Archive for January 2023

Better Is Not Always Better

January 29, 2023

I tell my classroom students to do their best, to give me their best effort. That’s all I can ask for. Of course, there are some students who think “giving their best” is like standing in front of a parent and being forced to take a dosage of castor oil. Yup!

On the other hand, there is an increasing push in the world to elevate the better in front of the rest. And the thing is, better is not always better. Better is a place that is revered, like a new car with more horsepower, hype, and an unreasonable monthly payment. There should be a striving for growth, improvement, and the best a kid or adult can do, but better has been redefined to mean replacing, leaving others behind, and advancing the already advantaged.

No better example (Pun intended!) of the deifying of “better” can be thought of than the push in the sports world. In our middle school league, the season for each sport is only about 6 weeks long, just enough time to teach the kids in a limited way the fundamentals of the sport. Most of our seventh-grade girl basketball players didn’t even realize they had a left hand that they could dribble with untold about Week 4.

But there are the players who have been playing on a club basketball team already, representative of the families that have the financial resources to shell out. Parents contributing that much moolah usually expect their daughters to be rewarded with massive amounts of playing time in the present and a college scholarship a few years down the road. There has been a growing push by some in our league to go to an ‘A’ and ‘B’ system, where the “better players” play on the ‘A’ team, regardless of their grade, and the others get relegated too the ‘B’ team.

Much of the chatter comes from parents who are from the “better is better” mindset. Why should seventh-grader Johnny, who reached puberty way too early and now is a muscular 6’0″, have to play with the less-talented boys in his own grade? None of them even have peach fuzz on their face! How in the world is he going to make it to the NBA if he has to play with normal kids for six weeks? It may teach him bad habits. He may even learn that worthless quality of being a good leader and encourager of his teammates.

Yes, I was being sarcastic in those last few sentences!

Parents want better schools for their children, even if it means uprooting their child from his/her support system and peer group. Kids want a better cell phone that can fascinate them so much that they spend even more time making it the center of their existence. Students want better food served in the cafeteria that costs less. Figure that one out!

To be sure, doing what has always been done isn’t the answer I’m looking for. After all, segregation was about keeping things the way they had always been. Desegregation, the way to make our country a better place for people to live, regardless of color, was seen as being one of those unwanted progressive agendas. Keeping the same curriculum in education year-after-year because that’s what the teachers are comfortable with does not do much for challenging students to think critically and learn concepts in new and different ways. For many of us the ruts of our existence are deep and predictable, and we’ll stay in those lanes even if we’re stuck in mud.

But there’s something to be said for the solidness of what has been. The train that offers secure passage for everyone to arrive at the next station is friendlier than the one that unhooks the last few compartments and has the passengers push it the rest of the way. Better is not always better.

Better is the incubator in which entitlement is often warmed. Or, maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe “better” is the disguise that is hiding the epidemic of entitlement.

The “Yab-ba’s”

January 21, 2023

The Flintstones are not forgotten. They are resurrected everyday in the conversations between middle school students and their teachers, coaches, and administrators. Several times a day, I hear my inner voice sounding like Fred Flintstone as it trumpets “Yabba-Dabba-Do!”

But wait, the middle school rediscoveries of The Flintstones have a different twist to it. It’s said at the beginning of a response from the student to his teacher concerning the recent bad decision he made, such as jumping up hallway walls or breaking a pencil in two. Fred also re-appears right after a coach asks one of his players why she made a pass to a teammate who was sandwiched between two defenders, like salami slapped between two pieces of French bread.


“Yab-ba” is the shortened, uncompleted form of “Yes, but!” It’s the preface to the soon revealed excuse for irrational decisions. It’s one of the inherited curses that gets passed from one generation to the other. We said it! Remember?

“Yab-ba…he started it!”

“Yab-ba…I had it first and she took it away from me!”

“Yab-ba…it’s not my fault. My dog ate my homework because we ran out of dog food and he was really hungry.”

“Yab-ba…Yab-ba…Yab-ba…” Dab-ba Do!”

Admittedly, we were guilty in our adventures and escapades. Today’s culture has become proficient in not accepting responsibility. So often, it’s somebody else’s fault or simply a ripple effect of an unjust society that the person has been forced to be a part of and, therefore, can’t be held responsible for the lame decisions that bubble out of the person’s actions.

I guess I showed my hand in those last couple of sentences. The “Yab-bas” of life symbolize our resistance to being wrong, or falling short, of being held accountable for the errors of our ways. Whereas, on the basketball court not setting a screen for a teammate can result in a turnover or a missed shot (In other words, a momentary wrong decision that can be corrected in the next possession.), in the classroom of life, the “Yab-bas” lead to the passing of the buck to someone else.

I have one young man that I teach, the wall-jumper, who tends to make split-second bad decisions. A gifted athlete, I keep him accountable and do not let him get away with a “Yab-ba” excuse. His first response is that Fred Flintstone re-enactment, and I refuse to let him slide by. I keep on him until he faces up to his lunacy, until he says the words, “I’m sorry, Mr. Wolfe. I won’t do it again.” There are things going on in his life that weigh on him, disrupt his ability to have balance and peace, but jumping up a wall in a school hallway can’t be blamed on what he ate, his family, the weather, or the fact that he just wanted to see how far up the wall he could go before his descent back down to earth.

I talk a lot to my students about grace and also responsibility. Sometimes a “Yab-ba” moment can be talked about and I then choose to extend grace to the Barney in front of me. But grace that is always extended, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say, becomes “cheap grace”, grace that becomes the expected reply by an entitled offender.

One last thing! I allow my students to eat in my classroom, but when they don’t clean up after themselves we have a “Food Fast” for a day, a week, however long I decide upon. After all, I have our room hand vacuum, “George Cleany”, readily available. Yesterday, there was a piece of chewed gum on the classroom carpet. I told the class we’d be having a “Gum Fast” next week. Their response. You guessed it! “Yab-ba, Yab-ba, Yab-ba…that’s not fair! It was the other class.”

I wish I would have thought about saying this, but it didn’t come to me until I was writing about the moment of the discovered crime. I wished I would have said, “If someone pulls the emergency cord on a train, it affects everyone riding on that locomotive, not just the puller.”

But, alas, I didn’t think of those words that would fit neatly into a movie script until I pondered the situation more. Of course, they would have stared at me with cold-hearted, steely expressions on their faces, considering a classroom coup. That would be great drama, something that was never a part of each Flintstone episode.


Cotton Ball Class

January 14, 2023

Cotton balls have many purposes. One of them was placed on my arm to soak up the few drops of blood after some my life-flow had been siphoned away into test tubes after my annual physical exam. That’s one purpose. Another is gluing several of them onto the paper of a kid’s art project, as he builds a cute fluffy snowman, that will end up as another addition to the refrigerator’s front clutter.

My mom would use cotton balls to help remove her makeup and, in my infrequent uses of a razor for shaving, I would use them to dab up the blood emerging from my nicks.

And now a new purpose: Artificial AirPods. Since the ear devices and cotton balls are the same color, it is almost like having a knock-off Gucci handbag or over-priced Nike basketball shoes. Who can tell the difference?

This newly discovered purpose had arisen as a result of our middle school’s “no cell phone policy”. From the time the students enter the building to the time they leave, roughly 7:30-3:00, they are not permitted to have their cell phones. The phones had become too much of a distraction, not only in the classroom but also in the hallways, cafeteria, restrooms, at athletic contests, and band concerts. In many students’ minds, iPhones had become more necessary than curriculum, a computer, classroom discussions, and science projects. As a result, AirPods populated the ears of more students than the protection of gloves for their hands on twenty-degree days.

But no more. Many students twitched. A few thought they would surely breakout in hearing-hives or develop some kind of withdrawal symptoms that would keep the school nurse hopping. However, to their dismayed, protesting attitudes, they didn’t.

So I shelled out a buck-twenty-five for a bag of 200 from the local supermarket and offered AirPod placebos for a couple of students who were beginning to wonder if their parents would allow them to be 8th grade dropouts? The first student I offered the white fluff too refused the help. He thought it was an inadequate replacement for the unjust eviction of his usual ear resident. But another unadorned student nearby perked up and asked, “Can I have one?”

“Sure,” I responded, reaching into the bag.

“Me, too?” came another plea.

A minute later, most of the class sported a cotton ball in at least one ear. One boy, a sculptor in the making, shaped his into the form of an AirPod, the tail coming down from the ear to resemble a shrimp. One girl kept tapping on hers, as if she was changing the playlist to the next song. Another student rocked his head back and forth, as if he was listening to Drake.

The next day I didn’t even get to initiate the offer of cotton balls. Class members asked me! At the end of class, I had them assemble on one side of the room with their artificial listening devices inserted for a class picture. They thought that was pretty cool, as I used to say, and even put some attitude into their poses.

I’m not saying that cotton balls are a long-term solution. They’re more like Sweet ‘N Low for someone trying to kick the sugar habit. For a few days, in the midst of the AirPods-induced grief, they’re providing a lighthearted alternative. The novelty will soon pass and they’ll join the ranks of Chia Pets and Moon Rocks, items that were here for a while and then cast to the side.

Meanwhile, the absence of their AirPods has resulted in another problem, another wart, rising to the surface. They talk a lot more to one another! The drop in rap music inside their ears has raised the level of verbal relating outside their parted lips.

I guess that’s not a problem. It’s more like them getting back to being the amazing, precious people that they are.

They’re Back!!!

January 8, 2023

It had been a long, quiet, restful 20 days. The Christmas break that seemed to resemble the finish line of an ultra-marathon, a lifetime away as teachers struggled to stay mentally hydrated for the home stretch. On Friday, December 16 at 2:50 PM, the herd stampeded out of the building, leaving their trash for the surviving staff members to deal with.

And this past Thursday, they returned. The hallways went from resembling a hospital’s quiet hours to a crowded airport corridor the Friday before Christmas. Students, who hadn’t seen each other, hugged and chattered. Conversations could be heard about where they had gone on Christmas vacations, what new device or video game was discovered to be wrapped up and waiting to be opened, the extreme-cold weather, new clothes, and new haircuts.

The new school policy about no cell phones was not being talked about. One teacher, observing the hallway events told me, “They were actually walking down the hallway with their heads up and talking to one another.” We had prepared for Cell Phone Armageddon, but it didn’t happen…yet! Our administration had planned far enough ahead so that parents knew, students had had time to whine and state the injustice of it, and the staff had a good understanding of what they should do in unique situations.

I’m buying a bag of cotton swabs this weekend for those students who are missing their AirPods so much they feel like they didn’t finish dressing, Like a Nicotine patch for someone trying to kick the smoking habit, I’ll offer cotton swabs that they can stick in their ears.

Adolescents are flexible. Most of them have a unique ability to adjust. They may moan, groan, and be dragged kicking and screaming, but they will adjust. Perhaps a three-week break helped in the saying goodbye to what and saying hello to what is. Oh, there were a few curmudgeons in thirteen-year-old bodies, whose mission in life at this point is to bring misery and suffering to those who have stood firm in expecting them to follow the rules. Those warts will stand out even more as the rest of the school year goes on, and not just to the teachers but also to their classmates.

However, the vast majority were glad to be back, ready to explore the new lands of educational adventure, and were at that point where boredom was starting to ooze into their daily wanderings.

And now the staff has laced up their Puma and New Balance instructional shoes, and have launched into the next ultra-marathon. This is the ultimate test. January, February, March, three months of cold, during which we will pray for a couple of snow days to be blessed with and a few timely two-hour delays.

Breathe in, breathe out. Don’t slack off. You’ve got to run the next leg of the journey tomorrow. Oh, and don’t forget to grade those papers!

Coaching Seventh Grade Girls

January 2, 2023

When my coaching buddy, Ron McKinney, stood next to me and the two of us surveyed the basketballs being banged off the rim, the wall, the top of the backboard, or even hitting the wall after going over the top of the backboard, our minds brought up images of lop-sided scores that would be a part of our season.

That was a long sentence, but it took less time to write it than it did for half of our players to make their first shot…in practice…standing next to the basket!

On the other hand, Ron and I love coaching seventh grade girls in the sport of hoops. They’re so teachable, so enjoyable, so convinced that “they aren’t all that!” As we watched that first practice we knew it would be about teaching them the fundamentals of the game: how to do a pivot, how to play defense, how to do a crossover dribble (What am I saying!! How to dribble at all!!), how to do a layup, where to line up for a free throw.

Unlike other years, the turnout for girl’s basketball was abysmal. Twelve girls signed up, three of them after several pleas during the school announcements at the beginning of the day. Two of the twelve died not want to play on the interscholastic team, but just practice during the intramural period which began at the close of the school day. Interscholastic practice occurred after intramurals. Of the remaining ten, two could dribble, five had Triple-A memberships because they traveled so much, and at least three were confused about the rule that said they could only score on one of the baskets (although Ron and I were pretty certain scoring on the wrong basket was not going to be a problem because it meant a basket had been made).

So we began. After the first practice, we chuckled. They were really nice girls, but if we were using an analogy of reading ability, we would have said they were basketball illiterate. So we had to teach most of them how to read, so to speak. And we had six practices to do it. Six practices to teach them how to dribble, how to shoot, how to pass, how to play a man-to-man defense and also a zone defense, out-of-bounds plays, a press breaker, where our bench was, what to do if you were told to sub in for someone, how to rebound, what offense to run. You get the picture?

And we won our first game. Ron texted his wife afterwards: “Are you sitting down?” (pause) “We won!” It was not because we had a juggernaut. The score was 16-10 and three of our points came on a banked three-pointer. Two of our players had scored, the two who can dribble.

And then we won our next game, 23-20, and three players scored (Of course, one of them had 20 of the 23!).

And then we won our third game, 30-4, and five players scored.

After that game, Coach McKinney said to the team, as we met in the locker room, “I meant to bring a bell with me today and ring it (referring to that scene from The Polar Express) and say I believe, but I forgot the bell.”

Now, in our weird middle school sports schedule, the undefeated seventh-grade girls’ basketball team comes back this Thursday (January 5) after a three-week Christmas break. Three weeks! Ron and I wonder if we will need to back up the truck to the beginning again. Will they have forgotten everything that they’ve learned? Will they have picked up basketballs since the last practice on December 14th?

We may not win another game. Hey! We’ve already won three more than we expected. Win-or-lose, however, we are enjoying this group of young ladies who groan at our humor, are surprising themselves, and discovering that basketball is fun.


January 1, 2023

The definition of “resolve” is “the firm determination to do something”. It’s been rattling around in my head as another year begins. In my mind, it’s different than making a resolution even though they’re cut from the same word base mold. Resolve has a bit of grit to it, a heavy dose of perseverance. Resolution has been watered down by our culture, making room in the backseat with lame excuses and crippling binges.

Resolve is seeing that the battle lines have been drawn and there is no retreat, no option but to attack the situation and not even entertain the possibility of surrender. Resolve understands that there are foes that are visible and perhaps even more that are unseen.

My resolve is a short list, but offers a direction, a path, a plan through the foray. Sitting on my writing stool gives me some time to ponder, strategize, and allow the resolve to rattle around undisturbed in my head. Here goes!

I resolve to influence young lives, more specifically 57 eighth-graders whose education and maturing has been been entrusted to me. It was a mission that came unexpectedly, but has challenged me to admit that being 68 years old is not an excuse, but an avenue for leading a flock, albeit a flock adorned with nose rings, various hair colors, and addictions to their iPhones.

I resolve to read 31 books in 2023, roughly divided into these categories: 5 history-based, 5 theology-based, 5 mysteries, 5 classics, 5 current events-based, 1 daily devotional, and 5 that are in that category called “Other”.

I resolve to take care of my physical condition. I know, I know that’s a little fuzzy. What I have in mind that needs to be “firmed up in my determination for” is 50 pushups and setups a day, some kind of daily movement exercise whether it be long walks, slow walks, or building up my cardio without destroying my knees and hips. I’ve discovered podcasts this past year that are able to develop my mind and spirit as I get my steps in.

Speaking of podcasts, I resolve to develop other avenues for my writing to take form, whether it be audiobooks, podcasts, YouTube reading times, or some other new bone for this old dog. I will finish the fourth book in the Red Hot: New Life in Fleming series this summer, maybe sooner depending on the amount of preparation I need to put into teaching my eighth-graders. Hopefully, I’ll begin Book 5, which I envision as being the finale, this summer. I will continue to write my Words From WW blog.

I resolve to invest in relationships: family, friends, students, teaching and coaching partners, the people at church. Those relationships are not obligations, but ways that my life is enriched and blessed.

I resolve to kiss and hug Carol every day, and when the opportunity arises hold her hand as we take walks around the neighborhood. As she encounters struggles with her eyesight, I resolve to keep her safe.

I resolve to be generous with my resources, my time, and my service. As we have been blessed (not just financially), we look to bless others.

I resolve to love people and treat each person with respect and dignity, not just those who are cut from the same belief system as me. Encountering all types of people and various life perspectives is not something that I feel threatened by, but rather helps me identify why it is I believe what I believe.

Well, there it is. I didn’t set out to make a list of ten things I will have resolve about, but that’s what it came to, kinda like the 10 Personal Commandments. I think i’ll make a hared copy of this and post it in my study at home to look at. Hopefully, it will not discourage me, but motivate me, especially as I realize I still need to get my pushups done for the day.