Why don’t you love what I love?

This is first of multiple blog posts I hope to do regarding the discussions at Science Online 13. There are more detailed methods I want to get into but I am using this as a primer for the discussion.

A lot of the sessions at Science Online revolved around the theme of how to communicate science effectively, when to use personal narrative, how to get citizens involved in science and how to get people passionate about science like you are passionate about science.  I was interested in all of these because I am a high school science teacher and making difficult scientific concepts understandable is my job.

As I listened to the scientists talk at the various sessions I learned quite a bit about the struggles they were going through. First I want to say, I hear you. There is nothing worse than having to listen to something you love so much get diluted and simplified. It is probably like a five star chef having his meal reduced to a bland entree where all the subtle flavors and ingredients are removed. But sometimes we need to realize the people we are talking to, the people who are eating that meal, have not acquired the taste for it and want the meal they enjoy as opposed to the meal they need to learn to enjoy.

At one point I was doing research on Komodo dragon behavior at the National Zoo.  I loved speaking in the complex jargon of reptile behavior  because I was speaking with others that understood it and we could better convey our thoughts. This is a necessity in scientist to scientist communication, nothing can be left open for interpretation. However when my mom asked me about the research and what I was doing I had to radically change the style and tone to effectively communicate with her.  This is a phenomenon called “code switching” and it is most prevalent in interracial or intercultural communication. It is now something scientists need to learn to do.

None of my friends are really that into reptiles, and none of them really care about how many tongue flicks or claw rakes we recorded that day. Believe me, I wanted them to, I desperately wanted them to ask me and genuinely care about my answer. I mean this was a study to see if Komodo dragons exhibited play behavior, something that is on the more interesting spectrum of the reptile research scale.   I experienced this daily while conducting the study with two other scientists at the National Zoo.

There is an unexplainable phenomenon in the zoo world, people will pass by an exhibit with an incredibly unique animal in it with barely a glance, but put a human in there, even with just a squeegee cleaning glass and the next thing you know there is a crowd watching intently to see what the human will do next.  Now imagine this, in front of the dragon cage at the reptile house at the National Zoo you have two scientists in chairs roped off so people can’t get too close, then a third is in the cage interacting with a dragon. This is the five alarm fire of the zoo world. People desperately trying to see what is going on, literally rubbernecking a scientific experiment.  Invariably someone would always ask, “So what are you guys doing?” and I would go into the detailed explanation of the experiment , because they were there and they asked and I presumed they really wanted to know. Plus I loved Komodo dragons and wanted everyone to love them like I did.  It was here I discovered the different degrees of  “wanting to know”.  But I found that the majority of the time I was diluting this impressive animal to an understandable set of basic behaviors because the complexity was lost on the general public and they didn’t care about the specific jargon I was using, they wanted the simple grilled cheese version of the answer, not the five course meal with various sauces and reductions.

Believe me, this sucks. I often couldn’t figure out why everyone didn’t love Komodo dragons as much as I loved them. But 11 years ago I made a conscious decision to change that. I left research to become a high school science teacher because for me it was about getting the awareness out to young people and to champion for an underappreciated group of animals.

So after a decade in a classroom and many, many, many mistakes I feel I have found a decent balance as a science communicator.  I admit I have an unfair advantage, I have real time metrics in front of me on a daily basis. I get to utilize various forms of explanations and see how they are received by my audience. I get to see what works and what doesn’t and then refine them two or three more times that day until I have them perfected.  Not only that but my audience often replies back with brutal and blunt honesty, high school students will let you know if you are coming across in a condescending manner. A lot of people, and myself included , are unaware that their methods of explanation often have a condescending tone to them. It is not purposeful, but sometimes unavoidable when the person is in the position of explainer. It takes a while to pick up on your own cues and attempt to avoid them.

If you really wanted to get offended, try discussing something you passionately love and put a lot of work into what you think is a great lesson only to be met with yawns, blank stares, glances at the clock, and snoring. It takes a lot of strength to not take it personal, even when it is.

I also get quantitative and qualitative data in the form of papers, tests, quizzes, labs, etc. that tell me just how effective I was at communicating the subject matter. I can look through years of teaching and find my weak subject areas and focus on improving them.

So where does this all fit? Well the one thing a teacher has to know before they begin a lesson is “what is my end goal? What do I want to achieve with my communication? Do I want to explain? Do I want to educate? Do I want to inform? Do I want to infect? Do I want to extrapolate?” All these come with much different methods of communicating.

In science education I can’t avoid the jargon, but I need to know when to drop it into play. If I throw complex words right out from the get go and say “memorize the words” then I lost them, but if I come up with a great analogy or metaphor that the students can relate to and then slide the word in there I have them hooked. I need to sell them on cell division before I introduce mitosis. I need to make them feel like they were asking me if there was a specific word for what I was describing instead of telling them the word and describing what it means.

A subtle trick I use to hook my students is to discuss the material a few different ways and on one of the attempts pretend I am searching for the right word and let them fill in the blank for me.  This makes them feel like they are contributing to the explanation process and lets me know they are getting it. I know this is not helpful in science writing, but it is helpful when discussing science with non science people.

My end goal with my students is to get them interested in science.  At this point as juniors in high school it is not important to me that they understand every detail of biology, but that they have an interest in understanding it. Because if they have an interest, they will be open to learning the more complex material that will help them better understand what they are interested in.  I have seen this with freshman students taking conceptual physics that are literally begging their teacher to learn trigonometry so they can better understand this cool stuff they are witnessing. Yes, begging to learn trigonometry. Why? Because they were hooked by the simple grilled cheese sandwich and wanted to see if they could make it tastier not realizing they were developing a complex meal.

This is why the first thing I do in Chemistry is drop a gummy bear into molten potassium chlorate. Hook the students with a dazzling example and make them want to learn more.

I truly believe that the role of the scientist is changing. With the advent of blogging, twitter, and social media scientists are becoming accessible to the general public, and we want to be accessible because we love our science and want people to love it as much as we do.  But we need to realize if they did love it as much as us we would be talking to a fellow scientist, not a layperson.

This is why I felt the need to go up to Carl Zimmer at the conference and thank him. Often times when I couldn’t figure out how to effectively do my job, he would do it for me. I have never seen a group of inner city high school science students stay so focused on the life cycle of a blood fluke than when he was talking about them on RadioLab.  Whether the information was 100% correct was irrelevant because it led to a discussion that  led to questions, that led to researching, that led to understanding. Now they know more about parasites than most people. If I said to them “We are gong to learn about the following parasites…..” and went on to explain each one I would have lost them. But using Carl and Radiolab I had them asking to learn more. And this,  this is what science communication is all about. Generating enough interest to lead to understanding.

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The Art of Teaching

One of the best guides to teaching that I have come across is “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu. Make no mistake, teaching is war.  While this may sound incredibly callous and severe, hear me out.

I love teaching, I have been teaching for 11 years.  All 11 years have been in front of an inner-city, high school demographic. I am currently the department chair of science at my school which services grades 1-12. I started my career in research science, specifically Komodo dragon behaviors, but found education to be my calling.

However you are not here to hear about me, you are here about teaching.  So here it is. I modified “The Art of War” to something I like to call “The Art of Teaching”.

The Art of War is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations.

1. The Moral Law Causes people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger. The people must believe in the leader. People will not live and die for a paycheck, but they will live and die for a cause they believe in.

  As a Teacher: Your students must believe in you to learn from you. A student will only work so hard for a grade, but they will work their hardest for a teacher they believe in.

2. Heaven: This signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and season You must know the environment you are fighting in so you know the best times to fight

 As a Teacher: You must know how the environment affects your students. Sunny days have a different affect than cloudy days. A messy classroom can lead to messy work. Lights on may be needed at one point in the day where lights off might work better at another part of the day, after lunch might call for a different approach than before lunch. The Classroom is a dynamic environment and you must recognize how it changes hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly.

3. Earth: Comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death. You must know the terrain you are fighting in so you can take advantage of it and use it for your benefit…in this case the terrain is the student’s personality.

As a Teacher: You must know each student and how to get the most from them. An easily distracted student must be given a task to focus his energy, have him write on the board instead of you, a listless student must be constantly talked to and know you recognize they are not putting forth the effort. Recognize when to scold bad behavior and when to ignore it. Always recognize good behavior. Know the emotional terrain of each student you are treading on. Some students respond to scolding while others shut down, know when to wield your power and when to holster it.

4. The Commander: Stand for the virtues of Wisdom, Sincerity, Benevolence, Courage, and Strictness. A good leader must be virtuous, intelligent, know when to be kind and know when to be strict.

As a Teacher: You must know your content and you must love your content. Students will pick up when you are questioning yourself and when you don’t care about the subject at hand. If you do not care about, it why should they? Admit when you made a mistake and model how to act when you are wrong. A good leader is just that, a leader. You are not their friends. You are their guides. Your decisions should be made in the interest of the student’s long-term growth, not in their instant gratification. You must practice what you preach. A good teacher acts how they want their students to act. If you give them an assignment, do that assignment with them. Show them you are doing the assignment because it has merit, not just to keep them busy.

5. Method and Discipline: You must have precise methods and disciplines for your soldiers to follow. They should know what to do without you telling them. A properly disciplined army works as one unit for a common goal.

 As a Teacher: You must have clear and concise rules and expectations for your students. They should know at all times what you expect from them and what is appropriate or inappropriate behavior. Students should know how to enter your classroom, how you expect assignments to be completed and handed in, and what you expect from them on a daily basis. Students should always be able to predict your reaction to a situation. A teacher cannot allow their mood to permeate into the classroom. Whether you are having a bad day or a good day your reaction to a situation must be exactly the same. 


These are the 5 rules to be successful at teaching.

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A Man on Fire

The cerebral storm that has been roaring in my head has finally broke….and I feel an elation that I cannot describe….although true to my form, I will attempt to write what I feel.

After tumultuous dreams that were so lucid I woke up in my bathroom having scrawled my subconscious across my bathroom mirror like a madman vetting the demons from the depths of his soul I have finally freed my mind of its captor. Little did I know it would only take two friends, my wife, and my voice. There is something extremely special about Aqila Clement, Bradley Bergey, and Attia Taylor, rarely have I felt a freedom to speak so openly without fear of judgment than I do when I am with these three…..and tonight, their warm hearts and kind souls cured a man of a brain drowning in its own painful sea.

I consider myself a man of strength, the ability to carry other peoples pain and problems with my strong back and legs, but recently, after visiting Newtown and talking directly to people in the building when the purest form of evil reared its ugly head, I felt I had been hit me with an emotional uppercut that left me staggering….and yearning to just fall down….and stay down.  

After my trip, I chose not to speak to others about it. When I say the things I heard were emotionally crippling, I am not exaggerating. I did not want others to hear what I had heard. No one needs to have those thoughts bouncing around their head.

So I decided to carry them myself.

I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy. At first it was, I was with my family in New England, a rare occurrence these days, I was distracted by them. Then I came home to Aqila, my beautiful wife, we spent every hour together for days and I felt strong, able to carry the weight and protect her from what was in my head.

But I should have known when I began to buckle, I should have recognized the signs. I began losing sleep, having nightmares, waking up and just watching Aqila sleep, scared to death I would lose her to a violent crime. Just soaking in every second I had with her, watching her blissful slumber, not wanting to close my eyes and leave heaven to enter the hell in my head.

Then one night I had a dream that rattled me. I got a phone call from a person who was desperate to meet with me because he claimed only I could help him, that his, that our lives depended on it. I didn’t know him, but he said he saw me posting online and claimed I could help him. We set a time to meet. Ironically I was back home in my parents house and was waiting, the hour he was supposed to arrive passed.

The hours ticked by, he did not arrive. So I walked out of my parents house and in only the way dreams can was instantly transported to Philadelphia…walking across the bridge at 30th and Market in Philadelphia, desperately trying to find the man who seemed like meeting me was a matter of life and death. I looked up, impossible combinations of animals were flying around and transporting people off the bridge to destinations all over the country, cows with wings took briefcase carrying suits to meetings, winged lions swooped down and took resistant citizens to places they seemed horrified to go to.

I didn’t question it, it just made sense. I felt the wind in my beard, I could smell the exhaust of vehicles, the slight singe of the sun on a cloudless day and the blended white noise of a city in a rush……the PECO building streaming the time danced across my eyes….then I saw him.

He ran toward me yelling, screaming as if his life depended on it. “HEY!! YOU!!! PLEASE!!!!”

I ran toward him, toward the edge of the bridge that had a benign but noticeable railing that dropped down 40 feet to the screaming highway below…”YOU!!! DID YOU…..”

Before he could get it out a winged lion with fiery eyes and a salacious snarl swooped down and grabbed him by the nape of the neck as if he was an errant cub and pumped his wings toward the sky.

Before he was out of ear shot the man screamed “Don’t wake up! If you do….I will die!!!”

I went to yell back but found I had no voice, the world spun and dissolved around me and I was struck as I stood face to face with a wild-eyed man who had the look of a individual just flushed from the bowels of hell.

My vision blurred and focused multiple times like watching one scene cross-dissolve into another and I realized it was me. I was standing there, marker in hand, in front of my mirror and in a fit of restless sleep I wrote….

Image

I was rattled to my core. In all the nightmares, lucid dreams, and sleep paralysis experiences have I ever awoken out of bed finishing a complicated task.

I walked back to bed, told Aqila I had something happen to me and didn’t want to fall back asleep.

I fought with what I had experienced. It had felt like 12 hours, not a dream time 12 hours, but a real, everyday 12 hours. I was grappling with the inconsistency of time. Like the post effects of a chemically induced psychoactive experience I wrestled with trying to align my current world with the world I just left.

Like two angled edges, they didn’t line up. I fought my brain for control and wrestled reality from the grips of lucidity.

I sat there, looking at my wife, Aqila, so perfect a person just inches from me. I was immediately calmed as I watched her breath away a golden slumber I could only one day yearn for.

Aqila and I were on vacation and could spend every minute together, this, thankfully kept my brain occupied and I was able to push the demons into the basement of my brain.

Soon it was time for school and the routine of life would take hold and our precious time together would be reduced to a couple of hours in the evening. I went to school, excited to be back in the classroom, excited to talk about cells, excited to show my students the microscopic world that exists in a drop of water…..excited to be rejuvenated by the youthful joy of a world still unexplored.

But the demons were laying in wait. Sitting in my classroom I began to think of the stories I heard, the evil, the pain, and my brain played it all out…..

“If a gunman walks down the hall he will shoot before he enters the room because my door is open, stay low, he won’t see you if you stay low, go for the legs, knock him down……”

I looked at the students sitting in view of the door, watched them reading quietly, smiling, looking at the clock…..”TACKA TACKA TACKA TACKA TACKA” ……..I saw bullets ripping through the air……I saw myself grabbing the thick teacher’s edition of my Miller and Levine Biology Textbook to hold as a shield to absorb the first shots to give me the chance to tackle him before he killed me….

I shook my head. Got up and walked to the door to ease my mind. I noticed a student’s eyes moving left to right as her head rested on her cupped hands just inches away from textbook.

“Let it go” I said to myself, “its fine.”

But it wasn’t. The demons were playing my neurons like a guitar and they knew the exact tune to bring me to my knees.

Class after class I relived the horrifying scenario of what I imagined the teachers in Sandy Hook felt. Their stories giving rise to a legion of demons who were using my mind as their personal playground.

“It’s fine” I said to myself, but it wasn’t.

Last night I was talking to our athletic director/trainer about my shoulder and being the first time since the holidays we also talked about our breaks. I began to talk about my visit to Newtown, and began saying things I haven’t spoken out loud ever…..to him……but I stopped. “

He has a 19 month old and I have only known him for a few months. “ I thought to myself.

I haven’t even said these things to my wife…..don’t unload in the middle of the gym, shake his hand and say goodnight.”

So I shook his hand, apologized for the brief moment of emotional vulnerability and went to pick up Aqila before going home.

Today I stayed engaged in student discussion from 8am-12:15pm straight. No breaks from talking, discussion, lectures, listening, or debates. I would strum my own song on the cerebral strings of my mind, the demons would not get a minute of stage time……

….and I carried this through the afternoon…..I watched intently as students I have known since the 2nd grade got inducted as 12th graders into the National Honors Society…..I felt happy….knowing they were on the right path…..that they are on the precipice of a great existence….then I caught something out of the corner of my eye….

My heart pumped, my muscles tensed, I saw a shadow walk by the door….”who was it? OK, move to the door, get between people and the door, if they raise a gun go low and move in an unpredictable pattern, watch the finger if it tenses, stand up, cut his angle, gain speed, take the bullets and let 210 pounds of full sprint crash into him……”

But it was just the AV guy making sure the mics were good.

“Damn” I thought to myself “Let it go, enjoy the moment, don’t live in fear”.

I shook it off and soon it was Friday afternoon, I needed the company of other teachers at a familiar watering hole to suppress my defiant neurons.

Good conversation of like-minded people flowed for hours and soon I was feeling comfortable, happy. Attia, a former student of mine from 6 years ago and the lead singer of our band was back from NYC after an illustrious internship with a major fashion magazine….”focus on her” I thought, “the success she has achieved, the proof that there is still faith to be had in humanity”…..Aqila sat next to her, they were laughing, happy, unaware of the demons dancing in my head, unaware of my inability to shake them, to shake the fear that each time a door opens I look up…..and for a split second play out my moves if the person coming through the door raises a gun…..

“…go low and move in an unpredictable pattern, watch the finger if it tenses, stand up, cut his angle, gain speed, take the bullets and let 210 pounds of full sprint crash into him……”

I pushed it down and we left….Attia asked if she could come over for a bit, and Aqila and I were more than happy to oblige. At this moment one of my favorite humans, a man of honest intentions and intelligent thoughts texted me to see about stopping by…..and within 20 minutes the ground floor of an apartment on Fairmount Avenue in the city of Philadelphia was filled with Aqila Clement, Attia Taylor, Bradley Bergey, me…and my demons.

I had purchased an expensive bottle of scotch whiskey blend to celebrate Bradley’s impending Phd degree and decided to break it out and toast him.

“To Bradley for defending your research and to Attia, to surviving New York City…” we clinked glasses and let the oaky flavor warm our guts…..

We talked, we laughed, I showed them my trailer for “Finding Alaska”, we watched a clip of our band’s performance  at the TLA when we opened for The Polyphonic Spree…..

….then I showed them the video for “Man on Fire” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes…..a video I consider a perfect piece of art. Raw humanity setting the backdrop of a incredibly beautiful song….

…..and the barrier broke.

I told them the things I heard, the stories the teacher and the EMT told me, the horrors they witnessed, the parents standing at the police barrier outside Sandy Hook Elementary School as the sunlight turned to darkness….refusing to believe their children wouldn’t be returning home….standing there, waiting…….

I told them about why they only needed 3 ambulances……and no more.

I told them how Bob was stoic….describing the events with a strong face but pained eyes….

I told them how I was worried about my sister…..I didn’t want her to hear this.

I told them how we stood at the police barrier…..watching people cry.

I told them about about why they told the parents their children were dead instead of waiting for them to identify the remains…..they needed to know….they didn’t need false hope…they didn’t need to see.

I told them how they covered her eyes as they walked her out of the school….protecting her from a horrific scene that even the most devious minds in Hollywood wouldn’t create.

I told them about the description of the gunfire 

“….it sounded like someone dropped a bunch of folding chairs…..”

I told them how three people ran out of the office…..and only one returned.

I told them of the thousands of gifts left on the sidewalks that would be cremated and mixed with the foundation of the future memorial.

I told them how they shrink wrapped the students desks in an effort to preserve familiarity when those students returned to a new school…..

I told them how she hid under a desk…peeking through the hole for her computer’s wires to go through…watching him walk past….so close she could only see his black cargo pants…

I told them all of it…

I let it out…..I just kept talking…..I couldn’t tell….or maybe I didn’t care ……if they wanted to hear it. I needed to say it.

I felt the demons desperately trying to hold on as I expelled them from my brain…..I had people around me. Good, genuine people, people I could trust, people I cared for, people I would fight and die for……

…..I let it out.

I guess it just felt right. I could never just unload on Aqila, I didn’t want her to carry this weight. I didn’t want to talk about it with my parents, it was the holidays, and I didn’t want them to worry.

I thought, for two weeks, that I could carry this on my own, but I couldn’t. If you are friends with me on Facebook you have seen my emotional responses to gun control, my passion to prevent this from happening again. I have debated and argued to no end through various status updates and discussions.

This is why….these demons…..playing with my brain….forcing me, a man who cannot control words from being manifested into intensely lucid daydreams….

……a man who loves being in the classroom

…..a man who loves his students and loves his job

…..a man who just wants to wake up and not see news of a shooting in his city

….a man who doesn’t want to worry every time his wife leaves the house that she will be “…an innocent bystander.”

….a man who wants to end his days in the same place doing the same thing he is doing now

….a man who is passionate about the people around him

….a man who just wants to see people enjoy life…not lose it

…a man who truly believes we can find peace

….a man on fire

…walking down your street

…with one guitar

….and two dancing feet

….with only one desire

….that’s left in me

….I want the whole damn wold

…..to come dance with me.

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A Strength……

I am sitting on a couch in what was once my childhood bedroom now turned office/den in my parent’s house.  I hadn’t planned on doing this yet, but I feel as if I don’t the gravity of today may finally hit me….and I will break apart.   So here I sit, please bear with me as I get this out, because I have never written a post like this.

First I need to thank the people who helped me before I forget because I know I will get lost in writing this…

To the receivers of the hug…
Donna DeMarco, Marsha Moskowitz, Eileen Byrnes, Rhonda Cullens, Lillian Bittman, Amy Thomas, Becky and Bob Virgalla……to Gina McDade, who I have never met, but went out of her way to help.

Thank you

As most people reading this know, I wanted to fulfill the Christmas wish of a student who simply wanted to hug the people suffering in the small New England town of Newtown. I didn’t know how to do it, so I posted the request here, used Twitter, Facebook, posting on Newtown Patch and some wonderful family members to spread the word.

I was not prepared for the response.

I began to get emails and tweets from people in the community, one member in particular, Gina McDade, made an extraordinary effort to connect me to some of the community members, reaching out on my behalf, someone she had never met, to help me, help my student.  She connected me with Marsha Moskowitz, the school bus driver in town……I had a connection, this was important to me because the last thing I wanted to do was just show up after 6 days of funerals in a small town already inundated with people.  But when I spoke to Marsha on the phone she said “I want to make this happen” (in fact that was a common phrase to all I spoke with).

Then again on Saturday afternoon my phone rang, it was Sandi Cole, the director of the  Connecticut division of the Red Cross.  Through my Aunt Cathy making calls to various contacts in the Red Cross an email chain started as one member replied back CC’ing another Red Cross member who might be able to help.  Amidst all they were dealing with they kept saying the same thing, “We want to make this happen”…….and they did.  So when I answered my phone I heard the voice of Sandi, asking me about the situation, and as I told her about Gabrielle and her wish, I could hear Sandi welling up over the phone, and through a strong, but emotional voice she said “I was up all night trying to figure out how to make this happen, we want to make this happen”…..and she did.

She connected me to Amy Thomas, I talked to her on the phone, she said “I want to make it happen”.  So she set up for me to meet with a teacher from Sandy Hook Elementary, a reading specialist named Becky Virgalla and her husband Bob who was an EMS in the town.

So there it was, the connections were solid, the plan was made, 9am at the Newtown United Methodist Church would be the meeting spot, I packed my car to head to NYC for the night where I would stay at my sister’s apartment, then take her along with me to Newtown before heading home to Swampscott for the holidays.

So I packed….

Laptop

Chargers

Clothes

Toothbrush

My cat Elroy and his supplies

Books

Gifts for my family

….and one very important hug.

I got to my sisters at 9pm, amazingly found parking in downtown Manhattan and tried to get some sleep for the night.  I tossed and turned, my mind was all over the place, my body felt restless, I don’t know, a more spiritual side of me would say it was Gabrielle’s hug aching to get to Newtown, but I think it was nerves.  For the first time since I can remember, I was nervous.  I didn’t know what to expect upon arrival, I have never been a hugger, never knew how to properly embrace someone so they felt like I cared, the last thing I wanted to do was take the beautiful act of a selfless teenager and ruin it with an awkward embrace.  Then I kept thinking “What do I say? What words can I possibly utter to make these people feel better?”  My mind was at a loss, but at this point it didn’t matter, it was 6am and I needed to repack my car and get on the road.

So we hit the West Side Highway and headed for Newtown.  My stomach was in knots, in fact I have yet to eat since yesterday’s dinner….I just didn’t have the appetite.  I watched my GPS tick off the miles, 60miles…..50 miles…….20 miles…..it started to hit me, this was real, no longer will I be sheltered from all this horror by a glass screen….and worse yet I thought….”do not screw up this hug.”

We got off at exit 10 on 84, took a right, and within a half mile I pulled into the parking lot of Newtown United Methodist Church…..and there was a small group of people waiting for Gabrielle’s hug.   My body felt detached, I was just taken aback seeing this group standing in the cold waiting, just waiting……for a hug.

I was at a loss for words, I swallowed, got out of the car not knowing what to say and began walking over…..then I heard in a loud, welcoming voice….”You must be John”…..it just completely disarmed me and all my nervousness washed away and I replied “You must be Marsha…” to which the group laughed.

I walked up, and I didn’t even have to think, seeing the town, the people, the memorials, all of it just came crashing into me and before I knew it I was hugging each one of them…..and saying “This is from Gabrielle Carter”.

Then I hugged Becky Virgalla, the reading specialist who was in the principal’s office in a meeting when the shooting occurred, the things she had to see, what she must have felt, I couldn’t imagine.  When I hugged her I felt her tremor, fighting back tears, and without thinking I just hugged her harder, I just wanted so badly to be able to let her know that not only did I care, but a teenager she never met 200 miles away cared…..

I fought back the tears, holding her, thinking of the memories she is now forced to live with and at the same time not wanting to make these people have to comfort me when they were grieving so badly themselves.  When we let go of each other the group saw I was fighting back tears, and they just hugged me, smiling and telling me it’s what they do…they are a strong community and they support anyone who needs it, even if they are in need themselves.

So there we were, the person who came to deliver a hug is being consoled by a group of people who have seen 6 days of funerals…..I could not believe the strength and resilience of these people.  Mom’s, dad’s, wives, husbands, teachers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, children…..carrying a weight I couldn’t even imagine.

As if this wasn’t enough they had handfuls of gifts for Gabrielle and my school.  Ribbons, pictures, t-shirts, Gabrielle’s favorite gum, a school newspaper, knitted shawls, and one of the most amazing gifts of all, a green and white scarf for Gabrielle so she can wear it, and feel the town hugging her back and keeping her warm….something I can personally attest to that the residents of Newtown are extraordinary at.

After a final hug with these wonderful ladies Amy took me by the hand so I could have some private conversation with Becky and her husband Bob as they walked me down through town and toward the school.

I have not held another person’s hand, even my wife’s, in a long time, but Amy had me by the hand, a comforting “everything is OK” type of touch as she led me over to the Virgallas.  We talked again, and I said to Becky “Please, you don’t have to talk to me about what you went through.”  But she told me “I don’t mind, it is therapeutic”.

She began to tell me her story that day….and I clenched my jaw, first in anger at the individual responsible, and then in an effort to fight back tears.  I don’t want to go into details because this is not what this about, but this woman, who couldn’t be more than 5’3″, the serene face of grandmother that just radiates kindness, was telling me a story that should be coming from a combat-worn marine…..not her.

The part that got me, was her husband.  He was an EMS in the town and home when the shooting occurred.  The cell service is bad in the town and when it first happened Becky called him at home and had to leave a message, telling him what was going on….not knowing the full extent yet.  Then Bob saw a ticker on the news and heard what was going on over the emergency dispatch band.  He grabbed his stuff and went down to the station.  They told him he was staying there, he wasn’t going with them.  Then he said something that will resonate with me, he said “I told them, when you get there you make sure she calls me, and if she can’t…….I want you to call me, I don’t want to hear it from a state trooper.”

I felt my stomach drop and my legs went numb. He said it with the resolve and composure I can only hope to have in a situation like that.  I thought of me and Aqila, both working at the school….what would I do…..and I quickly pushed the thought out of my mind.

So we walked, past the memorials toward the school, and we talked, and we walked, and we talked…..they told me more details of the day, details that no teacher…….no human should ever have to witness.  They told it to me with a strength I didn’t think possible in a human…..and I fought, I fought not to cry, not to break down, not to make these two people have to comfort me.

The memorials, hundreds of items left for those killed, framed by the backdrop of a beautiful New England town, small shops along the road, a diner, the sounds of the rushing brook flowing under the small bridge, the wonderful silhouettes of huge leafless trees with a smattering of evergreens throughout….and that wonderfully brisk New England air that nourishes your soul as you breathe deeply and look at a distant sun…..bright, but to far away to warm you up.

On any other day I would call this heaven.

I didn’t want to break here, not while I am in town.  “Later, when you are alone, but not here” I thought…..and it became harder to fight….

I just kept telling myself, “Look around, look at Bob, and Becky, and the people here, look at the response from the country, look at the amount of kindness and generosity that this act of evil, that this, to put in Bob’s words “lightning bolt of evil” has evoked.  As I walked through the town, watching big, burly men sob as they embraced other townspeople, a town who just had 6 days straight of funerals, a town who has let their emotional guard down, and let the country in….a town, that someone attempted to shatter, has found a strength that no amount of bullets could ever break.

A strength no community should ever have to find….

I thought of Friday morning, hugging Gabrielle, feeling her love for the residents of Newtown.  I thought of her handing me that card, then I thought of my school….

Chris Murphy, the senior who took a shell shocked teacher fresh from teaching in Brooklyn aside to let him know no one here was going to stab him if he turned his back…..Chris Murphy who years later would be senselessly gunned down on his way home from work at Temple Hospital.

I thought of baseball players I have coached, the students who watched the Red Sox 2004 World Series run religiously, night after night with me.  The ones I later took to Fenway.

I thought of the students who tested us daily.

The students who come to me asking what they need to do if they want to major in science.

The students who need advice on relationships.

The students who need to know there are more fish in the sea….and this isn’t the end of the world.

The students we spend hours helping, finally get it…and that resulting smile…that brilliant smile……every teacher knows it…..it washes away every bad teaching memory.

I thought of the van rides with the girls soccer team I coached, I thought of them making fun of me as I belted out Pearl Jam as it played on the radio….and the amusement they got when I lit up at the sound of “Call Me Maybe”.

I thought of my first day teaching in Brooklyn, like a new soldier about to go to war, stomach in knots.

I thought of the joy in seeing a student get accepted to college, and my signature “hard slap on the back this is my version of a hug” method of consoling the ones who got a denial letter.

I thought of watching a shy student gain confidence.

I thought of the lines of elementary school kids walking up our campus road in their little uniforms.

I thought of the unbridled excitement in 1st graders as I showed them my tortoises and snakes.

I thought of the students who comes after school to clean snake cages, and ask questions.

I thought of the teachers who work tirelessly around me.  The ones who shell out dollar after dollar so the students can have not only what they need, but maybe sometimes what they want.

I thought of the teachers who drive home, late for dinner because they were helping a student.

I thought of my wife, Aqila, and how much I love popping into her office and seeing her beautiful smile in the middle of the day…..curing me of whatever teaching affliction I was struggling with that day.

I thought of all the students who I watched go from 2nd and 3rd grade to college…..

…..and I thought about the 20 children and 6 educators who will never get to feel any of this again.

“Oh no” I thought, standing at the police barricade on the road to the school, “Here it comes…”

I felt all these thoughts gather into one giant emotional wave that started in my gut…..knowing when it got my head it would wash out of me in one way……..tears……

I looked around….and I saw Newtown, I saw Bob, and Becky, the policemen, the residents, the hugs, the embraces, the memorials, the tangible resilience of the people…..I took a deep breath of that brisk New England air….and I felt a strength I have never felt before…..

……the strength of Newtown.

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A special request from a student…..

UPDATE: My bags are packed, I think I have everything, clothes, computer and accessories, toothbrush, cat food, cat litter, yes I am bringing my cat Elroy home for the holidays with me, books, RadioLab episodes, Abbey Road and The White Album….and one very important hug.  In about an hour and a half I will be heading to NYC to my sisters apartment…then leaving for Newtown at 7am.

UPDATE: Saturday 2:30pm: I will be arriving at 9am at the Newtown United Methodist Church to deliver the hug.

UPDATE: Saturday, 11am: I have been in contact with a Newtown resident who has put me in contact with the bus driver for Sandy Hook Elementary school who I will be transferring the hug to.  Tonight I will drive up to NYC to my sister’s place, spend the night and head to Newtown on Sunday.  I can’t believe a simple pick up my sister and drive home to NYC has turned into this.  People amaze me.

UPDATE: Hug has been officially transferred from student to me….
NewtownHug

I am not sure how to do this, or even how to go about accomplishing this, but I feel the need to throw this out to the internet and see if it helps.

I am a science teacher at a private boarding school in Philadelphia where the student body comes from a single or no parent, low income background.  They are not the type of students who have a lot…..and the holidays are a tough time for them.   So at my school we have a “make a wish tree” where the students write their wish on a paper ornament and tape it to the tree.  We get an assortment of requests from gift cards, to candy, to baseball gloves, to food, to hats, etc.

But this year we were really were touched when one of the students simply wrote “I wish I could give a hug to the families suffering in Newtown, CT.

Here we had a student who knew they could get a gift, but decided to use her wish to carry out a simple act of kindness.

I understand that the families have had enough media attention, and I am sure this request might be borderline inappropriate, but I couldn’t live with myself if I at least didn’t try.

So here is my thought (and anyone who knows me knows this is WAY out of my comfort zone), on Friday I will hug the student who made the request, this sunday I will drive to Newtown, CT and deliver that hug to any individual or individuals willing to accept it.

If you know me, you may be laughing,  I am not a hugger, I rarely, if ever hug people, but there are times in life where we need to step out of our comfort zone, this is one of those times.

If you have anyway of making this happen, contact me, if you don’t, please pass this along to someone who may, or at the very least, just share it.

I really, more than anything, want to make this student’s Christmas wish come true.

Contact: paleoromano@gmail.com or leave a comment here.

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Guns Don’t Kill People…..

…Projectiles traveling at 1500 mph kill people.

I have been trying to digest the most recent mass shooting in the United States but it keeps causing reflux and nausea. So much like college, I feel the need to induce vomiting to get the offending substance out.

So here goes….

I live in Philadelphia, sometimes affectionately referred to as “Killadelphia”, I am a teacher, I teach a demographic who has a homicide rate of 17%, I have buried two of my students in the last 5 years, both the victims of gun violence.

I have a wife who routinely takes public transportation, I wish she wouldn’t. There are numerous instances of people firing blindly into buses and trains in Philadelphia.  Recently, a man was arrested at our subway stop for carrying an AK-47 in a shopping bag on the train.  I have a realistic fear that someone will want to take a potshot at me as I ride my motorcycle through some of the more dangerous neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

But lets back up.

I was always an avid believer in the 2nd amendment, I believed in the freedom to own a firearm, I like shooting guns, I like trying to hit targets, and I like the engineering.

Even after the Columbine shooting I believed that there was no need for gun control, it was a freak occurrence, and of course, guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

But then there was the next incident, and the next, and soon “freak occurrence” was no longer applicable to these situations, instead “…yet another…” became the applicable phrase.  Now, here we are, two major shootings within a year in public places by people who were obviously mentally unstable.  The most recent seeing 27 people dead, 20 of them younger than 10.  The weapons of choice? Semi-automatic, and automatic weapons.  In fact in almost every incident of mass violence in the last 20 years has been semi-automatic and automatic weapons.

Not pipe bombs

Not knives

Not axes

Not fire

Not baseball bats

Not swords

Guns, powerful guns capable of firing 600 rounds a minute simply by moving your index finger half an inch.  It does not take skill, it does not take work, it does not take much effort to pick up a gun and fire it.  You don’t need to be close to your victim to kill them and worry about being overpowered, you don’t need to think about your actions with a gun, you simply just have to pick it up, point and move your index finger.  Look at a lot of these shooters, they are not physically imposing, they are people who without guns could not carry out their deranged fantasies.

You can make every argument you want about how if a person really wanted to kill someone they would find a way to do it.  This is simply not true.  The most recent individual would not have been able to kill 26 people if not aided by a tool capable of spraying metal projectiles rapidly at 1500 mph.

It is simple, how many mass killings (that were not classified as terrorism) have taken place without the use of guns in the last 20 years? Do we really believe that only the people who carried out these shootings were the only people who ever wanted to do this?

Of course not, but these people had something the others did not.  Access to powerful guns. Simple as that.

This is what people aren’t getting.  We are making it too easy for unstable people to kill.  But yet here we are, still defending our right to own firearms.

I have heard every argument in defense of guns….

“…a criminal will find a way to get a gun so laws don’t matter….”
“…the person did the killing, not the gun, they would have found another way…”

My personal favorite…
“If more people were armed others would think twice about shooting someone”.  The only problem with this argument is that the people involved in these shootings either plan on getting killed by police or turn the gun on themselves….meaning another armed person would do nothing to deter them.

Then there is the 2nd amendment argument, written in 1791 after America was fresh from fighting an oppressive government and wanted to make sure it couldn’t happen again.  1791, when an arm was a muzzle loaded, single shot, flint lock rifle. When the danger of tyranny was still on the front of everyone’s mind. But I need to ask, does anyone really believe if US citizens give up our handguns and assault rifles that suddenly we will become a military dictatorship?

Even the country that prompted our penning of the Constitution, the Tyrant we fought for Independence from, no longer allows firearms.  It is time to realize that the 2nd amendment is becoming not just obsolete, but dangerous.

America, it is time to realize the right of owning a firearm is encroaching on a more important right, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are unalienable rights, rights that are greater than man created amendments, rights that our forefathers deemed so important they are not able to be amended.  A right 27 people, 20 of which were children, were denied.

Because of guns 27 people are no longer here.

You can make every argument you want, you can spin it any way you want, but the fact still remains….

They always use guns.

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Thank You Charles….

Regardless of your beliefs and whether you choose to accept evolution or not, Charles Darwin is a man who deserves your respect.  Most people know who he is and that he published The Origin of Species, but very few know the pain, anguish, and suffering that went into publicly releasing this information 153 years ago today.

In 2009 Aqila wanted to go to England to see Blur play a concert in Hyde Park.  I was in, under one condition, we take a day for me to go Darwin’s home in Kent and pay homage to a man who suffered so I could understand.

Darwin was a well to do Brit with an aristocratic status who bounced around careers never content on where he landed.  Because Captain Fitzroy wanted someone of his social standing on board the HMS Beagle he allowed Darwin to come along the voyage of the Beagle as a naturalist while he spent 5 years mapping coastlines. Darwin was a young 22 when he left on the HMS Beagle and spent the next 5 years collecting specimens from all over the world while suffering from seasickness the entire time.

He returned from this historic voyage at the age of 27…..he did not publish his theory until 23 years later.  He spent  less time alive before boarding the Beagle than he did working on his theory for publication.  But it wasn’t lack of evidence that prevented him from publication, it was fear of retribution.  It would be social suicide for someone of his class to go against God, in fact when he confided in friends about his theory it was done in hushed meetings in backrooms or the privacy of his home for fear of being overheard.

As he worked on his theory and the evidence began to fall into place he grew increasingly worried about the implications of his work.  He knew he was sitting on the answer to the question of all questions, but was the world ready for it? He wrestled with this for over a decade, the majority of the time being spent at Downe House in Kent where he was surrounded by the English countryside with plenty of space for experiments in the natural world and his hobby of pigeon breeding and horticulture.  It is this place, Downe House, that is the true birthplace of the theory of evolution. The real cornerstone of this being the sand path that looped the grounds.

Darwin would do five loops on the sand path a day to exercise both his body and mind.  At this point he was suffering both physically and mentally from the stress of work.  He would often get so upset he couldn’t eat and would vomit.  He found the calm of walking the path allowed his body to let his brain work on the details of his theory.

In 1844 he outlined an essay explaining his theory which he then called Descent With Modification and even went so far as to leave a letter to his wife Emma saying to publish the essay if he should die unexpectedly.  This is a 14 years before The Origin of Species was published……14 years.  He knew this was his life’s work, he knew this was what he would be remembered for, he knew the importance of this information…..but even so, he would not publish it.  So he spent the years publishing different essays and monographs on everything from geology to barnacles, all the while keeping the single most important scientific discovery in human history to himself and a few close friends.

Imagine you stumbled upon the answer to how the Universe began but couldn’t tell anyone.

One of the turning points in Darwin’s decision to finally publish was the death of his daughter Annie in 1851.  It crushed him and he blamed himself because he married his first cousin and believed his children suffered from the closeness in relation. He had trouble accepting a God that could be so cruel…he even vocalized this when describing parasitic wasps. An insect that paralyzes insects and lays their eggs in them to provide live food when they hatch.

He continued to suffer and was told by doctors that if he did not stop working so hard he would die from the stress…..but Darwin didn’t stop. He dealt with the physical pain, no doubt well accustomed to physical discomfort while working from five years of seasickness on the Beagle. So he walked his path five loops a day and he wrote.  In 1856 confidant and close friend Charles Lyell told him to put these works together in one book called Natural Selection.  Through the year of 1857 he organized his book and then in June of 1858 he received an essay to read from a young English scientist working in Malaysia who through his observations had developed the exact same theory as Darwin himself years earlier.

Darwin was crushed.  Decades of work only to get beaten to the punch at the last minute.  Because of his own fear and insecurity he would be forever lost in the annals of history and all the pain in suffering would be for naught.

Wallace was not looking for publication but Darwin offered to publish both their essays together.  Was it cowardly of Darwin to wait until someone else could be a target for the backlash? Maybe, but courage isn’t doing something without fear, courage is doing something in the presence of fear.  A fear so great it was physically destroying him.

In June of 1859 they presented the information to the Linneaen Society, strangely the presentation raised very little response.  During this time Darwin’s health declined drastically and he struggled to finish The Origin of Species.  His friends encouraged him to keep working and finish it for publication.

So he he walked…five loops on the sand path.

On November 24, 1859 all 1200 published copies of The Origin of Species sold out.

Then came the storm. Richard Owen, the head of the British Museum of Natural History and well respected scientist of the time attacked Darwin and his theory in public forum.  Darwin’s nightmare began to unfold as he was bullied publicly by both Owen and his following as well as local newspapers, even going so far as to portray a drawing of Darwin as part monkey part man.

But Darwin was no longer alone.  With all the cards on the table other scientists began to support him, most notably is one of my favorite characters in science, Thomas Huxley, nicknamed “Darwin’s Bulldog”.  He had the tenacity and confidence to attack Owen’s establishment head on in public.  Most notably in the Oxford debate on evolution in 1860, which Darwin did not attend.  Samuel Wilberforce spearheaded the religious side of the debate and it was here that Huxley solidified his role as Darwin’s defender.

The topic of descending from apes was being scoffed at by the religious side, how ridiculous a person who have to be to believe this.  It is believed that the culmination of this debate came when Wilberforce, believing he could shake Huxley said “..whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey.”

Without missing a beat Huxley replied “I wound not be ashamed to have a monkey for my ancestor, but I am ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.”

Roughly saying “You have a great gift of intelligence and you choose to use it to hide the truth”.

Whether it played out like this word for word is up for debate, but this was the gist of their back and forth.

Darwin, now removed from the front lines of debate continued to work for the next 20 years and publish more work on everything from carnivorous plants to the animal mind. He also published 6 more editions of The Origin of Species along with the historical Descent of Man in 1870.  He kept a full garden, a greenhouse full of carnivorous plants, bees, orchids…

…and he walked, five times a day on the sand path.

His health continued to decline and in 1882 surrounded by his family Darwin died of heart failure. He was slated to be buried in St Mary’s Church yard in Downe, but the head of the Royal Society William Spottiswoode petitioned for him to have a state’s funeral and laid to rest in Westminster Abby close to John Herschel and Sir Isaac Newton. An honor held only for heads of state and people of national significance.

The petition was accepted and,  Charles Darwin, a man who was convinced he would become the worlds most hated man was honored with a states funeral and was carried to his grave by close friends Thomas Huxley, Alfred Russel Wallace,  William Spottiswoode, and Joseph Hooker.

My pilgrimage to England started here, at Darwin’s resting place where I expected to find an ornate monument to Darwin, but was greeted by a modest stone that simple says ““CHARLES ROBERT DARWIN BORN 12 FEBRUARY 1809. DIED 19 APRIL 1882.” It was a fitting grave for a man who preferred to be in his study than in the spotlight.

I just sort of stood for awhile, looking for some sort of emotional response, but nothing of significance came forth.  It was just a stone, there were crowds of people, crying children, and little atmosphere for reflection.

The next day we then took a train, two buses, and walked 30 minutes down a narrow road with no sidewalks to Downe House. We took the tour of the house with a small group and I began to feel a tinge of emotion, as we toured from room to room seeing the actual spot Darwin worked I started to get a surreal feeling. The reality of where I was, the significance of this spot to me personally, began to set in.  My whole life has been guided by work that was penned in this very spot.

But it was Darwin’s path where it finally set in.  I began to walk it, I felt an initial giddiness but as I moved further from the house and other people I began to feel it. As I walked the path my mind began to wander, I thought of Darwin walking this path as I am now, I thought of natural selection, the origin of humans, and the greatness of his theory…..but then my mind wandered and the world around me slipped away….I was in CCD, in the sixth grade, a nun was scorning me for talking about evolution during class….8th grade forced to sit alone in CCD to reflect why I shouldn’t ask the nun how God created us when we evolved from primates…I saw myself stomping through ponds collecting anything living and placing them in a coffee can complete marveling at the variety of nature, not able to articulate the beautiful words of Darwin… from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved…I was entering college to pursue a career in science…I was sitting in the Smithsonian studying Komodo dragon behavior….I was teaching evolution to seniors in a class I designed as the head of science at a private school called Evolution and Comparative Anatomy….and here I am in England….my life, my whole life guided by a theory that was born right here….I became completely overwhelmed…I thought of Darwin waking this path, suffering intense physical and mental pain as he mentally penned the words of his life’s work.

I wanted so badly to tell Darwin thank you, that his work answered the question that no one could answer for me during my young life….I knew it could never be and as I kicked a stone on the path on my final lap, I remembered a snippet I read about how Darwin would put a small pile stones down and would kick them aside as he walked so he didn’t have to be bothered mentally to remember what lap he was on….. and it came full circle……there I was kicking stones on the sand path at Downe House….and for a moment….I was as close to Darwin as I could be.  I picked up the rock I kicked and held it, the only tangible connection I could have and kept it.

So as I sit here in a rocking chair in the back of the living room of my parents house during my Thanksgiving visit.  My wife and family are watching TV and occasionally asking me what I am so intensely focused on…I guess I was just trying to find a way to simply say…

….Thank you Charles, I am eternally grateful. Your suffering put mine to rest.

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