To My Incoming Ninth-Grade Students on the Occasion of Our First Day Together

We’re going to be meeting each other for the first time today. I will greet you at the door and shake each of your hands. I will ask you how your day is going or how you’ve liked your classes so far, and you will likely walk past me without making eye contact while muttering the word “good” or grunting something that might be “fine”. After the bell rings, I will introduce myself, take attendance, and get you seated where I want you. Then I will challenge you to brainstorm more meaningful or more descriptive responses than good, fine, and ok. I will make you write them down, and I’ll make you share them with the class. Hopefully you’ll have a laugh, hopefully you’ll have a moment where you feel smart, and hopefully you’ll learn something from your classmates. Tomorrow I will meet you at the door again. I will shake your hand and ask you another question, but this time I will challenge you to give me a better answer. Good, fine, and ok simply won’t be good enough any more.

And so it will begin.

At this point, I suppose I could give you a laundry list of my obligations to you and your responsibilities to me and to the class. I could discuss the syllabus, the readings, the grammar rules, and the vocab words. I could tell you about writing and public speaking and projects and discussions. But I won’t. There will be plenty of time for that later. Let’s leave it at this: If you show up every day and give your best effort, you’ll be fine. It’s all I’m ever going to expect of you, and it’s exactly what you can expect of me. Just try your hardest and the rest will take care of itself.

With that said, there are some things that I am going to try my hardest to remember this year…

I will do my best to remember that you are starting in a new school today, that everything is vast, strange, and confusing. There are classrooms whose numbers run out of sequence and offices known only by foreign-sounding names and unfamiliar acronyms.

I will do my best to remember that you are surrounded by a sea of unfamiliar faces – hundreds of teachers and thousands of students that you’ve never seen before – and that you may go the entire day without ever seeing your closest friend that you’ve gone to school with your entire life.

I will do my best to remember that this is a time of change and transition for you. You’ve not only left behind your old school, but you may be choosing to leave behind old sports, old activities, and even old friends.

I will do my best to remember that you are getting your first taste of new subjects, new extra-curriculars, and new expectations.

I will do my best to remember that even though you still look like children, you are desperate to be treated like adults.

I will do my best to remember that your life right now is a maelstrom of anxiety and uncertainty.

And I will do my best to remember that you likely have no idea what maelstrom means.

Unfortunately, there will be times that I forget these things. There will be times when I am impatient. There will be times when I confuse you, frustrate you, and even let you down. I can promise you that whenever these things happen, I will give you my heartfelt apologies. They will likely be little consolation.

But let me ask you this…

Would it make you feel any better if I told you that, even though I’ve been here for over ten years now, there are offices in new places and teachers in new classrooms and I’m still trying to figure it all out?

Would it make you feel any better if I told you that my closest friend at this school was moved to a different building over the summer, that this is the first time in my career that I’ll be starting a school year without him?

Would it make you feel any better if I told you that I recently had to give up coaching two sports that I love? That when the bell rings at 2:37 today I am going to walk out of this building feeling lost, confused, and alone because I am not on the practice field and not surrounded by my friends?

Would it make you feel any better if I told you that I’m taking classes and being a student myself for the first time in over ten years? That today’s my first day (night) of school, too?

Would it make you feel any better if I told you that, as much as I’m going to try to talk to you like adults, I can still be a big, nerdy kid?

Would it make you feel any better if I told you that my life is the foggiest and most uncertain it’s ever been since I started teaching?

Would it make you feel any better if I told you that a maelstrom is a violent whirlpool or a mess of confusion and turbulence?

For whatever it’s worth, I understand the situation you’re in right now better than I ever have before. I’m already walking in your shoes – a lesson we’ll discuss extensively when we read To Kill a Mockingbird next semester – and hopefully I can see things through your eyes. I’ll do my best to be tolerant, understanding, and supportive. Hopefully you can do the same for me.

I’m already running late, so I need to wrap this up. I hope you were able to sleep last night. I know I wasn’t. I hope you wake up excited and ready to face the challenges that lie ahead.

I’ll be waiting for you at the door.


Mr. Alexander

Starting Again…with a Great Big Asterisk This Time

School starts today. It’s Institute Day, which means no students. Instead, we get to sit through the same District, Union, Building, and Department Meetings that we’ve been having on opening day for over ten years now. I’m sure we’ll hear most of the same jokes, stories, and statistics that we always hear in the same canned speeches and recycled pep talks that we’re forced to endure every year. Then, near the end of the day, we’ll finally get some “individual time” to make sure our rooms, plans, and copies are in order so we’re ready to actually teach when the students arrive tomorrow.

School starts today. Which means summer vacation’s over. 4:00 am still feels like the middle of the night, my morning routines feel completely alien, and coffee has already ceased being a warm, delicious luxury and become a strong, black, dire necessity.

School starts today, which means life returns to routine and structure.

But with so many things returning to normal, I am becoming painfully aware of how much everything is going to change.

I quit coaching at the end of last school year. Despite the sentiments I recycled a few days ago about trying to achieve balance in my life, it was actually a very sudden decision. And it’s one that I’m still coming to grips with.

I started this site 18 months ago and during that time I’ve often wondered what it might be like to step away from coaching for a year and blog about the experience. How might my life change if I excised one of the fundamental facets of who I am? How might the balance of my life change if I were to set aside the thing that unbalances and undermines it the most? How much could I actually accomplish if I was done working at the end of school each day and actually had my weekends off? How good of a teacher could I be? How many projects could I finish around the house? How much more time could I spend with my daughters?

How much writing could I get done?

I suppose now we’ll find out.

This post is late coming, seeing as I began my “leave of absence” (I have a hard time believing I won’t go back at some point) at the start of summer vacation. I nearly cried when I had to face my position group on our last day of spring workouts and tell them out of the blue that I wasn’t going to coach them this year. I went through finals week with a ponderous void weighing on the hollows of my heart. I spent the first two weeks of summer – normally devoted to June football camp – alternately feeling like I was late for something and had forgotten somewhere I needed to be. But by the start of July, summer was mostly just summer. I did some graduate coursework – a luxury I never had time for before – which helped to keep me busy. I extended the annual trip to my grandmother’s house by an extra day just because I could. And I soaked up as much time as possible with my two young daughters and my wife. I only felt the absence of coaching when I stopped and let myself dwell on it.

You might have noticed, though, that this blog went dormant for three months. So did my writing. Sadly, I wrote significantly more last summer when I was both coaching football and preparing the house for a second child. This is where the questions about balance come in. Because I wasn’t coaching this summer, because I knew I had the extra hours to spend with my family, I felt obligated to spend ALL my extra hours with them. I took less time for myself this summer than I ever have before. In the end, I feel like I accomplished nothing over the past two months.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I loved every minute I spent with my family and I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. But it makes me wonder. One of the carrots that eased this decision for me was the promise that I would have more time to write. Yet so far I’ve written next to nothing. Ironically, the start of school should help with that. Structure is good for me. So are the pre-dawn hours. If nothing else, they’re the only time I really get to myself. The doubt still remains, though. Am I going to be a better husband, father, teacher, and author this year now that coaching has been put on hold? Am I going to finally strike a satisfying balance in my life? Or am I going to find myself wasting more time simply because I have more time to waste? Growing lazier because I don’t have the pressure to focus my effort? Actually taking less time for my own needs and my own dreams because I feel like I have the time to spend with my family thus I must spend all of that time with them while I have it?

I’m so accustomed to balancing my life against the massive and unstable weight of coaching, will I be able to keep myself level without it?

It’s the first day of school, and the morning writing hour is drawing to an end. I don’t know how ready I am to start a new year, especially while still sorting out such a major change in my life. I can tell you this much, though: I’m excited to be back in my office watching the sun come up while I type.

As always, thanks for reading.


New Year, New Look, New Life…

With a new school year and a new adventure about to begin, I thought it was a great time to freshen things up a bit around here. The “reconstruction” project is nearly done. I hope you like the new look!

What follows is a repost of some thoughts I originally published in April (please don’t point out the irony to me…I’m well aware of it). They were the inspiration for this blog’s new tagline and should provide some perspective about the major changes that have swept the Alexander house this summer.

Thank you for your patience as I’ve gone dark these past few months. Updates and explanations are coming soon.


Striking Balance in Suburbia

Monday was the first time in weeks that I was able to come straight home after school. The sun was out, the temperature was up, and the wind was high. The Wife and I took a long walk with The Younger (The Elder was at her grandparents’ house for the day) and enjoyed an hour of fresh air and quiet conversation.

The Younger – who was born at the beginning of football season and only started developing a personality during the dead of winter – smiled at the sounds of our voices, giggled at the sights of the neighborhood, and kicked with glee at the cool of the breeze on her face. In short, she spent the afternoon outside with her mommy and daddy, and she beamed the whole time.

After our walk, I went to collect The Elder and stopped to pick up an early birthday dinner for The Wife. The four of us ate together while the sun was still out, then we played together in the front yard. I got to feed The Younger her bedtime bottle and got to read to each daughter independently before turning out their lights for the night. Then The Wife and I finished our night by watching the How I Met Your Mother finale and cashing it in early.

It was as close to a perfect evening as I could imagine.

And it makes me think long and hard about something The Wife said to me on Friday.

I came home around 4:00 (about three hours earlier than usual these days) and was able to wrangle the girls while The Wife made dinner. What we sat down to that evening blew me away: Pasta, salad, homemade eggplant parmigiana, and glasses of red wine.

“This is amazing,” I said.

“This is what rugby season is losing you the other nights of the week.”

Those words have been echoing in my head ever since. As I went to bed Monday night, they were practically screaming in my ears.

We’ve been having rugby practice for the better part of three weeks now. We open our season at home on Friday night. And I’m steadily growing to dread each day of it.

Now, I’ve always approached the start of a new athletic season with a healthy dose of trepidation. This has understandably been compounded since the birth of The Elder. I anticipate the arrival of each fall and spring with memories of the summer and winter weighing on my heart. I lament the impending loss of the hours with my family and the freedom of actually having spare time. But I also quickly forget it all once I’m out on the field. The hours with my friends and my players are usually enjoyable enough to numb me to what I’m missing, and the impact I have on the young men in my care is generally enough to make the sacrifice seem worth it.

But not this year. Not this spring.

I’ve always told myself – and my wife – that whenever the day arrives that I reach the end of a season and I genuinely regret it, that will be the day that I hang up my whistle.

For the first time, I’m beginning to wonder if that day is on the horizon.

Ever since I read Grendel in English 4 Honors, I’ve held firm to the belief that “Balance is everything”. But this winter is the first time in my adult life that I’ve truly felt that balance. Consider the list of things I accomplished without football or rugby to get in the way…

…I finished a manuscript I’d been picking away at since fall of 2010. And I did it in a flurry of 1,000-plus-word mornings followed by a few weeks of focused proofing and editing.

…I was an attentive and affectionate husband, one who was finally able to help his wife work through some lingering post-partum depression and anxiety that had gone largely repressed on her end and overlooked on mine.

…I took an active role in my daughters’ lives for more than just a half-hour a day (which probably helped a lot with the above).

…and I was probably the most on-the-ball I’ve ever been as a teacher. I was able to come in every morning with strong lesson plans, graded papers, and a positive attitude about my job and my students.

I call this blog Husband, Father, Teacher, Coach, Author because it’s all about my struggles to balance these facets of who I am. And this winter I was the best I’ve ever been at four of my five roles. I’d finally struck balance between the four most important parts of my life.

And now we enter a time of year when the fifth unbalances them all.

I can already feel myself growing lazier with my lesson plans, bracing myself to “wing it” in front of my students, and falling behind on my grades.

Although I’m maintaining this blog as proactively as I can, I haven’t typed a new word of fiction in weeks.

I’m steadily seeing less and less of my wife. And – fatigued as I am by the end of the day – I’m spending less time actually interacting with her even when we are together.

Although my girls light up in elation whenever I come home, I know their faces are painted with bittersweet joy. They’re only so happy to see me because they see me so little.

I’ve been wrestling with these feelings for most of a month now, but the events of Monday evening stirred me into sleepless turmoil. I’m realistic enough to know that if I ever did walk away from coaching, not every afternoon could be like Monday was. But I’m optimistic enough to believe that such days could become more the norm than the exception.

Even still, my evening with my family was probably only a jab at the heart, a feint to set me up for a roundhouse to the jaw.

It was the damn HIMYM finale that sent me over the edge.

*Spoilers Ahead*

The revelation of Tracy’s passing is what brought these thoughts to the fore. I remember near the end of season 8, old Ted delivers a monologue about remembering his life 45 days before meeting his eventual wife. He says that if he’d known then what he knows in 2030, he’d have gone to her apartment and introduced himself that day so that he could have those 45 extra days with her. And even if he couldn’t have them, he says it would have been worth it to him to see his wife for even just the 45 seconds it would take for her then-boyfriend to show up at the door and escort him away. He simply loved her that much.

If my wife’s life were to become suddenly and immediately finite, how many of the afternoons spent at football and rugby would I wish and pray every day that I could have back? How much would I give for 45 more days or even just 45 more seconds?

What if I faced the same situation with one of my daughters?

Regardless of tragedy, how much of their “big stuff” will I have lost to the mundane routines of practice, meetings, and film? How many of their victories will I have missed out on because of football games and rugby matches? And just how few might be left ahead?

One of the football coaches I work with gives a speech every year about the importance of legacy. What will your legacy be?

When I look back on my life – when the day comes that I face my judgment, whatever its source – will I be remembered as a good teacher and a good football and rugby coach? Or as a good husband and a good father? Do I want my legacy to be quantified in wins and losses or in hugs and smiles? Do I want to lament never having won a state title or having never published a best-seller? Do I want to live on in the memories of other people’s children? Or of my own?

Do I want to look back at the end of my life and remember the stress and the heartache and turmoil I endure every fall and spring?

Or do I want to remember balance?

As always, thanks for reading.


Fixing Up the Way I Look at Characters

I have a three-year-old at home, so it’s no great shock that I spent a large part of this past spring watching the movie Frozen. I never did see it in the theater, but after multiple viewings on Blu-Ray, I’ll admit that I see the appeal.

In case you’ve been living under a rock (like me)…

Frozen – a loose adaptation of “The Snow Queen” – is essentially a 21st-century addendum to the “Disney Renaissance” playbook. Like The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, it’s essentially a Broadway musical with legitimate Broadway talent cast in key roles. There are 24+ minutes of musical numbers in the film, all of which manage to be ear-worm infectious without being annoying. More important, each number helps to advance the story and develop the film’s characters. None of them are throw-aways that are only there to fill out the soundtrack album.

What separates Frozen from its Renaissance-era forebears, however, is its willingness to embrace modern thematic content and avoid pandering to children with fairy tale notions of love and marriage. The film benefits tremendously from a pair of intelligent, emotionally independent, and strong-willed heroines who ultimately find themselves in conflict with a fiendishly manipulative but non-transparent villain. Or, to put it more simply, at no point in the movie do you have to look at Elsa and Anna and think C’mon! Really!?!.

But, I’m not here today to write a review of a movie that came out eight months ago. I’m here to share some thoughts on one of the film’s musical numbers, the theme at it’s center, and the perspective it’s given me regarding character. Whether you’re a teacher, a writer, or just an avid reader and/or movie-goer, it might be worth taking a second look at your favorite characters through the lens presented below.

“Fixer Upper”

At this point in the film, lovable everyman Kristoff has brought a wounded Anna to his adopted family in hopes that they can help save the young princess’s life. Kristoff’s family, shocked to see him with a woman for what seems to be the first time, is intent on setting the pair up. What follows is a welcome moment of levity in a movie that delves into some dark subject matter (for a children’s story) and a song that has volumes to say about the human condition. For convenience, I’ve included the video below.

Oh…did I forget to mention that Kristoff’s family was a herd of trolls?


“Everyone’s a bit of a fixer-upper. That’s what it’s all about.”

Scott Adams wrote in Seven Years of Highly Defective People that he “only like[s] characters with huge, gaping character flaws”. I think if we stopped and really took stock, most of us would be hard-pressed to disagree with him. We are each of us fundamentally flawed as individuals, each carrying our own unique baggage through life. We turn to literature, film, and theater to witness the tribulations of others who share our same shortcomings and toil under our same baggage. Regardless of whether we’re searching for solace or schadenfreude, we seek out characters with whom we identify and insinuate ourselves onto their lives as a means of navigating our way through our own. Because of this need to relate, identify, and share, it’s rare that we meet a principal character in any medium who is perfect. When we do, we tend to find such characters unsettling and quickly grow suspicious of them for being “too perfect”. In other words, our first instinct is to regard perfection as a fundamental flaw.

So…perhaps the key to understanding any given character is simply understanding how he or she is, like each of us, a “fixer-upper”.

“We need each other to raise us up and round us out.”

At face value, “Fixer Upper” seems to make the cloying and quintessentially Disney-fied assertion that the only thing missing from our lives is to be swept away by the man or woman of our dreams. On closer examination, however, the song is a surprisingly honest examination of how messy a proposition true love really is. In the end, we love the people that we love because of their flaws rather than in spite of them. To paraphrase the lyrics, we can’t change the people we love and they can’t really change us, but we can bring out the best in each other.

Or, as Rocky put it, "I dunno.  She's got gaps.  I got gaps.  Together we fill gaps."

Or, as Rocky put it, “I dunno. She’s got gaps. I got gaps. Together we fill gaps.”

“So he’s a bit of a fixer-upper, so he’s got a few flaws…”

In How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster wrote that the most important question you have to be able to answer about any character is what does he want more than anything else?.

Let’s assume that the answer across the board is simply this: To be fixed. In that case, consider the following questions:

1. In what way is the character a “fixer-upper”? In other words, What about that character needs fixing?

2. What’s it going to take to fix him?

3. Does the character actually get fixed?


4. How? Or, if not, Why not?

“The only fixer-upper fixer that can fix a fixer-upper…”

…is true love, according to the song. The trolls, of course, are singing about the potential for romance between Kristoff and Anna. That sentiment can be easily generalized to a wide variety of love stories and fairy tales. Take a moment to consider Ariel or Belle or The Beast and you’ll see what I mean. The mental math is relatively simple. It’s when we’re forced to venture into questions of why not? that the equation gets tricky.

In his book, Thomas C. Foster’s primary example is The Great Gatsby. Foster posits that the key to understanding its title character is simply understanding how desperately he desires to win back his lost love, Daisy Buchanan. James Gatz literally becomes a new man, a mysterious self-made millionaire named Jay Gatsby. And he does it solely to win the love of a woman he couldn’t have when he was just a working-class nobody.

"His isolation is confirmation of his desperation for healing hugs."

“His isolation is confirmation of his desperation for healing hugs.”

Now, consider Gatsby as a fixer-upper.

The most glaring thing about Gatsby that needs fixing is the fact that he’s hopelessly hung up on the past. Gatsby believes – as would any first-time reader – that Daisy’s love would put his demons to rest. Unfortunately, even though Gatsby seems to win Daisy over, he still doesn’t win her love. Worse, he’s forced to face the fact that he likely never had it in the first place. Daisy is emotionally bankrupt, and Gatsby has to come to grips with the fact that the dream he’s been chasing for years is merely that: just a dream. Gatsby’s world falls apart, and the ensuing mayhem takes his life. What more did he have to live for anyway? He was a broken man with no hope of being fixed.

“He’s just a bit of a fixer-upper. He’s got a couple of bugs…”

Obviously, the equation isn’t perfect. Nothing so simple ever is. But it does hold up reasonably well, even when we have to bend the rules a little bit. Let’s look at two more examples.

Around the time Frozen hit theaters, I was busy reading Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. The twenty-first century incarnation of Danny Torrance is a fixer-upper because he’s still haunted by the events that took place at the Overlook Hotel when he was a child, and he’s consequently fallen victim to alcoholism and drug abuse. What ultimately fixes Dan is the discovery that he has an illegitimate half-sister.

At its climax, Frozen asserts that the true love we need doesn’t have to be romantic. The love of family and friends is just as vital, magical, and powerful as that of a potential partner. Much the same can be said of Doctor Sleep. Together, Dan Torrance and his new family are able to face the demons that collectively haunt them. Acts of true love abound and are able to overcome even the ghosts of Jack Torrance and the Overlook itself.

“We’ve got a real, actual problem here.”

When I first had the idea for this post, I was busy teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to my freshmen. Using it as a test case in my first set of scribbled notes was almost enough to make me give up on the whole idea.

The hell with that.

Atticus Finch is about as close as I can come to thinking of a truly perfect character in literature. But I would still accuse him of having at least one major flaw: He is a hopeless idealist. Now, don’t get me wrong. Atticus Finch’s idealism and his moral resolve are two of his most endearing traits. We should all be so blessed. In the novel’s final chapters, however, Atticus’s unwavering compulsion to do the right thing almost costs him his son.

In the wake of Bob Ewell’s death, Atticus is so hell-bent on being an upstanding and law-abiding man that he’s willing to throw Jem at the mercy of the local court (a dicey proposition at best in Maycomb…especially if your name’s Finch). Worse, Atticus is blind to the fact that Jem is obviously innocent of Bob Ewell’s murder. The thing that saves Atticus Finch from himself? His daughter. Scout reminds Atticus of one of the most important lessons he’s ever taught her, one that is both infinitely relevant and immediately applicable to their situation. She listened. She learned. And now she’s the one teaching him, difficult as it might be. As the father of two young daughters, I can only pray that mine love me that much some day.

Hmmm...he might be on to something there.

Hmmm…he might be on to something there.


Try it out for yourself. Pick a favorite book or movie, pick a character, and pick him or her apart. Answer the questions below and see what happens.

1. In what way is the character a “fixer-upper”?

2. What’s it going to take to fix him?

3. Does the character actually get fixed?


4. How? Or, if not, Why not?

Leave a comment with the results and your thoughts. I’m thinking about sharing this with my students next year, and the more feedback I get the better it will be.

As always, thanks for reading.


By Some Miracle…

Our rugby team is officially 2-0. For the second week in a row, we were trailing late and got the go-ahead try with less than 5:00 to play. I’m going to enjoy it for tonight, but then there’s a lot of work to be done. About the only thing we’ve done right so far is find ways to win. I’m not going to look it in the mouth, though. A year ago we couldn’t even do that much.

All right…a victory beer then so much needed rest. No better way to start a weekend.

As always, thanks for reading.