Fathers, Daughters and February

What I have learned from my father?  Wow! I could write a weekly blog just on that topic.  My father, a very intelligent man with a history in scientific and academic publishing, has knowledge of and opinions on a myriad of subjects; not limited to his field of expertise. (Biology and Chemistry).  Highly educated, well read, determined, head strong, and insightful, he has been the best man I have ever known. That is not to say we have always seen eye to eye on things and not to say my Father/Daughter relationship was as perfectly wonderful from day one as it is today.  Some of those traits I listed above may sound familiar to those of you who know me well; I am certain that head strong, determined and opinionated caught the eye of my mother as she “previewed” my blog this week.  So, when a father and a daughter share many of the same personality traits (and some striking physical ones in  my case as well), it should not surprise people to hear my say that our relationship has always been good, but has gotten much stronger as we’ve gotten older ( and as I did some more growing up!)

The only and eldest daughter of three, yes, I was my father’s little girl.  My earliest memory of my father is from when I was just a little over two years old. He took me out for the day, probably because, as an early talker, I was wearing my mother out. We went to…the mall! Never my dad’s favorite place to venture; going with a 2 year old in 1980 must have been some experience. Why did we go there? Because I wanted to go on the “rides.”  Those little machines that took a quarter and bounced up and down? Yup; in 1980 that was my idea of a perfect date!  The memory is hazy, but it is there, in my mind and heart; me and Joe Degnan at the mall!

Over the years, I gave some of the things he liked to do the old “college try”, as it were. Camping?! Um…I went. I endured. Was I a happy go lucky camper? Not in the least.  Baseball?  I went. I learned. I enjoyed! And so, there was a common interest.  My dad did the best he could too; my three lines in a production of Carousel in high school. He came ( twice). He endured.  He brought flowers. Was I made aware that musicals, especially those Rogers and Hammerstein ones were not high on his list of enjoyable events? Why yes, I was.  And yet, it was my father who took me to tour the NYU campus when I thought I wanted to attend school in the city.  It was my father who worked with me on my college applications, who listened to stories of my first work experiences, who provided me with background knowledge on any subject imaginable as I began teaching. (Dad, what do you know about Mount Everest? About the scientific possibilities about Jurassic Park being a reality? About how long a 9 year old could survive in the woods on her own?)  Never did he ask “What on earth are you teaching?” He sat, he explained, he explained again (again, and again!) until I understood.

As I compose this, at almost 40 years old, am I still my father’s girl? Yes I am in many ways.  He texts me if the weather is going to be bad in the morning.  Each January, he reminds me about what I need to prepare for my taxes. He beats me to the garbage barrels and takes them out for me.  When I work late, he waits by his window (my parents live across the street) and walks me to the door so I am safe.  He checks my smoke detector batteries. He worries, he worries, he worries!  And he does all of this not because I cannot do it on my own or because he thinks I need to be taken care of; but because he knows that my own life roles, as mother, as Head of School, as educator put a great deal on my plate at any given time and he wants to  help.  He is the backbone that allows me to be the woman I am; the woman I hope inspires many of the young ladies I see every day at Saint Dominic Academy.  My father is truly a wonderful man.

Sitting in my office at Saint Dominic Academy, I am surprised to look at my desk calendar and see we are at the end of January already.  This year, like every year before it has moved at lightening pace and it continues full on; heading into our Spirit Week and, this coming Friday, February 3rd, our 35th Annual Father-Daughter Dance.  Of all of the traditions I have come to embrace as an administrator at Saint Dominic Academy, this one has a very special place in my heart.  Saint Dominic Academy is the first school that I have been connected with, either as a student or a teacher, who hosts an event like this, and what an important event it is.  For in a school that celebrates women, that empowers women, that rejoices at generations of strong alumnae sending their daughters to our doors for education, it is equally important that we give our fathers and father figures a moment in the spotlight and recognize them for being the wonderful men that they are; men who are not shying away from the idea of raising an outspoken, witty, educated, empowered daughter, but men who are saying “Yes! I am proud of my daughter and I know she will change the world!”

On February 3rd, my father and I will join the young ladies of SDA and the men who are committed to making the lives of those girls truly wonderful.  I will look forward to thanking, in person, every father and father figure in the room who has done so much for the young ladies I am blessed to see every day.  And I will thank my father, and encourage all of the girls to do the same. (I bet nobody thinks I can do it without crying!) Ladies, these men help to make us empowered women; how very lucky we are to have them.

A Tribute to Teachers!

“Open your mouth and speak distinctly,” my 95 year old grandfather says through clenched teeth. This is his oft told anecdote about his high school Spanish teacher; the joke being that she never opened her mouth but expected her students to speak clearly. My youngest brother, now a Jersey City Fire Captain, can tell just as funny an anecdote, about his kindergarten teacher putting him in the “Hot Seat” for trying to kiss girls in the classroom. My best friend, a highly intelligent civil engineer can make people laugh until they cry when he tells stories of classroom antics at his prestigious all boys school, the teachers’ lessons peppered with expletives and off color jokes. I myself have been known to tell the tale of my 9th grade typing teacher who would hit me in the head with a pencil when I hit the wrong key on the cap covered typewriter. However, as a life- long educator myself, I follow up that tale with the name of the teacher and the fact that I can now type over seventy words per minute without error. I remember not just the anecdote, but the lesson learned as well.

For generations, teacher anecdotes have often been called out at dinner parties, bar room gatherings and coffee clutches. It is my belief that because everyone has been through the education system, everyone has a favorite teacher story to share. “Telling tales out of school” as it were, became a bonding experience, a conversation starter, and at times even an ice breaker before a presentation or other workshop.  Favorite teacher stories span public, parochial, and now, with increasing frequency charter school graduates. For the most part, the stories are amusing, self deprecating at times, and paint the teacher as a sort of caricature of the profession, not unlike the “ wha-wha-wha” way teachers were depicted in the old Peanuts cartoons.  Funny teachers and zany classroom experiences? Sure, who doesn’t have a story? However, I must ask, both as an educator and as someone who has great faith in the Catholic education system, is this really the message about teachers and education that we as a society should really be sending to our impressionable children and teens?

Perhaps when we look back at our elementary and high school years, we recall a teacher who may have lost his or her temper a bit frequently.  I ask you, indulge me for a moment and look back on that situation, not with the eyes of the child you were, but with the eyes and mind of the adult you are now. Could it possibly have been a first or second grade teacher who worked so hard each day to teach vowels and consonants, while her students tried to color on the walls? However, we all know “a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y”.   None of us missed that lesson, but not many of us, myself included can well remember how it was taught to us in a way we would never forget.

Let’s go back to that stressed teacher for a moment.  Change the classroom from elementary school to late middle school and once again, look back as an adult.  That teacher, who you remember from your childhood as  being too strict or too mean suddenly looks a little different when you reflect, doesn’t he/she? Could it have been an 8th grade homeroom teacher, who was dealing daily with the new raging hormones of just developing adolescents? I bet that teacher was there almost every day, prepared, ready with a lesson that no thirteen year old wanted to hear. After all, we all graduated 8th grade, didn’t’ we?

If you would indulge me one last time and call to mind your high school years. When I look back, I can vividly recall how much I dreaded going to Latin class, where I was sure to be singled out for not being able to conjugate correctly to the tune of whatever song Sister Helen Jean selected that day. But now, I will tell students that Latin and typing were the two most important classes I took in high school!  Who was it for you during high school? A 10th grade geometry teacher, trying desperately to teach the Pythagorean therom to a group of fifteen year olds who were trying to study their driver’s ed manuals in Geometry class?  And yet, we know a2 +b2 = c2, right? (well, don’t test me on it!)  A 12th grade Literature teacher, trying desperately to discuss the inner workings of Hamlet’s fatal flaw, while all around her the seventeen year olds talked about who was taking whom to the prom. However, that teacher tried her hardest to explain Hamlet’s indecision each day.  And now, 22 years out of The Academy of Saint Aloysius, I cannot at a moment’s notice recall the name of the boy  I wanted to go to the prom with, but I can remember that Hamlet’s problem was his indecisiveness.

Unless you finish your education and decide to jump into the fire that is the field of education, what you most remember about your journey through the education system, be it public or private, is a handful of amusing anecdotes. That is not to say we do not, as a whole emerge extremely well educated. WE do, we go on to be doctors and lawyers, and CEO’s, and writers, and actors, and politicians. And we call on, each and every day, the knowledge we gained from grades kindergarten through college to help us in our career paths. Yet,  none of us, myself included at times, is above boiling down our educational experience to amusing stories that often play students in the best light and teachers, in many instances, in not so flattering ones.

Today, as we at SDA move into our 2nd semester of the school year, I do want to take a moment to thank all of our teachers, past and present, for giving their all each and every day. They do wonders in the classroom daily; lessons great and small.  As Head of School, I put out this goal for all of our young ladies at SDA this winter and spring. I encourage our girls to take time to continue to get to know their teachers even better, appreciate their teachers, even if they do not always appreciate the subject matter being presented on a particular day, and most importantly recognize the teaching profession for the challenging one that it is.  I have been a teacher for years, and I will be a teacher for the rest of my life.  And so, today, I thank all teachers, most especially the ones who choose to shape the daily lives of the young women here at Saint Dominic Academy.

A Movement for our Time…HAMILTON!

It does not sound like a familiar world, more like a fantasy or a land far away.  A world where a sitting United States Vice President rows across the Hudson River to New Jersey and murders one of our founding fathers and the founder of the National Bank? That could not really have happened. And then, to not be tried and/or convicted for this crime?  A world where the capital of the United States was almost New York City, not Washington, D.C.?  Unreal!  An early America portrayed not as formal and rigid, but rather set to hip hop beats, featuring scandals galore, torrid affairs, and blackmail?  A stage where our founding fathers,  names we’ve known since 5th grade civics class, not only do not get along,  but where they ruthlessly at times try to one up and betray each other.  And yet, it is being portrayed, to standing ovations each night, in New York, Chicago and California. It’s making its way across the Atlantic, to London’s famed West End.  And, if your morning and evening commute is anything like mine when my daughter is in the car, it’s playing out of your car stereo!  Hamilton, the show that has America rapping instead of humming along, is no doubt a stage sensation!

Over fifteen years ago, when I was just starting out as an English teacher, I often joined forces with two of my colleagues, both just starting on their paths as History teachers, to make the world of American History and American Literature “come alive” for students.  How hard we worked to really capture “Paul Revere’s Ride” or Jefferson’s composing the Declaration of Independence, or Benedict Arnold’s betrayal of the country, or Lincoln’s assassination.  We sought to make history really engaging; not just facts on a page, but the life story of people deemed important enough to earn a place in the massive textbooks placed before students.  We worked tirelessly to connect the men and women of American history with the literature composed to honor, or even at times, mock them.   Each of us would have had a field day with Hamilton! had it been around in those days. I am sure we, as teachers in other schools are doing right now, would have worked to put a Hamilton elective on the listing of classes; because anything that students get this excited about, is worth teaching about!

Have I seen the musical? Sadly, not yet. (Anyone think if I tweet this blog to Lin Manuel – Miranda he will gift me with a ticket? ) Was I skeptical when the soundtrack was recommended to me by some of my current students?  Of course; a rap musical about the founding fathers?  Who wouldn’t hesitate just a bit? But, as he has his leading character state in the play, Miranda truly reached his goal of “creating something that’s gonna outlive me!”   It has, to again steal his words created a “world turned upside down!”  This musical is inspiring students, here at Saint Dominic, where Hamilton pins adorn blazers and Hamilton t-shirts are proudly on display during tag days, as well as students across the country to become not just interested in, but connected to history. The men depicted in the musical, figures from a distant past, have been brought to life in a way students can understand and relate to; in ways that they can connect to their own lives.

And, isn’t that what education is all about, at its core. For young people, not just to memorize dates, places, formulas, stanzas of poetry, but to have a “spark fanned into a flame” and grab their interest so they want to go beyond what is presented in the classroom and learn all they can about a subject? This current Hamilton craze does have many benefits; it’s inspired a love of Broadway in those who might not be interested. It’s so popular that New Jersey Monthly Magazine has published a list of New Jersey historical sites connected to Alexander Hamilton that parents can take their elementary aged children to visit to learn more about history.  It encourages students to look further than the chapter in their history textbook dedicated to “The Founding of America” or “Hamilton Establishes the First National Bank” and read more; maybe online, maybe via blogs, but to seek out more information; to WANT to know more about this subject.

Today, and for the near future, the popular subject may be the life of Alexander Hamilton. But, once that spark is lit, it will continue to burn brightly for other topics, other people, other ideas that capture our children’s interest in similar ways, and suddenly a student transforms into a SCHOLAR, which is the best thing any one of us can be.  And, if the subject of today is Hamilton, well, it’s a wonderful subject to capture the minds and hearts of our youth.  At a minimum, Miranda’s epic musical has created a generation of American students who will never mistakenly list Alexander Hamilton as one of our presidents when asked to name United States Presidents. (When I started teaching, his name appeared on that type of list often!)  And, at its’ best, Hamilton! has taught all these young scholars to ponder what a shame it is that his name is not included on that most revered list.

An Empowered Woman From a Galaxy Far, Far, Away…

When I was five years old, my parents took me to see Return of the Jedi  in the theater. It is the first movie I vividly remember going to see. If memory serves, they took me right after my kindergarten graduation.  It was June of 1983, I was five years old and a true STAR WARS fanatic.  My Halloween costume a year before had been Princess Leia; complete with the cinnamon bun hairstyle. Although the first movie came out the year I was born, I had been lucky enough, so I am told, to be taken to a re-release of it by my uncle when I was 4 years old.  My father remembers me telling my dolls “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”  I am sure my brothers and cousins have fond memories of playing Star Wars outside when we had family get-togethers. Two of my cousins, lucky guys, had light sabers that really lit up!  What a galaxy George Lucas and his cast created for all of us children back then!

Last Christmas, just a year ago, I took my daughter to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Together, we then watched the other Star Wars films on DVD.   Just a week ago, she and I were driving to visit family, when I learned of the death of Carrie Fisher. Not one to become visibly upset over celebrity deaths,  I did, once we reached our destination, give her some toys to play with and sit quietly for more than a few minutes in sadness and contemplation.  For, if Han Solo was my very first crush, then Princess Leia was for certain, my very first heroine, role model and idol.

And so she was for many young women in the years spanning 1977 until today. She was an icon for girls; a truly empowered princess.  She did not lay in a glass box, waiting for a prince to wake her. She did not need to talk to birds and deer, to sing by fountains or whistle while she worked.  Not Leia; she did not wait for men to fight against the Empire; she joined the Rebellion, smuggled information at risk to her own life, and fought bravely for the cause. Later films had her not just fighting, but leading the Rebellion; mastering her own strength and standing equal to all the men who fought bravely against the Empire.  Never once was she portrayed as unequal to men by the filmmakers; not even when they dressed her in that gold bikini. She was wearing that very outfit when she took down Jabba the Hut! Her dialogue was as witty as any male characters, her bravery was as well known and her legacy in both that galaxy and in ours, has been  preserved for 40 years.

As an English teacher, I often look at fictional characters and who is chosen to portray them when they are onscreen.  Carrie Fisher became Princess Leia; at 19 years old, she held her own with her male cast mates, the only woman of any significance in that first film and in those that followed. To step into that spotlight and become an icon at such a young age must have been truly overwhelming, a challenge that may have seemed, at times in her life, insurmountable.  Just as her onscreen persona was, Carrie Fisher was no wilting flower, but instead a vocal force, speaking out about mental illness and the struggles she managed to overcome to be successful. She continually sent the message that strength in life is always needed, recovery is ongoing, and that support is essential if we women are to not only survive, but thrive and become all we have ever dreamed of being.

At 19, I wonder if she dreamed that fans the world over would pay tribute to her on a cold December day. I wonder if she dreamed of being an on screen heroine for girls for years to come and an outspoken and impassioned advocate for mental health awareness.  Or, at 19, was she just a young girl, filled with the same excitement and love for life that fills the hearts of teenage girls today, looking forward to what is over the horizon, or perhaps even in the next galaxy.

Our young ladies at SDA may not know for sure what the future holds; however, we teach them daily that no matter what lies in store for them, they are the heroines of their own life story, women who do not wait to be rescued, but who do the rescuing.  Women who do not wait for men to lead the battles against the evils of the world, but who take on the  battles themselves, ready and willing to face new challenges.  We create daily a group of empowered young heroines, who will inspire change, improve the world, and become icons themselves for the next generation of young women to emulate.  As I mourn the loss of my childhood heroine, I take comfort in her words from The Force Awakens.  Hope is not lost today…it is found.  Wherever each of us women finds inspiration to empower us to succeed, we carry it with us and touch lives forever.