Tennyson Street School: familiar

Familiar: (adj) well known from long association, informal, casual, relaxed, open, unpretentious; “hail-fellow-well-met”

(n) a demon supposedly attending and obeying a witch, often said to assume the form of a small being or animal

(n) a friend or associate

“What do you want to be?” is a difficult question for children – unless it’s Halloween. With endless possibilities, they tend to zero in on the costume that most delights them, whether because it makes them feel magical or beautiful or shockingly bold. They attune themselves to their inner superhero, mermaid, bunny, or monster, and for one evening, we get a glimpse inside their alternate universe.

It’s empowering to remake yourself. We get to play God, creating someone in our own image, an image we hardly dare glimpse a lot of times – the image, the dream, of who we truly want to be. Who we actually are.

Miranda helped me put another barrier between us. To give myself more whiteboard to write on (and another wall to funnel her kids into her cubicle), I took her up on her offer to wheel another whiteboard partition down the hall to our room. As we struggled to wiggle it into place, the top corner came loose, exposing the crumbling particle board inside where a sharp screw had torn through.

“Want my Gorilla Glue for that?” she offered.

“You’ve got some? That would be perfect.” Filling the broken places, we then pushed the whiteboard’s edge back into the partition frame. I held it together while Miranda got our wide packing tape from a drawer. ”If you would, put a strip around the whole frame here,” I indicated, nodding at my hands above my head, and she strapped tape from one side, past my glasses and my ear, around the corner to the other side. “Nice. Now, one over the top, to hold the first tape in place.”

Letting go of the partition, I saw that it held. Good fences make good neighbors, I thought, quoting Robert Frost and imagining his stone walls. Yet the necessary intimacy of working together, reaching so near each other to fix the board, had opened a psychological barrier even as it repaired a physical one. Freed of my wall, I looked around Miranda’s teaching space.

Her word wall was colorful and appealing, and already had words the kids had asked her to spell for them. Group photos of each of her tutoring classes grinned down from another wall. As was expected of all of us, she had a corner dedicated to her college experience, with a smiling photo of her in cap and gown. And another photo, in another cap and gown. Colorful pennants from her four colleges hung above her space, inviting and encouraging.

“That one’s when I got my Master’s in Library Science,” she pointed at the most recent photo. “I just got that in May.”

We talked about her program of study, and about her two undergraduate degrees, in English and Education.

“So you know how to do all of this – the lesson plans, the district standards, the objectives…,” I confirmed, her technical expertise dawning on me.

“Yeah, I just made a little mistake?, so I’m doing this for now.” I looked at her quizzically, but she just continued on. “It’s really not that hard. I can give you one of my lesson plans to look at, if you want.” She smiled at me, then looked over at the utter disaster of papers that was her bookshelf. “I’ll…uh, find one…I’ll email you one.” She looked back at me sheepishly.

“That would be great. I haven’t ever written one before, and it’s a bit daunting.”

“For me, it’s the classroom management I struggle with. That’s why I got disciplined. I have to do training now.” She said it openly, though clearly chagrined.

“Oh, are you doing the online trainings? I think they’re great, super helpful. I geeked out on the research – it’s so cool!”

“Yeah, the coordinator said I have to do them, since I was hired by that last guy, the one that got fired, and I didn’t get any training….”

“Well great! I mean, not great that you didn’t get any training from him, but – “

“Yeah, that’s why I got punishment.” She hung her head just exactly like the kids do when they feel defeated by their reading assignments.

“Discipline,” I offered.

“Yeah, discipline,” she agreed.

“I think training is always a good thing.” I smiled hopefully at her.

“Yeah…,” she tried to agree.

“Well, my background is in social work with homeless families – so I feel pretty good about managing behaviors. Maybe we can trade, yeah? I can learn from you, you can learn from me?”

“Yeah! They’re good kids, my kids, they’re just a little…,” she wiggled her hands, trying to decide what they were.

“High energy?” I offered.

“They just need to settle down.” Her brow furrowed. I remembered the lunchroom.

“It’s hard, but you get to kind of start over,” I sympathized. “You can reset the tone you want.”

“Yeah.” Miranda turned back into her messy, colorful space. “Well, lunch time!” Then, putting on her headphones, she ate a sandwich while watching the training videos.

“Fixed and Growth Mindsets are related to skills, comfort zones: ‘I’m just not good at X.’ With a growth mindset, all absences of skill are understood to be temporary and malleable. You might not know how to do something, but you assume you could learn if you took the time. We find ways to express the same relevant information about your present lack of skill, without encoding it in a sense of defeatism. Instead, speak of how you’re not as skilled as you could be if you trained or practiced more.

“So growth mindset applies not only to ‘abilities’ like public speaking or math or dancing, but also to traits or typical responses you have. It’s easy to hear about growth mindset and think, ‘Oh yeah, I know that I can improve my skills, obviously I have a growth mindset!’

“Not so fast. What about your traits? Descriptions not of what you can do but of what you tend to do? The way to talk about these from a growth mindset is to put these tendencies in the past. Note that this it totally allowed even if they’re in the really recent past, like if you’re talking about a reaction you had just days ago, or even a few minutes ago.

“And it doesn’t assume that you are certain it’ll never happen again. It just means that you’re not condemning yourself to that fate…but waiting to see, and anticipating progress.”


“Ms, Barbara, can you tie a tie?” Miranda asked me as she escorted a boy to my tiny table in the afternoon.

“Mmm, not from memory,” I said to the disappointed boy. “But I know how to find out.” He perked right back up, and Miranda left him to me.

“Come on over, let’s look and see,” I offered, typing into my laptop. “How…to…tie…a…tie,” I narrated, hitting the Enter key with a flourish. “Excellent – step-by-step pictures.”

I brought up the illustrations and the boy came to stand in front of me. As he stood patiently, I read the instructions out loud for us both, stumbling and fumbling and having to restart. Miranda came back to watch, chatting companionably as I tried to figure out the steps; and eventually, I completed a simple single knot.

“So if there’s something we need to know,” I summarized, finishing tucking the end through, “like how to tie a tie,” and I slipped the knot up to the boy’s collar, “we can just look it up, read how to do it,” I finished, straightening the knot. “We can learn how.”

All three of us smiled happily. “I’m a teacher,” the boy explained, showing me his costume. Me too, I thought wryly, and smiled even more.

“Thanks, Ms. Miranda,” he beamed at her. “Thanks,” he said to me.

“Go join your class!” Miranda barked at him; he took it good-naturedly and hustled out the door.

She turned to me. “Have you seen the parade? It’s SO cute.” We grabbed our jackets and headed out to the playground, dressed as teachers, while a universe of possibilities paraded by, right before our very eyes.