Friday, September 25, 2015

It Gets Better

(This essay was originally written as a spoken word piece performed at a middle school talent show. It was/is intended to be similar to the It Gets Better resources found at

My number one goal in middle school was to go unnoticed. Despite my wishes to the contrary, it was clear from early on that I didn’t fit in with the rest of my classmates. My family didn’t have the same social status as others in the community. We couldn’t afford the name-brand clothes and footwear most of my classmates seemed to be sporting on a daily basis. And to top it all off, I had little to no athletic prowess. So I decided that my best bet for any sort of social success in middle school and high school was to make sure I didn’t do anything to stand out.

At the time, my hometown only had one middle school containing 7th and 8th grade. Five or six elementary schools fed into this one middle school, creating an interesting dynamic for setting the social order. The building itself was the old high school: a two-story brick box similar to those often seen in establishing shots for sit-coms or movies. Along with an outdated-but-not-yet-vintage decor, it had a pretty hard-core industrial arts classroom. The space looked like it had been cut out of a post-war factory, complete with two-story ceiling, a large bank of factory-style windows, a greenish-gray concrete floor dotted with stationary pieces of heavy-duty machinery: your drill press, your table saw, and, the queen of them all, the belt sander.

For those not familiar, a belt sander is a machine that features a loop of 1-foot-wide sandpaper rotated around two drums by a motor at a high rate of speed. It allows a person to do 20 to 30 minutes of serious hand sanding in a few seconds. Not an instrument to be trifled with. This particular one liked to let everyone know that it meant business by letting out a loud roar when it was fired up.

I can’t remember what unit we were in - cutting board, picture frame, CO2 car, whatever - but I needed to use the belt sander. On this particular day, I was wearing one of my favorite shirts - a baggy green knit sweater. To try to compensate for my lack of designer clothes, I had taken to wearing knit sweaters that I thought (or hoped) were similar to ones worn by some of my favorite pop groups at the time: Boyz II Men, Bel Biv Devoe, Heavy D, etc. You know, the types of groups a white kids in the suburbs can really relate to. This one was so baggy that the sleeves came down over my hands causing me to consistently pushing them back up over my elbows, a move that, while somewhat annoying, I felt had a certain caché to it.

As I started to sand, I realized that I had a problem. The sleeves of my sweater decided now was the time to increase their forays into the coveted lower-forearm world, coming dangerously close to the belt of the sander. Unfortunately, there did not seem to be a viable solution. Taking off my sweater was not an option as, even with an undershirt, it would have brought unwanted attention. Rolling up the sleeves was out, too, as it seemed uncool. Thus, I resigned myself to a dance of sanding for a little bit while my sleeve slowly crept down my arm before being caught and returned to the starting spot. On and on the dance continued.

Sand-sand-sand, creep-creep-creep, catch

Sand-sand-sand, creep-creep-creep, catch

Sand-sand-sand, creep-creep-creep, catch

Sand-sand-sand, creep-creep-creep, ...

What followed was one of those moments where something so sudden and jarring happens, like a car accident or a large explosion, that it seems to bring the world into a higher level of focus, like your senses went from standard definition to HD. That’s how it felt when I failed to catch my left sleeve and the belt sander gladly grabbed hold of it for me. I can’t remember if the belt sander shut off on its own or if I had to reach over and hit the emergency stop button. I would like to think that by that time concern for student safety had reached a level where someone might have said “Maybe we should install some sensors on these pieces of industrial machinery,” but I’m not sure if that was the case. What I do know is that the belt sander had grabbed my sleeve with such authority that it had not only pulled it inside of the machine, but threads of it were returning to me on the other side, crawling out from inside of the machine with the same terror-filled look a cat has when it pulls itself out of a swimming pool, as if it can’t believe such a frightening experience exists in this world.

My initial reaction was relief. Relief that my arm was still attached to my body. Relief that no layers of skin had been lost. But relief faded quickly to horror at the realization of what had just happened: I had done something to be remembered for. Not something cool or brave, but something embarrassing and incredibly stupid. No longer would I be “Nick Saeger? Who’s he again?” or “Nick Saeger? I that he’s that quiet kid in my English class.” Now I would be “Nick Saeger? Oh yeah, he’s the guy who got his sweater stuck in the belt sander. Sweater Boy! Hey Sweater Boy, how’s the sweater? Wearing another sweater today?” You know how witty bullies can be.

For a kid already feeling like he was on the outside looking in, that he didn’t fit, this was devastating. It felt impossible to come back from. For someone already dealing with the difficulties and issues that middle school already brings, struggling with added external issues of a split home and negative influences, internal issues of perfectionism, anxiety, depression. For someone finding himself at times have deep, dark thoughts that he was too scared to share with anyone else. This could have been the tipping point, an event that pushed me to a permanent solution.

I’m glad to say that I made through that day and that year. I made through middle school and, in some sort of mystical joke, decided to make living through middle school my career by becoming a middle school teacher. And while that would be far from the last time I would struggle with something, the one truth I would find is that it gets better. No matter where you are, I can promise you that: it gets better. Never perfect, but better.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Being Daddy

It is a running joke in my extended family that all we do is produce boys.  Before my wife and I had our first child, there were 38 descendants of my paternal grandparents, 28 of which are boys and only 10 are girls. Medieval lords would have loved us.
When my wife became pregnant with our first child, it seemed like a given that it would be a boy.  The odds seemed so heavy on the XY combination that my wife talked as if it was a certainty.  Discussions of names, clothes, nursery decor were always finished with her saying "It's going to be a boy anyways, so it doesn't matter."
"We don't know that for sure.  It could be a girl," I would follow up, doing my best to be the modern, sensitive, PC expectant father I imagined myself to be.
"Well, with your family's track record, we're having a boy," was how it was always wrapped up.
As is ought to happen when expecting, just about everyone we came in contact with seemed to have an opinion one way or the other.  Some were based on "facts," such as "she's carrying it low, so it's going to be a boy."  Others were just straight statements like "It's going to be a girl."  What always surprised me was the confidence with which these declarations were made, especially given the lack of any (real) information one way or another.  How anyone could have such strong opinions on the results of nature's ultimate coin flip was beyond me.
As we neared the 20-week mark, I tried my best to remain neutral.  Whenever the topic came up, I was always sure to toss in the requisite "Either is fine with me, just as long as it's healthy."  I didn't want to be that stereotypical dad, wanting a boy so I could shape him into the next Tiger Woods or Tom Brady.  I was fighting hard against the tide of expectations, reminding myself that even if it is a boy, whose to say he will be an unabashed sports finatic like me?  He could be a show-choir loving musician, or an avant-garde artist. Or he could be a Goth counter-culturalist or a major online gamer.  Or he could be gay (by which I mean, he could be gay AND one or more of the others).  Or he could not want to be boy entirely, which, I can with full honesty say, is entirely fine with me.  I consistently reminded myself of these things for the specific purpose of breaking down any expectations and focusing on loving this new baby no matter whom he/she would become.  

When the ultrasound technician announced that the baby was a girl, I was caught off guard more than I would like to admit.  I felt like I didn't know how to react.  I, of course, said the right things and still enjoyed the moment with my wife.  But I was ashamed of what had been my initial reaction: disappointment.  So much for the progressive, modern man.  
This shame lingered with me for the next few days.  I began to question myself.  Why was I not as excited that it was going to be a girl?  Was I more of a chauvinist than I really knew or at least willing to admit?  I pondered these questions over the next few days searching for something to help me feel as excited as I had before the ultrasound.  
I was sitting at a two-top across from the order station at the Starbucks near my house, continuing my mental flogging, when a family entered and stepped up to the counter.  Mom, Dad, and two middle-school aged daughters seemed to be making a quick stop before a long trip.  As I watched them place their orders, a few extra items caught the girls' eyes.  They made the usual teenage "Can we get this?" request and Dad approved with a loving "Sure."  As the father wrapped up the transaction, the youngest girl gathered her purchases and, before stepping away from the counter, turned and said, with sweet sincerity, "Thanks Daddy."
There it was.  In that moment all the excitement, and then some, came flooding back.  All the special parts of the father-daughter relationship became clear.  I get to be the provider.  I get to be the protector.  Daddy-daughter date nights.  I get to be the one to let her know how beautiful she is.  I get to be the model for any future significant others.  I get to be the one to walk her down the aisle.  While I was quick to remember that these, again, are expectations and by no means a guarantee of what was to come, just the possibility was enough.

When, at the next ultra sound, the tech confirmed that it was a girl, a new feeling washed over me - relief.  Any other news would have been a disappointment - I was all in.  Because I get to be Daddy.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Triumph of Spirit: A Tribute to My Mom

"Start believing in dreams and others will catch the fever." - A random fortune cookie

In 2010, my wife and I completed a three-year adventure of living in Las Vegas and moved back to our home state of Wisconsin.  With all of our belongings impressively jigsawed into a mini-storage container, all that was left was to caravan ourselves and our two cars the 1800+ miles. Out of a desire to save time and money (and, more subtlety, an excitement to return to family and friends and start the next chapter of our life), we decided to squeeze the trip into two days rather than three.  This necessitated extra drivers to handle the 12- to 14-hour driving sessions.  My wife was able to enlist one of her best friends as her co-pilot.  I had my mom.

I make that sound bad, but I was, in all honesty, perfectly happy with my mom joining me for the trip.  She had offered her services as our wedding gift and I greatly appreciated the thoughtfulness.  But I was also excited about getting to spend the time with her.  My mom and I had grown close since my time living with her during a college sabbatical of sorts.   The time together, coupled with a period of intense personal growth for me, led to a connection between the two of us that we both admitted was not there before.  For me, the candid, raw conversations about our struggles brought out information that shaded my perspective of this woman whom, I was embarrassed to realize, I did not know as well as I had thought.  I felt like the car ride would provide another opportunity for us to connect in this way.  It did not disappoint.  As she shared pieces of her childhood that I was completely unaware of before, I began to recognize just what an impressive person she is.

To be direct, my mom is the most impressive person I know.  I have long thought that the way she has overcome numerous difficulties and struggles to reach astounding heights deserves to be acknowledged.  In her late 30's, a time when most people resign themselves to "I guess this is what life will be," my mom changed careers and started as an entry-level member of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.  Soon after starting, she announced that she had decided to take advantage of the company's paid-tuition benefit plan to pursue a Bachelor's degree.  I can still remember sitting in her living room as she told me and my brother this news and how I felt puzzled  as to why she would want to do it (and, I hate to admit, doubtful of her actually completing it).  Happily, I was proved wrong.  Not only did she complete the Bachelor's degree, she continued on and obtained a Master's in Adult Education.  She did this all while making an extremely impressive climb up the corporate ladder at Harely-Davidson.

In 2005, my mom opened a restaurant.  It had been her dream for a long time.  I can remember numerous occasions where she talked about someday having her own establishment.  She did everything right in the planning and preparation.  I wish I could say that it achieved exactly what she dreamed and that it is still open today, but it unfortunately had to close its doors.  I know that the "failure" of the restaurant weighs heavily on her.  But I refuse to see it as a failure; to me, it will always be a shining success.  It is a success because she did what so many only talk of doing - she chased her dream with uninhibited passion and effort.  Rather than finding an excuse not to enter the game, she stepped up, took the shot, and left no question of what could have been.

But this is how she has always been.  She never settles for the easy or safe choice when it calls for sacrificing what she truly wants.  Where most people would find an excuse to play it safe and stop short of the next step, my mom has always contintued to push forward.  She is the embodiment of the common misinterpretation of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken."  Her life has been about taking her own route rather than the expected course.

This indelible spirit has been an inspiration to me.  Time and time again, from finishing my undergraduate degree after being kicked out of school to willfully leaving two teaching positions to try for one in the Madison area, it would have been easy to find an excuse to settle rather than continue on.  So many times I have been faced with the safe, well-trodden path or the more difficult, less-traveled road.  And each time, I have been called to take the path she would take.  And it has made all the difference.

A little over a year after coming back from Las Vegas, my wife and I were blessed with a beautiful baby girl.  When we discussed potential names, I told my wife that I wanted our daughter's first name to in someway include my mother's name, Kathryn.  I wanted this both to honor all that my mom has done for me and to serve as a tribute to the amazing woman she is.  But on deeper, more mystical level, I also hoped that in connecting their names, baby Cate and Nana Katie would also share the same never-give-up, never-settle, always-chase-your-dreams spirit.  There is nothing I wish for more in the world.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

On the Shoulders of Giants

Growing up, my father was prone to detours.  We would be on our way to a family event or a Brewers game and he would inevitably turn off course to “show us something.”  We all knew what it was.  Eventually, we would pass by a factory, office building, department store, or other commercial structure and the reason for the trip would come out.  My dad would point out the building and proudly declare “I helped build that.”

For thirty-plus years my dad worked as an ironworker in the Milwaukee area.  His company provided the bones for lots of mid-level buildings in the metropolitan area.  My father played a vital role in many of these jobs as one of the top foremen for the company.  So it was with great pride that he would show us the end result of his daily labors.

And I was proud of it too.  Being able to casually drop “My dad?  He builds buildings,” in the what-does-your-dad-do conversation always had a certain caché.  How many other kids could say something as cool as that?

But this sense of pride came at a price.  Working year round out in the extremes of our see-saw Wisconsin climate, my dad endured year after year of cold, snowy winters and hot, humid summers.  I remember him telling me that he would get so cold sometimes that it seemed to reach his bones.  At night in the winter, he would fire-up the cast iron stove in our living room, creating so much heat that I would be sitting on the couch across the room sweating profusely.  He, on the other hand, would be lying right next to it in jeans and a thermal shirt, peacefully asleep.

Then there were the injuries.  From little ones, such as smashed toes and welding shavings in the eye; to big ones, such as a fall when I was only a few months old that put him in the hospital and left him with chronic back problems.  The inherent danger of his profession was always in the air.  It worried my step-mom a great deal and I know she bore the brunt of the concern for him, more than she ever let on.  Thinking back on it now, a sense of calm always seemed to come over me whenever his green work van pulled into the driveway.

For my dad, though, it was all worth it.  Born into rural poverty, his chosen trade allowed him to lift his family up and solidly place it in the middle class.  His story is the quintessential case study of the post-World War II rise of the blue-collar worker.  His own sweat and determination enabled him to achieve that more modest of American dreams: providing a starting point for his children that was better than his own.

It humbles me to think of all that he went through to provide this for us.  The injuries, the rotten weather, the stressful deadlines - it wasn’t easy.   But my dad has never been about doing what is easy.  He did what was right, and we are the ones that benefited most from it.  We were given a head start.

Of course, there is much more to my father than what he did for a living.  There is the generous man who has always given of himself freely.  Hours and hours of baseball games in the front yard, sock fights in the living room, basketball in the driveway.  He has passed on so more than just improved lifestyle.  He instilled in myself and my two siblings a fierce work ethic, a kind heart, and an unlimited devotion to family.

So it is on a day like this, my first official Father’s Day, that I hope he takes one more detour and looks at what he has built in us.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Vote for Teachers

Before dashing into my local polling place, I stopped to return a parent phone call.  The parent was taking me up on an offer to give his son and another student a ride to their 8th grade recognition.  I had called earlier out of concern that the students might not otherwise make the event.  The two students and I had been through a long grind of a year and I wanted to make sure they would be able to receive the acknowledgment and enjoy the celebration that comes with completing middle school. I happily agreed and stepped through the doors of the church to cast my vote.

Preparing for this, I had tried to find the right meaning and context. The outcome seemed inevitable for some time and I struggled to find what casting this vote would mean in the face of futility.  There's always the romantic notions of civic duty and the privilege of participating in democracy.  But those high-minded ideals did not seem enough in the face of such an important and, unfortunately, dire situation.

The past fifteen months had been tumultuous ones for all of Wisconsin. Broken friendships and fractured families became casualties of battle. Or at least it added more tension to the Thanksgiving dinner.
Being in the profession, the arguments back forth had the feel of those uncomfortable childhood moments when mom and dad are having a very tense discussion over what to do with you all while you are sitting in the room.  My chosen vocation was attacked viciously and, seemingly, without any remorse or consideration even by some people close to me.

Later that night, I sat in the gymnasium and listened to an 8th grade English teacher discuss the award-winning works of her students with such impressive prose that it was clear, as a colleague mentioned later, that she has not “taken her talents” (to co-opt a meme of our time) to greater acclaim and fortune.  But at the same time, her beautiful speech, unguarded in its admiration for its subjects and perfectly clear in the joy she takes in teaching them, left no mystery as to why that was not the case.

Variations of this scene are taking place in gyms and auditoriums throughout Wisconsin and the U.S.  Teachers giving of themselves not because it's written in their contract or demanded by principals or school boards or even expected. They give of themselves because it’s who they are - they’re teachers.  For them it isn’t just a label on their tax filing.  It’s an intrinsic part of their being.  They are built with an unceasing desire to meet the needs of students, whatever those needs may be.  I am one of those teachers.  It’s the first thing that comes to mind when asked to describe myself, because it sums me up so well.  It’s a part of who I am as much as gender or eye color.

And that is why what has been happening in my state hurt as much as it did.  Having neighbors, friends, and, unfortunately, even family members disparage a profession so intertwined with my identity and the identity of those around me, including my wife, created a cut deeper than just a simple debate over public policy.  It felt like an attack on who we are as people.

That is not to say that I feel like we are guiltless.  During the new teacher orientation period at a previous district, I experienced a quick indoctrination into the world of teacher’s unions in Wisconsin.  Over lunch on the third or fourth day of training, several members of the local union met with us to discuss membership.   I use the term “discuss” loosely as the presentation essentially consisted of the president, a gruff, well-tanned veteran teacher a year away from retirement, informing us that our ticket out the door was a signed membership form.  Our only choice was whether we would like voting rights with that.  Seeing as I had not voted in union elections to that point and knew that I would most likely be keeping that streak alive, it was not the most engaging of decisions.

While the lack of a positive, well-laid out presentation is it’s own issue, what stuck me most from that experience was something he said while laying out the benefits the union provides.  While listing all the things the union had fought for, he mentioned putting 10% of our salary toward our pensions.  Having spent some time in the private sector, I was blown away by this number.  The average 401K plan only allows for 4% or 5% at most and increasingly does not contain an employer match1.  At the time, I only had one computer in my classroom and I was having to scrounge for other basic supplies, like staplers and white board erasers.  My first reaction was "an chance I could use some of those funds for my room." My second reaction: no wonder the teacher's unions have a PR problem.

That being said, it is confusing to me the anger that this receives.  When we talk to young people or think about what we want for our own kids, we do so without limitations.  We rightly encourage them to strive for the best in all areas, especially monetary success. We would never fault someone for joining a private company that provides excellent health insurance and a great retirement plan.  But when it comes to teaching, these measures of professional success are unacceptable.  To those looking to choose their future path we are essentially saying “Go out and get what’s best for you, except if you want to teach.”

I know the anger toward teacher benefits is not born out of some unfounded bias towards educators.  The direct connection of funding for schools to yearly property tax bills drives this sentiment and with good reason.  Hearing of things like health benefits and pension plans that are better than the private sector while staring at another increase on a property tax statement does not make for warm feelings.  It’s easy to understand.  I will never fault anyone for wanting more bang for their buck when it comes to tax dollars.  

But nothing is free.  One of the pillars of our democracy is having an informed, educated public.  Lost in all of this is the admirable goal set out but the public education system in America - that everyone in our country, no matter their background, status, or wealth, will receive an education.  Everyday we set about doing that. No matter what they come to us with, we strive to meet the academic and social needs of every single young person that walks through our doors.  We don’t do it out of command or desire for a bonus.  We do it because it’s who we are.

So as I stepped inside the doors of the church and set about casting my vote, I focused on not what the outcome might be but the fact that my vote was my way of softly and respectfully standing up for the profession I love.

1 Numbers come from vague recollection during time in the private sector.  Some kind of official verification to come.