Steve Hettleman

In my new role as instructional coach at the school where I teach, I have the honor of observing my colleagues in action. The other day, a friend asked me what I had seen during a drama class. I could have said that I saw the teacher instruct his students on how to perform a skit. I could have said that I saw students collaborate and perform vignettes about memorable moments from their young lives. What I actually said was, “I saw the birth of a unicorn.”

Everything about that class was magic. There was magic in the way the teacher created space to allow the students to be vulnerable, in the way he gently redirected two boys who had surrendered to a giggling fit, in the authentic applause and loving cheers they gave to each other after every round. A standardized test measures none of these things, but they are worth experiencing nonetheless.

A few students missed that drama class, just as students miss my own. Technology keeps us connected. Absent students send me thoughtful emails asking, “Did I miss anything?” I try my best to describe what we did, sometimes sending lecture notes, sometimes sharing a PowerPoint presentation. But how do you fill in a kid on the birth of a unicorn? An education is also what happens in the spaces between the words. There are lessons between the lessons.

I see the encroachment of technology into education every day. Students and parents check online grades with alarming frequency. Computer lab spaces fill up months in advance. Before too long, technology might look like an attractive replacement for teachers. Computers will allow students to work at their own pace. Computers will individualize instruction and also the assessments that measure that instruction, But computers can’t create the magic. A computer can’t mid-wife a unicorn.

I ‘m lucky. I see wild births almost every day in my new role. Some are unicorns. Some are jackalopes. And some are leprechauns. They’re all magical in their own way. What happens in a classroom, on those days, is nothing short of a miracle. It’s the stuff that legends are made of.

With a Perspective, I’m Steve Hettleman.

Steve Hettleman teaches English at Redwood High School in Larkspur.


My teenage students weren’t enthusiastic as we battled morning traffic. They were happy to skip class but this food bank volunteering thing had gotten old.

Their attitude: People are hungry. Yeah. Why do we have to fix it?

Our first stint had been such fun. In the cavernous, chilly warehouse mountains of donated food waited to be sorted. For three hours we pawed through an astonishing array of cans, boxes and jars. Cereal got tossed into one bin, beans over there. Kids ran around with armfuls of groceries, skidding up to pallets to dump their loads. The crazy stuff people contributed — rhododendron tea, chili-pomegranate jelly, a half-eaten box of Oreos. It was a treasure hunt.

But ever since then we had been bagging rice; week after week, measuring exactly 16 ounces into each plastic bag, slapping on cooking instructions. The glee of ditching class faded to weary resignation. Even clowning around in our hair nets and latex gloves got old. Boring, uninspiring work.

But on this morning it changed.

“What’s so special about 16 ounces of rice,” my student Evan whined.

I explained: It’s dinner for a family of four. The label says how to cook it to taste good. A hot meal to end the day.

The kids looked stunned. This is dinner?

I nodded, “Yes, if you’re hungry.”

There was a little silence.

Evan piped up again. He’d done seven bags, dinners for a week. A second boy yelled when he hit 30 bags, dinners for a month. For the rest of the morning, they raced to meet a goal that had become urgent to them. If we could fill 365 bags by noon, we’d have fed a family for a year. They flew through the work.

They walked out of the food bank proud to be helping the 20% of our neighbors who don’t have enough to eat.

In the end, my students asked to volunteer again.

Also, to learn to cook rice.

With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is an educator and writer who founded REAL School Marin.

Trish Manwaring

For the last few weeks, I have been teaching my 8th graders how to write a memoir that reveals something about growing up. I ask the students to recall a time when they were all by themselves for longer than usual. I also ask them to recall a time when they felt exceedingly happy, a time they felt as if their heart was breaking, a time with a mom or dad or sibling or grandparent that they will never forget.

I instruct the students to choose a topic and then write freely for seven minutes, urging them to keep their pencils moving. I make a show of timing it with the clock on the wall, and as the second hand approaches the 12, I issue the command to start writing with the confidence of a magician who asks you to reach into your pocket to pull out the quarter that has disappeared from his hand.

“Go,” I say, and the students promptly comply. If one hesitates in front of a blank page I’ll approach whisper quietly, “Just start writing anything at all.” Before the first minute is up, all pencils are moving, and everyone is concentrating. Even the most reluctant of writers will soon have a word, then a sentence, and then a lot of sentences.

As I walk around the room, the busy, scrawling students have no idea how elated I am to be reminded that every student has a story to tell. When I ask them to put their pencils down, many don’t want to stop. Table partners read to each other, and more than a few volunteer to share what they’ve written with the whole class. Some of these early drafts will become insightful stories about bonding with a new baby sibling, overcoming anxiety, discovering a new passion.

What strikes me about this writing unit today is how effective it is. In a time when, like a dog chasing its tail, education lurches and nips tirelessly at ideas like ” reform” and ” innovation,” writing instruction remains a magically simple way to help young people tell their own stories, a vital process that begins with nothing more than some pencils and paper, and seven minutes on the clock.

With a Perspective, I’m Trish Manwaring.

Trish Manwaring teaches 8th Grade Language Arts at Mill Valley Middle School.

Michael Ellis

We often use the word maze and labyrinth interchangeably. But they are quite different. A maze has a multitude of paths that often lead to dead ends. You must retrace your steps and choose correctly over and over again to move successfully through it. There is a corn maze every Halloween in Petaluma and rubberneckers cause a major traffic jam along 101. I don’t like mazes.

A labyrinth on the other hand is a complex, circuitous single route that you take from the outside of a circle and through many twists and turns. You are always on a single path until you get to the center. You then turn and take the same exact path back out. There are labyrinths all over the Bay Area and whenever I see one I am drawn to walk on it. It is a joyful, walking meditation, not a somber one.

I enjoy labyrinths because they are a metaphor for life. We are born and know that we will die, but our life journey is full of unexpected twists and turns. And for me the beauty of walking the labyrinth is that I know I’ll get to the middle. Even though I have walked it hundreds of time, there are surprises. I expect a certain route but suddenly the path heads in the opposite direction. And then it abruptly turns again and I seem to be going in the wrong direction. But I must have faith. It is such an allegory for life. Whatever we imagine it to be , it will be something else.

Many ancient cultures had labyrinths in some form. Probably the archetypal one in Ancient Crete was actually a maze with the Minotaur in the middle. There is evidence in ancient Egypt of a labyrinth and Native Americans often incorporated labyrinths in their basket weaving. Clearly there is something elemental about the shape and path of labyrinths that resonates for us all.

Our most recent labyrinths can be traced to the medieval churches. When Christians no longer controlled the Holy Land and couldn’t complete their spiritual lives with pilgrimages there they developed labyrinths as a Plan B. If you couldn’t walk to Jerusalem, at least you could walk in the churches on the labyrinth’s path and that would be good enough to get into Heaven.

I do find labyrinths a-mazing. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.

Nila Venkat

“Penguins,” I told my mother, while driving to my first debate competition. “They all look like penguins.” I was referring to the waves of high school students in suits and skirts, unloading from minivans and filing into the gymnasium.

Like mini-senators, the young debaters strutted through the parking lot, shuffling through papers and doing vocal exercises. Most were guys. I didn’t think too much of it then, but that gender dynamic would end up being one of the reasons I quit debate.

The blatant stares from guys checking me out as I walked between rounds had me hiking down my skirt and clutching my notebooks to my chest. As I nervously reviewed points with my partner, two guys from an opposing team laughed and said, “Take it easy, baby,” which left me stuttering at a loss for words.

I once complained to a girl on my debate team about how I had four phone numbers slipped to me before the end of my third round, and she shook her head and scoffed: “That’s what happens when you take a bunch of high school nerds and put them together with just a few girls — they think they own us.”

After one particularly rough tournament, I angrily threw my bags into my mom’s car and complained to her about the guys I had to deal with. I was looking for sympathy, but instead to my surprise she told me to get used it.

As a woman working in tech, she’s had to deal with the same kind of misogyny. Belittling comments. Men taking credit for her work. And sexist assumptions.

That’s why when I told her I wanted to drop debate junior year, she tried to convince me to stay. Not to improve my public speaking skills, but because the sexism I’d face there would prepare me for the rest of my life as a woman.

Even though I agree with my mom, I decided to quit debate to get away from that sexist atmosphere– at least, for a little while.

With a Perspective, I’m Nila Venkat.

Nila Venkat is 16 and lives in Hayward. Youth Radio produced her commentary.

Navneet Singh

As Rolo and I walked along the sidewalk on a brisk fall morning, I couldn’t help but smile when I looked at his curly tail, swaying back and forth like a metronome with each step. His cream-colored ears with shades of black gently flopped up and down in perfect rhythm with his gait, and he kept his head up, taking in the sights and smells all around us. As we continued, I saw a flock of birds flying overhead. The sun was cutting through the clouds, and I noticed an amber glow on the white underbellies of the birds. Birds had flown overhead before, but before today I had never paused to appreciate the colors and contours of their bodies.

Rolo is my pet Havanese dog, now two years old. Because of Rolo, I wake up every morning and step outside to witness the day unfold. I hear the rustle of wind through the leaves of trees and birds chirping and walk outside homes wafting the smell of bacon cooking for breakfast.

Because of Rolo, I am learning to pause as he does when he is sniffing and slow down and enjoy the moment before me without rushing it or judging it or changing it, but simply being part of it.

Because of Rolo, I put away my cell phone for 30 minutes every day and learn that there are beautiful trees of many varieties right here in my own neighborhood that I never appreciated before.

As a physician, I am always interested in new discoveries in health and medicine. Increasingly, we are realizing the importance of the intricate dance between mind and body and how they rely on each other for optimal performance. There is a growing body of evidence on the importance of mindfulness. Being present in the moment, accepting the moment as it is and being fully engaged in it offer real benefits for emotional and physical health.

Mindfulness is effortless for Rolo as it is for all dogs. One day, it may come naturally to me, thanks to Rolo.

As Rolo and I finish up our morning walk, I open the door to our house and he pounces up the stairs, eager to see my wife and two daughters. I squat down, give him a pat on the head, look into his eyes that look like pools of caramel, and say “Thank you.”

With a Perspective, I’m Navneet Singh.

Navneet Singh is a pediatrician practicing in West San Jose.

Debbie Duncan

At first I thought it was just me.

When I heard Donald Trump bragging in a 2005 videotape of being able to sexually assault women, to “do anything” to them because he was a star, my heart began to race. I had an immediate flashback to the week before my high school graduation, when the senior minister of my church groped and chased me. An ordinary school night ended up with me managing, barely, to lock myself in a room and call my parents for help.

It didn’t take long to learn I was not the only woman having flashbacks. I read, then joined, the “tweet me your first sexual assaults” Twitter stream started by writer Kelly Oxford. Many of us shared stories that have haunted us for years, of teachers, ministers, family members, bosses or other co-workers, ex-boyfriends, men on public transportation, drunk party boys and the like grabbing us where they shouldn’t, of exerting their power over our bodies because they felt entitled to do so. The New York Times called the result “a kind of collective, nationwide purge of painful, often long-buried memories.” Within five days, Ms. Oxford had received more than 30 million replies.

The hashtag for these personal stories is #notokay-because every person, not just men who have wives, daughters or granddaughters, must acknowledge that sexual violence is wrong. We need to make sure our children of all genders know it.
I was more fortunate than many survivors of sexual assault. My mom and dad believed me. I left for college 3,000 miles away. I did not accuse the groper publicly, though he also never ran for president.

Let this be a moment of national reckoning on rape culture. We have an opportunity for a turning point-to use the madness of this presidential campaign to help end sexual violence. Because that is, and always will be, #notokay.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

Debbie Duncan writes and reviews children’s books from her home on the Peninsula.


Children shouldn’t be in the news. Unless they’ve won a spelling bee or taken the state basketball championship, the only time kids are in the news is when we, as adults, have failed them. We’ve failed to screen out the potential child predators from our communities. We’ve failed to break family patterns of abuse and addiction. We’ve failed to distribute resources globally to prevent famine and disease. We’ve failed to provide adequate healthcare. We’ve failed to create or promote stable governments that value human life.

For these reasons, children absolutely must be in the news. There is no more unrelenting light on our shortcomings as when we see kids suffer from our mistakes. There’s a collective gasp, and pause, when we see the images, when we hear the voices of the grieving parents. Raising children binds us all. it is the thread of empathy that knits us together into one fabric as a species.

I’m torn as to how much of this news to let my kids see and hear. I want them to trust grown-ups. I want them to feel like adults make mature, informed, well thought-out decisions that are in their best interests. The news consists of a comprehensive argument that exactly the opposite is happening, a meticulous accounting of our failings.

One night I was in the kitchen, putting dishes in the dishwasher, listening to the radio. My seven-year old daughter was dancing around the kitchen — we’ve just shared a rib-eye, and red meat puts her in a feral mood. She has a piece of French bread and butter in her mouth that she is shaking around, growling like a wolf pup. The newscast arrives at a story about a Syrian girl, caught in the blast of a bombed-out building. The explosion left her beheaded. There’s a young woman shouting in Arabic, crying to the reporter. My daughter stops and asks “Why is that woman saying Daddy, Daddy, Daddy?”

I stop to look at her, the tail of bread hanging from her mouth, and turn off the radio.

With a Perspective, I’m Mike Newland.

Mike Newland is an archaeologist. He lives in Santa Rosa.

Alan Lessik

This year, many friends report a curious reaction-feeling dirty all over after watching the presidential debates or listening to news reports. Just mentioning this reaction of feeling dirty may make some listeners shake or scratch themselves involuntarily. The daily verbal assaults on women, African-Americans, Latinos, immigrants, Muslims and LGBT folks remind us that that we are never quite safe and our very right to exist is under continuous attack. We may recall previous physical violations and/or threats of assailment and danger that created trauma that sunk deep into our bodies. Despite our desire to move on and let go, the mind and body keep their own memories of these events.

I define trauma as the unfinished story of pain that reaches deep into every part of our physical being. We all know the unrelenting power of lingering stories, stories without conclusions, stories that have a visceral urgency to be finished. That is trauma. Unexamined, feelings of hopelessness, anger, sadness, and fear arise, retriggered by current events.

As a writer and storyteller, I have learned the power of rewriting the trauma in my body. Oddly enough, it is the power of grief that can bring us back to life. By diving into these emotions, we are transformed. Whether it be writing, painting, dancing, or any other creative process, we gain the power to create a new world and transform trauma.

In doing so, we honor the hurts, the fears and the horrors that lie within us. We acknowledge them, feel their power and let them wash over us. With each wave, we feel the ebbing of pain and fear and the distancing of the horror of the event. We don’t forget, we don’t hide and we don’t ignore. We eventually come out on the other side, living with our knowledge of pain and suffering, knowing that we will live and love. We live, knowing that our bodies and our mind will reintegrate this new way of being to create our next story, the story of how we survived, how we overcame and how we regained our power and were born anew.

With a Perspective, I’m Alan Lessik.

Alan Lessik is a novelist, Zen practitioner, figure skater and non-profit leader. He lives in San Francisco.


The other day I walked into my children’s’ room and found my 10-year old son reading a book on his bed. Now, if you’re a parent, you know you’re almost always in for a surprise when you walk into your kids’ room unannounced. That he was reading a book didn’t surprise me. It was the book he was reading; a children’s book of the 10-page cardboard stock variety. One about a brown bear. I asked him if he remembered it from his earlier days. He shrugged me off. I was a bit taken aback.

“Man, I must have read that book 600 times to you. Your mom and I probably memorized it and about 20 other books by the time you were two.”

He wasn’t impressed.

When our kids were young, my wife and I – ok, mostly my wife — constantly consumed all the research stressing the importance of actively reading to children. And here was the result. My son didn’t remember the brown bear book. Let down, I pulled another book from the shelf, about a father hare and his son. Did he remember that book?

“Of course,” he said. “It’s about a father and son and they compete with each other over who loves the other the most.”
He was spot on.

As I sat there reminiscing over all the time spent reading books together (and we still do every now and then) I realized that it really paid off, not because my son remembered this book or that, but because he and his sister, now a teenager, are both avid readers, devouring novels daily, even stealing away to read a newspaper article here and there. And I know that their love for the written word and storytelling has its roots way back in the beginning of their lives, during their nightly bedtime stories. I also know it’s a good idea to keep some of those old books around, because they provide great moments of reflection and storytelling themselves.

So, if in the age of kids who can swipe a screen better than they can flip a page, you’re wondering about all those hours you’re spending with your infants and toddlers, trust me, it’s worth it.

With a Perspective, I’m Josh Gnass.

Josh Gnass teaches history in Burlingame and lives in San Francisco.

Erick Honda

This past year, for the first time in my 26-year teaching career, the smartest student in my senior English class was a football player. I’ll call him “John”. I knew immediately that John and I had to have a conversation. The conversation was about when he would stop playing football.

About five years ago, when the news about CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, started breaking in a national way, I had a flash of understanding regarding some of the thousands of young men who’ve passed through my classroom over the years, specifically the ones derided by their classmates as “dumb jocks”. I remembered the faces of the ones whose brows knit uncertainly when confronted with a difficult passage in a novel or a poem, the ones who eagerly, even passionately, struggled with the material, the ones who looked up at me with a light of understanding in their eyes…that then would fade and go dark.

This year, when John interpreted a poem, it was not like that. Instead, it brought a tear to my eye. Not only because his insights were razor sharp, or because his historical knowledge and his grasp of the work’s philosophical context was so deep and so clear, or because his word choices were so apt and his phrasings so elegant, although all of those were true. What made me cry is my awareness that it’s all so ephemeral.

My conversation with John was similar to one I’d had with other young men. I told him that the evidence about CTE suggests that the injuries are long-lasting, that the effects are cumulative, and that while some young brains can shrug off the effect temporarily, the damage is done, and that it will be likely felt in later years, in the form of cognitive impairment, depression, dementia, even death.

Over the last few years I have been able to convince a few young men to stop damaging their brains, but I was not able to convince John, and for that I am very sorry. I am also very sorry that we are not having a wider conversation in California and in the nation as a whole about why we continue to allow and even celebrate irreversible injuries to the future potential of millions of young people, and when we will stop.

I hope that conversation begins soon.

With a Perspective, I’m Erik Honda.

Erik Honda has been teaching English in East Bay public schools for 26 years. He lives in San Francisco.

Faye Zenoff

My name is Fay and I’m a recovering alcoholic. I grew up in the Bay Area and went to college, got a masters, married, raised kids, and built my career. During most of that time, alcohol and drugs were my fuel.

I started using as a teenager when my brother died. That didn’t make me an alcoholic. It was just the reason I turned to drugs and alcohol. I felt uncomfortable, lonely, and different. Drinking and drugging changed that. Partying meant no pain and not being alone. I spent most of those years buzzed, but the good grades, sports, leadership positions, and promotions – they were proof that life was on-track.

In college, I discovered most people don’t blackout when they drink. But, alcohol and drugs were a social norm and part of the fun. And I fit right in.

Two decades later, they stopped working for me. I began to feel a bit insane. I couldn’t stop using and wouldn’t ask for help. So I divorced, moved, got in better shape, changed jobs, cut out sugar and flour. Yet, the insanity was I couldn’t cut out drinking.

Nine years ago this week, I got sober. The journey back to life has been incredible. I have ups and downs, of course, but I no longer seek escape through alcohol or drugs. Yet so many friends didn’t understand why I stopped.

Addiction is isolating, insanity-making, debilitating, and goes largely untreated due to stigma, ignorance and shame. Those of us who get sober stay silent to avoid judgment. But by sharing our stories we can change understanding.

Addiction is not a choice, moral failing, or sign of weakness. And recovery can look like you and me. There are hundreds of thousands of people in the Bay Area living successfully in recovery, yet they are virtually invisible.

Today, I am using my voice to call attention to the health, happiness and healing possible in recovery. I know this. My life is proof. Its time to end shame and open up about recovery.

With a Perspective, I’m Fay Zenoff.

Fay Zenoff is executive director of a San Francisco nonprofit working to erase the stigma of addiction and promote the benefits of recovery.

Steve Saum

A confession: I’ve never had much sympathy for people who don’t vote, if your name is on the rolls and it’s just a matter of showing up or getting that ballot in the mail. But a few weeks ago I went to Belarus to observe the parliamentary elections. Belarus is Europe’s last dictatorship, with the same president, Alexander Lukashenka, since 1994. The parliament has had no opposition members since 2000. It’s been more than 20 years since an election was judged free and fair by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

There, if you said “my vote won’t make a difference,” that means something different. In fact, the fall elections required 50 percent turnout to be valid. So not voting could be way to throw a wrench in the system.

On election day in Minsk, I was visiting one precinct when a woman on the electoral commission resigned in protest. She accused the commission head of inflating the number of people who had voted during early voting. Widespread incidents of ballot box stuffing were reported by the OSCE; and the counting process was often more ritual than rigor. Official results put turnout at 75 percent. Independent observers put the numbers far lower. Some put turnout closer to 25 percent. Even so, when votes were counted, out of 110 members of parliament, two members of the opposition were selected.

A week later, Russia held parliamentary elections. Closed circuit cameras caught election commissioners stuffing ballot boxes — those videos popped up on YouTube pretty quickly. As for me, I was at the Giants game that day, enjoying the sunshine on the bay and watching our boys in black and orange sleepwalk through a loss to the Cardinals.

At the seventh-inning stretch, before “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” we sang “God Bless America.” That tune was composed by Irving Berlin, born in the city of Mogilev, then part of the Russian empire, now in Belarus. Berlin revised the lyrics for a radio broadcast by Kate Smith in November 1938, when fascism was ascendant in Europe.

But as we know, democracy can be frightfully messy and inefficient. It doesn’t just happen on its own. On that note, the OSCE is sending its largest mission ever of election observers to the United States this November, with particular concerns over voter registration and electronic voting.

As for the Giants, they recovered, and playing for a spot in another World Series.

With a Perspective, I’m Steven Saum.

Steven Saum is editor of Santa Clara Magazine.

Amy Cole-Farrell

When I was living in Berlin with my husband and two small children, twice a day, every day, I made the long trek to my son’s kindergarten. The journey took 20 minutes of walking, two underground trains, and two notoriously out of service elevators.

One day, as we disembarked the underground train, I pushed my double stroller, complete with infant and toddler, forward toward the platform. As I dropped the front down to meet the concrete slab, the smaller front wheels became lodged between the platform and the train. I tried to free them but it wasn’t happening. The buzzer began to sound, indicating that the train would leave imminently and I thought the worst. I began yelling, “Stop!” and “Help!” An older German man rushed up and began to fidget with the front of the stroller attempting to pry the wheels free. We worked together twisting and pulling, finally getting my wheels unstuck and onto the platform before the doors closed and the train drove away. I was in tears and I hugged this angel stranger.

As I continued to thank him, he noticed my heavy accent and asked where I was from. When I told him USA, he responded with great joy, “Then I am glad!” It was an emotional event for both of us and I couldn’t help imagine that perhaps he was part of a generation that felt gratitude for how the USA helped the German people after World War II. I choose to believe that because he was given hope, and help, during a dark time, he became softer, more willing to help, even if he hadn’t realized I was American.

Generosity begets generosity. I think about this when I consider the refugee crisis; when I think about the world decades from now, when my children are adults; when I think of a careless metaphor bounding around Twitter meant to describe human life: I can’t help wondering, what will that so called bowl of candy look like in the future if we don’t help? What will it look like if we do?

With a Perspective, I’m Amy Cole-Farrell.

Amy Cole-Farrell is an arts educator in Silicon Valley and lives in Pacifica.

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