I hate to break it to you, but…

You know that conversation you keep having in your head on repeat, because you never said what you should have said, when you had the chance?

Today’s conversation in which I didn’t participate fully: Why we should do “the right thing” even when it’s difficult to do so.

The consensus: Doing the right thing makes us happy.

I didn’t speak up, because what I really wanted to point out was that doing the right thing doesn’t make you happy. And I don’t actually believe that.

Or… maybe I do.

It’s like this:  Most of the time, doing the right thing doesn’t make you happy. It might make you stronger, kinder, smarter, or more patient–but let’s face it: experiences like that almost never come with grins and giggles.

Experiences like that don’t even come with a deep, abiding sense of satisfaction that while what you are doing is difficult, it will all be worth it in the end.  If they did, they wouldn’t have the power to shape you into something better than the you who first engaged with that experience.

Making a choice that has a highly probable chance of reward  isn’t doing “the right thing”; it’s doing the logical thing:

  • If I don’t succumb to this addiction, I will live a healthier life and enjoy better relationships.
  • If I don’t say what I’m really thinking right now, I won’t have to try to take it back later. 
  • If I tell the  truth about this, I might lose this friendship, but I won’t lose my sense of integrity.

1+1=2. Duh. Of course doing those things make you happy.

But some of our most important choices cannot be made with expectation of–even eventual–personal reward. Sometimes doing the right thing will benefit other people–even strangers or future generations you may never meet.

And what if doing those right things is going to result in diminished prospects or vastly increased pain or uncertainty or loneliness for yourself? What if it opens you up to sustained or unending recurrences of that pain? What then? Is it no longer “the right thing”?

The reality is, most of the time, the experiences that shape us most profoundly don’t have a foreseeable end. They are of the “thorn in the flesh” variety that Paul spoke of–those difficulties that afflict us  relentlessly and come back again and again, just when we think we’ve seen the last of them. Those are the things that refine our characters–and they don’t make us happy.

Yes, eventually, that refining process can  result in greater emotional/spiritual/psychological stability, which can translate into greater capacity for happiness–but let’s face it: capacity doesn’t equate with content, most of the time.

I think it is dangerous to promise younger generations that doing the right thing will make them happy. It is setting them up for disillusionment and failure. It would be more accurate to promise that doing the right thing will make them better humans. And I guess that’s a happy thought. So maybe I’m talking in circles?




Why You Can’t Prevent Suicide

I started this post on Father’s day, and deleted it several times. Yet another tragedy in the weeks since, and the aftermath of both, have prompted me to reconsider.

I have a wall in my classroom covered with old dictionary pages. At some point, I started adding senior photos and thank you notes.


I never meant to enshrine all this impetuous, youthful gratitude; things just accumulated. But sometimes I find myself rereading these notes–surprised at how many years have passed, or checking the back of a photo to remember a name.

Today I looked for a note from my student teaching days, back before I had a permanent classroom of my own: a note written by a 12-year-old boy, with Crayola markers, on a sheet of printer paper, folded not quite symmetrical.

A note written by a boy who grew into a beautiful, funny, loving–and inexplicably, desperately unhappy–young man. I wanted to read his note again–maybe to see if there was a clue there, any indication of the darkness what would knock us all sideways at the end of his junior year. I wanted to examine it the same way I examined his grades and attendance record and discipline history–searching for meaning, patterns, anything to make sense of a senseless situation.

The note wasn’t there, but somehow I hoped it might be–that maybe it was one I’d found misplaced in a file, and stapled up there to get it out of the way. But I didn’t.  Maybe I tossed it–tossed that entire folder, in a fit of I-must-get-this-place-organized determination.

At any rate. It wouldn’t have satisfied me. It wouldn’t have explained anything. It wouldn’t have given me the key to preventing yet another incomprehensible loss.

I know that.

And yet I still looked.

Because it seems we should be able to prevent these tragedies–it seems that when a child is in that much pain, it should seep from his pores and leave smudges on his desk, alerting us that he has decided to never sit in another chair, or walk another hallway, or fake another smile, ever again. Unhappiness that potent should carry a vile odor, compelling everyone within reach to track down the monstrous source and root it out.

It shouldn’t just hit us all unaware, in the middle of the night, with the flick of a blade or a trigger or pill bottle.

Isn’t that what all these lapel buttons and social media posts and status updates are saying? That if only we–his parents, his friends, his teachers–if only we had been more vigilant, we might have noticed something?

Untitled drawing

You’ve seen these images. You’ve thought to yourself, yes… I must be vigilant. Maybe you’ve even looked at your own students or children or friends, and gone through the checklists, reassuring yourself that you, at least, haven’t missed the signs. Maybe you even wondered, If suicide is 100% preventable, who didn’t earn a passing grade in this case?

I appreciate the prevention sentiment.  I appreciate that the people crafting these buttons and posting these images value the life of these children every bit as much as anyone else.

But I disagree with the idea that suicide is “100% preventable.”

You cannot prevent suicide.

You can offer compassion. You can offer advice. You can offer a listening ear.  You can be alert to all the signs of withdrawal and detachment and despair, and engage in all sorts of proactive behavior.

But no matter how much you love another person, no matter how much help you offer, no matter how carefully you monitor their behavior–no matter how much you weep and pray  and even plead with the heavens to save your child or your spouse or your friend, you cannot be with them every moment of every day, and you cannot prevent a person who has decided to do so, from taking their own life.

You can’t do that.

You can offer alternatives, but in the end, we each have the freedom to do with the precious gift of life whatever we desire. You are not responsible for another person’s desires, or their choices.

Even if you missed some of the signs–even if you were too busy paying the bills or monitoring someone else’s at-risk warning signs or scraping yourself out of bed that morning, and missed a despairing text message, you are not ultimately responsible for their choices. They are.

Acknowledging this truth does not mean you love or respect or value that person any less. Suicide is not a zero sum game where if enough blame is assigned to the guilty party, the innocent suffer less. It is catastrophic and excruciating and it blindsides even those who agonize in private, bitter silence: I should have known.  But that “100% preventable” statistic is true about only one person’s potential suicide: the person reading that statement.

You are responsible for you–and yes, part of being you includes being a light to a darkening world, and spreading hope where despair seeds itself relentlessly, and engaging in dialog when others demand debate or even silence. But it does not include holding the power of life and death in your hands.

You are not a God; you are human.

And that hurts.

But it doesn’t need to destroy you.

Starbucks and Cemeteries

Someone in today’s professional development meeting mentioned that our classrooms tend to look more like cemeteries than Starbucks. (Presumably that’s a bad thing.) All hyperbolic statements aside, she has a point: Grey-walled classrooms with rigid seating arrangements aren’t always the most conducive to learning.

But what is to be done?

Some union guy somewhere, sometime, came up with this rule that janitors can’t do jobs belonging to teachers and teachers can’t jobs belonging to janitors. Let me be the first to say that I appreciate that rule–particularly when a student vomits in the center of my carpet, or the fluorescent light bulbs develop a psychedelic rhythm during 3rd period.

Other times, I really just want the holes in my wall patched, and I know how hard my maintenance guys work, and I suspect that the help ticket I submitted isn’t languishing all alone in anyone’s inbox.

So a couple of summers ago, after weighing the relative merits of forgiveness and permission, I broke out the drywall repair mesh and plaster, bought a few cans of paint… and drew the classroom blinds. One thing led to another, and pretty soon, I was building book shelves, and buying books, and resurfacing the 1980’s Formica counter tops and re-enameling the door jambs.  Let’s be real: it got a little out of hand.

(Particularly the counter top resurfacing. That stuff is somewhat… aromatic)

But. Looking back over the last two years, it was probably the best 2 weeks of summer vacation (and $500) I’ve ever spent. Every day I walk in and feel at home–and my students do, too.


The original Prison Grey

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The existing counter tops: A lovely 1980’s mauve, complete with splintered edges.


24 feet of bookshelves, plus resurfaced window sills


Dictionary page wall.


School colors: Maroon and Gold, and a resurfaced counter top and door jamb

So here’s the deal: This summer, if all goes well, I want to get rid of the rickety, thigh-slicing, hair-pulling desks 🙂 I can’t tell you how many students have cut a leg or torn their pants or gotten their hair pulled out by a protruding bolt. Last year, I had to staple my favorite jeans shut, from hip to knee, after sidling a bit too close past the back row.

Is this the point at which a girl starts a GoFundMe account?

More Than the Sum

After giving this commencement address at the graduation for Moses Lake High School yesterday, I have been asked by so many people for a copy for scrapbooks, etc., that I’m posting it here. You can make your own copies 🙂

The written version–which I followed pretty close in delivery:

There’s a sign over the entrance to the 500 hallway that reads, “Through these halls walk the greatest people in the world.” And, I’m not trying to pressure you, but think about that:  there’s almost 7 & 1/2 billion people out there. Do you really believe that the greatest people in the world walk the halls of Moses Lake High School? And that you are one of them?

If you have taken one of my AP classes, you know that you have–within you–enough water to fill a 10-gallon barrel, enough fat to make 7 bars of soap; carbon for 9,000 lead pencils, phosphorus for 2,000 match heads, iron enough to make a medium-sized nail; and small quantities of magnesium and sulfur—all of which can be purchased at Ace Hardware for $20.  That… doesn’t sound very impressive.

So who are we to say that you are more than the sum of your parts? Who are we to say that you are great, and turn you loose in the world as responsible adults?  84 of you received an essay assignment this week in which you were to argue for you final grade. Tanner Merkley argued his this way: “Mrs. Lybbert,” he said, “I deserve an A because I am an A student. I’m smart, and I earn A’s in all my classes. What is there to argue?”

Tanner still had to write the essay.

Maybe, like Tanner, you believe that you are one of the great ones. Maybe you believe nothing but the best about yourself today, and tomorrow, and in the future.  But maybe you don’t. Maybe you are looking around thinking, Yes, yes… I went to school with some great people.  I wish I were one of them.

Maybe, when you think about your future, it looks a little less brilliant than you’ve heard it’s supposed to be. Maybe, when you think about your past… Well. Maybe you try not to think about it at all, because there are things there which definitely feel like more than the sum of your parts–things that will swallow you whole if you stop trying to escape them for even a moment.

I want to say I know how you feel. But I don’t–because it’s hard to truly know another person–to figure the sum total of their experiences and contributions–and when we try, we’re not very good at it.

But I have had many of you in my classes over the past 4 years. Some of you twice. And I have noticed this: You are so much more than the fat and the iron and the sodium in your inward parts, more than the  electrical synapses and blood and the sweat and the tears, more than the blown-out knees and the championship titles. More even, that your grammatically incorrect tattoos.  

So who are you? How do we measure greatness?

I grew up on the Canadian prairie. It’s cold there, and windy. Really windy. In the spring, we’d tie one corner of a bed sheet to each foot, and hold the other two corners. And then we’d  stand up, and hold on for our lives, because the wind would grab that sheet and yank it out in front of us, and drag us across the dry grass. If we let go, it would–quite literally–knock the wind out of our sails, and we’d end up with grass in our teeth.

We’d have competitions, to see how far we could go. But the wind wasn’t really fair–it’d send one kid thirty yards, and his neighbor not even ten feet. It wasn’t a very good measure of greatness.

Life, like that prairie wind, often isn’t fair. It seems to favor one person, and punish his neighbor.

You know this.

But maybe you think that if you hold on tight enough, if you angle your sail just so, if you brace yourself in all the right ways, you are guaranteed to get to where you want to go. Maybe you think that if you’re one of the ones with grass in your teeth, you’ve done something wrong.

And sometimes that’s true.

But often, it isn’t. Life isn’t predictable, and it isn’t fair–but it’s a fantastic exercise in becoming.

And that’s how we measure greatness:  It’s not about what college you got into or how many scholarships you were or were not awarded. It won’t be about who hires you or what you invent, it won’t be about anything behind or before you–because greatness is measured by what is inside of you. [Reader footnote: Ralph Waldo Emerson said something along these lines; the idea is not mine, but a paraphrase of his: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”]

Good choices do result in better opportunities–most of the time. Effort is rewarded–in almost every circumstance. But not always. And circumstances are just that: circumstances. They aren’t you. No matter how great or average, terrible or wonderful, all the little moments of your life do not have the power to define you.Your reaction to those circumstances does that.

Over the past four years, many of you have faced incredible difficulty. Some of those difficulties have played out in public. Other setbacks were private–but every one of those challenges has one thing in common: they didn’t beat you. They didn’t win–because you are here today, and you are going to get up tomorrow, and you are going to get up the day after that, and you are going to keep showing up, every day, to face your life, imperfect as it may be, because that’s what kind of people you have become–not in spite of the difficult parts of your lives, but because of them.

A great life does not lack imperfection as one–or a thousand–of its parts. Life is not a fast food menu, and you can’t choose just one option. Life has never worked that way, and  it never will.  If you never risk failure, you will never succeed.  If you close yourself off from rejection,  you will never be capable of love. Setbacks precede progress.

Divvied up into your chemical elements, you are just 20 dollars worth of dry goods at a hardware store. Combined into the witty, compassionate,  incredibly resilient young people you are–whom I have had the privilege of getting to know–you are of immeasurable value: not because someone has run up a total on some cosmic ledger of all the pleasant or praiseworthy parts of your lives, but because you ARE, because you exist as a whole person, and because you are in the messy, painful, beautiful process of becoming something greater.

Class of 2016: You are worthy of love. Of celebration. Of charging into life with your arms and your minds wide open to experience all of it. I have been humbled to learn your stories, and to associate with you. Thank you for walking through the hallways at Moses Lake High school–and for finally walking out of them.

Walk every hallway of life with your head held high, and when you can’t hold it high, at least keep it screwed on straight. Don’t let appetites, fear, or other people control your choices. Find a mentor, and be one.  Be confident, but not arrogant; be bold, but not overbearing.

And above all else, remember Leonard Cohen’s advice: Ring out the bells that still can ring; forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.


In response to a newly passed senate bill, last week I dashed off a flippant Facebook post that read, “Evaluating a teacher based on current standardized test practices is like evaluating a dentist based on the oral health of a patient he’s had for a few months.”

Which… I kind of feel is true. Because my sophomores have only been in my classroom for 40 days of instruction so far (assuming they are not new transfers and have never been absent >insert hysterical laughter<) and the test they took last week is supposed to measure the sum total of all of their language skills learned over the past 11 years. I’m not really sure how their scores will reflect the effectiveness of my teaching.


I’ve been thinking of this teacher/dentist metaphor, and I think it might be flawed.

The way I see it, there are a limited number of professions. We have the diagnostics/healers: Dentists, therapists, doctors, and the like. Their job is to diagnose problems with the human physical/mental/emotional condition and propose a treatment plan. We measure their effectiveness not by the patient’s willingness to accept their advice, but by the clarity of their insight, and the effectiveness of their treatment plan when voluntarily implemented by those patients who wish to do so. Under no circumstance do we penalize them for patients who choose not to follow directions, or for patients who become terminally ill for unknown reasons while in their care. Nor do we expect them to treat more than one patient at a time. In fact, if we were to discover that a clinic was placing 30 patients alone with them in a small, airless room with them for 7 or 8 hours at a stretch, we would be appalled.

No, teachers  are not at all in that professional category.

There is also the segment of society who are tasked with fixing broken or malfunctioning objects. Mechanics, appliance repairmen, electrical linemen, etc. We call them when something no longer works optimally. They diagnose the problem, and then give us an item-specific estimated timeline and cost for repairs. We measure their effectiveness by whether or not they can restore that inanimate object back to its intended usefulness in a timely manner. Under no circumstance do we expect them to simultaneously diagnose the problems of 30 unique objects by simultaneously performing identical diagnostics on all of them, nor would we want them to attempt to repair 30 different objects by doing the exact same repair work to all objects regardless of the individual malfunctions each one was manifesting.

Oh. And did I mention that none of those in-need-of-repair objects have a mind of their own?

Teachers are clearly not in that professional category.

We also have creators and builders. They take raw materials and transform them into something of beauty and/or usefulness. These people generally work within certain guidelines or laws–natural laws, or man-made ones. They are expected to innovate and create without offending or infringing upon the rights of fellow humans. We evaluate them based on the desirability of their creations. If they can find a market for their goods, or they find personal fulfillment in what they are doing even without a market, we consider them successful. In this sense, perhaps teachers are closer to creators and builders–we expect them to produce something of value for society, but in another sense, we are not. Builders and creators typically create, out of inanimate materials, end products–static products. We do not expect them to create something that is not only beautiful and/or useful, but something that will reproduce after its own kind indefinitely. Nor do not expect them to specialize in every known medium. We understand that painters and writers and musicians and carpenters specialize in a limited type of material. Never has an artist been expected to take 30 different materials and transform all of them at one time into an identical product, using identical processes and time frames.  Never have we measured the value of a symphony against the value of a new chemical compound.

No, teachers are not in the same category as the creators.

I could go on, listing every profession and you might argue with many of my classifications, and I would most certainly miss something.

My point is: where to teachers fit in? What other profession shares this category and how are those people evaluated? Is there any profession in which workers are evaluated on a similar basis as teachers?

I believe teachers should be evaluated. I do. I believe “bad” teachers should be removed. But how do we measure good and bad teaching? And if we get rid of all the bad teachers, who is going to take their place? Because right now in many districts the main thing we are looking for is a pulse. Okay, not quite. But kind of. I mean… the teacher shortage “myth” isn’t actually a myth.

Part of me thinks the entire system is flawed. Part of me thinks it was designed for an entirely different era. But a bigger part of me hasn’t got a clue how to fix things.

Priests or Professors: By any Other Name

I had an interesting discussion with a young science teacher this week. His assertions intrigue me:

1. All suffering and injustice in the history of the world not directly attributable to natural processes (hurricanes, scorpion bites, etc.) has been and always will be a direct result of religion. Science, on the other hand, has never caused suffering or injustice and is the only hope of the future.

I asked if he’d ever heard of the medical experiments performed by the Nazis, or Hiroshima.

He said those weren’t a result of science, but of corrupt men and politics using scientific principles for their own gain.

Oh. So kind of like religious principles have been used by corrupt men and politicians for their own gain?

He couldn’t explain why my comparison was ridiculous, except to assert that I can’t possibly be making any sense because I’m religious, and all religious people are without exception grossly ignorant. (Also, that it’s “unfortunate our community is infested with so many” [religious people]. Only he didn’t use such polite terminology. “Disgusting pigs”, “reprobates”, and “psychopaths” came up a few times.)

Which brings us to his second assertion:

2. Reasonable human beings should only believe things we can actually see evidence for with our own eyes.

To which I would respond: Duh.

Of course we should only rely on the evidence of things we can see–no matter what the discipline.

If science tells me that eating and exercising in a specified way will result in certain health benefits and I desire those benefits, I’m absolutely going to examine these claims in light of what I already know. If the claims seem logical and unlikely to harm myself or other people, I’m going to try those specifics out. If the promised benefits materialize, then I’ve got evidence that these principles are true in my own life. I no longer believe them to be true; I know this particular regimen works for me.

If it doesn’t, I suspend judgement, knowing that it might work for someone else, and that I have no way of proving that it won’t. I’m not going to advocate for those principles, but I will be perfectly happy to hear how they worked for someone else. I’m certainly not going to attack that someone else for engaging in a process of inquiry into the validity of those principles. There are millions of scientific theories I don’t have enough lifetimes to study; my only recourse is to suspend judgement, and to watch with interest when someone else makes a discovery regarding them.

Some sources and theories I find more credible than others because I see the fruits of them all around me–advances in technology, medicine, space exploration, etc. But no, I don’t accept anyone’s theories as fact, no matter who they are, just because they have a lot of letters behind their name, or have published in mass quantities. That would be irresponsible. There are some authorities I have found more reliable than others and I’m more willing to test their theories out, but should any one of them prove fallible, my “faith” in the usefulness of scientific inquiry will not be shaken.

I see no difference between this process and the acquisition of religious faith/belief/knowledge. If a religious leader or text or tradition tells me that behaving in a specified way will result in certain benefits and I desire those benefits, I’m going to examine those claims in light of what I already know, and if the claims seem logical and will not bring harm to me or others, I’m willing to try those specifics out. I do not engage in any religious practice or belief that I have not proven to myself. Every aspect of my faith, I have tried and proven.

And no, I don’t expect anyone else to accept the results of my experimentation as the basis for their own actions. Everyone has to discover truth for themselves through a series of (sometimes grueling, extended) experiments.

How is the evidence gained from this type of experimentation valid only when dealing with science?

In fact, how is science any different from religion?  Aren’t we all just testing out theories, keeping the ones that work and discarding the ones that don’t? It doesn’t make any difference to me if a professor or a priest tries to tell me tobacco will damage my lungs or that gratitude will heal my heart–I think I’m intelligent enough to test out those assertions, or to act on them in “faith” based on what I already know about human nature and the world around me and past experiments in which I’ve engaged, and for which I’ve collected evidence.

And I see that evidence all around me–evidence that religious principles of all sorts bear positive fruit in the lives of the people who choose to experiment with them. I see Catholics and Jews and Mormons and Lutherans and Muslims who are raising responsible, educated, compassionate, and  honest children, and making the world a better place in which to live.

I see the evidence with my own eyes.

You expect me to ignore that evidence and believe you instead?

How arrogant of you to ignore the accomplishments of every man, woman, and child of faith who has built this community with blood sweat and tears, and to dismiss them all as ignorant.

People are flawed. Religious people, and non-religious people both.  Corrupt men and women will always cite authority–religious, political or scientific, to accomplish their own agendas. That speaks to the corrupt nature of man, not of science or religion.

What I find most puzzling is why we had this conversation in the first place.

I have never once come into your classroom and challenged the way you live your private life. In fact, I am not threatened at all by your experimentation–no matter what form it takes.  You can smoke pot or shoe leather, or marry your own brother or go on a diet of plums for sixteen weeks. You can even show me pictures of your wedding or mention in passing that you ran out of shoe leather and had to start using vinyl, and it won’t make me think you are trying to force me to join you. Nothing you say about your experiment will offend me. I’ll probably ask questions because I find the diversity of the human experience fascinating. It won’t threaten my peace of mind. Quite frankly, if you don’t bring it up, I’ll never think to ask about such things. I have a full, vibrant life of my own to live.

What is it you find so threatening about my beliefs that compelled you to spend so many years of your life researching and authenticating sufficient primary sources that you now feel you have a solid basis from which to attack those beliefs?

Or did you not do that?

Did you, instead, dismiss the living, breathing evidence produced daily in the lives of good people all around you, and in violation of your own stated ethics, present as “evidence” things you’ve only read about, and cannot possibly experience first hand, unless you have access to a time machine?

Sore Loser

Great news: Doctor thinks he got it all, lymph nodes are clear, and I don’t have to do chemo, or like, die or anything.


Although… it’s disconcerting to realize how many things I was secretly hoping I might get out of doing, had it come to that. When you think hard about what your own death might mean, it’s amazing how many positives you can come up with. So many diets not to go on, so many miles not to run, so many distasteful work assignments, lawns, weeds… seriously. The list goes on… literally… As in, it’s still in force; I still have to do those things.


I’ll get over the disappointment. Probably.

More great news: the feeling is beginning to return in my arm and, er, chest. Great, because I didn’t really want to spend the rest of my life feeling like I’m hauling around someone else’s flesh; it’s somewhat creepy. Temporarily not great because, well, now I can feel it healing, and that’s not actually that great of a sensation.

Yet more great news: I can now taunt my oh-so-normally-smug seventeen-year-old that I got over cancer faster than he got over a broken foot.

He doesn’t think that’s funny. In fact, he accuses me of not playing fair, having fake cancer, and/or taking the easy, just-amputate-the-problem-route. Which isn’t really accurate–they were excisions, not amputations.

He had to get a new cast today, and found out his bones hadn’t healed at all since New Year’s Eve, so he’s playing sore loser. Even though I didn’t rub it in.

That much.

The doctor was not at all fooled by the duct tape holding together the cast; said seventeen-year-old got another lecture about what, precisely, “no weight bearing”, means. He’s annoyed enough with the new cast that he might start believing what the good doc says, but it’s hard to predict these things.

He is, after all, seventeen.