Nov 19, 2010

The Nemesis

Erwin and I (with the Feller) at the finish line of the Buckeye Classic 10K, Sunday, November 14, 2010.

Last Sunday, my running buddy Erwin Capilitan and I bundled up against the cold and headed out to run the Buckeye Classic, an annual 10K event at nearby Highbanks Metro Park. It’s a beautiful woodland trail, particularly with the last of the fall foliage garnishing the trees and filling the gullies along the course. It’s also fairly challenging with a good number of hills—the inclines are all quite short, but many are quite steep. There’s even a set of wide wooden steps to climb at one point on the course. Erwin and I had spent the previous two Sunday mornings running the trail to get the lay of the land and develop a level of comfort with the course in advance of the race.

This race was the first one where I had set an actual time goal for myself. I’d had other goals in other runs, but they’d never really been related to a finish time. With the Turkey Trot, the goal was to run the entire way—no walking. With the San Francisco Marathon, the goal was simply to finish. Granted, there was a time constraint to finishing that one, but the primary focus was on the completion rather than a particular goal time. The last race before this one, the Panerathon in August, was mainly about getting back into the running life. But with the Buckeye Classic, I finally had a specific time I wanted to beat. I’d set a goal to finish in under an hour. I’d trained pretty consistently and had seen my times improve, so as we gathered at the starting line with over 500 other runners, I was pretty confident I could make my goal.

With the family at the starting line. No, that's not a headscarf I'm wearing. I wasn't sure whether and Babs and the Feller would make it to the starting line on time due to the parking situation, so I threw the complimentary long-sleeved race t-shirt they gave me around my neck, planning to run with it if I needed to.

And we're off!

Overall, the run was pretty good. I found maybe the second mile a little tough—a lot of the hills were in that stretch, and the last mile or so was a little stressful, as the clock ticked ever closer to the sixty-minute mark. I was moving a little slower than I’d anticipated and I was a little worried I might not be able to finish in time. But physically, the run was not bad at all. The big challenge for me was to keep focused on the goal I’d set and not allow myself to get sidetracked with more petty and prideful competitions.

Erwin looking strong as he completes the first mile.

Here I come, finishing mile number 1. Little do I know that already my nemesis is breathing down my neck.

It seems that in almost every race, I have a nemesis—some stranger on the course that I tell myself for no good reason, that I “should” be able to beat. And it shames me to admit this, but usually that nemesis is a woman. I pride myself on being the least sexist of men, but the embarrassing truth is that there is still a part of me that doesn’t want to get “beat by a girl.” But God keeps reminding me that such archaic and patronizing notions really are nonsense, because in every race I’ve ever run, I’ve been beaten—soundly--by a girl. It was Judith at the first Turkey Trot, Mai on our Suicide runs, thousands of women at the San Francisco Marathon, and last Sunday, it was the Woman in the Purple Sweatshirt. I really didn’t notice her until the first time I caught up to her, kept pace with her for awhile and then passed her somewhere near the middle of the race. She had long brown hair tied back in a ponytail, a deep tan, and was wearing gray Capri-style sweats and the purple hoodie sweatshirt that would come to haunt me later in the race. She ran a steady pace without earphones, and was surely focused on her goals for the race. I’m sure she took no more notice of me than any of the other runners jockeying for position on the trail. Indeed, when I first passed her she was barely a blip on my radar too—one of the many runners I’d noted sharing the narrow, winding trail with me.

I really took notice of the Woman in the Purple Sweatshirt when she suddenly reappeared in the last third of the race, passing me on my left.

“Whoah, where did she come from?” I wondered. There was nothing that I could sense about either of our paces that had suggested that she would catch up to me again, much less overtake me with such ease. Had I slowed down imperceptibly? I hadn’t stopped, not even walked. Had she been just a few lengths behind me the whole time and I hadn’t noticed? How had this happened? Ah, well, no matter. It should be a simple matter to keep pace with her anyway. After all, I can’t very well get beat by a. . . .

And there I was—drawn once again into a silly competitiveness, one that if I didn’t keep at bay might derail the legitimate goal I’d set for myself. Still, keeping up with her shouldn’t be that hard right? And it wasn’t. Until it was. Somehow, without even trying, my nemesis, the Woman in the Purple Sweatshirt pulled ahead. I quickened my pace to try to keep up, but I couldn’t maintain it. If I pushed it, I’d wear myself out too soon and end up losing valuable minutes when I collapsed into a walk. I’d been training long enough to know that trying to keep up with her would take me outside of the pace I’d set for myself and endanger my goal.

Well, maybe she’ll just be a few paces ahead, I consoled myself. But no, she continued to move smoothly farther and farther ahead of me up the trail.

Well, I’ll just burn it out in the last mile and catch her then, I promised myself. But that plan went from improbable to impossible to pipe dream when she disappeared from view altogether. I knew it was time to let it go, to get back to the real goal—one that was not about besting others but about besting myself.

Whoosh! There she goes! It's a remarkable coincidence that Babs happened to capture my nemesis, the Woman in the Purple Sweatshirt, in this blurry photo. Still more amazing, when I looked more closely at Bab's photos, I realized she's everywhere. Look carefully, and you'll see that she's in every photo on this blog (except for the finish line photos, of course. She was long gone by then).

I never saw my nemesis again. Not even at the finish line, at the refreshment table, or milling with the other runners in the parking lot. It was as if my nemesis in purple was so much faster than me that she’d managed to collect her medal, down her post-race snack, drive home, and was probably curled up with a good book and a cup of hot cocoa at her home on the other side of Columbus, by the time I crossed the finish line at 57 minutes and 22 seconds.

Entering the home stretch. It felt so good to see Babs and our son waiting and cheering me on. It gave me just the boost I needed to give it an extra push in the final bit of the run. Ironically, they weren't at the finish line though. They waited with Erwin's wife, to see Erwin pass and he'd dropped about five minutes behind me. By the time they'd seen him go by and made a pit stop on the way back to the finish line, I was long done with the race.

J, Evelyn and their son came out to cheer me on as well. It was really nice to have them. Rachel, as well as Babs and the Feller out there to boost our morale. Afterward we all had a nice breakfast at Tim Horton's.

So the Woman in Purple notwithstanding, I achieved my goal. I’m grateful for my nemesis, though I’m sure she’ll never know it. I am not the humblest of men to begin with, but my nemesis and the others that have come before her, whether friends or strangers, help keep my head to a halfway decent size, my ego in check, and my feet firmly on the ground.

Don’t you find it ironic that my next race will be populated almost entirely by women? I’ll either go completely nuts surrounded by numberless nemeses, or perhaps I’ll finally recognize that the only nemesis on the course that really matters is. . .me.

With my inspirations! I met my goal of finishing in under an hour, and now I'm ready to strive for my next goal. I'd like to finish a half marathon in under two hours, but I may postpone that goal for the upcoming Disney Princess Marathon. My first priority there will be to cross the finish line with my cousin Yvette. We are running in honor of her mother (my aunt) who died of cancer five years ago. That may or may not involve finishing in under two hours, but that is of secondary of importance. The main thing on February 27 will be to run for Aunt Patsy and for all those working to find a cure for cancer.

Nov 12, 2010

Better Now than Never

Patricia "Patsy" Saliba, July 30, 1945-January 22, 2005

The card was long overdue. Aunt Patsy, my mother's sister, had been faithfully supporting my drama team, REAL Christian Theater, for years sending a check for a couple hundred dollars every year. Of course, I'd sent her the same courteous thank you letter that I sent to all our donors, but I'd known for some time that Aunt Patsy deserved more. Not only that but I wanted to say something more personal. After all, if anyone had an excuse to beg off sending money for my little mission project it was Aunt Patsy. "Sorry, all my time and financial resources are devoted to fighting the cancer that is threatening my life" would have been an absolutely respectable and understandable response. In fact, I'm a little embarrased that I even put her on my list of potential donors so many years before. I should have realized that hitting up your cancer-stricken aunt for money is a little insensitive to say the least. But I did it, and Aunt Patsy responded year after year with quiet generosity. We'd never really talked about it, indeed ours was not the sort of relationship where we shared regular heart-to-hearts--which made her gift all the more remarkable. I guess it was her way of saying "I like what you're doing Sean." Perhaps it was her way of showing her love for me.

All I knew in the winter of 2005 was that it was high time I let Aunt Patsy know how much her support meant to me, and more than that, how much she meant to me. Better late than never, right?

Wrong. Because when Aunt Patsy died in January of 2005, that card had been written but was languishing in my briefcase waiting for a stamp and for me to find a free moment to run to the post office. It turned out late was not better after all--it had become never, suddenly and without warning.

On receiving the news, I hopped on the first flight I could get out of Saipan, flew over the great Pacific, across the United States, and back home to Florida to join my family in saying goodbye to Aunt Patsy. Amid tears of regret and grief, I handed the belated card to my cousin Yvette--Aunt Patsy's youngest child--at the viewing. While I'm sure Yvette appreciated the gesture, it's always left me deeply sad that Aunt Patsy never got to hear from me the words of appreciation and love that I had intended to share with her.

More than five years have passed since Aunt Patsy passed away, and once again I have the opportunity to honor my aunt. Once again I have the chance to do something that shows that I appreciate and love her. Yvette has decided to run a half-marathon in honor of her mother, and I've decided to run it with her. Yvette is running to raise funds to support the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, an organization that funds the fight against blood cancers, including multiple myeloma, the cancer that Aunt Patsy had. I want to support her in her effort, so I'm inviting all of my readers to support me by supporting her. Click on this link to Yvette's training blog to donate towards her goal of raising $2,900.

Of course, you all know I love to run, but this race is truly not about me. For one thing, it is scheduled for February 27--the dead of winter. I would typically prefer to run later in the year when I can train outdoors when it's warmer. As it is, I will be looking for ways to train indoors as the weather grows colder. Secondly, I'll be running in the Disney's Princess Half-Marathon, a run that requires you to choose the Disney princess that inspires you the most. The Disney Princess is geared towards women and though men are allowed to run, they must start in a later corral and are not eligible for any awards. I imagine Aunt Patsy would have a good chuckle at the thought of me, a lonely male among a sea of women, running with a Disney princess plastered to my chest. But I'd like to think she'd appreciate the thought as well. And I know she'd appreciate that the funds that her daughter and I raise will go towards helping another mother maybe stay in the fight a little longer, help another aunt maybe even win the battle she lost.

I suppose I could always run another race in a warmer time of year with a more manly theme. But then again, maybe I couldn't. If there was one thing I learned through the loss of my aunt, it's that now is the time.

Now is the time to write that card to that aunt or grandma or uncle or mom or sister or grandpa, put a stamp on it and get it in the mail today. Or better yet deliver it with a hug, in person.

Now is the time to make that phone call.

Now is that the time to write that check.

Now is the time to tell your husband or your wife that you love them.

When your little one says "Play Daddy, play" now is the time to close the laptop and play with him!

Now is the time to take that trip you've never gotten around to taking.

Now is the time to pray that prayer you've always meant to pray.

Now is the time to mend fences, to restore that broken friendship.

Now is the time to live your life and love with all your heart.

The scriptures tell us that "there is an appointed time for everything."

I'm telling you, that for the things that truly matter, that time is now.

Because later may be too late.

Because it's better now than never.

Nov 5, 2010

The Best Job in the World: "Working Hard or Hardly Working?"

The Second in a Four Part Series

When my desk looks like this at the end (or beginning) of a day, it's a sure sign, I've got too much to do. It looks this most of the time. Parent-teacher conference forms, field trip permission slips, various types of bureaucratic paperwork that must be completed, stacks of ungraded assignments, stacks of graded work that needs to be returned all demand my attention.

As another Sabbath begins, I'm pleased to report that at long last I have a complete set of lesson plans for next week. If I can put in a good solid five hours on Sunday, I believe I can get my science unit plans finished, prepare a rubric for my students' social studies project, get caught up with my grading, and write e-mail updates to all the parents in grades 5-8. Okay, well maybe that's a little ambitious, but at least the grading and unit plans anyway. Right now, it seems that I'm just that little bit closer to that holy grail of teachers everywhere: being Caught Up.

In case you hadn't guessed where I'm going with all of this, let me spell it out: Perhaps the greatest impediment to teaching being one of the top jobs in America is that teachers are terribly overworked.

“Wait a second! Overworked?” you chortle, “Don’t you get off work at 3 and get summers off?”

Okay, let’s talk about that. Let’s set the record straight on this common fallacy. First off, a teacher that “gets off work” at 3 usually has to be in the classroom by seven. That’s right--an eight hour day. Where’s all the mockery for those who work a 9-to-5 job? In some cases those teachers may not even get a lunch break. So even if a teacher did get off work at 3, you can be pretty sure they worked an eight hour day just like you did. (In my case we are required to be on the job by 8:15 until 4:15). However, any teacher worth his or her salt is working considerably longer hours than the minimum eight that are required. On a typical day, I’m lucky if I’m home by 6:00 P.M. Usually it’s 6:15 or 6:30. And of course, many days there’s at least another hour of work in the evening at home. So for me it’s more like an 11 hour work day. I work through lunch every day, and often put in a couple hours on the weekend as well. And the worst part is, I—like most teachers--feel perpetually behind. The work is never, ever done. Far from feeling like we’ve got a short work day, we usually feel there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all we need to do. We often feel like failures because the bulletin boards aren’t changed, and the grading is piling up and new unit plans need to be written and we’d really like to spend an hour every day tutoring little Johnnie in math or he simply is not going to pass.

Of course many teachers have additional school commitments beyond the classroom. They coach school sports teams, sponsor academic and extracurricular clubs, do fundraising for class trips, and tutor struggling students after school. These activities contribute to many more hours of work each week. It’s not unheard of for some deeply driven teachers to work a 60 or 70 hour week, just like a hard-driving attorney (only a teacher’s hours aren’t billable!)

These drama posters indicate another busy segment of my life as a teacher. I'm a codirector of Shadow, the CAA drama ministry, so drama takes a lot of my time as well. It always has, ever since I was with REAL in Saipan

This cluttered countertop is where we store extra cases of the snacks and drinks that my 8th grade students sell daily at lunch. As class sponsor, I buy and/or cook virutally every item of food we sell, whether on the daily snack cart or for the weekly hot lunch.

As for summers off—I’m not going to kid you—that is a very nice bonus, though even then I, and most of the teachers I know, spend a good amount of time during the summer doing the kind of long term planning the hustle and bustle of the school year doesn’t afford. And did I mention that, at least in our school system, teachers are ten-month employees? Granted we can opt to have the conference stretch our salary over 12 months if we like, but officially we get paid for ten months out of the year. Suddenly, two months off doesn’t sound so appealing, does it? Oh, and did I mention that many teachers spend the summer working a second job?

I’ll grant you that not all teachers work long hours like those I’ve described. There are some less-than-stellar teachers who do just the minimum to get by. They do leave at three every day and never take work home. But though every job has it’s share of slackers, I’m proud to say that none of the teachers I know take the easy road. And when we do leave work unfinished and go home, it’s often a painful decision, an attempt to keep our lives in balance and our sanity intact, a determination to not let our families become a casualty of our dedication to our jobs. At moments like that, I dream of what it would be like if I had just a little help—or even a lot.

I invite you for a moment to join me in a flight of fantasy—a visit to a teacher’s dreamworld, a Neverland that doesn’t exist and perhaps never will. If you’re not a teacher you may read this and shrug, not really getting what’s the “big deal” about the scenario I’m about to describe. If you are a teacher, I bet you’d love to teach under these conditions:

Wouldn’t it be great if teachers could function like doctors, surrounded by a staff of trained professionals that would assist them in their work? The greatest need teachers have is time to work directly on the vital issues—preparing lessons that reach and teach every student and the actual work of teaching. If we could be freed of the countless other important but more peripheral duties and focus on these core tasks—oh man, what a difference we could make! So, imagine if every classroom contained a teacher supported by at least one assistant teacher that would handle grading, setting up labs and art activities, put up agenda; the assistant would help put it into action. For students with learning disabilities, behavioral challenges, or other issues, the teacher could call in a consult—a specialist who could work with that student in the classroom, and in collaboration with the teacher. Together, teacher, assistants, and specialists as needed would work to reach every student in the class.

So who would these teacher assistants be? Why they’d be future teachers themselves. In my dream world, teachers wouldn’t just get the support the doctors get, they’d also have to go through the rigorous training and intensive education that is required of doctors. After earning their education degree, the teacher would spend four years in “residency” working in the classroom with a master teacher as an assistant. They’d do the grunt work and spend a lot of time observing and learning from the master teacher, as well as getting their feet wet doing actual teaching under supervision. At the end of four years, the assistant would become a master teacher themselves. Or they might decide to specialize. By the second year of their residency assistant teachers that want to specialize would start shadowing the specialists. They also might return to school for more advanced training. Like a neurosurgeon as opposed to family practitioner, the level of specialized expertise and training would be far more extensive. There also might be some assistant teachers who find that being a master teacher or a specialist isn’t for them. They might decide to continue as assistants as a career. While these folks might not be cut out for leading a classroom, they’d instead come to be unparalleled experts in their roles as support staff in the classroom. Teachers would fight to get the best of these assistants. “Have you heard about Jill? You tell her you want a theme on the Newton’s Laws and the room is like a theme park when she’s done.” Or “Bob is hands down the best researcher I’ve ever seen. If you’re wanting the latest ideas on teaching social studies you want him on your team.”

In the absence of my dream-team, I find the students can be help in getting things done. One great way to save time--have the kids create the materials for your bulletin boards and displays. I'm especially proud of these: Above, is the gallery of art created by my 7th and 8th grade students for painting class last quarter. Below is the vertebrates bulletin board my 5th and 6th science students made (They also created the fish above the bulletin board for their unit on fish).

The only downside to using student work as your decorations is that you usually have to put up the decorations up yourself, to ensure that they are neatly posted and organized. In the case of the mural above though, the students did virtually everything. All I did was tack the mural paper to the wall.

The latest thinking in education is moving teachers away from their traditional isolation towards increased collaboration through team teaching, mentoring, and other forms cooperative teaching. So perhaps my dream will come true in some form in the years to come. Even if it does, I’m convinced that good teachers will work as hard as they always have, but with one important difference—they’ll actually feel like they’re making progress. After all, I don’t mind working hard or being busy. There is great value and great reward in working hard in a demanding job. I don’t want or need my job to easy. I do want enough time to do my job well.

Coming Up Next: "Teacher Appreciation Should Be More than A Day"

Autumn Notes: Hello Old Friends

The Starlings and the Maycocks. Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hello old friends
there's really nothing new to say
but the old old story bears repeating
and the plain old truth grows clearer everyday
when you find something worth believing
that's a joy that nothing could take away

And so we meet again
after all these many years. . .
--Rich Mullins

Early last month we had the privilege of meeting up with some of old friends from our college days, Eric and Heidi Starling. It turns out, as one rode led them to another, that they ended up moving to Cleveland, Ohio only a little before we did. When we found out, via Facebook, that they were so close by, we knew it would be only a matter of time before our families got together.

And so it was that on a bright autumn Sunday morning that Heidi and Eric, with their young son drove down from Cleveland for a couple of hours of fun at a park not far from our house and a simple lunch together back at our place. As can only happen with old friends, it was as if the intervening ten years since we'd last seen them had been but a day. There was no awkward attempt at reacquaintance--it was as if we'd never been apart.

Eric and Heidi were our prayer partners, spiritually fervent, and encouraging to us in our walk with God. What a joy to find that their faith hasn't flagged with the passing years. Indeed, the old, old story of Jesus and the plain old Truth of his love continues to be told in their lives. We were blessed to spend time with them again, and hope to be able to do so again soon.

The Feller poses with friends--new to him and old and dear to us--and their son.

A Sabbath Afternoon Walk

Sabbath afternoon, October 16, 2010.

The neighborhood

Mother and child

Moon day

Fall Colors

Father and son