Burn All of the Things! (or at least donate them)

“Things! Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful fire! More room in your heart for love, for the trees! For the birds who own nothing — the reason they can fly.” –“Storage,” Mary Oliver–

Mary Oliver! Such truth, such wisdom! At once humble and confident, Oliver seems able to catch a ray of light and express it through words. (I love writing. I do. But I STRUGGLE with that poetic element of conveying physical beauty. Mad respect to those writers who possess this gift. Mary Oliver is definitely one of them. Check out this other post I wrote about her and her wisdom.)

So in this particular excerpt, Oliver doesn’t mince words (just one of the beautiful aspects of poetry — words are very deliberately chosen and ordered, like jewels lined up and patterned). She starts (simply) with the one-word exclamation, “Things!”

I wonder what that means to all the readers out there. I wonder what that means to you. Do we read that as if she’s exasperated? Hopeless? Angry? Excited? Surprised? Take a moment and experience the poem for yourself, from beginning to end. Pause for just a moment after the exclamation, assess your own emotion, and continue:

When I moved from one house to another

there were many things I had no room

for. What does one do? I rented a storage

space. And filled it. Years passed.

Occasionally I went there and looked in,

but nothing happened, not a single

twinge of the heart.

As I grew older the things I cared 

about grew fewer, but were more

important. So one day I undid the lock

and called the trash man. He took

everything. 

I felt like the little donkey when

his burden is finally lifted. Things!

Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful 

fire! More room in your heart for love,

for the trees! For the birds who own 

nothing — the reason they can fly.

A wise student once said that good poetry changes you — that you’re not the same person at the end of a poem as you were at the beginning. Wow. (Sometimes I have these moments as a teacher when I stand in sheer amazement that I get to do what I do. The wisdom that radiates from the beautiful humans that are my students floors me.)

All that to say, I came out of that Oliver poem changed. When I got to “Things,” I can only describe my emotion as happy resignation. Things — who needs ’em? What a great reminder that this beautiful life we live with the beautiful friends and family we’re so fortunate to share it with is more important than things. Things encroach. Things overflow. Things make babies. And before we know it

things

displace.

When our lives start turning into a photo feed of (heavily filtered) stuff . . .

Thing,

thing,

thing, thing,

thing.

THING!

Thing,

thing.

Thing!

Thing.

Where are we? Where are we really?

I got rid of my “dustbuster” vacuum today. It hasn’t worked well in awhile, and I have an upright vacuum that gets the job done. (I also would probably shed real tears if Mary Oliver advised me to toss my Dyson Small Ball Multi Upright Vacuum Cleaner I Love It So Much into a bonfire.) There was no good reason to keep a sub-par dustbuster in my house, especially when it was sitting underneath the piano getting dusty and collecting dog-fur tufts.

Yesterday, I gave away three reusable bags. (Let me tell you, those make babies!)

And my husband and I make it a point to read the books we have and then give them away. We consider the public library our “storage unit” for our books. What a concept! Read more about the wonder that is the public library here.

It feels good to purge things and make a beautiful fire (or just drop them off at Salvation Army or Goodwill). And remember, when we get rid of things, we open up room in our heart for love — and in my case today, after lugging a couple of bags to the Goodwill drop-off location, I opened up room in the back of my car. I suppose the case could be made that love might happen in the back of one’s car. There are still a couple of bags back there that I need to drop off at Round Robin consignment, so maybe not quite enough room for love . . . yet.

As I write this post, sitting at a desk that is quite full of odds and ends, I know that getting rid of things is never ending. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t try. Have some spots in your house that you keep nice and clutter free — spots that spark joy (check out this spark joy podcast, based on the book The Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up).

But tangible things(!) are only part of the problem. Our homes and cars and classrooms and cubicles and desks and backpacks and lockers get cluttered with who-knows-what, but our minds get cluttered with things, too. I’m a firm believer that decluttering our physical lives helps declutter our mental lives.

And when we’re decluttered humans, we’re better humans. (If you’re a regular reader — thank you!! — you know that being a better human is important to me. I hope it is for you, too.) I think Oliver believes that being better humans means we’re more open — whether it’s our home for unannounced guests or our hearts for love (or the backs of our cars . . . ).

So how can we declutter?

The tangible things: Well I’d start with a good ol’ fashioned purge of your stuff. Donate it. Give it to a friend. (Burn it!) Try not to get too emotionally attached to things. (They don’t love you back.)

The intangible things: Take some things off your schedule (and therefore off your mind). Try for fewer activities. Allow your kids to have open schedules that include boredom from time to time. Allow yourself some boredom from time to time. Put the phone in another room (or — gasp — don’t bring it with you on your errands). When you’re back with your phone, reassess what you actually need (I use that term loosely) notifications for. Maybe notifications for phone calls and texts only.

And then: Go outside. Play piano. Sing. Write. Read. Talk to your spouse. Talk to a friend (not Siri; not Alexa).

I think Mary Oliver would advise sitting under a tree and listening to the birds. (Think about the last time you did that; I can’t remember the last time I did that.)

We shouldn’t let a day go by without getting into nature. Writing this, I’m hoping to finish soon and go sit on my screened-in porch and listen to the cicadas and frogs harmonizing in my backyard. This is a way I can get into nature — and not get mosquito bites. (Mosquitoes: not an element of nature I want to “get into.”)

Mary Oliver’s advice is simple: get rid of the things in our lives that we really don’t care about. We won’t miss them, and getting rid of them will release a burden. We’ll free up our homes and hearts for love. Remember the birds who own nothing? It’s the reason they can fly.

So let’s get rid of our things.

Let’s get rid of our things (in our daily planners).

Let’s get rid of our things (that notify and beep and buzz).

Let’s get rid of our things (that worry, that stress, that cause us to lose sleep).

Let’s get rid of our things,

and fly.

Punching People in the Face and Other Ways We Get Stuck in Our Ways

“Have you tried talking to her?”

“No. We’ve been punching her in the face repeatedly. What? You don’t think that will work?” — Cassandra Clare, City of Glass

Disclaimer: I haven’t read this book (yet).

But when I came across this quote on Goodreads, it was just so good, I had to take a minute with it. And then I came back to it. Chuckled. Then started thinking about why I chuckled. Realized that there was truth in it beyond the physical humor of repeated punches to the face.

But when the truth of it hit me, it wasn’t funny anymore. Because for the most part, out of the three characters represented in this scene — the reasonable person asking the question, the person doing the punching, and the person who is getting punched (repeatedly) — we’re the one punching (repeatedly).

It’s kind of an odd analogy to life for me, especially, because as I age, I find myself becoming more and more of a pacifist. (I hate violence. I hate guns. I hate war. I hate how much money we *have* to spend on national defense. I hate the parts of the Bible where God calls people to kill — really, though, what’s up with that.)

So to see myself most represented by the character who is (repeatedly) punching another character is, well, uncomfortable. But it is the most accurate.

Because we humans like to find a way to get a job done and then do that. And in essence, I like the efficiency potential there. But unless you are a robot in a factory, more than likely, factors — maybe even teeny tiny — in the “job” change. And we just keep punching (repeatedly). If punching is what we know, punching is what we do. And if I know one thing in this life, I know that people like sticking with what they know. I know I do.

But punching people’s faces hurts them. And I really don’t think we want to hurt others. So we do one of two things:

  1. We remain completely ignorant of being stuck in our ways — punch punch punch punch punch.
  2. We are aware of it, but we rationalize it by saying that being stuck in our ways is passive and not hurting anyone — punch punch punch punch punch, while talking about how we’re not punching and how what we’re doing is actually so great and really beneficial and BLAH BLAH BLAH.

BOTH BAD!

Both bad like punching-people’s-faces bad! (What kind of bad? Punching-people’s-faces bad — adjective.)

As most (all?) of us do, I find myself getting trapped in a bubble of my own making. I find myself looking down instead of up. I find myself bouncing along in familiar, worn ruts in the road.

We humans may start out with the best of intentions (being a great parent, enthusiastically teaching English class, deftly managing people, contributing consistently in a group project), but somewhere along the line, we find something that works, AND WE CLING. Frantically at first, afraid to lose it, until frantic turns to desperate, and we’ve totally lost sight of what we’re even doing. Time passes, things change, people change, and we cling. And when people tell us to change, we charge them with all sorts of things: being young, being naive, being radical, being too progressive, and — ultimately — not really understanding how to get the job done.

Here’s the question: Do we have to resist change?

And another: Do we have to be the kind of people who are threatened when others suggest a better way?

Quick call-out to all humans on this one: Just because you’ve done something for 26 years doesn’t mean it’s the best way.

“We’ve been punching her in the face repeatedly. What? You don’t think that will work?”

NO I DON’T THINK THAT WILL WORK.

I’ve been teaching this class without free-read for 10 years. What? You don’t think students will just pick up a book and read on their own without any push from the teacher?

I’ve been using Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in my curriculum for 14 years. What? You don’t think there might exist a more modern book that students might better resonate with?

I’ve been holding meetings for 29 years in this way. What? You don’t think they are as productive as they could be with some minor changes?

I’ve been reading the Bible as interpreted by a white male my entire life. What? You don’t think that there may be some gender issues with that?

I’m a rule-following robot who never challenges the status quo. What? You don’t think I can be my best self this way?

I’m part of the Literary Prude English Teachers of America (LPETA). What? You don’t think I can teach reading and writing and grammar and punctuation like it was taught 100 years ago and stay relevant and fresh in the classroom?

“Is that bad? Do-do-doo-do-do-doo-do-do-doo-doo.” (Do yourself a favor and watch that SNL clip. I tried to find the Will Ferrell one, but it’s not on YouTube anymore. Sigh.)

You get the idea. And maybe you also feel those punches. Because when you become aware of yourself punching, you become aware of others punching, and it gets frustrating really quickly. Hopefully the frustration is with ourselves first — the beautiful thing here is that we can change! We might not be able to change others, but we can change ourselves! (I see it now: A beautiful blue ribbon with the words “I can change myself!” written in script across it. And, hey, if you can get up in the morning and successfully get changed out of pajamas and into clothes appropriate for the day, good on ya.)

I can’t help but read these lines from a YA fantasy novel and relate them to life. Who knows what was actually happening in that scene (and someday I’ll probably read the book and find out). But the joy here is that these five sentences — even out of context — give fresh perspective on life. I am constantly fighting against being the person punching. And I hope you are, too.

And if we can’t manage to fight against it, well, maybe we need some (repeated) punches in the face.

Tolstoy and Miley Cyrus on How to Live Life

“If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.” –Leo Tolstoy–

In the name of God, please stop right now and read that sentence again. It’s good, right? Needed, right? Now look at the really simplified version:

Stop a moment.

Cease your work.

Look around you.

Such simple, good advice, and yet we can’t be bothered to heed it. But can you blame us when everything around us is telling us to go go go? When the wise Miley Cyrus posits: “we can’t stop”? And further philosophizes: “and we won’t stop”? I’d love to see a sit-down between Tolstoy and Cyrus. Perhaps she’d be able to illuminate for him the wisdom of living a life being unable and unwilling to stop. “Tolstoy, you’re welcome.” –Miley Cyrus

And yet. Those two conjunctions say a lot. They break up my earlier sentence between simple, good advice and not bothering to heed it. And the double conjunction is so true of our lives. The good advice stands, and we just can’t let it be. We have to add an “and” and qualify it. Or add to it. Or modify it. We have to add a “yet” to the “and” and rationalize. Or give excuses. Or discount it. We rabbit-hole down and to the side and here and there and in loops and away from that advice just as quickly as we can.

And we can’t stop.

And we won’t stop.

But why? I’ve talked about our obsession with busyness in this post, but why do we allow ourselves to be bombarded by distractions that prevent us from stopping to take a breath of sweet air? Especially when it’s (mostly) in our power to rid ourselves of the distractions? Is it FOMO? Are the distractions really just a guise for productivity? (You know you feel productive when you answer email and texts and messages right after they pop in. I know I do.)

I went to a community theater production last night with my husband, and the lady sitting next to me (with one of her daughters sitting on her lap) could not stop checking her phone. Distracted by the flood of light in the otherwise dark theater, I unabashedly looked over to see what she was doing that was so important. One time it was answering a text. Other times it was swiping away a notification. A few times it was turning the phone on to make sure the sound was turned off. It was sad, really. She couldn’t simply stop a moment and be present with her daughters at the show.

While I may not be quite so attached to my phone (though I do catch myself mindlessly scrolling on Instagram on occasion), for me the distractions are sneaky and in the form of work. Allow me to explain: I was grading essays yesterday with ten other tabs open on my computer. Instead of immersing myself in essay-reading, I’d flit around from this tab to that tab — doing things! important things! necessary things! Flitting and flinging and thinging myself into a tizzy of not grading nearly as many essays as I should have. And while I did take care of other little things here and there, I prevented myself from a deep dive into my students’ written words.

I’m embarrassed to admit it.

The students deserve my undivided attention, especially when it comes to something so important as their written work. So moving forward, I’m going to try a little something called isolation. I will isolate myself as best I can. (It is difficult at a school with students coming in your room to say hi or to grab the iPad they left or to just hang out on the couch — how can I say no to that?) So I’ll make like a hotel guest and hang a “do not disturb” sign on my door. Actually, I’ll write something like, “Mrs. Knapp is grading essays right now. Please do not disturb unless absolutely necessary. Thanks!” And here’s what else I’ll do: isolate my tab. I will have the essays open in Google Classroom. AND THAT’S IT. Whew — living my best life.

I listened to a Hidden Brain podcast recently entitled “You 2.0: Deep Work,” and — among other things — it talked about writers J. K. Rowling and Mark Twain isolating themselves to be able to write:

“They go somewhere physically isolated and different where they can, without distraction, think deeply.”

And I bet Twain didn’t even bring his phone.

So why don’t we distance ourselves from the distractions in our own lives? And not just for work. Let’s do it for our families, for our friends, and for ourselves. I’d venture to say it will make us better humans.

But, my friends, stopping the notifications and notes and pings and pongs and banners and blinks isn’t good enough. We must

cease

our

work.

Let’s have the confidence to step away for a bit. More than likely everything won’t come crashing down while we’re away. (And if it does, I’d argue you’ve taken too large of a role at whatever job you have. Reassess that immediately.)

And when we step away from work, let’s not just immediately step into work in other forms (for me, read: housework). It’s easy to justify working in the house, especially if one of the ways we cultivate friendships is by having friends over. But if we suffer from Martha Syndrome (read here about Mary and Martha and Jesus and Housework and Priorities), we’re going to be busy vacuuming while we’re missing time with loved ones — you know, like, our family who live in the house with us.

40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[a] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

I know I’m not alone in doing this; in fact, recently a friend sent me an article about the importance of “Crappy Dinner Parties.” These are dinner parties that have keep-the-party-crappy rules, one rule being no extra housework in preparation for guests. Whaaaat? This is such a thing, that there is an audience for an article about how not to clean your house, how not to have fancy food, how not to bring hostess gifts, how not to wear anything particularly nice, and how to “act” surprised when guests show up at the door. I love it. And I think people need to hear it.

So now that we’ve stopped the distractions and ceased working, it’s time to

look

around.

Look at the white clouds against the blue sky. (And if you mostly get gray skies where you live, move to Florida, and I’ll throw you a (crappy) dinner party!) Look at the hydrangea in bursted bloom. Look at the silhouette of the bird on the line. Look into the faces of those you love. Look.

And linger.

Let’s live life fully. And when we have to work, let’s work with focus and precision. Let’s not be afraid to step away from work to rest and be with the ones we love. And then let’s look around, appreciating beauty in all its forms.

In the name of God.

(Thanks, Tolstoy. I will take your advice over Miley’s, even though you died over a century ago and before the advent of smartphones.)

Sleep, Poetry, and a Few Disruptions Along the Way

“Something has come between us—
It will not sleep.” –“The Catch,” A. E. Stallings–

Sweet, sweet sleep. Our bodies need it. And if you believe otherwise, just stay awake for an hour and 20 minutes to watch the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Even if you laud the importance of sleep, you might give the movie another watch. Such a classic.

Reading the first line of Stallings’ poem “The Catch” pretty clearly tells us that something is wrong. Not only has something come between the “us” (problem number 1), but that something will not sleep (problem number 2). The dash forces us to pause between lines, increasing the ominous tone leading into line 2 where we still don’t know what this awake thing is. Is it a monster? An emotion? An argument?

Turns out . . . it’s a baby. No surprise for all the parents out there. (Read the entire poem here. Do it. It’s a great poem, and one that new parents especially will resonate with.)

But what I love about this set of lines is that there is truth beyond the experience of a baby. And the beautiful thing about good poetry (and good literature) is that it becomes alive to its readers: the poem exists as (dead) words on a page until we bring all of our experiences and opinions and knowledge to it. And we do that by simply reading the poem. Reading a poem brings life to it. So if I didn’t convince you to read in this post, read to bring dead words to life.

Read to bring dead words to life.

The power of that — and it’s completely in our hands! Let’s use our power! We bring life from death!

(And if at this point you still haven’t read the poem, go click on the link and read it for the love of the living!)

But wait, there’s more! Read now and not only will you infuse life into the poem, you’ll also infuse a little more life into yourself (and order your snuggie now and you’ll receive this free book-light!). Whew, that was a lot to take in. But the point is — unlike infomercials — the power you have isn’t a gimmick. And it doesn’t cost anything. So maybe you’ve hated poetry since high school when your teacher shoved Shakespearean sonnets down your throat (foie gras, anyone?) and then made you memorize (regurgitate) them and then made you write (vomit) them ad nauseam —

but maybe

you can realize that life and experiences change and that you might be in a better season of life to appreciate the written (in-poem-format) word.

Read to bring

dead

words to life.

Changing line breaks in this sentence makes it poetic. Now we’re reading this as a poem, journeying through one enjambed line at a time, wondering why line breaks occur after three words and then after one and then after three. We wonder why the word “dead” splits the poem — why it’s alone, on its own line, floating. We wonder about the symmetry of the lines. We wonder.

And wondering means we’re alive.

I get really excited about this stuff. And as a teacher, I get to live out my excitement in the classroom every day. I come home and tell my husband all about it, and he says flatly, “I don’t know that your students are as excited about all of this.” But I’m excited, and I’m excited to share my excitement, and I’m excited to excite my students, even if it’s a process and their excitement isn’t quite at the level as mine.

Ah, well. At least my students won’t fall asleep in my class when I (loudly, dramatically) talk (and jump and gesticulate) about line breaks in poetry.

So when Stallings says “Something has come between us,” yeah, she’s talking about a baby, but how do we interpret the line from where we’re at in life? And maybe if you’re a rule-following robot who only cares about answering standardized test questions written about this poem correctly, you don’t care. I respect that — to an extent (play the game to beat the game) — but as soon as you’ve finished the rule-following-robot-made standardized tests, please release the talons from the what’s-the-answer mindset. There’s beautiful, beautiful freedom to be had after the release. Interestingly, Stallings’ poem title (“The Catch”) is the opposite of the release. Think about that as we explore.

Let’s tuck in with some questions:

  • What is “Something”? An idea? A mindset? A human? A rule? A disagreement?
  • The “us” — it’s first-person collective, so it’s me and someone (something?) else. Who? A partner? A friend? It mentions later in the poem that it’s a lover, a husband, but what might the “us” mean for you and me as we read the poem right now?
  • And then why does the “something” not sleep?

What is it in our lives right now that disrupts our sleep? That comes between us and a friend or a lover or a child? There’s truth here. There’s depth. Introspection to be had — even (especially!) when we’ve had completely different life experiences from Stallings. Truth, depth, and — I’d add — a smoky purple wisp of magic.

So as I turn to introspect and ask myself on a deeper level what disrupts, I’d say it’s my own insecurity. Partially because I’m a teacher (and supposed to have memorized all of the facts) and partially because I’m married to a very knowledgeable human (you definitely want him on your team for Trivial Pursuit), I’m insecure of my own knowledge. What if someone asks me to definitively point to Finland on a map? What if my good friend who is also a government teacher asks me to name two Florida district senators (is that what they’re even called)? My hands sweat just thinking about this: THERE! They’ve found me out! They’ve realized that I’m a fake! A fraud! That I know NOTHING.

That I know

NOTHING.

But if I put the line break after “know,” it changes the story. The space after know becomes opportunity, growth, change. And then it changes our mindset as we move to the second line. “NOTHING” now becomes humility — humility in being able to admit I don’t know some things that maybe I should. But because I’m a human and I’m alive, I keep trying and I keep learning. If I don’t know something, I’ll look it up (I may do this in the privacy of my own phone, but there may come a time when I have the confidence to ask a human). One step (towards more knowledge) at a time.

And while we all know how important sleep is, it might behoove us to see the sleep disruptions as opportunities. Maybe those disruptions are there for a reason, and the reason is to make us better humans. I can say this: my literal sleep “disruptors” (my kids! my baby!) make me a better human. But my insecurity-turned-humility does, too. And then guess what happens when we take a crisp minute to address the disruptions? We sleep better.

So let’s raise a cool glass of carbonated water with a wedge of lime to disruptions! To opportunities! To becoming better humans!

And to getting more sleep.

Cheers.

Addendum: In the middle of writing this post, something came between my typing fingers and the keyboard. It did not sleep. It was my 6-month old, waking up from a nap, needing my immediate attention. The absolute best “disruption.”

Yanking Down Signs and Other Ways to Rebel Against BS

“The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.” –Friedrich Nietzsche–

How am I a teacher? Sometimes I think it is the ultimate paradox in my life. I love teaching. I love being in my classroom, looking out at the faces of my students, talking about participial phrases.

And yet.

There is something deep inside my core that resists. Perhaps it’s the Walt Whitman in me (“Resist much, obey little”). While I am a teacher, I find myself fundamentally against The Teacher and The Classroom and The School. And resisting — in my mind, anyway — is the only way to avoid becoming a rule-following robot, what I imagine Nietzsche meant by his “instructor.”

I do NOT want to become a rule-following robot. But I also do not want my students to become rule-following robots. I feel for my students: they’re simply following the rules they’ve been taught since stepping inside their first classroom. (More about that here.)

Circle back. Why do I teach? Certainly a valid question. I’m on board with Nietzsche here — that the way to corrupt youth is to teach them to think like everyone else. Get them together, slap a set of standards in front of them, hold them accountable, give grades, consider those who fall below standards “special needs,” run around campus after others to give “extra help,” squeeze another study hall into their schedule as the magical remedy, have meetings with them and their parents and their teachers sitting around in a circle talking about how they “are simply performing below their potential” — students hot in the face, embarrassed, squirming to get out of that conference room and into fresh air. Really when will it end? When will the rule-following robot-adults realize that there might be a better way?

When the rule-following robots are the ones making the rules, something has gone very, very wrong. But can we blame them? They grew up being praised for thinking like everyone else, getting A’s on tests written by test-generating software, getting a 1600 on the standardized college-board-created SAT. They’ve been conditioned (just like Pavlov’s dog) to salivate when they see bell curves and rankings and percentiles and graphs. So it’s no surprise that they become rule-following robots writing the rules. And further, it’s no surprise that because of their lives of following rules, they think the youth should as well. (“Kids these days,” they grumble, which roughly translates to “I actually think I’m better than kids these days, and I was also better when I was a kid myself.” Adult snobbery. When does the I’m-constantly-comparing-myself-to-others thing get old? Apparently not when humans get old. Sigh.)

I get fired up about this stuff! I get mad! I get frustrated! But the reason I feel so strongly is probably because I have rule-following-robot tendencies running through my veins. It’s easy to get caught up in the grades, the scores, the elite college acceptance, the powerful job, the ideal family (with 2.5 kids), the Instagrammable home interior, the status. And doing these things or having these things are just ways that we follow the rules. And if we get to a point in our lives where we’ve decided that there is a universal (read: made-up) set of “rules” and we follow them, what we’ve decided (consciously or not) is that we want to be like everyone else. Why, when God has given us such beautiful complexity, would we ever do this?

Because when we blend in, we don’t really have to live. We find the equation for the life we want and simply plug in the variables to solve it. We turn off.

As a teacher, I do my best to walk alongside my students and discover the beauty in learning with them. Instead of letting the textbook teach, I try to get to know my students and adapt the curriculum to fit who they are and where they are in life. I try my best to see them as individuals — all with unique gifts. Do I still teach them the rules of grammar and punctuation and sentence structure? Yes. But I hope to teach them to use the rules as a foundation to build a beautiful structure above ground. A structure that adds something unique to our world.

Because I want my students to really live, knowing that they don’t have to build the cookie cutter houses in the cookie cutter neighborhoods (that also have HOA’s — fees! rules! the old lady sitting on her cookie-cutter porch watching the ne’er-do-well youth, waiting for them to do something wrong — like feed the ducks how DARE they — a finger resting on the HOA speed-dial of her large-button landline telephone that rests limply in her lap!). E. E. Cummings was on to something when he called out the old people in his poem “old age sticks”:

old age sticks
up Keep
Off
signs)&


youth yanks them
down(old
age
cries No


Tres)&(pas)
youth laughs
(sing
old age


scolds Forbid
den Stop
Must
n’t Don’t


&)youth goes
right on
gr
owing old

Oh, man, do I love Cummings. I love that he — as an adult — rebelled against the conventions of poetry. Punctuation and spacing and capitalization rules be damned! He’ll do what he wants. And in this poem, like all his other poetry (that I’ve read, anyway), it functions a little bit like a puzzle. Look back at the poem and note what’s (or, rather, who’s) inside and outside the parentheses. Which words are capitalized? Here’s a rough translation:

//Old people stick up Keep Off signs;

Youth yanks them down;

Old people cry No Trespassing;

Youth laughs, probably while tearing down the signs;

Old people continue getting their jollies by yelling out other rules: Forbidden, Stop, Mustn’t, Don’t;

Youth becomes old.//

Old people are inside of the parentheses, presumably confined by their own curmudgeonry. Youth are outside of the parentheses, free. The curmudgeons of the poem can’t handle the idea of wild youth breaking rules. But look again at the end of the poem. What happens to the youth? They grow old — and all that implies.

Growing old is inevitable, yes, but turning into a rule-following robot-curmudgeon — thankfully — is not. Praise be.

So we rebel, ever mindful of not becoming the instructor Nietzsche references, and ever mindful of not becoming the curmudgeons of Cummings’ poem.

For all the youth out there, know that there are some adults who don’t want to define you by a boxed standard (BS). We understand that BS is something that can be packaged and shelved and bought and sold and resold, and because you are a complex human, we know that of course you can’t be defined by that BS. (And BS stinks!) And know that there are some adults out there who aren’t busybodies sitting on their porches watching and waiting for you to mess up so that they can slap a bunch of rules on you.

Maybe we can all do a better job of seeing humans as unique and complex. Maybe we can settle down a bit when it comes to the BS: the scores, the rules, the fixed mindset. And maybe it’s time to yank down a sign or three.