Our current focus-homeless teenagers

This month, with two others I led a workshop for teachers and administrators in how to best serve homeless and unaccompanied high school students within our classrooms. We here at CEG have decided to make this issue—teen homelessness in Volusia County—our singular focus until we have strong impact on the problem.

The most powerful educating at this workshop, and it was an excellent one with all participants working together, took place while we listened to and asked questions of one of my copresenters. She is a Daytona State College education student, and was a VCS unaccompanied student. Because of the response of the group, we are forming a district-wide cadre to share ideas and problem solve. If you would like to participate, you first need to come to the training, which will be repeated toward the end of summer. Please contact me to add your name to the list; we can do this. Please read my previous blog post on this website to read more about this remarkable young woman’s story, and to read tips from the INSIDE of homelessness for educators.

The picture below is of one of my sons, used with his permission. But, keep in mind, there are over 2,000 identified homeless students attending Volusia schools. How many are unidentified? My guess is, at least twice that number. And many of them look just like Jimmy, your typical NSB teenager. Homelessness is often completely invisible, especially in our classrooms. On purpose.

 

 

 

 

 

 

jimmy2
Photographer: Olivia Quinn 

Listening to learn

This week, along with a colleague and a Daytona State College student majoring in education, I facilitated a workshop for teachers and administrators. It was truly a workshop: we rolled up our sleeves and worked together to not only come up with ideas and solutions, but to begin to form a cadre to continue our efforts. And I learned much.

The topic was Unaccompanied, Unidentified: Helping homeless and unaccompanied students in our high school classrooms. One of the critical–and difficult–aspects of the workshop was the second word. Pam Woods and her staff are excellent at guiding schools in identifying, and serving, homeless and unaccompanied students. There’s no doubt Ms. Woods does her job of meeting the needs of these students in our schools, and in the communities. But. But. What about the unidentified students? If students are homeless and wish to stay hidden about that, how can we help them? What tools can we use, what measures put in place, to serve them without ferreting them out?

One activity, and frankly the difficult one for yours truly, was when we broke up into groups. The groups each got a case study I had written up, and brainstormed solutions and ideas for that student. Each one was a homeless student I’d known, a homeless VCS student (I had permission from each of them and changed their names and minor details of their situations.) What got to me was this: when I sat down to write the studies and had to pick from the dozens of homeless students I have known, personally, right here in VCS over the years.

A few of the quick facts we shared (courtesy of the District’s hard work), shocked many of the workshop participants. For example: Four percent–over 2,000–current VCS students are homeless or “unaccompanied” (which means, in lay terms, couch surfing without parents or guardians). That is a huge amount of IDENTIFIED students! Reason would dictate there are at least that many who don’t disclose. Another shocker was how misrepresentative the term “free and reduced lunch” is as an indicator of socio-economic status (SES). Although it is a professionally acceptable marker, it is very misleading unless disaggregated, which it really never is for training or information purposes. Here’s why I say that. Students can get reduced lunch if their family annual household income is well above the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). For example, FPL for a family of four for 2017 is $24,600 or below. A family can have an annual income of up to $44,954 and the children receive reduced lunch. See what I mean about misrepresentative as an SES indicator? One final, and very crucial, point I heard Pam Woods, herself, make in a workshop. It’s one we spent some time exploring this week: the biggest barrier to students being identified and served is the prejudices of school personnel.

That last point was poignantly, explicitly, and beautifully explored by my cofacilitator, the DSC student. She took us through her personal story as an unaccompaned youth at a local high school. She was open about sharing, and frank when answering questions. One of the most illuminating points happened organically. A former teacher of this student who was a workshop participant–in fact she taught the student for three of her four years of high school—seemed to feel she had failed this student in some way by not knowing of her situation. In fact, this was one of the student’s best teachers, ever. She didn’t know because the student didn’t want her to.  And we owe it to these students to try to understand why that might be. All of the workshop participants, including me, came to understand exactly why this student made the choices she did, and her presentation sparked a thorough and thoughtful exploration for creative solutions. We have a lot more work to do.  Some of the student’s points (and remember, this is one student’s perspective, but good advice for stakeholders to think about):

  • Parents may be abusive. They may be drug addicts. They may be bad parents. Don’t try to influence or impact the student’s desire to maintain a relationship, to love, their parents. Don’t judge, even if the child has been removed from the home or left on their own.
  • Gatekeepers of access to services should park their personal opinions and leave it to the professionals, the district Homeless Liaison and her staff, to handle the intake and follow-through with the student. It is hard enough to come forth–keep your remarks, eye-rolls, sighs, to yourself.
  • Don’t pump students for personal information. It is great to let students know you are there, that you will listen, and that you can get them help if they need it. But, just do that. Listen. Don’t advise. Teachers are masters of their subject area, not social workers or guidance counselors. Teachers are also safe adults, and adults students can disclose to. Listening is the key. And, again, parking your own opinions, questions, and judgments.
  •  Let ALL students know what services are available through the district and through your particular school at the beginning of the year, and don’t single students out. Letting all students know lets unidentified students know along with everyone else. Take the time to do this in every classroom.

I learned so much from this young woman who made the brave and difficult decision to speak for an hour and answer questions about her past, her present, and her future. One remark she made (and I’ve known her since she was sixteen, she’s nineteen now) punched me in the gut. In part of her remarks she shared that one of the reasons she had to leave home was that her parent left her alone at night a lot, and sometimes in the daytime, too: sometimes, for a week or more. She had no way to get to the store, to school. I had known about that when I helped her navigate the identification process at her high school. What I didn’t know was what she replied when a teacher in the workshop asked in the Q & A, “When you talked about your parent leaving you alone, off and on, before you became unaccompanied, how long did that go on?”

She quietly replied, “Since I was twelve.”

This was her normal. She didn’t know this was not normal until she left home at seventeen. Think about that. Wrap your mind around that. And roll up your sleeves in your school, your community.

That ugly judgement thing–prejudice

For a very long time–most of my career–I worked in an everyday world peopled by individuals with mostly-invisible disabilities. Conditions like deafness, blindness, mental handicap, autism, attention deficit, auditory processing disorder, just to name a few. Some disabilities, such as M. S., Down’s Syndrome, or paraplegia, were visible. Most teachers, and sadly most students, knew there were always some children (particularly at certain developmental stages) who made fun of special needs children. Imitating a gait, a voice, using a gesture like that of Donald Trump when he made fun of a journalist. Most of us, adults, and most other children are repelled by such things, and in good schools they are of course dealt with. Parents, too, good ones, teach children about individual difference and honoring individuality. We all have seen examples of what I’m talking about, and most everybody reading this would never dream of condoning or engaging in such behavior. Yet, there’s one area, one really specific area, where many people (scores) that I know well engage in EXACTLY the same sort of judgmental, discriminatory, abhorrent behavior without even knowing it. Intelligent, even brilliant, people. That area is judging adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder for behavior due to their Autism Spectrum Disorder, and ostracizing them for it.

Most of us would never dream of saying to a blind family member, “Go out and get a job! The city was advertising a need for a couple of dozen bus drivers. Why are you sitting home? Go get your licence and apply for one of those jobs!” The idea of doing such a thing would be ridiculous, right? How could you expect someone to willfully overcome a physical disability in order to engage in behavior which is natural and accessible to a nondisabled peer? Yet, all too frequently I hear this sort of thing in relationship to another invisible, physical disability: Autism.

My husband is on the Spectrum. He prefers the terminology, “My husband is autistic.” This is harder for me, because I’m neurotypical, but he feels his autism is such a HUGE part of who he is, it takes front-seat in his self-image. That’s important. It matters. ASD is pervasive. It involves the body, the mind, the soul. I am so proud of my husband, he’s the bravest person I’ve ever met. Every day, he goes out into a terrifying world. He chooses that. It would be much easier to stay behind closed doors. He gets made fun of. For his weight, the way he dresses, the way he speaks, his grooming, his shoes, his interests, etc. etc. etc. To think that he doesn’t know this or that each incident is not painful is to choose not to think. When he was very fat, people (right in our own family) felt free to discuss his weight, right in front of him. Some would even mutter, “Mike needs to push back from the table,” behind his back, never thinking hard enough to recognize that this physical issue might have something to do with ASD. Others openly discuss Mike’s “job situation” at social events, wondering aloud why he wasn’t working full time while in college. The fact that he was able to complete an AS, a BS, an MS, and is working on a PhD didn’t matter: he’s a grown man. He should be working, too. Yet, these same people would never DREAM of walking into the local elementary school and expecting students with autism to participate in THEIR work-a-day world just like nondisabled peers. Of proclaiming, “Johnny! Get up in front of the class and read. Susie, you don’t need that laptop! Pick up your pencil and get to work!”

About a year before she passed away, I had a frank discussion with my mother about this. We’d talked about ASD a bit over the years, as Mikel and I have a twenty-four year old son, Jacob, with ASD, too. Mikel was diagnosed after our son, about twenty years ago. Mother was saying that, at family gatherings, people sometimes ask her why Mikel isn’t working (at that time, he was in graduate school full time), and she didn’t know what to say. Here’s what I told her.

“Tell them that he is taking the time after three years in the Army, a career saving lives as a professional firefighter and paramedic, a dozen years working full-time from home on the stock market so he could be there for our growing family, he is taking the time to pursue an education. Tell them he is amazing. Tell them he has autism, and that he is the bravest person you’ve ever known.” She got it.

Mikel is a fabulous cook. He’s a smart guy, smart enough to know that his autism is the reason family members don’t visit our home. It saddens him for me, and for our children. But, he has friends, and so do I. That’s huge. Good friends. There ARE people–and some pretty incredible family members, too—who see exactly what I cite, above. Mikel’s bravery. His heart. And they couldn’t give a fig that he wears the same thing every day, or gets loud when he talks about music (which he loves) or surfing, or that he’s a great cook but a messy housekeeper.

I stumble sometimes, too, with my expectations. I remember a remarkable moment, when our oldest son taught me just what kind of person we had raised. We were all getting ready for Mikel Jr.’s wedding, and I was arguing with my husband that he must wear dress shoes with his suit. Our son came out of the bathroom, where he’d been putting on his tie in front of the mirror, and said to me, “Mom! Dad’s wearing his flip flops to my wedding! Dad wouldn’t be himself without them, and I want MY DAD at MY WEDDING!”

Our son, Jacob, sometimes has robotic talk (so does Mikel) when he’s disregulated. I’ve seen grownups with brilliant I.Q.s and liberal views openly mock him. It makes me sad. I think about all these things I’ve witnessed and wonder what others go through. What sorts of situations could be eradicated without that horrible, invisible monster, prejudice?

Mikel just finished a year working as a paraprofessional in the suspension room at a local high school. Today, he found out he had to let his boss know he’s not coming back next year. His graduate school program is ramping up, and he has to do some residencies out of town (his field is medicine). At the school he was working at, the administration went through nine teachers this year in AE (the suspension room). It was pretty difficult, as you can imagine, but Mikel stuck with it. Because when he took the job, he promised he’d finish the year. I am so proud of him, even as I steel myself for those remarks, those questions, those judgments. He may go back to working in the public schools after he completes his Doctorate, or he might work in a hospital or health department. Whatever he chooses, I’m grateful to be on this journey with him, to witness his heart, his mind, his work ethic. And I have a feeling he will always be the bravest person I’ve ever known.

I write this to remind us all, Autism is a life-long disability. Don’t stay open for persons with ASD when they are children only to close your hearts and minds to them when they are grown. Please.graduation

 

 

 

In Memoriam: The Late Mike Martin in his own words–I Killed Black Beauty from Surfers’ Rules: The Mike Martin Story

Mike and I had agreed to publish his autobiography, which I was coauthoring with him, with George Foote of Silent e Publishing. I don’t know if that book will be completed. It may be a long time before that decision is made. But, I wanted to share a chapter from it which Mike was particularly fond of, to offer some comfort to his friends through Mike’s own words. As many of you will, I’ll miss my friend. May he rest in peace with those who have gone before.

 

 

I killed Black Beauty

It was in 1994 and my friend Robert Wolfe, who was originally from New Smyrna Beach, was the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach, which was originating the first edition of the Walk of Fame. The Walk of Fame is a section of sidewalk on the corner of Main St and Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, directly opposite the pier. Patterned after the Walk of Stars in front of Grumman’s Theater in Hollywood, there are plaques sunk in the sidewalk which commemorate legendary surfers.

So Robert said, “We’re having a big display at the museum to coincide with the Walk of Fame premiere, and we want to feature pro surfing and the ASP surfers, because the premiere is going to take place during the US Open. Can you try to get something from Tom Curren?”

After two World Titles in 1985 and ’86, Curren made a comeback and recaptured the crown in 1990, the year before I moved to California. I said, “Well, I’ll call him. I’ll try.”

I got Curren’s number and called him. I had to try several times because he’s kind of a reclusive guy. He was living back in Santa Barbara, his hometown, with his second wife after living in France for years with his first wife. After many messages, he finally called me back, which actually surprised me. But, we did have a relationship of sorts because I had been Head Judge during his first years on the Tour and his first two World Titles. I explained about the museum exhibit and asked, “Is there something you could loan to the museum?  I’ll pick it up and put it in the museum and I’ll be responsible for it.”

He said, “Let me see, I might be able to dig something up.”

I was going up to Rincon to judge a contest, which is in Santa Barbara and is his home break. I said, “I’ll give you a call when I’m up there. I’m spending the weekend at this contest.”

Curren said, “Oh, okay, that’s pretty close by.”

I actually had doubts that he’d show up, because he was a kind of “Mr.Mysto” type guy. So I rode up there with the late Midget Smith, Mary Lou Drummy, and Kurt Page to judge this WSA, Western Surfing Association, Amateur contest. We drove up in Midget’s van. We were there three days for the contest. I call Curren every day and left messages, but I never heard from him, which, once again, didn’t really surprise me. I told Robert and Midget and everyone I was with, “This is really a long-shot because Curren just isn’t into this type of thing. He really doesn’t care about publicity and he hasn’t promised me anything anyway.”

My best hope was actually just to speak to him again, maybe while we were in the same town at the same time. So, I just kept leaving messages like, “Tom, I’m here until Sunday afternoon, if you get the chance to call me back.” And this was before almost anyone had a cell phone. I certainly didn’t. So it was call every evening from the hotel and just wait another day.

It gets to be Sunday, the last day of the contest, and we’re going to leave straight after the final and drive back to San Clemente, which is about four hours, and I haven’t heard from him. Oh, well.

But, late in the afternoon, during one of the last heats, I see this tiny little woman walking down the beach toward us, carrying this surfboard. She’s not dressed for the beach, and she can barely get her arms around this surfboard, carrying it with both hands. It’s clearly not her own board. It’sTom’s second wife Maki, from Panama, who I’ve never seen or met. Anyway ,she’s coming down the beach with the board, and I figured it out and said, “Mrs. Curren?”

“Are you Mike?”

“Yes.”

“Tom asked me to bring this to you.”

“Wow, that’s fantastic, thanks so much! Please tell Tom thank you from me!”

So, all of us are holding it and looking at it, especially Midget Smith, who was a surfboard shaper by trade himself. It was a 6’3” Channel Islands, shaped by Al Merrick (before he dropped the Channel Islands label). I recognized it as one of Curren’s boards because it had all his sponsor logos and this thick black line all around the rails on the deck. But, at that time, I didn’t know it had a nickname, “Black Beauty.” I had seen enough boards of his to recognize it as one of them, because they all had the same two-inch black outline regardless of the size of the board. His whole quiver looked like that. If he was riding a 6’0’ or a 6’8” they all looked the same from a distance. It was only later— and to my great consternation— that I learned that this was the original one that he and Merrick had dubbed “Black Beauty.” Of course, now anyone can order a “Black Beauty” model Al Merrick, as the mystique of that surfboard has passed into the lexicon of the sport. But I get ahead of myself.

The board was in horrible condition. It was all beat up; dings on the tail and broken nose and it looked like it had probably been stored under the house or something. But, hey! My mission is accomplished! I’d just take it back to Huntington Beach and give it to Robert Wolfe to display in the museum.

Well, Midget had this van and we were already packed up to leave with all our boards on top, and we hadn’t brought any extra racks. I really hadn’t thought this was going to happen. That’s the part I really screwed up, and is the oversight that still wakes me up at night occasionally. Midget says, “No worries, I’ve got some rope we can tie it on with.”

Now, almost twenty years later, I must explain to the reader that I accept full responsibility for this disaster, even though Midget tied it on the van. Midget was my great friend and has been gone since 2008, Rest in Peace.  He tied it and knotted the ropes firmly and we both tugged and wiggled it and assured ourselves that it was secure.

We take off down the freeway, southbound on the 5, trying to get back to San Clemente as early as we can on a busy Sunday afternoon, which is enough explanation to anyone who has navigated the Southern California freeway system. Whoosh, whoosh, six lanes each way, everyone averaging 70 miles an hour, trying to get as close to LA as they can before hitting the inevitable traffic jam. Apparently what happened was: we were going fast, fast, fast, and the board’s straining against the rope, but secure as long as we’re at speed. Then we hit L.A. traffic, and slow down to a crawl. That must have created loose slack in the rope. We sit and crawl for a while—4 PM Sunday weekend traffic— until we reach the south side of LA. Then, suddenly freeway-style, the traffic eases and the green flag drops and everyone accelerates back up to speed with a sigh of relief. And then Kurt yells, “Curren’s board just flew off the van!”

            Oh my God, No!

Midget, to his everlasting legend, reacts instantly like an Indy car driver: brakes hard and jerks the van left into the emergency lane, with all the junk mufflers and blown tires and broken glass. Just, grrrrrr, balls to wall, and fishtails to a stop.

I’m screaming, “Oh my God, we’ve gotta get it!”

Midget throws it into reverse and starts backing up at speed against the flow of the traffic until we reach the spot where we can see the board. It’s blown over now into the middle of six lanes with a thousand cars bearing down on it. We screech to a halt. I’m just hyperventilating.

“I’ve gotta get that board!” I actually jerk open the side door of the back seat and for an instant, purely on adrenaline, I was going to try and grab it. Kurt Page lunges over and bodily grabs me with both arms, yelling, “Mike, you’re crazy, you’ll be killed, you can’t, there’s no way.”

Mary Lou and Midget are both turned around yelling, “Stop it, Mike! Sit down!” And the wind blast from six lanes of speeding cars snaps me back to my senses. Then, in only seconds, before all our eyes, we see boom, boom, boom, boom, the board being hit by car after car. Just disintegrating. Shattered into bits. Fins and pieces of foam flying and bouncing everywhere. It was mulched into small fragments right before our eyes. In retrospect we were lucky it did not cause an accident to anyone who hit it.  We sat for a few minutes, now in stunned silence. The relentless stream of speeding cars made it clear that there was no way to wait and salvage anything, even if a small chunk survived.

Midget said, “We might as well get out of here.”

I see Tom Curren’s World Championship Black Beauty surfboard that he’s loaned to me, under my care, destroyed on the I-5 freeway right in front of my eyes. And I can’t save it. We drove on back to San Clemente and I was just distraught. I was speechless most of the way home. I thought about driving back up after rush hour to look for fragments, which would have been another two hours. But what would have been the point? The rest of the ride all I can think about is,      How do I explain this to Tom Curren?

Mom always said, “If it’s bad news, you might as well get it over with.”

The rest of the way home I had plenty of time to agonize over what I was going to say.   The only small mercy was that, just like always,he didn’t personally answer his phone. I got his voicemail and just started apologizing, “Tom, it’s Mike Martin, I can’t believe I have to tell you this, but your board flew off the van on the 5 this afternoon on the way home. I tried to get it, but I couldn’t get to it, it was shattered into pieces. I can’t apologize enough, I’m crushed about this, I don’t know what to say, I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life, etc.,etc.”  Until, beeep, I filled up his message tape and it cut off. I still felt the need to apologize directly, at least voice to voice, so I keep calling back every day for a week.  The whole time I can barely sleep, and I know I won’t be able to rest until I actually hear from him. Every day I call again, “Tom, please give me a call back, just so I can apologize to you voice to voice, if not face to face, because I feel so bad about this,” Finally one day about a week later I come home and the light’s blinking on the answer machine. I push the button.

“Hey Mike, it’s Tom. Listen, ha ha, don’t worry about it. I’m just glad no one got hurt. But it’s not your fault and I’m not mad at you. I don’t hold it against you.” I could not believe how kind and gracious he was, even to the point of chuckling over it.

The next time I saw Tom in person I went up to him and said, “Tom, what can I say?”

He said, “Come on, Mike, let it go. It’s not your fault. Stuff happens.”

That’s a real gentleman.

That’s the story of “Black Beauty” Tom Curren’s World Title surfboard. He loaned it to me for an exhibition in the International Surf Museum in Huntington Beach and it got destroyed while en route. But fortunately, Tom seems to have forgiven me, and we even had a laugh about it once.

 

Years later I saw a quote in a magazine about, Tom Curren’s famous “Black Beauty” world championship surfboard, which was destroyed on the freeway being transported to an exhibition at a museum. Thank God it didn’t mention my name.

 

mikeandkatehalloffame

What works

This week, as I prepare to grade my very first class of senior English students, ever, I’ve been thinking about what works. For them, for me: for us. A few days ago, a colleague came up to me in the hallway during class change (she rushed out of her room as she saw me rushing past) said, “I love you! You’re wonderful!” And, gave me a big, warm hug.

Naturally, I had no idea what she was talking about, and said, “What’d I do?”

“Your blog! I started reading you. I love what you write.”

While it was a wonderful thing that she took the time to say this–and, I especially enjoyed the heartfelt hug–it started me thinking. I haven’t been writing much, lately. And, I thought about why. I’m busy. And, I thought about what is going on where I work.

Anybody who’s read my educational writing knows I am the first one to be blunt, to call it like I see it. I’ll tell you this: where I work, right now, is educational bliss. I can’t help it, I analyze. Why? It’s a bit of a mystery.

I teach at Spruce Creek High School in Port Orange, Florida. I’ve taught at LOTS of schools, starting with student teaching waaaaay back in the day at P. K. Yonge Laboratory school in Gainesville, Florida, in the 1980’s. From there, I came to Pierson Elementary, in Volusia County; then, Sterling Park Elementary, in Seminole County; back to Volusia and kind of up-the-ladder into administration (not my preferred m.o.); to eventually work at UCF in the medical school as an educational training specialist with the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities–I retired from there. In between, I taught high school in North Carolina, and at the University of North Carolina, too; as well as doubling up at UCF and working for the English Department. I realize all this job-hopping seems a little weird to most people, but for somebody in Exceptional Student Education, it is normal behavior. (Did I mention teaching inpatient students for VCS at the Children’s Crisis Stabilization Unit for three years?)  You, as an ESE teacher, are responsible for your  own sanity, and movement is necessary for that. I love ESE, I do. Right now, I teach general education. Gen Ed. I have plenty of ESE students in my classes, and am at my most fluent meeting their educational needs. But, I am in love with what I am doing, right now. And, I turn in grades tomorrow. Did I really type that?! Yes. I did.  I told Dr. Sparger when he hired me that my dream is to be Kate Maroney in front of the class, eyes glowing, sitting on the stool breathlessly sharing from Jane Eyre. He got it. Immediately. I may never be able to live up to that ideal English teacher of mine, but I’m there. I truly am.

I know this is a long-winded post, but what I am really thinking of is all the things which work at this wonderful school I’m blessed to be working at. Is it perfect? By no means. Are the students, teachers, or administrators better somehow than other people? Uh, no. But, something works. It absolutely has to be deliberate. I’m (I won’t say just–I never felt more vital or valued as an educator) a teacher; I’m blissfully unsubject to the machinations of administration. But. But; the culture of respect, the culture of facilitation, the culture of meditatively, enthusiastically seeking knowledge is unparalleled in my experience.

Today, I had dozens of students thank me. Today was the last day they could turn in some rather challenging assignments. Book reviews. I taught them to write book reviews, and they all had different books. They boldly backed their opinions with specific details without revealing storyline; several openly became readers! That’s not me, folks. That’s a school that still has room for teacher design and creativity in the curriculum. How they do it is a mystery I’m happy to remain blissfully ignorant of. I’m there, people. I’m in teacher heaven. (And, that little left-over state-department-of-ed-bureaucrat in me wonders, “How do they do it? Can we bottle it? Can we share??? Shhhh, Kate. Enjoy.”)

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Jacob Cumiskey, backstage at graduation, Spruce Creek High School, 2011. (photo credit, Daytona News Journal)

 

What we never, never talk about

Just last week I had a student remark, casually, as he left the classroom: “Thanks for including The Glass Castle as an option in the reading list. I liked the book. The author’s childhood was so much like my own.”

The student was talking about a book which captures a nearly-insurvivable childhood. Homelessness. Poverty. Abuse.

This summer, my novel Ana comes out from Silent e Publishing. Silent e does some self-published books; mine is a traditional, literary contract. That’s an important distinction for me, the author, and for many readers.

I chose to write Ana because of deepening concerns regarding attitudes towards poverty and homelessness. The book reads, deliberately, as a light novel about a wealthy fifty-something widow who moves from New Jersey to Florida following her husband’s death. It deals, boldly, with the distances we keep even from those we love, and the masks we wear for each other. Because it is a social justice novel, because the ending is a bombshell, because there will be anger, cognitive dissonance, disbelief in some readers, I have included a Why I wrote this afterword. My student’s remark is one more affirmation. Now that the book’s coming out, I’m a little nervous. But, I had to do it. Here’s a bit of why, from the afterword:

I wrote this book because I’ve become increasingly concerned regarding the attitudes of those who’ve never been hungry, never lived on the edge, toward the growing number of citizens who are teetering there or have tumbled over. Recently in nearby Daytona, citizens put together a homeless shelter where individuals can eat, sleep, and have mental health services. As if homelessness is synonymous with mental illness. As if, as a matter of course, a person wouldn’t be homeless without something being wrong with their mind. This, and particularly the public’s lack of concern with this pairing, is only one indicator of the astonishing bigotry associated with poverty in this nation. Assumptions and misconceptions abound.

Here’s another—and for me more personal—example. A friend of mine, who for the last six years lived with and assisted her mother, was recently named as a beneficiary in her mother’s will. My friend doesn’t drive or have a job. An executor is in charge of the will, and my friend’s portion is to go into an irrevocable trust. Her nieces’ shares, because they are under twenty-five, go into a separate trust. They have husbands, and jobs. She doesn’t. Because my friend is without income, the executor and other beneficiaries have gotten together, cleaned out the home my friend lives in while ordering her to sit outside, told her how she should spend her trust income, and decided it should be a “special needs” trust. When I pressed them on why “special needs” they shouted at me, because she doesn’t drive. Because she doesn’t have a job! Again, the layers of ignorance are mind-numbing.

In the coastal central Florida town I live in (which the town of Robinson is modeled after), the divide between the haves and have-nots is ever more apparent. Because it is a touristy beach town, restaurants abound. None of them offer a living wage to the workers. Not a single restaurant in town offers sick days, retirement, or health care benefits. Yet more and more tourists clog the roads, making it harder for locals to get to work. Skateboarding is illegal on our streets: falling down drunk is not. There are actually all kinds of drunken festivals throughout the year. Wine walks. Bike and bars—ride your bicycle from bar to bar. Supposedly, all of this is good for the town. The truth is, the minimum wage and below it jobs which are on the rise actually lower the per capita income.

My own situation has ranged greatly over the years—my husband and I raised four sons in a 1,200 square foot home in a working-class neighborhood. While we are fortunate enough to own our home, there have been difficult times. We both hold higher degrees, but chose as careers public service. During the housing crisis we fell victim to a predatory lender in a refinancing; the lender actually changed our paperwork after it was signed and notarized from a fixed rate of interest to an adjustable. Although we eventually won a class-action suit (this was done to hundreds of mortgage holders), instead of surrendering our home to foreclosure, we chose to continue paying the mortgage, and for years paid over $2,000 a month. We will never get that money back.

During that time my husband worked for a brokerage house out of Brooklyn, doing online customer support for our home in Florida (he’d left the fire service after discovering that, after childcare and taxes, he was bringing home twenty-nine cents an hour. So, he stayed home with the children and worked online while they were still too young for school). One year, he made trades as a day-trader as well, with some modest gains. He was good at it. However, his employer criminally reported all of his trades (and those of many other employees) as gains, leaving us with over forty thousand dollars in tax debt. The employer was caught and convicted; our tax situation was irreparable. We are still paying for those back taxes. Unfortunately, a few years earlier I’d experienced an emergency brain surgery which took place in the middle of the night on New Year’s Eve. Since I was not expected to live, financial concerns were the last thing on our minds. While I was literally under the knife (at this time my husband was still a firefighter and I was teaching) our health insurance carrier switched from a PPO to self-insured. For two years following my surgery, the two insurance companies refused to pay the bill which amounted to over $100,000. Each claimed the other was responsible to pay. Finally, they agreed to split the bill, but by that time our credit was completely ruined.

Shortly after my husband lost his position with the brokerage our own living was reduced to poverty level. Although we were both working very hard, we could barely keep food on the table. This went on for years. Because we were “poor”, relatives politely quit visiting; if family came to town, we met at a restaurant (which we usually could not afford to do.) Distances grew, and we were treated with condescension. There were times when we could only afford to pay either our power bill or our water bill; sometimes we had to take showers at the public ones at the beach and port drinking and cooking water purchased at the market. We flushed toilets and mopped the floor with rainwater. All while keeping up huge mortgage and tax payments. It was during this time that I began to make note of the razor-thin line between sheltered and homeless.

I also realized how shallow were our perceptions of others. Although I had friends in similar, or worse, financial straits, most of them pretended they were not. They seemed ashamed of and dishonest about their situations. This made me think about the deceptions we foist on each other, even on friends and family. Perhaps that was why—this culture of lies—it seemed easy for my own siblings in particular to ignore a sister and her family living below poverty level.

I was working full-time at the University of Central Florida as a Coordinator of Educational Training Programs at the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. While I served mainly in the county I lived in, Volusia, once a week I had to drive to Orlando, 115 miles round trip, for a clinical meeting. My husband was at that particular time working on a bachelor’s degree. We had three sons living at home; two in high school and one in middle school. Both the middle school boy and the oldest had after school and weekend jobs as bus boys at a local restaurant; our middle son was attending a rigorous magnet International Baccalaureate program in a neighboring town, so he didn’t have a job. He also has the form of autism formerly known as Asperger’s, as well as arthritis. So, three of us in the home were working at that time. This was after the financial crash and after my husband lost his job at the brokerage. Of twelve remote support personnel, Mikel was the last one to be let go before the job was phased out. At that time, he decided to go back to college. His student loans and grants provided some extra income after tuition and fees.

We qualified for both reduced lunches at school for the boys and for government commodities, a very old federal program. Commodities are distributed through local churches. We chose to access the food bank at a church in nearby Port Orange, where our son’s magnet school was. Unfortunately, distributions took place on Tuesday afternoons, the same day as my clinical meetings in Orlando. My husband was in class on Tuesdays, and took the local bus as we had one vehicle. I would rush from Orlando to make it to Port Orange, then stand in line in my suit and heels. The distribution was around the back of the church, and the line was generally long. Once patrons retrieved their paperwork from one window, they took it to the next window and handed it over. The person who then checked the paperwork and called instructions to volunteers packing boxes and bags happened to be the pastor’s mother, a woman in her late sixties. Every time she spoke to me, after she’d called “Family of five!” to the volunteers, she chatted a bit and always asked, “How’s the job search going?” Every single time I told her, “I have a job” she looked puzzled.

One particularly trying afternoon I lost my patience, and although I wasn’t rude, said, “Listen, I not only work full-time, I have a terminal degree. I teach at UCF.”

“A terminal degree? What’s that?”

“If it doesn’t kill you, you’re done.”—my standard answer in trying to explain the MFA. She looked blank. “Like….a doctorate. A PhD.”

“And you still qualify for free food?”

“Yes, ma’am, check the paperwork.”

More puzzlement. “Well, there are four other people in your household. Why don’t they have jobs?”

“Actually, those who can, do. One of our sons has autism. The other two, who are 14 and 17, work when they aren’t in school. My husband is a full-time student taking an overload of courses. A lot of the people who come here work, many of us at full-time, professional jobs. Many of the people standing in line here work more than full-time in the service industry.”

The next week, the pastor’s mother smiled at me as I      waited for my food. And of course she asked the inevitable, “How’s the job search going?”

I replied, “As well as can be expected in this economy.”

I made a couple of friends, Laurie (her real name) and Sally (a pseudonym), who were honest with me about their situations. That helped both them and me. To have someone to commiserate with, particularly about the relentlessly exhausting struggle to find ways to pay the bills, made that relentlessness easier to bear.

We struggle. But perhaps we are more honest about it with each other than the general run of citizens, are. Our families don’t really want to know. I have siblings with multiple properties whose savings fall easily into six digits. They are good people. They could write a $20,000 check without missing it. They don’t visit, but they do call. When they come to town, they genteelly ask to meet at a restaurant; they buy. I’m sure they feel good about that. I know they do. They’re kind people, they truly enjoy getting together, going out to eat. They would not enjoy walking through my door, into the 1200 square foot concrete block house with no heat, window units for air, and 1970’s tile floors, with six people living in limited space, along with the two dogs which help with the autism in the house. They don’t, really, want to know.

Our mother ages, and there are discussions about moving her into a facility, or into one of their comfortable homes out of state. She can no longer clean her own house completely, and she’s too friendly to hire someone to do it. I do it. On top of struggling to get by. Although my siblings do visit, and engage as much as possible, it doesn’t occur to them to scrub her toilet. That’s a job for me—the poor one. Of course. But we don’t talk about that.

And that is what is wrong, here. People don’t want to know. That’s why I wrote Ana. I’m active in the local arts community, and there’s a world-class facility close by where I’ve studied several times. I like the staff out there. They like me. But, we argue a bit on facebook when I try to make the local cool people see; this town relies on a workforce which is largely unseen. If you drive the causeways at one a.m.you will see weary food service workers making their way home, some walking eight to ten miles home. They don’t have cars and they don’t have insurance. Yet, visiting writers are shepherded to the four star restaurants, poured eclectic glasses of vino under twinkling lights while these people ruin their shoes back in the dishpit. The busboys and dishwashers take the scraps home, wondering if they’ll get sick from recooking the leftovers of a $60 steak. It’s true. And nobody talks about it.

So there you have it, a bit of a teaser on Anamy forthcoming novel, from  the afterword. Why I did it. Think about it. The line between the haves and have-nots is razor thin, and judgements, particularly regarding the homeless, abound.

Even a word or two

As many of you know, I am now back with Volusia County Schools, teaching. My husband is at one high school and I am at another, and the simplest answer as to why is, we needed the financial benefit of the split-family insurance! It saves us well over a thousand dollars a month.

I am LOVING teaching senior English. I am at a wonderful school with literally the finest students I’ve ever worked with. As many of my friends and followers know, my dream as a teacher is to create life-long learners; and since I have “had” to do lots of professional development as a “new” teacher (I’ve taught English as an ESE teacher, as a coteacher,and as a college professor at two universities, but this is my first year as a senior English, general education K-12 teacher! Exciting for me!), I am enjoying it and realizing I am a life-long learner.

I’ve been teaching a long time, and the more I do the less I know. Let me explain that. There’s so much, out there, to learn; and, the older I get the more I realize that due to new discoveries and technologies and inquiring minds, I need to work HARDER to keep up. I need to be open to learning. So, as much as I can, I access the fabulous learning opportunities offered to me through professional development.

There is an issue which, to me, is disturbing in the media (social, academic, and popular), and pervasive. There seems to be a perception–and I include my VCS professional development classes in this–that “free and reduced” is an indicator of poverty. It simply isn’t so, and leads with a ripple effect to all sorts of erroneous perceptions and even policy implementations. I’ll explain.

If your child attends VCS, and you have one child, you can make up to $37,295 annually and your child can receive reduced lunch (with three in the household–if you are a single parent the amount is $29,635). If you have three children, the amount is $52,613–$44,954 for a single parent. Think about that for a moment. That isn’t poverty level. Yet, we think of (and speak of professionally as well as socially, that’s important!) “free and reduced” as a synonym for “poor.” That’s wrong.

Here are the federal poverty guidelines for 2015:

2015 Federal Poverty Guidelines – 48 Contiguous States & DC
Persons in Household 100% Federal Poverty Level Medicaid eligibility* threshold 138% FPL
1 $11,770 $16,243
2 15,930 21,984
3 20,090 27,725
4 24,250 33,465

So, our example families are nearly 200% ABOVE the national poverty level. This is a big, big problem, this misinformation. Think about it. See what I mean?

Is it political? Or, is it just smart?

In these hot political times, in this time of great unrest in this nation, many stakeholders in the American public education process shy away–some in fear, some in ignorance–from discussion of or taking a position on the very real impact of the election of Donald Trump to the office of president. There is no more political office than that of president. Make no mistake: Mr. Trump is absolutely a politician. To be apolitical in the current climate is to be either stupid or ignorant. There’s no cure for stupid; ignorance, on the other hand, is fixable; the remedy is knowledge.

While it is all well and good to allow for a variety of political opinions in this great nation, and to listen to others’ views, to support a candidate who will say (and not in a locker room, but in a bus full of people, male and female) “Grab ’em by the pussy” is to show a gross lack of care for the children of this nation. This man is to be the leader of our country; this includes LEADING its children. He has ZERO experience in preparing for the job of the leading politician in the land. Zero experience with working with fellow politicians in the other branches of government. He is a misogynist and bigot; he publicly mocked a man with a disability. It strikes me as stunning that people who voted for him seem surprised that he has chosen as his nominee for Secretary of Education a woman with zero experience with public education (unless she went to public elementary and/or junior high; she attended private high schools and college–and she has never taught or held a degree in education). Her children have never attended public school, either. Why would people expect Trump to choose somebody with experience when he has none himself?

Trump has openly expressed a very Trumpesque drive to cut entitlement programs. Public education is the biggest entitlement program in the country. Yes, it is free. Education. For all children in the country. But, it isn’t a Constitutional right (and some of those are on the Trump chopping-block as well), so don’t be at all surprised if he and his new nominee have their way and education becomes privatized. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they try to take away the entitlement, itself, and make it for-pay. To say nothing of the programs and laws in place to protect the kind of individuals Trump openly mocks; individuals with disabilities.

If you’ve shied away from discussing these things because they are “political” pull your head out of the sand and get busy working to protect your children from the ignorant, vile, disgusting leader-elect. A man guilty of the things we have seen this man do will not be out to protect the children, much less those cited by Lady Liberty in her harbor: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” That’s immigrants, people. The children of those immigrants.  It’s time to get political. Past time.

Here’s Donald Trump’s Choice for Secretary of Education

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/11/5-things-to-know-about-betsy-devos-trumps-pick-for-education-secretary/508661/

Public Education as Welfare

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/11/donald-trump-scandals/474726/

In Memoriam: The Late Mike Martin in his own words–I Killed Black Beauty from Surfers’ Rules: The Mike Martin Story

Mike and I had agreed to publish his autobiography, which I was coauthoring with him, with George Foote of Silent e Publishing. I don’t know if that book will be completed. It may be a long time before that decision is made. But, I wanted to share a chapter from it which Mike was particularly fond of, to offer some comfort to his friends through Mike’s own words. As many of you will, I’ll miss my friend. May he rest in peace with those who have gone before.

 

 

I killed Black Beauty

It was in 1994 and my friend Robert Wolfe, who was originally from New Smyrna Beach, was the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach, which was originating the first edition of the Walk of Fame. The Walk of Fame is a section of sidewalk on the corner of Main St and Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, directly opposite the pier. Patterned after the Walk of Stars in front of Grumman’s Theater in Hollywood, there are plaques sunk in the sidewalk which commemorate legendary surfers.

So Robert said, “We’re having a big display at the museum to coincide with the Walk of Fame premiere, and we want to feature pro surfing and the ASP surfers, because the premiere is going to take place during the US Open. Can you try to get something from Tom Curren?”

After two World Titles in 1985 and ’86, Curren made a comeback and recaptured the crown in 1990, the year before I moved to California. I said, “Well, I’ll call him. I’ll try.”

I got Curren’s number and called him. I had to try several times because he’s kind of a reclusive guy. He was living back in Santa Barbara, his hometown, with his second wife after living in France for years with his first wife. After many messages, he finally called me back, which actually surprised me. But, we did have a relationship of sorts because I had been Head Judge during his first years on the Tour and his first two World Titles. I explained about the museum exhibit and asked, “Is there something you could loan to the museum?  I’ll pick it up and put it in the museum and I’ll be responsible for it.”

He said, “Let me see, I might be able to dig something up.”

I was going up to Rincon to judge a contest, which is in Santa Barbara and is his home break. I said, “I’ll give you a call when I’m up there. I’m spending the weekend at this contest.”

Curren said, “Oh, okay, that’s pretty close by.”

I actually had doubts that he’d show up, because he was a kind of “Mr.Mysto” type guy. So I rode up there with the late Midget Smith, Mary Lou Drummy, and Kurt Page to judge this WSA, Western Surfing Association, Amateur contest. We drove up in Midget’s van. We were there three days for the contest. I call Curren every day and left messages, but I never heard from him, which, once again, didn’t really surprise me. I told Robert and Midget and everyone I was with, “This is really a long-shot because Curren just isn’t into this type of thing. He really doesn’t care about publicity and he hasn’t promised me anything anyway.”

My best hope was actually just to speak to him again, maybe while we were in the same town at the same time. So, I just kept leaving messages like, “Tom, I’m here until Sunday afternoon, if you get the chance to call me back.” And this was before almost anyone had a cell phone. I certainly didn’t. So it was call every evening from the hotel and just wait another day.

It gets to be Sunday, the last day of the contest, and we’re going to leave straight after the final and drive back to San Clemente, which is about four hours, and I haven’t heard from him. Oh, well.

But, late in the afternoon, during one of the last heats, I see this tiny little woman walking down the beach toward us, carrying this surfboard. She’s not dressed for the beach, and she can barely get her arms around this surfboard, carrying it with both hands. It’s clearly not her own board. It’sTom’s second wife Maki, from Panama, who I’ve never seen or met. Anyway ,she’s coming down the beach with the board, and I figured it out and said, “Mrs. Curren?”

“Are you Mike?”

“Yes.”

“Tom asked me to bring this to you.”

“Wow, that’s fantastic, thanks so much! Please tell Tom thank you from me!”

So, all of us are holding it and looking at it, especially Midget Smith, who was a surfboard shaper by trade himself. It was a 6’3” Channel Islands, shaped by Al Merrick (before he dropped the Channel Islands label). I recognized it as one of Curren’s boards because it had all his sponsor logos and this thick black line all around the rails on the deck. But, at that time, I didn’t know it had a nickname, “Black Beauty.” I had seen enough boards of his to recognize it as one of them, because they all had the same two-inch black outline regardless of the size of the board. His whole quiver looked like that. If he was riding a 6’0’ or a 6’8” they all looked the same from a distance. It was only later— and to my great consternation— that I learned that this was the original one that he and Merrick had dubbed “Black Beauty.” Of course, now anyone can order a “Black Beauty” model Al Merrick, as the mystique of that surfboard has passed into the lexicon of the sport. But I get ahead of myself.

The board was in horrible condition. It was all beat up; dings on the tail and broken nose and it looked like it had probably been stored under the house or something. But, hey! My mission is accomplished! I’d just take it back to Huntington Beach and give it to Robert Wolfe to display in the museum.

Well, Midget had this van and we were already packed up to leave with all our boards on top, and we hadn’t brought any extra racks. I really hadn’t thought this was going to happen. That’s the part I really screwed up, and is the oversight that still wakes me up at night occasionally. Midget says, “No worries, I’ve got some rope we can tie it on with.”

Now, almost twenty years later, I must explain to the reader that I accept full responsibility for this disaster, even though Midget tied it on the van. Midget was my great friend and has been gone since 2008, Rest in Peace.  He tied it and knotted the ropes firmly and we both tugged and wiggled it and assured ourselves that it was secure.

We take off down the freeway, southbound on the 5, trying to get back to San Clemente as early as we can on a busy Sunday afternoon, which is enough explanation to anyone who has navigated the Southern California freeway system. Whoosh, whoosh, six lanes each way, everyone averaging 70 miles an hour, trying to get as close to LA as they can before hitting the inevitable traffic jam. Apparently what happened was: we were going fast, fast, fast, and the board’s straining against the rope, but secure as long as we’re at speed. Then we hit L.A. traffic, and slow down to a crawl. That must have created loose slack in the rope. We sit and crawl for a while—4 PM Sunday weekend traffic— until we reach the south side of LA. Then, suddenly freeway-style, the traffic eases and the green flag drops and everyone accelerates back up to speed with a sigh of relief. And then Kurt yells, “Curren’s board just flew off the van!”

            Oh my God, No!

Midget, to his everlasting legend, reacts instantly like an Indy car driver: brakes hard and jerks the van left into the emergency lane, with all the junk mufflers and blown tires and broken glass. Just, grrrrrr, balls to wall, and fishtails to a stop.

I’m screaming, “Oh my God, we’ve gotta get it!”

Midget throws it into reverse and starts backing up at speed against the flow of the traffic until we reach the spot where we can see the board. It’s blown over now into the middle of six lanes with a thousand cars bearing down on it. We screech to a halt. I’m just hyperventilating.

“I’ve gotta get that board!” I actually jerk open the side door of the back seat and for an instant, purely on adrenaline, I was going to try and grab it. Kurt Page lunges over and bodily grabs me with both arms, yelling, “Mike, you’re crazy, you’ll be killed, you can’t, there’s no way.”

Mary Lou and Midget are both turned around yelling, “Stop it, Mike! Sit down!” And the wind blast from six lanes of speeding cars snaps me back to my senses. Then, in only seconds, before all our eyes, we see boom, boom, boom, boom, the board being hit by car after car. Just disintegrating. Shattered into bits. Fins and pieces of foam flying and bouncing everywhere. It was mulched into small fragments right before our eyes. In retrospect we were lucky it did not cause an accident to anyone who hit it.  We sat for a few minutes, now in stunned silence. The relentless stream of speeding cars made it clear that there was no way to wait and salvage anything, even if a small chunk survived.

Midget said, “We might as well get out of here.”

I see Tom Curren’s World Championship Black Beauty surfboard that he’s loaned to me, under my care, destroyed on the I-5 freeway right in front of my eyes. And I can’t save it. We drove on back to San Clemente and I was just distraught. I was speechless most of the way home. I thought about driving back up after rush hour to look for fragments, which would have been another two hours. But what would have been the point? The rest of the ride all I can think about is,      How do I explain this to Tom Curren?

Mom always said, “If it’s bad news, you might as well get it over with.”

The rest of the way home I had plenty of time to agonize over what I was going to say.   The only small mercy was that, just like always,he didn’t personally answer his phone. I got his voicemail and just started apologizing, “Tom, it’s Mike Martin, I can’t believe I have to tell you this, but your board flew off the van on the 5 this afternoon on the way home. I tried to get it, but I couldn’t get to it, it was shattered into pieces. I can’t apologize enough, I’m crushed about this, I don’t know what to say, I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life, etc.,etc.”  Until, beeep, I filled up his message tape and it cut off. I still felt the need to apologize directly, at least voice to voice, so I keep calling back every day for a week.  The whole time I can barely sleep, and I know I won’t be able to rest until I actually hear from him. Every day I call again, “Tom, please give me a call back, just so I can apologize to you voice to voice, if not face to face, because I feel so bad about this,” Finally one day about a week later I come home and the light’s blinking on the answer machine. I push the button.

“Hey Mike, it’s Tom. Listen, ha ha, don’t worry about it. I’m just glad no one got hurt. But it’s not your fault and I’m not mad at you. I don’t hold it against you.” I could not believe how kind and gracious he was, even to the point of chuckling over it.

The next time I saw Tom in person I went up to him and said, “Tom, what can I say?”

He said, “Come on, Mike, let it go. It’s not your fault. Stuff happens.”

That’s a real gentleman.

That’s the story of “Black Beauty” Tom Curren’s World Title surfboard. He loaned it to me for an exhibition in the International Surf Museum in Huntington Beach and it got destroyed while en route. But fortunately, Tom seems to have forgiven me, and we even had a laugh about it once.

 

Years later I saw a quote in a magazine about, Tom Curren’s famous “Black Beauty” world championship surfboard, which was destroyed on the freeway being transported to an exhibition at a museum. Thank God it didn’t mention my name.

 

mikeandkatehalloffame

Musings on Fluency

samcumiskeywaterman

Photograph: Larry McGone, 2016 (fellow waterman)

Although I haven’t posted in quite a while, CEG is alive and well. We still offer tutoring and consultation. Although I (Kate) have taken a full-time position with Volusia County Schools, as has Mikel, we are both available after three on school days. If you need help during the school day, one of our other consultants will be happy to assist you. Please simply use the form under “How we work.”

As many of you know, I am a big fan of professional educators. It is one of the reasons I am cautious regarding both home schooling and private schooling in Florida. In Florida, one doesn’t have to have attended any college to teach either of those (although many who do, have).

Fluency is a term educators are, well, fluent with! Many components, carefully managed, build educational fluency. Why is it so crucial? Let’s look at an example. First there is skill acquisition, then there is fluency. Here’s a bit about fluency, and as the link implies, it is an oversimplification:

“An Oversimplified Overview of Fluency

Fluency strategies are designed to take an existing skill, and increase accuracy and speed of skill performance in order to develop competence. For example, a child may be able to tell someone his name 10 seconds after being asked, but if he’s already lost the attention of the person asking, that skill isn’t going to help his social success. The goal of fluency training for this child would be to increase his rate of performance of telling people his name until it became fast and accurate and therefore meaningful for the child.

Precision Teaching Literature suggests that teaching a skill fluently (achieving accuracy plus speed as a requirement of mastery) achieves the following goals:

  • Retention
  • Endurance: The ability of the skill to be performed at a particular level over time.
  • Application: The ability to combine elements of a behavior to create a more sophisticated behavior.”–(citation: http://www.autismteachingtools.com/page/bbbbfg/bbbbfz)

Such crucial educational concepts are standard for professional teachers. As well, they learn in college and continue to address in professional development at which developmental stages to introduce new skills; when to revisit mastered concepts and skills to continue fluency-building; strategies for enhancing engagement.

I had a real-life reminder of the crucial nature of skill acquisition, mastery, and fluency this past week.  Our twenty-five year old son was surfing near the north jetty at Ponce Inlet when he was bitten by a large (the surgeon estimated eight feet) bull shark. Sam, our son, who was in deep water, used his surf leash to bring his surfboard to him, got on, “whitewatered” in, and calmly used his surf leash as a tourniquet until help arrived. He remained calm. He never went into shock. Beyond treating himself, because he was calm and lucid, he was able to assist in his own care once the ambulance arrived. Now, Sam is a strong young man, and tends to be calm rather than stressed–he’s a true Type-B personality. However, it is my belief that fluency played a key role in saving his life.

Sam has been surfing just about every day for the past dozen years. Even when the waves are very bad, he is out there, skill building. He is as fluent in the water as a twenty-five year old surfer can be. That’s key. He has acquired the needed skills, retained them, built his endurance, and when the need came to apply his skills to a new situation, he was able to combine elements of a behavior to create a more sophisticated behavior.

The key here is supervised skill acquisition, and practice to build retention and endurance. Because Sam was a fluent surfer, as his friends put it on the fundraising page, “…..local icon, rolemodel, and all around waterman Sam Cumiskey. On August 29th Sam was attacked and mauled by a 7 ft bullshark while surfing ponce inlet. Sam is starting his road to recovery and made it through a successful surgery this  morning.”…he is alive. (citation: https://www.gofundme.com/2me52gcg)

Surfers and boaters understand the term “waterman.” It means the individual is fluent. Sam’s fluency helped save his life, because all that practice kicked in to make space in his brain available to deal with a brand-new situation: his skills such as retrieving his board, surfing to the beach, and remaining calm in the ocean, as well as reading the water, became so automatic that he was able to focus on the emergent nature of the situation and concentrate on getting out of it, stopping the bleeding, saving his own life.

Now, I realize this dramatic, real-life situation may have you scratching your head and saying to yourself, “What does this have to do with education?”

Fluency is a very real need when it comes to learning. Let’s take reading. First, students acquire the skills needed to read, then, they practice, practice, practice to build fluency. Once students become fluent readers, the necessary skills are automatic when they are faced with new learning which they must read and retain! I am continually surprised at the questions which come from fluent readers regarding new textural information, as opposed to those which come from students who still struggle with fluency-building. Fluent readers are able to key in to new concepts and new information and make the necessary cognitive leaps which lead to new skill acquisition. That’s learning. That’s education. And that’s why educated teachers are crucial to your child’s learning.