Category Archives: volunteering

All ages wonder women

ty g picI used to see a bumper sticker a lot – “THINK GLOBALLY, ACT LOCALLY!”  It’s kind of a feel-good, “I can change the world” sort of thing.  I can care about what’s happening in Syria, but by shoveling an elderly neighbor’s walk, I can make up for the fact that I am ill-equipped to change anything about wars in far-off lands, right?

I have to admit, though, that I feel ill-equipped to conquer many of the world and societal ills smacking me in the face these days.  I am a huge lover of public education, for example, and our state has recently gutted collective bargaining rights for state employees – including teachers – and thrown in  a number of other flat-out mean-spirited policy items which they didn’t mention they were going to do in the last election.  So, I marched and wrote and showed up at meetings when I could, but it’s not like they seem the least bit worried about what regular people think, because anyone who opposes them is, they accuse, “out of touch.”  Meanwhile, they have been handing away tax breaks to companies and rich folks, so of course, our state revenues have fallen and next year – they’re so sad to report – there will have to be more cuts.  And if they could re-organize all the voting districts, so that my vote meant nothing and they would remain forever in control “doing what’s best for the state and the country,” I think they would.  That’s how little I trust them.  And on the national and world level, it’s at least as bad if not worse.

I understand that my politics are probably neither here nor there to you, but I have a point here.  Some days I have to focus on what I CAN do, and not on what I can’t.  I realized long ago that I was never going to get a Nobel Peace Prize or do something that really changed the world, but I do try to live a life that is mostly positive when I’m not complaining about my legislators.

And here’s where my love of reading and books comes in.  I’m lucky enough to work in a library and spend some time volunteering in a school.  I’m really lucky, because I came to my job in the library as a second career, and I came to volunteering in a school because of my son’s absolutely wonderful elementary education.  (There’s that love of public education.)

Along the way, I have met some really incredible women who make me feel like there is a reason to hope.  Things happened last week that made me appreciate each one of them all the more.

J. is one of our regular library patrons. I liked her even before I knew that she was friends with some people I admire and respect. She is always telling me about interesting books and TV shows and movies she’s come across, and she is kind to absolutely everyone.  She notices things, too.  One day, she came up to me to thank me for being nice to people who are complete jerks to me, having had to listen to someone angrily accuse me of a whole list of things, followed by the threat that they would get me fired for being incompetent.  Nice.  She spends a lot of time trying to do good in the community and her own family.  Last week, she told me about something happening in her life – a really awful thing brought about by people in her own family – which upset me, because people shouldn’t be jerks to her, either.  So I wrote her a poem, which I will add in below.  I’m a mediocre poet, but hey, I was trying to repay some of her kindnesses.

That same afternoon, I went to see V., whom I’ve known for almost three years.  V. got her first library card in 1920.  Her grandfather, who lived with them when she was a child, was a Civil War veteran.  When she was in high school, she rode the streetcar (which doesn’t exist anymore) to the old downtown library.  After her eyesight failed, she started listening to books on CD, which is how I came into her life.  At almost 104 years old, she was sharp as a tack the last time I saw her, three days before she died.  From the outside, I can see how someone dying at almost 104 would not be a shock to most people, but V. really had become a friend.  We talked about books, but we also talked about our lives at work and at home.  She was such a delightful and kind person that I often talked about her at the library with my coworkers and with my son, so her influence went far beyond the minutes I spent in her room.  I was touched by the fact that her obituary noted her love of books on tape, because the library was able to keep her love of reading going right up until she passed away.

The next day, I went for a walk with one of my teacher friends.  I volunteered with her kindergartners last year, reading books, doing finger plays, occasionally staying for recess afterwards.  One of my favorite kids was a little girl who barely spoke above a whisper, but who paid attention to everything and had a spark in her eyes.  You could just tell she loved being at school and learning.  Yay!  And on the playground, she had two friends, and those little girls as a group were so fierce and fearless!  I loved watching them coming up with games, jumping rope, racing around, giggling.   My teacher friend gave me a little book of drawings the kids had made for me.  My favorite had drawn the picture you see here.  And what’s wonderful about it to me – aside from the really awesome triangle dress which I never wore, but clearly am rocking in this picture – is that she included two books in her picture:  The Snowy Day and You Can Read.  Both are books I read to the class in the sometimes chaotic time before recess.  She remembered!

So as I thought about all of this, it struck me that even if I can’t do much to change a toxic and angry world, I could do these things.  And I have to start somewhere, because hope and kindness (and public education!) do make a difference in the world.



you are a warrior

Midwestern Amazon

you stand

arms open wide

heart exposed

the selfish, the greedy,

the mean-spirited fools

are blind to your might

unable to bend your destiny to their will

you carry no shield, no sword

marching ahead

embracing, welcoming

unafraid of bitterness

energized by ideas

open to challenge

no arrows can pierce you

when you share yourself so willingly

do you armor yourself with so much

love tempered by loss —

can they not feel your strength?

your weapons may be your kindness,

your generosity,

your baked goods

(Midwestern, after all)

do not forget your power

you are a warrior

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The end of the road

b3-logoSo, a few weeks passed.  I just realized this morning that we had the final vote on this year’s bracket and I didn’t even post the final bracket match-up!

The final two in this year’s bracket were Wonder and The Lightning Thief.   I was expecting Wonder to win, mostly because Mrs. S. had been reading it to the kids.  But in something of a landslide, The Lightning Thief prevailed.  As I talked with the kids, they had a few theories on how it won:

  • Everyone thought everyone else was voting for Wonder so they wanted to vote for The Lightning Thief.
  • Book series are more popular, since if you’ve read any of them, you might vote for the first one, while a standalone is just based on its own good or bad characteristics.
  • A lot of kids might have seen the The Lightning Thief movie, but the Wonder movie isn’t out yet.
  • Action is more popular than everyday stuff.

Who knows what the real reason was?  Not me!  This was the first year I had a fairly large group of kids who didn’t really fill out their ballots completely throughout the process, either marking only on one match-up or just not doing it at all.

The dynamic in the class was a little different than in the past, and there seemed to be only a handful of kids who really cared about it.  I’m hoping that was just THIS year’s group and not a trend.  I’m not sure if I’ll be back in 5th grade next year, since there will be a new teacher, and I’m really more connected with others in the building.  It makes me a little sad to leave that grade behind, but other opportunities are always opening up, so maybe something good will come of it!

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Battling it out again with the Super 64

B3 logoMy favorite 5th grade teacher is now working with kindergartners, so while I still work with a 5th grade class, my Super 64 battle of the books is not B3 – B cubed – Mrs. B’s Book Bracket – anymore.  Still fun, still full of great books.  I still like the logo, too, so darn it, I’m keeping it.

But somehow I blew past the first few rounds without writing anything about it, and here we are, down to the Final 4 already.  When I visited the day before Spring Break, the kids were in the middle of a party with their younger buddies, so we didn’t vote while I was there, which means I don’t know who’s made it to the semi-finals.  Here are the final eight with the winners:

Wonder vs. Swindle – WINNER: Wonder

The Giver vs. Holes – WINNER: Holes

I Survived (series) vs. The Lightning Thief – WINNER: The Lightning Thief

Escaping the Giant Wave vs. Diary of a Wimpy Kid – WINNER: Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Doing a book bracket, even with kids who don’t see themselves as big readers, has been a great way to get discussions going about books.  I gave out bookmarks with the covers of the final eight on them, and I know at least a few kids might use those for future reading selections.

In the past, the fifth graders I’ve visited have been big readers, with a lot to say about their favorites and the match-ups.  The school has a real culture of reading, and the fifth grade teacher did a lot of extra things to promote interest in books and reading.  This year’s group is quite a bit less enthusiastic about books in general, which may be due to the change in teaching staff or to a dynamic within the class rather than the more apocalyptic “kids never read anymore.”  In the past, I’d often have quite a few kids with strong opinions about anything I talked about it. This year, it’s always the same one or two kids who speak up.  When we started voting, quite a few kids wouldn’t even vote for more than one book.

Now, however, we’re to the point in the competition where they cheer whether they’ve read the books or not.  It’s not much, but maybe it’s a start.

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Nevertheless, we persist

des-moines-1728523_1280-2I’ve seen what teachers deal with every day.  I worked for the public schools for two years as an outreach worker. Then I followed around fifty “at-risk” kids for twelve years, spending a lot of time with them in their classrooms.  I also substituted as a school associate when I was between jobs, filling in for special education and library workers.  I’m now on my eighth year volunteering in an elementary school on my days off.

So, even if I had not had the absolute best first grade teacher in the world as a child, I would be a fan of teachers.  I am constantly in awe of how effective and caring and good at their jobs they are.  They teach kids who sometimes don’t come anywhere close to being ready to learn, deal with administrators who sometimes act like the only things that matter are test scores, and work with parents who sometimes aren’t helping.  And yet they still manage to shepherd loads of kids through academic and emotional growth every single year.   (Are there bad teachers?  Yes, I’m sure there are, but in the hundreds of classrooms I’ve visited, I can only think of one–in more than twenty years of being out there with them.)

Teachers have this tough job, doing something incredibly important for the public good, managing large numbers of people, and somehow keeping everyone moving forward.  Are they paid like the VPs of the insurance companies downtown?  No way.  Depending on how much extra education they’ve got, they might be paid a decent wage with decent benefits for some long hours and not a lot of gratitude.  Many of them work or take classes during the summer to keep up with the bills or the always-growing expectations of their jobs, so it’s not like their supposedly easy schedule is really even that.

Meanwhile, our state legislature has changed.  Republican members are now in control of the senate, the house, and the governorship.  They’ve decided they need to prove some kind of a point and are working on destroying collective bargaining rights, which will affect public school teachers, their benefits, and their working lives.  (As a public employee, I should note that it would affect me and probably my retirement, too.)

Here it comes.  I’m climbing up on the soap box.

Have these legislators actually spent time in the classroom recently?  I’m not talking about their 30-minute visit to AP Government.  Do they know what school is like for under-resourced schools, the staff trying to provide a great education, the average kids?  I’m sure many principals and teachers would welcome the interest.  While checking on the kids I worked with and now as a parent, teachers, counselors, social workers and administrators have always encouraged me to ask questions and get involved.  Spending time with the kids in school showed me both sides of the equation – how hard it could be for some kids and how difficult the job was for teachers.  Are public schools perfect?  Of course not.  But is the best way to make them better to punish the staff?  I don’t think so.

Politicians are fond of talking about how important it is for students to get a “world class” education, going on about the long history of strong public schools in the state.   Well, maybe they should quit mouthing the words and actually do what it takes to have great schools and great teachers.  They could start by visiting schools in their districts and spending the whole day (or week) in classrooms, seeing what teachers do, learning about the problems schools are facing.  It might give them a whole different perspective on what education is and how lucky we are.

Climbing down from the soap box. Putting on my marching shoes for an afternoon at the state capitol building.

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Insert inspirational quote here

bokeh-1835378_19201Every motivational saying that springs to mind today seems to not actually have been said by the person I think said it.   (Two examples — “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”  Do some quick research, and you’ll see what I mean.)  Oh well.  It’s not really about the inspirational quote anyway, is it?

The motivation is to find a way to create good in a world that just seems to be really NOT WHAT I WANT IT TO BE.

For those of you who know me or have read carefully, it will come as no surprise that in addition to being a pretty nerdy library worker who volunteers at an elementary school and likes to garden, I’m kind of a radical.  It might have been the time I spent living and working with nuns and other social justice activists that launched me in that direction, but later jobs in social services and volunteering gigs cemented those tendencies.  Sure, I’ve got degrees in economics and public administration, but a few of my more memorable moments in those studies came while listening to a Marxist talk about public policy and hearing a classmate drone on about how the marketplace would revolutionize education.  Did I agree with them?  No, but they made me think. Which made me think more.

So what do I do now?  Many people will protest.  I’ve done that.  (1990 – I tagged along with Sister Theresa to a protest against the first Gulf War.  And yes, we did sing “If I had a hammer”.)  Others will write letters or make phone calls to their representatives or donate to causes they care about.  I’ve done that, most recently last week.  More might get involved in something positive in their communities.  Done that, too.  Mentoring, working with kids, making copies, sewing things, planting flowers.

It doesn’t seem like enough this time.

When I was in college, one of my favorite professors told us that when we got older, we would feel less, that the emotions that seem so overwhelming and exhausting when you are young begin to fade.  I remember thinking that would never happen to me, because I didn’t want to lose that intensity.  And then I got older.  Not being so crushed by every single thing really did make life easier and more pleasant in some ways.  Do I miss the high drama of my college boyfriends or the slights of mean girls?  No way.

But I wonder if now is one of those times when more intensity might actually be a good thing.

Last year, my son had to come up with a six word phrase to describe his life.  (Ah, the fun that school counselors have!   Was that one really for the kids?   If I were a school counselor, I’d be doing that exercise to amuse me.  School counselors are probably better people than I am, though.)  And what he came up with fits me perfectly, now and pretty much always:

Work in progress; results may vary.

At least I know for sure where this quote came from.


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Because every octopus should have a ukulele

octopusOne of the many benefits of volunteering with the same teacher for more than six years – I know, SIX YEARS… it’s super fun—is that you can occasionally just show up with a ukulele and a picture book and share it with a class of third graders who do not seem at all surprised to find out you actually have three ukes in your house and can chatter on about the details of picture book art and cool words.

Also An Octopus is a book about writing and art and friendship and cool words, and there’s a really adorable bunny and a despondent octopus.  I could go on and on. There are layers of understanding here and scientists who are musicians.  That’s really all you need to know.  You can probably guess the rest.  Or not.  Still. Perfect for young writers and the whimsical among us.

Also An Octopus by Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Benji Davies

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On volunteering or being selfish… or both

plant-1075383_1920A few weeks ago, an email appeared in my inbox, late in the afternoon or early evening, after working hours.  Two of my favorite people at a volunteer gig would be working their last days for the organization just three days later.  There wasn’t any explanation of why they were leaving – and I still don’t know – but you know something must be up if long-term employees are leaving at exactly the same time after years of working together and with the public.  Was funding lost?  Were they nudged out the door?  Did the management turn crazy on them? Organizations could save themselves a lot of trouble if they’d just tell people, but I suppose they’re too afraid of lawsuits or bad press.

So, after more than four years of spending short bursts of hours with them–laughing, working, and learning–they will be gone next time I go to help out.  I tried stopping on the way home from work one day, and then made a point to drive across town the next morning when I knew at least one of them would be in.  Spending time there was always active and light and cheery, but that day, in front of the person who will be replacing my friends, I talked about all the emotions tied up in my time there, and I cried.  My friend talked about it as a place of healing and gave me a hug, generous and gracious as always.

Volunteering there and in other places has saved my sanity more times than I can count.  When I was unemployed, just drifting about what to do next, or struggling to stay positive, getting out to help other people kept me moving and sane.  Having a purpose, whether it was transplanting lantana or reading with a first grader or talking about books or compiling patient statistics, made it possible to get through the hard days and see forward to the beautiful garden or spelling words learned or whatever else might be good in the future.  Volunteering is selfish, really, because it gives me back more than I could ever give to someone else.  Who I am is entirely because of all the years of supposedly helping another person.  It’s not about you, people; it’s about me.

Thanks, Jean and Sarah.  You’ll be missed.


The Talented Two – Mrs. B’s Book Bracket finally reaches the finals

B3 logoSo, I’m a little behind in reporting on our 5th graders’ book bracket…

Like I mentioned in the last post on our book bracket, I was sick. Then Mrs. B was sick. Throw in a field trip or maybe a family emergency to mess up the schedule and you’d have a typical month of Thursdays during the school year, right?

But here we are.  After a second vote between Circus Mirandus and The Terrible Two because of a tie, Circus Mirandus won, with several kids apparently switching their votes. The Lightning Thief was the big winner against Holes. So for our final two, we’ve got:

Circus Mirandus vs. The Lightning Thief

A newcomer against an old favorite? A stand alone versus a series? Magic versus myths? What could be better? I can’t wait to hear the kids try to convince each other to choose their favorite. Ah, the joy of reading!

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The Final Four — Mrs. B’s Book Bracket

B3 logoSometimes getting a really nasty virus is a good thing. Well, sort of. I spent the better part of a week fighting something awful, so by the time I made it to Mrs. B’s room yesterday, I felt physically better, however, my brain was mush.

After telling the kids about the new match-ups, I encouraged them to come up and give their favorites in the Excellent/Elite 8 a boost. The verbal battles began. The Lightning Thief was ok, even good, but it didn’t match the fun factor of Big Nate, which was kind of similar to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a book which had narrowly missed moving on. Big Nate was fun, but really didn’t have the great characters and action of The Lightning Thief. Choosing between The One and Only Ivan and Circus Mirandus was tough, but  Ivan created such strong characters that it had to win out.  I want these kids on my side when I run for office!

Oh, the fun! And when the votes were counted, here’s the Final Four we ended up with:


The Lightning Thief

The Terrible Two

Circus Mirandus


We’ve come a long way…

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The Excellent and Elite Eight (Mrs. B’s Book Bracket)

B3 logo

We’re down to eight, after a nail biter coin toss between Big Nate and The Graveyard Book.  The other match-ups were within a few votes, too, although not quite that close. Several of the students have started writing “I can’t choose!” or “I like them both too much!” on their ballots when the choice is just too tough.

So our excellent final eight books in the 2016 B3 are:

Athlete vs. Mathlete


Big Nate

The Lightning Thief

The Terrible Two


The One and Only Ivan

Circus Mirandus

See the bracket below for this week’s match-ups. I can’t wait to see what happens next!





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