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I have always been very fond of the song from the Mad Hatter's Party from the film on Alice in Wonderland.  After all, we have 364 ( or 365) of these to celebrate each year.  Today is the last unbirthday of this my 60th year.  I have just a few thoughts I wish to offer today.  Since most who will encounter this will not commemorating a natal anniversary, perhaps we can share our celebration of our joint unbirthday.  If however you are one of the less than a third of a percent for whom this day is significant, you have my sympathies, for you share the day with Richard Wagner, whose music may be glorious but who as a person was not particularly nice.  Still, that lets you give the day more honor on your own account.

For the rest of us, please join me in my brief reflection. Tomorrow I will offer a different kind of reflection, but for now let me like Scarlett O'Hara and not worry about tomorrow.

Each morning when we awaken we are offered an opportunity.  It can be a day of blessing or a day of cursing.  Unlike most of my unbirthdays, I will have far more time to reflect today than usual, even though as a Monday it is a school day.  In Maryland today commences our week of mandatory High School Assessments.   We will offer tests the next four days.  Today will be English, with our 10th graders being assessed, plus any upperclassmen who have not previously sat for the test.  Since the other seniors are now finished except for graduation exercises, the only students I will see in 5 of my classes are about 3 juniors total, I will not be teaching.  Students will be tested periods 1-5, and eat lunch period 6.  My last class is period 7 (out of 8), but I cannot really impose instruction on the 16 who will be present.  I will listen to music, read, and reflect.  

On the one hand today will be a blessing. There will be no stress whatsoever.  And yet I delight in interacting with my students, so there will be some sadness that I will not have that opportunity.  It will be a strange day, which will not pass quickly.  And yet, I shall enjoy the relaxed nature.  I prefer to focus on the opportunity for reflection, so that will be a blessing.

Tomorrow I will see those students not sitting for Algebra.  Most of my AP students will show, which will keep my morning busy.  Wednesday is our course, Government, and all but two of the students in my first 5 classes will be taking the test, one class in a room with me supervising.  For Thursday's biology test I will see a pattern like today -  about half of my students will be out of class.  For those two days I cannot really instruct, although tomorrow will be one last time to answer any questions or concerns they may have about the Government test and Thursday can be used to debrief.

This is the last year that this test will not have high stakes.   For now the graduation requirement is that students pass the course and sit for the test.  Their scaled score will appear on their transcripts, but that meaningless piece of information has no real consequences for them.  How they do does affect our school, and to a degree defines how much flexibility I and the other teachers are allowed.   We traditionally have scores significantly higher than any other school in our district.  I will be shocked if any of my AP students does not reach the cut score, and probably 70-75% of the regular students will pass as well, with those not achieving success correlating heavily with those who do not do the assigned work.  I know that they have hd the opportunity to be well prepared, so I won't obsess over how they do.  Not this year.  I could be looking ahead 12 months and worrying about next year's students, but that would take away the pleasure of this year, so I will not.  And that test is two days away, on my first unbirthday of my 61st year, so concern now is inappropriate, and would be a futile expenditure of emotional resources, since there is little I can do about it now.

How does one celebrate an unbirthday? Or put another way, borrowing form the Pesach liturgy of Judaism, why is this day different from all other days?  I don't yet know, although I am sure it will be different, just as each of my students is different.  Think about that for a moment  -  I teach 153 students, and were they all to show up each of the 180 school days, I would have something over 27,000 student-day encounters each academic year.  If in a class of 30 one student is out the dynamics of that class are changed, however subtly.  Given field trips, illnesses, college visits, athletic events, the possible mix within one classroom is amazing.   And even if every day all the students show up, they are different, each with one additional day's experience brought with them to our joint encounter.  And I am different, because my life has been enrich with another day's experience: whatever I have read, what I have been able to reflect upon and process form the previous day, whatever i encounter in the few hours between when I awaken and students walk into my classroom.

Those of you reading this have most likely encountered it on a blog largely devoted to politics.  In our political concerns we too often are consumed by our focus on a specific forthcoming event, or obsessing about what could have been different about some event in the past, even if in the latter case we avoid the quicksand of elaborate conspiracy theories.  Those professionally involved in the political process, as many of us at least in part are,  often find our days consumed with minutiae of campaigning, fund raising, legislating, communicating, and so on.  Some candidates may find they have little time for any reflection.  Perhaps this is a day for phoning -- make 50 calls to potential contributors.  Or perhaps there are 6 events in 5 different towns during the space of 12 hours.  How is this day different from all other days, you might well ask with a certain sardonic quality.  It is as different as you allow it to be.  One can have a "stump speech" or a set of "talking points" for any subject that might arise.  One can then be smooth in one's response to questions and challenges.  And I think one will fail to connect with the questioner and the other listeners.  It is possible to offer precisely the same information but to do so in a fashion that invites those being addressed in, which acknowledges their presence,which honors the uniqueness of the interchange.  

I teach the same courses 3 times each (my AP and non-AP classes are quite different in content).  In previous years I have on occasion had 6 classes covering roughly the same content, then only real difference being the skill level of the students.  I could easily approach teaching the way I see some politicians approach their public encounters -- how can I minimize the preparation so that I can "get through" what on the surface appears a numbing series of near-identical encounters.  And we can approach our unbirthdays in a similar fashion -- yet another in a series of never-ending workdays.  Our minds  will not be completely in the present, but instead will be thinking back on what we could have done differently, or looking ahead to something we value more.  And thus we will miss something of great value, even a pearl of great price.  Every encounter, every moment, can potentially enliven our existence, enlighten our mind, inspire our hearts.  But only if we are present to the possibility, only if we are willing to be vulnerable to the persons we encounter in each absolutely unique situation.  

This understanding of the need to be present is a major part of many spiritual traditions.  In Christianity we can read of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, or perhaps we can reflect upon the Rule of St. Benedict, where we are urged to treat the ordinary implements of the garden or kitchen with the same respect we tender towards the sacred vessel of the altar.  Those of a Buddhist persuasion have the concept of mindfulness, especially emphasized in teaching of exemplars like the Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Ngat Hanh.  Or we might reflect upon the words offered by Jacob after his dream of the ladder full of ascending and descending angels that "God was in this place and I did not know it."

I am talking about something that may seem simplistic -- that each day, each encounter, each moment, is absolutely unique.  But true simplicity is something difficult for most of us.  Instead of opening ourselves to the possibilities that present themselves to us, we complicate by attempting to analyze, to weigh benefits, to understand as things are happening what it means.  In the process we often miss the true experience available to us.

Please note, I am not arguing against reflection.  This essay exemplifies my strong belief in the importance of each of us taking the time for reflection.  But to that process I would apply the same advice -- when doing reflection, do so with attention, with focus, and open oneself to that experience.

As a teacher I am often operating on multiple levels.  I rarely have the luxury of complete attention to one aspect of what is occurring in my classroom.  I must be aware of the passage of the period and make choices constantly on whether to move on or to remain on an issue just raised.  I am able to do this only because I remain open to what is happening around me, and not solely focused on getting through the material.  While this may seem contradictory to the idea of the practice of the present moment, it is in fact its very essence.  Nothing occurs in isolation, and were I shut down my senses to `avoid distraction" I might well miss the truly teachable moment that leads to real understanding.

Most who read this will consider themselves neither as teachers nor as students, although each of us is constantly cycling between the two roles, and sometimes in the same interaction is both simultaneously.   But I grant that the formal description of the role we fulfill may lead us to believe that we have a responsibility to shut certain stimuli, that it might be irresponsible or rude were we to do otherwise.  Perhaps, and I acknowledge that I am subject to such demands upon my attention and energy.  After all, in this writing about today's unbirthday I am also reflecting on tomorrow's celebration of 60 years of life and the test on the following day.  Recognizing and honoring the uniqueness of each moment does not mean that we ignore interconnectedness -- how would we know something is unique unless we could also see it in the context of other moments, on the surface perhaps greatly similar?  We bring to each encounter the knowledge and experience of the past, and the awareness of the probable future (for we do not know what that will entail). I am suggesting that even as we recognize the interconnectedness, the ongoing flow of time and experience. we leave ourselves open to the absolute uniqueness -- of each moment to be sure, but of each person in that moment, including ourselves.

My favorite Talmudic tale is of Rabbi Eliezer, who was asked when a man should repent.  His response was that a man should repent on the day that he dies.  But, he was then asked, what man knows the day of his death.  His response was that the questioner had grasped the essential point of his remark, and it was precisely why one should repent each day, because I might be the day of his death.

I have spent much of this year reflecting upon my life, past, present and possible future, because tomorrow will mark a significant birthday, my 60th.  And yet, as Rabbi Eliezer would remind me, and as an Epicurean would surely state to justify his focus on wringing the last possible enjoyment of the present, tomorrow may never come.  I have little control of the possibility of tomorrow.  I am aware of its potential, as I should be.  But I have 17 hours left of today, of this, my final unbirthday of my 60th year.  Were I totally focused on the celebration of the morrow, I would deprive myself of the possible celebratory moments of today. I might miss the unique experience open to me because in my first period I will have very few students.

I do not claim wisdom. The experience of 60 years can be enriching and offer the opportunity of openness and wisdom.  But it can also serve as an excuse for closing oneself off, it can be depriving because of the parsimonious attitude of one who sees life as hostile, and threatening, and wants to hold everything close.

Imagine that you like Alice have now gone through the looking glass.  You are at a tea party.  This is not the Twilight Zone.  It is an opportunity.  You can enjoy and celebrate, or you can decide that the festivities over which the Mad Hatter is presiding do not include you.  You can reject the opportunity to celebrate with the vast majority of your fellows this common occasion. I choose celebration.   Today includes us all.   For a few of you, I offer you my wishes for a very happy birthday, and many happy returns.  

For the rest, at this moment I cease to be teacherken and temporarily assume my alter ego of being more than a little nuts, as my students are fond of noting.  I temporarily assume my persona as the Mad Hatter and invite you to join in:

"A very Merry Unbirthday, to us, to us.
A very Merry Unbirthday, to us."

Whether birthday or unbirthday, may your day day be rich and joyous.

Originally posted to teacherken on Mon May 22, 2006 at 04:05 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I'm leaving it all up to you (13+ / 0-)

    what you do with this.  I'm as mad as a hatter, but then you knew that.

    Those who can, do. Those who can do more, TEACH!

    by teacherken on Mon May 22, 2006 at 03:59:13 AM PDT

    •  In ancient times, (0+ / 0-)

      some societies considered the mad among them to be touched by the deity. A type of prophet, if you will, who had extraordinary insight and thus a special role in their communities.

      Thank you for the wonderful unbirthday present. It will be bookmarked and read often.

      "History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, and if faced With courage, need not be lived again.."--Maya Angelou

      by Sharoney on Mon May 22, 2006 at 07:51:46 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  not just ancient (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Sharoney

        but in the Russian Orthodox tradition there is the role of "holy fool" (iurodivny).  The fantastic church in Red Square has a common appellation of St Basil's after the Holy Fool at the time of Ivan the Terrible, the only man who could speak challenging truth to the Ysar and still live.

        In a sense this is a continuity of the biblical tradition of the prophet, whose role was not necessarily predictive but rather to call people to account for their failings.   Thus we have Nathan telling David "you are that man" and we have the prostitute bride and so on.

        I am probably far too rational to fulfill either role, although I often have found myself so much at odds with much that surrounds me that I have wondered.

        Those who can, do. Those who can do more, TEACH!

        by teacherken on Mon May 22, 2006 at 08:04:01 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  This expansion on my rather thin observation (0+ / 0-)

          is why I love, love, love talking to teachers and professors. Thank you. I hope to buy you a drink at YearlyKos to belatedly celebrate your actual birthday.

          "History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, and if faced With courage, need not be lived again.."--Maya Angelou

          by Sharoney on Mon May 22, 2006 at 08:12:16 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  happy un and birthday, teacherken (0+ / 0-)

    i thoroughly enjoyed this diary, and hope you have a lovely day, birthday or unbirthday.... mazel tov!!

  •  Dear TK, (3+ / 0-)

    Your posts are always saturated with wisdom. The kind of wisdom that comes with observation and questioning repeatedly over the course of a lifetime. You are very appreciated here & I especially look forward to what you have to say and the way that you say it.

    In my own life and in the lives of other 'mad hatters' that live in my community (roger's park, chicago) I choose the term eccentric. a friend at work who lives in an upscale community calls us the disenfranchised. Again, I prefer eccentric.

    Thank you for all you do. I wish that there was a teaher in my life today with the wisdom and delightful eccentricity that you display here for us at Kos.

    Best wishes to you,
    scott

  •  worth a second look (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken

    A quick skim tells me I want to read this through carefully at least once, and probably more than that.  So I'm posting so I can find it when the homework rush here at home is over, and because I haven't mastered the bookmark function (ashamed though I am to admit it!).  

    Happy Day to you!

    •  post again when you can ponder (0+ / 0-)

      I will enjoy reading your reflections.

      Those who can, do. Those who can do more, TEACH!

      by teacherken on Mon May 22, 2006 at 04:56:45 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  First of all - a very happy 60th Ken! (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        teacherken

        and may you have many, many more years of blessing those who come in contact with you...

        I wanted to read this diary over again later for the very simple reason that as I was reading it the first time, I realized I was doing what I always do - multi-tasking, with half my attention on this, and the other half split among various other concerns.  Somehow seemed grossly inappropriate for THIS diary!  :-)

        As I read it I certainly saw very clearly the tendency I have (maybe most of us) to have a "busy" mind.  Always, as you say, analyzing, worrying, thinking ahead, or behind, on what I should have done, what I have to do, what may happen, what did happen.   I realize I am rarely full present, in a focused way.  My mind has lost its ability to be still and quiet - it's restless, jumping about, uneasy with stillness.  In fact, I find I really no longer know how to be alone with myself without the stream of mental self-talk beating a refrain.  

        And so, I miss "God".  I miss myself.  I miss the fullness of many people and experiences by simply not focusing my attention fully and completely.  Like seeing through a smoky glass what I could see in vivid color if I only would drop the glass from my eyes.  Looking at just yesterday - I see many examples - the worst of which was half listening to my daughter's very long and detailed recital of the plot line of a book they were reading in school - one I'd read many times as a child, and so, I half paid attention.  And I have no idea what I was half-thinking about instead, as if there could be much more important than that moment of wide-eyed enthusiastic sharing of a story that she loved.  Very sobering to realize.

        There's a wonderful Buddhist teacher here who says that this type of mindfulness of each moment, each person, each opportunity, is the height of Buddhist practice.  I've been meaning to go and talk to and, more importantly, listen to, him, because I realized as he spoke how much I needed to learn to be present.  But, too busy it always seemed - how silly - hard to see that much of what I occupy myself with could be more important.

        Thank you for this.  And again - a very, very happy birthday to you!

        •  thanks (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          American in Kathmandu

          and thanks for your thoughtful comment.  Too badd more won't see it, because it is on yesterday's diary.

          Those who can, do. Those who can do more, TEACH!

          by teacherken on Tue May 23, 2006 at 06:46:08 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  well, that was halfway (0+ / 0-)

            deliberate.  I did see you posted a new one, but this comment belonged with this diary and would have felt out of place somewhat there, I guess.  And, well, it was kinda personal reflections that I typed out both to reinforce the lesson to myself, and more importantly, to let you know that your diary was important to me.  Kinda a one-way comment I guess - not sure others would have gotten much from it.  Just wanted to say thanks!  :-)

  •  TK ... thank you for the reminder (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, FindingMyVoice

    after just putting my 13 yr old on the bus for his first day of "finals" I implored him to just review and do well on the test.  I so wish that I would have read your diary before putting him on the bus ... to remind me to remind him to relax, feel confident and enjoy the exam.  He'll do fine ... not great as today's exam (math) is not his best subject but fine and that's alright.  

    I will now spend the remainder of my day, volunteering at the school and getting ready for a Memorial Day of remembrance to introduce a candidate for Governor to my precinct but will go through the actions with a purpose and since your reminder, attempting to make an impact in anyone's life I encounter.  

    My personal unbirthday wish this day is that my son experiences a teacher/mentor in life like you my dear sir.  You inspire me.  Thank you and Happy unBirthday.

  •  time to reflect -- (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken

    you are so right. i'm finding that the best time for me to do so is while walking my dog. i know it sounds weird, but it's true. (even though i spend half the time making sure she doesn't eat something that's going to require a trip to the vet.)

    there's a rhythm we get into that allows me to be very present in the moment - hearing the birds, watching the pattern of sunlight through the leaves, feeling my breathing, letting my thoughts go where they will. it often sets my mood for the day.

    i've always felt that this "being present" is a big part of the unbirthdays - life is a celebration, and we shouldn't miss those small opportunities to rejoice just because they're not landmark moments.

    a very merry unbirthday to you, tk. and thanks for sharing this.

    "Is the law a law or is it a piece of toast?" -G. Keillor

    by birdbrain64 on Mon May 22, 2006 at 06:53:00 AM PDT

    •  you are welcome -- anytime is a good time (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      birdbrain64

      to meditate or reflect, provided it does not take you away from something of equal or greater importance.  

      I am sometimes grateful when one of our five cats crawls on top of me.   I do not want to disappoint the little creature, but that means so long as s/he wants to stay, whatever I wanted to DO would not be possible.   So absent a real emergency, I will just take advantage of the break and let go for a bit.

      Those who can, do. Those who can do more, TEACH!

      by teacherken on Mon May 22, 2006 at 07:02:07 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  You picked a noble profession sir, (0+ / 0-)

    and a good birthday to you.

    Kick his ass, Jesus (Cartman 3-6) -8.88 -5.08

    by SecondComing on Mon May 22, 2006 at 08:02:10 AM PDT

  •  A very merry unbirthday to all. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken

    Must find cake.

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