On Broken Door Handles and Butter Knives

A day or two before leaving for a long stint away from home, speaking at UW-Madison and then on to Boston for NCTE and CEL, it was a typical afternoon. Right around 2:40 my mother-in-law and I were getting ready to leave to go pick up my kids.  It is often a two person job–she was heading to our preschooler several blocks to the west and I to the bus stop for our first grader several blocks to the east. Shoes on, coats on. Routine.

She reached for our apartment door and it wouldn’t open.

Jiggle, jiggle, lock, unlock, lock, unlock. Nothing.  I ran over. Jiggle, jiggle, lock, unlock, lock, unlock.

“Está cerrado!” I said, not able to find the word “broken” in my mental Spanish dictionary.

“Oh no,” she said.

Both children are picked up at 3:00, we had fifteen minutes to get this door open.

So, we did what any reasonable human being would do, we completely freaked out in this order:

  • Jiggle, jiggle, lock, unlock
  • Shake the door handle violently.
  • Jiggle, jiggle, lock, unlock–with more conviction.
  • Imagining how to jump out of a third floor window to the street.
  • Get angry.
  • Call my wife’s cell phone, who was teaching and clearly not in ear shot of her phone how dare she HOW DARE SHE.
  • Call again.
  • Both of us call her at same time on different phones.
  • Jiggle, jiggle, lock, unlock
  • Butter knife, right? Thieves do that or something.
  • Call wife’s school in a panic and frighten the secretary.
  • Call my daughter’s school in a panic. (They were calming, they know how to handle this).
  • TOOLS!
  • Hammer, pliers, large and small screw drivers.
  • Dismantle door plate and begin to remove door knob.
  • Stop, bad idea.
  • Reassemble door knob and door plate.

By this point my wife had gotten the message, had left school early, was rushing home, by this point it was clear it was too late to get to the bus stop on time and (as her school calmly told me) my daughter was most likely on her way back to school at the end of the route, by this point my son’s teachers knew we were running late.

Everything was arranged on the outside, we were basically not needed.

Then.

by MichaelDiederich used under Creative Commons lic

I wedged the butter knife back inside the little open space on the side of the door, near the latch, and paid attention.  While the flat side didn’t grab the latch, the teeth did. The slightest movement! TWO KNIVES! I grabbed a second and like two little hands inch-wormed the latch open. Freedom.

Caution: broken doors

The NCTE and CEL conventions this past weekend in Boston were incredible, as they always are.  Joyful, exciting, like a homecoming.  There was also, just below the surface, a sadness.

At the end of my session with Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts on Saturday, I told the crowd that now, more than ever, at speaking engagements people seem to come up at the end and cry.

They cry because while filled with a deep joy for the art of educating, they are feeling crushed by the state of education. The many people in my life, dear friends or friendly acquaintances who have a gift for teaching that shines through their children’s eye, those people who are pillars in our world are all asking, “how much more of this can I take?”.

I’ll be honest with you, I’m seeing their faces now as I write this and am trying very hard not to cry myself.

I see you, my friend, the Curriculum Coordinator, and you Literacy Coach, you ESL teacher, you Amazing Principal and you brand new Science teacher, and I see you teacher I just met and hugged after that session, a big bear hug as we cried together.

Teacher evaluations,

student testing,

scripted curricula,

slashed budgets,

initiative overload.

This was not our routine. This was not in our plans.

Know this: there are always butter knives.

For me those butter knives are connecting.  At NCTE (as with twitter, conferences, and working in schools), I get to remind myself why I fell in love with teaching in the first place.  This weekend I shook Nancie Atwell’s hand (and tried not to embarass myself with gushing), I met Donna Santman… I mean, I have been in rooms listening to her for years and carry Shades of Meaning like it’s a map… but we met each other for real. I had the incredible pleasure of speaking on the same stage as Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts. I spoke in hallways, turned and talked in sessions, toured a museum, sat at lunches and dinners, all with old friends and new. I stood back and saw the sea of faces in those sessions, hallways, hotel lobbies, and was reminded that we have the collective power to do amazing things.

Butter knives are different for each of us, but those butter knives are there.

My friend Paul Thomas won the George Orwell Award at this past convention, his butter knife is writing and speaking out for the lives of teachers and educators.

Jillian Heise received her National Board certification this past weekend, her butter knife is learning and belief in learners.

Penny Kittle passed out envelopes at a session to raise money to support more classrooms having books, her butter knife is supporting readers.

Heather Rocco spent two years organizing the CEL convention, her butter knife was bringing leaders together to refuel their own passions.

The list continues: listening to children, talking with a colleague, taking on a study, joining a twitter chat, writing a blog post, leading an organization, waking up in the morning and deciding to go to work.

You know your butter knives. Use them.

Epilogue

Once we got that door opened it was amazing how all of the stress left. Nothing seemed hard anymore.

We replaced the door handle.

It works now.

door handle

12 thoughts on “On Broken Door Handles and Butter Knives

  1. Thank you, Chris, for once again inspiring me strive to do what I know in my heart is best for my students. You push my thinking forward and help me see hope and possibility where many see doom and gloom. Hope you and your family had a lovely Thanksgiving!

  2. I was in the audience (sitting on the floor, happy to be there) and remember your closing remarks best of all, Chris. You hit just the right tone and humanized the learning in that room/hall/gathering in such a powerful way. If nothing else at NCTE had been remarkable (and, of course, it was), your remarks would have been enough to bring home.
    Thank you for your words.
    Kevin

  3. This is one of those posts that stays with me. I keep thinking about it. The image of the butter knife is so powerful, but what’s staying with me are these words of yours: I SEE YOU! It’s important to be seen and heard and so many of us feel silenced and ignored. Thank you for honoring the need to be seen and heard without meaningless platitudes. Thank you for your leadership and for your inspiration. I wasn’t at NCTE. Couldn’t go this year, but your message touched me where I am and I’m grateful!

  4. On this Thanksgiving Eve, I am thankful for your comforting and uplifting words. The below the surface sadness is real in my school, but so is our love for our students and passion for our vocation.

  5. Thank you for finding the beautiful words to convey the oh so many feelings we are all having. And the reminder about the things that keep us going. We are so very fortunate to have those things and now of all times…should be thankful for the community we have in each other. I swear, I may find a miniature butter knife and make a pin to wear as a badge to remind me daily. Well done friend!

  6. I always feel better when I visit your blog. And thank you for all you do to inspire, encourage, and comfort us as we wade forth into our teaching lives every day. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

  7. Thank you for writing this! I was at TCRWP this summer and remember how eloquently and wonderfully you spoke to teachers after the NY test scores came out. I tell my friends that I love teaching–it’s the best career out there, but being a teachER right now is so hard. There is such a drive out there to teacher-proof education which is felt especially hard in urban areas (at least, this is my experience in Chicago). Anyway, I’m going to think about my butter knives and be thankful this Thanksgiving for my students and great educators like you who are willing to share so much.

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