Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Ask Who I Am, Not What"

The other day, a student sent me a link to a story about a video called, “10 Reasons I don’t want to be an Asian.” The college student who made the video aired his offensive views casually and plainly, as if he were telling how he learned to play violin or how he got interested in electrical engineering.
Only when there was an outcry did the student recant, a little. He said he was only joking. Later, he said he was sorry. In an era when schools, parents and communities place an enormous emphasis on multi-culturalism, intercultural exchange and Teaching Peace, the racism and ignorance and meanness of this student’s “joke” make far less sense than if it had happened a hundred years ago.
I know some teen-aged students from China who are attending high school in the United States. Most of them have made strong ties to some of the other Chinese students, and some have good friendships with international students from other countries. Only a few have made friends with the local native-English speaking population. Most wish they could. They sit in the cafeteria surrounded by groups of teenagers, sitting and talking with each other. They don’t know how to join. Many are lonely. (Yet,
they said right away that they are happy to "be Asian!")
This morning I heard a radio article about a project called, “The Race Card Project.” People are invited to submit a six word response to the question, “What are your thoughts about race?”
The Project has collected thousands of beautiful, fascinating, disturbing, funny, thoughtful, sad and ridiculous statements. I saw:

    • “When will we see just people?”
    • “No English. Standardized Assessment. No chance.”
    • “No, where are you actually from?”
    • “I see myself in the Other.”
    • “Ignoring race doesn’t make it disappear.”
    • “You see me as I’m NOT”
    • “Don’t assume anything about me. Please.”
    • “Black shoots black not in news.”
    • “White people continually justify minority deaths.”
    • “Color doesn’t explain or excuse failure.”

         and on and on. . .

How many of us think we know something about someone just by looking at them? How often do I think that because someone is a woman, or a man, or wearing certain clothes or has this kind of hair or that ethnicity, or even that expression on their faces,  that I know something about who they are.
I think I can tell something about people even before I speak with them and then I call myself open-minded?
What does it take to end racism? sexism? ageism? all identity-isms? One of the Race Cards read, “Ask Who I Am, Not What.” That sounds like where I/we need to start. I/We could make a difference to someone today by reaching past an assumption that I already know anything about him/her.  If I/we want to know who someone is, I/we need to show an interest in finding out about that someone, and not box their answers into categories about women, men, Chinese, black, Hispanic, gay, old, or young.
The local high school students don’t always turn around and include the lonely new international students. The neighbors who have lived on the block for ten years don’t always know the names or personalities of the neighbor who moved in last year. The strangers on the train with you are busy with their own concerns.
It’s not always easy to reach out and get to know other people. It is worth the time, to me, to you, to them. 

  I welcome feedback from anyone who has ever felt more like a what than a who, from anyone who can help extend the conversation.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

It's a Craigslist World

"Don't talk to strangers."
"Don't go into someone's home if you don't know them."
'There are a lot of weirdos out there."

All those statements may well be true - I'm not here to dispute them. However, I want to share my experiences over the last two weeks, meeting over a dozen strangers and entering their homes during my search for families who were interested in making a commitment to hosting international high school students from China. It's been the kind of adventure that could give rise to new sayings, if fear weren't such a strong presence in our lives.

When I envisioned looking for and finding families to host international high school students, I assumed that they'd all be connected to people I knew. I sent out dozens of emails to dozens of nice people, all of whom have large networks of friends and associates. I thought the phone would soon start ringing and friends of my friends would call and invite me over to talk to them about hosting.

Instead, the inquiries came almost exclusively from ads on Craigslist. My limited connection with Craigslist prior to July was that it was a place I could possibly get a yard sale type item, but the quality of what I found there was mixed, and it was bringing me large amounts of spam and small numbers of real inquiries about a house I hoped to rent steadily this summer. A mixed review, to say the least.

However, there has been nothing mixed about the kindness and generosity of the people I've met through Craigslist these past few weeks. As a group, they make a "typical American family." As individuals, there's no such thing as a typical family and each has something so special and endearing to offer an international student that I can't imagine how the students will choose.

Some homes are spacious, on large plots of land, with shiny furnishings and not a pin out of place. Others are smaller, cozier, even messier, but neither appearance predicts the time the family spends playing games together, going to the pool to cool down in the heat wave, hosting all the kids in the neighborhood, or just enjoying each other's company.

Either way, I show up without official credentials, carrying a green paper folder, an interview packet, a purple or green pen, and a large, imposing camera and find myself graciously ushered in and invited to have something cool to drink while we sit and chat. We talk about issues that may arise during hosting, and to each question, the hosts give their most thoughtful responses, reflecting what they know about their own lives, the kids they are currently raising or the ones they raised years ago.

My biggest concern was that the Craigslist ad mentions money right in the title of the ad, to draw readers. I assumed that would bring out people who cared first about money and second about becoming at least temporary parental figures for a youth from a far away and foreign culture. In fact, almost none of the people even mentioned money, until I brought up something related to expenses, such as mentioning that the students need to own a computer and that they would pay for it themselves. Even then, families did not linger on the topic.

Ninety five percent of the concerns and interests of the families have been how to make sure the student feels included, welcomed, comfortable and able to thrive in their school community, neighborhoods, and homes. Most of the families have a member who well remembers the experience of adjusting to a new culture and the difficulty of expressing him/herself in a new language. The others have connected professionally or socially with people who have experienced those adjustments and are sensitive and aware of how much gentle and patient help is needed.

No one has blanched at hearing that they may need to show the student how to clean a bathroom or load a dishwasher or said that transporting another child to another set of activities, on top of the baseball-soccer-dancing-religion-music lessons that already enrich their own families' lives is too much to expect. In fact, rather than feeling overwhelmed to hear that the students will become family members, not boarders in their homes, these families rejoice, for that is precisely what they want, whether their own children are grown up and out of the house or whether they have four children prancing through the house and planting wet kisses on their cheeks as we speak.

I wonder if people knew that you could meet such loving and generous people through something as random as a Craigslist ad, if they would still have to feel so alone and discouraged about the world out there. I feel lucky to have met each family that I've met and hope that if they are chosen to host a student, the experience is all they wish for. The news is filled with the terrible things that happen, but I bet a lot more of this kind of thing happens every day, but just doesn't count as "news." It's news to me!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Hosting an international student - and looking for more hosts! Can you help?

“Wow, you’re so nice to do that! I wouldn’t want a stranger in my house.”

“How can you manage it? I don’t have time.”

These are some of the conversations I’ve been a part of throughout this year, ever since I agreed to take an international student from China.

I joined the host family program in October of 2011 in much the same way that I returned to teaching five years ago, bought my first house 20 years ago, or even decided to become a mom nineteen years ago. There was a short spell of trying to think through the consequences, a recognition that I couldn’t really and a leap of hope and maybe even faith that it was worth a try.

And it has been. Our year went much the same as many others. It had ups and it had downs and in the end, it was worth it. At first, we had the honeymoon phase where our student was ecstatic with everything about us and vice-versa. Then life settled down to normal and we started having a few adjustment difficulties. Where do dishes go when you’ve finished eating? Am I the only person who takes out the garbage? You have to be where? When? And you’re telling me now? A year is a long time to have a guest in the house. We had to figure out better systems.

The international students at our school are high school students. They’re teen-agers. They have a lot to learn from us as well as a lot to teach us. They’ve traveled literally halfway around the globe to join our community. And they knew less about what they were in for than I did! They come from large cities, large schools, large classes and single child families, by and large. Many lived in dormitories in their high schools and went to classes and studied throughout the entire day. Test scores have determined their choices for their entire lives. Their options for different types of education or spots at good universities are limited in a way we, living in the land of freedom to choose, can barely imagine. The class size here is less than a third of theirs. Homework in China is a lot of practice and memorizing. Homework here is an enormous amount of critical and creative thinking, analytical essays, projects that span demand originality of thinking and applying of learning, thinking outside the box.

After four months of life with us, I heard my Chinese student ask my daughter, “What is sink?” when I asked her to take something to the sink. I realized that she was somehow managing in an entirely English speaking world in which she was still only catching a fraction of what was said at full speed. (Actually, since I’m from New Jersey and tend to talk very fast, the full speed in our home is closer to the speed of light - - which increases my admiration for her managing abilities!)

We saw Chinglish together – a Broadway show about an American businessman who mangles Mandarin and cultural norms while trying to put together business deals in China – and it was great to see the American being the one on shaky ground. We laughed heartily when the projected words above the stage showed us that instead of saying, “You should hire our firm because we’re worth the money,” the businessman ended up saying, “We’ll explain how we’ll spend your money recklessly.” Yes, it was funny. But also, on reflection, I realized there must have been so many of those moments in our home, yet without supertitles to fill us in, none of us knew that we might be offending or misinterpreting each other.

We saw Jesus Christ Superstar together, which is one of our family favorites, but what might have been more memorable to our student was the chance to speak Mandarin to the waitress at the Chinese restaurant where we dined before the show.

Some evenings were game nights, with our Chinese student bravely playing Bananagrams with the most competitive English speakers around. Or cards. Or Boggle. Or watching movies, which everyone agreed are better with the English subtitles turned on. But most nights were homework nights, everyone working independently in whatever space was most productive for her. There were tearful nights, when the student received bad news from home, or reeled from various types of rejection and snubbing at which some high school girls excel. And nights when we ate delicious and new foods our student prepared for us: homemade dumplings, lotus root, cooked cucumbers (!), and a sweet kind of Chinese cabbage with noodles. We laughed to discover that “wok” and “dim sum” were just as foreign when spoken by us as were our miniscule and occasional attempts to pronounce names and phrases in Mandarin. We waved and smiled and said the same thing over and over to her parents over Skype, because we know no Mandarin and they speak no English. And we expanded our idea of who we were as a family.

What inspired me to invite this student back to live with us again next year? For one thing, we can. We have so much, we don’t even realize most of what we have. Yet, when we’re faced with those who don’t have it, we remember and can feel extremely honored to be able to share it. It’s not that these students come from underprivileged homes. Far from it! I may make less money per year than their housekeepers for all I know. But they don’t have the opportunities we have – like an education that values creativity and analysis, or opportunities to spend time with people from other countries, or goofing around with siblings - and those turn out to be shareable!

Also, I grew up with exchange students and visitors from other countries. I want to give that to my family. How else will they know about the many perspectives and cultures that make up their future world?

And finally (please excuse my existential sappiness!) because it’s true that
Love isn't love till you give it away
Love isn't love till it's free
The love in your heart
Wasn't put there to stay
Oh love isn't love till you give it away

Our school has accepted eight additional international students from China. They will join the current eight Chinese students. They will arrive at the end of August and stay until a day after graduation in June. They don’t yet have host families. I have taken a job with a company called Green Planet Homestay to try to get homes for them.

I am appealing to families and readers in this area, asking for you to help spread the word about the chance to be a host family. Would you take a few minutes and use your connections to friends and organizations to help me find families who are interested in enriching their lives and making an enormous difference in someone else’s life? I know many people will love the experience. I just need your help to let them know about it.

It may help you to know that host families receive generous monthly compensation, that these students arrive with spending money and health insurance plans, that they have studied primarily written English since they were young, and that they are aware that getting a great education, including becoming fully fluent in English, is the most important focus of their time here. That they are loyal to their home country in a way that used to be more common in America, but for us post-Watergate children is surprising. That they are hard-working, focused students who don’t take this opportunity to improve their futures for granted.

No one’s going to lie and say this is so easy you can do it with your eyes closed. Host families take on full responsibility for parenting a teen from another country, and they have to make adjustments and decisions constantly. (Sound familiar, all you parents?) On the other hand, you’ll have support: from other host families, from me, from all the learning we've done this past year.

You can help by posting flyers, writing a blurb in any newsletters you are part of, sending emails to groups with whom you are associated, talking to friends and neighbors – any or all will be enormously appreciated. I have any materials you could need. With your help, we can make this year great for our own children and families and for all of our visiting international students!

I look forward to hearing from you with requests for more information. You can write directly to me at

Thank you!

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Short Story Once there was a little girl named Jan. She had a tiny bedroom filled with stuffed animals and a few dolls. Most days after real school, Jan opened her own school. Jan’s School took place wherever Jan was – in the bedroom, in the kitchen, in her friends’ basement, even while bicycling through the neighborhood. Finally, Jan grew up and stopped teaching her stuffed animals, but she still loved to teach so she went to Teacher’s College at Columbia and got the degree and certification she needed to do it for real. Teaching was a dream come true for Jan. It turned out that real students were even better than imaginary ones and Jan was sure that she would follow in her grandmother’s footsteps and teach until she was too old to walk down the steps anymore.

Real life turned out to have more twists and turns and great jobs to do than Jan’s dream of teaching in one school for her whole life. In between teaching in preschools, high schools and elementary schools, Jan found she loved helping build houses, working in restaurant kitchens and making chocolate candy and ice cream. After teaching at a school in Manhattan for three years, Jan decided to move upstate. She came to her current school to teach first and second grades with a smart, creative and always patient man named Steve Currie. She started a family and decided to spend time at home with them for a few years. It was hard to say good-bye to the school, but there were so many adventures ahead. She started a new chocolate business and raised two amazing girls.

Many years later, when her oldest daughter was ready to choose a high school, Jan visited her old school again. It felt so great to be back among loving friends and excited students that Jan decided to find someone else to work long hours at the chocolate store. It was time to return to teaching.

The best luck in the world gave Jan a chance to spend five years teaching in the 3-4 and then the 4-5, working with the best teachers and students and getting to know and love them very well. Jan hoped this could go on and on. She taught and learned about the Maya, the ancient Greeks, West Africa, Japan, electricity, the phases of the moon, multiplication, division, selling pizza, and so many wonderful books and stories, some of which still make Jan cry even after reading them so many times. She noticed that teaching and learning happened hand in hand and loved seeing her students teaching each other in so many ways. It was a dream come true.

There came a day when it was time for Jan to move on to other opportunities. She had to tell her students and their families good-bye, as well as all her grownup teacher friends, but every time she even imagined saying it, she just cried and cried. She really hated saying goodbye. It was one thing to cry in front of everyone while reading a sad book or watching a sad movie. It was another thing not to be able to speak to tell everyone how much she loves them and will miss them. Maybe they’ll understand it if she writes it down.

Looking ahead, Jan is ready for her next adventures. Armed with a garden trowel, some dog leashes, a sewing needle, a computer filled with writing projects, shelves overflowing with books, a piano and a guitar and the most loving family anyone could have, not to mention Bananagrams, Sudoku, crossword puzzles and plenty of playing cards, life will never be boring. She knows that she looks forward to seeing all of her former students and teacher friends in the future! She also plans to help the host families and the new students from China! She’ll be at school sometimes and is excited to see colleagues and students whenever she can!

The end.

NO! To be continued! And, please keep in touch!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

When the going is tough. . .

We've all faced those moments when we think we have to give up, get out, go back; it's too much. And then, more times than not, we keep going anyway. Maybe we don't finish first or come out with the results we dreamed of, but by then, just having kept on going is first prize enough.

Working with kids, both my own and my students, I see those moments all the time. I want to celebrate the split second resolve(s) that keep kids going in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. I hope as students look at their own moments when they found their resolve to keep going, they can get a deeper understanding of some of the struggles of kids who came before them and helped change the world against overwhelming odds.

I have read the story of Ruby Bridges to my classes year after year. I love that story and find her ability to wish for forgiveness for the hateful mob more inspiring each time. This year, I want to also share with them the story of Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan, pictured below in a photo that "went viral" in 1957.
The information I gathered came from several sources, but this Vanity Fair article by David Margolick, who has just released a book about Elizabeth and Hazel, was particularly helpful. (After a brief email correspondence with the author, I ordered the book! I love getting deeply into these stories!)

All her life, Elizabeth Eckford had worked hard in school and aimed to go to college. She had attended a good but segregated black high school in Little Rock when the city school board decided to admit a small number of black students to its best high school, Central High, beginning in September, 1957. Elizabeth was delighted to be accepted. Although she wouldn't be able to participate in after-school activities because the school board felt whites would not accept that, she believed in the importance of education and wanted to take courses that her own school didn't offer. Elizabeth's family didn't have a phone at the time, so she didn't know that the eight other black students were gathering at the home of the president of the local NAACP chapter and heading to school together. She went to school alone.

The bus dropped her off a few blocks from Central High and as Elizabeth walked the rest of the way, she noticed that there were more cars and commotion than usual. Then she saw the mobs of white people and the groups of National Guard soldiers outside the school. Assuming that they were there to help, she tried several times to enter the school, as she saw white students walking through the guards and being allowed admittance. However, as she soon discovered, the National Guard had been ordered by Arkansas governor Orval Faubus to keep the black students out. As the white mob yelled threats and insults, the National Guard did nothing to protect Elizabeth, but they did threaten to arrest a white reporter who had tried to comfort her and protect her from the mob when she sat at a bus stop and tearfully realized she could not go to school that day.

Nor was it easy to get away. While the crowd called out that she should be tied to a tree, the white reporter and a white woman hustled her to a store so they could call a cab. No go. The store closed up tight and refused to help. Finally the woman helped Elizabeth onto a bus and she was able to go to the school for blind and deaf Negroes where her mother worked in the laundry.

Elizabeth's picture, with Hazel in the background screaming for her to go home, was printed in papers all over the world. Interest in both girls was high. Newspaper articles near and far hailed Elizabeth as a quiet and dignified hero. In interviews outside the school in the coming days, reporters asked Hazel what she believed and she happily shared her strongly racist, segregationist views. The political embarrassment President Dwight Eisenhower felt finally propelled him to send in the 101st Airborne Division to carry out the law.

Unfortunately, this wasn't the end of the story. Although by September 25, the Little Rock Nine, including Elizabeth, made it into Central High and were able to start attending classes, the racial bigotry and bullying did not end. Elizabeth reported a fraction of the pushings, shovings, bottle throwings and continual taunts to the Vice-Principal, but nothing ever happened. She was made to sit alone at the back of her classes and no student dared befriend her. In the showers of the gym, white students would sprinkle broken glass on the floors and arrange to scald her by flushing all the toilets at the same time. The content of some her classes was also racist. She learned that "slavery actually civilized blacks, that the black officeholders during Reconstruction were "ignoramuses," that the Ku Klux Klan was founded to defend white womanhood. A stern woman with a pince-nez who had taught at Central since it opened, Miss Penton refused even to touch Elizabeth. When there was money to collect, she made her put the coins down on her desk."

Throughout her 11th grade year, she considered leaving Central High many times, but somehow, completed the year. She had no one to turn to for support, as her mother would have pulled her from school if she knew what was happening and her father downplayed the seriousness of it. She wasn't very close with the other black students and they didn't want to talk about it when they were together. However, somehow, on her own and against all odds, she finished the year and joined the other Little Rock Nine students on a trip to Washington, D.C. where she met her hero, Thurgood Marshall, the civil rights lawyer who successfully argued Brown vs. Board of Education to the Supreme Court in 1954.

Little Rock Board of Ed did not want another year like 1957, so they closed all the schools in 1958. Elizabeth got private tutoring and then moved to St. Louis to complete her high school and then college education. When she was 21, she returned to her home town and was surprised to get a phone call from someone she had never heard of: Hazel Bryan. Hazel introduced herself and apologized for screaming at Elizabeth and contributing to her misery at Central High School. Elizabeth accepted her apology.

It's remarkable to ponder it. Elizabeth not only persevered completely alone through more trials than any one person should ever face, but forgave one of her tormentors. The next 30 or more years were not easy for Elizabeth. While trying to work and raise her family, she was hounded by reporters and depression. Yet, in 1997, Counts, the same photographer whose picture of hatred and dignity had circled the globe so famously in 1957 asked to photograph the two women together. Here is is:
They forged a friendship that lasted a few years, offering the hope of reconciliation to many.

Many of us have never heard of Elizabeth Eckford and she probably wishes her name were not famous. Yet, while aiming only to obtain an education for herself, Elizabeth opened doors for millions of students, black and white, and taught millions more the lessons of perseverance, triumphing with dignity over difficulties and even offering forgiveness. I hope my students and I can learn her lessons well.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Service Lessons/Service Lessens?

Last night, I went with my daughter and some friends to see a local musical production of A Christmas Carol. Watching Ebenezer Scrooge humbug his way through numerous requests for charity and benevolence, I could almost understand his barking demand that the hordes all leave him alone.

We are bombarded by more information and more pleas for help than most of us can process. The 1% vs. the 99%. The unemployment rate that stays too close to 10%. The people with dead-end jobs. Children in at-risk homes. Women in abusive situations. Obese Americans. Animals in kill shelters. People experiencing violence every minute. People who don't vote. People who give up. People who don't have what they need to make choices about what they do in life. People with heartbreaking medical conditions. People with no access to medicine or clean water or safe homes.

A glance in my mailbox, virtual or real, shows overwhelming and overflowing need. From the NAACP, a reminder that Justice, Equality and Civil Rights need my attention. From Planned Parenthood, a warning that President Obama needs support to keep women's health issues within their control. From the local food pantries, a plea for staples: dried beans, rice, canned tomatoes, powdered milk. From a home for mentally ill children, a grim picture of institutional walls and children without family connections. From Amnesty International, reports of abuse of human rights. From Oxfam, Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, World Wildlife Organization, the ASPCA, Heifer International, numerous organizations devoted to researching cures for particular cancers or other health issues, religious institutions, my own school's fundraising letters, we get the picture. There is enormous need out there.

The world would be a terrible place if we just told everyone to leave us alone.

With pounds and pounds of appeals, do we even open each one any more? With 77 new emails in the inbox, do we read them all? And how do we teach children about starting to make those decisions?

First, it helps to remember a whole lot of truisms that are actually true. Whether it's Mother Theresa, “If you can't feed a hundred people, then just feed one.” Or Annie Dillard, "The dedicated life is the life worth living. You must give with your whole heart." Albert Einstein,"A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving" or the Talmud, "He gives little who gives with a frown; he gives much who gives little with a smile." We can understand that small things aren't small things, they're everything and we can try to do whatever small things we can.

As a classroom teacher, I want to give the children opportunities to participate in a way of life which considers the needs of others. This happens in many ways, within the classroom, with our younger buddies, as part of every meeting, every lesson of the social studies curriculum. In the past, through selling pizza every Friday at a slight markup and donating the profits, the children also gave generously outside our community. In addition, a tiny portion of this money was used to purchase bright red empty stockings from the dollar store. The children then purchased items to fill the stockings and we delivered the filled stockings to a nearby homeless shelter in time for Christmas. The children were asked to do extra chores at home as their contribution to the family's shopping endeavors and were excited to think about how someone would feel receiving these gifts.

This year, we're wondering if we can keep up that service project. We no longer fundraise through pizza sales. Our school is a non-sectarian, progressive, independent school. Many, but by no means all, of the children hang stockings by their own chimneys. No matter what their family traditions were, in the past, the students were excited to imagine the joy on the faces of the recipients of their stockings. They knew they were adding cheer to the lives of even a few in need. This year, the local shelter has at least 120 children in residence. At the same time, many in our own school community are facing tougher economic times.

While no one can agree on the number of homeless people, and while that number is always shifting, one study done by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty states that approximately 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children, are likely to experience homelessness in a given year (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2007)(Quoted from the National Coalition for the Homeless)

Is it right for a school to ask families to purchase stocking stuffers for 120 of these homeless children? Can the school leave this shelter in the lurch after 10 or 12 years of being there for them? What is the responsibility of the school? Most schools are facing such severe funding cuts that they can only offer the essentials. Are service lessons part of the essentials?

As Scrooge told the gloomy and silent dreadful Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, "The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on. . . "

I can only hope that in all the ways that we can we will teach caring. I hope we can learn Scrooge's lesson. "He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world." As much as we must teach our children math or science or reading or writing, we must teach them to give. We can't take care of all the problems of the world. But we can do what we can do.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tucker Everlasting

By some divine sense of comedy and tragedy, we began to immerse ourselves at school in the book Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt at the same time that it appeared that Tucker, my English Cocker Spaniel and best friend, might not be everlasting.

When Tucker runs, his ears bounce around so much we like to say he is "bunny rabbiting." For eight and a half years, he has loved every opportunity to bunny rabbit off-leash both on (and off and on and off) paths through the many beautiful woods we are fortunate enough to live near. He gets better exercise that way and can sniff this bush or that stump for as long as he pleases while I get to keep walking at my pace. His typical stray is much less than 50 yards - not so far that I can't talk or sing to him while we walk, and he makes frequent passes back to me for a kiss or a treat. He has taught several puppies how to be great off-leash woods walkers.

Tucker, before his summer haircut. He's as beautiful inside as out.

On roads, he needs a leash. He is curious, friendly, and utterly without street sense. He thinks cars are friends to go up and sniff, even if they're moving. He's smarter in the woods. He knows not to bother bikers and joggers and, although he loves to chase deer, he soon gives up and comes back to his humans.

The fourth day of school, September 12, significant to so many people as the day after the tenth anniversary of 9-11, was a warm and sun-dappled gift. My daughter and her friend decided to walk the dogs in the nearby woods. Unusually, I decided not to go with them. About a half hour into the walk, I got a panicked phone call from my daughter.

"Tucker took off in the thick bushes barking. Then cried loudly in pain and then he was silent. We can't find him."

With several loving friends, we searched, calling and clapping, whistling and yelling, pushing through bushes and prickers, sludging through muddy bogs thick with mosquitoes and smelling strongly of rotting vegetation. Confident that Tucker would come back to us any moment, I was both calm and clueless about how to find him if he didn't come to us. Since he had never gone missing before, I had no tricks or strategies up my sleeve, but that was okay; I knew we'd find him.

After a long and mosquito-bite-filled evening, the others needed to get home. Dinners needed to be made and eaten, homework needed to be done. Lives needed to move on.

I stayed until it was too dark to see anything. By then, it had hit me. I was about to go home without Tucker for the first time in his life. Was he alive? Was he hurt? Was he still in the woods? Why didn't he whine or cry? Why couldn't I find him? How could this be happening to us? Not much sleep that night!

Over the next week and a half, my daughter and I asked countless joggers, walkers, bikers and bystanders if they had seen Tucker. We made flyers. We called the police and the pound. We kept searching and so did many friends and, amazingly and inspiringly, strangers. Countless people wished us well and tried to help us find our black-eared, four-legged gentle friend, but we have yet to find an explanation that works or even one clue.

For the first few days, I was always on the verge of tears. Not just tears, but sobs. Who knows what we ate. I certainly wasn't keeping up with cooking and chores. Keeping up with my work for school, at least a little, was both necessary to my ability to teach a lesson and also to my sanity. School was a reprieve from walking obsessively and repetitively in the woods, yelling and clapping and whistling for a dog who didn't show up.

For five minute snatches, I can sometimes forgot he's gone. Then I am hit with the realization all over again. It's a hole that can feel too deep to cross over. Our puppy, Mocha, lets me kiss her nose twice as often, which helps. Her antics are as funny as ever, and her need to be cuddled, held and noticed helps my daughter and me fill some of that furry quota. She reminds us to laugh and play tug-of-war and to live each moment in the present. When she shakes her toy and growls at it to remind us to throw it for her, she suggests that guilt and regrets are about as useful as excrement. Undeniably, she tells us minute by minute that life goes on. I believe her.

From an interview of Natalie Babbitt I learned that an ancient meaning of "tuck" is life. Tucker has been my life teacher these past eight years. I hope to have news of him to report one day on this blog. Meanwhile, my thoughts and love for Tucker are everlasting; I just have to learn not to flinch every time we use the word Tuck.