Christmas Acrostic (Each Letter of Your Name is a Christmas Song)

{Disclaimer – I do not own the rights to any of the songs mentioned in this piece, and it’s very likely the videos that accompany the titles may be taken down.}

I love doing acrostics. For those of you who don’t teach elementary school, you’ll know the thing but maybe not the name. You take the letters of your name and come up with a word or phrase to go along with each one. I had a student this year make one for me on his Christmas card with my first AND last name! This one is a little different because I’ll be using Christmas/Holiday songs instead of words/phrases. I got the idea from a Medium music magazine I follow called Plethora of Pop. It sprang from a challenge to come up with regular song titles that match up to the letters of your last name, but then someone took it a little further, and well, here we are. As is common, I did not read the directions fully and have done my first name and not my last name.

I’ll start off with XTC/The Three Wiseguys, “Thanks for Christmas”. It kind of makes me giggle that one of my favorite Christmas songs is written and sung by one of music’s most known agnostics, Andy Partridge. I’m pretty sure this is a song that I heard in high school on Ga State’s Album 88. This was pre-internet and I had no way of getting it other than hoping the station would play it while I was home, had a blank tape ready to record, and was near my boombox to push “Record”. I am pretty sure that never happened for the entire song. Now, in the digital age, it’s easy to find. I’ve lamented on the ease “kids” have these days finding music they like, but it’s not time for lamentations, it’s time for celebrations! On with the list!

Next up is the ever-classic, ever-loved, Ella Fitzgerald from her Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. I have also written before about my preference of the line, “Until then we’ll just have to muddle through somehow…” and Ella does it great justice in this song. Depending on who sings this standard, it can be joyous or a little melancholy. Even with the muddling through, I get joy from Ella’s version.

Weezer put out some Christmas singles back in early 2000 that are fun and in the vein of other rock bands doing original Christmas singles. The line, “That man is so obese he can’t fit through the door” is funny, and the other single, a Weezer emo classic, “The Christmas Song” (not to be confused with “chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” I used the music and melody from this song to fo an April Fool’s prank on my students back in 2019 in the middle of the Pandemic Shutdown. For my acrostic pick though, I’m choosing Weezer’s version of,  “O, Holy Night”. This is one of my alltime favorite Christmas hymns. After the two original singles Weezer put out, they put out an EP, Christmas With Weezer in 2008. It contained the band doing straightforward covers of several traditional hymns and Christmas songs. I’m not fully convinced it wasn’t just Rivers by himself, and it could be easily solved with a few clicks and taps of the keyboard but more music awaits!

The Beach Boys Christmas album is a classic for good reasons. A mix of original and traditional songs done in that classic Beach Boys way – harmonies strong enough to carry a red-suited obese man around the world in 24 hours. From the humor of “Santa’s Beard” to Dennis’ talk-over message in “Auld Lang Syne”, the Boys gave their fans something special for Christmas that year that continues to give now. My selection is,  “Merry Christmas, Baby”. With its lyrics of heartache, breakups, and being alone, this could just as easily be a Weezer classic. Of course, as with a few other Beach Boys’ classics, there’s some infidelity that caused this break up, but again, we’re not here to focus on the negative!

As you’ve guessed, or already know, I love Christmas music; traditional, new, sacred, irreverent, pretty much any. I have my strongly disliked songs, “Christmas Shoes” comes to mind, but the list of loved songs is much, much longer. Reliant K is an alternative Christian rock band, or an alternative rock band whose members are Christians, or some variation of that. Regardless, they have a Christmas album that I’ll play straight-through every year, Let it Snow, Baby…Let it Reindeer. Lots of great music on this album, including a rousing fast-paced version of, “Angels We Have Heard on High”

I wrap up this exercise in vanity & nostalgia with Sir Elton John and his campy, fun 70’s offering,  “Step Into Christmas”. This is prime 70’s Elton; stacked heels, crazy glasses. The promotional video has him and his touring band having a grand time together rocking through “this Christmas card” thanking fans for a great year. 

Thanks for taking the time to read. I hope you’ve enjoyed it; maybe it’s introduced you to some new songs. Maybe it will get you thinking of doing one for yourself, with Christmas/Holiday music or regular songs for the rest of the year. Since I did it wrong, I’ll probably spend some time today coming up with my last name list. I’ll let Elton lead us out…“So Merry Christmas one and all, there’s no place I’d rather be thank asking you if you’d oblige stepping into Christmas with me…”

Unfortunately, Andy Partridge is mostly faithful to Apple music so the T song on my list isn’t on Spotify. Regardless, here’s the rest of the Playlist

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One Year Later

[Full disclosure – this is a long one. You may want to break it down into bite-size pieces]

One year ago today I received a call from Dr. Shapiro telling me that the tumor he’d found two days prior was, in fact, cancerous. I was at school, it was lunchtime, and I was texting my brother, Phillip, telling him that I was expecting to hear from the doctor at some point soon. Up until that point, I was really holding out hope and belief that the biopsy would come back as benign. My phone rang. 

“This is the doctor. I’ll talk to you later,” I texted Phillip.

“Hi Mr. Benefield, this is Dr. Shapiro, I am sorry to tell you, but the biopsy came back positive. It’s cancerous,” he told me in a gentle voice.

I think that washed over me because when I told him how much I appreciated him taking the time to call me he repeated, “I just want to make sure you heard me, you have cancer.” I thanked him again and told him that I hoped he had a good day.

I texted Phillip, “It’s cancer” and then the bottom dropped out of my world.

It was a full-on panic attack. Shaking uncontrollably and crying I looked at my teammates, I don’t remember if I spoke or if it was just obvious from my reaction what the doctor had told me. Immediately, two of them took my arms and lead me back to my classroom. I sat at my desk hyperventilating as I tried to wrap my head around what was happening. It was decided that two of them would get me home; one driving me and another taking my car. After that decision was made, another teammate asked if she could pray for me. We held hands and she offered a quick, heartfelt prayer, and without any exaggeration or hyperbole, I calmed down a little. We were able to get out of the school without my students seeing me. I am so grateful that they were at lunch and recess during this time.

On the drive to my house, we made some small talk. I was trying to decide whether to call or text Anna the news, I really wasn’t sure what to do. I ended up calling her, telling her that I was coming home and that I’d be there soon. I don’t remember a lot of the car ride. When we got to the house, they walked me to the door. This was the first time Anna had met one (what a horrible situation for an initial introduction!). I thanked them for getting me out of school and home and then Anna and I talked. She told me that she knew that I had the tendency to hear, but not listen when doctors are giving news just like my parents did. 

“I can pretend to do that if you want, but I cannot just do that,” she said, “I can’t not hear what is being said.”

“No! I need you to be the one to hear that. I need your voice of reality and focus,” I told her. And that is how we started this process. 

After much prompting from Anna, as well as one of my teammates, I contacted Dr. Ethan Tolbert, a GI oncologist whose daughters are the same age as ours and were schoolmates at Fernbank, and whose son was a student at Trinity for his 5th and 6th-grade years. I felt uncomfortable contacting him out of the blue, but I texted him, “It seems like your specialty and my diagnosis have some things in common.” Within 15 minutes he called me on the phone, asked me what was going on, and then told me to come in the following Thursday at noon. Having a doctor who knew me, knew me as Thomas, as Mr. B, had an incredibly strong effect on me.

I decided early on that I was going to maintain a positive attitude throughout the process, This really started with Dr. Tolbert. He told me in our first meeting, as I’ve mentioned earlier, “We are treating this to cure you. When we are done, you are going to be cancer free.” That set the bar for me. My family, my friends, my co-workers, and honestly, almost everyone helped me maintain that attitude. Keep moving forward. That was my mantra. My friend Dean White, who coincidentally I saw and spoke to in passing two days ago, took my sketch of those words with the arrow (branding, right?) and turned it into the cool design that it is now. My entire medical team, the receptionists, the nurses, and the doctors have been positive, friendly, and caring throughout my treatment.

After I was diagnosed but before my treatment started, Anna and I had some serious talks about how we were going to handle this. If you know Anna then you know she is a planner, and that is what she started doing. She searched out podcasts on cancer treatment, she researched different supplements that work with the chemotherapy meds that I would be on, she found articles on the correlation between certain types of food and colorectal cancer; both those that can cause it, as well as those that can prevent it. We had serious talks about my diet. Several serious talks about it. If you have known me for a while, you know that I have had pretty much the same diet since I was a kid. What that means is that my diet was high in processed foods. I enjoy fruits and vegetables, I really do, but things that come in shiny packages out of the middle sections of the grocery store have always been a big staple. I threw a few temper tantrums about these changes. So much so that early on Anna looked at me and said, “You know, it says A LOT that you’re more upset about having to change your diet than you are about having cancer.” She was right. So, change happened.

During chemo, from December through March, I cut out almost as many processed foods as I could, any foods with nitrates, reduced as much added sugar as I could (I found monk fruit sweetener for my coffee), and almost all red meat. We ate A LOT of chicken and fish during that time! I cut down the number of foods that I was eating made with seed oils, and to be honest, that’s almost EVERYTHING. Anna found some chips made with avocado instead of other seeds oils.  I started eating more berries regularly, added almonds, walnuts, and pecans, and began eating avocado (I’d never had it before). I added more gluten-free items to my diet. I tried smoothies to get some extra protein but was not a big fan so it was not a huge part of my diet. I have come to realize that the changes I made were beneficial to me as well as to my family; a healthier me is a happier me is a better husband and dad. I have added some things back in moderation, but I definitely have a much healthier diet now than I did pre-diagnosis.

I have no doubts that my dietary changes helped out with how my body responded to my treatments, and that includes the supplements I have been taking; turmeric, milk thistle, spirulina, quercetin, vitamin D, and turkey tail. Anna found some articles that showed that those worked well in fighting colorectal cancer. My doctors were not very familiar with them at all, but they did not tell me to stop taking any of them except the turmeric before my liver surgery because it acts as a blood thinner.

When I started radiaion/chemo back in June, I went on a low-gas diet ( so beans, broccoli, eggs, corn, apples, and lots of wheat-based foods were out for that period of time. Once I was through with that treatment, I slowly added back those foods. I made the mistake of eating a Mexican dish with a regular-sized serving of black beans and was doubled over in pain the next day with gas. I limited myself to one beer a month during chemo. Before I had the tumor on my liver removed I stopped drinking alcohol altogether and did not have any until I had finished radiation/chemo. In addition to my dietary changes

I believe that the routines I adopted during my treatment also played a vital role in the way my body responded. Every morning, I read from a few different books gifted to me. I read, ponder, underline, and sometimes re-read. I read over my list of people, places, and things that I am grateful for. The list of people I am grateful for grew and continues to grow.  I read over my affirmations, starting with, “I am staying positive and moving forward.” My affirmations have changed over this time, some no longer apply and others are things I started noticing that I needed to pay more attention to. I have a list of things that I need to remember ranging from “It matters how I treat people” to “respond, not react.” I’ve added more as time has gone on. My former supervisor and a dear friend suggested to me that each day I write down a gift that happened during the day; big, small, profound, or simple. It encourages me to look for the good; the sunrise, a mom and child holding hands on a walk, dinner with a friend, and a good nap. I started that before my treatments began back in December, and except for a period of time in January and February, every day I write down these gifts. I tried meditation, but it never really clicked with me. I had the app, Headspace, with a very calming Australian man leading me on that journey. I was never able to fully submerse myself in it, but I definitely learned some calming and centering strategies that I am still using. During radiation, I would silently repeat the mantra, “death to the cancer, strength to my cells and body” throughout the treatment sessions. Recently, I have adopted an evening ritual as well. I’ve added, the questions, “What went well?” and “What could I do better?” to my end-of-day ritual as a way to reflect. I have been doing a lot of reflecting over the course of the last year.

I absolutely believe that the prayers offered, good wishes, thoughts, and vibes sent to me from family, friends, and strangers also played a major role in how my body has responded. I know there are as many viewpoints on this as there are people in the world, but I am convinced that all of this helped me. My thoughts on prayer are a whole other long post, but I believe deeply that they helped me. This is a tough subject to talk about, and one that has caused, and often still causes me emotional, mental, and spiritual pain. I’ve used the phrase, “how my body responded” many times. My body responded in ways that I never could have imagined, and I am beyond grateful. My side effects were minimal and really not as horrible as I know they can be. At the same time, not everyone’s body does respond the way mine has, and at least two friends did not survive their fight with cancer while I was going through treatment. I can’t explain or understand that and I really, really wish I could. There’s no doubt in my mind that they also had family, friends, and strangers praying for them, and know for certain that they were maintaining a positive attitude and outlook. It’s difficult for me to talk about without tearing up because to the core of my being, I don’t understand, and I know no one else does either…

I can’t begin to adequately put into words the amount of gratitude that I have for so many people. Family members, friends, co-workers, former students, their families, clergy, believers, and nonbelievers have reached out to me and my family over the last year providing us with meals, letters, cards, blankets, and books. I have had so many conversations and hugs and tears with so many people. I have met some new incredible people as well. Some who have gone through their own battle with rectal cancer and one new friend who was going through treatment at the same time. He and I share a very special bond and friendship due to this ordeal. Every morning, I read the names of people that I am grateful for family, friends, teammates, coworkers, doctors, nurses, techs, clergy, and more, and every morning I am filled with love reading those names. 

All of this leads me to what I posted last time – 

Scar tissue is what my surgeon and attending doc saw today during my colonoscopy. SCAR TISSUE. He is so confident that it is scar tissue that when I asked him if he took a biopsy, he said that they did not feel it was necessary and would have caused unnecessary bleeding. I will go in for another colonoscopy and MRI in two to three months. He did say that at that time the swelling and scarring (from radiation) should be greatly reduced with the caveat that if it still looks the same he is going to recommend having surgery to remove it to be completely certain.  To keep my distance-swimming analogy from the start of this, my doctor just rang the bell letting me know I was on my final lap.

What now? My MRI is in two weeks followed by another colonoscopy (right after Thanksgiving for crying out loud) If I have to have surgery then so be it, I will accept that with gratitude because it so easily could have gone so differently. If the scans are clear then I will go on a cycle of every three months for a year and as long as those stay clear then I’ll start going every six months. Ultimately, I plan on finding ways to help others dealing with cancer. There are many ways that I can help, so I will be looking into those and trying to find the one that best fits my strengths.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. Thank you for sticking with me. There are so many people that I wanted to name in this, but I didn’t want to leave anyone out by mistake, so mostly people are referred to as friends or coworkers. They know who they are, how much I love them, and how much they mean to me. 


Trinity Class of 2016 Reunion

Team Benefield Class of 2016

Eight years ago, I accepted the position of Fifth Grade teacher at Trinity School. It would be my first homeroom in three years, and I was excited to have a core group of students to get to know, watch grow, and have fun with. What a great first group I received that August of 2015! 

One of the hardest parts of being a Fifth Grade teacher is once the year is over, I don’t get to see many of those kids anymore as some choose to stay for Sixth Grade and others matriculate to other schools. Luckily, Trinity brings all its former students back together during their senior year. I’ve been able to keep up with a few of them through their parents’ social media accounts, but many I had not heard about or from since May of 2016. 

I can’t overstate how I have been looking forward to my first Fifth Grade class at Trinity’s senior reunion for the past seven years. If you know me, you know how I feel about my students, and if you’re a teacher you know that every kid that comes through your door has a piece of your heart, and sometimes we never get to see those pieces again. Well, let me tell you that when you do, especially after seven years apart, the missing piece fits right back into place. You remember little things they did as 10- or 11-year-olds and wonder if they still do them. You remember how they grew and changed over a school year. You remember how you challenged them and they sometimes challenged you. Of my twenty homeroom students that year, fourteen of them made it back for the reunion, thirteen in time for a class photo.

These young men and women are going on to Auburn, UNC, Columbia, BU, NYU, Penn, Tulane, Georgia Tech, and other as-of-yet undecided locations.

Trinity School Class of 2016

This reunion is just one way the phrase, “Once a Trinity child, always a Trinity child” plays out. Seeing so many of the students from the Trinity Class of 2016 was such a joy, and the setting for the reunion could not have been more fitting – the new Outdoor Learning Center for Trinity’s Early Elementary students. Seeing these 17- and 18-year-olds making their way around this awesome space was so fun. After the group pics and food happened, two of my former students approached me and asked if it would be okay to go back and play in the tree. “I mean, I’m sure we CAN, we’re just not sure if it would be socially acceptable,” one said. “Get out there and play, man,” I responded enthusiastically. For at least ten minutes that is what they did. Climbing, laughing, talking, and letting their inner little kid back out for a bit. Upon exiting the tree, one turned to look at it and said, “That, is a Good Tree!” 

The Trinity School Outdoor Learning Center
The Trinity School Outdoor Learning Center
Behold! The Tree!
Inside the tree!

When it was time for me to go, I made my way around to my former students, wished them luck, told them how great it was to see them, and successfully held back some tears. I’m so excited for them, their potential is limited only by their drive, and this group’s drive is STRONG. Athletics, academics, and philanthropic endeavors are just a few of the areas these young women and men have excelled in since leaving Trinity School, and will, without a doubt, continue to do so.

Avery, Bobby, Cricket, Edward, Frank, Jack, Logan, Matthew, Nora, Owen, Rachel, Walton, William, and Xander – I don’t know if you realize how much it means to me that you seemed as happy to see me as I was to see you, but rest assured, you filled my cup to the brim with enough left over for a to-go cup. Asia Bay, Campbell, Ella Grace, Elle, Kelsey, and Mollie, we missed seeing you, but I know you’re on to great things, too! As I told you in May of 2016, my door is always open to you, and once Team Benefield, always Team Benefield. You have a faithful, cheering supporter here!

Owen missed the group shot, but we got one of the family!

Sixteen – The Songs That Shaped That Year

Photo from author’s personal collection

Turning 16 is undoubtedly one of the highlights of a teen’s life. The freedom that came with getting your driver’s license after being in the purgatory of a learner’s permit!! Getting to listen to YOUR music as you drove around doing nothing. Freedom! There were two worlds of music for me; what was on the radio that I listened to sometimes, and what I was listening to most of the time on my car tape deck, my boombox at home, or through my headphones so I could try to keep everyone away (it never worked though, did it?)

I originally culled my list from the Billboard Top 100 from 1986, but then realized that of those hundred there are only sixteen I liked, and of those sixteen, there are only ten I REALLY like (3 get an honorable mention), and almost all them fall into the category of what was known as “alternative.” I was just excited that bands I thought were really cool were being played on the radio! I would have to say that the thing that probably made them alternative is mostly that they were British. Two of the other three were already established mainstream American acts that were undeniably cool, and the one outlier was a brand new band that, like so many, shined brightly on their first release but the world at large never heard from them after that.

The Radio Songs

“King for a Day” by The Thompson Twins

The Thompson Twins were the perfect New Wave band. A little edgy, a lot pop. They made some really radio-friendly music and this song was one of them. It’s funny how they were considered alternative because they looked a little strange. Tom Bailey was a talented songwriter and a really good lead singer. 

“Election Day” by Duran Duran offshoot band, Arcadia

Anything by D2 was pretty much guaranteed to be popular at this time, so when Simon and Nick went off to do their side project it basically sounded like D2, unlike Roger & Andy Taylor’s Power Station. “Election Day” really wasn’t very different from your average D2 song; danceable, atmospheric, and guaranteed to get on the charts.

“Life in a Northern Town” by The Dream Academy

Another band deemed alternative that was really pretty much middle-of-the-road pop music. Nonetheless, the sounds of this song were fresh and new, using tympanis, strings, and an oboe along with an instantly catchy chorus. The album is really good and they should have been more than a one-hit-wonder.

 “What You Need”  by INXS

INXS had arrived and was knocking on the door to superstardom. Listen Like Thieves is a great album, incorporating all of INXS’ trademark sounds. It of course didn’t hurt to have Michael Hutchence as the lead singer. Those on the fringe who were already into INXS knew that they were about to be huge; although like so many bands that were much loved by the fringe, we kind of wished they could stay our secret.

“Something About You” by Level 42

Another British band that snuck into the American Top 40. I loved the song, and the video (NOT the music) reminded me of Madness, so I loved that, too. That the lead singer was also the bass player struck me as kind of cool. It’s just a sweet love song that as a day-dreaming 16-year old, there’s always room for more sweet love songs.

“If You Leave” by OMD

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: you don’t get much more of a British name for a band than that! Also, another British band with a bass playing lead singer! This song closes out the John Hughes movie, Pretty in Pink, in an epic scene: Duckie, Andie, Blane (“That’s not a name, that’s a, a, an appliance!”), and Steff in a sea of dancing teens, setting up expectations of what high school prom should be. I don’t know about your prom, but Bone Holmes and Friends did not include British synthpop in their setlists at mine.

“Alive and Kicking” by Simple Minds

Scottish alt band sneaking up on U2 as a band with a big sound, Christian beliefs, and the ability to craft a catchy anthem. As a hyper 16-year-old, I broke my nose slam-dancing (with my friend Bill, who will figure prominently in the second half of this piece) in protest at the local dance club because the DJ was playing Michael Jackson. Blood everywhere. As I’m laid out waiting for my mom to pick me up, I requested this song, just to let everyone know I was okay (no one cared).

“Kiss” by Prince

It’s Prince. The video is Prince dancing and Wendy on guitar. I mean, really, enough said. 

“Tonight She Comes” by The Cars

The Cars had been one of my favorite bands already; everything about them was cool. Gangly Ric Ocasek’s ever-present Wayfarers and Elliot Easton’s distinct guitar riffs and solos struck me the most about them. They reminded me of summer and I turned 16 in the summer of ‘86. We hadn’t heard anything from them since 1984’s Heartbreak City, and this song was added to their Greatest Hits compilation. I would have loved a whole new album from The Cars, but that was not to be. This song has all the trademark sounds that made me love The Cars from the first time I heard, “Let’s Go.”

“Your Love” by The Outfield

“Josie’s on a vacation far away…” belted out in falsetto with a sparsely strummed guitar. The Outfield and their album, Play Deep is such strange baseball things from a British band. It’s really good power pop from a really talented three-piece; although listening closely to the lyrics now I’m a little skeeved out by them. How old is the woman who is the focal point? “You know I like my girls a little bit older…” Who’s he talking to? “As you’re leaving please won’t you close the door?” The guy doesn’t even take her to breakfast? Parents, warn your daughters about guys like this. 

Honorable Mentions are “Conga” by Miami Sound Machine, “Tarzan Boy” by Baltimora, and “I’m Your Man” by Wham. Technically, “Tarzan Boy” and “I’m Your Man ” charted first in 1985, but apparently had enough momentum to carry over into 1986. I have a special place in my mind for these tracks because they were songs that played as David T. manically danced the conga every time I saw him, all of my friends would raise our hands to our mouths as we did the Tarzan call, and I mean, really, is there a more upbeat and fun song that “I’m Your Man”? The answer, in case you’re wondering, is no, there is not a more upbeat and fun song. Some cool kids might consider these songs as guilty pleasures, but you know what? I don’t have any guilt in admitting love for these songs at all. I wouldn’t trade the memories and laughter that came as a result of hearing these songs on the radio for anything. 

WAIT WAIT WAIT!!! This is what was on the radio, not what I was listening to on my own in my car, bedroom, and on my Panasonic stand-in for a Sony Walkman. And while there were some alternative songs that made it onto the radio, the songs that I spent hours and hours listening to are really what my sixteenth year is about. These songs were not going to be played on mainstream radio, and they weren’t really played on the college radio station in Atlanta. I had to seek this music out or have it introduced to me, and I think that’s what really made it alternative.

[Aside – when I say album, 85% of the time I mean cassette. It was a different time, folks]

“Swan Swan H”/”Superman” by R.E.M. 

Life’s Rich Pageant was the first R.E.M. album I bought. The aforementioned Bill introduced them to me, as well as many, many others. The songs on Pageant were easier to understand than a lot of their earlier releases. They were also pretty easy to play on guitar and so these two songs made it into the setlist of the band I was in at the time. 

“Rise” by Public Image Ltd. 

“I could be wrong, I could be right…” John Lydon expressed a lot of what goes on in a 16-year-old’s head. Admittedly, I got this album because I thought it was hilarious that PiL took the whole generic trend (pics for context) and applied it to this; album and cassette (eventually compact disc) and I loved John Lydon’s screechy British yowl, especially at the end of this song when he repeats the phrase, “Anger is an ener-GEE, anger is an ener-GEE, anger is an ener-GEE…” (picture source)

“Kundalini Express” by Love and Rockets 

The first of several entries from Friend Bill. He’s two years older than me and at the time was away at Wake Forest DJ’ing at their station, so he brought me all kinds of new music I probably wouldn’t have heard any other way. The only alternative station we had in Atlanta was Georgia State University’s WRAS 88.5, and while they played alternative music, seldom was I taken with the songs they played. Love & Rockets just exuded coolness, and their album, Express, was in the tape deck of my car frequently. 

“Don’t Let’s Start” by They Might Be Giants

As I mentioned, I was a hyper 16-year-old, and They Might Be Giants opened up a whole world of absurdity to me that absolutely made sense. Their debut album was such a breath of fresh air, even among all the alternative music I was listening to, but especially compared to the boring stuff on the radio at the time.

The whole Pretty in Pink Soundtrack

I think this was the first soundtrack that really spoke to me as a collection. I spent hours making mixtapes for myself and my friends and here was one already put together for me! John Hughes seemed to understand what being an on-the-fringe teen was all about, and a lot of that was the music. This soundtrack features “If You Leave” by OMD, but that’s just the surface. Another track by INXS and songs by Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order, The Smiths, and more! 

“Special” – The Violent Femmes

A manic, fast-paced love song that has, if I’m not mistaken, a theremin solo! I’d heard a few of their songs, including the one with the F-Bomb, and thought they were pretty cool. I ordered this actual vinyl album from my dad’s Columbia House Record Club (CRC). I might have even gotten it free since they allowed you to choose a record free for every three or four you bought at regular Club prices. My dad was a really good sport and would let me get the free ones. I remember the day this album came in the mail. I had been out doing something with my church youth group and when I got home the Columbia House cardboard mailer was waiting for me on the garage steps. YES!

“You Make Me Feel So Good” by Book of Love

Another Bill selection! This band was kind of a female-led Depeche Mode, 100% a synth band that made good music to dance to. This is just a fun love song.

“Cemetery Gates” by The Smiths

I first heard The Smiths with their ultra-cool song, “How Soon is Now.” Imagine how very surprised I was when I got this album, another CRC purchase, that there were no songs on it that sounded like that one at all! Instead, it was jangly guitar music with Sir Mopes-A-Lot as the singer and it was fantastic. The juxtaposition of such upbeat guitar pop with Morrissey’s voice and lyrics was unlike anything I’d heard before. This song ended up on every mixtape I made for about three years running.

“That’s Really Super Supergirl” by XTC

Yes, another Bill song! Spring of 1986. My church was having a Spring Fling. Bill pulled up in his maroon Honda Prelude with Skylarking in the tape deck. “LISTEN TO THIS!!!” he exclaimed. It was this song and it was amazing. Bill made me a copy of this, backed with Love & Rockets’ 7th Dream of Teenage Heaven. I’d play this cassette on repeat over and over and over. I still have it in my drawer of cassettes.

The whole collection of Standing on a Beach by The Cure

How cool were you if you liked The Cure? Well, to the general population you were not cool for liking The Cure, but to the small group of on-the-fringe teens at my high school, you were definitely cool if you liked The Cure. The cassette of this came with a collection of B-sides. Who puts out B-side collections? British bands, that’s who. When the CD came out years later I was bitterly disappointed that it did not contain the B-sides.

Bill and I getting ready to go pick up our dates for the Sadie Hawkins Dance
Photo from author’s personal collection

Man! What a joy this has been going through these songs and replaying these memories and then creating this playlist! Bill and I are still great friends but musical introductions are more of a two-way street now. What were YOU listening to the year you turned 16? 

Reimagining Outdoor Ed Trips

As with many parts of the school year, Covid was a party pooper for our beloved Outdoor Ed (OE) trips. I’ve talked about these before; one in the spring, one in the fall. The goal for the fall focuses on team building and working together, and the the spring trip focuses more on making memories with friends that may be going to different schools next year. Thanks to our supportive administration, our creative and flexible special area teachers, and the resilient group of students we have, we were able to reimagine our two trips this year into On-Campus Outdoor Ed (OCOE). We kept the spirit of the trips alive, focusing on similar themes for each one. We were blessed with two beautiful days this year, one in October and one in April.

OCTOBER

At this point, our students had been together for a little more than a month, and when I say together, I mean that literally. (Trinity School‘s Covid safety protocol requires students to stay in their homerooms for the entire day with the exception of recess every day and PE three days a week. All the teachers travel to the classrooms to be with the students there. I am so proud of how they had adapted to this new school year! Masks on all the time, not changing classes, eating in the classroom, not seeing friends in other classes during recess, and really, just being around the same 16 classmates all day, every day, every week.) Through several different rotations over the course of the day, the team building activities the coaches planned for the students involved different kinds of communication and the mantra of, “Not me, We.” Students learned what it was to make choices that would benefit their group more than themselves. In addition to the team building activities, students had a chance to play a big game of Capture the Flag on the field. Art teacher, Pat Kerner, led the the students in a lesson to make art pieces from objects found in nature after the style of artist, Andy Goldsworthy. Math teacher, Kelly Swanton, led a yoga session in Discovery Woods We wrapped up the day with the activity, The Reflection Circle. Being able to do this was as important to the teachers as it was to the students. We knew what these kids were missing. Most of us have done several OE trips, and The Reflection Circle is a powerful activity.

The Reflection Circle

We come together as a whole group and get into a big circle and sit down facing each other. Coach Brian instructs everyone to close their eyes and then one group of students stand outside the circle. The students walk around the circle and touch the shoulder of their classmates or teachers in response to different prompts: “You’ve seen this person be courageous. You’ve seen this person be kind. This person has been a good friend. This person has made you laugh. This person is a good role model.” The adults participate as well, and this is an example of how our time with the students at their activities pays off. We have seen the kindness, the courage, the risk-taking, the merriment that others might not notice in someone.

APRIL

For our spring OCOE we combined regular OE activities with preparation for our upcoming Fifth Grade Olympics. Students had time to start creating their team t-shirts and chariots. Jog strollers have been the most popular chariot choice over the years, but for the first time in seven years, I had three different vehicles for each Olympic group: a job stroller, a red wagon, and a snow sled attached to a skateboard! Three very different chariots for three very different teams. The pressure was on because the Fifth Grade Olympics of the Body was just a week away! Again, our PE coaches, art teacher, and our Fifth Grade Team all pitched in to give the students a great day.

Fifth Grade Olympics

Each year for our Olympics unit the students form different homeroom Olympic teams based on a city that has hosted the Olympic Games. Students research their assigned Olympics through several tasks: creating an Olympic banner, a torch, an original mascot, and a bulletin board sharing the information they’ve learned. The culminates with Olympics of the Body and Olympics of the Mind. The chariot building and race are high points of the unit. Students bring a vehicle from home, decorate it to represent their Olympic cities, and race them down the length of our PE field.

TAKE AWAY

It would have been easy to just give the students a pajama/read-in/game time kind of day in lieu of the two trips that got canceled, but that didn’t sit right with anyone. Several meetings were had discussing lots of different options. It was a true collaboration between the Fifth Grade Team, the special area teachers, and the administration. That we had the option to reimagine these events and give the students these experiences was such a blessing. The teachers knew what the students missed out on not going on a traditional OE trip, and a few of them with older siblings have heard stories of OE trips in the past, but the Trinity Class of 21-22 will be able to tell stories of OCOE that other classes (hopefully) won’t.

Covid19 Shutdown – Teacher’s Perspective

Friday, March 13th, 1:45 p.m, Trinity School. 70-something 5th graders gather in the hall to have a dance party, but dammit, the speaker won’t work. The speaker won’t work. You can’t have a dance party without a speaker! Try telling that to a group of 5th grade boys so connected that they come up with almost identical writing topics when given a surprise free write assignment.

“Play ‘Single Ladies’! Play ‘Single Ladies’!!!!”

‘Single Ladies’ plays and the boys sing and dance, dance and sing.

The girls roll their eyes.

“It is now time for 2:00 o’clock carpool. Teachers, please log onto School Pass.”

And just like that everything we knew about school was over.

Flashback March 4th The faculty meeting where we hear the Head of School tell us that we might be looking at some days away from school. Nothing solid, nothing definite, but it’s a possibility.

Flash forward March 9th. Morning Meeting with our students.

“It’s possible that we’re going to have to stay home for a few days. Maybe a little longer, two weeks tops.”

We tell the kids, “This is something you’re going to always remember. This is the thing that when you’re an adult people will ask you where you were when the Corona Shutdown happened, and you’ll say that you were a 5th Grader at Trinity School.”

Flashback March 11th. 8 teachers sit together putting together a week’s worth of assignments. Laughing, but taking it seriously. We are putting together assignments for our students that they can do at home that will be similar to what we’d be doing at school. ‘A week, two weeks tops.’ floats through our minds, but there are some quiet, sinister voices that say different.

Monday, March 16th Distance Learning begins. Our Google Drives are in use as they never have been before. Students use this to do turn in the work they’re doing that we assigned. Checking over each assignment, making comments, checking off on Google Spreadsheets which students have completed what.

I meet with Jill Gough and Bridget Billups on Google Meet, a new-to-us platform on Monday, March 16th. Isn’t it fun! Look! There they are! It’s the future the Jetsons promised us, minus the flying cars. This is what we will be using to see our students because we are staying home two weeks, and the second week we will start seeing our students in our virtual classrooms.

We Meet and make plans. We Meet more and plan more. We fill in schedules on Google Docs. We make hyperlinks to Google Docs and Loom video presentations (another new platform!) We meet more. Nervous laughter. Frustrated grumbles over Internet blips; frozen screens, echoey voices, connections that don’t connect.

Week 2 we see our students for the first time on screen. We laugh, we talk, we tell them they’re doing great and assure them that we’ll be back together soon. Little do we know.

Weeks 3, 4, 5, 6. Meeting, planning, emailing, texting, Face Timing holding onto the thinning thread of hope that we will go back and we will be with our students and EACH OTHER again. We spend hours and hours with each other 5 days a week. We are a support system for each other.

We hear we will not be coming back.

We will not be coming back.

Not coming back.

Weeks 7 and 8 continue as the others have, and here’s the thing. Here’s the thing:

Our students are doing awesome work, and they have been this whole time! All the foundations laid before the Corona Shutdown are fully evident. We are proud. We are amazed. These digital natives have taken this new format and said, “Okay, yeah. We got this.” And they do!

Don’t get me wrong. They want to come back. Videos shared with us showing a 5th grader wailing/whining, “I WANT TO GO BACK TO SCHOOOOOOL!” But they are doing great work. Not busy work. Not just reviewing what they’ve learned already this year. New material. New skills and strategies.

These teachers I work with. Holy cow, these teachers! These co-workers. These friends of mine. I can’t sing their praises enough. Mothers of young children also in school and too young for school. Single adults at home by themselves with just their sweet pup for company. Wives of husbands whose jobs are as uncertain as the time we’re living in. Wives and moms away from home to be with family while other family members are away from them. Wives and moms with high schoolers in their homes who are surly and bored and snarky and even sweet at times. These teachers I work with!

Day after day, week after week we bring our all to this task – Teach our students. At various times we crack. Tears of frustration, fear, disappointment, exhaustion, anger. But we laugh and we make each other laugh. These teachers I work with!

Week 9, it’s our last week with our students. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. We’ve missed so much. They’ve missed so much. 30 minute video meetings in the morning where the seams are starting to show a little. A little less interest. A little less participation. Can we blame them for this? No! We are as exhausted by this as they are.

They’re still doing great work. They’re still trying their best. They’re asking questions, they’re sharing thoughts and insights, but they’re done and nobody blames them. We’re close ourselves, but then it hits me.

When this is over I have summer ahead of me. Usually that fills me with excitement. Summer! I’ve said before that any teacher that claims the time off in summer has nothing to do with why they teach, even just a little, is a liar. This summer is full of uncertainty and lack of structure for me. Summer means I don’t see my students’ smiling little faces on my screen every morning. Summer means I don’t see my co-workers in our now weekly Meet. We did get it down to once a week after a couple of weeks. I was going to coach swim team again this summer and I love that, but it’s been snatched away like so many other things.

I’ve told my students that I will see them again. I wish it would be in room 2261 getting ready for a regular day of 5th grade, but that’s not possible. That regularity seems to be out of reach. That doesn’t matter though. I have poured 7 1/2 months into them. I have learned about them. I have learned from them. I hope they have learned from me. They are part of Team Benefield, and that’s a lifetime membership. I will see them again. Whether individually, a partial group, or the whole 18 of them together in one place, I will see their smiles face-to-face. If we get to a place where we can high-five or give hugs I will do that. If we aren’t at that place yet I will do like I’ve been doing with friends I’ve seen from 6 feet away; smile, give ourselves a hug and acknowledge that it’s not the same, but it’s better than nothing.

This school year is nothing at all like anyone thought it would be. It is one that I hope no one ever, ever has to go through again because it has been hard. Hard, but not impossible. Hard, but not without hope and joy and expectation and success. If we have to do this again, we can. We’ve learned new skills. We pivoted. We took this situation and did the best we could, and we can do it again if we have to. We don’t want to. At all. Ever again. But we can because this is what we do; we teach our students.

 

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Constitution Lakes Park

Mother’s Day for some families means an outing with the whole family. For the Benefield family, this Benefield family in particular, it means let Mom have a few hours to herself at home. You see, since March 13th, Glitter Queen has been putting up with three more people than usual for 8+ hours a day due to the Covid19 Shutdown.

Normally, the Girls and I would be at school during the day, but since that cold mid-March day, our school is at home. We are here. All the time. GQ pointed out to me the other day that everyone has had some time at home by themselves. Everyone but her. That’s something that I can fix.

After a Mother’s Day brunch of gluten free pancakes, bacon, and fruit, the Girls and I head out down Moreland Avenue to Constitution Lakes Park (not the official site). The Girls had been once before with GQ, and I’ve been wanting to go. I think we picked a better time of year because it is a wet, wet area and the mosquitos are not quite buzzing yet.

Walking into the park you would not expect the creepiness that awaits you. A nice, 8′ wide sidewalk takes you down a winding path for a while and the there’s Patrick spray painted on a tree, followed closely by Spongebob. A little further and you see, “DOLLS HEAD TRAIL” with an arrow to the left.

We follow the boardwalk in the direction other hand-scrawled directions give. We see some tiny turtles sunning themselves on some logs. It’s a pretty lake that the boardwalk borders. A few fishermen are casting their lines as we continue on. During some recent storms an enormous oak tree has fallen across the path. It’s almost the perfect gateway to what lies ahead.

I’ll let these photos speak for me. It’s creepy and it’s fascinating, and it’s just about 30 minutes outside of Decatur. We got there around 12:30 and only encountered one other family on the trail. We stayed about an hour and a half and on our way out passed at least 12 families, so the trick is the earlier, the better.

In addition to Dolls Head Trail, the boardwalk apparently goes all the way around the lakes. Something Ramona tried to tell me, but I was too enthralled with the dollheads and taking pictures. Oh well, I guess that just means that I’ll have to go back another day.

 

Planting the Seeds of Service

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One of the many attributes that drew me to Trinity was the commitment to instilling in the students a sense of community service. Each grade level has a project that assists different community service, mostly local..

I experienced the commitment to service as soon as I started working at Trinity. Fifth Grade partnered with Trees Atlanta and a local elementary school in the Atlanta Public School system. Three times during the year we had activities with Trees Atlanta. They came to Trinity and taught us about urban forests and how lucky we are to live in one of the larger ones in the region. They also met us at Perkerson E.S. where we planted trees along the street in front of their school and down one of the local streets. I learned digging big holes in hard ground with 10-11 year olds was not an easy task! Finally, we hosted the students and teachers from Perkerson at Trinity, and we explored and cleaned up in Discovery Woods behind our school. It was a neat experience for everyone involved, and we carried on that relationship for a number of years. Unfortunately, our contact at Trees Atlanta moved on, the program we were operating under evolved into something else, and scheduling conflicts with Perkerson made us have to look for a new outlet for service.

For the past two years, Fifth Grade students have helped raise money to buy Uzima filters for the organization, Start With One – Kenya by holding a two week walk-a-thon and raising money through donations for total laps walked. The students raised additional funds through the annual Freshwater Fair held by our awesome science teacher, Becky Maas, where the Fifth Graders created games that both taught other Trinity students about freshwater animals and entertained/challenged them with different skills. I’ll reveal the total dollar amount and number of filters the grade was able to supply at the end of this post. For our Valentine’s Day party this year, each student also assembled a breakfast bag to be given to the guests of the Central Night Shelter. Each bag had a reusable water bottle, a new pair of socks, snacks, a piece of fruit, and a piece of candy. 

Below are some pictures of different grade levels participating in their community service projects.

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From the pictures, you can see our school is busy all year long finding different ways to help those in our community and around the world. Each year the students come together to see and hear about their collective services they provide. The cheers for each grade level is fantastic, as is the pride that can be seen on the faces of the students when they see their achievements on the overhead screen.

Now, for the big reveal! The Fifth Grade students raised the amazing sum of $16,000! This money will be enough to purchase 400 water filters that will be distributed this summer to families in a village in Kenya. Each filter will last for 10 years! This year, Mrs. Maas will be accompanying Start With One – Kenya representatives on their annual trip to Africa. She will get to meet the families who will receive the filters and see firsthand the difference these make in the lives of these people.

If you know me or know about my Go Do Good philosophy then you can clearly see how I am thrilled beyond belief to be a part of this school where 680+ students are having the seeds of service planted, tended, and grown into caring, serving girls and boys.

Christmas Music

I love Christmas music. It’s a little point of contention with my family that as soon as Thanksgiving is over my Pandora or Spotify stations and playlists are pretty much dedicated to Christmas music. As the Girls have gotten older, they are not as into as they were as little ones. That’s okay, it’s to be expected. Surly teen years and all.

My tastes in Christmas music are pretty broad. If you know me this isn’t surprising. I love the classics. I think I still have my Gene Autry Sings, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” album that I listed to as a little boy. My parents had a few Time-Life Christmas Collections that Dad would pull out every year for the turntable. Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, the different orchestras that recorded standards, Burl Ives. Then there was The New Christy Minstrels (I’m still not even sure about this enormous group of very happy looking sweater-wearing, sleigh-riding folks. I honestly don’t think that album ever got played in our house. It looks like it’d be a fun album, but again, I have no memory of ever actually hearing it to make a judgment on the music.

As I was entering my teen years in the early 80’s, I was introduced to some new classics. The world before the Internet was not an easy time to hear new, interesting Christmas music. Maybe 96 Rock would play The Kinks, “Father Christmas” every once in awhile, and that was pretty exciting. Of course, one of the greatest musical moments in my life, and so many other people a certain age now, happened the magical year of 1984. Band Aid’s, “Do They Know it’s Christmas?“. I could not get enough of this. So many of my favorite bands and singers were on this. The video made me so happy! Seeing all those stars together having such a good time, playing and singing together. That they raised money to try to send relief to Ethiopia was fantastic. Sadly, there’s speculation on where the money actually ended up.

I’ve heard, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” countless times. Great song. For my ears, it’s hard to beat Andy Williams’ version. I am a bit confused though by a line in the song: “There’ll be scary ghost stories…” Why? Why are we telling ghost stories at Christmastime? Is that an allusion to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? I’ve always wondered how that line ended up in there.

The other classic that raises a question in my mind is from “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”. There are lots of good versions of this one, pick your favorite. My question is what kind of disturbed individual includes the line, “Oh what a laugh it would have been, if Daddy had only seen Mommy kissing Santa Claus last night!” Now, obviously, the sly wink and nod is that of course it’s Daddy in the first place that’s kissing Mommy. That’s all good and fine, but here’s the problem – this song is told from the perspective of a little kid. They are a little disturbed, maybe, that their mom is kissing some other guy, even if that guy is Santa, but beyond that they’re thinking how funny it’d be if their dad saw this kiss. In the Jackson 5’s version you hear young Michael trying to get his brothers to believe him. “I did! I did see Mommy kissing Santa and I’m gonna tell my daddy!” What do people think is going to happen when Daddy hears that Mommy’s been kissing another dude?  Cue up The Ramones, “Merry Christmas, I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight

I’ll wrap this up with some of my more recent favorites. Obviously Mariah ends up here. You’d have to be a pretty serious Scrooge to not love this song. I’m not even going to put the title because it’s just so obvious. I will include this video though because it makes me pretty happy every time I see it. Also, the piano player on Mariah’s album is phenomenal. His playing absolutely takes the songs up at least 5 notches. Kelly Clarkson has gifted us with her fantastic, “Underneath the Tree” that I somehow just heard for the first time this year. The Shins covered another one of my favorites a few years ago and put a very Beach Boys’ spin to “Wonderful Christmastime.” Some people can’t stand Macca’s song and those people are wrong. The cover brings three things I love together, Paul McCartney, Beach Boys’ song structure/harmony, and The Shins. I’ll leave off with a song that I’m thankful I never had to relate to, but I look forward to hearing it every year, Dropkick Murphys “The Season’s Upon Us

Christmas songs are gifts bestowed upon us this time of year. Like all gifts, they illicit different responses from us. For the most part, they are given with love; although there are a few that I think were written, recorded, and released just to put a plant a horrible earworm. My gift to you is not including any of the ones of those that make my Naughty List, feel free to leave them in the comments if you want. Something to remember when you’re listening to these songs is that the majority of them were recorded in the summer or fall, a very un-Christmasy time of year. I read that Frank Sinatra had the recording studio decorated for Christmas and got them to crank up the AC so there’d be a bit of chill in the air.

I’ll leave you with a teen favorite, Billy Squier & the classic MTV crew reminding us that “Christmas is a time to say, ‘I Love You.'”  Merry Christmas to all and to all some great tunes

.oooooh

 

A Different Reason I Teach

I have spoken about some of the reasons I am a teacher before – here, here, and here, but a over the course of a recent weekend I was reminded of a couple of more reasons.

I attended a job fair with member of the Academic Leadership Team from Trinity to Milledgeville, GA, at Georgia College and State University. We were one of two, maybe three independent schools there for the day. By and large, the entire gym floor was filled with representatives from schools systems from all over Georgia, big and small.

It was an interesting day and we had the opportunity to speak to a few soon-to-be graduating seniors that are looking to go into teaching. As we were leaving, I heard someone calling me, “Mr. Benefield.”

I turned around to see a young man approaching me. He told me he was a former student at Fernbank Elementary. He saw me during the Job Fair while he was working out – the job fair was held in their gym and the workout room was above us – and he came down to talk to me. He introduced himself to me, reminded me of his younger brother’s name and then he said,

“I just wanted to tell you, ‘Thank you’.” He went on to tell me how much he appreciated all the work that I did and all the teachers at Fernbank did for him, and all the students. He said he noticed such a difference in the teachers at Fernbank than any of the other schools he attended. He said again, “I just wanted to tell you, ‘Thank you’.” He was so sincere and earnest. I found out that he is a senior and is majoring in business and is looking forward to graduating in the spring.

We shook hands, gave each other a quick hug, and then he was backing away, saying again, “Thank you.” I stood there for a few seconds and then turned to go.

My colleague said, “That was really moving. You’ve made a difference in someone’s life, Thomas.” I was really moved. This young man had not even been in my homeroom class, but I did remember him. That being said, I did go and look him up in the yearbook from the time he was in 5th grade! I could definitely see the young man that emerged through the face of that 10-year old on the page.

I occasionally run into former students in random places and it’s always fun, but that was the first time I  have been moved like that. It’s humbling and gratifying to know that students who we pour ourselves into every year really do reap the benefit of care, love, and time.

The other thing that happened was at two different locations, one at the Trinity Spotlight on Art and the Druid Hills High School Auction. At both locations I ran into parents of former students. From as recent as last year to all the way far back as 17 years ago!

I really enjoy getting to know the parents of my students. It does not happen with all the parents and that’s fine. I have had the privilege to become friends with parents of some of my students and former students. It does not usually happen the year I am teaching their child; although, I do have a few of those. Usually, over the school year we find there is something that we have in common. Whether it is music, movies, comic books, or something else, there’s a spark of a relationship beyond teacher/parent.

The weekend I ran into those parents, it was so exciting to hear about what these boys and girls (sometimes it is hard to not see them as eternally the 10-11 year olds they were when they were with me) young men and women are up to. From middle school sports and academic teams to high school and college to graduate school to full-time careers as adults, I heard fascinating and uplifting stories.

I have been in the classroom since 1992, I wish I knew what some of my first students from the 1990s were up to. I know there’s a possibility that one day I will have a student come in my room and I’ll find out that I taught their mom or dad. Maybe that’s a dream, I don’t know, but the possibility brings me a great deal of happiness.

As teachers, we take a risk getting to know our students’ parents on a personal level. There are some things that could go wrong, certainly. At the same time, I find there has been so much to gain and I have no regrets in extending that relationship outside of the classroom. I am looking forward to many more years of being in the classroom and many more stories from the parents of those students.