Thursday, February 24, 2011

ANTI-Snow Day Rituals

Preface: Over the past month or so, New England was hammered by a series of snowstorms, which resulted in more than a few snow days. My high school had at least five (honestly, I lost count); my niece's school had maybe eight-- three of which were just for "snow removal."

In the midst of what I started to call "January vacation", something truly bizarre happened: students and teachers started to get sick of all the time off. They actually wanted to go back to school.

So, during one of my snow days, I sat down to write an article about "Anti-Snow Day Rituals"-- a sequel of sorts to a piece I wrote in 2008. Convinced I hit a home-run, I sent the piece into my contact at the Hartford Courant-- who eventually declined it.

I guess I can't blame him. By the time I sent it in, the worst of the snow had passed, which made the piece much less topical. (Or maybe he just thought it was lame. Who can say?)

But, hey, I wrote it, and I think I have some good zingers in here, so I figured I'll put it on the ol' blog. Who knows? Maybe we'll have a freak blizzard in March, and this will suddenly become The Most Relevant Artcle Ever. With the winter we've had so far, it's anyone's guess.

Anyway, here's the Anti-Snow Day piece...

An urgent plea to school children everywhere: Put the spoons back in the drawer. Now.

It started innocently enough. Just a few weeks ago, on the eve of the first major snowstorm of the year, students of all ages were snug in their beds, sleeping in their inside-out pajamas with spoons under their pillows.

Maybe, earlier in the evening, they had thrown some ice cubes in the toilet. Maybe they ran five times around their kitchen table. The rituals vary, but the goal remains constant: to conjure up a glorious—and gloriously elusive—snow day.

Well, it worked—all too well. We got our snow day. And another. And another. We got so many snow days, in fact, that we actually started to get sick of them.

It seems as the snow piles up, snow-day enthusiasm goes down, for two main reasons. The first is purely practical: teachers and students alike are seeing how all these days off are eating into their summer vacations, and they don’t like it one bit. They want it to stop.

The second, more metaphysical reason has to do with preserving the sanctity of the snow-day phenomenon itself. Over the past month, we’ve watched our precious snow days degenerate into something commonplace, ordinary. What was once an unexpected break from routine has become the routine. The magic, the “will it or won’t it?” giddiness associated with snow days, is gone.

Once upon a time, you would wake up the morning of a potential snow day, look out your window, and dash downstairs, to the computer or TV, to check the school cancellation listings. And when your school’s name came up, you would thank God or your superintendent for this amazing gift.

All that’s changed. Now, when teachers and students see their school’s name on that listing, they don’t feel that sense of dizzying rapture. Instead, they feel apathetic, or worse: vaguely disappointed.

Thus, we now find ourselves in this Bizarro Winter, when students and teachers are clamoring to go to school. And so, we must act. We must re-set the universe. We must engage in Anti-Snow Day Rituals.

Never heard of Anti-Snow Day Rituals? Not surprising, because they don’t exist (for obvious reasons). But I’m sure we can come up with something.

The obvious route is take every activity you’ve been doing to encourage the snow, and do the opposite. Flush boiling water down the toilet rather than ice cubes. Instead of running around your kitchen table, walk around the same table, only backwards. (I don’t, however, recommend putting a fork under your pillow; this isn’t worth losing an eye over.)

Or perhaps we could borrow some of the techniques used by brides to ensure a sunny day for their wedding, such as boiling rocks or hanging rosary beads out windows.

Or maybe we just try something completely random: lining a window pane with rock salt, putting a black crayon in the freezer, eating Bit-o-Honey with toothpicks while wearing one red mitten. Silly and non-sensical, yes… but so is hiding a spoon under your bed while earing inside-out PJs.

Or maybe we forget all the ritualistic bombast and appeal directly to the Snow Miser himself, the wizard responsible for all this crazy weather. We could humbly apologize for all our past Snow Day Ritual transgressions. We could swear we’ve learned whatever lesson he was trying to teach us—about delaying gratification, about “how too much of a good thing is not a good thing.” And we could promise that we will never, ever put spoons under our pillows again.

Well… at least, not until next year.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Honestly, It's Tricky Talking to Teens about Lying

I co-teach Confirmation class in my town-- 9th and 10th graders. And last year, for one class, we did a lesson on lying-- something I see this a lot of as a high school teacher. Here's a typical example:

Me: “Hey, put your phone away.”
Student: “I didn't have my phone...”
Me: "But I just saw you, with your phone on your desk, pressing buttons..."

For many teens, it seems, lying is the default defense mechanism, and in some ways, I understand why: lying is so pervasive, we've almost become desensitized to it. Like Dr. House says, "Everybody lies."

And he's not wrong: parents lie to their children (Tooth Fairy, anyone?); children lie to their parents; advertisers lie to consumers; politicians lit to voters. Students lie to their teachers, and sometimes, teachers lie to their students. (Just so you know, kids: when a teacher says, “Of course, I wrote your recommendation... I just have to print it out,” that means he's going to go and write it that night.)

So, my co-teacher and I wanted to talk to our class about lying, but we didn’t want to stand up in front of them and say that lying is always wrong, because that’s too easy, and we live in a complex world. Nor did we want to say it’s sometimes OK to lie, because that makes it sound like everything is relative. Plus, we didn't want anyone to go home and say, “Hey, guess what, Mom. My CCD teacher says it’s OK to lie!” So it was tricky.

To get started, I presented to them five scenarios, and then we discussed whether the characters involved in each situation were really lying, and if so, was it acceptable to do so, and if they themselves would act similiarly in that situation. The scenarios are the following:

Connor was really under a lot of pressure—from his parents, teachers, and coaches—to improve his grades. But between basketball practices and his new girlfriend, he just didn’t have time to work on his To Kill a Mockingbird paper. So, the night before it was due, he found a paper on the Internet, put his name on it, and handed it in. He’d never done that before, but he promised himself next time, he wouldn’t let it come to this.

Theo was doing his math homework when he heard a pounding on his door. Startled, he ran over to the door to find his friend Marty, who said, “Some guys are chasing me, threatening to beat me up. Can I hide in here?” Theo quickly hid Marty in his closet. Only a few minutes later, when four huge lacrosse players showed up at Theo’s front door looking for Marty, Theo calmly explained that he’s been doing homework all day and denied that he saw him. The thugs bought the story and walked away.

Sarah’s parents were going away for the night, and she was having a big party. Amanda really wanted to go, but she knew her mom wouldn’t let her. So she told her mom she was just going over to Sarah’s to watch movies and play Taboo.
“So it’s just going to be you and a few friends?” Mom asked. “Yes,” Amanda replied. Mom: “And her parents are going to be there?” Amanda: “Yes.”
Mom: “And no drinking or anything like that?” Amanda: “No.”
“OK,” Amanda’s mom said. “I trust you.”

For months, Meredith was trying to get “in” with this certain group of girls, so when they invited her to go to the movies, she jumped at the chance. Only problem: she had already promised her friend Isabel that she would hang out with her. She thought about asking the girls if Isabel could go to the movies too, but she knew that they didn’t really care for Isabel, because of a stupid misunderstanding that happened way back in sixth grade. When Friday came, Meredith told Isabel she was tired and was going to stay home—then, of course, immediately went to the movies with the other girls. She felt bad about lying to Isabel, but what else could she do?

“I went to the Mall today and bought this new sweater!” Kathryn gushed, giving a fashion show to her friend Meghan. “I absolutely adore it! What do you think?” Unfortunately, Meghan didn’t care for Kathryn’s new purchase at all. She thought the whole thing—the color, the style, even the buttons—was wrong. Plus, she didn’t think Kathryn looked very good in it. But she didn’t want to make her friend feel bad, so when Kathryn asked her point-blank what she thought of it, she smiled and, mustering up as much fake enthusiasm as she possibly could, said, “Oh, it’s the cutest! I want one just like it!”

The scenarios generated some very… interesting discussion. For some, we had consensus. In the case of the "Marty is going to get beat up" story (an World War II ethical dilemma I modified to make it relevant to adolescents), pretty much everyone agreed the boy had to lie to save his friend from physical harm. So we talked about conscience and determining the greater good.

The one about the girl who bought the ugly sweater was trickier, but manageable. Most students agreed they would lie in that case, although some of the boys argued for brutal honesty; if someone's feelings get hurt, too bad. So we talked about the idea of tact, about how the girl could perhaps skirt the issue by pointing out something nice about the sweater ("The buttons are very unique" or "I'm so glad you like it").

Of course, some of the students suggested that's pretty much the same as lying, and I'm not sure I completely disagree. (An author named Cassandra Clare wrote, "Tact is lying for adults.") But we countered by saying that perhaps, in this case, you'd rather be dishonest than rude, and maybe it's more charitable to spare the other person's feelings than tell the truth. So far, so good.

Then we got to the two scenarios involving social activities-- lying to mom about a party, or lying to an old friend about a newer, "cooler" friend. Those discussions, to be honest, were a little on the discouraging side, with many of the students saying they'd probably do the same thing. In both cases, they recognized that the person told a lie, but they argued it was necessary. (And besides, everyone lies to their parents, so no harm, no foul.)

Finally, as an English teacher, I was most disheartened by the discussion about the kid copying off the To Kill a Mockingbird paper. Almost every single kid in the class tried to tell me plagiarism isn't lying. "But you're lying to your teacher!" I insisted. "By putting your name on it, you're saying this is your work, when it isn't!" They didn't buy it.

After we went throught the scenarios, we had them do an examination of conscience. We asked them to think of a lie they told in their lives and ask themselves a series of questions. (Does this lie serve my own self-interests? Will this lie, in the long run, make the situation worse or better?
If I get caught telling this lie, will other people get hurt? If I get caught telling this lie, will people be disappointed in me? Is it important for you to be considered a trustworthy person?)

Did any of this work? Not sure. But hey, at least we brought up a prickly issue and talked about it truthfully. And even though my co-teacher and I were a little discouraged by some of their answers, at least they were honest about it. Hey, it's a start, right?