Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Understanding Every Word

The most challenging part of my recent trip to Greece was visiting the Dorothy Snot Preschool and not sharing a language with the kids. It wasn't the children's challenge, they couldn't have cared less, but mine. If there's any single thing I'm certain of, it's my ability to engage children, but until I dropped to my knees in the school's courtyard to bring myself face-to-face with the kids, I'd not been aware of how reliant I'd become on doing that through chattering.

Robbed of my go-to move, I was thrown back upon non-verbal communication. With the youngest kids, of course, this wasn't so hard. They're still working on the rudiments of language themselves, and much of my communication, even with English-speaking toddlers is non-verbal, so it didn't take me long to figure out a few simple, repetitive games we could do together, like passing a ball back and forth through a hanging tire, to get things going, to develop some trust. No, my real challenge was with the oldest kids, the 5-year-olds, the ones who chatter as much as I do.

The kids had been anticipating my visit, and none more so than the kindergarten class, crowding around me, full of questions and comments that were all, literally, Greek to me. It feels awful, frankly, to leave children hanging like that, not knowing how or even whether to respond. I got on my knees with them as well, smiling, responding to their physical touch with touch of my own, turning to one of the teachers for help translating when a child was particularly insistent that she or he be heard. 

I'd been a child in Greece some 40 years before, arriving with limited Greek language skills, much like this return visit. Back then I'd managed communication, cobbling together a common language of words and gestures with the children I met there, but I felt out of practice there in the midst of these kids who were excited to engage with me. I didn't want to let them down. I'd worn my cape for that first visit, the one you see me wearing at the top of this blog, so I started by offering it to the kids, asking through pantomime who wanted a turn to wear it. The bolder children took me up on it, taking turns racing around the space with the red cape trailing behind them, growing a bit wild in their play, tugging at the cape, wrestling one another in their excitement. I was winding them up, which is not in and of itself a horrible thing, but it's not really communication.

As we played this game, my ear began to pick out familiar Greek words like, "yes," "no," "tomorrow," "go," "strawberry," words I'd not needed in four decades. At one point I began to just shout them out randomly as they came to me and the kids shouted them back, language without communication, a step in the right direction perhaps, but one that didn't really lead us anywhere, other than to perhaps cement the growing opinion among the kids that Teacher Tom was, at least, silly.

At one point, a teacher brought out a large sheet of paper and some markers. I don't know if she meant it for me or not, but I saw my opportunity. Soon we were gathered around the paper, drawing. This is a universal language. It no longer mattered what we were saying as we pushed up against one another, huddling up, sharing a blank space, filling it up with our lines and figures and colors. It was through drawing with the children like this that I began to become something more than a silly man in a red cape. It was in this process that we first began to become friends.

Over the course of the next few days we found other ways to communicate. We ate together several times. I learned to say, "I don't like that," which is an important phrase for every adult to have when working with young children. The highlight for me, then, was telling a story, in English, to the kindergarteners. It was a plan the teachers and I had cooked up, a sort of challenge. I would tell the story, then the kids would tell us what they thought the story was about. It was a test of the new language we'd developed together over the preceding three days. I used lots of hand, body, and voice gestures. I was thrilled that they laughed at all the same places the kids do back home. Occasionally, one of them would shout out an English word to me that they recognized: "Butterfly!" "Bear!" At the end of the story, they wanted to hear it again, which was an incredible honor.

Upon the second telling, then, the kids discussed what they thought the story was all about, and sure enough, they nailed it. That evening, I met the parents of one of the boys. They told me he'd come home enthused, boasting to them that Teacher Tom had told them a story in English and that he'd understood every word.

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Monday, April 29, 2013

Our Magnificent Boredom

Last week was a gift here in the Pacific Northwest. Warm, bright blue skies, lilacs in fragrant bloom, a light breeze: an early week of summer, one the likes of which we didn't experience until mid-August last year. 

Our 5's class normally spends a little over half its days outdoors. Last week we elected to spend our entire days out there. No one appreciates a sunny day like us mildewy Northwesterners. When I worked at the chamber of commerce, the offices would more or less clear out around lunchtime and stay that way on days like these, most of us claiming an afternoon meeting out of the office that would run late enough that it didn't make sense to return to the office. Of course, we all knew where everyone was, out there in a patch of sun, and we all let one another off with their little lies without even a wink.

Lazy joy! The running around was half-hearted. None of us wanted to let one moment of our day go by unappreciated, so we slowed way down, all of us. We were together in shorts and sun dresses for the first time in months, feeling almost scanty with our bare arms, legs and toes, Huckleberry runaways, with dirt under out nails, a bit of something in our hair, and the often clearer perspective of youth. 

Oh, we're the ones who know how to play in the damp, windy cold: that we do with aplomb for most of the year. But days like these: they play with us. There was Cooper over there, in a chair, his journal on a knee as he drew a detailed illustration with ballpoint pen, feet rested on an edge of the table, his head in the sun, while his body rustled with dappled shade. 

There were none of those wild good guy-bad guy games we've had so much of this year, while around the workbench was a casual congress of chatty machine dismantlers, taking their time removing parts that we would later use to repair our robot. Another group gathered in the shade with large paint brushes and rollers -- house painting tools -- methodically making a pastel masterpiece of the door that most recently hung on our new play house. There was much discussion, but no resolution, about whether or not it would go back on its hinges or just serve as a piece of art. The day gave us permission to leave the question hanging, showing us the folly of our usual rah-rah urgency to resolve things.

People who live in places where almost every day is like this simply cannot fathom the giddy happiness we people of the dark and damp experience when we get even one day like this, let alone a run of them in mid-April. We got sunburned. We purchased new sunglasses and promptly lost them. We continued to wear our shorts and sandals even when temperatures dropped down into the low 50's at night.

The nation of Bhutan uses a measurement it calls Gross National Happiness (GNH) to assess it's national well-being. I love this idea, even while recognizing the challenge of really measuring what we call happiness. But I sure love that Bhutan seriously tries, basing its government's 5-year planning upon certain psychological and social indicators to try to get at the overall "satisfaction" of the people. Critics complain that it's an inexact, subjective kind of measure, too reliant upon the vagaries of self-reported happiness, and the fact that it can never be used to accurately compare nation-with-nation given cultural differences, expectations, and definitions of happiness. If Seattle were surveyed last week, our self-reported happiness would indeed be through the roof.

Of course, who cares, right? If I'm self-reporting as "happy," does it matter if my happiness can be judged against the happiness of another, be they my countryman or not? If I'm not so happy, I'm not so happy. If I'm happy, I'm happy. It's not a comparative statement, but always a purely subjective one. GNP will always be an averaging of subjective reporting, data created by unique individuals, each of whom has her own criteria, some of whom are happier on a sunny day than those who live in places where it's commonplace.

It's not that the clouds and rain depress us, I don't think, at least those of us who've been here for a long time, but rather that when sky opens, clean, so blue it hurts your eyes to look at it, inviting us to expose our pasty skin, we're all simultaneously filled with an appreciation, a gratitude, and even a love. And that's what lies at the bottom of all happiness. When the sun shines in Seattle, we don't have to count our blessings, they count us. There is no better place to be than amongst these truly happy people, moving slowly, appreciating every blessed moment.

Up under the cedars, we wove a plank between our two swings, inventing a kind of front porch swing upon which we idled for awhile side-by-side. We hung there, barely swinging, chanting together, "Blah, blah, blah, blah. This is boring. Blah, blah, blah, blah. This is boring . . ." loving ourselves and one another and our magnificent boredom.

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Friday, April 26, 2013

The Critical Phase

My wife and I have a joke we tell each other: "This is the critical phase." Voiced in moments of stress or anticipation, it never makes us laugh, it's not that kind of joke, but it always make us smile, reminding us that we've been here before and we'll be here again.

I have a picture in my head, maybe we all do, of what life will be like once we're past the current critical phase. It's a picture in which all the home repairs are handled, my loved ones are contentedly thriving in their own endeavors, and money is not an issue. It seems like so little to ask, sometimes it seems like it's right around the corner, but when I look up I see yet again that this is the critical phase.

That's what it's all about, after all, getting up each morning and wrestling life into shape. And when things do start to feel a little settled, when we do start feeling masterful, in control, that's when we're most likely to do something really "stupid" like take a risk. You know, something like agreeing to chair a local non-profit's annual fundraising auction, or taking piano lessons, or hosting a dinner party, or starting a new school. And there we are again: "This is the critical phase." People are counting on us, we are counting on ourselves, there are obstacles to overcome, ledges to walk, the prospect of failure in the offing.

I try to learn the lesson this time, don't bite off more than I can chew, don't worry about falling, but then I remember that I'm going to be getting out of bed each morning and wrestle with life anyway, even if it's just household chores. It might as well be with new challenges, ones with a bit of risk attached, because that's the only way I'm ever going to learn anything new. And after all, that's why we're here.

From critical phase to critical phase we go, step over step, hanging on, moving forward, perhaps wishing it could be different, but knowing all the while that we wouldn't have it any other way.

This is the critical phase. 

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Thursday, April 25, 2013

"I'm Not Leaving My Profession . . . It Has Left Me"

Veteran teachers are becoming fed up with the direction of our public schools, with an ever-increasing emphasis on unproven and disproven "educational" methods like high stakes standardized testing, standardized curricula, the de-professionalization of teaching, privatization, larger class sizes, and longer school days, all being driven by dilettantes, charlatans, ideologues, and for-profit companies that prioritize profit over education.

This incredibly well-written and well-reasoned resignation letter has been making the rounds. I wanted to share it with you. This is exactly the kind of teacher we need in our classrooms, this is exactly the kind of person that will not choose teaching in the future unless we push back. It is a national tragedy that so many teachers are finding they have no other option that to shut up or resign. This is why the rest of us must continue to fight the good fight.

Our children deserve better than schools that run like factories.

Dear Mr. Barduhn and Board of Education Members:
It is with the deepest regret that I must retire at the close of this school year, ending my more than twenty-seven years of service at Westhill on June 30, under the provisions of the 2012-15 contract. I assume that I will be eligible for any local or state incentives that may be offered prior to my date of actual retirement and I trust that I may return to the high school at some point as a substitute teacher.
As with Lincoln and Springfield, I have grown from a young to an old man here; my brother died while we were both employed here; my daughter was educated here, and I have been touched by and hope that I have touched hundreds of lives in my time here. I know that I have been fortunate to work with a small core of some of the finest students and educators on the planet.
I came to teaching forty years ago this month and have been lucky enough to work at a small liberal arts college, a major university and this superior secondary school. To me, history has been so very much more than a mere job, it has truly been my life, always driving my travel, guiding all of my reading and even dictating my television and movie viewing. Rarely have I engaged in any of these activities without an eye to my classroom and what I might employ in a lesson, a lecture or a presentation. With regard to my profession, I have truly attempted to live John Dewey’s famous quotation (now likely cliché with me, I’ve used it so very often) that  “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” This type of total immersion is what I have always referred to as teaching “heavy,” working hard, spending time, researching, attending to details and never feeling satisfied that I knew enough on any topic. I now find that this approach to my profession is not only devalued, but denigrated and perhaps, in some quarters despised. STEM rules the day and “data driven” education seeks only conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core, along with a lockstep of oversimplified so-called Essential Learnings. Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system of public education and particularly not at Westhill.
A long train of failures has brought us to this unfortunate pass. In their pursuit of Federal tax dollars, our legislators have failed us by selling children out to private industries such as Pearson Education. The New York State United Teachers union has let down its membership by failing to mount a much more effective and vigorous campaign against this same costly and dangerous debacle. Finally, it is with sad reluctance that I say our own administration has been both uncommunicative and unresponsive to the concerns and needs of our staff and students by establishing testing and evaluation systems that are Byzantine at best and at worst, draconian. This situation has been exacerbated by other actions of the administration, in either refusing to call open forum meetings to discuss these pressing issues, or by so constraining the time limits of such meetings that little more than a conveying of information could take place. This lack of leadership at every level has only served to produce confusion, a loss of confidence and a dramatic and rapid decaying of morale. The repercussions of these ill-conceived policies will be telling and shall resound to the detriment of education for years to come. The analogy that this process is like building the airplane while we are flying would strike terror in the heart of anyone should it be applied to an actual airplane flight, a medical procedure, or even a home repair. Why should it be acceptable in our careers and in the education of our children?
My profession is being demeaned by a pervasive atmosphere of distrust, dictating that teachers cannot be permitted to develop and administer their own quizzes and tests (now titled as generic “assessments”) or grade their own students’ examinations. The development of plans, choice of lessons and the materials to be employed are increasingly expected to be common to all teachers in a given subject. This approach not only strangles creativity, it smothers the development of critical thinking in our students and assumes a one-size-fits-all mentality more appropriate to the assembly line than to the classroom. Teacher planning time has also now been so greatly eroded by a constant need to “prove up” our worth to the tyranny of APPR (through the submission of plans, materials and “artifacts” from our teaching) that there is little time for us to carefully critique student work, engage in informal intellectual discussions with our students and colleagues, or conduct research and seek personal improvement through independent study. We have become increasingly evaluation and not knowledge driven. Process has become our most important product, to twist a phrase from corporate America, which seems doubly appropriate to this case.
After writing all of this I realize that I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists. I feel as though I have played some game halfway through its fourth quarter, a timeout has been called, my teammates’ hands have all been tied, the goal posts moved, all previously scored points and honors expunged and all of the rules altered.
For the last decade or so, I have had two signs hanging above the blackboard at the front of my classroom, they read, “Words Matter” and “Ideas Matter”. While I still believe these simple statements to be true, I don’t feel that those currently driving public education have any inkling of what they mean.
Sincerely and with regret,
Gerald J. Conti

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Only Religion

One word that sums up the basis of all good conduct . . . loving kindness. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself. ~Confucius 

Rex was insistent we read his book at circle time. It was entitled "The Golden Rule." It probably had a subtitle and an author, although I took no notice. What compelled me was his insistence. There was something here that he really wanted to share with all of us.

We've all been there, of course, full of epiphany, overfull, giddy to share something that has moved us mind, heart, and soul.  

The Golden Rule is really the only religion. This is the great truth found at the heart of all spiritual life when it comes to our relationships with the other people. And as far as I can tell, relationships are the only reason we're here.

Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. ~The Buddah

I asked, "Rex, is this your show-and-tell item?"

"No, it's a book. Read it."

In his class we usually vote on which book we're going to read each day. Sometimes you don't get to read the book you want. I said, "I have some other books too. We can vote on it."

"No, we have to read it."

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you. ~Jesus

We have a list of rules on our wall at school, dozens of them, all of which we, as a democracy of children, have agreed to by affirming that none of us want these things done to us. "Does anyone want to be hit?" I ask. When no one speaks up in favor of being hit, I say, "Then we agree. That's a rule."

"I can tell you really want to share this book with everyone, Rex. We'll read it at circle time."

Rex was satisfied with that.

What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. ~Hillel

Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Baha'i Faith, Zoroastrianism, and every other religion you can name: the simple message of the Golden Rule stands at its core. 

When children break one of our rules, after reminding them of the agreement they've made with their friends, once some of the emotion of the moment has faded and we've found a better solution, I more often than not calmly ask, usually smiling with an acknowledgement that I'm asking a question to which we all know the answer, "Is it okay for people to hit you?" "Do you like it when people take your things?" And when they reply "No," usually smiling themselves at the ridiculousness one finds in answering such obvious questions, I state the simple fact, "No body does." Then we sit there nodding for a moment, silently understanding that we're all in this together.

Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself. ~The Prophet Mohammed

Rex was an evangelist for a day, a proper prophet, bringing us the good word. We read his book together and discussed what it meant. He kept watching the faces of his classmates as I read, watching, I suppose for them to show signs of their own enlightenment. What a gift he brought to us.

Then, when the book was done, we sat there nodding silently in the ancient wisdom: the simple, sweet, perfect heart of humanity.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Skills Most Necessary For The Life To Come

When we arrived at the front gate, I was sure it wasn't the same place. I even said, "I don't think this is it." If I'd just peeked in at the gate as I'd originally intended, I'd likely have shrugged and walked away, but we had an appointment so we gave the guard our identification in exchange for visitors' passes and passed inside.

I attended the American Community School (ACS) in the Chilandri neighborhood of Athens during the early 1970's when I was in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. Once we got through the security gate (which is new since my time) things began to look familiar. Although it seemed smaller now, I recognized the facade of the 3-story elementary school building with its exterior stairways that invited us to race down at breakneck speeds. I taught myself to really barrel down the stairs, having, as a 4th grader new to the school, identified speed on the stairs as a "status" thing.

All I'd really wanted to do on my first return to Athens in 40 years was "look" at the old school. Really. That's all I'd intended, but John, my thoughtful host, had organized things, and as Principal Cathy Makropoulos showed us around the place, it all came flooding back: so many things I'd forgotten. 

We had played a lot of what we called "German Dodgeball" (prison dodge ball) on those playgrounds, huge games involving dozens of boys, hurling those rubber balls at one another, dodging, catching. This was not PE class dodgeball -- the only people playing were the kids who chose to play. You could throw the ball as hard as you wanted and no one complained. We took it seriously. In fact, as a 10-year-old, I don't think I'd up to that point in my life ever competed at such a high level athletically as I did in those entirely child-created, child-managed games. I remember being counseled by an older boy to "keep the ball low: it's harder to catch." Excellent advice, but my greatest strength was being able to actually catch another guy's best throw, sending him to "prison." There was another older boy who had taken it upon himself to attempt to be my tormentor, he came after me with a hard, low throw and I was able to cradle it just off the ground. He looked at me in shock for a second, then shook his head in disgust before jogging off to prison. I didn't have problems with him after that.

Of course, it was on these playgrounds that I also learned to play soccer, or more properly, football. I was never one of the best players (those guys were mostly the Greek-American kids), but when I returned to the States where the sport was just catching on, it was as a skilled player: skilled enough to be captain on an Oregon state championship team. That was a big deal in my life -- still is!

I learned to play the clarinet while there. Our music teacher was very temperamental, although no one really took him seriously. For a time, I was "first chair," but one week I simply didn't practice at all, and as he dramatically pointed me to "last chair" he hit an actual chair so hard with his baton that a piece of dried chewing gum fell to the floor. We all laughed while he fumed. I continued as last chair for the rest of the year, experimenting with the role of class clown, then gave up on the instrument altogether.

More intimidating was when Telly Savalas' brother Teddy, a 5th grade teacher, called a student meeting to discuss the 50 drachmas that had gone missing from his wallet. He didn't yell, but was nevertheless quelling in his firm, earnestness: "It's not the amount of money. It doesn't hurt me to lose it. What hurts is the idea that someone from this school would steal it." It almost made me wish I'd been the one who had taken it so I could, as he offered, return it anonymously to his desk. Later, after I'd played the character John in a Thanksgiving Day production, it was Mr. Savlas' complements that meant the most.

When I'd been a student, there had been a public street that ran right in front of the elementary school, dividing it from the rest of the campus. Shepards regularly walked their sheep along it. On the opposite side of the fence where we played soccer on a gravelly pitch, there had been some run-down houses where gypsies lived. We called them gypsies, at least, and Principal Makropoulos, an ACS graduate, remembered them that way as well. We were told to leave them alone, to not interact with them through the fence, and for the most part we didn't, but it was hard to ignore what looked to us like extremely disadvantaged lives. Now there are apartments where the gypsies used to live, but I still think of them when I think of poverty.

As we took in the rest of the campus, meeting the teachers, many of whom said they planned to attend my Friday night presentation, people kept asking if I remembered this teacher or that teacher. Some of the names sounded familiar, but I couldn't put faces with them. The faces of my classmates, however, and their names flooded over me as I rounded corners and ascended stairways. It was my classmates that came back to me the most.

The library had been remodeled, but the shelves looked the same, and as I began to remember, I saw a row of study carols from the past where we had taken turns putting on those giant headphones that plugged into a turntable, and where we listened to the very first Cheech & Chong comedy album as 6th graders. Even after only a couple hearings, we all had it memorized ("Dave? Dave's not here," and "Class . . . Class . . . Class . . . SHUT UP!"). The pothead aspect of the humor went right over our heads, but we knew it was hilarious because all the high schoolers were talking about it, and all we needed to do is evoke Sister Mary Elephant or Fifi the sexy poodle to elicit laughter.

I don't suppose anyone is surprised that I wasn't likewise flooded with memories about the worksheets I'd completed, the chapters I read, or the tests I took. I know my education was a good one, because ACS was and still is an outstanding school, full of dedicated teachers, but curriculum isn't the kind of stuff that sticks with a person, although that's not entirely true in the case of my time at ACS.

There were no walls between the classrooms on the 5th grade floor back then. It was called the "open classroom" concept, something that struck our whole family as experimental and radical at the time. Our literacy and math curriculum was branded Independently Prescribed Instruction (IPI). I've never been so aware of a curriculum as we all were then. We all talked about IPI. "It's time for IPI," the teachers would say. The basic idea was that you were handed a package of lessons as a 4th grader that represented the entirety of what you were expected to get through during the next 3 years, with the idea being that everyone worked at his or her own pace. You read the materials, did the exercises, then, when you thought you were ready, you took the test.

I don't recall any of the specifics of what we were learning, but what I do clearly recall is this process: if you passed the test you moved on to the next lesson. If you didn't, you reviewed the material until you felt you were again ready for the test. When I realized how this worked, I simply plowed through the entire "English" part of the IPI program so that within the first few months of my 5th grade year I was done, completely, meaning that I had "free time" instead of IPI; time I mostly used to play marbles with a kid named Aki Baez while the others worked on their lessons. As the year wore on, more and more boys began to complete their English work, motivated I think by the prospect of joining Aki and me playing marbles on the blue-grey carpeting. It was high stakes gaming in that we played for "keeps." As the year wore on, we developed a kind of "marble boy" culture, one with its own unwritten social rules and expectations: we were building a democratic, or perhaps meritocratic, community together, down on our knees amidst the table and chair legs, off the radar of the teachers, our own independently prescribed instruction in what is, frankly, the most important thing of all: getting along with the others.

This is why we have class reunions, of course, not to reflect on the formal parts of our education, the school work, but rather the extra-curricular parts of our time together. No one gets together with high school chums to reminisce over a test score or a text book. Sometimes we may celebrate a teacher, but only if she was a person who was warm, funny, inspiring; someone who rose above the academics.

As I enjoyed my reunion of one, touring the campus that was so warmly opened to me, I was overwhelmed with the realization that this, after all, these memories of people, of the things we did together, of the community we made together, this is what school really is always all about. The academics, frankly, are the excuse, but it's through learning how to live together that we develop the skills most necessary for the life to come.

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Monday, April 22, 2013

Let Me Tell You The Story

You may or may not be aware that I was posting all of last week while eating breakfast on the rooftop of my hotel in Athens, Greece. I don't know if that impresses you or not, but it does me. The last time I was in Greece, as a boy in the early 1970's, if we wanted to write something to someone back home, it was via letters written on tissue thin paper so that it wouldn't cost too much, employing the technology of air mail that sometimes took up to 5 weeks to complete the delivery.

People try to tell me it's not true, but the fact that I can even write paragraphs like the one above is evidence that I'm getting to be an old man. And please don't think I'm pitying myself, because I'm not. I've long looked forward to being a guy with some experience under his belt; with memories to comb through for anecdotes and stories and life lessons and all that other stuff that can only come from having already lived for decades. In college I once went into a drug store looking to buy the gray hair dye that I hoped would lend me some gravitas, only to be told by the sweet woman behind the counter, "Oh honey, they don't make gray hair dye. Who would buy it?" No, indeed, I've earned every gray hair in my beard and I'm now living in the time of life most suited to me.

I was in Greece to give a speech at the invitation of my friend John who is the founder of the Dorothy Snot Preschool in the heart of downtown Athens, a place where I met dozens of kindred spirits, teachers, parents, and others who share my love and respect for young children, and who want nothing more than to see them have the opportunity to play, to learn, to begin to collect the stories they will tell when their hair starts to go gray. Maybe some of them will remember the time a strange man in a red cape came to play with them in school, and whom they sent away to his distant home bearing gifts they'd made for him.

As I spent my week amidst both ancient and living history, I was aware of myself as a character in not just my own story, but all the stories; not just from my own half century, but of all the eons that people have walked the earth. I would come around one corner and see the ancient Parthenon above me, representative of the enduring greatness of Athens, only to round the next to find graffiti-art, speaking of its painful present. And around the next I might then be face-to-face with one of the promotional posters of myself in full Captain Superhugger regalia.

I re-visited my old neighborhood, Kifissia, a place that as a boy I'd known as a simple village of bakeries, kiosks, butchers, and groceries, now replaced by Ralph Lauren, Sephora, and Louis Vuitton, our age's universal markers of the prosperity of a certain social class. The next day I was caught up in a march of thousands of men and women, all even older than myself, and certainly with more stories to tell, protesting the austerity measures that have impoverished their sunset years. I ate traditional kid and lamb as well as hot dogs wrapped in pita and stuffed with french fries.

I told my stories to the children at Dorothy Snot, in English, then they tried to figure them out. In turn, I tried to figure out the stories they were telling me in Greek. I told my stories in meetings, in interviews, at gatherings, and over meals, and listened to the stories others told me. And even as we told our stories and collected new ones, I was always aware of being a part of the larger never-ending story of children and mommies and daddies: stories of life and death and play and love.

Officially, I was there in Athens to tell my stories in an auditorium that was once a part of a now defunct gas plant, in a neighborhood that is in the process of being transformed from an industrial area into a district of trendy nightlife. Three hundred people came out to listen, on a Friday night no less, and then turn the tables and talk back to me, asking questions, challenging me, and sharing parts of their own stories. 

We are born, we live the stories, we tell the stories, and we listen to the stories, then we find eternity as characters in the stories that those we have touched tell about us. That's how forever works: let me tell you the story.

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