Long Story Short: Age requires an evolving perspective

The radio started up when I cranked the car. I caught the last half of Terry Gross’ question for her guest. He was explaining how his father had gotten involved in his new movie project. He said something about Tom Hanks and then, “In my 31 years, I’ve learned…”

I didn’t know whom the radio host was speaking with, but clearly I had missed something. Tom Hanks couldn’t possibly have a 31-year-old son.

Someone else must be staring in a new film called The Great Buck Howard. I was on a mission to get to the bottom of this.

I listened closely.

She called him Colin. He began to tell the oft-told tale of wanting to achieve success on his own – and not rely too much on help from his dad.

Things weren’t adding up right, but as the interview continued, I started trying to do the math in my head.

Was it possible that Tom Hanks could have a 31-year-old son?

Tom Hanks was that youthful protégé dancing on a giant keyboard.

In order to have a 31-year-old child, you had to be older than Tom Hanks, right?

Wrong.

Turns out, Tom Hanks is 53 years old. He’s old enough to have a 31-year-old son.

Age is a funny thing – brought into evolving perspectives by the young and the old.

As the sun was shining earlier this week, my daughters went out to wash the car. I took full advantage of the quiet to plow through a book.

About 15 minutes later, someone knocked on the door. I could tell from where I was sitting the approximate height of the knock. I knew before I opened the door that the odds were high that I would find at least one soaking wet child on the other side.

I was right.

Piper, 7, was soaked from head to toe. Greer, 11, continued washing the car. I wrapped Piper up in a dry towel. We stood on our porch and watched Greer spray the last bubbles of soap off the car. She then walked up the steps and smiled at her younger sister, safely shrouded in a giant towel.

“I’m soaking wet, Greer. You didn’t get wet at all,” Piper said, as her sister passed.

Greer kept walking and replied nonchalantly.

“There comes a point in life, Piper, when you don’t want to get soaking wet from a cold water hose outside – in March.”

And she kept walking.

I was as stunned as I was when I realized Tom Hanks had a 31-year-old son.

I had a daughter old enough not to want to get wet in a water hose? This was the daughter who had never been able to resist a running hose since she could walk.

Soon thereafter, my parents arrived for a short visit and celebration. The occasion was my birthday.

They walked in the door, gave me a hug and said, “We can’t believe we have a 45-year-old daughter.”

Jan Risher’s column, Long Story Short, appears each Sunday. She can be reached at jan@janrisher.com.

Long Story Short: Nourishment for the hungry

She sat there talking to me, and I heard what she said.

“Jan, I think you can get back into teaching if you view teaching as just a job – a job with the summers off. But if you’re going to get back into teaching to do what you can to do make a difference in the lives of your students, then I don’t think you can do it – especially if you’re going to try to teach for ten years. You won’t be able to survive. It will eat you up.”

My friend said words I knew to be true.

I nodded my head. I assured her that I was getting back into teaching as a means to an end. I wanted more time to be with my family. I wanted more time to write. I wanted to be able to leave town when hurricanes headed this way. I wanted to have holidays off.

I already had tried to make a difference. I promised my friend that I would do what I could to be the best teacher I could be, but I was not going to get all involved in the lives of my students.

I was not going to play social worker. I was not going to be a counselor. I was not going to spend free time or money coordinating, plotting and staging elaborate means to improve the chances of engaging students.

I was just going to teach.

I was going to make my plans, teach my classes and leave all of that stuff in the classroom when the bell rang and it was time to go home.

I promised my friend that I could do it.

Nine weeks back into my teaching career, I have one word for all of those intentions.

Ha.

The factors that led to backtracking on my word don’t need much clarification, but they were crystallized for me Tuesday morning as I walked around the classroom working with students on an upcoming project. I caught a glimpse of a student’s binder. She had decorated the cover with curly-cues and arabesques and a surprising handwritten Bible verse that started with, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him….” While the remainder of the verse is up for interpretation, the part about feeding the hungry struck a chord. While my students are hardly my enemies (at least for now), so many of them are so hungry.

When I relayed my observation to another friend, she asked, “You mean for food or something else?”

My answer is that while many are hungry for food – for a variety of reasons starting with the simple fact that they’re teenagers, most of them are hungry for anything nourishing – food and beyond. Many of them don’t recognize the hunger, but it’s painfully obvious.

Feeding all of that is impossible. Attempting to do too much would, as my friend pointed out, suck the life right out of a person.

However, learning the details of some of the lives my students are leading and the choices they’re forced to make takes my breath away.

I know I can’t feed all of that, but I can offer a nourishing tidbit every now and then. My friend was right when she said that teaching can “eat you up,” but I also know it’s my responsibility – like any other teacher (or anyone else, for that matter) — to do what I can do to make the world a better place.

I’m under no illusions. I know I may make little to no difference, but what kind of place would the world be if we didn’t try?

(Jan Risher’s column appears Sundays. She promises loyal readers that this will be the last teaching column for a while. E-mail her your thoughts at jan@janrisher.com.)

Long Story Short: Morning Person’s Revenge

Give Benjamin Franklin his due. He did many great things.

But, his famous saying “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” has offended me since I was a child.

First of all, I knew it wasn’t true. I went to grade school two blocks from a poultry processing plant. Most of the workers arrived by 5 a.m. Few, if any, were wealthy, and there were plenty or reasons to believe an equally low percentage to be wise or healthy.

Let’s face it. The world is divided into two distinct camps: morning people and night people.

Sadly for those of us who love the nighttime, the morning people have always had more influence. Most of the modern world operates on their clock. Dear ol’ Benny Franklin, with all of his morning ways, played a role in coming up with the ultimate morning person’s revenge: daylight-saving time.

While he did not come up with the actual idea of switching clocks back, he did plant the seed way back in 1784 when, as the U.S. envoy to France, he anonymously published a letter mocking the Parisians for not making better use of daylight.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind morning people. My disdain is reserved for the ones like Mr. Franklin with their if-I’m-up-you-should-be-too attitude.

Seldom do they have respect or understanding of the magic and occasional genius that happens during late-night hours.

More than 100 years after dear Benny suggested everyone should rise with him, an English morning-do-gooder named William Willett went for an early morning ride. He was dismayed by the number of his neighbors who weren’t up to appreciate the morning sun.

He also hated his late afternoon game of golf getting cut short by dusk. So, in 1907, Willett proposed the ingenious idea of moving the clock up an hour during summer. To this day, the English call it Summer Time. Somehow, people across the globe went along with Willett’s crazy notion.

The U.S. adopted daylight-saving time in 1918.

There have been a slew of recent studies, which offer proof that DST doesn’t save any energy or prevent accidents but, just like sheep, every year we move our clocks up in the spring and back in the fall.

There’s another saying by another great American named Shel Silverstein: “If you’re an early bird, be an early early bird. If you’re a worm, sleep late.”

Jan Risher can be reached at jan@janrisher.com.

Long Story Short: A lack of impression makes an impression

Six weeks into my new teaching gig, I’ll openly admit that I didn’t notice her when she walked in my classroom Thursday morning.

In the way Lafayette’s block schedule is situated, individual high school classes meet every other day. Which means, every other week, I only see half of my students twice. With the recent holidays, I hadn’t seen this student’s class but three times in the last two weeks.

On Thursday, they were taking a test. When she finished, she didn’t raise her hand for me to come by and pick up her test. She, like several other students, just laid her head on her desk waiting for the rest of the students to finish.

I walked around the room, collected a few tests and then went to the front to observe.

That’s when I looked at her.

She wasn’t doing anything wrong.

I just happened to notice her as I surveyed the classroom.

When I got to her face, I stopped. And I had the same scary thought that I’ve had at least one other time in the past two weeks: “I don’t remember ever seeing that face before.”

She isn’t a squeaky wheel or a shining star. She hasn’t exhausted my energies and coping mechanisms. She hasn’t startled me with some stroke of brilliance. She hasn’t made me laugh. Her mother hasn’t called. She hasn’t told me about the books she loves to read or the late hours she works at the grocery store.

Sadly, in the hubbub of my trying to learn the names of more than 180 students, Thursday morning was the first time I remember actually focusing on her.

I stood there and felt ashamed.

I was her teacher. I should be her mentor. I should know something about her.

But I didn’t.

I didn’t even know her name.

While trying to find my way to the surface in the overwhelming tidal wave of forms to fill out, papers to grade and lessons to prepare, I had missed that one.

Clearly, now that her lack of impression has made an impression on me, I’ll do what I can to get to know her. I believe there’s a reason she caught my eye.

But in the big picture of being a teacher, that isn’t what troubles me. As I stood in front of her class, I knew that she wasn’t the only one I had missed.

Don’t get me wrong. I know different students connect with different teachers. Even so, I believe it’s a teacher’s responsibility to do what he or she can to lay the groundwork for a relationship.

Thankfully, that part comes easy with many students. And then there are those students who — in spite of their militant ignorance — challenge a teacher’s natural instinct to break down that wall and rekindle some warmth where a heart used to be.

And then, there are the rest of them.

The ones like the girl I saw Thursday.

They don’t win the essay contests. They don’t make the all-star softball team. They don’t get elected to the spring formal court. They probably don’t even go to the dance.

She and her like most likely wouldn’t fit any criteria for special services at school. No one in particular is looking out for them.

Even in the fray of today’s public school, she and so many other countless non-squeaky wheels in countless classrooms in countless schools across the country are not getting left behind.

But.

She certainly is not getting the attention she deserves.

(E-mail Jan at jan@janrisher.com or leave a comment here about this column.)

Long Story Short: A swing’s story

For a swing to be properly enjoyed, you need at least two people.

One to swing. One to push or sit beside you.

That feeling of flying through the air, with the wind swapping directions, is almost always good for the heart.

Last week, as I stood in my backyard and pushed my daughter and her friend in the porch swing my husband hung on a giant branch of a Live Oak tree, I thought about the simplicity and joy tied up in a swing.

Even though those two seven-year-olds own enough toys to fill a Subaru, swinging – an ancient form of entertainment – worked better in eliciting joy than any techno gadget.

My father made the swing out of a cedar tree Katrina knocked down, but the girls didn’t need an appreciation of its origins to recognize its magic.

As I pushed the little girls, I thought of the swings I had known when I was about their age.

I don’t know who hung the old tire swing from the oak tree on the east side of my grandparents’ yard, but it was the first swing I loved.

Between the masses of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents, my cousins and I got ample opportunity to climb atop the tire swing and enjoy the mesmerizing back and forth, back and forth. We always had to make sure not to go catawampus or the swing would hit the tree.

When the tire swing was in use by the kids, adults usually occupied the porch swing. However, in the long run, we all spent plenty of time in the porch swing, as well.

When I was six, I remember sitting there with my grandfather as he peeled a green apple for us to share. He’d give me the peeling to let me toss in the air and see what letter it landed in. The letter was supposed to be the first initial of my future husband. Either way, my grandfather would then slice long slivers of the apple.

A few years later, after my grandfather passed away, and my grandmother was at the beginning of what became a 15-year decline, she and I were sitting in the same swing. I must have said something about wishing someone was there to push us. My grandmother stood up behind the swing on the edge of the porch and began to try to push me in the swing. She was teetering backwards about to fall off the porch when my mother came out the front door and almost panicked. She yelled, “Jan, why are you letting your grandmother do that? She’ll fall and hurt herself.”

It was a horrible, yet defining moment. I remember, as it was happening, thinking that it wasn’t a good idea for my grandmother to stand behind the swing, but I thought she was old enough to know and who was I to say?

Until then, my grandmother had been the adult in our relationship. I was probably about 10 at the time. Suddenly, I realized things had changed. My grandmother wasn’t the same anymore.

Looking back, the realization seems rather harsh. Certainly back then, my mother and I knew things were about to change even more, but neither of us could imagine the length and pain of my grandmother’s mental decline. Even then, I think, on some level, my grandmother realized it too. As sad as that realization was, I remember the immediate subsequent moments as being OK.

My mom, grandmother and I sat down. I don’t remember us saying much of anything. We just let the swing’s slow back and forth comfort us all.

Jan Risher’s column, Long Story Short, appears on Sunday. She can be reached at jan@janrisher.com.