Beyond Old Windows: A Teacher's Thoughts Between Centuries

A list of letters contained on this page: please peruse with tea...

Is This Your Best Work?  (a letter to each year's students)

The Silly Season  (a time for regression, compassion, and eventual progression)

Special Delivery  (a note from Nana Claus, explaining why some arrive by post)

 "The Bravest" by Tom Paxton (remembering all of you, with love, pride, and gratitude)

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                                  Is This Your Best Work?

 

 Spring, 2010

in my 29th year of teaching

To all my students, in every content, in every year,

The story was told to me long ago, and the details are somewhat altered in the retelling…. My apologies to the originator, for I’ve searched keywords and found nothing that matched up to the tale I recall. So I’ll retell it here, once again, as I do in my classroom each year - both at the outset of a research essay assignment, and at its closing, just before students begin the research, and again just before they hand their work in to me. As with any oral retelling, it has no doubt morphed through the years, and now includes a part of me. In the spirit of Homer recapturing those Greek classic tales, here is what I can tell,  of another time, but still relevant today:

The Story

The young journalist was ready for his interview with the big city editor … he had passed his finals, received his sheepskin, celebrated with his friends and family, and told them of his morning ahead. He would wake early, shower, have a quick breakfast of coffee and cereal, and dress neatly wearing a new, crisp-collared white shirt, which would have six sharpened pencils in a pocket protector. Two brand new legal-size pads of yellow lined paper would be in his new briefcase, a graduation gift from his friends. He would ride the city bus to the magazine office.

The bus was crowded, and the riders looked weary for so early in the day. Finally standing in front of the tall building, he read the directory and then took the elevator to the fourth floor, where the magazine’s name appeared on a glossy black plaque. He knocked politely, and then entered. Expecting to see a secretary in attendance, the young journalist was surprised to be facing the editor himself. Looking up at his visitor, over his glasses and under his bushy eyebrows, the editor sat back in his worn leather chair, taking the measure of the young man before him.

They spoke for a few minutes, and then the editor gave the writer a fact sheet. “Turn this information into a 900 word human-interest story. I have to go to a meeting, and will be back later this evening. You can leave your piece here on the corner of my desk, and I’ll find it. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

The editor left and the young writer looked around the office and found a second desk near the window. He sat down, carefully rolling up his crisp white shirt cuffs, and got to work.

Many hours later, having worked through lunch, he stood up and stretched, and looked again at the piles of drafts and rewrites that he had produced that day. Stuffing all but the final draft into his briefcase, he held that finished piece in his hands, and read it one more time. Satisfied, he left it neatly on the corner of the editor’s desk, and let himself out. He treated himself to a taxi ride home, looking forward to last night’s left-over dinner, the remnants of his festive night out.  After eating, he listened to the radio for a while, and then went to bed. He slept fairly well, wondering what the editor would think of his work.

The next morning, he again showered and dressed in a crisp new shirt, the second that he’d bought earlier that week, and headed to the bus stop, with his pencils and briefcase full of scratched-out drafts and pads of paper. Confidently, he strode past the directory and entered the elevator, pushed the fourth floor button, and took a deep breath, patting down his hair on the back where it always rose after a shower. He exited the elevator, and knocked on the office door before entering.

The young writer’s smile weakened a bit as the editor didn’t immediately look up at him, but eventually, his eyes looked over his glasses toward the papers on the corner of his desk. He peered out under his bushy eyebrows again, looked at the journalist and said quietly, looking back at the papers, “Is that your best work?”

The journalist, taken aback at this less than celebratory welcome, cleared his throat and said that while he had worked carefully, he had a few better thoughts through the night, and would like the opportunity to rework that piece.  The editor, clearly a man of few words, nodded his head and went back to the article he was reading.

Picking up his papers from the corner of the editor's desk, the journalist went back to the desk by the window, the desk that had begun to feel like his desk yesterday, and took out a pad of paper and a fresh pencil and began again revising his work. The editor stood up, told him he had a meeting and would be gone a while, but to just leave his papers again on the corner of his desk, and he would talk with him in the morning.

Rolling up his sleeves, wiping the sweat from his brow, the young journalist went through the piece again and again. He found some verb tense errors, a misplaced capitalization, and a few misspellings. He read it again, this time focusing on the tone of the story, and removed a few unrelated anecdotes. He looked back at his introduction and found it lacking enough detail to orient his reader. He checked each paragraph carefully and tinkered with the opening and closing sentences. He compared what he wrote to the facts on the original assignment sheet, double checking name spellings and ages, dates, time spans, and everything else that he thought he might have mistaken.  At long last, well past lunch and dinner, he checked his word count, stacked his pages carefully, placed them on the corner of the desk, and let himself out. He caught the last bus home, wearily opened his own door, skipped supper and went to bed.

Hungry, discouraged, tired but sleepless, he went over and over the phrases he had written.  Had he slipped away from the story and elaborated too far with embellishments? What would the editor think of his changes?  … Eventually, he fell asleep.

In the morning, he rose early again, showered, dressed in his third and final crisp white shirt, and stopped to make fresh coffee and toast. Then he re-sharpened his pencils, made sure he had enough paper in his briefcase, and headed out to catch the crowded bus filled with weary workers. Downtown, he stood in front of the building for a moment, took a deep breath, rode the elevator to the fourth floor, and then knocked before entering. He found the editor reading another article, and saw his own piece sitting on the corner of the desk.

The editor looked up at him, lowered his glasses, and said again, quietly, “Is this your best work?”

The journalist closed his eyes, breathed slowly, and answered calmly, “Yes, this is the best I can offer you. I revised it carefully, checked for errors, reconsidered the tone and style, counted the words, read it aloud to listen for voice … I think, sir, there is nothing more that I can do to make that the best it can be.” He slowly turned his eyes from the editor to the papers at the corner of the desk, and then back again to the editor.

The editor looked directly at him then, with a smile, and said, “Good. Then I will read it now. You look tired – go get a cup of coffee and come back and we will talk.”

The End is always A Beginning

And as every good story has a moral to offer, I will offer you this. Never give up because you feel less experienced than you want to feel. Never hand something in that could be less than the reader expects it to be. Never refuse an opportunity to rework something you want to improve. And never assume, when someone asks you to look it over one more time, that you have already failed. You have only begun. Do your best. It will feel very, very good, and you will again have something to celebrate. 

            In trust and confidence,

                  Mrs. Palardy

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                                        The Silly Season

 

                                                                                       Spring, 2010

 

To my colleagues and our students, as we approach another great transition ...

A wise man once would call it the silly season … the time of year when pent up energy and giddy realizations of the arrival of spring sunshine and the impending freedom of summer all join in synergism to create a  level of energy that overpowers caution  and dims the light of awareness and responsible behavior. Good choices seem hard to recognize…

Regression occurs … of that, there can be no doubt. Self-control is undermined by approaching liberties … once-respected limits are now tested, acceptable borders are transgressed, risks invite, and foolish errors begin to compound, and elicit consequences far beyond the anticipated…

With each new season of development comes a required leap of faith … what is known is now changing … and not surprisingly, that leap across a chasm of growth necessitates a step back, a hunkering down, a wariness that obliterates established guideposts, and then a pouncing burst of energy;  bravado then obscures well-founded trust. The leap will exacerbate the excitement of achievement ...  a stable level place at both ends, the outset and completion of the leap, are necessary to securely restore the balance needed to continue moving forward along the path.

Nature changes seasons in a fairly-predictable cycle. The winter, hunkering down, is blessed with snow, a merciful covering of the previous year’s fallen remnants, which in turn are left to rest beneath the weighted blanket, nurturing the promise of the next spring’s growth… budding and blooming in light, bursting with brazen colors before dropping and hibernating again … a cycle of growth and rest …

September to December is our longest uninterrupted stretch of work. But our students have only a short winter respite … they work throughout that season, learning, growing, gaining knowledge … spring heralds a change ahead ... their summer is the leap, an epitome of activity, excitement, travel … and the fall then calls them immediately forward, ready or not, to the next level.

This unmet need for quiet contemplation, thoughtful reflection on all that they have learned and mastered … a lack of growth can be the end result of the absence of that rest … and an unsteady landing can limit the progression forward, for a time ...and while we cannot provide protective fencing and guaranteed safe footings, we can provide what insight we have, and what patience we'll need, and what encouragement and safe limits we can still offer ...

Perhaps, then,  what is, in this silly season, a reasonable regression by students about to leap, is recognized only by those adults who themselves can remember the journey.

 

                                                                                            by Terry Palardy

                  ...honoring those who do always remember and respond gently

 

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                                         Special Delivery

 

                                                                             December 25, 2007

Dear Sweet Children,

 

Santa brought a very little elf with him in his sleigh last night, and the chosen fellow was happily busy helping Santa pull gifts from his magical bag, placing some under Christmas Trees, some on the branches, and some in the stockings so carefully hung.  In time during the night, the little elf tuckered out, and finally curled up in the large comfy bag and took a nap.  Santa eventually found him there, smiling in dream and warm with memories, when the sleigh returned to the North Pole and to me, Mrs. Claus.

 

But Santa saw something else in the bottom of the wonderful bag – one last present, unnoticed as the cozy elf was curled up on top of it!

 

“Oh, Mrs. Claus, look. I’ve missed one this year!  What shall I do?”

 

“Be at peace, Santa,” I said, “For the morning mail hasn’t gone out yet. We’ll trust the post man to help, and have it delivered as quick as a wink. I know where this one is going. I’ll send it with a note that explains.”

 

I tucked the small present into a mailing envelope. “There is a little family of children in the Eastern Woodlands who love to hear stories. I’ll have the post man deliver it to their home. They’re not there right now, for they have gone over the rivers and through the woods to see their grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, far away from their own stockings. But they’ll come back home, and will be happy to find it there. Now take off your boots, Santa dear, and have a nice cup of Christmas tea.” And he did. And he, too, settled into a cozy nap of happy dreams and warm memories.

 

And now, dear children, when you’re snug in your pajamas tonight (remember to wear your warm stockings) and snuggled into a blanket as warm and cozy as Santa’s own bag was for the little elf, you can listen to some stories. For it is never too late for a Christmas story, filled with memories and promises of more to come.

 

Happy Christmas to all ~

                                                                                       Nana Claus

 

 

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 "The Bravest" by Tom Paxton                                                          (thinking of all of you, with love, pride, and gratitude)

To all the firefighters with us today,

to all the firefighters who have left us and risen to a better place,

and to all the firefighters yet to come into our lives,

It is not easy to find the words to describe the deep emotional strength you model and offer to each of us who love you. Nor is it easy to explain the range of emotions that fill our hearts ... pride, certainly, and love, always ... but also worry, fear of losing you, and a selfish wish to keep you with us always.

 I remember as a child hearing the sirens on the city streets, and immediately and consciously stopping to offer a prayer for the safety of those in danger and those responding to the danger. My dad was among those responders. Most often he came home safe and sound, sometimes a little worn for the effort spent, but always with a smile and a hug for each of us. Once or twice he didn't come home but went for medical care following a collapsed building that pinned him down, or noxious fumes from chemicals in an industrial fire. He told me once, after the collapsed building, that he felt angels were with him, and kept him safe until his brothers came in to help him out. I believed him then, and believe him still. He worked 32 years as a firefighter, beginning before Pearl Harbor, staying here as a necessary civilian, rising in the ranks from private all the way to District Chief of his beloved City of Boston, studying all those years to score high and outscore the bonus points awarded to others who had fought in the war, "veteran's preference" ...I knew of that as a child, but didn't understand why my dad's hazardous occupation didn't earn him the same bonus points. He asked me to understand that those men had risked their lives in their service to our country, and he never questioned their right to that advantage. But he never yielded to it, and worked and studied harder, to continue in his career risking his life every day for his city. I tried to understand. It was with relief that I saw him choose to

Dad as Deputy Chief in the City of Boston, 1970

retire after losing his son in a Connecticut fire, just one year after losing nine of his brothers at a tragic fire at the Vendome Hotel in Boston. He was grateful to have made it through his career successfully. He always told his trainees, "one hand on the ladder for your family who waits for you at home, and one hand for the job." He had lived because of that caution, and he had succeeded because of his effort and patient study. 

I remember as a young wife having a quiet disagreement with my husband when he told me he would join the local volunteer fire department ... memories of worries past and a sense of deja-vu, anticipating worries for the future ... would he be safe? Would he be as well trained for safety in our small town as my father had been in the city department? Would he be as fortunate? As careful? And i remembered my father's angels, and I prayed that they would be with my husband as well. And I believe they were, and still are. He retired after twenty years of fighting fires as a volunteer, risking all to save whoever needed help at the moment. Most often he came home safe and sound, and shared a hug and kiss before going back to whatever he was doing before the call interrupted his day or night. Once or twice he didn't come home but, like my dad before him, went for medical care following heat exhaustion or smoke inhalation ... he drilled and trained with his company, and rose in the ranks to Lieutenant and then Captain ...  and when he began to miss drills and practices while caring for his aging mother, he knew it was time to step out safely.  And he did, though he remains an association member and continues to help raise funds for the privately owned and operated fire company in the north end of our small town.

 Rick and our daughter Trish, 1989, Erie 4 Georgetown

I was calmer when my daughter decided  that she would join her dad in the volunteer company as a senior in high school. She attended drills, and tested hose,responded to calls for the rescue truck, performed CPR, tended to victims at car accidents, put out brush fires, and helped work the summer carnival booths to raise money for the company. When she went away to college her involvement in firefighting ended, and again I gave prayers of gratitude for her safety.

 And now our son is a state board certified firefighter, a certified EMT, and is studying towards his license as a paramedic, working per diem for our town department, and for a nearby ambulance service... he, like his grandfather, is studying hard to gain knowledge and skills that will help him to help others, and will help him to find a stable career in firefighting. Rob's First Major house fire, Georgetown, 2007    

This is the picture of his first major structure fire, to which he responded with the first team of firefighters. He was the third man in the building, among those entering to alert residents of the growing fire over their heads. He stayed fighting the flames until the fire was out, many hours later. The building was a total loss, but there were no resident injuries.  He, too, will face the challenge of competitive scores from veterans who have served their country in time of war ... while he is home serving his town and neighbors.  And I will try again to understand, and encourage him to persevere with his studies. I know he, too, will meet his goals, and the world will be a better place for his being here.

And so I offer a link here, to an old friend's new song, Tom Paxton's "The Bravest."  For truly, who among us civilians can claim to know whether a soldier or a firefighter takes the greater risk?  May the angels always be with them all. Enjoy Tom's song ... you are all among the bravest.

Love,

Terry Palardy, September, 2010

 

Tom Paxton's "The Bravest"

 

 

Rob, in turnout gear, ready, willing, and able to do his part... as a firefighter and EMT member of the Georgetown Fire Department's Central Fire Company, 2009.

 

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