Saturday, February 22, 2014

An Impromptu Lecture

It started as a simple question from a student. More of a complaint, really. I had just given the class a quick preview of the new state assessment that would be taking the place of the CMT, and a boy raised his hand and asked, “Why does it have to be so much harder?”

And rather than go on with the day’s planned lesson, I decided to tell him...

“The new test is so much harder because, frankly, life is getting harder. And I don’t mean the stuff adults are always telling you about growing up and increased responsibility. I’m talking about how you will actually live your life and earn a living. In a crazy way, all the things that seem to make life easier will actually make your lives harder, because it is going to be that much more difficult to stand out from the crowd.

You guys spent your first few years of school under No Child Left Behind, a giant umbrella, or safety net, where the goal was to ensure that all children received the same education and equal opportunity to succeed. Now it’s Reach for the Top, and common sense will tell you, there’s not enough room for everyone at the top, so some of you will be left behind.

My son is starting kindergarten in the fall. He’ll be five. We had to bring him to his school the other day to be evaluated. They wanted to make sure he would be ready for kindergarten. When I was his age, we were “ready” for kindergarten because our mothers were ready to be done with us! We spent the first 26 days learning the alphabet. Literally an entire day dedicated to each letter. Well, not really an entire day, as we had morning snack, and nap, and recess. Plus there was lunch, and “Exploration Time,” and music. We sat on little rugs to look at books (because we would not be able to read them until First Grade) and practiced our manners. We glued and glittered and cut and colored. We fought over who would get picked to wheel the little wagon down to the cafeteria to bring back the morning milk.

By the end of the year, we were expected to know the letters of the alphabet, the colors of the rainbow, some basic shapes, and how to count to ten. Some of the smarter kids (like me!) might also leave able to write their first names, with these huge red pencils, and maybe read a few sight words.

At my son’s evaluation, he was expected to know all those things before starting kindergarten. Meaning his class will not be spending the first 26 days learning the alphabet, or using their fingers to count to ten. When they sit on their little carpet squares, it will be to READ, and not just look at the pictures. When he colors an apple, it won’t be to learn that apples are red and start with the letter A (and make the a sound) – it will be to solve a math problem. And in order to accomplish all that, he probably won’t be spending much time napping, or playing, or dressing up, or exploring. He might have to do a research paper on explorers, but that’s about it.

So, to keep answering your question, the test is so much harder because kindergarten has gotten harder. Making First Grade that much harder, and so on. The bar has been lifted. The expectations have been raised. The workload has increased.

And speaking of work, my teachers used to threaten us that if we didn’t do well in school, we’d wind up flipping burgers or hanging off the back of a garbage truck.  But now, people feel lucky to have such jobs – if they even exist anymore!

Think about it In your lifetime - what, maybe two years ago? A garbage truck would pull up at the curb, and two guys would jump off the back and empty the cans. The guy in the passenger seat would let the guy driving know when they were done, and the truck would pull away and head for the next house.

Now, a single driver in an automated truck drives up so a robot arm can lift the single oversized can and dump it in the back. That’s three guys out of a job. For just that one truck, mind you. Three less jobs for every single new truck. And the new trucks themselves are faster and more efficient, so there are less off them, meaning fewer mechanics needed to fix them. And when they dump the load at the transfer station, the garbage has already been presorted, thanks to you people with your blue recycling bins, so there’s no one getting paid to sort the trash either.

As far as flipping burgers, have you noticed that no one fills soda anymore? Well, if you go inside, you’re handed a cup and have to do it yourself. But at the drive-thru, there’s a nifty machine that does it automatically. Pretty cool right? Except at one time, that was a person’s job. And those cool touch screens at Sonic? (Murmured agreement) Well, thanks to them, now there’s no need to pay someone to take your order, it goes directly to the guy who prepares your order. And if you think the guys who invented that nifty soda-filling machine and the cool order-taking machine aren’t busy working on an awesome burger-flipping machine, you’re simply not thinking.

Ant that's the problem. The jobs waiting for you when you graduate high school, and hopefully college, are going to be jobs that require the sort of thinking and skills that machines have not yet mastered.  And since they’ve pretty much taken over all the basic tasks that schools used to consider essential parts of the curriculum, we’ve got to start teaching you how to think, rather than telling you stuff to know. And to continue answering your question, that’s why the test is so much harder.

Right now, when I ask a question you don’t know the answer to, I get blank looks and empty lines. Maybe the occasional “IDK” - if I’m lucky. But you need to realize that just because you don’t know the answer does not mean you are incapable of figuring it out. And I don’t mean by Googling it! The teachers that complain about smart phones in the classroom because kids can use them to cheat have it all wrong. If they’re asking you questions that you can Google, they’re not teaching you how to think. They’re telling you stuff to know. Unless it’s some pop quiz to make sure you did the night’s reading or studying, the real purpose of asking questions is to see how you go about figuring them out. And a lot of the time, it will be trial and error.

It’s right there in the name of the strategy: Trial and Error. You must try and fail. Not try TO fail, all you smiling right now.  Nor is it saying you will try, only to fail. It means try. And maybe fail. And then try again. And then repeat until you get it right. But too many of you are stopping before you even start, and the rest of you quitting after the first attempt. You have got to learn to stick with it. You need persistence. This isn’t bomb defusing school. If you make a mistake, you will survive. And even better, you get a chance to do it again! It’s like a video game. Reset and try again – which, by the way, you all are also much too quick to give up on. You try for all of three minute to beat Level Seven before you give up and start tapping in cheat codes or watching walk-throughs on YouTube. I don’t get it. You spend 60 bucks on a game that’s meant to give you hours of entertainment, but instead, you’d rather spend another 15 bucks on a glossy guide so you can “beat” it in 45 minutes. Where’s the fun in that? And where’s the sense of satisfaction?

So, to finally finish answering the question, maybe the real reason the test seems so much harder is because you guys are that much weaker. (Disgruntled murmurs) Relax, it’s not entirely your fault. Your coaches and teachers started it by encouraging you to feel good about good hustle or strong effort (code words for, “You failed!”) Your parents continued it by framing your Participation Certificates and displaying your Participant trophies (basically showing the world that they’re proud of their loser.) And you guys allowed it. You bought into it. You let yourself believe that coming in 2nd, or 473rd , were equally commendable. Even worse, some of you expect to be rewarded for simply showing up, and can’t understand how something you did could possibly be wrong.

Sure, you can’t (and shouldn’t) win ‘em all, but when you don’t, you shouldn’t be celebrated for it. I’m not saying you should be punished or put down, either, just that losing shouldn’t feel good. You guys have been watching the Olympics; have to seen the looks on some of the Silver and Bronze medalists' faces? Some are crying because they are “only” the second or third best…in THE ENTIRE WORLD! To most people, just being there is an amazing achievement. But to them, second best, again, IN THE ENTIRE WORLD, is a failure. Yet you guys have been trained to expect cheers and praise simply for trying. And not even trying your best. Just trying.  And most of the time, only once – which to me is the most trying! (Confused murmurs) Trying has more than one meaning, look it up!

Now that I’ve talked for the entire period, making you even less prepared for that much harder test, I should wrap things up. I know some might see this as a wasted period, while others might be feeling like they just got away with doing nothing for the past 50 minutes! And maybe there’s a few of you who found some value in what I had to say. But either way, I’m sure we can all agree that a question was asked, and I tried to answer it…repeatedly! So my question to you is, what will you do with the answer?"

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Politics of Mo

My 4-year old was just telling me the exciting story about how he ended up with a particular Hershey Kiss. He had received a bagful of them for Valentine’s Day, all wrapped in festive colored foil, and after eating a half-dozen or so, was about to get cut off.

“Mommy said I could only have one more ever for the whole entire day,” he told me, “and guess which one I chose?”

            “The purple one?” I guessed, seeing as it was still in his hand.

            “No,” he said, like I was an idiot. “I picked Mo! I did Eeny Meeny Miny Mo – and Mommy says you can choose Mo or the next one, so I chose Mo because I wanted the purple one!”

            “Then why didn’t you just pick the purple one?” I asked. “Why leave it to chance?”

            “Who’s Chance?” he wanted to know.

It was too early in the morning to explain (Yes, I said morning. Don’t judge me.) Besides, he had gotten me thinking about the power of Mo. When it comes down to the Final Two, is Mo the winner or the runner up?

I’m pretty sure as kids, we had to declare our position before putting our “potatoes” in. And it wasn’t just Eeny Meeny Miney Mo. We had a wealth of rhymes to help us make life’s biggest decision, namely, “Who would be It?”

But before we determined that (after we decided on what game to play, of course) we first had to figure out who was in charge.

Typically, the first to shout, “King sayer, naysayer, no higher!”  got to take control.  Their first official act was to inform the group whether we’d be using “potatoes” (our hands) or “puppies” (feet). Then we’d circle up, stick out our fists or feet, and wait for the King to decide which rhyme to start with.

Like I said, we had a bunch of them. From the babyish, “One potato, two potato, three potato, four! Five potato, six, potato, seven potato, more! Out goes Y…O…U!” to the slightly more mature, “Ink-a-dink, a bottle of ink. The cork fell out and YOU stink!” to the PG-13, “My mother and your mother were hanging out clothes. My mother punched your mother right in the nose! What color was the blood?” – at this point, the person whose potato or puppy was last touched had to name a color – and here’s where it paid to be smart, as one could quickly count up the number of people still left in, and then choose a color, that when spelled out, would result in them getting out.  Problem was, a sharp King could thwart your plans by changing the wording. Instead of “B…L…U…E….spells blue, and out goes Y…O…U!” They might go with, “B…L…U….E….spells blue, and you…are…OUT!”

Things really got ugly when it got down to the final two, especially if the King was one of them, as there was nothing more embarrassing than being the one in charge and winding up It. But even if the King was safely out, complications still arose based on presumed favoritism between the King and one of the remaining two.  Either way, Eeny Meeny Miny Mo was the go-to rhyme to deliver the knockout blow.

You would think that such a simple and silly song would make for a clean and clear decision, but you would be wrong!

First, whether it was between the King and another kid, or just two kids, where the King started (his own potato/puppy, or one of the kid’s) was a hotly contested debate. We all knew that when it came down to two, whoever’s fist or foot was touched first would also be the one to be touched last, and therefore out and not It, so a wise King would always try to start with himself. But if the group balked at this, which we often did, because like I said, there’s nothing more embarrassing than a King being It, he or she had to resort to the ambiguity of Mo.

When it came down to that finally syllable, the kid whose fist was last touched would thrust it in the air and exclaim, “Not It!” But a cagey King could try to convince the crowd that Mo meant the kid was It.  And depending on the popularity of the kid, and King, we’d side one way or the other.  

Then, after all the arguments, negotiations, and disagreements had been resolved, we’d play the game. Or, more likely, get called in for dinner or bed, as we usually wasted all of our time picking who was It. Clearly, it would have been more expedient to just nominate the kid we didn’t like as It, but that wouldn’t be “fair” so we let Chance decide….with a little help from Mo! 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Take a Tip from Me

As a former waiter, and someone who eats (and drinks) out a LOT, I consider myself to be a fairly good tipper. Typically, I leave at least 20% for good service, but even the worst, most incompetent, cigarette stinking, drink spilling, order fucking upping servers still get 15%.

And not only do I tip well, I behave well. I clean up after my kid, treat the servers with respect, rarely complain about the food, and never ask for water unless I plan to drink it!

My medium-rare steak comes out well done? I eat it. My fish comes out as chicken? I eat it. My Sierra Nevada comes out as Miller Lite because the keg kicked and the bartender’s too busy to change it? I’ll drink it. And then lie to the server and say everything is fine.

I only have one rule: If the waiter adds the automatic 18%, they GET the 18% and not a penny more.  To me, it’s an insult. Back when I was a server, I only used the automatic gratuity when I was 100% certain I was going to get shafted on the tip. Not due to poor service, mind you, but because the person paying was a tool.

An experienced server can quickly size up a party. There are groups who are very demanding and give you a run for your money, but, you can tell that at the end, they will give you your money. Unfortunately, there are others who are equally demanding, and just give off a vibe that says, you’re here to serve us, and there will be no quid pro quo. Problem is, with large groups, it’s not always easy to tell who’s picking up the tab So, to me, adding the 18% was always a gamble.  And even though we’re only talking about a few percentage points, at the end of the shift, they add up, so it was a risk I did not often take. Plus, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Which is why, when I get auto-gratuitied, I take it personally.  I feel judged. I stare at the line item and think, do I look cheap? Were my Groupons sticking out? Was I a tool?  Was it something The Warners did? But rather than ask, I simply sign the check and snap it shut, leaving them nothing more than what they bargained for.  But I want to leave a note and let them know that had they taken a chance on me, they would have made an extra five bucks.

Or, more accurately, an extra $5.23, as I have an odd habit of making every check an even number. If the bill comes to $89.15, I leave a tip for $20.85 to make it an even $110.00, This drives my wife crazy for some reason (and not just because of her poor math skills)  - I think she thinks they end up going home with a pocket full of change, but I know that at the end of the night, the tips get rounded to the nearest dollar.

Speaking of dollars, the dollar and change I leave for EVERY Dunkin’ Donuts transaction usually results in a 70% tip. I get a medium hot chocolate for $2.33, hand the drive-thru person a $5, and ask for a dollar back.  But, the poor kid at McDonald’s gets shit. Why is that? Why do we tip coffee pourers, but not burger flippers?  Why do we tip the people who cut our hair, but not the ones who fix our brakes?  Taxi drivers get tipped, but bus drivers get exact change. We tell the guy at the pretzel cart to keep the change, but when we buy one at the Kwik-E-Mart, we wait for our 37 cents.  Try to tip a cop, and you can get arrested for offering a bribe.  But you’re a bad person if don’t put money in the fireman’s boot.  Crazy, right?

Maybe we should take a lesson from Mr. Pink and not tip anyone. Or, we could start tipping everyone. Or, what if we only tip those who don’t get paid, yet still provide a service? Like, say, a blogger, for instance!  

Have a nice day!