The Way Back Seat

Quite awhile back I attempted to write a piece about the way back seat but couldn’t get it to work until now.  For those readers who are somehow too young to know what I mean, let me enlighten you.  The way back seat is not the one we think of in the SUV’s of today that have the third row seating and for that matter not even that rear seat of the mini van era.  Rather it was the rear facing seat in the old station wagons some of our parents drove.  Ours was in a yellow 1964 Ford Galaxy station wagon.  Now a days, the line is “shotgun” as riders fight for the ride in the front passenger seat.  Back then we would fight for that marvelous seat in the rear of the car we lovingly referred to as the “way back seat.”

We got two advantages when securing that seat.  One, we were well out of the reach of the long arm of the law, dad’s arm.  Two, we got to watch the countryside retreat into the distance from our vantage point there in the back seat. This usually, as we hurtled down the road on our way to some aunt or uncle’s house.

Now this is not a safety message or a “how did we ever survive our childhood” story, though the thought has crossed my mind many times since.  Truthfully, we had ample opportunities to face our mortality without the aid of the way back seat, at least I did for all of my antics growing up.  No, this is actually about the view.

As I have aged, I have come to realize that trying to fix our past doesn’t accomplish much more than regret.  Don’t misunderstand me, I adhere to the statement “those who don’t learn history, are doomed to repeat it.”  We must recognize the mistakes we have made and make every effort to learn from them and then to not repeat them.  But we can’t change the past.

So where does that leave me.  The view from that back seat was entertaining but it was where we had been and not where we were going.  That view was from the front seat.  The point I am going to make, is that we can’t relive the past but we can change the future.

On November 6th, we will ALL have the chance to vote.  Regardless of race or gender, if we are of voting age, we will have the constitutional right to vote.  Sadly, too many of us will be in the rear seat being nostalgic and will in fact, not vote.  We will make excuses like, “it is too hard to choose” or “I haven’t got time” or maybe “it just doesn’t matter.”  We will leave the decision to those riding shotgun to figure out where we are going.  The truth of the matter is that they will take us where THEY are going.

This November 6th, I am asking you to vote, to make a decision in your future through those that you would have define it.  You see, your vote does matter and it is your duty to see that it is counted.  Sitting in the way back seat, waxing nostalgic, is not the best option.  We cannot change the past but we can affect the future.  Not just for us but for all who are counting on us, counting on your vote.

Go to the polls, cast your vote.  I am willing to take the risk that you might not vote the same way I do.  I feel that strongly about the process of electing our officials.  But, who knows, if I am lucky, you just might vote the same way I do and together our votes and the votes of others will be counted and our future might just be a little more in our control.

So on election day, I invite you to ride shotgun and help us all figure out where we, as a free nation, just might be going.

To the Moon and Back

Just recently Katherine Johnson celebrated her 100th birthday.  If you are unaware, as too many are, who Katherine Johnson is, Google her and take the time to meet the woman behind the math that allowed American astronauts to reach space and eventually the moon.  Her’s is a story of perseverance in the face of both gender and race discrimination that eventually and fortunately brought her to a position of importance and respect.  She served as “the human calculator” for NASA in its early days of space travel and also served as an inspiration for black and female mathematicians of that era.

As a math teacher, I preached, to anyone who would listen, about the strengths and merits of young girls ability to grasp and apply math concepts.  Back then, I had been instrumental in developing a math curriculum for both enriching and accelerating the placement of 6th and 7th grade students.  It was immediately apparent that there was a large disparity between girls and boys in the placement.  Boys easily outnumbered the girls in having success in mathematics recognized by their teachers.  It was my opinion then and still is that if anything, we should be having a higher number of girls succeeding at math.  Math is the study of concepts that become apparent when numeric relationships are recognized.

Sorry guys, but women are far more relational in their reasoning than we are.  They also tend to be more visual and this is a valuable trait when a math student is trying to see the relationships behind the concepts that govern math.  That said, there should have been more girls being recommended and placed in those accelerated classes.  It became my quest to find them and to determine why they were not showing up in the first place.

Here comes my disclaimer.  I am not a formal researcher but rather an observer.  When I do need to research an issue, thank god for Google.  Still, even though I had no formal research to back me up, I firmly believed I could point at several reasons why girls were being overlooked.

I will tackle the easy one first as it is the most obvious and the easiest to fix.  Boys by nature are more aggressive than girls and will volunteer to answer a question even when they don’t have the answer.  They also tend to be the one with too much energy and to avoid that energy going south, teachers will tend to draw them into the conversation to help control their behavior.  Score two for the boys in the categories of recognition and involvement.  We need to bring girls into the class conversation evenly.

Next up is teaching style.  This area is much improved but also too often maligned by those on the outside.  Math and arithmetic are two different animals.  Math is a study while arithmetic is a skill.  For way too long, math in the first six to eight grades was approached as arithmetic and devoid of concept development.  It was taught from a left brain approach of rules and memorization.  I will not go into systematic details and differences, but concepts are more complex and require more variety in teaching style.  Not least of these variances is realizing that many children are more inclined to be right brain thinkers than left brain.  The left brain is more rote memorization and rule oriented while the right brain is more visual and concept oriented.  Early on I had observed that the students being recommended for accelerated placement in math were almost always involved in music classes.  No surprise that music and creativity reside in the right brain.  The girls that were being recommended for acceleration were also in those music classes.  Epiphany, if girls were by nature more visual than males, was it possible that left brain teaching techniques were leaving them a step behind to start the race.  Good news, as I stated earlier, this difference in teaching style is now widely understood and implemented by educators everywhere.  Score one for the girls getting an equal chance.

Finally the difficult one, culture.  We still don’t fully recognize the importance of the role mothers play in their daughter’s math success.  Though more documented in today’s culture, back when I was teaching if I asked a parent who helped with math homework, the answer was all too often dad.  The  mother’s response was often, “I tell them to ask their dad because I was never good at this.”  So there it was, that daughter who looked at her mother as a successful role model was left with the take away that math was seemingly not important to success but likely too hard anyway.

I will always point to and thank strong women who prove time and time again that they can “do the math” and stand as role models for every young women looking to be just as successful as every young man out there.  Mothers, please don’t send your daughter to dad every time she has a math question.  Own your role and possibly your daughter’s future success.

Happy birthday Katherine Johnson and thank you for never doubting yourself and always fighting for your place in the world.  Thanks to you, our world stretches at least to the moon and back.


Friends come and go….

I know I haven’t written for a while and I must tell you it’s become a bit of a thing.  The act of writing is a release for me and to have a bout of writer’s block is a real stress inducer.  I also need to warn my readers that I have had three cups of coffee this morning and as my wife can attest to, that is dangerous.  One cup leaves me witty while two cups brings out my sarcastic side.  Three cups is basically uncharted territory.

Friends mean everything to me and all too often I end up obsessing about one or two that I have lost contact with.  I always blame myself for that when in reality it is a two way street.  We all become busy with the things of life.  Careers, family, hobbies and past times all conspire to get in our way and suddenly that list of people you lost touch with starts to grow.

If you are now expecting some words of wisdom from me remember that I already warned you about the caffeine intake.  You can remain hopeful but I promise nothing.  It is just that for two days in a row, I have managed to reconnect with three groups of friends in a guilt driven effort of reunion frenzy.  It started yesterday with a lunch date with two of my previous co-workers and then continued last evening with a surprise birthday party for a friend that conveniently brought together several friends from an old couples group.

This morning, after an excruciating patience demanding drive across town in rush hour traffic, (I just needed that off my chest so thank you for that moment of venting) I arrived at a breakfast reunion with fellow retired teachers from my now distant past.  The group meets at the same restaurant every first Friday of the month for breakfast.  I had known about it but just couldn’t seem to find the time to attend.  Or was it the fear that I wouldn’t be able to go back to those old times with any success.  The moment I walked into the room, two things happened.  The first was instant acknowledgement by the assembled group.  They both acknowledged me and even though twenty plus years had passed us by, I still recognized them.  There is always that fear that as Thomas Hardy said “you can never go back”.  My apologies to Mr. Hardy but that was my take away or at least all I gathered a million years ago in some english lit class that I had been required to take.  Maybe one day I should actually read the book, but for now my contorted interpretation of his statement will suffice.  The point is we can go back, if we are willing, and might just be surprised that as much as life can change us there is still the chance for reconnections to take place.

The second thing that happened was that within a matter of minutes, the conversations took me back to the memories of the careers we had shared and the years between melted away.  The beauty of these reunions is that they take us back to times that were part of our life’s journey and were quite often the defining moments of who we had become.  It is important to realize that in those reunion conversations we focus on the happy memories.  Those memories of the times, that even though they may have had struggles and rough spots, we found ways to have fun.  That is what made us friends, that drew us together, that represented the commonalities we shared.

Breakfast lasted two hours, thus three cups of caffiene, and thanks to the memories, I was able to catch up.  We shared stories from the past and pictures from the present.  We marveled at how our thirteen and fourteen year old students of the past were now in there forties and yes, fifties, even as we were denying that we had aged at all.  The beauty of telling stories from the past is that our own age somehow retreats as the memories return us to those days.  Maybe even “the good old days.”

So if there is a point to this story it is that we should stop feeling guilty about the friends we lost touch with and just take the opportunity when it arises to reconnect.  Friends don’t really come and go, we just get separated by time.  Take the chance to go back in time every once and a while and surprise those friends that time has separated us from.  Odds are you might just surprise yourself at how quickly the years that separate you disappear.