9.20.2009

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

There are very few rocks in the US under which one can hide and not know who Rep. Joe Wilson is or why he is suddenly a household name. Or, for a similar reason, Kanye West. These two people recently made national headlines and became the butt of jokes in places ranging from political websites and blogs to tonight's Emmy Awards. That reason is because they were rude in a highly-visible manner, which raises the question: what has happened to respect?

I've found Facebook to be not only a social networking site, but also a forum for people to express their political beliefs and get into debates and arguments over said beliefs. I've watched people "defriend" each other over what, in the grand scheme of life, are trivial matters. Given the "discussions" being held on FB leading up to President Obama's Congressional Address, I anticipated a great deal of post-speech backlash from some of my very conservative friends. Surprisingly, there was essentially none. What I did find surprising was how many people defended Rep. Wilson and his now-famous "You lie."

They weren't defending him because he represented their political stand on the issue at hand. They defended him for exercising his First Amendment Right (free speech) and for "calling out the liar." Nevermind Rep. Wilson was actually wrong -- the bill before the House says, in all capital letters, that there will be no funding for undocumented immigrants. The matter that offended so many was that he chose to yell out DURING A SPEECH given by the President of the United States. Yelling during a football or baseball game? Normal! Expected! Yelling during a rally? Encouraged! Shouting out during an internationally televised address in front of a group of people governed by "Roberts Rules of Order?" Inexcusable.

One friend of mine and I got into a discussion about this when I either "liked" or commented on her status which essentially questioned where manners have gone in this country. Another of her friends joined in with comments that disturbed me on many levels. The overall synthesis of her comments were "only give respect to those who have earned it." From one angle, I can understand her point. But, we are talking about The President Of The United States. Whether or not you voted for him (or her), whether or not you agree with their policies or positions, they deserve the respect the office demands. If you dislike them for whatever reason, our forefathers had the vision to put into place procedures for 1) balancing said President's policies through other politicians and 2) ways to remove/replace said President.

When I was growing up, which really wasn't all that long ago, I was taught that certain people were to be shown respect. This included people in authority positions, such as teachers, policemen, clergy, etc., as well as those of an older generation. Those of my parent's generation or older I was taught to address as "Mr." or "Mrs." and NEVER by their first name. This carried through all my student years, and to this day I still have a problem addressing former teachers, whom I am now "equal" to, if not having surpassed in some ways professionally, by their first names even though they've encouraged it. It is because I respect them and the place they've had in my life.

This friend-of-a-friend aforementioned said essentially that she only gives respect to those who have earned it. What kind of example does this set for our children? Test everyone to see if they "deserve" your respect? Does she go into her child's classroom(s) at the beginning of a school year and determine if her child/ren should respect the teacher? What about the cop who pulls her over for a traffic violation? Is the ticket any different if she respects the cop or not? Did she bother to "earn" her children's respect, or did she simply expect it because she's the mom? What if her children decided that she hadn't earned their respect, and started treating her the way she apparently thinks it is ok to treat other people in positions of authority or offices traditionally demanding respect? Somehow I don't think that decision would be met with open arms and encouraged to prosper.

I currently work as a substitute teacher, and many of the teachers I fill in for work in a district that is on "the wrong side of the tracks." More and more I see a lack of parental involvement at home affecting how students learn. I walk into classrooms where teachers have to be both parent and instructor, teaching children how to behave in the most common of situations. Now I was never a troublemaker in school, and given I was in "accelerated" courses the vast majority of my colleagues were also well-behaved. Every class I go in to, I wonder what kind of battle I might have to fight for respect and it seems a disproportionate number of kids these days are troublemakers. Last week I subbed 4th grade. There were 17 students in the class and 5 of them were problem children, students known throughout the school. That's almost 30% of the class, and you can bet that one student acting up affected the learning of every student around him negatively. These students believe they can get away with talking back to teachers and other misbehavior because they get away with it at home or in other situations monitored by their parents. I'd hate to think they'd go home with their note from the principal about how bad their behavior was, and have their parent say, "that teacher hasn't earned my child's respect."

I saw an online article about a restaurant employee who was fired for putting on someone's bill a non-charge for dealing with "the little f*cker." In this case, the object of the waiter's wrath was a smaller child (I think 5, maybe) who was, according to the parents, "a little fussy and cranky." Now I don't condone putting profanity on someone's check like that (and I wonder how the computer even allowed it to go on there) but I've been in more than one restaurant wherein children have been allowed to yell, scream, run around, throw food, and get in the way of the overworked & underpaid waitstaff while the parents non-chalantly enjoyed their dinner, oblivious to the death looks from the diners around them. For once I was pleased to see the myriad of comments to the article coming from parents SUPPORTING the waiter and shunning the excuses of the parents. When I was that age, the instant I was out-of-line, I was also taken outside and dealt with. These days, parents believe the psycho-babble that too many rules stifle a child's creativity. Yeah, all those rules I grew up with have obviously prevented me from becoming a successful musician & performer. Ha.

Today President Obama did a media blitz wherein every interview he gave he made some mention about how the media glorifies those who are rude and limits those who are polite to little air time. I applaude our president for saying it, and I agree with him. Even if parents are teaching respect, how easily is that message undermined by the enormous amount of fame given people being rude on the nightly news? Or online?

It is a parent's responsibility to raise their child in a way that would make them and their ancestors proud. We do it both through the rules we establish for our children, and the examples we set in our own lives. So what message are you sending your child today?

4.22.2009

R.I.P., Don

Tonight I am hearing in my mind the sounds of Tavener: his "Funeral Ikos" and "Song for Athene." All the while, I am processing the unexpected passing of a friend and coworker, wondering what it was that God had in His plan to call him home so soon.

I have always believed that God brings people into our lives for specific reasons. Some are meant to be our friends, others our mentors, and some perhaps even our enemies. Some are short-term, others with you for life no matter where you end up. I had only known Don for less than 2 months yet I wonder what impact his friendship will have had on my life, and it may be months or years before I ever know.

We met at the good ol' IRS. We were in the same training class, and part of a group that became friends during breaks and lunch, sharing a common sense of humor about the whole situation. Later, he and I were assigned to the same unit, where two things in common really bonded us: our ability to do our jobs very well, and our desire to do our jobs well -- and for the whole unit to succeed. We were both selected to train as the back-up work leaders, and were on our way to earning incentive pay -- bonuses recognizing our high production and quality ratings. We sought each other out to kvetch about problems in the unit, or to share a good joke or tidbit of internal gossip, or just to have a moment with someone who both understood and cared. In a very short acquaintance, we had developed our own way of communicating; often just a look was all that was needed to say all that needed to be said.

Don was a very intense person. You couldn't help but notice him. He had a very vibrant personality and a wicked sense of humor. He was incredibly passionate about what he did in life, even down to the menial things. This passion and intensity to make everything right was what cost him his job as a sheriff's deputy (don't question authority even if your suggestions are the right thing to do), and was what was driving him to eventually go back to school to become an educator. He was working two jobs to make the ends meet while his wife went to med school, even sacrificing sleep to make sure his two kids (ages 3 & 1) had time with Dad. Last Friday, while most of us were looking forward to our days off so we could sleep or do mundane errands, he was so excited for our day off because he would be taking the kids to the zoo.

What we know so far is that he went home to take a nap between jobs and never woke up. He was in his late 20s, a former high school and college track star still in excellent health. Tonight and for a while to come, I will mourn the loss of a friend. All night I struggled with not seeing him at his desk, and realizing that when I thought, "oh, I have to tell Don this" it was in vain because I will not talk to him again on this earth. Many of my coworkers have surprised me both by noticing that Don and I had become close and through their expressions of care and concern for me. I will always be grateful for our mutual friend and work leader Curtis, who was considerate and thoughtful enough to tell me personally rather than wait for me to find out in the meeting like everyone else. That gesture has meant so much to me, a small bright spot in a very dark night.

Today I mourn the loss of a friend, and pray for his wife and two young children. I can only begin to imagine the depths of their grief. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest, Don. You are missed.

3.05.2009

Tax Tips - From an Insider (Updated)

Hello, sports fans! In the time I've been gone from blogging, I've taken a position with the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service. What I thought would be a fairly mind-numbing job doing data entry is proving to be a pleasant challenge, catering to the part of me that loves meeting and exceeding goals. Now I can't help you with questions about your taxes -- deductions, what forms, etc. -- nor will I do your taxes! -- but I can give you tips on expediting the processing of your return.

1. E-file. You don't need a fancy program to do it; you can do it for free on the IRS website. (http://www.irs.gov/) An e-filed tax return will have almost no human data inputting; it will pretty much bypass at least three or four entire departments during processing. It will also cut out any delay in mailing (and save trees, carbon emissions, and postage!). As of 4/1/09, people who were e-filing were receiving their refunds via direct deposit in as little as 7 days.

2. Use the free, downloadable IRS .pdf files and type into them (or use whatever is loaded onto programs like TurboTax, if you want to spend the money). Typing your return eliminates illegible or questionable characters, and no illegible characters means one less department in processing. Use the form for everything except your name & address if the IRS mailed you a packet of forms that includes a label. If we sent you a label, use it. (Side note: forms printed out from TurboTax are often flagged for special scrutiny, since technically they aren't official Federal forms although we readily accept them... and because there is a high instance of tax fraud using those programs.)

3. Use the IRS label for your name & address, even if there are changes. There are codes on the IRS label that us data processors use to expedite your return. If you don't use the label, we have to spend more time keying in your information and searching databases. The more we have to key in, the greater the risk of human inputting error. If there are changes -- name, address, etc. -- neatly write it on the label.

4. If you decide that writing it out is your preferred way to do your taxes, don't think you can only do it once. The forms are easy to get and you can get an unlimited supply, so use one for a rough draft and another for your "final." Take the time to write neatly on your final copy -- again, avoid illegible characters. (You might think it is clear enough, but if there is ANY question about a character, we have to code it a certain way and your return will make a detour to the department that sends you those nice letters about a problem with your taxes.)

5. Don't use white-out. Seriously. If you use white-out, especially in certain areas, your return will automatically be kicked to the tax examiners. This will delay the processing of your return by a week or more. Since the forms are so easily found, print out another copy and rewrite everything. An extra 5 minutes of your time can mean you get your refund a week or two sooner.

6. Make sure everything is filled in that needs to be filled in. Most important: Social Security Numbers! On the flip side, if it doesn't need to be filled in, leave it blank. If you don't have a spouse, dependents, etc., don't put "N/A" (in any incarnation). If you don't have a money amount for a field, don't fill it with zeros. We can process your return so much faster if we don't have to hunt for your money amounts in a sea of 0s.

7. Check your math. I know, this seems obvious, but you would be surprised how many tax returns we see that don't add up correctly. Our computers don't like it, and we have to spend time verifying the error isn't ours before overriding the system. It also means your return will be delayed since it will go to the tax examiners to figure out your error -- or to contact you for more information.

8. If the IRS doesn't ask for it, don't send it. This includes, but is not limited to: the worksheets you use to finish certain forms, statements from you explaining something, copies of Social Security cards, copies of death certificates/autopsy reports for deceased tax payers (use the form for information about a deceased tax payer instead), bank statements, miscellaneous paperwork your tax preparer gives you, etc. I have seen attached to 1040s all of the above, and we don't need it. It wastes our time flipping through all that unnecessary crap to make sure we get what we need so you get your money, and it increases the likelihood that we'll miss a form because it was buried amongst your statements from TIAA/CREF.

9. Use the direct deposit option. You will receive your return at least a week, if not two or three weeks, sooner. Just because you mail your return to a certain center doesn't mean it gets processed there, and checks come from a whole different place entirely.

10. When attaching your W2s and 1099s to your return, please, please, please only staple them to the first page! Many people staple them through the entire packet, and then we can't get to information we need easily. Believe it or not, but our desks come stocked solely with a computer that has one program on it. That's it; no staple removers, staplers, tape, paper clips, anything to reattach your W2s/1099s if they come off when we have to rip open your returns to see the backside of your 1040 -- especially that special line that says "This is the amount you want refunded to you!"

11. This seems obvious, but make sure your various forms are in order, and that if it is a two or three page form (such as Schedule E, Profit/Loss from Real Estate) that you put page two AFTER page one. Out-of-order pages happen more often than you'd think.

12. Making a copy of your handwritten tax return is a good idea. Sending us the Xerox and keeping the original is not a good idea, especially if the Xerox is bad. Even worse is making a copy on your home color scanner/copier/fax/coffee maker that prints out a copy at 72% size. I had one of those; the numbers were practically microscopic. Needless to say, it took me way too long to process that return.

13. If you have a question, ask! We all joke about the stigma of the IRS, but really, most everyone who works for the agency is nice. The IRS really does want to help you, and the customer service people would much rather answer your questions than the majority of the calls they get from, well, quite unhappy tax payers. Asking up front increases your chances of filing an error-free return, which will then zip right through processing.

April 15th is fast approaching, so get out those calculators and get your returns filed if you haven't already done so! Data transcribers process a return (and all accompanying Schedules) every 2 minutes. Following these simple, even obvious, tips will help us keep that pace so you get your money faster!

1.23.2009

Special Students, Special Teachers

Some of my earliest childhood memories involve me taking home extra mimeographed school exercises to "teach" to my imaginary class. In one of my childhood homes, the white-paneled closet door actually functioned as a quasi-chalkboard if the colored chalk was damp. I spent hours "teaching" my class, even making up grade books. And although my route has been somewhat circuitous, I am an educator. When I tell people I love teaching, I sincerely do.

Today I had my first return to a classroom since the beginning of May, 2008. When the substitute teacher coordinator called me on Monday evening to see if I was available to teach today, I was incredibly excited because I would be teaching again. My spirits were only dampened slightly when I found out I was subbing for a K-4 special ed teacher, but only so because I've never subbed before (other than what college profs do for each other when someone is sick or traveling, which really isn't subbing).

The three kids I dealt with today each had a different disability. Ryan is 7 and has Down's Syndrome. He is very smart, but his trisomy 21 is pretty severe and he has a very difficult time communicating. Put him in front of a computer with educational games, and the kid is practically a savant. Work with him one-on-one, and it is a challenge. You have to use a combination of sign language (modified) and short commands, along with a certain amount of intuition. Ryan spends all day in the Lifeskills classroom; half day with the teacher, and half day with the aide, although he does do morning assembly, lunch, one lesson unit, and recesses with his regular class.

Brice is 5, I believe, and has spina bifida. He is wheelchair-bound. He's a sweet kid, but all the aides and other teachers independently said the same word to describe him when bringing me up to speed: manipulative. He tries to use his disability to get others to do things for him. They told me one day he had all his teachers and parents convinced he was freezing cold (to the point where his mom was called and she took him to the doctor) only to find out he just didn't want to be at school, so he acted cold to get out of it. Brice is in his kindergarten class for the whole time (half day) but the teacher is with him to help the classroom teacher and keep Brice on track since his incentives/learning rewards are different than the other students's. Today Brice got a new wheelchair, which brought with it the bonus (for me, the sub) that he was out of the classroom for an hour and the difficulty of getting him focused again after all the excitement.

Lastly I had a little bit of dealings with Chloe, an absolutely adorable 7 year old who was born with a cleft palate. It has since been repaired, but her speech is very affected. She is in and out of the Lifeskills classroom, depending on what is being covered in her regular classroom and her occupational/speech therapy schedule. She thought I resembled a human jungle-gym while waiting for the bus, but that was fine with me.

Next to the Lifeskills room is the other special ed room which is dedicated to students with autism and learning disabilities. Ryan & Chloe spend time in there when recess has to be indoors (like today because it was so cold) or when the two classes combine for "Friday Cafe." Playing with Ryan during his second recess, I got to meet Skylar, Dylan, and another boy whose name I never learned. Skylar is a walking example that ADHD is indeed real, and many kids diagnosed with it do NOT have it. Dylan is autistic as is the third boy, except the third boy is a barely-independently-functional autistic. (If you think of autism as repetitive motions, single-mindedness, that sort of stuff, he is one click above that. He will play with the same toy all day, but he is capable of other independent functions like using the bathroom.)

Working with these students was rewarding, rewarding in a very different way than collegiate teaching is. But what moved me the most today was seeing these students in their regular classrooms. The other kids didn't seem to care that their classmate had a disability. Ryan's classmates converged on him when he was in the room, wanting him to play with them, giving him hugs. Brice's classmates ooohed and aaahed over his new chair, and when they saw the "movie" they had made where they said what their dream was (a la MLK, Jr.) no one laughed when Brice was unintelligible and had to be prompted by the videographer.

My generation made fun of the kids on "the short bus." Some of them still do.

These kids don't.

Maybe someday they will; kids become cynical with age. Hopefully, though, having these experiences so young will help stave that off. And I hope we adults learn from them, too. Normally subs are met with, well, a certain amount of mischief. These kids weren't scared that I was new. They clamored for my attention. They behaved and participated. (Well, mostly.) The autistic child whose name I didn't catch came to me during my lunch for a hug. One of the aides saw that and was floored -- apparently he usually hits people and never wants a hug, let alone from a stranger.

Working with these kids regularly isn't my calling, but now I have even more respect for those who have dedicated their lives to working with them. They deserve our support, as do their parents. And you can bet if they call me to sub in this classroom again, I will be glad to do so.