fractured educational system that pushes kids to become successful — but at a cost.

During the Post World War II Advanced Placement pilot program, AP courses were designed to draw the top students into a small class of other students who LOVED the material. In 1952, AP classes were designed to be small so teachers could move at an accelerated pace because of the students’ voracious love of the subject matter. The idea was excellent.

Of course, what has happened over time, is that parents have demanded that their children be allowed entry into AP classes because, these days, there is a warped race to create the best college application. (Believe me, parents want those AP’s on their college applications.) So AP class sizes have ballooned, and there is less one-on-one with teachers. And kids who had no business being in an AP in the first place struggle. Because AP classes are hard. Really hard. When the idea was created, I don’t think anyone from the Ford Foundation would have recommended that any one student take five AP courses.

I always tell parents that AP courses are not the be all/end all. When I say this, they look at me like I have five heads. Then they ignore me completely. (I’m telling you, parents don’t like to hear this.)

I truly believe that the point of education is for children to love to learn. When students are getting sick, when they arrive at college unprepared and unmotivated, there is a problem. Students who feel too much pressure to perform, burn out. Feeling the pressure to achieve, students self-medicate, turn to drugs and alcohol as an escape, and sometimes cheat to complete the ever mounting pile of assignments which need to finished – now! From my vantage point, I see kids who are over-scheduled and overtired.

School should be the place where our teens learn about balance. Schools that allow students to skip lunch periods so they can take five Advanced Placement courses have bought into the hype (or caved into parental pressure). And that is sad. Lunch should not be optional. Humans need to stop and eat healthy food (not a bag of chips) to provide their bodies with energy. I don’t care how many times a parent calls and says, “I want my son to take 5 APs.” Administrators need to grow a set and say, “I’m sorry, but we just don’t think that is beneficial to your child.” Students need help learning how to make healthy choices. Sometimes that means they need the school to shield them from demanding parents. And anyway, kids don’t have to be enrolled in a course to take AP tests: a really self-motivated kid who loves to learn should be able to access all the material he needs to prepare him/herself for any AP test.

For the love of Pete, I’m a Tiger Momma. I believe our children need to pick the things they do and do them well. But we need to help guide them to understand they cannot do everything. Our kids need to study hard – absolutely – but they also need to eat. They need to be able to go to the bathroom without worrying they are missing crucial information. And they need to be allowed to tune school out for a while so they can exercise and nurture friendships. They should not be running from this practice to that recital just be sitting on their asses in front of their computers every night.

When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to take regular English, AP English, or  Syracuse University Project Advance (SUPA English). At the time, SUPA was a college curriculum class taught by our own high school instructors who had been trained to teach the course. I worked my butt off in that class, and I did not always excel. I remember getting one paper back with a big fat “D” on it. (Maybe it was a “C,” but in my mind, I remember it as a “D.”) I also remember taking that paper to the library and weeping next to a huge potted plant. I had worked so hard on that paper. And English was the subject in which I was supposed to excel. I did not understand how I could have failed. My ego was battered, but my love for the subject matter made me want to figure things out. I busted my hump in that class. It was truly an amazing experience, and I believe it was the course that best prepared me for college.

When I think back on it, I cannot imagine how grueling it must put in that kind of work into every subject, every day. To me, taking all those APs seems utterly unnecessary. No one has ever asked me: “How many AP courses did you take in high school?” (Well, one pretentious fuck did, but it was after he had polished off an entire bottle of red wine himself.) In fact, many colleges don’t even accept AP credit anymore. It’s true.

So, my recommendation is this: If you’ve got a kid who is interested in some accelerated academic experience, have him/her enroll in a summer course at a real college. That looks good on college applications, too. And the credit might actually transfer somewhere, and it might help transition him or her to the realities of actual college life. Help your child live a balanced life. Have your kid go to summer camp, get a job, plant a garden, try something he/she has never done before. Not for the college application, just because.

In the United States, success has long meant making a lot of money. And the way to do this has traditionally meant attending a great college. But we need to redefine success for children. We have gotten caught up in this “race to nowhere,” as described by Abeles and Congdon. We need to teach our kids to do what they love – not pressure them into taking five AP classes because it will make them look good on paper.

In 2010, over 1.8 million students took over 3.2 million AP tests at about $87 bucks a pop. I’m no mathematician, but even I can tell that some people are taking more than one test. And I’d like to know five years down the line, where those kids are, and if they feel all that pain was worth it.

Check out this clip from the film below. Tell me you don’t want to see it!

Guest Post by Leanna Best: Lessons From Javan

Photo by Travis S. at flickr.com

This narrative was written by Leanna Best, a student in one of my Composition-101 classes held during the Fall-Winter 2010 semester at Monroe Community College.

My aunt’s third child, Javan, was born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his throat. Without air for five minutes, doctors told my aunt that Javan was not going to survive because he had lost too much oxygen. My aunt asked the doctors to try anything they could to help him to regain consciousness. The doctors put him on a respirator where each minute felt like an hour. Amazingly, Javan began breathing independently again, but the doctors told my aunt that Javan would be handicapped for the rest of his life as a result of the brain damage he had suffered. The doctors also told my aunt that Javan’s lifespan would be shorter than normal.

Guest-blogger, Leanna Best

All my aunt wanted was for her son to live, and her wish came true. But the doctors were right, too. Javan is handicapped. He cannot walk, talk, eat, or dress himself. Throughout his life he has always been in a wheelchair. Every few years, Javan has to get a bigger wheelchair because he is still growing. He is now sixteen years old and has been in a wheelchair for his entire life.

Javan has short, dark brown hair. He is very thin, but he is still very heavy. Javan can only wiggle his arms and legs in his black wheelchair, but he does not have enough muscle strength to walk or lift anything; nevertheless, he is a very happy teenager and always has a smile on his face.

Each day, my aunt faces the struggles of having a handicapped son. He has to go to a special school and get special care every day. Each day, my aunt lifts Javan out of his bed, washes him, dresses him, feeds him, and even changes his diaper. She has a huge responsibility and will have to live with this for the rest of her life. As Javan’s body grows, he gets heavier, and lifting him has become challenging. She will always have to worry about her son having a reduced lifespan.

Knowing Javan has made a huge impact in my life because I see how my aunt struggles with my younger cousin. I love him just as I love each of my cousins, and I hate to see him suffer. I hate to see him cry, and I hate not knowing what he is thinking or what he wants us to know. I know it will be extremely hard for my entire family the day he is no longer with us.

I have learned so much from watching what my aunt goes through every day, taking care of Javan. I don’t know if I would be able to do what she does every day without a lot of help. From watching my aunt, I have learned how big a responsibility it is to take care of a special needs child on a daily basis. Javan cannot communicate in words at all; he can only make sounds. My aunt has to try to figure out what he needs or wants on her own. I have seen how hard it is raising children, and I can hardly imagine what it would be like to try to raise a child who cannot clearly communicate in words or gestures.

My aunt is very patient and caring. She gives Javan the care he needs every day. While I like to think that I am good with Javan and enjoy the time I spend with him, I also like taking him home. I don’t think I could handle this type of responsibility every day, along with having four other children to care for.

My whole family loves Javan so much and we would not trade him for anything. My aunt was given this challenge and she has mastered it with lots of love, time, and effort. My wish for my aunt and Javan for 2011 is a simple one: for them to be happy and healthy!

Gratitude From An 11-Year Old

So it’s Thanksgiving. I’ll tell you what I’m grateful for: My son, who decided to take over as today’s guest blogger and gave me a little extra vacation time. I was going to add more, but I think he’s about covered it.

Stuff I’m Thankful for at Eleven Years Old

1. Thanks for my family. They love and support me when I’m in a tough situation.

2. Thanks for life. It keeps me alive.

3. Thanks for friends. Those guys sometimes piss me off, but they are still awesome.

4. Thanks for entertainment. It makes us say: “ooh,” “aah,” and “oh no!”

5. Thanks for books. They help us learn and are great on car rides when you don’t want to get out of the car to do errands. You can say, “Do I have to go in? I’m reading.” That usually works.

6. Thanks for my Dad’s job. Without it we wouldn’t have enough money for everything we have today. Because everyone knows my mom’s job as a teacher doesn’t really pay very much.

7. Thanks for technology. Especially when it works.

8. Thank goodness for a little vacation. No school!

9.  Thanks for blankets: Warmness!

10. Thanks for everything. Except the bad stuff. And luckily, we don’t have too much of that.

What are you thankful for?

Oy Vey: Tips to Non-Jews About Bar & Bat Mitzvah Giving

Not long ago I received an email from my old friend. She sounded kinda panicky:

Renna:

I have been invited to go to a Bat Mitzvah in NYC for a co-worker’s daughter. What do I give? Help!

Jenna 🙂

That Jenna. She brought me right back to October 25, 1979 when I celebrated my own bat mitzvah in Syracuse, New York. Back then, my family attended an uber Orthodox synagogue where it was uncommon for girls to get the full bat mitzvah treatment. My neighbor (and most favorite babysitter) was the first girl at her Conservative temple to become a bat mitzvah, and I was only a few years her junior.

At our ultra-traditional temple, I wasn’t allowed to have a Saturday morning service for my bat-mitzvah; girls had to wait until sundown on Saturday to get things started. I wasn’t allowed to touch the Torah. Or use a pointer. Instead I read from the Book of Ruth, which had been laid on top of the Torah so as to appear that I was reading from the Torah. Mine was a pretty portion. I liked the symbolism of women taking care of other women, and I can still recite the words in Hebrew today.

Thanks to the Reform Movement, today, girls march right up on the bimah, just like their male counterparts. Girls chant their Torah portions beautifully (usually even more melodically than the boys), and congregants have come to celebrate the special days of both sexes with equal parts joy and pride. I was 100% ready for my bat mitzvah. I have always been a quick study when it comes to language, and Hebrew was no exception. Add a tune to the Hebrew, practice that tune a gazillion times, promise me a receptive audience, and hellooooo… let’s just say, I was ready to perform.

This is not the case for everyone. For some kids, preparing for “the big day” is really strenuous. For introverted kids, it can be a real challenge to get up in front of hundreds of people and not only speak but sing or chant in another language! And then there is a d’var torah where – for months – students prepare speeches for the congregation meant to explain not only what their specific Torah portion is literally about, but also what it means symbolically, philosophically, and how they connected to the portion personally. I always say if a child can get through his or her bar/bat mitzvah day, there isn’t anything he/she can’t do. It’s a crash course in language study, philosophy, essay writing, public speaking and etiquette lessons – all rolled into one.

Google Images

For months leading up to my bat mitzvah, people kept asking me what I wanted. When I was 12, the only thing I wanted was a horse, so I just smiled a lot. And anyway, I knew what typical bat mitzvah gifts were. Besides engraved Cross pen sets and Webster’s Dictionaries, everyone I knew got the same thing: money, (to be saved for college) usually in the form of U.S. Savings Bonds. But it wasn’t polite to ask for money, and I would have sounded redonkulous if I had asked someone to buy me a horse.

So what’s the problem?

And why don’t I just answer Jenna?

I don’t know.

These days, I have an 11-year-old (with a bar mitzvah date already set for 20 months away), and suddenly this question is coming up near daily, and I have to be mindful. I don’t want to say the wrong thing or get myself in trouble.

Maybe it’s that bar and bat mitzvahs seem different to me now that I am an adult. These days there is so much more of everything. Everything has gotten super-sized. Even proms and graduation parties have become bigger-er. And b’nai mitzvah “after-parties” can get overblown and seem to have lost what the celebration is supposed to be about.

(Can you visualize me squirming around in my chair? Well, I am positively squirmy, Jenna. I’m sorry. I’m trying.)

Whenever anyone asks me about what is appropriate to give as a gift for a bar or bat mitzvah, I feel weird because there is no short answer. I can’t just say, “Buy him a pair of new pair of jeans,” or “Jewish girls love scented candles” because the bar or bat mitzvah is not like a birthday party celebration but a celebration of arrival through an entryway: an entryway to life as a responsible Jew. It is a spiritual rite of passage that connects one generation to another. Jewish children have studied for seven years, including that one intense year of tutoring to get them prepared for their few hours alone on the bimah.

I thought about Jenna’s email and all my non-Jewish friends who have asked me this same question for years, and I have decided to boldly go where no Jew has gone before: I’m going to suggest what you maybe-might-possibly consider giving (or not giving) to the b’nai mitzvah child.

(*Insert deep breath here.*)

When trying to determine what to give, you have to first ask yourself: How well do I know this person/family? That’s probably the single biggest factor that goes into the decision. You also have to consider how many people are going to attend to event: One adult? Two? The entire family? It matters.

I told Jenna about:

SIGNIFICANT NUMBERS. The #18 in Hebrew means “chai.” (No, not the tea. Stay with me, darlin’.) For those interested in pronunciation, to create the proper sound to recreate the word “chai” you have to know that the “ch” sound something like an elderly man trying to clear his throat of an enormous ball of phlegm. The “ai” rhymes with the word “hi.” If you can put that together, you’ve got it! For all the math teachers out there, each Hebrew letter has a numerical value. Cool right? Kinda like a secret code. The word for “life” in Hebrew is “chai.” The two Hebrew letters that make up the word “chai” are chet and yud. In Gematria (the numerical value of Hebrew letters), chai is equivalent to 8 and yud is equivalent to 10. So “chai” — chet + yud = 18. Giving money in multiples of $18 is symbolic of giving “chai” or life, so Jewish people often give denominations of chai. In our community, children often give $36. But people can get creative and give $100.18; big spenders may give $318 or $418 or $518 depending on whose special day it is and the nature of the relationship between the giver and the receiver. Family members generally give more than the average party-goer. Sometimes people add chai in increments: $18 + $18 = $36 (double chai), $54 = triple chai, $72= quadruple chai, and upwards from there.

(I know that’s a big range, Jenna.)

I explained that when it comes to monetary gifts, City Mice typically give waaaaay more than Country Mice, but I told her not to get hung up on that. While I know some people have said they find it helpful to think of a b’nai mitzvah like a mini-wedding, I don’t think one should think about a b’nai mitzvah like a wedding when it comes to providing a gift for the child. Wedding couples receive gifts because (in theory) they need items to furnish their new home together. Unless you have had a serious heart-to-heart with the parents of the child regarding a specific gift, in general, kids definitely don’t need more stuff.

Traditionally, Jewish people give money to the bar/bat mitzvah child. Why? Because cash is always the right color, the right size, and it goes with everything. (Ba da bump!) On a more serious note, historically the bar mitzvah was a way of helping to establish a young man with some money so that he might eventually be able to afford to make a home for his future wife. Yup, back in the old days, 13-years old boys were starting to think about marriage. These days, parents don’t marry off their sons or daughters quite so young. (We kind of like to keep them around, at least until they finish high school.) But once we move beyond that, the b’nai mitzvah became a way to save money for college. That’s just the way it was. All money went into the bank. Done deal.

Party-goers have told me they don’t like that all the money goes into the bank; they fret that the child gets “no real gift.” Trust me. Jewish children understand that their gift is the party. They get to invite and then enjoy being surrounded by the people who mean the most to them. They understand that the party is in their honor and that it represents all their years of hard work and study. They understand that they are considered adults (by Jewish Law), and as such they can consider how, and to what extent, they plan to carry out the 613 Mitzvot which cover everything that one might ever do during one’s life. And for a few hours, they get to enjoy being the center of attention.

Good lookin’ group. Seriously, we looked good in 1979.

SO WHAT ABOUT GIFT CARDS? People often ask if it is appropriate to give the bar/bat mitzvah child an iTunes card, a piece of jewelry, or a gift card to a favorite store. I’m going waaaay out on a limb on behalf of all Heebs out there and asking you (in the nicest of ways) to please refrain from giving b’nai mitzvah kids gifts or gift cards. Consider this: bar and bat mitzvah celebrations tend to be large, so…well… if even 20 kids give the bar mitzvah boy $25 gift cards to GameStop, that child would have $500 to GameStop. Would you want your son to have $500 in store credit to GameStop? Would you want your daughter to have twenty-five “Juicy Couture” handbags? Or twenty-five pairs of earrings? Probably not. So think of the returns? It is actually emotionally awful for b’nai mitzvah kids to have to decide which earrings or necklaces or handbags to keep and which have to be returned when they know their friends have worked hard to find them “just the right thing.”

I would never be so bold as to speak for everyone, but I believe the idea is to save the money for the child to use later, maybe not for an impending marriage, but for something significant, like a college education or perhaps a future trip to Israel.

I know bonds are no longer en vogue because interest rates have taken a dive (plus one has to have all kinds of information about the kid handy: social security number, address, age, weight, favorite color… well, it’s not quite that bad, but the folks at the bank definitely don’t make it easy to get bonds, that’s for sure), but back in the 1970s when that stack of savings bonds went into the safe deposit box, I didn’t feel upset. I completely understood that the money had been given to me to be saved for a time in my life when I would be able to use it for something important. And as my bonds came ripe, many years later, my husband and I were psyched to be able to use the money to help pay the down payment for our first home!

Okay, so I have pretty much worked poor Jenna up into froth. She just wants to know what to give. Enough already.

THE REAL ANSWER. The real answer is there is no right answer because there is no right or wrong when it comes to gift giving. Jewish parents don’t plan these celebrations hoping to “break even” or “make money.” We plan them to celebrate the years of hard work our children have put in to make it to their special day; because by the time our children make it to their b’nai mitzvah, they have clocked hundreds of after-school and weekend hours learning prayers, blessings, rituals, rites, symbols – even a whole other language while juggling academics, musical instruments, sports, and other extracurricular activities. It really is quite an accomplishment.

And the party isn’t supposed to be a “Phew, we’re done!” moment. The day is supposed to mark a beginning. The ceremony signifies the crossing from childhood into young adulthood and the emerging responsibility to fulfill the commandments and obligations identified with the Torah, the sacred laws and teachings written on parchment by hand in Hebrew.

Bottom line, when it comes to gift giving, you give from the heart. If you are invited to a b’nai mitzvah, know that the people who invited you really want you there. They really do. People should never give more than they are comfortable giving. Invited guests shouldn’t feel like they are competing with anyone with regard to what they give. But the best gift really is a check. I know, to some people, writing a check seems like a cold, impersonal gift, but if the day really is about transitioning into adulthood, well… it only makes sense that part of the event involves learning about deferring gratification and learning fiscal responsibility (even if the bar/bat mitzvah parents aren’t practicing for the moment).

I know. I know, Jenna. I haven’t answered you.

You still want to know how much.

I don’t know, sweetie. I mean, I have a number in mind but … I’m just not comfortable.

We’re a complicated people, Jenna.

Oy.

That’s my take. What do you think is an appropriate gift to give to a bar or bat mitzvah?

tweet me @rasjacobson

Stuck Behind a Bus

photo by Thomas Hawk @ flickr.com

Ever been stuck at a red light behind a school bus? Of course you have. You know that moment when the kids suddenly realize, Hey! We’re not moving! And there’s a car back there with a person in it! And then they all start frantically waving?

It’s definitely a decision moment.

There are non-wavers who live among us.

I just don’t happen to be one of them.

Recently I found myself stuck behind a school bus, facing The Rowdy Boys, and I had one of those flashback moments a la Wayne’s World when I remembered my time spent at the back of the bus. These days, most school buses (in these parts anyway) have two parallel rows and an aisle with an emergency safety exit in the back; in the 1970s-80s, on the buses at my district’s alma mater, the back seat of the bus was one long row that extended from one side of the bus to the other. (If there were ever an emergency, I think we were supposed to kick out the rear window with our feet and jump out.) Or something.

A “walker” from kindergarten until fifth grade, I wasn’t introduced to school bus culture until middle school. In sixth grade, I made sure to sit in the front of the bus — close to the driver, but by eighth grade, I was definitely back seat material. I was soooo cool, wearing my cool jeans that pressed against the aged, red cushion where generations of cool kids sat before me. I sat with the smokers and the naughty girls and the angry boys. I read graffiti scribbled on the walls, watched people carve their initials into the metal bus walls, felt the bus move and sway beneath me. We tried to figure out the lyrics to The Sugar Hill Gang‘s “Rappers Delight.” We exchanged dirty jokes. We made plans to hang-out out after school.

But the bus I trailed the other day was peopled with elementary school aged innocents who smiled and laughed  and acted like goofballs, making faces and sticking out tongues. Separated by a little metal, glass, and asphalt, they probably felt like I did in eighth grade: Cool. Maybe a little bit naughty. Waving to a stranger in her car? What would their mommies say?

I made them work for it a little bit. They flapped their arms furiously, and I smiled. Eventually, just before the light turned green, I waved. Because I always wave back. And, of course, they loved it. I saw them whooping it up, high-fiving each other, as if they’d placed bets on whether or not I’d return their advances. (Maybe I am underestimating those elementary schoolers. Maybe they did place bets! Maybe that kid in the red Old Navy shirt won a lot of money because I actually waved.)

For kids, the bus is a buffer, a zone between the world of school and home, and the ride serves a dual purpose. It is a convenience (read: Mom doesn’t always have to be the chauffeur), but the bus-ride also provides time for kids to mentally shift gears from school — the land of increasing independence and increasing work and increasing expectations — and home, the land of dependence, where they are not the boss and there is homework to be done and sports to prepare for and instruments to practice and parents who still want to hear about every detail of the day, even if the kids themselves aren’t interested in sharing.

When you see kids on a bus, know they are between worlds. Time-traveling, if you will. And, if you are stuck behind a bus and the kids actually recognize your acknowledge in a positive manner, be glad. Just like adults, some of them have had fabulous days filled with glitter-glue and rainbows. But some of them have had lousy days. Dark days. Days where they have been mistreated and misunderstood. Maybe they have been bullied or made to feel small.

I say everyone should wave to kids on school buses; it’s such a little gesture, a little reaching out. It doesn’t cost anything, and it can bring so much joy.  Oh, but here’s a quick tip; only do the waving thing if the kids initiate it first. Otherwise, you’re just a creepy dork in the car behind the bus.

What do you remember from your school bus days?

“Out of The Closet” by Chrissy Teague

This piece was written by a former student from Monroe Community College, Crissy Teague. She is one smart, beautiful, tough cookie.

image from google.com

Everything I own in the world fits behind two locked closet doors. Last year I divorced, got fired and denied for unemployment. My nine-year old  and I moved back home with my mother. I felt lost. What could I control? I could take care of what little I owned. I locked away clothes, movies, CD’s, shoes, video games and hygiene products. No one would borrow or damage what was “mine.” It belonged to me. My thirteen year-old sister would no longer take my clothes without asking, not even the dirty ones — (I locked the hamper up too). Everything changed, but I would be  in control of my little world.

Then, my son threw two mega fits while we accompanied my mother to the mall. He first cried when I refused his request for a certain video game. Telling him to “put it on his Christmas list,” or “we can’t afford it because Mommy’s not working,” or “you hardly play the the your other Wii games” did not make the tears subside. Mega fit number two came when I gave him a caramel rice cake topped with peanut butter to snack on. His lack of gratitude, and double dose of tears in two hours resulted in up a “starving kids in Africa” speech.

Fuming, I sat arms crossed. How could my child be so ungrateful? Why is he so selfish/self-centered? After a few moments I realized, this behavior is learned: Narcissism as taught by me. I remembered my belongings under lock and key. I’ve been doing this all wrong. Not just training my child, but living. My new conviction: God did not breathe life into me so I could horde pleasures for myself then die, an empty existence.

guest blogger, Crissy Teague

The little I own in the closets now seems like too much. It’s time to come out of the closets. I will give to my local community. I will go through my movies/video games and donate to local orphanages. My son has extra toys, books to give to a daycare, or hospital children’s wing, or library. A dozen fancy dresses and shoes can go to the Fairy Godmother project. Instead of spending nights indoors watching movies, my son and I will volunteer. It is better to give than to receive. I’m going to give my son a rich legacy—a legacy of giving to others.

What are you holding onto that might benefit someone else? Needs have never been greater. What better time to give than now? You may feel like you don’t have much. I understand. I’m a jobless single mother coming out of two closets. I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to give. I challenge you to do what you can. Our relatives, our friends, our neighbors need us. The quality of community is in our hands. Who knows the outcome? The life you change may be your own.

Moving Up Day Speech by Melanie Ward

This speech was delivered by Melanie Ward, Principal of Mendon Center Elementary School on June 22, 2010 on its annual Moving Up Day Ceremony which occurs on the last day of school. As in any good speech, the speaker’s words have resonance not only for the graduates but for all audience members, and I asked Mrs. Ward for permission to share her words here, for parents to consider: How well do we, as adults, heed the advice of an elementary school principal to her graduating students?

I am pleased to be able to say a few remarks, and share some of my thinking with you on this, your last day at [our school]. As we prepare to move you up to the middle schools, it is natural to think a little bit about your experiences in elementary school. You have worked hard and accomplished much in your time here.

You have learned how to read and to write; you have become proficient at math, learned how to think like scientists, and have become acquainted with many of the world’s regions, customs, and history in your social studies lessons. You have created beautiful pieces of art, performed musically, and learned much about physical fitness and wellness. You found the Gingerbread Man and set butterflies free. You played games at the Math Carnival, punched tin, made bread on Pioneer Day, and came through Ellis Island as immigrants. You participated in International Day and Science Day, donated Halloween candy, collected soap and canned goods galore.

Along the way, you have made new friends, and have been taught by many wonderful teachers.

Most importantly, I think, you have learned what it means to be a responsible and respectful people – good citizens of your school and your community.

No matter what subjects your teachers taught you over the years, what they were most concerned about was helping each one of you to become the best person you could be.

Our job here is done – we’ve taught you all that we have the time and the days to teach you and – for the most part – you have learned our lessons well. Before we let you go, however, I hope you will allow me this one last opportunity to give you some advice to take with you to the middle school.

1) Work hard. Things won’t always come easily to you, and they shouldn’t. What is worth learning is worth working hard for. Don’t let frustration get the best of you – persevere, ask for help, keep trying. The payoff will be great.
2) Be humble. Yes, you are smart. You are talented. You are athletic. You are a lot of great things. But so are a lot of other people. Be humble about your accomplishments and be quick to compliment others’ on theirs. You will be respected and appreciated by others for this attitude.
3) Smile. That one seems silly perhaps, but it is important. Maintaining a positive attitude – or faking it when necessary – will go a long way towards helping you to make new friends and feeling good about yourself. You’ll be amazed at how much better the world looks – and how the world looks at you – when you have a smile on your face.
4) Be courteous and respectful. Towards adults, towards your peers, towards yourself. Good manners and a respectful attitude will take you far in this world.
5. Get involved. Find extracurricular activities that you are interested in and get involved. Don’t worry if you are the only one of your group of friends interested in joining a particular club or activity. If that activity truly interests you, go for it. You are likely to meet new friends who share a common interest with you – and have some fun along the way.
6. Follow the “golden rule” – do unto others what you would have them do unto you. There is no more important rule to live your life by. It is also a very general rule, so here are some more specifics to help you as you continue your journey:

If you open it, close it.
If you turn it on, turn it off.
If you unlock it, lock it up.
If you break it, admit it.
If you can’t fix it, call someone who can.
If you borrow it, return it.
If you value it, take care of it.
If you make a mess, clean it up.
If you move it, put it back.
If it belongs to someone else, get permission to use it.
If you don’t know how to operate it, leave it alone.
If it’s none of your business, stay out of it.
If what you have to say will brighten someone’s day, say it!
If what you have to say will hurt somebody, don’t say it!
If something isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it.
If you think you know it all, look around and see how little you really know.

Fifth graders, you leave here having learned a lot, but you have much more to learn in the years ahead. Be willing to keep on learning – from your teachers, coaches, parents and friends. Maintain a positive attitude, a helpful disposition, a willingness to try new experiences. Keep reading, be helpful, clean your rooms, practice your instruments, be good to each other, and keep smiling.

What advice would you give to kids entering middle schools/Jr. High schools in the fall?