Tuesday, July 3, 2012


When I was 23, I was invited to play on a recreational team for a nighttime adult volleyball league. My co-worker at a K-12 private school in Washington, DC had invited me, and even though she didn't know much about volleyball, she was naturally athletic and she was very competitive without being pushy. I liked these things in her, and I thought it would be a nice way to try to make a friend at work while also doing something that I liked a lot, too.

We usually taught and then coached afterschool until 7pm. After dinner and some work, I would meet her at the place where we would scrimmage or practice with our novice team and then go home pretty late to do more work for school the next day.

Playing on this co-ed team was fun, and usually there were enough of us to play, but not so many of us that there was a lot of sitting out. Generally, there was little hope of winning since the skill level was rather uneven (and low all around) but I liked the people well enough and really liked getting to know my co-worker better.

After a season or two of playing for this co-ed group, one of the guys on the team asked me if I had any interest in playing mixed doubles. I was a little surprised that he thought anyone from our team could manage double because our team was too lackadaisical to even try very hard because it was simply not very skilled or competitive. I hadn't played doubles on the beach since high school, and even at my best, I am not athletically coordinated. That being said, this guy who asked me was not what you would call an athletic-looking fellow either. I cannot recall his name, but it was something easy to say, like Ted. In any case, Ted was not what you would have guessed was athletic in any sport, and, having watched him play volleyball, he knew all the basics, but nothing stood out about him other than he was cordial, sportsmanlike, and did more things right than wrong on the court. Aside from that, he not much taller than my 5'3" height, which is short for women in volleyball, and considered very short for men. He wore his white athletic socks very high and his shorts were long, canvas cotton LL Bean walking shorts. I do not think he even owned a pair of athletic shorts for running, basketball, or volleyball, for that matter. Given how much white he had in his wardrobe, tennis might have been better suited for his clothing.

It was not the first time I have been asked to play volleyball as someone's partner or on their team, and it has not worked out. Often, people with some skill and a highly competitive attitude will snap at others for their mistakes when their own skills are not good enough to possibly warrant pushing others around. Even though I am extremely competitive, I do not bother with being competitive in situations where the skill level does not merit the effort; it just makes everyone feel bad. This felt like it could be just that kind of situation, but I have a hard time saying no to a volleyball invitation under most circumstances.

Tentatively, I agreed to meet Ted at the sand courts near the Memorial Bridge and the Lincoln Memorial in the late afternoon in two days. When I got there, I was nervous. Only one of the 11 courts was in use for a doubles men's game, so Ted and I began warming up. I felt really out of place as all the men were taller than we were, and they all looked pretty athletic and strong. Ted was there in his white t-shirt and white canvas shorts with his white socks, shoes, and white outdoor volleyball that looked like it had hardly been used before. We asked for the next game, and when it was our turn, we played quite well together. It is quite possible that we won, but I am unsure as it was a long time ago.

In any event, we stayed to play against a number of other teams who started arriving after work, and we finally left after a loss, agreeing to meet another day. I was surprised that we got along so well, and that we both did well as partners even though we had not played together much, even though we had been on the same six-man team, rotating in and out with our other teammates.

After our second practice through until dusk, he told me that there was a co-ed doubles tournament on the courts that weekend. He asked if I would be willing to enter it with him. Weekends were very hard for me to commit to since I always traveled to see my boyfriend in New York, but I told Ted that I would ask him to come down and meet me instead so that I could play in the tournament. I wasn't sure what I was thinking it would be like, but I did not think it would matter. We had not played long together anyway, and we were both pretty moderate in skill level.

That Saturday, the sun was out bright and early. It was going to be a hot one in DC. No clouds, a little humidity creeping in as we edged toward the summer, and a lot of time in the sun on the sandy courts. When we arrived, it took us a while to find each other, and other games were going on with men's doubles on most of the courts. Our first game was against a co-ed team that was apparently well known on the circuit. In my head, they could have been from the US National Team. Except that they looked like a bulging Mr. and Ms. Universe who also happened to have a lot of volleyball talent and a lot of tan skin (long before the days of tanning salons, mind you). Being from California, I am used to seeing tan volleyball players who have a certain smoothness of form and body shape that looks natural, not ropey. These two were body builders as well as athletes. Ted and I glanced at each other during their warm up. It was going to be a fast game, we could tell.

Although we did lose to this team, we were happy to have done better than we expected once again. It was turning out to be a durable partnership in some pretty stressful situations. But it was the next few games we played that really surprised us. In game after game against tall opponents who clearly had more skill than we had, Ted and I won again and again. This happened to us the other two times we played in pick up games together, but we also lost a number of games, understandably. Ted was the tallest of the two of us, but playing on a men's height net, it was very hard for me to block, so all of that was left to Ted, putting me in the position of handling the pass and hit, which was also hard for me on a men's net. I would always joke at the start of warm up how I could walk underneath the net and almost get clearance without bending my head. It was frustrating to play on such a high net, but any lower would have made it easier for men to hit even harder from the other teams. Somehow, though, Ted and I made it work. We always tried to set up a play, and we tried to move the play to where the other person was to make it easier for each other on such a large court. We did our best and were encouraging of whatever went right in each play. It was a simple recipe, but it worked.

It worked so well that we made it to the finals. And then, Ted got sunstroke. I couldn't believe he was going to pass out right there in between games when we were waiting for our finals round. Lying in the shade of one of the many trees in the park, Ted turned brighter and brighter red. His good friend, whom we had beaten in a prior game, was fanning him, trying to cool him down. I kept talking to him, hoping that he would bounce back in the next 40 minutes, when it became apparent that he would not be able to sit up and move around easily. I didn't want to play in the finals if I didn't have him as a partner--and I didn't even know him well as it was! He told me to find another partner because he would sit it out since the sun was still relatively hot in at 2:30pm. I ran to the men's doubles courts and looked for a game that was finishing to see if I could find someone. I spotted another guy whom I had played against just a few days ago. I knew he would know me. But his team was doing well, and he was trying to get to the finals on his side, so he declined to play in between games so he could be ready for his own game.

I was ready to give up. There was no point. But it would have been deflating for the other team to win simply because there was no competition. I had assumed we would play against the National Team, but somehow, that couple had gotten moved up to a different bracket where discovered card sharks go, so our bracket was relieved of their muscley madness. Ted suggested that I partner up with his friend, Brian, instead. Inside, I was not quite sure that Brian was going to work. He was much taller than Ted, and his skills were about the same level as Ted, so things looked rather decent on paper. But Brian was not very gracious as a player, and he was uptight and edgy instead of the easy-going, courteous player that Ted was. We lost in two games straight, and the tournament was over in due time. I thanked Brian for the last-minute substitution, and we went to sit by Ted again, who was looking just fine by now.

We went on to play doubles together for almost a year, never entering another tournament, but always playing on the sand courts near the bridge. At some point in the late spring of the next year, Ted and I went out to dinner for the first time, not long before I would be leaving to New York City to move in with my boyfriend. He told me he would be leaving to begin a course of study for the ministry, and we talked about his life and why he was choosing that. We hardly talked about the most incredible thing of all, which was how two people of relatively average talents could often beat teams with far more skill and strength (most teams were men-only). It was a sad ending to a fun and easy friendship, as we never kept in touch after we said goodbye, nor do I remember his name anyway, but I love to remember from time to time that a workable partnership can sometimes be stronger than a bunch of strong individuals.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

March 20

Okay, I've been out of it for a little bit. Still sick and disoriented, but alert enough to read on the computer again. 

But as we are moving this summer, my husband has begun thinning out things for our move as I lie here listening to the rustlings of his sorting. 

Given how many times we have moved, you would think that we would have winnowed down our lot to a reasonable amount. Not true. 

And given that either of us is going to continue teaching K-12 after this move, you'd think we could get rid of the mountains of things we have collected to teach different grades and subjects. Also untrue. 

And if there is anyone who can relate to the amount of stuff that a teacher collects for the sake of future teaching...it's teachers. 

All of our non-teacher friends seriously doubt that over half of our junk could really be teaching related. And they probably are wondering why it won't be as simple as dumping it with the first second-hand place on Colfax Avenue. I

But in each year we have taught, we have hunted to find just the right thing to use in a unit or to engage a particular student...and every year, the pile would build. It is hard to think of giving away all of it. But, really, what is the use in keeping any of it? 

Now is the step where we have to find the right people to pass things to because that will make it feel okay to give it away. I wish I could just whisk it all off to Goodwill, but each thing needs to be in its right home. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

March 16

Thinking about tomorrow being St. Patrick's Day, I told my daughter about when I was in elementary school. I thought it was great to wear green on St. Patrick's Day. Only one boy in our grade was Irish American, but it was fun nonetheless. Problem was, I didn't have much green. I told my daughter that at my school, my classmates loved to pinch students who forgot to wear green on them (did anyone else have this "tradition"?).So I found myself coming up with lame excuses that I had something green on such as, "My underwear have flowers on, and the leaves have green. Right here." That, of course, necessitated revealing some of my underwear, so that started to seem like a bad idea after a few tries. Anyway, not much to tell tonight. I just thought I'd share my childhood goofiness.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

March 15

Job Math

This is just something I take stock of every so often to see where I am in the process, to see if I am on-track.

9 weeks = end of school
8 weeks = elective classes
65 students = 40 days for OOBEE trips
Instructional time (3rd/4th grades) = 2 hrs/wk x 8 wks = 16 hrs
Instructional time (K-2) = 45 mins/wk x 8 wks = 6 hrs
110 report cards = 1 week
1 week = 4 library shelves relabeled = 2 rolls of thin tape = 1 roll of thick tape = 150 to 200 barcodes
9 weeks = relabeling 36 more shelves = 9 more sets of stacks

Monday, March 14, 2011

March 14

It has been hard to write since the earthquake hit Japan. Everything I think of seems trivial. And the trivial things I want to write about seem even moreso.

It is hard to imagine days without food and water, being trapped, not knowing anything of family or friends, and having to find housing or a job out of nowhere.

At first, I was relieved to see the tidal waves from above, so it did not look as fearful as it might to me on a ground level. I thought I might have nightmares watching video footage of the wave as it approached. I did not realize that what was most frightening for me was seeing the imminent danger approaching and that people knew the tidal waves were coming but still were going to have trouble escaping. Watching the fires of houses burning next to many other houses, or knowing that the nuclear reactors would keep heating up--these are outcomes that will certainly happen, but it is simply a question of when. It has been very overwhelming to think about these things when I sit down to write something that will mean something to me.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

March 13

Why do you teach? Why do you teach what you teach? Personally, I have had a long and positive relationship with education. I have enjoyed school ever since I was in preschool, and only in college and graduate school has the number of good teachers diminished. I enjoy teaching, and I like being a positive presence for my students, whether they go into language or not. But I can recall meeting people in college who had terrible memories of school. Some felt they learned nothing, and some could remember a single person who made a change on their lives—a person who encouraged them to be themselves, or a person who encouraged them to apply to college. Others told me about the one teacher who assured the student that they would never amount to anything. For them, a good education was an act of defiance. It alarmed me that others could not think of a single person who made a positive impact on their education. It made me realize that people get into teaching for all sorts of reasons, often a combination of them. 

Would anyone care to share their reasons or motivations? Has it worked out as you thought it would?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

March 12

I did not ask for help as a kid. This is something that took me a long time to realize; I can get frustrated easily doing things incorrectly or inefficiently because I make up my own way. I do not know if it is because I was conditioned this way, taught it explicitly, or if it is my natural tendency. What I do know is that I have a few distinct memories about certain times when I did ask for help and that I regretted it.These are my memories about asking for help with math.

From my child's point of view, every time that I asked for help, it yielded extra work for me. There was no point in asking for help if it meant extra work.

Once I was in the second grade, early in the year, and I was learning how to add two-digit numbers. My worksheet had a page of problems, but there was no symbol to indicate what I was to do with them. Even though the instructions tersely stated, "Add," I was confused why there was no "+" symbol. It didn't make any sense. We had never seen problems like this before. In addition, I was not clear on the concept of carrying units from the ones to the tens, and I often miscounted in the first place, counting one of the numbers itself, as in "11+12" to mean I would count on my fingers or number line: "11, 12, 13, 14, 15...22"...or is is "12, 13, 14...23?" I never did get the idea right in Kindergarten, so I kept repeating the same problem with everything I added.

In any case, the combination of confusing factors led me to ask for help. There was one too many items that had thrown off my orientation, and I needed assurance. Mistakenly, i went to a parent: my dad. My dad is an engineer by training, and he is very strong in math such that he estimates large and irregular numbers whenever we are roughly calculating numbers, percentages, or rates. It's almost like a magic trick to me. Poof! And he can come up with something akin to a calculator response. My daughter and oldest nephew love to test him versus the calculator to see how close he can get to accuracy with multi-step problems or very large numbers. Especially in today's computer age when computations can be quick and accurate, the human brain is truly spectacular at its ability to challenge something that appears automatic and mechanical.

But being his daughter, I did not really know that asking for math help should be out of the ordinary. Maybe other dads did this sort of mathemagical thing. Maybe other kids needed math help. Maybe he was the right person to ask, as all adults appeared to be. I was wrong. First, my dad explained that it was always assumed to be addition when a mathematical sign was absent because that was the default. Other symbols were always written in. This baffled me because it seemed illogical. Why wouldn't the workbook authors simply take the time to include the symbol and stop confusing me? Textbooks always included the symbol. It was just a law of nature. I was still looking quizzical when he went on to address my second issue: carrying over to the tens' column. I was not strong on the concept, so his quick explanation escaped me as I was probably still mulling over the issue of including or not including the math symbol for the function. His tone turned serious when he realized I was lost, and he buckled down to see if I was needing an explanation of the concept. This is where things turned very hairy.

My dad likes concepts. And he liked to make sure I understood them--conceptually. I was not a conceptual math thinker. I was a reproducer. I could reproduce models over and over, but they had to be the same way. By doing this many times, I finally figured out patterns and, at some point much further down the pipeline--probably much further along than was truly acceptable by math teacher standards--I "got" the concept. It was a backwards approach for me, but I was willing to take math on faith. No proof was needed. And if proof were eventually given, I was even more pleased, for I could now apply this idea in many ways and in new contexts unlike my rote approach prior to my gestalt. However, this would take years for me to realize, and I was happy at the time to simply accept math wisdom as it was handed down through my workbooks.

My father, however, was not. He realized how inflexible my thinking was and that this would not serve when thinking about the nature of a problem. Problems needed to be understood on a conceptual level or the answers could not be scrutinized as appropriate or out-of-the-ballpark. The test of reason always had to be applied to a solution. This was starting to look like a very involved math tutoring session. I was remorseful for ever having asked. When I struggled through the problems I was given, trying to use this "conceptual" approach, he harumphed in his dissatisfied way and proceeded to write out a page of math problems for me of his own. He used a thin, almost college-rule pad of paper with a greenish tint on which he wrote his "business" work. He was just rolling up his sleeves. After I finished the page to the lowest level of acceptable quality, I hoped I was out of the woods though I knew in my heart of hearts, there must be more. But what?

He then asked about my subtraction abilities. All I knew was that I was even worse in subtraction. He wrote out a page of those, and he included a number of two-digit subtraction problems. I had not seen those yet, but he was not concerned. "Conceptually," they were the reverse of the addition. The concept should apply regardless. I was lost. I had no idea what he was talking about. I had no idea how to solve them. My teacher must have believed I could not for she had not even taught me this yet. I was sunk. I knew I could not get out of these exercises until I could prove I "got" them, but that enlightenment was so far off as to be statistically impossible. I do not remember how it ended or that it ended at all, but I do remember that I only asked for math help twice after that: once in middle school and once in high school. They were moments of clear desperation, and I vowed to avoid my dad as a possible source of help for anything in the future, especially if it were quantitative.

The final time that I asked for help, I remember I was stuck one of two challenge problems that my teacher had given me. I don't know if my teacher thought that students would actually solve each of the problems assigned. Maybe an attempt was decent. For me, homework was homework, and it must be completed on time. So I worked and worked, but I could not solve this final problem of the night. Realizing that I might never solve it, and realizing that my only source of help might be retiring to bed soon, I went to him and asked. Having my few prior experiences with him over math homework, I was trying my best to make clear what I needed: this was the Book's way of solving these types of problems; these were all of the Book's examples. I did not want any deviations from the Book. I liked the Book. But this problem was a variation that was not handled in the examples, so I needed some guidance about how I was misapplying these approaches so that I could then apply the Tried-and-True Approaches to find a solution.

My dad must not have heard a single thing I said. Immediately, he began tackling the problem using an approach that was completely dissimilar to anything I had learned to this point. I had no idea what he was doing. His first attempt failed. He was puzzled. His second attempt came to nothing. He was most intrigued by this math problem. I was thinking, "Holy crap! What kind of math is this book covering that my dad can't even solve it?...and that I'm supposed to!?!?" Finally he arrived at a solution. He had to explain it to me about three times. The first time, I simply lamented that nothing he said matched up with the Book's explanations. There was nothing I could hang onto. The second time, I realized he had to rely on other mathematical truths about arcs, diameters, radii, lines, and angles to put together a few steps to solve for the unknown. The third time, I was able to understand what he had done so that I could explain how I had cheated on this final problem the next day in class.

When I got to class, we went over the problem set and finally, we arrived at the two challenge problems. For the last one, the teacher asked if anyone had gotten the solution. No one raised a hand. After a few seconds, one of the smartest math students in class raised her hand. She explained her answer (which was also different from the Book's), and the teacher was impressed. We all continued to bow down on the ground she walked on. After no one else came forward, I admitted that my dad, not I, had solved the problem, but that he had taken a different approach than either the Book's or the student's. I explained how he had calculated for different pieces to set up a problem that he could solve for. I was embarrassed and felt cheap.Everyone in class oohed and aahhed over the thinking behind it. My teacher was amazed. She was stunned by the cleverness of the approach. In the end, it was quite elegant and simple.

Elegant? Simple? Clever? Amazing? Was this how other people viewed my father? I was shocked to think that these words might apply to My Dad. My Dad?! Wow, this was a different view than I had ever taken to his way of teaching math. For the rest of the day, I pondered this awe about my dad. I couldn't wait until he came home for dinner late that night, and I told him how his approach had been received by my classmates and teacher. He smiled happily with his hands folded across his tummy, saying nothing. Though my resolve continued to be that I not ask for help unless critically needed, I was able to enjoy the moment, that I felt proud that he felt appreciated.