Walden and Known Failure

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For many years, I assigned to my high school juniors whatever excerpts from Walden the literature textbook had supplied. This usually included the opening lines from “Economy” (though the editors may have fragmented some portions) and ended shortly after the heavily cited and depressing sentiment “All men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I believe that was followed by the meticulously detailed account of the building and planting materials from that same initial chapter. The opening of “Where I Lived…” appeared next and stretched until the line about living “deliberately” met my students’ eyes. Later, of all things, “Brute Neighbors” was portioned out in our textbook, but the section chosen by the editorial team centered on the aerial view of the large red and black ants, included because, we eventually discussed, that it was a relatively strong sample of Thoreau’s use of symbolism concerning, some students suggested, themes such as individualism, war, and community. As a career educator, I would eventually like to slip into future conversations concerning the American canon, and I continue to believe passages of Walden are essential to the shaping of literary thought in America. While each of the aforementioned excerpts represents either a general or specific thematic feature of the book, this week’s re-reading of Walden paired with the supplemental articles by Arsic and Walls identified for me other valuable portions that might pull back from Thoreau’s desire and ability to check out of society (more or less) for twenty-six months, and instead center on some revealing stylistic choices that make the book relatable to individuals born since 2000. 

I was especially drawn to the thorough examination Laura Dassow Walls identifies in her analysis of the relationship between the Thoreau of Walden Pond and the “everyman” neighbor Mr. Field (later, Mr. Farmer) from the latter half of one of the shortest chapters in the text, “Baker Farm.” The theme of this scene directly echoes a key remark from  Emerson’s “Nature” essay (which, I would argue, should also remain accessible in standard anthologies) where he shrewdly observes how mankind takes ownership of land, but that “no one owns the landscape.” Walls cites how the first half of Walden establishes themes of industry and fortitude as the cornerstones of soulful satisfaction. By inserting John Field–a man who respects the sage words of the author/narrator, but who also elects not to heed his advice–into the narrative, however, Walls sees that Thoreau has set himself and the project of the book up for failure. Because the Fields (who Walls suggests may represent a hesitant-to-change Us) remain unaltered by his words, Thoreau is reduced to dwell on their irrationality. Walls, though, believes this short scene was structured “deliberately,” in order for it “to confront us unequivocally with the true sources of evil in our own well-meaning desire to improve ourselves by working hard, buying more stuff, and rising in the world, just as we have been told to do” (20). 

This passage from Walls struck me because it runs parallel to so many themes found in the various essays and fiction from David Foster Wallace, one of the subjects I’m considering for my area of specialization. Wallace, like Thoreau–or, what Laura Walls suggests is the character named “Thoreau”–often discussed The American Dream of proudly and ceaselessly logging hours at work (and consequently away from one’s friends and family) in order to climb the corporate ladder, upgrade a car every so often, move into a larger living space and fill it with stuff no one needs in what ultimately will end, whether we want to believe it or not, in a fruitless quest to secure happiness. Walls believes Thoreau sought to appear defeated in this scene because Walden “will succeed only if [Thoreau] can pivot his audience from material failure to spiritual success” and that readers “must feel this failure” (21). 

Branka Arsić’s essay uncovers a focal point from Walden that I had not considered earlier either. This approach toward Things was, for me, a much more abstract analysis, but I applaud her efforts in identifying and tracking the Things themselves and navigating through different classifications of those Things. The portion of the essay that resonated the most with me appeared toward the end of the middle section “Deathway of Things.” By labeling things from Thoreau’s perspective as either living or dead, she cites from the book the “two different responses to the phenomenon of dead things, that of the Mucclasse Indians and Mexicans, and that of the New Englanders” and notes that Thoreau “does not side with either” (165). Walls notes that the way the author seems to understand things aligns with the “non-dualistic understanding of the world” to which the Mucclasse Indians subscribe”[m]eaning must be embedded in the material” of the Thing (165).  

The value of Arsić’s essay and Walden is that these two Things themselves have potential in formal and informal educational venues. The book itself allows students in classrooms or readers in book clubs multiple opportunities to identify what is or should be treasured, to discuss the evolution of our moral values, and to express the bond we have with material (or immaterial) Things. While culturally, we may clash about the value or usefulness of living or dead Things, the discussions themselves about these differing perspectives can lead to a greater appreciation for one another as human beings, which, it seems safe to say, is among Thoreau’s central objectives within Walden.

Question for Class Discussion

  • Walls discusses how past analyses have concluded that Thoreau’s alleged disdain for the Irish is short-sighted. Are there other instances in the book where he reveals his privilege and/or expresses any level of contempt or prejudice toward an individual or group? 

Sources

Arsić, Branka. “Our Things: Thoreau on Objects, Relics, and Archives.” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 23 no. 1, 2014, pp. 157-181. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/556056.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. (original 1845 publication).

Walls, Laura Dassow. “‘As You Are Brothers of Mine’: Thoreau and the Irish.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 88, no. 1, 2015, pp. 5–36., http://www.jstor.org/stable/24718201.

THEATER REVIEW: The Importance of Being Earnest (September 2019)

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The 2019-2020 season at First Presybyterian Theater season kicks off this month with Oscar Wilde’s timeless classic The Importance of Being Earnest. This pointedly amusing story features various perspectives on the institution of marriage and the great depths we can reach to maintain our reputations. Often noted as the legendary author’s most treasured work, The Importance of Being Earnest will either introduce or remind viewers of Wilde’s distinct voice. His unique descriptions of London society and the modern world are just as applicable today as they were when it was first published in late-nineteenth century.

Aaron Mann stars as Algernon, a playboy brimming with confidence and rarely at a loss for words, and boldy rejuvenates the character director John Tolley associates the most with the Wilde himself. Chance Parker captures remarkably well the quieter, but equally clever and well-intentioned Mr. Worthing, Algernon’s acquaintance. Together, Mann and Parker loop viewers into their world and their amusing (though elitist) lives as they carry the rapid-fire pacing of the plot and dialogue throughout the bulk of the first of the two acts.

In a play replete with irony and parallel plot lines, Mann and Parker are countered by two outstanding performances by Laura Laudeman and Kelly Maloney as Gwendolyn Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, respectively. Laudeman’s consistent balance as a dutiful daughter and impassioned woman genuinely catapult the momentum of the first act. After intermission, Maloney highlights the naivete of Mr. Worthing’s ward Cecily, whose shift into adulthood has been overlooked by all of those around her. 

As the tension rises among these four individuals throughout the second act, audiences are greeted with moments in the play where Wilde is all but snagging us by the collar and expressing what we think and how we are flawed. One strong attribute of this particular performance is the presentation style where characters rarely speak in the direction of one another. By turning toward the audience, viewers themselves become the ones addressed and discussed, which adds to the universality of this examination of human desires and fragility. Through his seemingly bottomless bag of theatrical tricks, Wilde’s remarkably interwoven script lends itself to the audience in ways that other playwrights have not done and may never do. At the risk of drawing from a cliche, this play has everything. From Algeron and John Worthing’s first few lines, viewers can easily draw parallels not only to themselves, but also the themes of independence, loyalty, and even deception. 

One of the funniest characters in this play is that of Aunt Augusta, and Kate Black’s extraordinary version is not to be missed. In a role that is equal parts elitist and hysterical, Black enriches each scene with unparalleled authority and biting commentary.  

Though it is a secondary plot, be sure to watch and listen closely to the words and interactions of Marsha Wallace as Miss Prism and Scott Rumage as Reverend Chasuble. While these two combine for a comparative lower amount of overall presence, Wallace and Rumage exude  Oscar Wilde’s style and wit in perfectly timed jabs at relationships, love, and religion.  

Rae Surface and her set design team have created another appealing and appropriate stage for a play so dependent on dialogue, and Jeanette Walsh’s distinct costuming aligns well with the era of late nineteenth century London.  

We live in a time where one can curate his or her own image out to the world in ways Oscar Wilde likely never dreamed possible. However, can we ever truly love ourselves or anyone else if we misrepresent ourselves to anyone, regardless of our justifications for doing so? True love, perhaps Oscar Wilde was suggesting, is not satisfying the expectations of someone else. It is, on the other hand, acknowledging one’s own flaws and accepting the flaws of others as nothing more than a common attribute of the human condition. The play is a really good read, but witnessing it first-hand through the stellar performances of this cast is unmatched.

Critiquing Criticism – Week 2 -Part 1 (?)

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On Monday, our 19th century American Lit course met to discuss two critical articles that focused on the book American Renaissance by F. O. Matthiessen and tied those articles to the core text for the week, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (original 1855 edition). Because most of you are likely uninterested in the specific details and critical strategies of the academic articles, the book they discuss, or the classic text involved with all three, I’ll save you from as much extemporaneous material as I can. Thanks for reading though. I’ll place all the texts at the bottom if you’re genuinely looking to brush up on your literary criticism. In short, Matthiessen spent well over a decade putting together this critical text that centered on the five authors (Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman) whom he deemed had single-handedly created a unique, unprecedented American voice in the mid-nineteenth century.

Students in my past have often asked (in their own way) how the excerpts that they’ve been assigned to read in textbooks or anthologies were selected and have continued to appear, generations after their publications. In their words, it’s something like “Why can’t we read authors who are alive and stuff?” Many times, I’ve chatted with parents who want to 1) tell me what they read in high school, 2) ask if their son or daughter will be assigned the same books as they themselves were assigned a generation earlier, 3) regenerate a love (or lack of) for a canonical text (e.g. “Are you gonna make them read The Scarlet Letter? I HATED that book!”), or 4) all of these.

Here’s where it gets a little interesting: Matthiessen was clearly an intellectual man whose passion for not only identifying and categorizing these works, but also for demystifying them and creating the groundwork for the first truly American canon of literature. He was also a vocal advocate for academic freedom at a prestigious university. Because he challenged so many traditions and norms, he earned a widespread following of cheerers and jeerers. [Jeerers, evidently, is not a known word to my computer; however, this is just a blog, so I’m moving forward.] When his book was finally released (he’d had to “check himself in” at one point because the project had become so overwhelming and he was also afraid his lover was on the brink of death [more on that in a sec]), he was met with a less than resounding response from his colleagues in literary circles.

So, Matthiessen was a homosexual man. It feels so strange to write that [because, so what?…right?], but it ends up being pertinent to this brief essay. For decades now, American Renaissance–by far his most notable publication–has become the subject of a vast amount of interpretations. I have not read it, but that’s secondary. Anyway, his own reservations about how much of these authors’ personal lives and lifestyles should play into his criticisms was apparently always at the forefront of his mind. What’s even crazier–crazier is a word but it’s not very academic…meh–is that some of Matthiessen’s critics thought he offers a less authentic book because he essentially omitted the authors’ sexuality, even though he himself was writing a genesis of what’s become “gay criticism.”

This leads to the question that found its way in the center of our class discussion this week: When writing a critical article over a piece of literature (or really any art), does the critic have an obligation to insert anything beyond the art, or should the artist (and his/her life, history, sexuality, politics, etc.) be discussed as well? Matthiessen’s book also prompted some to suggest that the critic’s own life, history, sexuality, politics, etc. should be in play as well.

I suppose a less intense way to discuss this debate is to think about why you like the art you like. Why, for instance, does a Picasso piece appeal or disgust you? Why are you drawn to Game of Thrones? Why do you still have your favorite songs from when you were fourteen in a saved playlist? If you told me the answer to any of these, would you be comfortable with me bringing in your past relationships, your issues with your parent(s), your sexuality, or your voting history as my interpretation of why you still love Asking Alexandra?

I don’t have answers. But I find this discussion intriguing. The era of criticism most of us have been conditioned to follow/use has been what’s known as New Criticism–interpreting/judging the art for itself and dismissing all other aspects. However, is it possible to truly analyze art without consciously or subconsciously harboring in our own lives and perspectives?

Fall 2019 – Week 1

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I began two courses this week at Ball State. One is a literature course concerning 19th century American literature, and the other is a methods course on literary research. Both classes include students in master’s programs and Ph. D. programs. So far, I feel very comfortable with the reading and writing assignments on each syllabus. Among the major titles I’ll be reading (and in some cases re-reading) are the following:

  • Walt Whitman – Leaves of Grass
  • Henry David Thoreau – Walden
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson – “Nature”
  • Louisa May Alcott – Work
  • Frederick Douglass – My Bondage and My Freedom
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Blithedale Romance
  • Herman Melville – Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life
  • Harriet E. Wilson – Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black
  • Viet Than Nguyen – The Sympathizer
  • Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric

This past week was also “Non-instruction week” at Ivy Tech. Full-time faculty must be on campus all five days and serve a minimum of 40 hours. Those hours are logged in paper form and submitted to the program chairs and deans. Each day this week, I attended a meeting of some kind. Some of those meetings were beneficial while some bordered on meeting a requirement.

I begin my twenty-first year as an educator on Monday with my first set of students for the fall semester. I will be teaching one class each day for the first eight weeks of this term, but I will not be in the classroom on Mondays during the second eight weeks. I’m teaching a co-requisite class this semester that is in line with the trajectory that Ivy Tech is headed: Eight-week courses.

While this particular post is not directly about eight-week courses, I will likely blog about my general observations of them between now and December. Unlike a lot of my colleagues, I feel I am a little more willing to embrace this structure. I opted to volunteer to teach one to at least see how it compares to the 16-week model I’ve been teaching for eight years (as an adjunct and FT professor) and be able to share informed takeaways from my experiences. It may work better than imagined, and it may be disastrous. For me, I prefer to at least try it with an open mind (hopefully in the spring 2020 semester as well) before shaping my official stance.

Here I Go…Again

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Today is the first day of the fall semester for me as a college professor and as a graduate student. I thought I’d share a passage from one of the readings I completed prior to tonight’s first class at Ball State:

“One reason Fascism has a chance is that it in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm.”

This is from Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) and was published posthumously in 1942 in his acclaimed book Theses on the Philosophy of History.

I cannot be sure as of this moment, but my assumption is that this line will get attention during our first discussion this evening. Benjamin’s book was from about 80 years ago in the midst of Hitler’s reign in Germany.

Over the past few years in America, White Nationalists and a group known as “Antifa” have found headlines, which can rationally result in their separate agendas receiving attention and potential recruitment.

The fear then (and now) is that these extremist belief systems will become so ingrained in the minds of citizens that any attempt to stifle, demonize, or completely quash those historically cruel and inhumane perspectives will diminish, which would allow for them to enjoy another cycle of popularity with just enough individuals to cause real harm to others. This would ultimately unravel the decades of effort put forth by countless empathetic individuals who have devoted their lives to instill strong morals in each new generation.

Tuesday Thoughts – August 6, 2019

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Where is your phone when you fall asleep?

How soon after you wake up do you look at your phone?

These are questions that, a generation ago, would not have made much sense. Scrolling through news or social media apps is ritualistic to end and begin a day.

Today, here’s what I endured so far:

  1. A friend who is a police officer posted a statement on Instagram in the wake of the two recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. To paraphrase, its message expressed a wish that, in the event of his/her death at a similar mass shooting, he/she did not want his/her life to become political ammunition for liberals who want to take the guns away from citizens.
  2. A former student floated an inquiry on Facebook to learn of the “best places” to get world news. The comments were, to me, rather shocking. “Fox” was one response. A second suggested that all [cable?] news was biased (so it doesn’t matter). CNN, one reply stated, hated everyone equally. Toward the bottom (among the most recent) someone offered the link to Info Wars. Tone is difficult to measure with online posts such as this, so I cannot fully know how serious or sarcastic any of these types of answers were.
  3. My local newspaper’s Facebook page shared an article about some planned protests outside the downtown headquarters of one of the major political parties. Again, I chose to read the comments from others. The protests were also in response to the tragedies in Texas and Ohio over the past weekend. However, the comments were authored by individuals who has a wide range of explanations, redirected blame, and political talking points. One individual took the time to itemize a series of documented events associated with the current leader from one political party.

You’re likely familiar with at least one of the above situations. For an insight to my personal beliefs on gun control/gun legislation, feel free to read my essay from a few years ago here.

Sidebar: My kids want me to play with Legos with them this morning, but they’ve agreed to let me do some writing before I join in.

I’m currently reading a book entitled iGen by Jean Twenge, PhD. The current section concerns the startling increase in teenagers who self-identify as having depressive symptoms and, by a heart-shattering extension, a similar rise in teen suicides. In short, she surmises that, while there are likely a lot of factors for such an upswing in both of these, the single element in play across the board for teens from all demographics is social media access and activity.

I fear that we’ve already conditioned ourselves to become unaffected by tragedy–unless, of course, we are nearly or directly involved. Our collective participation in all corners of the Internet is not only deteriorating our human thirst for personal interaction, but it has rapidly become our most common source of accessing information. The severe problem is that we are also targeted by others with various agendas and the line between truth and propaganda has all but evaporated.

One of the earmarks of standard commentary on social media sites is the vast view on virtually any debate that the issue in question has two distinct sides. Thus, it’s common for someone to reply with something along the lines of “It’s not because of x, it’s clearly because of y.”

My job in teaching argumentative writing at the college level involves several elements that are grossly ignored, overlooked, or simply not implemented by the average individual, in my opinion. I spend a lot of time throughout a semester expressing the process of evaluating source material and validating that the creator is credentialed and/or qualified to share information. We also take time discussing “professional” language that, when incorporated into academic arguments, is much more widely accepted than a similar take on an issue filled with “charged” phrasing designed to incite an immediate (and equally ineffective) reaction. Ask yourself if you’re more likely to respond positively to your boss screaming at you in front of your co-workers or if she were to invite you to a private meeting time and shared her concerns in a calm manner.

I know this has gone on perhaps too long, but I’m getting somewhere.

While I cannot know for sure, I believe we all want basically the same things in this world:

  1. A better future for our children/the next generation(s)
  2. Respect
  3. Joy
  4. Love

In our quest to secure #1, we are sacrificing #2, #3, and #4 in unprecedented ways.

The problem we face, of course, is the Catch-22 of information sharing. I’m writing these ideas on a blog that I hope my followers and/or friends read. Embedded within this short piece, however, is the (until now) thinly veiled implication that maybe she put our fucking phones down and hang out in person.

But that’s at the heart of it, right? How else can we share our ideas to a similarly sized audience if we vow to take social media diets? If you were to strike up a political debate with the unknown person in front of you at the gas station, you’re likely not going to get much of a response. So, I hope it’s clear that I’m well aware of how I am guilty of the same notions of information-spreading that I’ve mentioned above.

But I also believe that we can start and end each day without feeling so pissed off (or perhaps some other distinct negative emotion) as a result of this habitual desire to “wind down” to someone’s meme or comment or propagandized (and fact-free) article shared from the open web. It affects our sleep, our interpersonal communication skills, and our souls.

Let’s be better than that. You know, for the kids.

I’m off to build Legos with mine.

Wednesday Thoughts – July 24, 2019

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  1. Yeah, I missed Day Two of my plan from just two days ago. I did, however, grade a bit, take my kids to a park, and see the new Lion King movie with the fam. Finished Rainn Wilson’s book just before bed. In short, a full day but no real writing.
  2. Is this real writing? Discuss…
  3. I’ve been reading some very well-written but incredibly jarring creative nonfiction from some online students. Even if half of these stories are historically accurate, it’s a long-overdue wake-up call for me as their teacher. We tend to forget the human side of education, especially in online courses where the students are just names on a screen.
  4. My kids like Fuller House, which is fine for now. The writing is pretty hokey, but I have to remember that I was likely drawn to similarly droll stuff when I was their age.
  5. In all my spins around the sun, I’m afraid my only invented life-hack is using a candle warmer beside my computer to keep my coffee at an appropriate temperature. Kudos to people who come up with all of the other really good ones out there.
  6. The missus and I started Pulp Fiction just before going to sleep two nights ago. Damn, I forgot how brilliant every aspect of that movie is.

Some Monday Thoughts

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Just a few things on my mind as I’m (slowly) grading stuff online…

  1. Getting my fiction or poetry published is going to be even harder than I already imagined.
  2. As I’m reading Rainn Wilson’s autobiography, I am understanding how much dedication to one’s goals is necessary for success.
  3. Climate change is happening, and we’re really damaging the lives of future generations by bickering about it.
  4. Misinformation is rampant and destroying original thought and even stifling some from seeking truth.
  5. Our children are growing up way too fast for my wife and me.
  6. Observing nature–especially harmless, undomesticated little guys like bunnies–can be a tremendous escape from grading (or whatever it is you do to keep the lights on.)
  7. I should have started most mornings by adding something to this blog if, for no other reason, so I can say that wrote something each day.
  8. Perhaps this is day 1 of the idea in #7.
  9. The new collaborative album TINY CHANGES, which includes cover tracks by many amazing musicians of Frightened Rabbit’s 2008 THE MIDNIGHT ORGAN FIGHT, is officially my Album Selection of Summer 2019.
  10. THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY (Netflix series) is really well done, and everyone in my household is excited for Season 2!

An Inspired Comment

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I wrote the following response after a student shared a very intimate, personal essay that he/she knew I wouldn’t read until after the last class meeting. I share it here in hopes of reminding the reader that we are all in this life together and that we can fight through the hardships and struggles that tend to entangle our goals and ambitions.

——————–

As a teacher of high school and college for twenty years, I can tell you that you are absolutely not alone with these types of feelings and entanglements. My unsolicited advice will sound cliche, but I’ve learned through personal experience that it is a universal truth: This will get better with time.

It’s cheesy and simple, but it’s accurate. In five or ten years, you may barely recognize the person in this essay, and you might be finishing a degree, opening a game shop, or being the ever-popular “fun uncle” to a sibling’s kid. In twelve years, you might find yourself being offered a promotion, meeting your future spouse in an unexpected place, or playing with your own children in a park. In twenty years, you might be giving a lecture, paying off a house, or seeing Rome. The point is, this is a tremendous life, and it’s only just now underway for you.

You will, of course, have a lot to do with any of these types of future events. They seem distant, but I assure you they’ll become real and present before you know it. It begins, in my opinion, with a single decision that only you can make: what do you want this life to be about?

Go after it.
With everything you have.
Because it’s inside you.
And you’ve known it’s been there all along.

Teacher Appreciation Day Post

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Today is Teacher Appreciation Day, so I’d like to identify and honor some of my former teachers/professors whose dedication to the profession made becoming an educator my career ambition. Further, I’d like to give a professional nod to all of my former colleagues at Shakamak Junior-Senior High School as well as my current colleagues at Ivy Tech Community College in Fort Wayne.

Pre-K – 6: Miss Sherry, Mrs. Vickers, Mrs. Webster, Mrs. Newton, Mrs. Brady, Mrs. Jackson, Mrs. Jones

Junior High (Woodrow Wilson, Terre Haute): Mr. Van Winkle, Mr. Wernz, Mr. Nearpass.

High School (Terre Haute South) – Ms. Huter, Mrs. Ligget, Mr. Arnett, Mrs. Huber

Indiana State University – Howard McMillen, Robert Perrin, Matt Brennan, Jake Jakaitis, Pete Carino, Leslie Barrett

I’ve been very lucky to have so many educators in my lifetime who created enjoyable experiences in their classrooms and have served as direct and indirect mentors to my goal of becoming an educator. I’ve likely omitted a name or two from this lengthy list, but I will always hold memories of my teachers’ positive mentality close to my heart!

If you have the opportunity, please consider acknowledging a classroom teacher or other mentor who has impacted you throughout your life! Let’s celebrate the amazing world of education today!

Lastly, special recognition goes to Robert (Bob) Fischer and Steve Humphrey, whose positive impact on my life was unparalleled, even if they didn’t realize it.

And, to my my mother Carolyn Lively, grandmother Mable Harvey, and brother Rob Lively: the three greatest teachers who never ran a classroom.