It’s that time of year again, the holiday season.

IMG_2561It’s been a “Good” year. I’m pleased to say, I have had some “Excellent” moments. I feel very lucky and blessed. I promised myself that I would continue on the same path, it seems to be working for me.

Celebrating this time of year to its fullest sounds like a good plan.  Both my children were born around Hanukkah and Christmas, so birthday celebrations are a part of my extended holiday season.  I start celebrating on Thanksgiving and continue until around January 10th.

This holiday season I plan on:

Cooking and Baking     Cooking and baking makes me happy; I smile through the process, and it makes my home smell inviting (added bonus!)

The oatmeal cookies I made (without raisins) for the ninth graders at FDNY High School Prep For Success’ after school program were a huge hit! I’m looking forward to spending more time in my kitchen this holiday season. Holidays, for me, are about the list of dishes that are “must have” favorites. It’s also a wonderful time to try new recipes. My friends are not shy about asking me to bring something to their place.  My Lemon Pound and Sour Cream Cakes are everyone’s favorite gift.Sour Cream Cake

Entertaining     This summer, while visiting with friends in Moscow and Italy, I was inspired to fix up my place.  From the minute I got back home, I had the remodeling bug. One day, I couldn’t look at the carpet in my place any more. So, I ripped out.  Once everything was gone I discovered a floor under the carpet! Getting rid of the carpet forced me to get rid of more “stuff”. . I now have room in my closets! I rearranged everything.   I still have a lot to do. But I am having the grandest time transforming my home to fit me.  For the first time, in a long time, I’m looking forward to hanging out at home with my family and friends.   IMG_0044

Getting out of the House     It’s been so long since I went to the movies that I forgot what I saw? I need to do new stuff too. It’s been too long since I crossed the park to visit the Guggenhuim.  I plan to be out and about this holiday season!

Starting with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade,  New York City has a special holiday energy. All the stores and buildings are decorated for the holidays.  The classic New York Christmas “must see” traditional spots: Rock Center Christmas Tree, 5th Ave Store displays, Macy’s. Madison Avenue store windows must be lovely at this time of year too- I’ll have to check them out. I’ve never ice skated in Central Park, maybe I’ll try that.

Closing out the Year    Year ending means goal setting for the New Year. Getting ready for the New Year is exciting.  During the holiday season, I assess my work year and think about strategy.  I reflect on what I did.  What I should have done differently. I’m glad some commitments have ended, excited to begin new endeavors, and I’m very proud of on-going projects that are moving to the next level- super cool!

Enjoying Downtime     Home spa days are a “must do” for girls any time of the year. On spa days, I love wearing the most comfortable clothes, looking through fashion and cooking magazines or watching Lifetime romance stories. This time of the year, how can you not watch all the Christmas classics?

Connecting with My “girlfriends”     Sharing the holidays with my girlfriends makes it more fun. Some of my closest friends live in different parts of the world. Getting together is hard. It is especially hard to stay in touch during this time of year with work hectic schedules family and holiday obligations. Modern technology has made it so easier to bring the world together. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, email, texting and phones make it so easy for girlfriends to keep in touch. It’s not the same as being in person, but it’s fun having coffee together via Skype.

IMG_0009Saying Thank you     I plan on making a conscience effort to thank people.  I discovered when you say and give from your heart it reverses the aging process, as well as, numerous other health benefits.  I suggest putting it into your daily routine.  This time of the year is the perfect time to get started by saying “thank you”, “you are the best”, “greatly appreciated”, “I’m grateful”,  “ I like you”, “I love you”.

Holiday Magic     I plan on making this holiday season memorable by saying “yes” to the out of the ordinary.  Say “yes” to unknown surprises or any unexpected spontaneous things that come up.  Friends from out of town visiting…yes.  Letting someone show me the holidays though their eyes…Yes. Go with the flow; Let it all happen like magic.

That’s a long list. I’m excited to start the celebrating and enjoying the holiday season to the fullest.IMG_0010

I want to wish you and your family a wonderful, healthy & happy holiday season.  Make a promise to yourself to enjoy the holiday season to the fullest. Make your own holiday “to do” list with all the things that will make the holiday special for you.

Join me on my holiday adventure @NewLifeSusanne or Facebook.

Hugs  Susanne

Setting Goals and Achieving Success Series

In the comments section I welcome you to share what gets you stuck when reaching towards a goal and how you get unstuck or refocused on success?

Part 2: Creating a Plan of Action/ Asking for Help

 Now that you’ve assessed the plausibility of achieving your goal and the outside variables that may affect your success (Part 1: Set Yourself up to Succeed), it’s time to put your goal into action. Developing a plan of action is the first active step towards making your goal a reality, and it is my favorite part.IMG_1209

When I set action plans for my goals, I think about what I need to do to make it a reality. I list my goals and a detailed action plan and post them on the back of my closet door.  I post them so everyday when I go into my closet it reminds me of my targets.  As I achieve a goal, I check it off.  You would be surprised how fast things get crossed of the list and your list will get small with time.

Asking for HelpIMG_1096

In the last year I have had to ask friends for favors. What is the worst that can happen, they say no?  Well, at least you learn who your real friends are.  I’ve never been good at asking for help; I used to feel strange about asking for anything.   I have learned an important lesson, that’s what friendship is all about; helping each other and being there for each other.  When working towards a goal become comfortable asking for help.  Asking for help is not a form of weakness; it is a sign of strength and self-awareness.

In the comments section don’t forget to share what gets you stuck when reaching towards a goal and how you get unstuck or refocused on success?

Stay tuned for Setting Goals and Achieving Success Part 3…

 

Check this out

Recently read Miles and Jo Love story in Blue…

Really enjoyed it!

“From an early age I’d been groomed to be a perfect wife instead of an independent thinker, so consequently I became insecure and had very little expectations concerning my options, but as Miles pushed me toward new challenges, my confidence increased both mentally and physically.”

– Jo Gelbard, Miles and Jo: Love Story in BlueScreen shot 2013-05-31 at 1.48.44 PM

Amazing job Jo!  Thank you for sharing your journey!

From one “groomed to be a perfect wife” to another, change is hard.   Liking who you are is a good place to be… I admire your courage!

Below is a link with more information about Jo’s work (Thanks Jo)

    MILES DAVIS & JO GELBARD – The Artwork

http://www.jazzviews.net/miles-davis–jo-gelbard-the-artwork.html

 

 

 

The Death of “Freedom”: Last Days of a Dying School By Emmanuel Felton

I first visited Freedom Academy High School on a dreary March day. The clouds were hanging low and there was a sprinkling of the last of winter’s snow. Despite the gray day, I felt an unusual air of excitement while ascending the stairs to Freedom’s sixth floor lunchroom. It was Spirit Week. It was Nerd Day.

Freedom Academy is in downtown Brooklyn, and inhabits the top three floors of a seven-story former industrial space that also houses a clinic serving patients with psychiatric disabilities. The entire school of about 175 students quickly filled into the eight-table lunchroom, which offers expansive views of Lower Manhattan.

In celebration of Nerd Day, the students were decked out in black rim glasses and short pants, looking not too dissimilar from some of the borough’s hipster class. Lunch was the high point of the day. During lunch, there would be a contest for best nerdwear and the taping of the school’s obligatory Harlem Shake YouTube upload.

The students were excited.

“Shanice, girl you look like a nerd,” one girl yelled excitingly as her friend walked into the cafeteria.

I initially suspected that as a stranger in this small school taking notes in the middle of the lunchroom, I was being overlooked because of all the day’s excitement. Chris, a tenth grader who commutes 45 minutes each way from East New York, later explained that strange observers are not an unusual sight at the school. Most of these visitors, Chris told me were, from the Department of Education.

Spirit Week’s timing, which had been planned back in the fall, was both fortunate and disheartening.

“We are just having fun,” Chris told me. “We don’t have to think about next year right now.”

The students were celebrating a school that had just six days prior been deemed a failure of such a magnitude that it necessitated the school being dismantled by this school year’s end. This story is a partial chronicle of Freedom’s slow demise—why it happened and how it feels to its inhabitants. A school is a community and like the death of any community, its passing has not been easy.

Birth

Originally an alternative school for some of the city’s hardest to educate, Freedom in its current form was born in 2002. Like the reform movement that advocates closing schools based on student scores on state administered standardized tests, the reform movement that opened Freedom was designed to finally close the achievement gap between black and Latino inner-city public school students and their more affluent peers.

During the second half of the 1990s, educators, school administrators, parents, community organizers and philanthropic groups all galvanized around a new idea to transform the urban school landscape in this country. The premise was simple. Large, impersonal inner-city schools were to blame for dismal academic outcomes. In response, these groups, broadly referred to as the small schools movement, advocated for large schools to be replaced by smaller schools, schools that fostered closer bonds between educators, students and parents.

These were the principles of Freedom’s founding, principles that remain ingrained in the culture of Freedom. Each student I talked to used the exact same phrase, “small school,” in defense of their school.

C, B, C, B, F, F

Data show that for many years, Freedom was doing a decent job at its tough mission of graduating low income, minority students. The school was posting above average graduation rates and from 2007 to 2010 received passing marks–C, B, C, B–on the all-important progress reports that are used in closure decisions. But these grades fell off a cliff in 2011. Since then the school has received two Fs.

In 2011, the school’s four-year graduation rate plummeted to 56 percent from 70.7 percent the previous year. That number slid further the next year to 50 percent. These numbers are DOE’s primary justification for closing Freedom. Freedom supporters counter that the school accepts any kid and often needs more than four years to get their students to graduation. They point to Freedom’s six-year graduation rates, which have continuously been above 80 percent.

Freedom students offered several explanations for the precipitous decline: a shrinking staff, the absence of any extracurricular activities, and the school taking in “problem kids.”

Jeremy Del Rio, the founder of 20/20 Vision for Schools, a non-profit group that brings resources into schools under the specter of closure, has been working with Freedom since it got its first F.

“I came to Freedom with promises that DOE would help turnaround the school by bringing in new personnel, funds and programs.” Del Rio said. “None of this has happened. These students come in two or three grade levels behind. They just need more resources.”

Students say that the only new resources at Freedom since last January is the arrival of unpaid advocates like Del Rio and Susanne Veder. Del Rio and Veder have conducted field trips, brought in Broadway actors, and started dance classes. Veder is at the school almost daily working with students and teachers to produce a blog about the students’ experiences at home and in school.

Susanne does her sweeps

Getting off the elevator on the fifth floor at Freedom, I found myself in a dim, almost prison-like, stairwell. In the stairwell, the cinderblock walls are painted gray and there is mesh fencing around the stairs to prevent falls. I walked through the double doors into Freedom, to a hallway of blinding fluorescents, inspirational posters, and bulletin boards. Susanne Veder was already there.

I first met Susanne at an Upper West Side Starbucks in early February. We talked for hours about her history working in corporate America, how she raised her two children, and her role at Freedom. Even after that four-hour chat, I had a hard time picturing exactly what Susanne did at Freedom.

Now Susanne was patrolling the hallway, though it was difficult to determine in what capacity. Not that the hallways were unattended. Freedom’s Principal Alyson Forde, a tough but graceful woman, who often pulls her hair into a tight bun, had long before assumed the difficult job of maintaining order at her school – with the assistance of four unarmed NYPD school safety agents patrolling the halls. Forde liked to handle discipline herself.

She would yell, “Gentlemen, I’m not saying this again, lets get a move on,” to two boys lingering in the hallway during lunchtime. This was not their first warning but it was their last. The young men, still trying to play it cool, picked up their pace and headed upstairs to the cafeteria.

In the hallway, Susanne spotted Duncan, a senior from Bed-Stuy, had been kicked out of class. Duncan was upset. Susanne asked him what happened and calmed him down. She asked him to escort me to the classroom where her always-changing group of students gathered to work on the various projects Susanne had taken it upon herself to launch at the school. Duncan, a lanky and mindful dresser, and I chatted as we climbed the stairs. We talked about our mutual hatred of the SATs and how he and his friends play keyboards on Sundays for their church.

Susanne overhearing our conversation chimed in, “Duncan, you’re a natural aren’t you?”

Duncan responded confidently, “We be killing it.”

“Why didn’t you play at the talent show?” Susanne then asked. “I just thought that everyone would…” Duncan trailed off.

After she spends her mornings taking it upon herself to do damage control, Susanne gathers with students in the afternoon. From this room, she runs her internship program that works with the students to create the blog, plans cultural excursions, and tutors for Regents exams.

Joining the group this day was Susanne’s son, Marshall, Marshall is a videographer and together with his friend, Carol, was working with the students on a short documentary about the end of Freedom.

Duncan was named the film’s “sound guy” and was given the “bootleg boom,” which was essentially a recorder attached to a long pole.

“You’ll get your first video credit,” Marshall told Duncan.

The plan was simple. Susanne, Marshall, and I would ask the students what Freedom meant to them and how they felt about its pending closure.

“The chemistry can be really powerful,” Susanne warned us, “but you never know what you are going to get.”

The students walked into the class in that unmistakably teenage way, appearing both confident and guarded. But their reserve soon melted away. This was still their space, and quickly we just became props in it.

Seeing Duncan’s newfound role as sound guy, the group clapped. “Duncan! I know him,” yelled Tasha from across the room.

Kevin, a 12th grader, and Kurt, an 11th grader, were two Jamaican brothers who looked as if they had planned their matching outfits before coming to school. They are charmers. Kevin walked up to one girl’s desk and asked half-jokingly, “Sontique can I sit next to you?”

The recording went on for two hours. Some of the students there were on free period, others, as the group expanded, arrived from classes from which they had been kicked out.

What did they like about Freedom?

“I came here in grade 10 and I met my best friend here,” said Angelique, a 12th grader. “I know everyone’s name here, even the freshmen.”

“The whole school knows your name within two weeks,” added Akin, an 11th grader.

“I was very antisocial at first because of my accent,” said Kevin, who has a heavier accent than his younger brother. “But I soon made friends here.”

“I’ve learned you can trust people here,” added Sandy.

Then came an exchange between Angelique and William, a Latino 11th grader, one of the school’s few non-black students.

“I’ve felt like an outsider even here,” William said. “I have struggled with depression and am very sensitive.”

“Is that why you make your masks?” Angelique asked tentatively. “Is it because of your depression?”

William smiled and said, “That’s one reason.”

In his free time, William, an aspiring artist, makes the sort of pre-Colombian folk-art masks often worn by Mexican wrestlers. The lead dancer on Nerd Day’s Harlem Shake video was wearing one of them.

The conversation turned to other problems. Sontique, a 12th grader, whose Far Rockaway home was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, was allowed time to vent about the troubles she was having with her grandmother. “She just thinks everything has to go a certain way,” she said.

Marshall then asked the students how they felt about Susanne, his mother.

“The first time she came, we were like who is this white lady? She is going to be gone in less than a month,” said Angelique. “But she really cares. She is on a level with my mother. Everything she says she will do, she does it.”

Finally, Marshall asked how they felt about Freedom’s closure.

“There are problems in every school, but they make it feel like it’s our fault,” Sandy said. She paused. “Maybe we should have worked harder.”

The tone then grew hostile and conspiratorial. Many of the students are longtime residents of Brooklyn, a borough known for its gentrification, and they suspected the invisible hand of developers were at work.

“There is nothing we could have done. They want the building,” said Angelique. “I hear they want to make it into condos, that’s why they are closing us. It’s all because of the Barclays Center.”

“They are going to put in a gym,” said Sontique. “But they never could put one in for us. You want to change this into condos, but you didn’t ever take the time to change it into a school.”

“The whole story is a farce,” added Akin, who wants to be a musician. “I really believe this was a setup. They wanted the building, so they didn’t give us anything, so that we would fail. We use to have a nurse and a Spanish teacher, now we just have the bare minimum.”

“The gym teacher has to bring his own equipment and take us to the park,” Angelique added.

“Some of these teachers try so hard,” said Sontique. The city, she went on, is “just throwing that away. They rush to close us down, but not to help us.”

A small hearing

The Department of Education held a hearing on Freedom’s closure on February 25 in Freedom’s cafeteria. It was clear from its setup that these hearings are usually contentious. Two bulky men were tasked with manning the microphone to keep speakers from going over their two-minute allotment.

Tom Bennet, a representative from the teachers union, insisted on holding his own microphone. When his request was denied he pointed at the window that overlooks Manhattan and yelled, “With this mayor none of us have a voice. The people do not have any kind of power.” Eventually people stopped using the microphone all together, opting to shout at the officials behind the table.

Behind the table sat a team of district and school level officials. David Weiner, a DOE deputy chancellor, and Karen Watts, the superintendent of Brooklyn high schools, were there to argue for closure. They shared the table with four parents on Freedom’s School Leadership Team who argued against closure and Principal Forde who remained silent throughout the meeting. There was also an empty chair. David Goldsmith, the president of the area’s parent oversight committee, refused to take part due to his opposition to all school closures.

Weiner started the meeting by arguing in favor of closure: “We must hold every school to the same standard of excellence because every child deserves it.” He went on. “We will hear some success stories tonight, and we honor those but we must think about the others, they deserve better.”

Weiner pointed to the graduation rate and the results of a parent survey that placed the school in the bottom fifth percentile of city schools in terms of how safe parents think their children are at school. However, nearly 80 percent of students and over 40 percent of the teachers surveyed reported feeling safe at Freedom, though that number plummeted last year.

Weiner then explained that current students who are not graduating this year would be offered spots at high schools in either Brooklyn or in their home borough.

But the long, combative meeting that DOE expected didn’t materialize. The meeting was over in less than 45 minutes.

Not one parent or student in the audience spoke. Instead most of the speakers were anti-closure activists there to protest all closures, not just Freedom’s. They were there to air their grievances against the whole of Mayor Bloomberg’s educational reform policies. “Why are you closing this school?” asked Mariana Russo, the Brooklyn representative on the Citywide Council for High Schools, the city’s parent oversight committee for high schools. “Aren’t we closing big schools to create small schools like this one? With funds and extra support this school will succeed.”

Some of the speakers did know Freedom well. “These kids come in two or three grade levels behind,” argued Jeremy Del Rio. “This is why you have to look at the six year graduation rate which is at 84.5 percent.” Del Rio also complained about the timing of the announcement in January, right before state tests. “Basically what they told the school community right before this big test is, ‘You’re a bunch of failures.’”

“We need to educate children,” Susanne shouted. “We cannot close schools. We cannot just throw children into 60 different schools. It does not work.”

All the while, as speakers insulted the district officials and praised Principal Forde — for her insistence on accepting any child and her hard work to get these children to graduation — Forde sat stoically.

24 schools are sentenced to death

On March 11 the Panel for Educational Policy met to vote on 24 closure proposals. There are 13 voting members of the PEP, five members each appointed by a borough president and eight mayoral appointees. The factions were clear the entire night. The eight mayoral appointees and the Staten Island borough president appointee voted in favor of all DOE’s proposals. The other four borough appointees voted against.

This meeting was largely ceremonial. No school has ever survived a PEP closure vote. But that didn’t stop the meeting from being contentious.

It was a beautiful place to make a last stand; the two-tiered Brooklyn Tech auditorium has gold plated fixtures and an endless amount of ornate molding. It was hard to believe that this public school, less than three miles from Freedom, could be so much grander.

There was a large crowd. Some were there to protest all school closures. Others were there to make last ditch efforts to save their schools. Freedom’s delegation numbered just five: Susanne, Jeremy, Principal Forde, Assistant Principal Collins, and Kathryn Russell, the parent of a 12th grader.

On at least half a dozen occasions, the crowd’s chants halted the meeting’s progress, turning a meeting with pre-determined outcomes into a seven-hour debate.

“Don’t phase ‘em out, fix ‘em up,” shouted the pack on several occasions. “They say shut down, we say fight back.”

Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan representative on the PEP, joined the crowd in calling the nine pro-reform members, “the mayor’s puppets.”

One non-voting student member of the PEP, a high school senior whose school in the Bronx has been on and off the closure list over the years and was just a week before again pulled off the list, asked “How can you learn when you are trying to save your school.”

“These are lives,” he said. “This needs to be about the students.”

Only two closure proposals called for the schools to shutter at the end of this school year, Freedom and M.S. 45, a small East Harlem middle school. The other 22 schools would be phased out, allowing students to graduate from their current schools but then shutting them. DOE argued that Freedom and M.S. 45 served such small populations that phase-outs were not practical.

Public comment began at 9:30 p.m. Susanne spoke just before 10:00 p.m. “I know you are going to close my school,” she said. “But I implore you to keep my kids together.” After her two minutes were up, Susanne walked to the back of the auditorium, where Principal Forde was sitting to talk about next steps, she then left the auditorium and asked one of the NYPD’s school safety agents to walk her to the subway.

After three hours of public comment – the high point being when a group of unassuming elementary schoolchildren accused the panel of “sabotage” and “educational murder” – the panel began voting at 12:45 a.m.

The clerk read out the title of each of the 52 proposals, at times sounding robotic.

“The Proposed Opening and Co-location of a New Elementary School (12X314) with Existing School P.S. 050 Clara Barton (12X050) in Building X050 Beginning in 2013-2014.”

The vote never changed, eight for, four against, but each time the clerk counted the hands and announced: “Eight for, four against, the measure passes.”

Finally at 12:55 a.m., they arrived at Proposal 20: “The Proposed Closure of Freedom Academy High School (13K509) at the End of Year 2012-2013.” The measure was approved by a vote of eight to four.

Schools don’t have life expectancies. As students that fact can at times feel unbearable but eventually offers comfort. You are a part of a community that is ostensibly timeless. But a sense of community is immeasurable and didn’t prove sufficient to save Freedom.

A Post-Mortem

I returned to Freedom, just a few days after the PEP officially closed their school. Marshall, who was still filming, Susanne, and I gathered on the seventh floor and sat down with a group of students.

The conversation was brief that day and focused on what the non-graduating students were worried about.

“I’m really actually very shy,” said a freshman. “I’m really scared. I can’t do another day one [at a new school].”

“I have made at least a handful of close, close friends here. I will make new friends but it’s going to be hard,” added Briana, another freshman. “No one liked me in middle school because how I talked. They said ‘I talked white.’” But Briana does not idealize Freedom. “90 percent of the kids are like 20, they are not supposed to be in high school,” Briana said. “They would be kicked out at any other school. I get that they need to be given second chances, but this is a small school and they are really bringing down our scores and stuff.”

Just as before, the conversation turned accusatory.

“They’re not hearing our voice. They should have come and met with us and gotten our opinion,” said Kevin, the older Jamaican brother.

“They don’t care. I’m angry but I didn’t expect them to come and talk to us,” replied Akin.

“But if you don’t consult with us how do you know what’s really going on?” added Duncan. “It feels like they didn’t want us to be heard.”

What comes after Freedom?

I originally thought that the small school rhetoric was just a talking point in favor of their school. But I have come to see that these students are close, so close that they like and, more importantly, trust one another enough to do wholly uncool things like the Macarena in the middle of the lunchroom.

The students told me that they were afraid of being bullied at their new schools and of losing friends and teachers. One important question, however, did not come up: will we end up at more academically rigorous schools?

Their fate is difficult to determine. As of mid-April, the vast majority of them did not know where they would be attending school next year. Two of the students I met at Freedom told me that they only transferred to Freedom after their original schools were closed. There is no data indicating whether New York students end up at better schools after their school closes, but research done in other cities have shown that students often do not. According to a study done in Chicago, the majority of students from 44 closed schools did not find placement in better schools.

Susanne believes that the DOE will scatter “her” students across the city and as a result some will fall through the cracks and never graduate. She is looking for funding for a program that will allow her to continue to work with former Freedom students.

But in the long-run Freedom’s closure is not just about its current students; it is an attempt by the city to save future students from what it has deemed a failing school.

But this is an abstraction for those directly affected by Freedom’s closure. For them, their community is being eliminated by powerful outsiders who don’t understand their ways and don’t want to.

“It’s like the government is coming in and breaking up your family,” remarked a usually quiet freshman. “Would you want that?”

http://projectwordsworth.com/the-death-of-freedom/

Emmanuel Felton is a New Orleans native and graduate of Emory University. After college, Emmanuel blogged about the first republican-controlled Mississippi Legislative session, did some political campaign work, and spent a year at the Southern Poverty Law Center. It was his experience living in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina that initially compelled him to tell others’ stories. He is currently interested in turning mind-numbing governmental policy into compelling, narrative human stories. He lives on Lower East Side, though he spends most of his free time planning a move to Brooklyn.

“Celebrating the Holidays in Your Heart”

“Celebrating the Holidays in Your Heart”

My first Christmas, I came home with a 14-foot live tree hitched to the top of my Chevy Blazer. Having grown up Jewish, I wasn’t quite sure how to properly string the lights on the tree, so I left that for my Presbyterian husband to do.  Instead, I concentrated on very meticulously hanging an ornament from each bough, and it wasn’t until my husband came home that I learned you’re supposed to put the lights on first.  Whoops.  So to all of you Jews out there celebrating your first Christmas, listen up: lights before ornaments.  That’s Christmas 101.

The holiday season is a very special time of year for me, albeit a busy time.  I ease myself into it each year with Thanksgiving, and then I prepare for the onslaught: my son’s birthday on December 14th, followed by Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Years, then finally capping it off with my daughter’s birthday in early January.  Each year I find myself talking about the holidays with all of my friends pretty much incessantly until it’s over – what are you doing, where are you going, who are you spending it with, what are you eating, what gifts are you buying, and so on and so forth.  And all the while I have a smile plastered on my face, since I love this time of year.

It wasn’t always that way, though.  In reality, the holiday season can be a stressful period, and it’s not made any less stressful by the fact that we each feel like a failure if the holidays in our family don’t look a Norman Rockwell painting.  I spent many Christmases being very sad – when my family was going through a dysfunctional period, when I was divorced and alone for the first time, when a loved one had passed away.  That’s hard.  When you’re alone – or when you feel alone, even if you’re surrounded by people – the holidays are difficult.  I remember the year after my husband left me, all of a sudden I’m on my own and trying to make Christmas special for my kids, which is hard enough to do being Jewish and even harder considering that I had no money.  I was on the edge of despair, trudging through the snow one day, and I dropped my glove.  I looked down and was astounded to discover three crisp $100 bills lying right there in the snow. Knowing how much I would miss that money if I had been the one who dropped it, I tried to find the owner but there was no one around.  Eventually I just looked up and said, “Thank you.”  That money changed my entire world that holiday.

Despite my Christmas miracle, that was actually the last year I bought a tree.  At the end of that Christmas, my kids told me that they didn’t need such an extravagant holiday anymore.  They wanted me to be who I was, even if that meant no Christmas.  And their acceptance and love was one of the best gifts I have ever received.

When things get stressful this holiday, it’s important to remember that you create your own holiday spirit.  Leave the anxiety and the baggage outside the door and let go of your expectations of what a holiday is “supposed” to be.  Understand that the best gifts cost absolutely no money.  Instead, it’s the little things we do for one another that are the greatest gifts.  The emotional side of the holidays is truly priceless, so concentrate on being festive by being generous with your time and attention and love, instead of with your wallet.

When the clock strikes 2013, it will mark a new beginning for all of us.  We should be proud of who we are and should celebrate by remembering the people we love and the people we work with and the people that make our day-to-day lives better.  Let’s support the people who are there for us in our communities and show our appreciation for the little things they do for us.  Let’s all smile and believe that the happiness we see on all those Christmas shows is achievable and that we are deserving of it. And most importantly, let’s all remember that the holiday season is not about the gifts; it’s about the heart that gives them.

An Amazing Woman…

November 5 2012

I wanted to have a picture with the “cook”, the head of the Freedom Academy high schools cafeteria.. Very special woman, she took it upon herself to make an extra special real family style expanded breakfast menu.. eggs, sausage, grits and more. She knew the students and teacher would enjoy. For some maybe the first really good meal they have had since the hurricane. Everyone in the building has been affected by hurricane Sandy..
Thank you Chancellor and Mr. Mayor – it was great that we could all get back to school today. The free cafeteria meals for the student.. very nice

Part II “My M.B.A. in Life” Appreciation

In Part I of this three-part article, I described how the lessons I learned when facing a variety of personal challenges in my life turned out to be extremely useful in the business world.  I discovered that it’s all about people – connecting with them, appreciating them, and really making an effort to understand and help them.  As you’ll see in part two of this article, looking at challenges from this perspective can help managers and company owners handle some of the toughest business challenges we face today.

The respect that business leaders have for each individual member of their team can also make a huge difference internally, especially when challenges arise.  In my work with the U.S. Tennis Association, for example, I not only ran the organization’s membership department but I was also asked to assist in the delicate process of closing one of their Departments.  In mergers and consolidations, employees often feel shortchanged and mistreated, and I was determine to do everything possible to treat the employees in this department humanely and support them in finding fulfilling jobs outside the company.  In a department of 24 people, the organization was only planning to retain three of those employees following the consolidation.  Over an 18-month period, I retrained all two dozen of these employees so that they each had a strong and competitive resume and were better equipped to find a new job once they were let go.

Another thing I’ve learned in working with people for so many years is that we all need stimulation and variety.  It’s important to have a change in our routine every once in awhile, especially in jobs that are very repetitive.  Without breaking things up a bit and giving hard-working people a chance to catch their breath, there’s a greater chance for mistakes — and employee “burn out” is almost inevitable.  In addition, the most fulfilling jobs are those that allow an employee to be “a constant learner.”  We all need to grow and evolve.  (I certainly never thought that I’d be a writer, yet that’s the role I find myself in today!)  Also, when you give employees a chance to grow and learn new skills, it lets them know that you have faith in them and that they’re appreciated, and we all flourish when someone believes in us.

Just as everyone likes to be appreciated, no one likes to feel inferior — that they’re less important than the executives they report to.  In my work with the call centers at various companies, I made it a point to really get involved in the work that was being done at each center.  I’d handle customer calls myself, and join the employees in the lunchroom and in their training classes.  This sent the signal that we’re all on the same team and lets them know that their work is respected and appreciated.  Also, when the employees see that you can be flexible, they’re more willing to be flexible too — and accommodate changes that allow the company to grow and succeed.

Growth and flexibility are essential if a company is to remain successful, of course — especially when it comes to customer service.  The decline of the once mighty Kodak Corporation is a great example of what can happen to a company when it fails to evolve with the times, and fails to keep in tune with customer needs and desires.

We all need to evolve on an individual level too, not just as a department or as a company.  When I began working with the companies I mentioned earlier, the emphasis was on catalogs that were sent out to the customers on a mailing list.  Now, of course, that information is handled by computer.

The importance of caring about the individuals on that mailing list hasn’t changed, just the way that we handle that information.  The goal is still effective communication and a rapport that results in sales.  It’s still just as important to let each and every customer know that they matter, and that they haven’t been lost in the shuffle.

In Part III – the final part of this article — I’ll explain why it’s so important to remember that each and every person who comes in contact with a customer or client shapes that experience, for better or worse.  I’ll also discuss why it’s essential that we create opportunities for young people where they have a chance to bring their unique talents to the table and have a voice in the work that they do. 

 

“My M.B.A. in Life” – Part 1

Many people have heard the expression “the business of life” and wondered exactly what it meant.  For me, that phrase has a great deal of meaning.  It’s how I forged a successful career in the corporate world based on the lessons I’d learned overcoming a variety of personal challenges.  Those challenges included learning how to hide so that people didn’t notice the enormous “port wine stain” birthmark that covered half my face until laser surgery gave me “a new life” decades later, finding a way to support my two young children as a single mother when my husband left me, and – most recently – creating a new life following the untimely passing of my third husband a little over a year ago.

Having challenges of various kinds thrust upon me over the years gave me a chance to learn a number of key insights regarding people.  I’ve learned a lot about the importance of appreciating people, the way we connect with one another, and the value of each individual’s contribution to a group effort.  Perhaps not surprisingly, these lessons and insights have not only helped me with personal struggles but they can also be directly applied to the workplace, as I discovered during my career in the business world.  Now, I’m enjoying sharing those lessons with others, to spare them some of the pain that I’ve experienced over the years – and also to provide a few “short-cuts” to the success they envision.

One of my first jobs in the business world was that of a list broker assistant.  Even at that early stage of the game, it was all about people – buying names of potential customers, learning how to target the best prospects, and how all this information fits together in a database.  From the very beginning, I learned the value of “streamlining” – a skill that I had been using when educating my children and supporting their school, long before I ever traded my role as a homemaker for that of a businesswoman.

I wanted to make sure that my children and their fellow students had the very best when it came to education, and this meant doing some fundraising and connecting with the administrators who handled enrichment programs. The best way to get anything done on a large scale, of course, is to “aggregate” – bring everything together – and that meant reaching out to other schools in the district who shared our goals and concerns.

A computer database is the best way to handle large amounts of information like this – and the more details you have about your customers, the better.  When you have a detailed understanding of exactly who your customer is, you have the key to success – but you also have to know how to talk to your customer.  Together, this knowledge and this talent for rapport combine to make outstanding customer service possible.

The customer service scripts I’ve written for Qwest, Bell South and Verizon emphasize both of these ingredients — factual information about the customers and products, combined with effective communication strategies.  The members of the customer service team should know all about the company’s products and their benefits, of course — and they should be able to anticipate the questions that may arise in any conversation with a customer.  Being prepared — both in terms of background knowledge and communication skills — is essential for establishing a genuine connection with each customer, which is the only way to attract loyal and long-lasting customers.  Not surprisingly, it’s also essential that every member of a company’s customer service staff genuinely like people, because that smile comes through in their conversation — whether that conversation is face to face or by phone.

Having learned how wonderful it feels when a fellow human being genuinely cares, it’s easy for me to see how important qualities like compassion, curiosity and respect play in a business situation.  With this in mind, I quickly became very successful at coaching customer service teams, and this lead to my work with ABI and Database America, which in turn, brought me into contact with an even larger number of companies. Often my challenge was to figure out a way for two very different companies to work together most effectively, a challenge that – once again – is all about people. My work teaching sales teams how to talk about various products was really a kind of problem solving. As I mentioned, by that time in my life, I had a lot of experience in solving problems — especially in terms of getting people to work together for a common goal.

I loved my work with customer service teams because it was very easy to measure success, and I discovered that I’m a bit of a numbers junkie.  For some unknown reason, many of these companies – some of the largest in the world – often were not able to recognize overlapping markets of customers and other people-related problems that were quite obvious to me.  For example, I told the marketing team at Microsoft that by buying customer information from eight different companies, there was a huge amount of overlapping information, which they somehow failed to recognize.  I pointed out that if they ever wanted to succeed they’d have to expand their market and eliminate this problem of overlapping databases.  I helped them map out steps to overcome this problem, and then I moved on to other assignments.

In Part II of this essay, I’ll share my thoughts on why it’s important to recognize and appreciation employees at all levels of a company, and why loyalty is such an essential quality. In Part III, I’ll stress the urgency of creating new opportunities for young men and women eager to put their talent and creativity to work.

 

“Why I’ll Be Celebrating Every Day!”

As I celebrate my birthday today, it’s a time to look back, enjoy all that today has to offer, and appreciate the fact that I’m truly excited about the future.  On this day of joy and reflection, it’s most of all a day to be grateful for the wonderful people in my life — my family, my friends and also those who touch my life and continue to inspire me to dive into each day in search of fun, excitement and the pleasure of connecting with others.  As Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”  I couldn’t agree more!

Happy Birthday Monty

Happy Birthday to you!

I’m truly blessed to be surrounded by so many loving friends and family members, and it’s always a treat to get together with them on this special day.  When I look back and reflect on how far we’ve all come over the years, I think my greatest joy comes from the fact that my children are doing so well.  Being a mom has not always been easy, and I know that life hasn’t always been easy for my children either, but I’m so proud of them and I think they’ll permit me to take some vicarious pride in their accomplishments too.  I’m also thrilled that my father is doing so well right now, having bounced back from a scary bout with cancer.  He’s busily engaged in life and extremely happy, and that makes me happy too.

The great poet Walt Whitman once wrote, “I celebrate myself and sing myself.”  And if there’s ever a day when we can each do this without appearing too self-indulgent, it’s on our birthday.  (Actually, I think we should appreciate ourselves each and every day.)  I had been dreaming for years of becoming a writer, and over the past year I’m thrilled that I really made it happen!  I believe that having goals and dreams — and taking action on them — gives me an enormous amount of energy.  I’ve never felt healthier, and I’m eagerly awaiting the day that the tennis courts in Central Park open once again for the season.

Love cupcakes!!

Just as I’m so grateful to be sharing my birthday with my family and friends, I’m also happy about another new set of friends who have come into my life recently — the wonderful young students at Freedom Academy, where I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past few months.  When one of the students recently asked me how old I am, he simply couldn’t believe that I’m a few years past fifty.  He was shocked, and said “You look fantastic!”  That made me feel good.

A birthday is also a time for looking ahead, and I’m very excited about the future.  I feel that this is a special time of my life, and I know that this is just the beginning of what will be a wonderful and exciting journey.  In fact, I’ve resolved to celebrate not just today but each and every day.  I hope that you’ll come celebrate with me!

“The Power of a Moment: Part II”

Family at the Amsterdam Airport

My family at the Amsterdam airport (just arrived to spend the summer)

I was hesitant to go back to Holland.  It had been 45 years since I left.  Nobody I knew was there anymore and I thought it just wouldn’t be the same.  But when I arrived, I was surprised to find that the doors opened up for me.  When I mentioned who I was, people said, “Oh!  Your grandfather danced at my wedding!”  Others I met said, “I remember when your father got married!”  All of a sudden, I remember saying to myself, “Oh my God, I’m home.”  It was thrilling. The community actually threw a little party for me and I’d never felt more welcome anywhere.  In that one moment, my whole life changed.

Celebrating with Liejse (my cousin) and friends

We all have good moments and bad.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that out of the bad comes the good.  I’ve struggled through many hardships in my life, and with each one, I can tell you that when I took the leap to move past whatever was holding me back, it changed me.  It made me feel better and stronger.  It made me grow.

It’s so essential to keep ourselves open to every experience.  You never know where someone is going to lead you, but if you’re open and ready to allow the world to embrace you – ready to drop your expectations and follow where life takes you – you’d be amazed at where you might end up.

And yes, there will always be disappointments, but we must steel ourselves for those difficult moments and be ready to move on.  Your blind date may end up being your best friend or he may end up being a jerk.  Either way, the important part is that you tried.  You were open.  And if it doesn’t work out, you just need to cut your losses and move forward.

Sometimes we make good moments just by being ready for them.  I remember the day I walked into Freedom Academy as a guest speaker. It was chaotic.  The kids were all over the place, yelling and fighting, and the teachers were frazzled.  It was clear that no one was going to listen to the presentation I had prepared.  This could have been a huge disappointment; I could have run screaming from that auditorium.  But instead, I stopped and looked around me, and I realized that these were amazing kids.  They were intelligent and bright and they didn’t want to waste their time listening to someone who didn’t care what they had to say.  So I changed my plan, started asking them questions instead.  And when they opened up to me, I realized I had an opportunity to make a difference in their lives, to help them succeed.  Now there’s a moment.

The bottom line is that if you’re not open to change, it’s not going to happen.  You’ve got to know what you want and you’ve got to ask for it.  You’ve got to be prepared to take action when an opportunity presents itself, and you can’t be surprised if getting what you asked for takes a little longer than you anticipated.  I made the decision in 2005 that I wanted to become a writer. It’s 2012. It took me a little longer to become what I wanted than I had thought it would, but I did eventually reach my goal.  The path I took was a little more roundabout than I had expected, and if I wasn’t open to the possibilities, I would never have made it.  You can’t just wake up one morning and twitch your nose and all of a sudden have everything you want.  It doesn’t work like that.  Just as you can’t drive to across the country without a roadmap, I needed to put in the time and to set goals and to work towards them.

At Freedom Academy, I gave my 11th grade students each a folder and told them it’s their college prep folder.  This folder says to the world, “I am getting ready for college.”  It says, “I am getting ready to graduate. I am on track and I am working towards a goal.”  I told them that they can dream – that they can be anyone they want – but they’re not going to be anyone until they step up and own those dreams.

We each need to design who we want to be.  Just like I told my 11th graders, you can be anybody you want to be, but that dream has to come from your heart.  Write your list of what you dream of and every time you achieve one of those dreams, check it off the list.  Those are the moments you control.  Those are the moments you need to focus on.  Those are the moments you need to embrace.  Don’t stop yourself from going for what you want and being open to change.  Moments, encounters, relationships that you thought would be disappointing could turn out to be the best experiences you’ve ever had.  Those moments are precious.  They make you happy and make you proud and they evoke the most positive energies that you can possibly have.

beautiful summer day in Holland

My favorite moments are the ones where I sit back and smile and say, “I did it.”  Many years ago, I didn’t know what was going to happen to me.  I had two kids, fifty bucks to my name, a dog, and a tractor I didn’t know how to drive.  Today, I know how to drive that tractor.  I know how to earn money.  My children are grown up and their success amazes me.  I’m living my life the way I want to, but only because I was willing to take the steps and see the moments and see the joy.  There’s been a lot of adversity in my life, and I much prefer the successes and the joys.  But because of the lessons I’ve learned from those adversities, I’ve made it to where I am: finally enjoying the good moments.