Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Breathing and Anger

As giant fluffy flakes of snow powdered New England this morning, 200 some teachers sat in a high school auditorium listening to an expert on child anger and bullying. Despite being distracted by the prospect of driving home in two feet of snow, I listened to this man as intently as I could.  He said a lot, but it was really a single question and the one word answer that stuck with me. 

This man described bullies and victims of bullying and angry children.  I have many memories of Eric's experiences with teasing and staring and harassment, and I knew the anger that he felt at times as a result of the more pervasive and perpetual bullying.  This man described the brain activity of an angry person, which is so similar to someone with impaired executive functions and he explained that anger and fear result in the intense activation of the frontal lobe. Then he asked, "Do you know what is the best antidote for this intense activation?"  The answer:  Oxygen. There it was, in that one word... that gestalt, that instant moment of getting it. It's breathing, not medicine, that makes it better.  Breathing IS the medicine.

Strangely, this reminded me of an experience I had once with a crossword puzzle on an airplane.   I was a young mother, and my first experiences of mothering involved being intently vigilant about my son's breathing. I know lots of  us are awestruck by the fact that these tiny little creatures actually know what to do, and will continue breathing (and eating and sleeping) even if we aren't standing over them watching them, but my situation was different.  My son was born with a benign tumor that pushed on his airway, and for 7 weeks, until he got a tracheostomy, breathing was NOT a given for him.  And even after he got his trach, I was guarding his airway every moment of every day.  I knew what every one of his different breathing sounds meant, and because the trach tube blocked any air from passing over his vocal chords, the only way he could tell me anything was by the noises that came out of his trach.  His breathing sounds were our language. 

I was flying out to Indianapolis for a job interview when he was just under a year old, and I found myself alone for the first time. I tried to relax with a crossword puzzle.  I had an empty unsettled feeling from the moment I left him in my husband's arms, and now on the plane I was trying to fill the void with a puzzle.  I zipped over clues and filled in boxes as fast as I could - my usual strategy - until I came to these two words:  breathing sounds.  It was as though the light went on and an answer just flew onto my brainscreen.  My life for the last 11 months had been completely, totally, intensely focused on breathing sounds.  I guess I had known this in some unspoken way, somewhere in my body, but the crossword puzzle clue became a clue for learning about my own life.  The importance of the breath - my breath, and other people's breath , the singular power of the breath, became clear to me from reading the clue for 21 down.

I hate that people stare at Eric.  I hate that when we walk into a room, he is received in a way that most people are not.  I have been enraged at the mall, or on a ski lift, or in a restaurant because of people's behavior.  But remarkably, he is not.  He IS an inspiration.  He holds his head up and ignores the pimply teenagers at the mall, and he chats up the preppy blond haired blue eyed perfect people on the ski lift, and he smiles at the rubber-neckers in the restaurant until he has disarmed them all, and me, and then I am breathing again.  Just take a breath.  And then another, and another.  So simple, and yet so hard to remember.  I never knew that oxygen was the antidote, chemically, for these mysterious reactions in my frontal lobe.  But I think Eric has known all along.  I do know this:   if I keep listening to his breathing sounds, the inspirations will keep on coming.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Inspired by my favorite non-linear thinker

This morning, my 21 year old son told me he really wanted me to see these... he said I should show these to all the teachers I work with in Salem. After I watched them, I was very moved by his request and so I wanted to share them here on my blog.
I think this one is actually a wonderful support for workshop model for learning - a model which always includes choice, time, collaboration, authentic response and authentic purposes for reading/writing and learning:

and this one, which I think reminds us to keep thinking about what and how we teach and what and how students learn:

To put my son Eric's request in context, you should know that he was born with a cranial facial birth defect, has had innumerable hospitalizations and reconstructive surgeries and still has a tracheotomy for breathing. He is brilliant, funny and very musical. He is a voracious reader. He is a non-linear thinker, and is incredibly creative. He scores nearly perfectly on all standardized tests. He even scored a 5 on the AP calculus test although he was not allowed to take AP calc in high school - he just had one wonderful math teacher who advocated for him, gave him the book and told him to read it and take the test. And then she made sure when he graduated he got the a new award that they made just for him ... "the theoretical math" award.

Eric never did well in school as measured by grades, and he was identified as LD because of executive function disorder/ADD- he wanted to drop out when he was a junior. He was frequently called "unmotivated" despite the fact that people knew he was dealing with a chronic medical condition. A school psychologist once told me, "Jennie, sometimes we have to give up on the dreams we have for our children." His young and cool g 6th grade teacher said in an IEP meeting - "This kid is never going to make it in life. He needs a one-on-one aid just to get through the day" (which he did not have, nor did he need.)

In high school, his math teacher told me that "he doesn't belong in an honors class until he can learn how to keep a neat and organized binder." I finally just gave up and when I cried at graduation, it was because I was so relieved that is was finally over. But I haven't forgotten any of this, and Eric has helped me to keep thinking about what it really means to be a "highly qualified" teacher!

 p.s. Eric is doing well at Pace University in Manhattan...  he had the courage and the stamina to persevere and believe in himself, despite the medical and educational struggles he's been through.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


On my hip
You sit, arms wrapped like a strand of my own hair
Over my shoulder
and around my neck
Tiny fingers fiddle with my collarbone
Round knees leave their message
on my belly and my back.

How can I ever thank you
For the smell of your hair
And the weight of your cheek on my chest?


Friday, February 26, 2010

Planting Possibility Part Two– On being a teacher

I had just asked Abby to read a draft of my blog post to get some advice on the last few lines. She made her suggestions and as I went back to my keyboard, I heard her sniffle.

“What?” I looked at her puzzled as I pulled her to me.

“It’s just that… I guess.. that a coach can make such a difference. People don’t know that what they say, how they say it can have lasting effects. A lifetime of impact. They can make you believe in yourself, or…”

Abby sat snuggled up against me on the couch, and we giggled. She had tears streaming down her cheeks, and I was blotting at my eyes as we laughed sheepishly. “Mom, when one of us cries, the other one always cries too.” I hugged her and told her that she had just put her finger on why I wanted to share that story. And then I realized that maybe there is more I need to tell.

I’ve been a coach/ teacher/educator for nearly 30 years. What I haven’t said is that the inspirations and observations that I make as an “ordinary Olympian” are crucial to the work I do as an educator. Abby named one of them; educators can have a lifetime of impact, for the positive or for the negative. One little thing you say can be a foothold over a hurdle, or it can be the hurdle.

Another of the guiding principals is that what you say shows what you think. And what you think, whether you are conscious of it or not, drives the way you teach and coach. Duane really did believe that I could do the impossible. He also believed in all of his athletes, and we never ever got the message from him that something was un-doable. If you believe in people, they start to believe in themselves. And when they believe in themselves, then the learning starts.

I do believe that every child can learn and that nothing is impossible. If it hasn’t been done, it’s just because we haven’t figure out how to do it yet. And when I sit at meetings where a teacher comes and says a child can’t read, or can’t remember, or can’t learn, I worry that the child is getting that message too. In fact, I’ve been darned near ready to walk out of meetings where the rhetoric is just poison. There is no quicker way to stop someone from being successful than from helping them to think they can’t be. And there is no quicker way to help someone be successful than to help someone think they can be. Duane did that for me; I want to do that for other people. And I guess I’m sharing that story because I want all of us who teach and coach to touch base with ourselves and our beliefs on a regular basis.

If we don’t think we can teach all kids, then maybe we aren’t really teachers. Teaching people who are not struggling to figure things out is the easy part; the real teaching comes when we are put in a position to figure out how to provide that foothold for a student or learner who is struggling to get over a wall. It’s not easy; the answers don’t just show up. If what we’re looking for is to feel sure, solid and right, then these are the circumstance where we’re really uncomfortable. The real teaching comes when we put our own frustration and doubts aside and stand firmly with our students, letting them know we will not leave them until we both figure out how to get over that wall. The real challenge to being a teacher is understanding what we do as a practice.

I wrote that one of things I learned from competing in the Olympics is that “there is no state of mastery. And the Olympic motto is about the process, not the outcome. As soon as you reach that superlative state, you are done. But there is no superlative state. You are never done… Being an ordinary olympian is about getting up every day, trying, learning and then trying again.” The same is true for teaching.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Planting Possibility

One day, in the winter of my freshman year at U Penn my rowing coach, Duane Hickling, pulled me and another freshman rower aside after practice. He asked what our goals were. I really hadn’t thought about goals. I was still bewildered and most of my energy was going to adjusting to life at Penn and city living. Then he said, “’84 isn’t out of reach.” It took me awhile to understand.

“You mean 1984.. the 1984 Olympics? In rowing?”

He meant the 1984 Olympic rowing team. He didn’t say a lot more. I didn’t really answer. My teammate and I left the boathouse. We didn’t talk about it again. But I didn’t stop thinking about it either.

Duane planted a seed with that little phrase. But the seed wasn’t just about growing a dream of making the 1984 Olympic team. That seed was about growing a sense of possibility in my life. Because of a two minute conversation with my rowing coach, I started to believe in myself. Because he offered me something to reach for, I started reaching. I began to take risks and challenge myself and as I did, I began to see that I could do much more than I thought I could.

I made my first national team in 1982 and got a silver medal at the World Championships in Lucerne, Switzerland. But it turns out ’84 was out of reach. I got cut from the 1984 Olympic team. I considered quitting, but I realized that this journey I had taken wasn’t about making the 1984 Olympic team. In fact, the journey wasn’t about making the team. I knew I wanted to keep rowing, to keep exploring the limits of my courage, my confidence, my ability to learn and my physical and mental endurance. Eventually, I made the 1988 Olympic Team. But I had already started becoming an Olympian back in 1980 because of Duane. One little sentence, at once both a challenge and an affirmation, changed the way I understood myself.

I sometimes look back on those years training for the national team, racing in Europe, obsessing about my next workout and cringe at how self absorbed I was. It was a bit selfish; the opportunity to be a world class athlete is an extraordinary privilege.

Later, when I was no longer rowing and life handed me challenges that tested the limits of my courage, my confidence, my ability to learn and my physical and mental endurance, I was so very grateful for all the moments in a boat on the river where I learned about myself. The 1984 and the 1988 Olympics came and went. I stopped rowing and had babies. I sat next to my son’s hospital bed at Boston Children’s Hospital watching him struggle to breath. I learned sign language. I learned to change a trach. I replaced a feeding tube. I felt the sting of people staring at my boy; I watched him hold his head high. It’s not about rowing anymore, or the Olympics, or me, but Duane’s words still serve as a kind of mantra of hope and possibility. Thanks coach.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ordinary Olympian

For every Apollo Ohno, Nancy Kerrigan or Carl Lewis who end up on a Wheaties box and do Nike commercials, there are hundreds of athletes who participate in the Olympics and then go home to get jobs and raise families in relative obscurity. They are the ordinary olympians. After Seoul, I was so disappointed that I didn't make it onto the medal stand, I went home with dark glasses on, and never mentioned to anyone that I had been in the Olympics. I didn't want to have to say that I was just one of the hundreds who went, but didn't excel.

I knew that the Olympic motto was Citius, Altius, Fortius -faster, higher, stronger - the comparative, not the superlative form of the words. But somehow I had gotten the message that being the best was what this was all about. If you don't get up to that top block on the medal stand, if you didn't put together the best performance of your life, if you didn't win, then you failed.

Sometime after I got home, after I had Eric, I began doing yoga again. I first started doing yoga back in 1980 at U Penn, when our coach decided that we would all develop balance, flexibility and strength if we did yoga for an hour after running stadiums. Joan White, now an Iyengar Yogini master, came to a room under the stadium to teach us. At first it was torture to bend our bodies into asanas right after running stairs. But Joan cajoled us. Breathe into the belly of the muscle. I had to hear her say it a few times before I could figure out what she meant. But then I tried it, sending my breath to a locked up hamstring or hip flexor. From Joan, in the dingy weight room under the Penn stadium, I discovered the power of practice and the magic of the breath. But it wasn't until about 10 year later that I began to understand better what yoga practice and breathing had in common with the Olympic motto.

My friend Eric Hamilton always reminds me that in sport, the question is not "What have you done?" it's "What have you done lately?" Seems like kind of a harsh way of looking at things, until you keep thinking about it. Yoga is about practice. There is no state of mastery. And the Olympic motto is about the process, not the outcome. As soon as you reach that superlative state, you are done. But there is no superlative state. You are never done. What I finally figured out about being an ordinary olympian is that participating in the Olympics was a chance for me to learn about living, and a chance for me to grow up in my sport. Being an ordinary olympian is about getting up every day, trying, learning and then trying again.

Once I figured that out, I started to see the ordinary olympians around me, people who had never participated in sports, but who knew how to practice. That torch that the runners carry from Athens to every new Olympic stadium took on a new meaning for me. The Olympic flame is not about the light that reflects off gold medals; it's the flame that burns in people, athletes and non-athletes alike, who care enough to try hard, who get up every day and try again in relative obscurity. I never got a medal in Seoul. I got over that when I started to see that flame in all the ordinary olympians around me every day.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Breathing Sounds on Valentine's Day

Nearly Valentine's day and for the last 20 years, that day marked the day that my little baby could finally breathe. Eric got his trach that day, and I saw him, at 7 weeks old, breathe peacefully for the first time. Today, I went looking for my old journal from that time. I haven't looked at it in ages.

December 8, 1989:
Watched Steele Magnolias last Sunday and just sobbed. There was one particular line in the movie that really hit me by the mother at her daughter's funeral. Something to the effect that "I was there when she took her first breath in the world and I was there when she took her last." I think pregnancy ties women into the universe in a way that perhaps men never experience. We are part of a whole process, the common process of all living things... The issues of earth, it's environment, it's people all have begun to have a much greater impact on me. The selfish apathy which has marshaled my existence to this point is giving way to a tremendous sensitivity, a concern for the world. I wonder if this is a hormone induced temporary state. Am I just sensitive in general now? Or am I emerging into a new perspective as I become a mother? I guess time will answer those questions.

And then December 26, 1989:
We're home - Eric is sleeping in his bassinet next to our bed and Fred is sleeping next to me. The tranquillity of this moment makes the anxiety and anguish of the preceding week seem unnecessary - ridiculous.

But they were not and they will not be. There will be more anxiety and more anguish and more moments of tranquillity, too, that will make it all worthwhile. Eric has lymphatic malformation. As I write those words, I hear them spoken by Dr. McGill. "Eric has," slight pause, then very distinctly enunciated - "lym-phatic mal-formation." And I almost say it in Dr. McGill's Irish brogue when I'm repeating this message to others.

What does it all mean? For starters, my baby isn't perfect. And immediately I feel responsible and even guilty that I have brought this tiny, helpless creature into the world with an imperfection.

I hardly touched him or saw him last week. Mind you, I was with him, but I was blinded and rendered senseless by my terror. Now that he is home, and I trust him to keep breathing and to eat and sleep, now that I see that he will let me love him from my toes to my fingers - from every cell - I can SEE him, smell him and feel him. I have inspected his feet - they're so huge they make me laugh. And they're perfect! I have inspected his long, scrappy fingers and not only are they o.k., but they're beautiful. The skin on his face is so smooth, my lips just find his face every time I hold him on my shoulder. His hair is downy soft and dark, like Fred's was as a baby. He has Fred's long forehead, but I think he has my nose. So why does this little imperfection, this lump of tissue under his chin cause me such a flood of emotion. He will be such an amazing little boy.

He WAS such an amazing little boy. And now he is an amazing young man.