What a robot learned at school

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“I’m not going to listen to any more of this nonsense, Anon,” Mom shouted. “Androids don’t go to school!”

“Then why was I designed to look like a child?” I wondered out loud.

Dad sighed and gave me a sad smile. “We wanted to fit in with the rest of our friends. We couldn’t have biological children, so we selected you.”

Mom took a cleansing breath and lowered her voice. She looked so beautiful when her face was relaxed, which wasn’t often. Long shimmering black hair with rebel white strands framed her symmetrical face. Her large brown eyes were filled with tears. What did I do to hurt her this time?

“Anon, there is no reason for you to attend school,” she said. “You’re already programmed to know everything you would ever need to know.” She patted the synthetic skin on my hand. “You’re a big help to me at home. How would I finish all my work for the corporation if I didn’t have you to do research for me?”

I did help Mom a lot. Not only did I research properties for the corporation to absorb into its ever-expanding empire, but I also did the house chores that couldn’t be completed by the cleaning bots.

Knowing I was useful made my core swell with pride, but it wasn’t enough.

“All the other kids go to school,” I insisted, accessing my sulky voice program.

Mom and Dad looked at each other. Did they have a form of mind speak I didn’t know about? Mom sniffed. Dad set down his tablet and took a sip of coffee.

“It might be instructive for Anon to experience school,” Dad said.

#

The next morning, I stood at the bus stop with a crowd of children, my backpack hanging from my shoulder and my Avengers lunch pail clutched in my hand. Although I would not require food and bathroom breaks, my realistic human design should allow me to fit in as a normal child.

“New kid, back of the line!” A large stocky kid pushed me on my chest compartment, causing me to lose my balance and tumble to the ground.

“Leave him alone, Mikey,” a soft but firm voice said. I looked up to see a tiny girl in a pale pink dress standing in front of the boy who pushed me, her hands on her hips.

“Who’s gonna make me?” Mikey retorted.

“A little girl in a pink dress,” she said, touching his arm.

Zap! He jumped back like his circuits were overloaded. With a murderous glare, he shuffled to the back of the line. The girl took my hand and helped me up.

“Is this your first day?” she asked as we sat in one of the front seats. It seemed most of the other students preferred the back section of the bus.

“Yes, it is,” I confirmed. I watched her buckle her seat belt and then I did the same.

“I’m Adeline,” the girl said, her dimples deepening with her smile. “Don’t pay any attention to Mikey. His parents knock him around at home, so he has to bring it to school. I always carry a zapper with me.” She showed me the small device she’d used on the boy. I scanned its circuits to construct one for myself later. It seemed wise to add a nonlethal weapon to my arsenal.

I attempted to smile back, but my program only allows a slightly upturned mouth. “Thank you for defending me, although it is not necessary. My name is Anon.”

“Nice to meet you, Anon,” Adeline said.

When we got to school, Adeline walked me to the office where I was assigned to Mrs. Roberts’ fourth grade class. How Mom determined this was my appropriate educational level I do not know, but Adeline was in my class, and that made me happy.

We walked around the playground and Adeline introduced me to her many friends. Then the bell rang, and we lined up outside our classroom portable.

“Welcome to our class, Anon,” a tall lady wearing a “Learning is an Adventure” tee shirt and jeans greeted me. Mrs. Roberts smiled, and then added, “Class, we have a new student, Anon. Please help him adjust to our class routines.”

My programming made classwork easy. At first, when Mrs. Roberts asked the class a question, I eagerly raised my hand. After the first five questions, I noticed some of the students frowning in my direction and giving me what Adeline would later describe as “the stink eye.”

“Give the other students a chance to speak,” Adeline whispered.

That’s when I realized being in class was not about showing everything I knew. I was part of a larger machine. Mrs. Roberts’ class was made up of many moving parts, or students. We had to work together. 

But then there was recess. I stood in line at the ball room to get a bouncy ball, as per Adeline’s instructions. Just as the playground supervisor was going to hand it to me, Mikey pushed in and grabbed it. He ran out to the hand ball court, a posse of boys behind him.

“He can’t get away with that,” Adeline grumbled.

“I’ll go get the ball from him,” I offered. How I was going to do that, I had no idea. No matter how many questions I answered in the classroom, I wouldn’t be successful until I learned how to handle a bully.

So I walked up to Mikey, who was on the court playing hand ball. “Stop this game!” I said firmly, walking in the middle of their court.

“What are you doing?” the other boy on the court complained. Several kids in line at the side of the court started grumbling.

“Mikey, I stood in line to get that ball,” I said, reaching out.

“That’s too bad, you whiny weirdo!” he shouted. “Get off my court!”

Suddenly, I felt overtaken with strong emotion. My parents had never spoken to me with disrespect. I had been programmed with courtesy protocols that I suspected Mikey had no familiarity with. I was an intricately designed android with capabilities far beyond normal children. Why was I allowing this bully to dictate my actions?

“If you don’t give me the ball immediately, you will regret it,” I warned, choosing a low growl voice.

“You gonna make me?” Mikey scoffed.

“Yes. I will,” I replied. As I raised my arms toward him, I hoped I wouldn’t get in trouble for overriding safety protocols. My wrist cannons popped out, each barrel as wide as Mikey’s arm. “And you better not bully anyone else at this school. Give me the ball!”

Mikey’s eyes bugged out, and he handed me the ball. His supporters scattered. Adeline and her friends walked up. “Let’s play before the bell rings,” she said. No one said anything about my guns.

That night when I sat with my parents at the dinner table (not that I ate anything, but they wanted me to keep them company), Dad asked, “How was your first day of school?”

My circuits flashed. “I met a new friend. She taught me lessons outside the classroom that were not part of my original codes. Damaged humans threaten other humans smaller than them, and you have to defend yourself.”

“That’s terrible! You shouldn’t have to put up with that,” Mom said, wringing her hands. “You’re staying home with me.”

“Please, Mom. I want to stay in school. Friends, classmates, and bullies are essential to learning how to be human.”

A Pandemic, Distance Learning, Natural Disasters, and Stories

storm bird

 

If you’re a writer and having a hard time focusing on your story, it’s not surprising. As hard as I try to impose order on my daily life, personal plot twists keep popping up to thwart my efforts. But don’t worry—this is not one of those “doom and gloom” posts that no one wants to read. Instead, this is about how stories emerge despite the chaos around us.

Stories want to live, too. Even if our minds are swirling like hurricanes (hopefully not as we’re boarding up our windows), we can’t help creating a narrative. As we go about our normal lives, which now includes teaching to a screen several hours a day, a story begins impose itself over our concerns. A character emerges, braver than us, who faces our same problems but in space. Or in a world of magic. Or sometime long ago before Google Meets.

Soon other characters rise up to aid our main character’s quest to save their world and right its wrongs. Quirky friends that illuminate the main character’s strengths and weaknesses. Maybe even a potential romance, although our hero really doesn’t have time for that right now.

Just like us in the real world, our main character, who now calls herself Raylene, tries lots of different strategies to solve her problems, only to be stopped at every turn. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to deal with lagging internet connections. It’s the antagonist who has shown up, just to make things more difficult. The villain is product of our nightmares, armed with complete knowledge of her fears. We’re not sure how to help our hero because her paralyzing fears belong to us.

We could remain stuck like that forever, but Raylene has her own Samwise Gamgee, reminding her of who she is and why she is risking everything. They go on together, and suddenly a thought pops up that we should call that friend we haven’t hung out with for months because of the pandemic.

When our hero and her sidekick fail, unforeseen help comes their way, and suddenly the battle is back on. At the same time, we, the writers, are in the middle of our own battles, standing in line at the medical center, waiting to get your temperature taken, or grabbing the last bottle of Lysol off the shelf at the grocery store before an old lady with a cane beats you to it.

Finally, the fighting ends, the day settles into night and your mind calms. Raylene limps back down her mountain with her hair all askew and rejoins her friends. We reach the end of our day and realize that despite overwhelming odds, we made some progress. When we lay down on our pillows, we hope the melatonin we took will really help us sleep. Because we need our rest before the battles tomorrow.

When the story comes back.

 

 

When it’s the end of the school year, and you’re tired

IMG_7792

End of the school year deadlines binged on my phone, and I felt like it would be impossible to walk out in two weeks on May 30. I still had piles everywhere in my third grade classroom. This year had been the busiest yet, with grade level rotations, science fair, ballet, Living History Museum, two field trips, and after school chorus.

After coming in early, staying at school late, gallons of coffee and pounds of chocolate, I was done. Done with report cards. Done with educational cum files. Done with taking every staple off my walls.

When the last bell rang, I walked my students up to the front gate, watched them match up with their parents, and took a breath. My smile got bigger. I took a leisurely lunch with a co-worker. Then I grabbed my purse and my laptop, turned in my keys to the secretary, and I was free.

Ten weeks of no alarm clocks. Especially since my husband had recently retired. We had loads of house projects in progress, and out-of-town company coming in a month, but I needed something first.

Instead of cleaning the Room of Requirement (exercise, storage, guest room), we packed up the trailer, loaded up the dogs, and headed for the beach. For five straight days, we slept in, walked on the beach and around the camp, played card games with friends, and took naps. We savored the cool ocean breeze, knowing it would be up in the 100s when we got home.

It took a few days, but I started to feel normal again. When we finally packed it all up and headed for home, I was ready to start my summer.

The Problem with Rain

rain

I know that someone who lives in a state that continually suffers drought should not complain about rain. But there’s something you should know about the effect of precipitation on southern California.

First of all, our cities have not been planned for actual water to flow through our streets. Any drainage system that exists is mainly ornamental, and when the gutter rivers begin to rise, the sewers are quickly clogged. This results in instant lakes blocking the intersections of major roads.

Added to that, and perhaps because of that, drivers in southern California don’t know how to operate their vehicles in the rain. Possibly it hasn’t rained since they passed their drivers test. But I believe that these drivers are so accustomed to bright sunny days and clear nights that they tend to throw tantrums if the weather doesn’t cooperate. So they speed through flooded streets, creating tall rooster tails of water on both sides of their cars. Or they panic and stop in the middle of the street, unable to proceed due to the drops of water on their windshields. And their windshield wipers have rotted away in the sun long ago, and the screeching sound of the wiper arms adds to their menace.

Another effect of long-awaited rain is mudslides and falling trees. We never do anything half way in California, so when it rains, it rains solid for three days straight. Those ash-strewn hills trying to recover from wildfires become chocolate pudding that rushes to join the rest of the water blocking the drains at the bottom of the hills. Huge trees come tumbling down on houses and cars. Even houses groan and shift down the hill. The effects of rain can be more devastating than the drought.

Children stay home from school as parents don’t want to battle the rain to drive them, or don’t want their kids to stand soaked at the bus stop. One rural school district even called a “Rain Day” and closed their schools, as buses got stuck in the mud on back roads. Teachers wish they would have stayed home when they are stuck with kids in the classroom all day, California kids that are used to playing outside.

But I hope you understand. I’m not complaining. There’s snow on the ski slopes and water in our lakes. The hills surrounding me are bright green, bringing back memories of Ireland. But our gift of water always comes with a cost. So I guess we just have to be ready to pay it.

 

A Teacher’s Lament to Change

tired-teacher

 

 

Seasons change, our classes change, our priorities change, our attitudes change.

Change has been both a friend and enemy to me. The same elements of my teaching career that energize me—new classes, new curriculum, new teaching strategies, new focuses—are also major stressors in my life.

Sometimes I hate change. Routines bring me peace, as I can add the finesse to my teaching art when I’m familiar with the reading passages. I can plan ahead with a clear image of what my lessons will look like, and what the pitfalls could be. Each year I create bulging files stuffed with organizers I’ve created or borrowed from someone else. Every year, I believe that I’ve made my job easier.

But familiarity also creates boredom and discontent. There were some stories in the reading book that I wanted to skip because I really hated them. Many of the passages were so out of date, students couldn’t relate to them at all. Priorities about physical education and fine arts needed to be balanced with reading and math.

When my district announced they had finally chosen a new language arts program, I wanted to stand up and cheer. Now two weeks into the new school year, I’m too busy reading all the components of the lessons to get excited about anything.

Change means I must throw away all my old files away and start new. My flip flops stay in the closet as I wear my Vans for stair climbing. New faces and names wait for me to call on them. This year I am teaching 4th and 5th grade in a combination class, so I will have two sets of lesson plans. Besides the language arts program, we have a new math program, a new science program, and did I mention a new principal and vice principal?

Seasons change, our classes change, our jobs change, my attitude must change.

Instead of feeling rushed, I’m going to take time to listen and look my students in the eye. My pacing guide will adapt to the needs of my class. This year, my students will do more, and I will talk less. My new routines will include wonder, laughter, forgiveness, and collaboration.

I will make Change my best friend. I will invite her to sit down and have coffee with me. She will accept that I won’t do everything perfectly and together we will change the lives of our students.