Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Grown Up Christmas Wish List...

I thought I would try something new. Call it an improvisational entry - a "Second City" of writing, if you will. I have no idea what will spill on to the page, but perhaps that is the point. Forgive me for grammatical mistructures or spelling errors and read for the spirit in my stream of consciousness.

Yes, I have gratitude. Many people in our world are suffering greatly and yet, I have struggled this year too. We all have pain and no pain should ever be deemed greater or lesser than the other, it is in the eye of the beholder. There were so many, many changes that I had no control over this year just like a Sunday snowstorm and it's bitter cold aftermath, my choice was to adjust, accept, and adapt. I did finally manage to accept my circumstances. There is still anger at the injustice of bureaucratic systems its incompetent managers and bosses. However, there is now finally, with some adjustment, an awareness that it is all part of a bigger plan for my life. I should not try to change systems, I should try to change me and model the world that I hope to live in and be part of, precisely because I am grateful.

If there is a lesson from this year's professional struggle, it is not that I, we, shouldn't take risks like leaving the safety of our jobs. But that when we do the outcome may not happen as we gave planned, it is more likely that a different plan will eventually emerge. The truth I have uncovered, is that risk is about faith and the only muscles I need build are those of faith; the surrendering of my will for a greater will, a universal one, is all that I must do. I say "all" with a sigh. Many of you probably know how hard this is to do, but I learned this year that risk has consequences good and bad. I would not make a different decision today from the one I made last December.

Then there is the question of a mother giving her child up at birth and deciding to find her son again: "Baby Lovell." When I was contacted in July, it was not surprizing at all. It didn't matter that I had never once sought her out. When you have benefited and participated in recovery work, like I have, the decision to meet her was never in question. We live, we make mistakes, we forgive; I had to do this as I would want it done for me. As the mom that raised and nurtured me said, "the more love and support, the better." So, I am now in the process of merging two distinct family histories, and this brings new fears and truths that require a stronger faith muscle. The miracle is, that I showed up to meet my history and I am in the process of preparing for my future with its abundance of new information.

Now some thoughts on love. After years of knowing what it wasn't, I have had some experiences with what it is. In a year of darkness and turbulance, there has been a brightness, born of generosity that I have never before experienced. Ironically, a month before this incredibly difficult year began, I started to fall in love with a graceful, dynamic, intelligent, and gifted man. When you meet someone who listens, who instructs, who does not judge, and who has turned disaster into triumph in his or her own life, you simply must love back. For the first time in my life, I simply want to give, not take. Everyone needs a light and I now have one. For this, too, I am grateful. This year a mirror was held up that proved I am imperfectly whole.

So I surrender at years end to the small gestures of joy and grace all around me. I have had to look closer at what might have normally been missed. The help was imeasurable and I know that in no way could I have made it on my own. So to those of you I love and respect, thank you. For those I struggle with, please know you are my greatest teachers; I appreciate you all. Here is my Christmas wish list.

That I remember:

1. Actions are better than reactions.
2. Words are not enough.
3. Every loss brings a new beginning.
4. Foregivness is critical.
5. Fear and faith are incompatible.
6. Gifts are everywhere, often disguised.
7. Growth is slow.
8. Change is the only guarantee.
9. Happiness does not have to involve being right.
10.Love is all I need.

And I must remember because I have received these gifts time and again, to be grateful. Merry Christmas all.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Don't Forget The Kids

It has been so reassuring. Out of the blue one or two past students find me on Facebook or runs into me on the train, and I am riveted with amazing memories. The other day a former student contacted me and it prompted me to reread the over 300 letters I have saved from former students. Put simply, teaching happens when you close the door to your classroom and develop nurturing relationships with your students. I am so grateful, right now especially for these memories, that I wanted to share this letter with you. The writer of the excerpt from this letter written in 2006, has now graduated from the University of Chicago.

Dear Mr. Flaherty,

I keep rereading the letter you have given us and I am more moved and touched each time I read it. I feel that I did not have adequate time to communicate to you before. Very seldom in my life have I been blessed to have met a teacher as humble and inspiring as you. Teachers have always been authority figures for me and there always stood a barrier between us in terms of communication. With you, that barrier was broken and I feel that, more than a teacher, I had a friend in you and a fellow seeker of knowledge. I am a very emotional person and as graduation approaches I am even more fragile; that is why it is difficult for me to express to you in person how appreciative I am of everything you have done for me.

Many teachers have touched my life, but I feel that only you will forever stay in my thoughts because your methods of thinking and your courage have become a part of me. You have lit me up and led me to extract my true identity from the bottom of my soul, where it was hidden for many years. It is because of your instruction that I have come to terms with myself and that I finally accept my place and purpose in the world. I feel that, as a result of the conversatons that took place in our classroom and your personal stories, I have come to participate in the world and to question and challenge the things I am a witness to on a daily basis. I feel that my life is more fulfilled as a result of your teaching. I am no longer afraid to stand up for my ideas and to speak up when I witness something that disturbs me. I have become not only a participant, but also an activist in the world as a result of your influence. It amazes me how you constantly evaluate yourself and your surroundings. I have come to do the same and, although it can be disappointing at times because our world is full of injustices, it is also healthy for my spirit. I cannot thank you enough for the wisdom you have given me and for opening my eyes to the world. You have truly enlightened me. I think that it is becuase of you that I am not afraid to step into the world. Most importantly, I am aware of the danger of silence and the importance of action.

I know that your class has touched more than one individual and I see the evidence every day. My classmates and I never discussed our learning beyond the classroom, yet this year you could hear us talking and participating in discussons that came directly from our Theory of Knowledge classroom. It was the only class that truly had meaning for us. I know we are thankful for the feedback. You made me feel important and have given importance to my work...

How lucky I am to have known this young woman and the many other students who came into my classroom and left more ready for the world.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Letter From a Friend

Life is difficult, but therein lies the reward. As I have faced confusion and anger with all their clumbsy arms and legs as I deal with losing my job, joy has also made an appearance. Friendship. A dear friend helped me out today and reminded me of Emerson's words: For every friend whom he loses for truth, he gains a better.

The letter that follows arrived today:

In essence, Andy, there are five separate issues facing you concurrently (listed below). I think your sanity and salvation will be to effectively keep these overlapping issues separate both in solving them and in your emotional reaction to them. Please do not interpret this to mean that any one of the five is unimportant or not valid; rather, by lessening the burden of holding all five at once, there is a better chance that these heavy-duty concerns will not consume you.

Remember, my analogy is that this situation is similar to having been jabbed with a giant sliver. The wound is festering, infected, nasty. Your job is to honor the pain while figuring out how to extract that sliver. It is okay to say it hurts, it is okay to say that it is unfair that you have this sliver, and it is okay to ask why me.

The issues, as I see them, are:

1. The grief and loss associated with your journey from the classroom through the board of education to unemployment.
2. The feelings of isolation you are experiencing because so few step up to ask how you are or to help you.
3. The overarching social injustice angle, that it seems to be okay that the Board of Education and the Union treat educators as expendable pawns.
4. The aggravation and fear associated with trying to find a job in a career/system that may no longer be the right place in which to work.
5. The aggravation and fear associated with trying to find a job outside the education system when you have no clear path.

I truly believe, my friend, that if you hold all five of these things as one, you will go nuts. Your health depends on your ability to examine and address each of these issues separately; each isue will require non-overlapping and nuanced thinking, networking, and response. But it will take time.

You will get through this. I have faith in you, your talents, your humanity, your resilience.

What I realized as I read this is that to walk the path we talk about in our lives is hard. Life is a complex web of situations, emotions, and thoughts - but friendship holds up a mirror of recognition that gets us through. Again, this wonderful letter's clarity reminds me of Emerson:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth
that around every circle another can be drawn;
that there is no end in nature,
but every end is a beginning;
that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon
and under every deep a lower deep opens.

It is so good to have good friends. The truth that Emerson speaks to is literally the acceptance that nothing is secure. We are perpetually in transition. What gratitude I have!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Dialogue #2 (Week of 7/19/2010)

Very few weeks are like last week. A trip North to the beautiful Apostle Islands, a phone call from the Therapist of my birth mother who would like to see me after 49 years, and my bosses boss saying, "Your position has been cut." All within 24 hours.

My disdain for what I witnessed within the district as an employee of Chicago Public Schools fits perfectly with how it began - chaos and misunderstanding on every level. Not only have I lost even more respect for them, I must seriously reconsider my commitment to an institution that cannot put the needs of children ahead of their own selfish interests in adult game playing and malice. The way our children turn out should not surprise us; they are simply products of what they see modeled by us on a daily basis.

What is strange to me is that I believed so strongly in education only to find out that I probably won't be able to do the work I love. To feel today that what I did does not matter or that my doing it does not matter. Repeatedly I was told I was secure in that I had teacher's status (Coach). Stranger still to realize that teachers have been targeted (in some cases I am glad that they have been)and I will end up having no protection from my Union because the cuts are for "financial reasons" and this takes precedence over what I believed to be true about my rights as a paying member of the Union.

How sad I am today to know that our institutions do not have the courage or strength to do the right thing when it needs to be done. I honestly believe we would not have been in this position of playing Russian Roulette with teachers (you see this cut has nothing to do with me, my writing, my skills, my strengths, my talents, my awards, my many students who come back to praise my work!) if we had long ago found a way to measure the talents of the teachers teaching, to actually evaluate their work and promote them based on excellence. I mean, have we not demanded this from our children with standardized testing? Where is our standardizing the measure of teaching? How dare we not demand it of ourselves. So I guess, ironically, we have no one to blame but ourselves for standing quietly by while teachers we know were not effective were getting the same "superior" ratings as we were. We were silent and now they are coming for some of us who did not speak up and demand justice and equality.

Even sadder, the new ideas for how to evaluate teachers and promote teachers and ultimately student performance in America do nothing to change this. All ideas for reform will find defeat without a sincere effort to build relationships and create atmospheres of healthy competition within our schools.

My employers at the District and School levels have no say and no answers about what has happened to me. How is that possible? I am in the live art of building relationships with teachers and students and the people in charge have never seen, heard, or learned my name? How could I have even been offered the job, a promotion they called it, knowing that less than six months later I would not be kept on or sent back to a school? Why would they actually ask me to become the Interim (another promotion the second month) knowing that I would be asked to leave?

Regarding my birth mother. I have lived and learned that life is very short. My wish for all people is that they do not live with regret. To be open to what this woman (Kay) will bring to my life I am sure will be a never ending gift as she and I attempt to make sense of the past with the knowledge that all has turned out pretty well.

It is clear at this moment that I am about to be part of something much bigger than myself - a woman who gave birth to me is about to re-enter my life. Like two rivers that have come back together after a long separation the shore will shift and refine but land on either side will be safely in reach - new and uncharted but ready for exploration.

The trip north to Bayfield and the islands, perfect. The peace of the lapping water, the expanse of Kaleidescopic sky, the green islands stretching in all directions may have helped prepare me. Mother nature has never been predictable. In fact, she has an amazing capacity for surprize, terror, joy, and peace. But Nature also heals.

What we can learn from her, is perhaps nothing more than the lesson we've forgotten: Her definition of nurturing. What is a nature preserve that does not protect and encourage new growth in the forest? What is an oil company that does not prepare for the consequences of faulty inventions? What is a school that talks about programs, skills, and rights but never remembers to pay attention to the lives in front of them? What is a school without it's teachers and students? The last answer I know - an empty building. Perhaps there is a reason that classroom management is the number one problem facing teachers: civil unrest.

For once in my life I am not sad for me. I am sad for those who do not yet know what I am writting about. Those who stay married to the masters of fear and do not find the courage to live deliberately and with integrity, die spiritually. Once we lose our spirit the body soon follows.

There are many, many uknowns right now. All of us are facing great changes in the world around us. My reality may shift like the sun setting over Lake Superior, but my core commitment to serve children not a beauracracy cannot. There may be only one star tonight, but it is bright, and I will honor it. We must let those that love us, nurture us as we make it back from the woods of confusion to the clear daylight of civilization. So while I rely on nature to sustain me now, I do so with the knowledge that my job is to nurture, to serve.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Dialogue #1

Plato used them wisely. Einstein and Galileo called them thought experiments, but they are in effect quite similar, so why not educators? It all started with a colleague of mine who reminded me of their value in a world that seems to value intellectual property even less. Then I saw a quote:

Fighting against a sense of despair
will only make it worse.
Instead of letting despair feed on itself,
do something
positive and proactive to break
the pattern.

I have recently learned that loving children and education is not enough. Watching television recently, I heard Duncan, Gingrich, and Sharpton pontificate on the subject of school reform knowing that they have not been in classrooms or schools (except for Duncan). Ironically, however, I agreed that accountability is the problem on all levels: teachers, students, parents, and administrators. I wondered all day about how and why our individual solutions get lost in the morass of bureaucracy.

Riding the bus and train this weekend, I saw 23 billboards promoting services, making announcements about new International Baccalaureate (IB) partner schools, and charter schools. When did reform become a matter of publicity? Working in a school daily I see firsthand how many of these initiatives never make it to the child. All these programs have been approved by whom? And when you see them in place the paid employee of the program is often watching a video on his/her computer because there are no students using his/her services.

Having a program does not mean using a program. When did we start teaching programs instead of children? Accountability is great but who decides what accountability is and how it will be measured? Does anybody truly know which program or approach to reform can and/or will work? Who do we trust? Most of us know that we need to invite students daily to learn and that measuring what students have learned begins with a relationship not a practice test. What, then, do we need?

It seems that even if we are not asked directly, to maintain our sanity and our own visions we need to dare to believe our ideas matter. What do you think? Einstein knew that imagination or vision was more important than facts or data. In other words where’s the vision? Where do we want to go? I want to imagine a world where a school or system believes what we do matters and can change the world. Perhaps this is a beginning? Let’s go back to thinking: our minds, ideas, and creativity matter. Let’s begin to dialogue again.

Forget your institution, your school, your classroom, and give yourself permission to think again. Do not despair, repair. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Men and Guns

By Andrew Flaherty

Below the orange glow of your smile
And a surface of promises
Made by hand and mind and heart
Black words rally
Attach themselves again but
Forget to talk, to sign the language
Forget to marry, to unify the mind
With the beating of another heart.
And ammunition lingers
In the cartridge of your gun,
Words wait for triggers
In the nib of my pen
Both fire shots
That tear the
Soul’s corridor ~
Red blood
Black bullets
And ink ~


By Andrew Flaherty

I’ve lost a poem
A seed that I loved
And planted,
Its green leaves
Falling from my memory,
The trunk of paper
I wrote upon is gone.
It spoke of my love
For a singular
Cotton wood tree
That danced a tango
In an old spring garden.
Undressing without shame,
I sat cloaked
And she dabbed
Winter residue
From the corner pockets of my
Hibernating eyes.
As I wrote
She consoled me
As I read
She healed me.
It left me wondering
Where things go when
They slip from our hands,
Left me wondering if all things
Must return to the earth,
If this poem, if all poems
Are underfoot
Long after they blow
Into the wind of our imaginations.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

God's Classroom

Based on a real encounter
By Andrew Flaherty

You don’t expect a Friday afternoon to hold more than the potential for relaxation. But last Friday I was coming down an escalator carrying my briefcase and computer after a long week at a new job when a stranger behind me spoke.

You’ve got a lot of bags there like me. Long day?

I turned slightly to see him and he spoke again.

Oh, I know mine aren’t as fancy as yours but I noticed you carry yours with such confidence.

In my hesitation I recalled that his bags were paper -- probably from a Jewel -- not Tumi. A slight veil of shame descended on me as I looked down at my own bags and the gift I had just purchased with a gift certificate from Christmas. I followed the cadence of the moving stairs to avoid further contact but my heart prevented my escape.

May I ask what you do?
I am a teacher but just left my job to write curriculum, I replied.
Nice. What were you teaching?
English. At least my principal thought so but I always felt more like a life teacher, someone trying to help kids get prepared for the real world.

By this time we had both stepped off onto the marble floor and were facing each other. His breath had an odor, not of alcohol, but of use. He stood confidently looking me in the eye. His combed brown hair and tweed jacket would not have seemed out of place if I had been at a distance. Up close, however, his brown eyes were hidden behind out-dated eye glasses and his shoes looked unseemly from a season of street salt. Looking at him now I saw the ordered nature of his bags, a methodical system of papers, magazines, and books.

So you took a leap of faith?
Yeah, I guess I did?
Well, you hold yourself with dignity. I suspect you have made the right decision.
Thank you, I replied adding, what do you mean dignity?
You look like you work hard at what you do and are proud.
Why … thank you.

After a long and rather tentative pause, he spoke again.

Do you believe in God?
Worried that this was about to take a strange turn, I responded anyway.
Yes, my own conception of God, yes.
I thought so. That would explain the dignity, the integrity.
You can tell that from looking at me?
Of course. By the way, I like what you were teaching your students. I have always felt the problem is that students aren’t taught to be people, to be social, to value each other. Look at the world.
Exactly, it scares me.
Me, too. But have you ever thought about what God’s classroom would look like?
No, what do you mean?
What would God’s classroom look like? What would students, we, be doing in his classroom?
Ah, you mean living in community with each other like “on earth” – the world as classroom?
Yes, you got it!
Well, oh by the way, what is your name?
Well Robert, how would I trick people into listening to me if I used the word God?

And there was a pause, again, a bit of a laugh.

Well, “trick” is not the word I would use, but ok.
I didn’t mean to be rude, I mumbled.
Oh, I know you didn’t. But you did not hear me correctly. I was not suggesting that you trick anybody or go to your job and call your curriculum God’s curriculum.
What did you mean then?
That you simply plan with your God in mind. Ask yourself what he would want the classrooms you are helping teachers to create to look like? You said yourself that you don’t really teach English. If you truly taught life then how was that possible without some source of power greater than yourself guiding you?

I stood there silently. At least ten minutes had passed. Crowding into my thinking as the people passed us on both sides was this idea of Jesus coming again and the inability our modern society would have recognizing him. I wondered if we have become too weighted down with baggage. Would the stuff of life crowd out the hope of life? Here in the middle of the Water Tower mall, a material landscape, I was receiving a spiritual gift. For a brief second nothing I held in my hands or on my body mattered. This stranger, this man, was asking me to go inside and bring my insides out and present them to the world. I was being called again. How else can I explain the staying put? I did not run, I listened. I knew within moments that he was suggesting I trust and have faith in this new life that is unfolding because “God is my employer.” For a brief moment I knew peace.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

There Is A Place I Go

By Andrew Flaherty

There is a place I go
To remember you
A place I go to conjure
Frosty echoes from the wood
A place I go to recall
The whistling wind
Through the planking of the barn
A place I go to witness
The mist rising off the creek bed,
A place I go to remember you
As wide as you are deep;
Roots and branches,
Embedded and outstretched.
It is the place I first went
To sing as you danced.
It is the place I still go to recite
The Lord’s Prayer,
A place I go to hear
The heartbeat of
The world.
It is a place I
Never really leave:
A memory place
Of peaceful
Where your
Needles are
Always dusted
With the
Of new


By Andrew Flaherty

Homebound girl
Full moon eyes
Night sky hair
Homebound girl
surrounded on all sides
by rough seas
like your native India.
Homebound girl
the darkness is
“palpable, black, and painted”
yet you shine like the Dawn
that will banish your cancer
“like a debt.”
Homebound girl
your poems are Vedas they
illuminate our classroom
in your absence
songs of friendship
with the page that listens
when no one else can.
Homebound girl
We listen for you
We see you in the sky
When we are afraid to speak.

Achilles Who?

By Andrew Flaherty

Achilles you run and run like a river
Never remembering to embrace your pain
You are strength and weakness
The arrow to the bow entwined.
Achilles your face is stone
Your body sculpted like marble
But your cord weak
Where your mother Thetis
The sea nymph
Dipped you in the river Styx.
Achilles your armor cannot hold
What your mother held
Your Achilles heal will surrender you.
If only you had looked beyond
You might have seen the gift
The paradox of weakness living
Inside your chest like the
Men hidden in the Trojan horse

Ah, Achilles
What a gift
You have given me.