Thursday, December 13, 2012

Making the World of Education Come Alive

In the midst of the constant battle between the newfangled app landscape of the iPod and old time book learnin’ for control of my 4 year old’s brain, we occasionally cast out modern technology for a return to the calmer and greener pastures of practicing penmanship and our ABC’s.
ME: We are going to practice our ABC’s.

BOY: Why?! I don’t wanna read. I wanna play the iPod.

ME: You’re done.

The iPod goes back into the charger without a huge fight, but a single tear rolls down his eye reminiscent of the Indian pollution advertisement from the 70’s.

ME: Write down the alphabet.

BOY: All of it?!

ME: Yes and then we can practice writing some words.

BOY: Julia says we don’t need to write because everything will be on computers.

ME: Your sister is wrong. Reading, writing, and thinking are the most important things we can learn to do so we can share our experiences with other people and help make the world a better place.

BOY: OK. But if I have to learn, can I pick out the words to write?

ME: Sure.

Learning is its own reward and the eternal price we pay for educating future generations.

Monday, December 3, 2012


Last Friday, my 8 year old daughter had her first Reconciliation. For my Catholic challenged friends, Reconciliation is the sacrament that allows members of the church to have their sins purged by asking God’s forgiveness through a priest in a private meeting.

Past the occasional swear word, crayon wall art, and mysteriously crying little brother, I’m not sure what 8 year olds have to confess to clean their souls, but I was optimistic with a new emphasis on “repentance of sinfulness” rather than specific sinful acts and penances of 5 Our Fathers and a handful of Hail Marys.

My daughter was excited, prepared, and nervous along with the 50 other children in the church. The priest addressed the children with a wonderful analogy that sinning was like having the light in your spirit go out and confession turned the light back on. I felt a familiar sense of discomfort from my younger days when I wondered if I had a special place in Heaven or forfeited my soul because I didn’t take the garbage out fast enough.

After the overpowering monologue of guilt, shame, and fear, we were ready for confession. And we all had to go to confession as a family.  My last confession was before the advent of the Interweb, the birth of “Baby on Board” signs, and Livin’ on Prayer was rocking the charts… 25 years of undocumented sin. I looked at my daughter as she prepared and whispered to her.

ME: Relax, It’s all going to be just fine. It’s not a test and everyone passes.

DAUGHTER: I know… you better tell the priest that you swear a lot.

ME: I will… and after confession I’m going to walk to the front of the alter, lift my arms, and yell “FREE FROM SIN AT LAST! PRAISE THE LORD!”

DAUGHTER: Asshole!...Whoops…Is that a sin?

ME: You’re sitting in a pew swearing in the Church. Welcome to the Big Leagues of Sinning.

WIFE: Stop talking to her! Someone will hear! Yes it’s sinning, dear. Just don’t talk to your father and you won’t sin anymore before confession.

I believe in God, I believe in Jesus’ teachings, but I have a problem with the delivery of the message. I don’t believe in black and white issues and fundamentally I have a problem with any institution that teaches ideology through guilt, shame, and fear. My God is not a vengeful God, but He is compassionate, has a sense of humor, and doesn’t sweat the small stuff.

We left the pew as a family for confession. My daughter went first and came out smiling. My wife entered second and came out smiling. I entered with hope for a new beginning as I came face to face with a priest who was probably born when I went to my last confession.

A confession is a fairly straightforward act: Greeting, Listing of Sins, Penance, Act of Contrition, and Absolution. The main difference is the sin content. Confession is a personal experience, but I wanted to share how far we’ve moved forward in the last 25 years.

ME: Good Evening Father. Forgive me for my sins. It’s been over 20 years since my last confession.

PRIEST: Would you like to go over the 10 Commandments.

ME: No, I’m aware of them and follow them. I’d prefer to give you my Act of Contrition.

PRIEST: Proceed. (The 10 Commandments comment threw me off and I went into an Act of Contrition, although this is usually done after the listing of sins because you need something to be contrite about. Something told me that I would not be lacking in that department for the next few minutes. I paraphrased the Act of Contrition as it had been a long time and he commended me on my improvised ending.) Tell me your sins.

ME: In the last 25 years, I have been at times a bad father, a bad son, a bad husband, and a bad friend. Because it’s been such a long time, I do not remember any particular instances, but I know there have been many.

PRIEST: Good. Now we need to go over the Mortal Sins. (Mortal Sins are wrongful acts that condemn a person to hell if unforgiven before death.  I can’t ever remember being asked this during confession.)

ME: Excuse me?

PRIEST: In the last 25 years, have you attended Mass every Sunday?

ME: No.

PRIEST: In the last 25 years, have you watched pornography?

ME: Yes

PRIEST: In the last 25 years, have you masturbated?

ME: Yes, it kinda goes hand in hand in hand with question 2. (At this point the wheels were coming off the train but I was still steering toward a respectful crash.)
PRIEST: Have you had relations with anyone other than your wife?

ME: No one other than my wife, but we haven’t been married for 25 years. I had girlfriends before that and…yeah…we were not married. I think that’s another yes.

PRIEST: Have you gossiped against a friend that caused him to lose a job? (I became a bit worried at this point because we were way off the reservation.)

ME: I’ve gossiped about people, but I can’t remember if it ever cost someone their job. But 25 years is a long time and I wouldn’t put it past myself, so I am going to say yes.

PRIEST: Do you pray daily.

ME: Yes I do. (Very true, I just don’t commute.)

PRIEST: Bow your head for absolution. Pray a decade of the rosary and go forth to sin no more.

I left the confessional to greet my wife and daughter and contemplated a decade of the Rosary. 10 years seems to be a great deal of hard time for activities that occupy 99% of the populace on any given weekday. But then I remembered that decade is a term used for how to pray the Rosary!

I was off the hook with time served and was no longer living with the constant threat of hellfire from impure thoughts, impure acts, or speaking about a colleague habitually coming to work 15 minutes late every day!

My daughter loves going to church, attending CCD, and has a healthy appreciation, respect, and love for Jesus. I like him too and would never do anything to dissuade her because I believe in the message and as she gets older she’ll find her own issues with the methodology. And then I’ll introduce her to my God who will remind her she said “Asshole” in the church right before her 1st confession and He thought it was a riot.

Friday, November 30, 2012

It's the Christmas Season and We All Want Better Offensive Lineman under the Tree

IN THE HUDDLE (as sung to the classic Elvis Presley song IN THE GHETTO)

As the punches fly
On a blue and orange Chicago field
A poor broken lineman is drafted
In the huddle

And Mike Tice cries
Cause he don’t need a bruised peach
It's just another journeyman to teach
In the huddle

Fans, don't you understand
The O line needs a healthy hand
Or they’ll grow into draft busts some day
Take a look at Webb and Carimi ,
Unwatchable on TV,
Why do they drop their heads

And the play is for no gain.
Well the gridiron turns
And an All-American with two good knees
Plays in a BCS bowl  as the D line flees
In the huddle

And his potential shines
So he hires an agent for the NFL draft
And he learns how to pancake
And he learns his craft
In the huddle

Then one night at the East/West Shrine
A promising lineman breaks down
He buys insurance, visits a doc,
Tries to rehab, but they cleaned his clock
And Mike Tice cries
As the fans gather ‘round the new draft choice
Facing another season without rejoice
In the huddle

As a rookie lineman signs,
After a cold and gray Chicago combine,
Another injured lineman is drafted
In the huddle
And Mike Tice cries

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

S.T.E.A.M. : What Comes Out of my Ears When I Hear About Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math

I recently attended a Board of Education meeting in my hometown of Glen Ellyn, IL. to discuss district wide changes to the K-5 teaching platform to incorporate a new system of learning called STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) into our children’s daily lives.

After an hour long presentation and numerous testimonials, it was clear to me and the 200 other concerned and angry parents that in exchange for an educational system that delivered excellent test scores and strong bonds between students and teachers, we would be getting an unapologetic plan with no details, fancy acronyms, and multiple benign but exciting words like collaboration, innovation, leadership, and 21st century learning.  My guess is that 21st century learning is looking for solutions to problems that don’t exist. (Thank you for the line Bruce.)

I am not an expert in STEAM but it sounds like beating a child over the head with the scientific method and then letting them recuperate in music to “harness their creative side” and apply their newfound whimsy to the rest of their daily activities. I realize that as a country we need to find innovators and critical thinkers to close the technology gap between the US and India or China, but is the function of grade school to find a better job or stimulate the economy?

Four year old Chinese students can memorize the Periodic Table, but my 4 year has a difficult time engineering the button on his pants. One is employable and the other thinks outside the box performing the butt shuffle. Both are creative although one of these choices is slightly better for the economy. I know science and math need to be emphasized more today than ever, but there is no plug-in solution to develop innovation or inspire creativity.

The new teaching approach also involves multiple teachers having a specialty and children moving between classes, like in Middle or High School, and with mixed grade levels (2&3) and (4&5). Does placing children in more mature settings help them learn better or does it separate the “innovators” from the herd? How much learning time will kids lose in class roaming the halls 4-5 times a day? How much will kids miss because they are being taught at a higher grade level?

The answer is a class called WIN or What I Need. It serves as a time for the specialist to meet with children who are having difficulties with a subject and provides exactly what all mature, bright, and confident children need to succeed.

Unfortunately, I don’t know any kids that fit that description. Grade school kids need a teacher. The relationship between a teacher and students between the ages of 5-11 provides not only learning, but motivation, security, confidence, achievement, and the potential spark of creativity. Kids don’t need specialists to unlock deep seated creativity, but dedicated teachers who impart knowledge and indulge their students to use that knowledge to form their own ideas.

I remember as a very young 6 year old, I was told by a friend of mine that he had an invisible plane, like Wonder Woman, in his front yard. I was, and still am, a big comic book fan and could not wait to see it or more importantly touch it. As I walked through his yard with my arms outstretched, my friends and many parents laughed at me. Slowly I realized that there was no jet and I ran home crying. I was told to get over it and came to terms that superheroes didn’t exist.

I told my teacher about it and she told me she didn’t think it was dumb. There were no dumb ideas. Maybe someday there would be an invisible plane. Ms. Klein was not a specialist, but a teacher. I didn’t need a deeper understanding of stealth technology, but a validation of my ideas and thoughts. And if I had to run from class to class and worked with five different specialists, I would have never asked the question. I’d be stuck in the box.

Teachers make the difference and they always will make a difference. My district is blessed with wonderful teachers and my daughter has had a tremendous experience with superb educators. I grew up in Glen Ellyn and came back because of the history of excellence in teaching and I know many parents feel the same way. I sincerely hope the Board of Education will find the wisdom to simply let our great teachers do their jobs.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Thanksgiving is a time of thanking, giving, laughing, shopping, yelling, crying, and mass turkey executions. It remains the only holiday that was ever moved to increase the amount of shopping days before Christmas by FDR in 1939, but unfortunately the extra week was not enough to overcome the Great Depression.

Thanksgiving will always be the hand- me-down little brother of Christmas; 24 hours of goodwill, one remarkable Charlie Brown Special, a feel good Detroit Lions loss, and headfirst into the evil consumer void of Black Friday to kick off the real giving season. Unfortunately wrapped presents will always trump a turkey leg and knock Thanksgiving off the top of the award podium into a three way battle with Easter and Halloween for the silver. Ham vs Turkey, Witches vs Pilgrims, and Costumes vs Uncle Chuck’s Easter Dinner Nightshirt. There are no clear cut winners in the holiday Thunderdome.

But all is not lost because Thanksgiving has tradition. Not important Christmas tradition like an all-day Twilight Zone marathon or leaving Santa a beer and salami sandwich because he prefers it to milk and cookies, but 400 years of actual human beings, who don’t like each other, sitting down to dinner and speaking to each other about what they were thankful over the past year. If the Indians and pilgrims could put aside their killing for the day, the Bargiels could do the same.

In my youth, my brother Jon, sister Nina, and I would go around the Thanksgiving table and name one thing we were thankful for that year. Over the years, it became a bit boring and predictable, like a Tebow interview, and we decided to think outside the box once we hit our 20’s.

Dad: Jer, what are you thankful for?

Me: I’m thankful we didn’t spend our summers on Amity Island and I’m thankful I’m not much of a beach-goer.

Dad: OK… Jon?

Me: I’m thankful I wasn’t on the Lynyard Skynyrd plane when it went down in ’77.

Dad: If you are not going to take this seriously, we are not going to do it! This is a special day! Nina!

Nina: I’m thankful for having such a wonderful family…

Dad: Was that so hard?

Nina: and for not being Rick James’ sex slave. I’m Rick James Bitch! I just couldn’t take that for multiple days.

Dad: You have ruined Thanksgiving!

Dad leaves but not before adding food to his plate and making sure the Lions game is on.

Mom: I couldn’t take that either dear. I’m thankful for having everyone home for Thanksgiving and not recounting the same boring stories. I’m Rick James Bitch! I like that!

Sure we spent a great deal of time before dinner watching an E True Hollywood Story marathon, but the point is that we were still thankful while tweaking the old tradition for the new tradition. I don’t get together for holidays as much as I’d like with my brother and sister, but when we do Jaws, Skynyrd, and Rick James will surely come up and whatever current drama is unfolding will be replaced by smiles, laughter, and my father carrying a well-stocked food plate to watch football.

Since that time, I have gone on to ruin other holidays and one year I even failed Easter (I thought they were grading on a curve, but apparently Jesus is set in his ways.) I’m very thankful for the gifts of my friends, family, and our way of life. My wife and I still go around the table with our children and name one particular thing that we are thankful for over the year. The responses are fairly predictable, but I look forward to when they start their own tradition. If bedtime prayers from the 4 year old are any indication, it is coming soon.

Me: It’s time for prayers. What would you like to thank God for?

Boy: I thank God for mommy, daddy, Julia, my penis,

Me: Your what?!

Boy: My penis.

Me: Why?

Boy: Because it’s the greatest toy I’ve ever had.

Me: And why did you put it after your mother, me, and your sister?

Boy: Because I love you more than any toy.

It’s the little things that bring us the greatest joy. I smiled, I laughed, and in my mind’s eye I saw my father leaving the room with a full plate in search of football. Enjoy your traditions and have a Very Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

100% of What We Say Under Our Breath is 50% of the Reason Why Parents See the Principal

The cheery boy entered the room at 6:47 in a hurry to play his new Spiderman game on the iPod. In so much of a hurry, he forgot one important thing.

Me: It’s too early. You’re naked.

Boy: I want to play Spiderman!

Me: Put some pants on.

Boy: Why do I need pants to play?

Me: I have no good answer, but it’s a rule.

The boy ignores me and my wife goes to the bathroom to begin a new day full of hope and promise.

Boy: I want the Avengers game!

Me: Pants… Even Hulk wears pants.

Boy: Not in the morning, only when he’s fighting.

Me: Pants protect you. Underwear is the last line of defense.

Boy: Protect from what?

Me: From anything, especially from (in a voice so small only a sonar readied bat or my wife could pick up) … shatting all over my bed.

Boy: What does shatting mean?

Me: Dear! Please hurry up in the bathroom! I’m going to be late!

Boy: What does it mean? Is he an enemy of the Hulk?

Me: He’s everyone’s enemy.

Julia, my older ray of sunshine, pops her head in the room.

Julia: Shat is the past tense of shit. But we don’t say that word. And pants can’t protect you from it. I’m naked too!

Boy: (grinning) Did you shat Dad? It smells.

Me: Get dressed. Time for breakfast.

Boy: Do I have to wear pants?

Me: Yes. We don’t shat where we eat.

The kids dress and my wife leads “the excited to go to school and learn” group downstairs for breakfast.

Wife: Did Julia show you her vocabulary work? She got a perfect score!

Me: That’s terrific! I’m very proud of you! (Hug Julia) And if the principal calls to set up a parent meeting to congratulate her or commend her for expanding Andrew’s words, you deserve all the credit dear. I gotta go.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Election Exit Polls Reveal 50% Bad Parenting in My House

The election is over. The insults, slanders, magic underpants, socialist bogeymen, and enemy of all that is holy accusations have to stop. I’m as guilty as anyone of these charges and it came to a head for me last night during election coverage.

Me: You want to stay up and watch election coverage?

Julia: Mitt Romney is going to take away PBS Kids! We have to stop him! Go Obama!

I don’t know who “We” is but I was suddenly afraid that Julia was “The Girl Who Owned a City” and she’d lead an army of children through the streets for SuperWhy if Romney pulled the upset. But after I realized that my 8 year old was not a Clifford the Big Red Dog mercenary, I was upset with myself at how she has been introduced into politics.

I, like any reasonably informed voter, do not apologize for my positions or beliefs. I do apologize for being the example to my daughter that getting the last word or making the best comeback is the how to make the best argument. Apparently the Big Bird comment was still trending at her school yesterday when Obama won the school wide mock election by a landslide. The youth crowd and especially the girls will caucus and definitively vote in their self-interests.

And I am proud that she and her friends voted in something they believed in, regardless of Mr. Romney’s official position on foreclosing Sesame Street. It’s what she said after her passionate pitch to stop the repeal of Curious George.

Julia: Mitt Romney is an idiot.

Me: No, he isn’t an idiot. He’s a good person who loves his family and we just don’t agree with some of the things he believes and that’s OK.

I’m the idiot. She doesn’t understand the rules of political debate and can’t separate the beliefs from the person because I, like a lot of people, have not done a good job at it over the course of the election. (No worries, she understands now based on her self-interest and preservation of dessert.) I can’t remember a more polarized election, but I hope that we can move forward as a country to promote the greatest good and the greatest number of freedoms for the greatest number of people in a civilized manner.

I will be doing my part by defending Jay Cutler from ridiculous facial expression accusations, railing against the downfall of modern civilization or reality TV, and spreading the word concerning the immorality of mixing peanut butter and jelly in the same jar.

Because some arguments need the last word or the best comeback; these arguments can never be won, they can only hope to be contained.