How do you say sorry?

A friend is mourning the loss of a loved one. We say we're sorry. Your absent minded offspring misplaced their homework. We say we're sorry. A neighbor banged their shin on a park bench. We say we're sorry. A colleague's kid just lost the little league championship game. We say we're sorry. Someone is offended by something we said. We say we're sorry. We bump into a stranger at the grocery store. We say we're sorry. We are an apologetic society. We will even say we're sorry for saying sorry too much. But what does it mean? How many times have you said you were sorry and someone replied that it was unnecessary to apologize because you didn't do anything wrong?

Let's be clear, despite the vast number of synonyms in the English language - a multitude of different words with similar definitions, our American vocabulary is often woefully lacking. Scholars at Oxford maintain a linguistic database of every English word used in books, magazines, and other publications. Their database is estimated to contain over two million unique words. We possess such a prodigious lexicon, yet we so often struggle to communicate our basic desires and emotions. We speak from the diversity of a language that is frequently inadequate.

There is an abundance of fun foreign words with no direct English translation. For example, the Czech word "vybafnout" describes the act of younger siblings annoying an older brother - not an older sister, this term is specific to older brothers. Or the Swedish word "lagom," which literally means moderate, but the Swedes use it to describe a perfect quantity that isn't too much or too little. In Japan, there is a word 恋の予感 (pronounced koi-no-yokan) which describes a feeling more intense than infatuation, an inescapable sense that you are going to fall in love with a person you just met. In Spanish, pena ajena is what you would feel if you are embarrassed on behalf of someone else.

Then there is one of my favorite pastimes: shadenfreude. It is a German word that has no English translation but is a sensation we have all felt. Schadenfreude is the enjoyment you receive from observing the misfortune of others, especially when their folly is self-inflicted.

English also fails because we have a habit of overusing words to the point where they lose their meaning. Literally. Huge. Nice. Passion. Hater. OK. Hustle. There are other words with so many different meanings, making it difficult to convey your intent. Love for example. I love my kids, I love encouraging my friends, I love foggy mornings, I love scary movies, and I love pizza. One word, multiple meanings, easily confused without context.

Sorry is another word without a precise definition. It has multiple meanings and suffers from frequent usage. We say sorry like a reflex, latent instincts driving our need for acceptance. You're late. "Sorry." My dog is sick. "Sorry." I didn't get much sleep last night. "Sorry." You were speeding, following too closely, ran a stop sign, almost hit a Chevy, sped some more, failed to yield at a crosswalk, changed lanes without signalling while running a red light and speeding. "Sorry."

What does it mean to be sorry? Is it too late now to say sorry? How do you legitimately mean what you say? How do you apologize without being vague?

Let's return to the German language. The Germans have two methods of apologizing. "Es tut mir Leid," or "Entschuldigen bitte."

Es tut mir Leid is literally translated to mean "It does me suffering," or "It pains me so." If you look up "Es tut mir Leid" on Google Translate, it will give you "I'm sorry" as the English equivalent.

Entschuldigen is the verb to apologize. Bitte means please. Combine the two words and Google Translate returns "Please excuse me" as the result. Yet, entschuldigen is as much an apology as es tut mir Leid.

So what is the difference? One is an apology of empathy, the other is an apology of error. One says I'm sorry because I am grieved, the other says I'm sorry because I did something wrong. One says I feel your pain, the other says I caused your pain.

Perhaps, we could all benefit from learning a foreign language. With the benefit of the lexicon of other cultures, we could better express ourselves when our native tongue falls short.


Following Zu

A week ago, we celebrated your tenth birthday. You picked out a cake mix and we spent the afternoon baking it. There were presents. We watched a movie. I enjoyed celebrating the decade I have spent with you in my life.

You're a year older, chronologically speaking, but not much has changed. You are still the same bold and sweet young woman you were a few weeks ago. You are still as boisterous and compassionate as you were a year ago. You're a few inches taller but you are still you.

Of all the days between your ninth birthday and your tenth, there is one moment that stands out more than others.

Last summer, you and I had an afternoon to ourselves. Your brothers were occupied and we had a few hours before we needed to pick them up. I gave you the choice of how to spend our time and you asked to go to the beach. We didn't have any towels and you weren't wearing a swim suit, but you didn't care. All that mattered was how much you crave sunshine and water; both were available.

We were listening to The Beatles as we drove. I used to sing 'Hey Jude' to you as a lullaby when you were a baby and I always look for opportunities to keep you familiar with their music. We pulled up to the parking lot with the windows down and the song 'Got to Get You Into My Life' playing.

I exited the car and opened your door. As you stepped out, you looked up at me with those deep sparking chocolate colored eyes and asked "Daddy, did I tell you I need you every single day of my life?" Quoting the words of the song we just heard.

"No," I smiled and knelt down to your level. "But you did now."

Your question was a reflection of who you really are. You are the most observant girl I've ever met. You pay attention to everything even when it appears like you are focused on something else. Anyone who asks "How could she possibly know?" doesn't understand you. Your personality was full on display as a lover of music and as a daughter who adores her dad. You demonstrated that tightrope you walk balancing between bravery and vulnerability.

Then we walked, crossed the street, and followed the road to the beach. Your excitement carried you with a quickness uniquely reserved for youth. Nothing was going to stand in between you and the lake. Yet along the way, you still looked back to make sure I was there. I was and seeing me gave you the confidence to speed up your pace a little faster.

I was right there behind you. And I always have been. When you swing on the monkey bars or when you fall and scrape your knee. When you walk to class on your first day or school or get frightened by thunder on a stormy night. I'm right there behind you. Over the next few years, you will be facing a lot of new and potentially scary moments. For all those firsts, I hope to remain right there behind you.

When you attend your first day of middle school, go out on your first date, are crushed by your first broken heart, get your driver's license, and do all of those things kids do in their second decade of life, this moment on the way to the beach is the one I will always remember. You told me you needed me, then looked back to make sure I was still there.

I was. And I still am.


Conversations with the kids

Every day, after I pick the kids up from school, JJ asks the same question: "Are we going anywhere before we go home." Today, my answer was yes. I explained we needed to go to the grocery store to get more grapes and strawberries because within the last 24 hours, Zu ate all of the grapes and strawberries I had in stock.

As we turned left to go to Winco instead of right toward the apartment, Christian got confused and asked "Why aren't we going home?" This is a common occurrence. He doesn't pay attention to the conversation so he asks questions that have already been answered. To encourage him to engage more, I have stopped answering these redundant questions. Either he can keep up or he can be clueless. His choice.

Christian had another inquiry as we parked the car. It was also one that had been answered in the earlier conversation. "What are we getting?"

So I answered, "Iocane powder."
"Iocane powder."
"What's that for?"
"Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!"
"Ohhhh," Christian finally caught on. "It's a geeky reference."

We walked in silence a few steps. But then Christian revealed that he didn't quite get it.

"Is that a Doctor Who quote?" he asked.
Clearly I have failed as a parent. "Inconceivable." I said.
"Is that from Doctor Who?"

He and I did this a few more times. Each time, I kept using that word at greater volume. And yes, it does mean what I think it means.

Finally, Zu interrupted, "No, Christian, it's not from Doctor Who. It's from The Princess Bride."

I gave her a high five. She deserved it.
"Thank you, my daughter, at least one of my kids knew of which I spoke."
"Duh, it's only my favorite movie ever."


If I ruled the Schools

The schools I attended growing up were not bad schools, but they were far from perfect. The schools my kids attend now are good, but are also in need of improvement. Nationwide, not all kids are as lucky. America’s education system is broken. How do we fix it? I don’t think anyone has the correct answer, but in an ideal world, here’s what I would do.

1. Make early education opportunities available to everyone and increase the accessibility for programs like Head Start in low income neighborhoods. Research nearly unanimously agree that investing heavily in the early years of education is a public benefit, even if those rewards are not seen for twenty years after the service is provided.
2. Instead of focusing on what traditionalists call the three R’s (“readin’ ritin’ & rithmetic”) emphasize what I call the three A’s: arts, athletics, and academics. For youngest groups, each of these areas should be given equal time in the daily curriculum. As kids age, more time should be allocated for academic study, yet some form of artistic and physical education should remain a part of every student’s daily routine. Incorporating music, theater, and art in classrooms help children with critical thinking and creative problem solving skills, increase student’s ability to participate in self-directed learning, and improves attendance. Physical education encourages kids to live healthier lifestyles and would fight our nation’s obesity epidemic; PE also increases a pupil’s learning capacity, attention span, and ability to concentrate. Participation in arts and athletics positively impacts traditional academic courses.
3. We cannot legislate parental participation but we should encourage and reward it. Students excel when their parents are actively involved. However, the government cannot (and should not) control how or what parents teach in their home, so schools must be prepared to fill the gap and support kids that are not getting parental support at home.
4. Encourage teachers and reward them if they can successfully incorporate hands on experience or technology into their lessons. Schools would save a lot of money on textbooks if text books can be digitally presented or other alternatives can be used.
5. Set national standards and minimum competencies but give states and individual school districts the autonomy of how to maintain those standards. What works in rural communities will not work in urban neighborhoods and each school should be free to do what works best for their students.
6. Students should be scored in both growth and proficiency. Students should not be able to move up a grade or continue to the next level until they meet the required competency. However, teachers should not be penalized for students who fail to meet the minimum competency if they can demonstrate student growth. The goal should be to help the student improve, not to help the student pass a test.
7. All schools, whether private or public, should adhere to Individuals With Disabilities Education Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 to qualify for any government funding.
8. Enhance funding for rural schools and schools in depressed urban communities. Provide better incentives for teachers to work in these schools. We need to recognize kids in these locations deserve equal access to kids in wealthier neighborhoods.
9. Success for all schools would be measured from multiple sources to compensate from the shortcomings of using standardized test scores alone. Teachers and classes should be rated by students like the K1 assessment in the Kirkpatrick Model. Standardized tests or other standard grading should be used to measure both student proficiency and growth. Teachers should be reviewed by both their peers and administration so teachers can share best practices and leadership can hold educators accountable for meeting individual goals and district standards.

Would schools under my command be perfect? Probably not. But I hope it would be better than what we have now.


Maybe Both

Passion Week’s scriptures begin and end with a crowd. The first was the crowd laying palm branches on the streets of Jerusalem, the last gathered to watch an execution. The mood of the crowds shifted from celebratory at the beginning of the week to an angry mob a few days later. The first crowd gathered to honor Jesus and the next one gathered to condemn him.

At the time, Jerusalem was filled with people. Jewish people from all across Judea gathered in the city to celebrate Passover. As Jews, Jesus and his disciples also entered to observe the holiday. According to scripture, Jesus rode into town on a young donkey and the crowd covered the road ahead of him with their clothes and palm branches. They heralded his entry with a Psalm: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” They shouted a Hebrew term, Hosanna, which is a word meaning save, help, or rescue. It’s as if they are calling out to Jesus, save us.

A few days later, Jesus was arrested and put on trial. He was brought before the prefect, Governor Pontius Pilate. Pilate could not find any reason for guilt. His wife urged him to have nothing to do with the man. He even argued on behalf of the prisoner, urging for his release and how Jesus did not deserve death. But another crowd testified in opposition. They called for blood with more shouts: “crucify Him!” Pilate could not reason with the crowd. He washed his hands clean and caved to their demands.

As we look internally during the Easter season, we have to ask ourselves which crowd we would have joined. Had I lived in ancient Judea, would have been one of the citizens praising and blessing Jesus? Or would I have been a rioter throwing around false accusations and insisting upon his crucifixion?

If I’m honest?

Maybe both.

Because there are mornings I wake up and thank God for the breath that fills my lungs. And sometimes I’m on the side of the street in the middle of the night, yelling at God, like Bruce Almighty, “Smite me O Smiter.” With the same lips I sing praises and mutter curses. I am quick to say both “glory” and “dammit.” I credit God for the good things in my life and blame God for the trials. So which statement would I shout? “Hosanna” or “Kill him?” Would I join the party crowd or the protesting mob? Maybe both.

Scripturally, many of the people that gathered on what we now call Palm Sunday were likely a part of the crowd that gathered to observe Jesus’ trial. One day, they sang “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Then a few days later they chanted “Crucify him.” When Jesus came to Jerusalem, everyone was there for Passover. The holiday is an eight day celebration, so by the time Jesus faced Pilate, no one had gone home yet. They were still in town for the same holiday. This is one of the biggest parties in Jewish tradition. It is only reasonable to assume many people witnessed both the triumphal entry and the sentence that condemned Jesus.

They were the same people. The same crowd. They both loved and hated Jesus. They asked for his help and demanded his death. They, like me, didn’t choose one or the other; they were caught up in the moment. When asked, what shall it be: a savior or a scapegoat? This crowd chose both.


About that snow

My daughter and I had very different reactions to the snow this morning.


The School Experience

My experiences in primary and secondary education were not the most enjoyable. Nor would I describe them as productive. It wasn’t completely bad, but all that was good is dwarfed by the negative aspects my time in American public schools.

My ability to learn (or at least learn effectively) was hindered by two forces. The first was the nature of how schools were structured. When I was younger, no one knew what to do with kids like me. I had that weird combination of a learning disability and above average intelligence. The extent of my capabilities was never expressed through grades or daily homework assignments. Curriculum was not formatted in a way that catered to my learning style. Teachers and administrators expected me to conform to meet their needs, rather than becoming creative to meet my needs.

The second force that made my education less than stellar was beyond the control of the schools. I had the intellectual capabilities to do what needed to be done. Yet socially, culturally, and economically speaking, I was disadvantaged – especially when compared to other students in my district. That left me with fewer opportunities due to financial restrictions or social ineptitude. It is hard to focus on the role of a learner when you’re constantly bullied or do not have the funds to attend extracurricular functions with the rest of you class.

After high school, and throughout my adult life, I have had to pursue my own learning to make up for what I missed through formal education. Even in college classes, I have thrived most in environments that were the least structured.

A lot has changed in the last twenty to thirty years. If educators knew then what we know now, I think my experiences could have been more successful and rewarding. Unfortunately, I look at the schools my kids attend now and not much has changed. The ridged application of lecture and homework is still designed to teach to the test. Budgets continue to shrink. And schools progressively see reduced value in arts and athletics.

Even with my disappointments, I see hope. Schools have better supports to help disadvantaged kids and students with disabilities. Classrooms are beginning to incorporate technology in daily lessons. And there are a variety of options from magnet schools to online education to meet a wider variety of student needs and interests. The more schools begin to shift their priorities to be student-centric and less focused on standardized test results, the better our schools will be suited to meet the needs of all students.


The Good Teachers

We all remember the horrible teachers. The ones who made us dread attending classes or soured our tastes for entire subjects. These figures remain in our memories for all the wrong reasons. But what about the good teachers? Or the great ones? Don’t we all have a few teachers we want to memorialize like Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society?

When I look back at my formative years, there are a handful of teachers I consider good, perhaps even great. When I close my eyes and remember those educators who made me want to learn, these are the people I see.

Mrs. Funston: first grade teacher
Mrs. Wilson: Enhanced Learning teacher
Don: Sunday school teacher, wilderness guide, mentor, and hiking companion
Mr. VanDaveer: junior high PE teacher and wrestling coach
Mr. Taylor: art teacher
K: high school US history teacher and theater director
Herr Hansen: high school German teacher

From the youngest of my elementary days, to my senior year of high school. These teachers taught a wide range of topics and possessed vastly different personalities. Yet there are a few traits all seven of them had in common.

1. They believed in me. More than just me, they believed in all their students. They pushed us to achieve greatness because they believed we were capable of greatness. Because they saw the best in us, we wanted to be better.

2. They knew more than what they were teaching. They also knew how and why. When they presented a lesson, they included a motivation and a reason why we needed to know what they were teaching. They taught in ways that were engaging, entertaining, memorable, and relevant.

3. They taught more than school lessons, they also taught life lessons. When they were teaching, their goal was to do more than help us pass a test or get good grades. They were teaching us to live beyond the classroom.

4. They stepped away from the front of the classroom and got down to our level. They interacted with us. They sat in desks next to us. They gave us the idea that we could do what they do.

I would hope my peers see these teachers with the same reverence. When I was a student in their classes, previous students would often return to visit and thank them. When I got older, I was one of those returning students. And twenty years later, in one of my alumni groups, I still see praise of a couple of these teachers. These were the good ones.