Flip-Flops!

I love to wear flip-flops.

This has been a great Thanksgiving weekend due to the weather cooperating with my favorite choice of footwear. I have socks and sneakers along on the trip, but – thankfully – there has been no need to depart from my flip-flops. I wore them to WalMart, Menards, and Target yesterday where my only Black Friday purchases included items for the care of my father-in-love, an awesome assortment of Lifesaver candies, and two copies of the Civil Wars’ cd so that the Aberdeen, SD, Target would need to order more.

I wore flip-flops every school day of the 2004-2005 school year. At the time, I taught English at PACT Charter School in Ramsey, MN. The school was started by a group who wanted to encourage parent involvement in all areas of the school. Many of them had been homeschoolers who also wanted families to have more time together. Because of that, three Fridays each month were “home” school days for students and professional development days for teachers. I taught spectacular students who had very involved parents.

My teaching load that year involved four sections of 9th and 10th grade English. My colleague, Dave Wood (we were just “Bender” and “Wood” to the kids), taught all of the social studies classes with the same students. Due to some toe-nail issues, I had been wearing flip-flops at the beginning of the school year. Dave wore flip-flops often as well. Somehow we ended up in a contest to see who could wear flip-flops longer into the school year.

Our shared students and we developed a contract which we both signed. We had to wear flip-flopas once we stepped on school property. We were allowed to wear more traditional footwear for parent-teacher conference. This was a job-keeping concession as I remember it. Whoever stopped wearing flip-flops first owed the other a case of Coca-Cola. If one of us left the school’s employment before the contest had ended, the leaver had to buy dinner for the other (spouses included, of course). At some point mid-winter, we started wearing socks for our joint carpool duty. This came, I believe, under pressure from elementary parents who saw us as bad role models in our poor choice of footwear with snow on the ground.

If anyone would ask me what year of working at a school was my most memorable, I would have to say that 2004-2005 – the year of the flip-flops – would be the year. I am not a great classroom teacher. The state standards are cumbersome and vary from the vague things such as “understanding irony” to the extremely specific “understand and apply the difference between who and whom.” As evidenced with my later guidance counselor licensure, I am much better in the hallways than in the classroom. I would guess that my students from my two years at PACT would say they learned more about how to maneuver life than they did the English content itself.

One of my favorite impromtu “life lessons” that year happened in the honors class which occurred at the end of the high school lunch hour. A food fight had broken out and ended when someone had pelted the school director with ranch dressing. While the details had not been sorted out thoroughly, punishments had already been handed out. Students entered my classroom angry that decisions could be made so quickly and without the whole story.

It was a great day!

This is one of the opportunities for which all teachers hope and for which any are rarely prepared. As an English teacher in a school with much parent involvement where every novel and short story needed approval by a curriculum committee made up almost entirely of parents, I had earned a reputation within the first few months of employment as a bit of a rebel. I had not intended to be viewed as a rebel, but that turned out to be the consequence of having strong convictions about what students needed to read in preparation for college. I had spent hours surveying college professors of state and private institutions as to what they expected students to have read before entering college. Because of the small school culture and the fact that students were on several committees, students were aware of my actions and of the view of me by many around the school.

Because of that view, I think that students assumed I would be sympathetic to their anger as well as to the pelter of the ranch dressing. They were so wrong! What they, in their 9th and 10th grade view of the world, lacked in their understanding was that I hold authority as high as it should be even if I was willing to question authority when needed. Regardless of how I felt about how the school director handed out punishments, I could sympathize with what he felt. Someone had pelted ranch dressing at the man! How rude!

I scrapped the standards’ based lesson plan for the day and launched into a lengthy lesson about life’s chips. In each relationship with someone in authority, we earn and spend chips. I talked with the students about just how many chips had been collectively spent by the student body when a food fight broke out as well as how that number went up exponentially when ranch dressing found its way to the school director. What they needed to consider was which students had built up enough chips to address this with the director. They wanted to storm his office, create petitions, and move with immediate actions. I cautioned them to give it a day, to consider which select students should assume the roles of representatives to speak on behalf of all, and to make an appointment. I reminded them that all chips had most likely been spent in this incident and that they needed to move wisely as opposed to quickly. Less was more in this situation.

At the end of the school year, I resigned and move to teaching online where there was more time in the virtual hallway than in the virtual classroom, but these students have always held a special place in my heart. Some are about to graduate from college; others already have. Some are about to get married; others already have. My hope is that my reputation of being a rebel has been balanced by this lesson about chips. I also hope that, when they think about the flip-flop contest, they remember the fun we had in the classroom learning about life. I hope that it makes them better readers and writers even though I cannot really take much credit for that.

The title of my blog post today was going to be “lacking inspiration” because I felt that way until I looked at my feet, saw my flip-flops, and remembered how inspired I become each day by these former students as I stalk their lives now through Facebook. I thank each and every one of them for becoming who they are today and for making the world a better place because they are in it.

Cheers to you all!

ps: Wood, I still owe you dinner. Let me know the next time you are in town. :)

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