C’mon, Spring Breakers!

“Let the wild rumpus start!” Max from Where the Wild Things Are; Maurice Sendak

In an hour or so, the door will burst open and they’ll be here – Kate, Rob, Maggie, and Owen. There aren’t too many downsides of being a snowbird, but the biggie is being away from the kids and grandkids. It’s been three months since we’ve been together, and I’m so overdue for a chance to give and get big hugs and schnoodles.

We love it here in Sarasota, and we love that our kids love it, too. Maggie and Owen, ages eleven and ten, have visited every year of their lives, and they’ve already stored up a list of memories and favorite things to see and do and eat. Usually here at Thanksgiving, they believe that key lime pie is the traditional dessert. For this trip, Owen is already planning his order of pesto pasta at the Italian Grill, and both kids along with Kate and Rob are hoping for a waterside spot at Pop’s where they can watch the boats glide by while they munch on onion rings. The kids know which beach is best for shells, which one for sharks’ teeth, and which one has woman who’ll wind beads and braids into Maggie’s hair. They’re excited to throw their boogie boards in the car and head off for the shore. Hanging out at the pool, going on a bird watch and making a morning donut run with Papa, choosing which shells to keep in their shell jars are all on the must-do list. I’m smart enough to know that the thrill of a vacation at Grandma and Papa’s could fade in a year or two, so right now I’m soaking in every second. (And, yes, I wish the other half of the grandkids and their parents were coming, too.)

Since it’s Spring break, the days will be longer than in November, so we scheduled a sunset party for Sunday night. For a dinner at home, I’ve got hamburgers and brats ready for the grill—easy to use when it doesn’t get dark until nearly eight o’clock. Of course, key lime pie will be the featured dessert.

I’ve made the lemonade, chilling in the fridge along with the beer and wine for the grown-ups, and the cookies are freshly baked. We’ve got chips and dip, shrimp, pineapple, and strawberries. Mike is stationed at the airport, waiting for them to come trooping out, suitcases full of new flip-flops and shorts.

Time to make memories, the 2015 version!


Way to Go, Nancie!

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” William Butler Yeats

Unless you’re a language arts geek like me, I’m guessing you might not know who Nancie Atwell is. This week, I was thrilled to read that Nancie won a one million dollars as the recipient of the first Global Teaching Prize awarded by the Varkey Foundation, an award called the Nobel Prize of Teaching.

So, just who is she? Quite simply, Nancie Atwell is a teacher, and she’s been a mentor-from-afar for decades. Back in ’87, I devoured Nancie’s In the Middle, a book that described just how she established a reading and writing workshop, based on best practices, in her classroom. Later, with the proceeds from her book, she founded the Center for Learning and Teaching, a demonstration school in Edgecomb, Maine, that features small class sizes and a research-based literacy curriculum. Like many teachers nationwide, I’ve found inspiration and practical advice in all of her books. “What would Nancie do?” guided my own teaching, and though I’ve never met her, I posted the news of her award on Facebook the other day as if she were an old friend. My friend Margie commented, “No person influenced me more in my professional life. I read her book and knew what to do.” I couldn’t have said it any better.

Her classroom was my ideal. Choice is the essential ingredient, and the eighth graders read and write what they’ve chosen. In her books, she shows exactly how this happens, how she creates a rich environment where kids are surrounded by good literature and where literary discourse takes center stage. As she said in a recent interview, “There is not an exercise in sight.” Her students are given the time and space to develop as authentic readers and writers, but it’s not a place where anything goes. Nancie has high expectations for herself and her students as well, and, since students’ reading and writing is purposeful, they succeed.

I was never Nancie, not by a long shot, but every August, I reread In the Middle, just to fire me up for the coming school year. When she revised it, I bought the new edition and tweaked what I was doing. Her book Lessons That Change Writers was a godsend to our writing workshops. Of course, Nancie wasn’t the only language arts guru my colleagues and I paid attention to.  But with Nancie’s help and best practices research as our guide, we  plugged away year after year.

We read aloud to our eighth graders. Their collective groan when I’d close the book and say, “That’s where we’ll start up again tomorrow” was music. Our students read about twenty-five books a year with sustained silent reading a daily ritual. I’d often peek up from my own book and smile at the sight of twenty-five or so teenagers, some hunched over at their desks, some sprawled on bean bag chairs, some plopped into an old loveseat in the back of my room – every one of them with their noses in books they’d chosen to read. We teachers read young adult books ourselves and we built classroom libraries with good stuff that kids wanted to read. They read Gary Paulsen, Neal Shusterman, Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson, and a raft of other authors, and hand-sold them to their friends. When I book-talked a new set of paperbacks I’d acquired, I had to get out of the way of excited fourteen-year-olds scrambling to grab the ones that’d caught their attention.

Our students read, then wrote memoirs, persuasive essays, research reports, public service announcements, letters to authors, poetry, short fiction, compare/ contrast literary analyses. They revised their work.They edited, and most of the time, they spelled “a lot” as two words, but not always. For the feature article unit, a boy interviewed his grandfather. When the author read his final piece at a family dinner, everyone at the table, including Grandpa, was in tears. Another student, a girl named Jasmin, thanked me for helping her write something that became a “family treasure.” I’ve never had a higher compliment.

It’s tempting to wax nostalgic about my teaching career, to gloss over my inconsistencies, my failures, my mistakes. Everything that happened in my classroom was not wonderful. Some of it was terrible. I was certainly no Nancie Atwell. At a National Council of Teachers of English convention, my colleagues and I made sure we were at the front of the line for her standing-room-only session. When she talked about her classroom in her school, a place where she didn’t have the 130 eighth graders we saw in a day, my friend Sue and I were tickled to see that her classroom wasn’t so different from ours. We, too, had writing workshop and reading workshop. We, too, read aloud. Our kids met in literature circles to talk about what they were reading.

That was about a decade ago. It was the Camelot of my career.

It’s not like that anymore.

As I neared retirement, teachers were increasingly being shut out of curricular decisions. State testing, once a weeklong disruption, was expanding, and there were monthly tests to test what would be on the state test. Since then, the calls for “reform”, “accountability”, and “rigor” have become louder, more strident, and more ridiculous.

When I left my own classroom, I spent several years supervising student teachers, and I’ve been in dozens of classrooms, kindergarten through high school. It’s not like it was. No matter how developmentally inappropriate, piles of tests and measures are foisted on kids. Teachers struggle to nurture while marching through the curriculum in lockstep. If the kids are struggling, well, that district assessment will happen on schedule anyway, ready or not. An enrichment project? A special unit on a topic of interest? Reading just for fun? No time.

When CNN interviewed Nancie Atwell, she was asked what advice she’d give to young people considering entering the teaching profession. She answered that she’d advise against going into the public school teaching, saying that teachers are constrained by the Common Core and the emphasis on testing. This doesn’t allow for reflective practice and requires teachers to be technicians who can’t teach in the best way they know.

I loved being a teacher, not a technician, not a data collector, not a test proctor. I will forever be a teacher. Would I steer my grandkids into the profession I love? Probably not, and that breaks my heart.

The Varkey Award honored Nancie for her innovative teaching practices, preparing students to be global citizens, and creating dialogue about the teaching profession. Isn’t it past time for the rest of the teaching profession to be recognized for these qualities as well?

I’ll get off my high horse now, and save my rants for another time. But kudos, Nancie, for all you’ve done to inspire and guide kids and teachers. I owe you big time.





The Marshall Field Way

“To do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, to do some things better than they were done before.” – The Marshall Field and Company idea

A pair of slouching, gum-snapping clerks lean against the counter and complain about their hours while one tosses my purchase in a bag. A stone-faced saleswoman rings up my sale without making eye contact. My “Excuse me, can you help me?” falls on deaf ears. Whenever I’m on the receiving end of bad service, I can’t help but think, it’s not the Marshall Field way.   I mentally travel back to my days at Marshall Field and Company on State Street, the jewel of the city, where I worked after my freshman year of college. A summer hire, I hopped off the bus at the iconic green clock at State and Washington and strode into this retail palace every morning, thrilled to work under the Tiffany mosaic-domed ceiling and to be surrounded by white Corinthian columns and gleaming glass counters that showed off the merchandise I couldn’t dream of owning.

Rarely did girls from my neighborhood shop at Field’s. When it was time for a new Easter dress or socks and underwear, my mother took me to Goldblatt’s or mailed in an order to Montgomery Ward’s. When I was little, my mother took us downtown once or twice on the bus to gape at the Field’s windows and to meet Santa, Mrs. Claus, and their helpers Uncle Mistletoe and Aunt Holly in their Christmas village. In my eyes, this was the real entourage from the North Pole; the guy in the musty suit and the cotton-ball beard at Goldblatt’s was simply a stand-in. When my friends and I were old enough to go downtown on our own, we traipsed through Field’s just to gawk at the Bobbie Brooks coordinates we couldn’t afford, then spent our babysitting money at Sears or Stewarts.

My job at Field’s began with a weeklong training. Before we neophytes could appear on the sales floor, we were indoctrinated into the Marshall Field way, “Give the lady what she wants.” A shopper from Winnetka didn’t have to take her newly-purchased tea towels with her while she lunched in the Walnut Room on seven. She’d see those tea towels at her front door by the next afternoon, delivered by a friendly driver in dark green Field’s truck. Returns? Anything and everything were accepted, no questions asked. A testing lab was on the premises, too, so a product that didn’t wear well could be checked to see if it was Field’s-worthy.

I learned about the Field’s that everyday shoppers didn’t see. The employee cafeteria on the twelfth featured a spectacular view of Lake Michigan. On the thirteenth, the candy factory created the famous Frango mints and the carpentry workshop crafted the magical window displays. The first basement was for bargains, of course, but farther below a couple of subbasements were off-limits to shoppers. On payday, we rode a nearly-hidden escalator to the payment window where a clerk handed us envelopes holding cash. Yes, cash – counted out to the penny. With a twenty percent discount and my department manager’s encouragement to shop during slow times, I struggled to harness my will-power. For years after, I cherished my one splurge — a kelly green wool coat, double-breasted with brass buttons and a Mandarin collar, and the silky Marshall Field’s label sewn inside.

Every summer in the 60’s, Field and Company hired specially-chosen college coeds to help girls heading off to campus choose just their perfect collegiate wardrobes. I wasn’t granted the prestige of a fashion board girl, who wore a specially chosen ensemble deemed just right for college life. That summer, the board girls worked in Carnaby-Street-themed culottes and blazers — black wool with white pinstripes, black tights, and clunky black shoe-boots. A “mod” black hat resembling a British bobby cap was perched on their heads while they sold what girls might really wear – oxford cloth blouses and cable knit sweaters with matching knee socks.

In the towel department where I was assigned, established sales people working on commission lorded over their glass cases, while I approached customers and rang up sales – too many, it seemed. The veterans complained, and I was delegated to the returns desk. I practiced the Marshall Field Way, smiling at every customer and acquiescing to their every request. Brides tossed unwanted gifts on my counter and cashed in, not even bothering to retrieve the handwritten card Aunt Mildred might have signed, still tucked in the tissue paper in the green box. A North Shore matron complained that her towels purchased five years prior were beginning to fray. We took them back. A washcloth whose color that didn’t complement a husband’s eyes? A laundered bath sheet no longer needed? A musty box of linens found on a closet shelf? I gave each lady what she wanted, just like Mr. Field would have expected.

At Marshall Field, I saw a world outside my neighborhood. On lunch breaks, I wandered through every department and lingered over the lovely things we girls from the Southwest Side didn’t own – Pendeleton wool skirts, Pappagallo shoes, Villager dresses in demure floral prints. I rode the elevators where Dorothy Lamour, once a Field’s employee, was discovered by a Hollywood band leader. I people-watched in a quiet, wood-paneled lounge where well-heeled patrons met for conversation and a respite from a day of shopping. There, customers made calls on pay phones surrounded by lacquered wood dividers and perused the collection of phone books from all over the country. My copies of Hawaii and The Grapes of Wrath came from the books department on the third floor and I read them on my bus rides. After work, my friend Sophie, a candy department salesgirl, and I caught the Archer Express and nibbled on a Frango or two she’d bought for us for the ride home.

Toward the end of the summer, the manager tried to woo me away from returning to college. I had a future at Field’s, he said. I passed on his offer. But my Marshal Field skill set stays with me. I appreciate the quality of thick and thirsty Royal Velvet terry cloth, and my linen closet features towels folded the Field way. Like so many Chicagoans, I was disheartened when Field’s was sold to Macy’s, and the fabled customer service and quality took a nosedive. Knowing what good service can be, I don’t easily take “no” for an answer. The snootiest, most demanding shoppers taught me how to get along with some challenging folks I’ve faced during my teaching career. Customer service can be a pretty good way to go, even outside of the big store on State Street.

Drapery Despots

Note: I’ve written a couple pieces about first job experiences. Here’s one of them.

“One should always play fair when one has the winning cards.” Oscar Wilde

“Vhat’s vrong with you? Can’t you add? Vhy don’t you know how to add?” Mr. M shouted at me, waving the offending receipt in my face. I apologized over and over for my addition error that had cost the store ten dollars, wishing he’d simply deduct the amount from my paycheck. But no. When his rant was over, he stomped away in disgust, leaving me to blink back tears.

At sixteen, I was fed up with fifty-cents-an-hour babysitting jobs that barely kept me in transistor radio batteries. I wanted a real job, not one that kept me inside on a Saturday night while my friends were at basketball games or sock hops. Then, Ford City, one of the first indoor malls, opened right in my neighborhood, and I applied at every store. After hearing lots of, “Sorry, but you have no experience,” I landed a job at Drapery Fair. There, I sold bedspreads, curtains, throw rugs, and fuzzy covers for toilet tanks and earned a dollar and twenty-five cents an hour issued in a bonafide paycheck.

Mr. M, the store’s owner, was a barrel-chested little man with a hair-trigger temper. With little provocation, he’d burst into thunderous roars, swearing and screaming in a thick eastern European accent. He oversaw his retail empire from his desk in the stockroom, up a set of stairs into a loft, where he peered through an opening cut into the wall. When he spied something not to his liking, he bellowed out orders – “You! No standing around!”– and sent everyone below him scrambling. He owned three stores, so he left ours in the hands of a mild-mannered manager most of the time, but when the boss was in the house, everyone was on high alert. “I’m not paying you damn girls to do nothing,” he said, so even if there were no customers, I scuttled about, folding rugs, straightening and restraightening shelves.

After my arithmetic error, I meticulously checked and rechecked my computations on every receipt. But before long I became the target of his wrath again. One evening, business was slow, and at the end of the night, Mr. M came down from his perch in the stockroom, grabbed the handwritten receipts from the spindle, and compared the amount in the cash drawer with the evening’s sales. Suddenly he was roaring.

“Ve’re short fifty dollars! Vhat happened?”

I froze. Don’t let him find a mistake made by me, I pleaded silently. He studied every receipt and grilled me and the other employee on duty, but we had nothing to say to solve the mystery.

“Did anyone get near the cash drawer?” he demanded. “Did you let someone steal from it?”

Then, I recalled that earlier a couple of guys had come in to buy a throw rug. Rarely did men shop here, but these two made a hasty selection, and I wrote up the transaction. After I figured out the amount due, one of them handed me some cash. The register’s drawer opened, I reached in to make change, the guy handed me two fives to swap with the ten he’d already given me, dropping the bills to the floor. I picked up the dropped money, gave them their change, and off they went. Now, it all seemed odd, and a knot formed in my stomach. Could this have been the cause of the money shortage? I told Mr. M what happened.

“Those bastards stole from you! They took money out of the register! You looked away from the drawer when it’s open! Vhat vere you thinking!” he bellowed. “Were they black? I don’t want any of them in my store! Go out in the mall! Find them!” and he pointed to the door, sending me scurrying to look for the bandits. I didn’t even get the chance to tell him that no, they were not black.

My face burning, my heart hammering, I darted around the mall. Certainly the culprits were long gone by now, and even if I spotted them, what was I going to say? After a while I slunk back to the store, fighting tears. Mr. M’s face turned purple with frustration, and I was sure I’d be fired.

“Never use the register again! You can’t be trusted!” he shouted, his voice now hoarse with rage. “Get someone else to ring up your sales. You’re too dumb.”

He continued to berate me, a stupid girl who had been tricked by these con artists. This was the oldest trick in the books. How could I have fallen for the dropped money stunt? Humiliated and guilt-ridden, I apologized and offered to pay him the fifty dollars, but he scornfully waved me away. “I don’t vant your money!” he shouted.

On my next work day, the manager assured me that the thieves targeted young, inexperienced clerks. But what the boss decreed was the law. He forbade me from ringing up transactions, requiring me to ask another employee to do it, while customers whom I’d helped with merchandise waited and wondered why I wouldn’t complete their sale. It was only when this system became inconvenient for everyone that Mr. M lifted the sanction.

Mr. M was a tyrant and a racist, but a part of me respected a man who’d built a business from nothing… an immigrant who peddled household goods from a cart on Maxwell Street before he acquired a store. This couldn’t be said for his sixteen-year-old son Richard, the heir apparent who often came in once in a while with his father, to learn the business. In black horn-rimmed glasses and with his dark hair slicked back, he swaggered around, berating employees young and old, issuing orders while he sat perched on the counter at the cash register. He bragged nonstop about all things Richard – his car, his girlfriends — while doling out disdain for everyone, including a fiftyish widow making minimum wage. All of us, even the store manager, were under his command. “I own this place,” he’d boast. One of his favorite rants was aimed at his “stupid” teachers. What a waste of time school was! After all, why would he, a business owner, need an education? While he sneered at my plans for college, I kept quiet while inwardly seething at his obnoxiousness.

Richard’s cockiness was one thing; his racism that mimicked his father’s was another. At that time, Chicago was a hotbed of racial tension. Schools were segregated, neighborhoods were white or black only, and protests and riots were often in the headlines. Ford City Mall rarely had minority customers, but one evening, a black couple entered the store. I waited on them while Richard hovered nearby, arms crossed, scowling. When the customer handed me a MasterCard, a relatively new method of payment, Richard took over. “Let me see that card,” he insisted, snatching it away from me. He then made a show of scrutinizing the card, checking it against the list of bad card numbers posted near the register, a list he’d never consulted before. When no number matched, Richard dialed the MasterCard help line. “I need to check to see if this is a valid card,” he barked into the phone. All the while he glared at the man and woman, who stood patiently at the counter. When he got off the phone, he demanded an i.d. Glowering, Richard inspected the man’s driver’s license. Finally, finally, he completed the sale and the couple left with their purchase.

All the while, I stood by and watched the couple endure this treatment. Why didn’t I speak up? Why didn’t I follow the couple out of the store and apologize for Richard’s behavior? Why didn’t I tell Richard what I thought of him? Why didn’t I complain to his father? My own humiliation at the hands of the store owner and his son seemed so trivial after witnessing what this couple sustained, but I didn’t say a thing.

Drapery Fair is long gone, and so is Mr. M, I imagine. The high school girl who wouldn’t speak out has developed as stronger backbone since then. But what about Richard? He’s far from young, and that big retail chain, his name emblazoned in neon, never materialized. Maybe he ended up selling curtain rings or tissue holders in a big box store, or folding towels in the back room of Walmart. Maybe he had a boss who mocked him because of his untidy mattress pad display or his inattention to toilet bowl brush inventory. Did he ever become a decent human being? One can only hope.

Strolling Siesta

There’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shore, no matter how many times it’s sent away.” – Sarah Kay

Back in Illinois, my grandkids texted picture of themselves in unzipped fleeces, eating cups of frozen yogurt at the Riverwalk. My sister sent a picture of crocus leaves popping out from a patch of melting snow. At long last, there are signs of spring in the Midwest.

Spring has come to Sarasota, too. There’s bumper-to-bumper traffic on Siesta Key, but we are smart enough to get there early. Our very own Siesta Beach has been chosen Trip Advisor’s Number One Travelers’ Choice beach in the country, and we know that we better get there early if we want to do more than troll the parking lot.

While the lot gets full, the beach never does. Its broad, vast whiteness opens its arms wide for everyone. There are never too many people on the sand. Four lifeguard stations in circus colors—yellow, red, green, and blue –serve as landmarks at the shoreline, and perky umbrellas of every color bloom where they’re planted.

We never sit at the beach; Mike has no patience for that. So, we walk, 3.5 miles up and back from the red guard chair south to Crescent Beach and the wall with the faded painting of a monkey.

Along the way, I keep my eyes peeled for dolphins and sometimes we spot one or two if we’re lucky. Pelicans dive bomb for fish. Platoons of plovers, their black pompadours rustling in the breeze, stand at attention and await flying orders from their squawking leader. Hyperactive sandpipers on toothpick legs poke their beaks into the sand and scamper away from the curls of water that chase them away.

The sea, the sand, the sunshine, the birds…. Sure, I soak this all in. But I’m also checking out everyone else who’s joined our parade along the hard-packed sand. Lots of snowbirds in sherbet-colored Siesta Key regalia are out there, escapees from up North. Old guys plod along in faded tee shirts that announce their college or football affiliations. Women who wore bikinis once upon a time are now encased in serviceable swim suits to camouflage life’s inevitable sags and lumps. Toddlers are my favorites. Some eye the waves suspiciously; others dash in, hell-bent on adventure. Ruffly-bottomed little girls pick tiny shells from the sand while little boys throw handfuls of the stuff. Mini-architects lug buckets of water from sea to shore. Dads design picture-perfect sandcastles, too engrossed in their project to notice the kids are no longer interested in the construction. Mennonites from Indiana’s farmlands cluster at the shoreline. The wives wade into the gulf, raising the hems of their modest calico dresses out of the waves, while the men in shaggy beards and broad hats look out at the brilliant blue sky.

Bodies beautiful and not-so-much pass us by – steely-eyed joggers, lollygaggers, and meanderers. Speedos and thongs and body art and hard bodies and hairy backs and wrinkly thighs blend together like images in a Chagall. Snatches of conversation drift past us… snippets of family gossip, medical conditions, and business deals. One morning two groups of Italian women crossed paths, and when they overheard their native language, they greeted each other like old pals. “Italia! Italia! Buon giorno!” they cried, hugging each other and laughing.

After an hour or so, we’re back where we started. Siesta Beach sand coats our sunblock-slathered feet like sugar on a jelly donut and perspiration trickles down our spines. Spring at the beach: could life get any better?