I would undoubtedly earn many a nefarious sneer from the high school juniors I know if they were to catch wind of this little-known fact: I think the questions on the SAT can be kind of fun.

I know. I know. Stop gagging. The truth is that I’ve been looking at these questions for so many years that I actually find them relaxing – a chance to reacquaint myself with some great words I may not have seen in a while, to test the longevity of Sr. Emery’s grammar lessons (third grade sentence diagramming is STILL with me), to read a passage and outsmart the test makers “trick questions.”

Of course, I have nothing at stake. On the rare occasion I may miss a question, the gravity of my error is wiped clean with a smug “Oh yeah” as I read the explanation. For my high school students, however, the gravitas of this obnoxiously-long test is indelible.

Their futures depend on their ability to know when it is appropriate to use the words “who” and “whom.” Never mind that the internet abounds with rumors that pretty soon it’s not going to matter a hill of beans because “whom” is slipping into the graveyard of obsolescence.  Oh no. If you want to go to Harvard, you’d better know the distinction between seemingly indistinct ideas.

Give the tickets to whomever.  VS  Give the tickets to whoever wants them.

What the heck’s the difference!?

In case you really do want to know, here’s the lowdown.

WHO is a subject pronoun. It goes where you would put “he” or “they.” WHOM is an object pronoun. It goes where you would put “him” or “them.”

To identify whether who/whom is used correctly in a sentence, follow these 3 steps:

1. Isolate the who/whom phrase or clause. Ex: Give these tickets to [whomever you like].

2. Reorder the clause so it’s in a natural order. Ex: you like whomever.

3. Substitute who/whom for he/him and choose which one sounds correct. Ex: “you like he” or  “you like him”

he = who / him = whom

“You like him” sounds much better, so “whomever” is the correct choice.

So… Give the tickets to whomever. = Give the tickets to HIM.

Give the tickets to whoever wants them. [whoever wants them] = HE wants them.

Make sense? If not… well then, just give the damn tickets to Bill and call it a day. And be sublimely grateful you aren’t taking the SAT in three weeks.

Bon Mot

It’s ironic that a NYT opinion article on little red shoes would make my morning. Ironic because anyone who knows me (or my wardrobe) knows how likely I am to have a pair of Louboutin shoes. Nevertheless, the article’s author garnered a Cheshire grin from me when, in paragraph seven, she used the word “qua.” I learned the word when I was eight, maybe ten, from my 85-year-old, French-Canadian neighbor Evelyn with whom I spent my childhood afternoons playing word games with an old deck of Royalty letter cards she kept rubber-banded in a drawer by the front window. Long after she’d died, I pulled out the matching deck she’d given me; I just loved making words. As a teacher playing Royalty with my students, it grieved me that never once did I play the word “qua” without a challenge.

What’s it mean?” my students would ask.

“In the capacity of,” I’d reply with dread of the inevitable.

“How do you use it?”


See, I’d really never known. Sure, there was the occasional archaic example in the dictionary, but I never really had a solid grasp of how to put this word smoothly into a sentence.

“In the capacity of” is a fairly vague definition.

Then I saw the article: “Little Red (Litigious) Shoes.”

“The red elephant in the room is that though it is the artistic and creative core of the fashion industry, design is not protected qua design, but only as a symbol of who created it.”

Two and a half decades of confusion gone with the morning paper.

My students routinely squawk about the futility of memorizing words they won’t use in daily life, but therein lies the beauty in the love of language. Right? I try to explain to my kids that the grand words they learn in the mundane pages of Wordly Wise and Vocab Workshop are like the dollars we leave in pockets: we have them, we forget them, and we are overcome with joy when we stand at the washer/dryer and pull them unexpectedly out of pocket. True, most vocabulary words don’t require a quarter-century’s wait to be put to use, but there is no denying the swell of recognition at their rediscovery.

Of course, though young, my students are smart enough to understand my message: in order to benefit from memorizing endless lists of vocab, they also need to read. This is a double whammy of bad news for some; add to this the fact that my value analogy only holds value if you’ve ever actually stood next to a washer/dryer to do laundry and find those hidden $5 and $20 dollar bills – well, you can appreciate the uphill battle in passing on words like “meretricious” and “asseverate” to the next generation.

Perhaps I shall have to let them discover the love of language on their own.

“Why do we have to learn these, Miss Jennifer?”

I’ll conjure a more palatable reason. “For the SAT… Because I said so… Just do it… You’ll thank me later… So you’ll win Words with Friends.”

I may miss the moment their eyes twinkle with the pride of recognition at discovering that particularly memorable word in the line of a book on a lazy Sunday morning, but not everything can happen in the presence of our teachers. And when it does happen, the word’s significance will likely be particular to the individual. For me, “qua” is a memory of someone who called me “ma cherie” and taught me Royalty, Canasta, and the art of afternoon tea.

The word “qua” qua word holds little value, but the word “qua” qua memory is special indeed.

Boy. I hope I did that correctly.

Tell me. Is there a word that is special to you?

Leadership in the Park

Unable to sleep yesterday morning, I was reading my friends’ FB status updates. It was 4 a.m. and one stood out immediately. “Occupy Wall Street!” That was all it said. That was all it needed to say. I hopped out of bed, pulled on my hooded sweatshirt, fleece vest and baseball cap and made my way downtown. I didn’t know what I could I do, but if there was anything that needed doing, it wouldn’t get done from bed – that much I knew.  So began my day yesterday.

The eviction of the Occupy Wall Street Protesters from Zuccotti Park was not unexpected. I was there the last time the police had attempted to “clean the park.” It was a rallying cry to many of us—a call to action that required we sort through our own convictions and figure out why the heck it was so important that this presence in the park remain.

On any given day walking through Zuccotti, I had seen a dozen signs highlighting things I would like to see change: education reform, term limits, lobbying regulations, campaign reform.  But tackling those issues didn’t require a presence in the heart of our financial center. So what was so important about that park?

My conclusion? Very simple.

It’s a symbol.

But of what?

There’s the rub. Symbols mean different things to different people.  To some, the people in the park symbolized filth and laziness. To the managers of the local restaurants, it symbolizes the decline in their business.  To me, Occupy Wall Street symbolizes a call to action that is long overdue. And it’s a call that was heard specifically because it was made in the backyard of an industry that knowingly poisoned the lives and security of millions of people through overleveraging, derivatives, and toxic loans. It’s a battle cry that says the guy who goes into a bank with a gun to rob it is no worse than the banker who robs people of their homes and pensions; it’s a bold assertion that bankers—who have inflicted such financial devastation and stress that people have lost their ability to breathe—should be held to the same level of criminal accountability as the stranger who chokes a person in the darkness of an alley at night.

Just as you might cringe at someone burning an American flag, I cringed yesterday at the NYPD taking knives to the tents many called home. Listen, I can’t speak for the tent-owners, but I can surmise (reasonably, I believe) that the people living in those tents were not superpsyched about those accomodations. Two weeks ago, they were living outside in a flippin’ snowstorm, for Christ’s sake. Braving the elements, not having reliable access to a clean bathroom or shower, sacrificing any semblance of privacy, relying on jerry-rigged grey water filtration—this doesn’t sound like something a normal person would gleefully sign on to do.  But protesting life and death issues isn’t neat. It is dirty and uncomfortable and often left to those far, far, far, far hardier than we.  Because someone has to man the flag, so to speak.

I know it doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. I suspect it didn’t make sense to those comfy cozy inside on Dec 16th a few years back when 100 men endured freezing cold temperatures to dump a bunch of tea off a ship either.  But some things just have to get done.

Because even when they’re messy, symbols matter.

So, what does all this have to do with “Educating Leaders”?

Well, one of the best parts about Twitter and FB and blogging is that they have become virtual classrooms, places to exchange ideas on how we guide our children. Here’s an idea someone shared a short while back on Facebook:

“To my dear 4 children, If you ever sit your dirty butt in a park, refusing to allow people to clean up their property, while professing a sense of entitlement to something you have not earned, and screaming about how something “isn’t fair”, I will have failed as a mother. Now go run and play, study hard, swim fast and if you don’t have what your friends have, find a way to earn it. Love, Mom”

In the spirit of education, I would like to suggest an alternate response:

“To My Students and Future Children: If you are innovative and knowledgable and passionate… and then choose to trample the rights of others, create products that harm others, design fictitious financial schemes to exploit the trust of those who count on you, participate in the creation of political systems that intentionally disenfranchise the majority of those who live in your community along side you, I will have failed.

Love, Mom, a.k.a. Miss Sarja

P.S. If, however, you ever find yourself in a park working too hard to protect others to worry much about clean clothes, call me and I’ll happily come help with the laundry.”

Through Example…

Sometimes education is as simple as leading through example.  Tonight Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the story of the West Memphis 3, premiered at the New York Film Festival. For those not up to date, this was the final installment of three HBO documentaries chronicling the story of the three teenage boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, who were wrongfully convicted of killing of three second-grade cub scouts back in the early 90’s.

Having followed the case for more than a decade and stewed in my own anger over the intransigence of the legal system to rectify an egregious wrong, I stood eagerly in line to purchase my ticket to the film’s release. What would make the evening even more memorable was that the convicted men were released from prison only six weeks ago—entirely because of the movement the documentaries set into being. It is not often that we can so accurately point to a book or film as the source of true change in the world. Tonight, it was unmistakable. And I wanted to be part of that.

Looking back, most anyone can see that the teens (dubbed the West Memphis 3) were convicted largely on innuendo, shoddy police work, and the incredible rush to judgment of people who assumed kids wearing black t-shirts and listening to hard rock music must be up to no good. Dubbed Satan-worshippers in a small community understandably enraged at the murders of innocent children, these young men never really had a chance. It’s a cautionary tale of mistaken perception, of needing to place blame somewhere, of arrogance. Not very good lessons for our kids.

Thankfully, the release of the first film sparked a remarkable awakening, and as the years passed by, more and more people came to recognize the gross injustice perpetrated in the case.  Websites were built, books were written, money was raised—all by people incredulous that such perversions of justice could occur in our system. Even one of the murdered boy’s stepdad came around—becoming a fierce advocate for the men’s freedom. Of course the terms of the West Memphis 3’s release would make theirs a pyrrhic victory of sorts: their “Alford Plea”required they plead guilty while maintaining their innocence—a circuitous way for the State of Arkansas to prevent the men from suing.

As a teacher of social justice, I wanted to support the film tonight because I see the journey of these men from arrest to release eighteen years later as a textbook example to students everywhere: perseverance, conviction, and a willingness to speak out CAN effect positive change. Sometimes, it’s okay to get angry about injustice. Sometimes, anger is what fuels action. Sometimes, anger is exactly what you need to rally people to constructive action when the system fails. The film tonight reminded me of all the reasons this story has angered me over the years.

Then following the film’s bittersweet ending, two of the West Memphis 3 took to the stage with the filmmakers to answer questions.  It was here that Jason Baldwin, sent to prison at the age of 16, brought forth a different message from the one I’d imagined I’d take away with me.

Sometimes, there’s no room for anger.

With a beaming smile on his face, this man who’d lost half his life told us about going back to school and working with kids to help them navigate the legal system and avoid the fate he’d been dealt.  As I marveled at his eloquence and grace, I realized that amidst the outrage and frustration that drives our activism, we must also make room for forgiveness. And there is no better way to teach forgiveness than to see someone so justly deserving of vengeance effectively say to an audience of people who would follow him into battle, “Hey, I’ve got much more important things to do with my time. I’m moving on.”

It’s a powerful message to convey to kids, to anyone really.  Integrity. Imagine if we could all embrace this idea…

Yeah, what happened to me wasn’t right, but rather than spending a second trying to get even, let’s just make sure we do better for the next guy.

That is leadership.

What Do Leader’s Discuss at Dinnertime?

October is around the corner and with September’s passing will go an hour of coveted daylight. But with the darker days comes opportunity!!!  Get home earlier, fix dinner and spend an hour talking to your family, roommates, friends. So often we don’t make time for meaningful conversation. Yes. We all talk ad nauseum about our schedules and the myriad things we need to do, but I find that to be more talking AT people—a dramatic itemization of why our lives are more challenged and stressful than anyone else’s. (A self-indulgence of which I myself am quite guilty.)

Because some of us occasionally forget how to talk to people without the help of an ipad, smartphone, or text-message translator (What the heck does BHIMBGO mean anyway?), I have decided to include a few suggested conversation starters with parenthetical notes regarding importance:

1.             Name one thing you saw today, that did not directly impact you, that you wish you could’ve made better? (encourages us to think about the world outside our immediate sphere)

2.             What were the three highs and three lows of your day today? (makes every day distinct, so they don’t barrel past us in one gelatinous lump)

3.             What’s one thing you can do that will make tomorrow an even better day? (gives hope—which is always good—while also reminding us WE live life…life does not happen TO us)

4.             What did you eat today and how’d it make you feel? (complements question #3…grumpy and tired people rarely check-in with the simplest of explanations…)

5.             What’s in the news? (Don’t have time to pay attention to the news and chime in? Then we forfeit our right to complain about things later. Period. We teach our kids plenty well how to complain. How about sharing with them the tools to speak out productively?)

6.             Is there anything I can do right now to help the people sitting around this table with me? (because really…it’s not all about us)

7.             Share something you overheard that made you laugh. (encourages us not to be glued to a phone or music when we’re out in the world… and reminds everyone to chuckle once in while.)

Create your own list, borrow from this one, just talk with one another. Harken back to the days at dusk when moms would holler out at us that dinner was ready. Mealtime is such a great opportunity to be reflective and engaged. Be present. Turn off the distractions and really listen and enjoy one another.

Yes, there is homework, studying, and preparation for tomorrow to be done. And there always will be. But the people we gather with us as the sun sets, will not always be there. Just as we will not always be here either.  So let’s pause with each fall day, even if just for a moment, and ask ourselves and one another, what did today mean for us and the people we love? what did it mean for the world? and how are they connected?

How well have I taken care of the world today?

How well have I taken care of myself?

Looking back on today alone, have I lived well?

Pass the carrots, please.

Send us a blurb about how you spend mealtime. What meaningful activities do you bring into your world with the coming of fall?

(BTW, if you REALLY don’t know what BHIMBGO means in text-speak, I hope you’ll enjoy the irony. BHIMBGO= Bloody hell, I must be getting old!)

Caring Shouldn’t Be Cute

Five years ago, on a warm summer day in Pasadena, California, I took a group of my elementary students to the Chamber of Commerce’s monthly breakfast meeting. We were selling books written and illustrated by kids in order to raise money for water wells in Ethiopia, and this breakfast allowed every attendee to get up to a microphone for twenty seconds to “pitch” a product or service. Students decided for themselves what they would say and scattered throughout the room so they could engage the other attendees in conversation about the clean water crisis.

One by one, the kids went to the microphone and gave their pitch. For some it was a quick sound bite about the need for global access to clean water. For others it was a background statement about the organization and what they were trying to accomplish. All together a coherent picture evolved about kids writing books and selling them to raise awareness about and money for girls who had to walk miles to get water for their families. Packed with more than a hundred coffee-sloshing, business-oriented adults, the room lit up with the vibrancy of youthful idealism and hope.

Then it was Ronald’s turn. Ronald was an eight, maybe nine-year-old, diminutive black kid with a smile that could charm the Grim Reaper. He approached the microphone lugging a big chair to boost his sightline just over the podium.

“My name is Ronald and I go to YouthInkwell and I’m changing the world. What are YOUR kids doing?”

And just like that, he climbed down and dragged his chair back to the table.

The room erupted in laughter. It really was cute. Adorable even. The sass. The precocious energy of a child who thinks he can truly change the world. Come on. We love that stuff.

There is something about watching our kids put their hearts on the line to fight for what they think is right. Lemonade stands for tsunami victims. Selling bracelets for Darfur. In our jaded adult minds we know these efforts will likely have little impact, but we encourage them anyway because… well, because they’re sweet. And as a society we convince ourselves that we want our kids to care, that compassion is a positive quality.

Yet, as an educator, I know that the 20-second proclamation of leadership, the Sunday afternoon lemonade stand, the $5 bracelet—none of these efforts alone can create compassionate leaders. The act of caring must be rooted into daily life. And so, if we really want to create compassionate leaders, it’s time to ask some tough questions.

How do we create an educational environment that seriously addresses social justice? How do we follow-up “sweet,” meaningful acts of caring with opportunities for critical thinking and discussion of issues? How do we create problem solvers who do more than just talk about the problems or throw money at them? How do we raise our kids not just to care, but to care well?

It has to start with us.

At the end of the Chamber meeting that day there was a series of raffles. A local realtor had donated some bottles of wine for the occasion. All participants’ names were put into the hat, and sure enough, Ronald’s was chosen. The room erupted in laughter for a second time when it was announced, for obvious reasons, that another name would have to be selected. Hearing only that he would not receive a prize, Ronald exploded into tears and locked himself in the restaurant’s broom closet. In the mingling after the meeting, I became aware of the collective consensus that the only thing cuter than Ronald’s speech was his response to the seemingly grave injustice he’d suffered.

To some adults, even injustice can be cute.

Perhaps that’s part of the problem.