You teach your children some fashion sense
And they fashion some of their own
- Gordon Downie

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Time for a Rant

I try hard to make sure that this blog is a postive place. I have so much to be thankful for and I have very little to complain about in my life. Recently, my uncle passed away and I chronicled his his influence on me in Homage. My uncle was not afraid to express his opinion. He was a brilliant man and it was difficult to aruge with him because he was so passionate and so intelligent.

This post is, in some ways, a tribute to my uncle. There are many many things that drive me crazy. I'm not saying I'm perfect. I have my faults - you need only talk to my lovely wife, children, students or colleagues to find them out. Sometimes, however, it is important to express your opinion in no uncertain terms. This one is for you, Uncle Hutch.

As I mentioned, I'm not perfect. I may well be guilty of some of the transgressions outlined below. Either way, I hope that people read this and reflect. If you're not guilty, my apologies for wasting your time and I hope you laugh. If you are guilty of some of these faux pas, well, now you know how I feel. In no particular order, here are some of the things that make me furious.

Let's start with people who are incapable of blaming themselves. You know what? I screw up all the time and I'm the first to admit it. Hello? Here are my thoughts for the parent who complains that the school has failed your child even though she has accumluated 150 absences in grade 1, 2 and 3. Get your kid to school. Read with her. Do the work your teacher sends home. Ask questions. Attend parent teacher conferences. Don't call a teacher with 25 years experience and ruin her day by threatening to phone the Mayor. Never mind the superintendent, just call the Mayor because he will march right to the school and fix things because you are a taxpayer and therefore the indirect boss of all public servants. That is some pretty quick thinking on your part.

People who do not see their children for who they really are equally frustrating. Often, I feel like saying
"I was unaware that the sun emanates from your child's rectum. Little did I know." I have also been tempted to mention "I had no idea a person's excrement could be odorless? What a blessing." It seems that these people whose vision is corrected by rose lenses are the same people who cannot stand to see their children fail.

Children need to fail. They need to be independent. Children need to solve their own problems. Parents who wade into organizing play dates, call other parents to arrange their child's social calendar and live their lives vicariously through their children are sad. I know that my kids are not perfect. I see them realistically. I hope that they learn to deal with failure and difficult situations. I refuse to be a rescue helicopter.

I am equally appalled at parents who won't discipline their own children. These are the people who let their kids wander, talk and whine during public performances, school assemblies and church services. When I was kid, I didn't dare move when I was a member of an audience or congregation. My parents reinforced that by staying still, listening and paying attention, I was doing the right thing. They didn't threaten to punish or reprimand me because they didn't have to. I sat still because it was the right thing to do.

It drives me out of my mind when one of my kids' teams goes out for a team meal (which is another rant unto itself) and the kids are acting like idiots because they are sucking back jugs of pop and downing sugar packets like they are shooters. Add to this the fact that the service is slow because we decided to bring 40 people to a restaurant at once to eat. What a stroke of genius. I can't imagine why the kids are bored spitless because it took them 30 minutes to get a drink and 60 minutes for an order of pizza bread. Oh, but since I am the coach of the team, somehow I'm responsible for the kids' conduct, regardless of where we are. So, when your future first round draft pick is using his spoon to fling creamers across Denny's at little old ladies with blue hairpieces, it's my job to tell them to stop because I've volunteered to be their coach? Uh huh.

I have a whole litany of traffic-related pecadillos. It seems to me that many people think the only reason for traffic laws is to make people work hard to pass their driver's test. Once people have their license, why would they bother using a signal light? How silly. Why on earth would anyone on the road want to know which way a vehicle is going to travel? For that matter, why would anyone want to read simple signs like "Slower Traffic Keep Right"? Heaven forbid you should move out the left lane when there is a line of 30 vehicles behind them on the Friday of a long weekend? I mean, we all own the road if we pay taxes, don't we?

My final target? People who play out their live's trials and tribulations on Facebook. I don't need to know you have menstrual cramps and I couldn't care less. I'm pretty sure you won't die. Most days, it hurts me to get out of bed, too. That's because I'm getting old and I really don't take care of my body. It's my fault. So, Facebook whiner, the way you feel is likely within your control and if it is that bad, why do you want everyone to know? I look at people like Terry Fox who ran 26 miles a day on one leg with great admiration. People who live in nice homes and have full bellies but still need to spew pathos on their social media need a profound reality check.

Enough. I have a whole litany of topics to address in future rants. I'm tired and grumpy. I better go to bed.

Monday, May 14, 2012


One of my favorite people passed away too soon. It makes me incredibly sad and I need to write about it.

Lawrence Hutchings was a complex man, to say the least. He occupied many roles during his life. Son. Brother. Husband. Father. Grandfather. Uncle. Great Uncle. Hippie. Lawyer. Bartender. Teacher. Author. Pundit. Activist. Business owner. Actor. Director. Mentor. Inspiration.

As a boy, I quickly learned to love my uncle. He was funny. He had a false tooth and ring he claimed was the eye from a real tiger. He had a big bushy beard and told me he was a hippy. He smoked long brown American cigarettes and made me giggle so hard I would actually pee my pants. Uncle Hutch lived far away but every time he came to visit, I wished he would never leave.

As I grew older, I learned to love him on a whole new level. He lived at the foot of the Rockies, just outside of Canmore, and we made frequent visits during the summer. When he left his career in law, he opened Hutch's Pizza in Canmore and gave me another reason to idolize him. Uncle Hutch told stupid jokes. He told funny jokes. He told dirty jokes. He had an endless supply of one-liners that I use to this day. The witty bantering and exchange of puns between my Dad, Auntie Lee and Uncle Hutch rank amongst my favorite childhood memories. He had a sense of humor like few people I know and always left a lasting impression.

When my cousins Kris and Greg were born, I saw a whole new Uncle Hutch. I saw a devoted father who loved his children more than anything. He teased, played with and loved his boys to the end of the earth. I knew how good he made them feel because he always made me feel the same way.

It seemed like I reserved some of my best hockey games for the times he, Auntie Heath and the boys came to watch. They may not remember, but I sure do. I was eight or nine years old and I had been selected as the MVP in a game in the Lake Bonavista tournament in Calgary. I was nearly bursting the buttons of my jacket when I got to see them after the game. A few years later, I was selected top defenceman in another Calgary tournament, and sure enough, Uncle Hutch was there to watch. It meant so much that he took the time to watch me play.

As I grew older, I learned to love my Uncle on a much deeper level. I spent a great deal of time with my Auntie Lee as a teenager. Our family gatherings tended to be at her home. It was a neutral ground where all of the families gathered. It was during these years that I learned more about the tension between Uncle Hutch and my Grandfather. When my uncle went from lawyer to restaurant owner, I thought it was incredibly cool. I had no idea what a rift it created between him and his father. As a teen, I loved our family gatherings at Auntie Lee's. I loved the Canmore Hutchings because they brought a special spark. Wine flowed as freely as the puns and plays on words. It was the early 80s, so we played games like Trivial Pursuit even though Uncle Hutch had memorized all of the answers. He was impossible to beat and equally impossible to avoid looking up to.

His pizza place was a short-lived venture and it was somewhat fitting that we both became teachers in the early 1990s. I know that our shared professional experience pulled us closer during my first years of teaching. Every summer, I went on an extended backpacking trip with my dad. One year, Uncle Hutch joined us and it remains a cherished memory. We warmed up with a hike into Floe Lake in Kootenay National Park, then spent five days in the Skoki Valley. My dad is incredibly fit, so it was a struggle for us to keep up. Every time we stopped to gather the group and gather our strength, Uncle Hutch would fuel up from a seemingly endless supply of surreptitiously stashed chocolate. It was a magical experience to spend that time with two of my biggest influences in life.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love the mountains. When I really think about it, my great mountain memories are like a quilt assembled by a team of people I love. My parents, my wife and kids, my sister and my friends have created a tapestry of fantastic thoughts and emotions. Uncle Hutch, Auntie Heath, Kris and Greg are at the absolute center of so many of those great memories. Regardless of where they were living and how things were going in their world, the Canmore Hutchings welcomed us with open arms. We golfed, walked, hiked, drank, ate, laughed, played, watched sports and whiled away countless hours at the kitchen table. From Lac Des Arcs to Railway Avenue to Cougar Court, the location was secondary to the love I felt from my Aunt and Uncle.

In the last several years, we did not spend nearly as much time together. Health issues, along with family dynamics and commitments combined to limit our contact. Regardless of the situation, however, I am so glad that we stayed in contact. I loved stopping in for lunch or poking around The Second Story. I loved watching him perform with the Pine Tree Players. It made me so happy to hear about the trips he and Auntie Heath made to B.C., the Maritimes and Maui. When I finally caved in and created a Facebook account, Uncle Hutch was one of my first friends who regularly commented (in his own inimitable fashion.)

The last time I saw Uncle Hutch was at the end of April. We went for lunch at the golf course and it was so great that we were joined by Kris and his daughter Maile. Uncle Hutch looked great and was at his absolute best - politically irreverent, excited about his involvement with the Pine Tree Players, reminiscing about Maui and doting on his beloved granddaughter. As I headed home with a colleague from school, I made note that it was really important for me to always take time to call or connect with my Uncle when we were in Canmore. To me, the greatest testament to his character has been the reaction to his passing. My boys were crestfallen. Anyone I know who spent time with Uncle Hutch has taken the time to contact me. He left a profound impact that is very clear in the kind phone calls, e-mails and messages I have received in the last few days.

My heart is heavy and my eyes are brimming. It is sad and tragic that my Uncle's heart could not extend his life. Perhaps it was too full of love, happiness and contentment.

Monday, May 7, 2012

I Don't Get It

Note: This is an older piece of writing - probably one of my first forays into writing for pleasure. I think my style has changed in the last ten years, but this is still one of my favorite stories from the classroom and I hope you enjoy it.
In many ways, students who say "I don't get it" are a teacher's raison d'ĂȘtre. We help students to "get it," whether "it" refers to understanding the major events leading to Confederation or learning to cross the street safely. We need students to tell us when they do not understand a concept, because when they "don't get it" and don't tell us, major problems develop. Sometimes, student misconceptions provide much needed comic relief.
Several years ago, my Grade 7 class was studying First Nations culture. Specifically, we were discussing the importance of bison to the Blackfoot. In general, seventh grade boys are fascinated with killing things, so naturally, our discussion turned to the actual techniques of the buffalo hunt. Many students were aware of the importance of the buffalo jump—Dry Island Buffalo Jump is located less than an hour east of Red Deer and most of them had heard of the world-famous and (to them) well-named Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump. I was dramatically demonstrating to the class how the hunt worked. I asked them to envision an enormous herd of beasts in full stampede while I rode behind them on my wild pony (actually, a metre-stick with a horse head duct taped to it). I explained that eventually the mighty bison would run out of prairie and plummet over the edge of the buffalo jump to a horrible death. Although my students were captivated by the drama and horror of the whole event, a hand shot up in the middle of my presentation.
"Yes, Kelly?" I said. I was ready to demonstrate my full understanding of this important part of Canada's cultural heritage, but I wasn't ready for the question that followed.
"I don't get it," Kelly said.
"Don't get what?" I asked, still ready, still eager, still wanting to dazzle.
"How would stampeding buffalo over a cliff kill them?"
"They fall a great distance to the ground, which caused serious injury or death," I replied.
"But, wouldn't the buffalo just fly?" he asked.
"But don't buffalo have wings?" he asked. "You know, buffalo wings?"
He was dead serious. Keep in mind that this was the mid 1990s, long before Jessica Simpson made the same, but much more publicized, mistake.
Like everyone else in our classroom, I was floored. Incredulous stares and shoulder shrugs filled the room. Finally, one of my more creative students said, "It's like a Bugs Bunny cartoon—this huge buffalo has tiny little wings that it flaps madly, but it can't fly." Somehow, Billy had an image in his head that buffalo couldn't possibly die because they had wings (which are tasty and come in different flavours). I tried to explain that Buffalo wings were actually chicken wings prepared according to a recipe that originated in Buffalo, New York. I'm not sure he "got it", but I tried.
As teachers, we really don't know what is going on in our students' heads. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why thinking aloud is such a powerful teaching strategy. Nonetheless, though I hear things like this every week, I've never forgotten the comic image of buffalo desperately flapping tiny wings as they flew over a cliff.