Book Signing at Words Bookstore in Maplewood, NJ

What an adorable store in the most quaint town ever. I recently spoke and did a book signing at Words Bookstore in Maplewood, NJ. Take a look!

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Together We Can Save the World

Last week I was the keynote speaker at a JAFCO (Jewish Adoption and Foster Care Options) luncheon.  A few years ago, I never would have envisioned myself as the keynote speaker anywhere.  What might I have spoken about?  More importantly who would want to listen?  But Shades of Gray has taken me down some new and very cool paths and, as I always say, things happen for a reason in life. So, off to the luncheon I went; nerves entangled, hands shaking.  Knowing that the cause was infinitely worthy, I prepared a speech and picked out a dress.  I walked up to the podium and somehow my nerves, that moments later wouldn’t allow me to eat the lovely lunch they served, settled down.  I got to talk about kids – at risk kids.  My passion overtook my fear and out the words poured.

Having visited JAFCO the week before, I expected it to be a far sadder place than it was.  Being that the compound houses children whose lives have been torn apart, I suppose I expected what I was more accustomed to seeing in a system that has often failed the children who ended up in dropout prevention programs like my old ACE program, which I fictionalized in Shades.  It wasn’t though.  JAFCO is a place that reminds us that although reprehensible problems still exist for some children, if we impart a little love and devotion into what we believe in, miracles can happen.  The women I met that support JAFCO through their tireless hours of volunteering are simply remarkable.  Anyone who can look into a suffering child’s eyes I will never understand and there I was in a room filled with people that shared my passion to save them all.  They renewed my confidence that, as trite as it sounds, that love can save the world.  I want to thank JAFCO for inviting me to speak last week, for all they do for the children and for renewing people’s faith that together we can save the world.  Tikkun Olam.

http://www.jafco.org/

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Dedicated to Teachers That Make a Difference

On Facebook I read about a teacher from my junior high school that passed away recently.  I was never fortunate enough to have her, but her reputation was such that I remember her well.  In one of the posted photos, Ms. Morell is on a field trip with Mr, Byrnes.  Mr. Byrnes, on the other hand, I did have as my teacher and boy, did I love his class.  All the girls thought he was adorable, an important trait when in middle school, and hung onto his every word.  More importantly though; his class was fun and his stories were interesting.  Somehow, he managed to make history intriguing for me; something that never happened before.  I looked forward to his class and so did most of my friends, boys and girls alike.

Many heartfelt condolences appeared on Facebook for the late Ms. Morell.  People wrote all sorts of things about how they loved her class; how she made learning Spanish fun; how she understood kids.  The point is, thirty-five (or so) years later, people remember Ms. Morell.  They may not have thought about her often in the last years, but when they heard of her passing, warmth filled their hearts as they recalled the joy she brought to their edification.  We remember the teachers that leave impressions on us. How many of us can say we are surely going to leave an imprint in this world?  A good teacher does. We hope, as we send our children off to school each day, that they will be blessed with teachers that they too will remember in thirty-five years; teachers that made a difference; teachers that will fill the screen on Facebook (although by then I am quite sure there will be something far more sophisticated that I will struggle to have my grandchildren teach me).  The excitement for learning that a good teacher, a funny teacher, a warm teacher, can evoke is priceless.

Here’s to the Ms. Morells’, the Mr. Byrnes’, Kohuts’ and Edelsteins’, Mrs. Wells’, who managed to make a mark on my life.  Here’s to the millions of teachers that get kids, make classes interesting, and have changed someone’s path or brought light to a subject.  Here’s to the teachers that make a difference. about 1977

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Keeping the Faith

For months since the publication of Shades of Gray I have searched for the principal and assistant principal that had the gumption to push towards creating a dropout prevention program at the NYC high school at which I taught twenty plus years ago.  Who knew that one small leap of faith would be enough to not only change the lives of some of my past students, but also alter my own path – and all for the better?  I wanted to send them my novel and a big, fat thank you for saving my job that winter when the dropout rate had been so exorbitant that many new teachers lost their jobs mid-year. It wasn’t just the fact that I remained employed, but moreover that, because they saw something in me that I didn’t even know existed yet, I (and two other lucky teachers) co-founded the original ACE program that my book is based on.  Without their faith, Shades of Gray wouldn’t have been written, I wouldn’t be going around encouraging further programs for at risk students and I wouldn’t be able to proudly say that some of my old students are remarkable adults with children of their own; some of which actually attend college now.

I hadn’t had any luck finding either of them….until the other night.  I walked into a book club prepared to discuss Shades of Gray, as usual.  The reviews from the group were positive.  I was excited, simply because I love book clubs.  They are intimate enough to have lively conversation that generally leads to the real issues, the reason I wrote Shades in the first place.  And then the oddest and most wonderful thing happened.  In walked Ms. Medina.  Ms. Medina, a member of that same book club, was the assistant principal who invited me back to create Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first dropout prevention program.  She was the administrator who reprimanded a young and naïve me how to remove a weapon from a student’s possession.  She was the supervisor who always had a smile in her eyes and a sure way about definitively overseeing a program that allowed us to use slightly atypical methods to teach and keep our kids coming to school.

I began my usual schpeel and looked out at the women gathered to talk about Shades and there sat Ms. Medina.  At the risk of embarrassing her, I had to express how meaningful it was to me that she appeared that night; that in truth, if not for Ms. Medina’s vision and insight for a young(er) and greener me, I wouldn’t today be parading my own visions about; hoping to encourage other untried teachers to not be afraid to put the love into their teaching and push their kids however they have to.  Make a difference; I scream daily as I hope to inspire others to take that same leap of faith that sent me on my way…and what a pleasant trip it has been.  And it is not yet over.  Thank you, Ms. Medina.  Thank you.

 

 

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College Applicant Woes

A woman from a local state university was on television yesterday and I heard a bit of what she said; enough so that I have been considering the reality of it. Surely, the impact is greater for me this year, having a son applying to colleges as I write. Her message was quite simple. Her university has already received approximately 28,000 applications (it is only early September) for a school that has approximately 30,000 students in total. “We can be more selective with numbers like these,” she boasted. And then the question came, “Isn’t it so that due to the nation’s economy the state schools are inundated with applicants and therefore able to be more choosey in their selection?” Absolutely.

Well, then, what happens to the average student or even the less than average student? Or the student who in no shape or form can ever afford anything besides an in-state education? Some kids don’t really learn to learn until they are in college and faced with the reality that getting an education is real and useful. Some actually want to go to school and not just for the parties and because it is the next step beyond high school. Yet, they may have performed to a level that some of the universities are now able to reject and they are left floundering.

Have we also considered that not all states, mine included, do not set a definitive amount of in-state students that they will accept? They actually look to outside applicants who will pay more, leaving more of our in-state kids out in the cold. There are many students who at one time should have been accepted to the in-state school of their choice, but are being rejected in place of these out-of-staters.

Finally, as I complained to my daughter, a college junior at one of our states’ better colleges; she brought to my attention that not all the professors and teachers at these schools are equipped to teach the higher levels of students that are filling the classrooms. So now we are filling our state universities with students that in some cases may be smarter than their professors. Of course, that is if you define smart in the same way that the admissions committees do? That, of course, requires a whole new blog.

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Where There is Passion; There is Hope

Another article about Fifty Shades found its way to the front page of my local newspaper recently.  Frankly, I am numb. This one boasts that due to Ms. James infamous, erotic novels, “businesses focusing on sexuality are seeing a significant increase in sales.”  Well, there is good news.  I know I will sleep better tonight knowing that for sure.

I began to wonder.  If my Shades of Gray were to be coveted the way Fifty Shades of Grey has, would the world suddenly take note of the desperate need our education system is in?  Would people begin to get more involved in fundraising for our schools?  Would teachers feel motivated to get back into their classrooms and give a little more of their hearts regardless of the impediments put on them by lack of funds, support and an excessive amount of red tape?  Would the government allocate higher pay for educators or mandate parents to assure their children attend school and do homework?

I love visiting book clubs and engaging in intelligent conversation about my book, particularly when the subject diverts from which parts are non-fiction (many) to questions like, “Do you believe that we should be putting money into curriculum like the dropout prevention program described in Shades of Gray?”  (At the risk of exposing my political views; yes – let’s put the money into keeping kids in school now, rather than funding prisons later!) In the next few months I am eager to meet with potential teachers and social workers at various high schools and universities and hope that they will take away from my book an enthusiasm similar to Olivia’s or mine; not unlike the fervor that ignited the real ACE program. I can’t promise the passion my book might kindle will cause the same kind of sales Fifty Shades has, but then again, if one doesn’t dream, neither story would have been told.

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Be True to Yourself

A few weeks ago I spoke at an orientation for incoming high school students from Take Stock in Children.  I’m not a big fan of public speaking, but somehow it came off fairly easily, because I was able to talk about something that I believe in. Writing is no different really.  If my heart is in it, I can write.  I can generally write better than I speak.  You know how you always think of the perfect comeback after you’ve left the scene?  Well, that is me – and that is why writing is a better venue for my words.  It gives me time to think.

Armed with a few index cards of notes, I got up and spoke about being the real you. Easier said than done for a teenager, I realize. I know many adults who are still too self-conscious to allow themselves to follow their own hearts.  But where would we all be if we worried about what others are thinking all the time?   I am grateful every day that I finally had the nerve to sit down and write my book.  I’m reminded of a great time in my life of which many of the stories in my book are generated. More so, I am thrilled that I was able to speak about something I believe in – being an individual.

I stood in that auditorium on Saturday morning and told a room full of teenagers and their parents to not allow other peoples odd looks deter them from getting the education they deserve.  Don’t be afraid to take that next step.  Ask a teacher why or how, I pleaded. Don’t worry about what the other girls are wearing or what backpacks they carry.  Be an individual, I screamed….or at least I wanted to.  I don’t know if I made an impression on any of them, but I do know the words came as easily as they come when I tell my own three kids the same thing.  If you are true to yourself, then you will forever be the perfect you.  No one else can do that.

 

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Capitalizing on New York and London

Not that anyone has asked me, but if young people wanted advice about writing I might jump right in and introduce them to some old friends, Strunk & White. Old fashion, perhaps, but there is something about the formality that its pages outline that I still kind of like. I understand the new theory that we first want kids to get the ideas out there and then later we can get them to clean it all up and make it look pretty, but somehow that second step seems to be going by the wayside. Even my own children seem to be guilty of this at times and believe me they spent their formative years being corrected on a regular basis by a mother who was an English teacher (except for the mispronunciations that were just too cute to modify.) When did we, as teachers, as parents, as people who speak the English language lose sight of the importance of a period at the end of a sentence? Don’t people need to take a breath anymore? Think of punctuation as one’s chance to breathe. Unless, of course, this sort of free form writing technique is new and creative, and I am missing the boat somehow. Yet, I still believe it is our students that are losing out. Somehow, I learned to be a creative writer and I know when to use a comma (and if I don’t I check with Strunk and White) at the same time. I am grateful to editors as well, but last I looked seventh graders don’t generally hire editors, but are likely to be somewhat acquainted with spell check.

As I said though, I do understand the need to get all those thoughts and ideas out first while creative thoughts are flourishing. My question is when do we go back and fix things? Or better yet, when, if we don’t continually teach it, will young writers learn to write automatically using punctuation and capitalization? I see it happening in my own backyard and I am not sure who to blame? Perhaps no blame is necessary. We all make mistakes.  I make them all the time, but this isn’t what I am kvetching about. I love reading my own daughter’s blog, with or without occasional tiny blunders. Let me just make clear that she has talents that far surpasses anything I could have dreamed of and I see great things in her future. Her creative mind ticks in a way that mine only tocks. Her creative energy is probably one of the biggest reasons I finally got off my tush, compiled a load of the stories I had been writing for years and ultimately published Shades of Gray. If it weren’t for my need to prove to myself that I can do it too and I better do it before my then teenager beat me to it, I would still have a drawer filled with anecdotes of a time in my life that has been resurrected and provided me with a platform to talk about things that really matter to me. Once more I am involved in plans for dropout prevention, talking about important issues of today that are real and for some, still difficult to discuss. Not that I wasn’t enjoying my time as class mother and PTA meetings, but my heart is once more getting close to where it belongs and my head is thinking beyond the next load of laundry and I love it. Should I thank my daughter for that and overlook the itty-bitty inaccuracies? I suppose so.

Then, this morning, I read something and I wondered – literally – if the essayist knew that New York and London both should be capitalized. I know the writer and I know she knows, but why doesn’t she do it? In the same light, I am sure that all the essays I edit for college bound kids have used spell check and yet they aren’t fazed by the squiggly, red lines that appear on their pages. Why don’t they care? Yes, I remind myself, my own daughter’s writing is compelling, soulful, original, and even funny sometimes and that is far more important. Writing is not texting though. Why has writing become a brainteaser? Is it possible that the message gets lost when we have to spend time figuring out the riddle that just a little punctuation and lack of abbreviation might explain more clearly? I digress. I am complaining about the text message I could have gotten from any of my three children that has tended to baffle me for ten minutes until I realize it was simply telling me that he/she would be late for dinner. Just say that! When did L8 become late and is there still a chance that we can twist this resourceful spelling/abbreviating game into a better use of these children’s creativity? True, I do want to keep my aging brain productive and I know that a good brainteaser can assist in that, but I still would much rather be mystified by some sort of real writing. I am not asking for more meaningful texts. I understand there is generally no witticism required for I will be late for dinner, but then I am brought back to the essayist. London, like New York always gets a capital! I’ve been to both cities and I assure you, they both deserve it.

As I am sure many people have complained and blogged about this topic before, I will go back to thanking my sweet daughter for her inspiration and continue anticipating her next blog. I will hope and pray that sooner rather than later educators will wake up and realize that we can teach children to write properly while being creative. One does not have to follow the other, nor should it. I will renew my focus on the issues that have become forefront for me – interracial adoption, dropout prevention, and infertility – and be grateful for this opportunity to get involved again. I will not complain when I am stymied by the spelling on an essay I am editing and I will find merriment in the vision of brilliance behind the grammatical errors. I will. I will. I will.

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Lessons My Father Taught Me

I have to admit, I like mother’s day so much more than father’s day.  At this point in my life it is simply, because it is the one day of the year when I get totally smothered in appreciation and pampering.  For twenty years, as long as I have been a mother, my family has done their very best to bring a new meaning to mother’s day.  They make it all about me, not about the mother I lost when I was just a teenager.  And that is just fine, because there is still not a day that I don’t think of my mother, cherish her memories and thank her for helping to make me into who I am today.  Even the fact that she left me so early in life impacted me enough to mold me; hopefully by now, in a good way.  I like to think she was able to cram all that I needed from her into just seventeen years.  I am sure I could have gotten more beyond that; I don’t know what it is to be an adult with a mother or even a mother with a mother of her own, but I have a blessed angel that follows me throughout my days, my ventures, my trials and tribulations and I am okay.  There are lessons in all of it.

Father’s day, on the other hand, will take on a new meaning this year for me.  Less than six months ago I lost my father and the world still doesn’t seem quite right.  For the past 32 years my father was both parents to me, even at the end when I became more of the parent as he was no longer able.  I am not sure how I will feel on that Sunday in June, but when I think about my father now, I wonder if he knew how much he taught me in life.  Actually, I wonder more if I were to list the basic lessons I got from him, if he would be surprised or annoyed that those are what I choose to acknowledge as the wisdom he passed on.  He probably would prefer to hear that I learned to always put part of my paycheck into savings, or to light the candles every Shabbat, but the greatest lesson I inadvertently learned from my father is to give everyone a chance.  No one I know was friendlier and more willing to lend a hand than my dad.  He talked to people in the checkout line at the supermarket or on the train platform, which can be mortifying for a teenager, but in retrospect I believe he brought smiles to peoples’ faces and that is always priceless.

My father came to this country from Germany as the Holocaust was beginning to unfold.  He shared few stories with us about that time in his life, but what I took away from them was amazement that people could literally harbor a hatred for others simply because they appear different.  Different religions, different colors, different beliefs.  Although my childhood was limited to a pretty flavorless existence, as I ventured into the real world an excitement to explore blossomed.  I still feel fortunate to have been introduced to a slightly different culture just blocks from my own when I began teaching in NYC.  This is where Shades of Gray was born and a passion to keep children in school and open minded developed.  Anyone who knew my dad would never suspect him of teaching me about acceptance.  My best explanation would have to be that we don’t always plan what we want others to learn from us.  It just happens.

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