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The Water Sorting Puzzle

            When I use the Duolingo app on my phone, since I refuse to pay for the premium version, I see a lot of ads. Some are for local furniture stores, some are for Duolingo Plus (the paid version), some are for other language learning apps, but a lot are for games. There’s one where you have to put pieces of a “wooden” puzzle together, and one where the fat king gets in all kinds of danger and his life depends on you moving little icons around on the screen, and then there are all of the different versions of water sorting puzzles; some use test tubes, some use bottles, or vases, some even use colored balls instead of water, which is not the same at all. There’s something unreasonably peaceful, and satisfying, about watching water pour from one bottle to another, until all of the blues are with the blues and all of the greens are with the greens. I found myself watching the water sorting game ads all the way through to the end, instead of dropping my phone and looking for something else to do for those thirty seconds.

“Play with me!”

            And a few weeks ago, after the Duolingo tournament had raised my stress level into infinity instead of the app’s usual calming effect, I gave in and downloaded one of the water sorting games.

            There’s no productivity excuse for playing this game; I’m not learning a new language or important scientific principles, but the game is actually the embodiment of some lessons I keep thinking I’ve learned, and keep having to relearn: one, that it’s okay to fail, as long as you keep trying (the game lets you retry the same puzzle until you’ve mastered it, without penalty); and two, sometimes, in order to reach your stated goal you have to take a circuitous route, because there will be barriers in your way that you can’t foresee.

“I love to run in circles!”

            The goal of the water sorting game is to move the sections of colored water from one bottle to another until each bottle holds only one color of water, and you get two empty bottles to help you sort, because you can only pour purple onto purple or green onto green, but any color can be poured into an empty bottle. And the strategy that works for you in one puzzle rarely works in the next one, so that time after time I have to relearn that even if my goal is to get all of the purples into one test tube, I’ll still have to deal with the reds and greens and yellows in the way.

            So, for example, if I want to write the sequel to Yeshiva Girl, which I’ve been trying to do for a very, very long time, I have to accept that there will be more barriers to overcome, and that I won’t always (or even usually) know what they will be ahead of time. I’ll need to try new things, again, and again, again, and if I continue to fail, I may have to start over from the beginning with a blank page. But starting over doesn’t mean I’m failing, it means I’m learning, and inevitably, I will find a way forward.

            There’s a variation of the water sorting game where you can’t see the color of the water below the top section of each bottle until you move the top section away and the next color is revealed, and therefore you cannot plan ahead. I love this variation because it frees me up to accept my blindness, and to accept that I won’t know everything that will be coming my way, and therefore I can take a deep breath and know that I can’t be expected to plan and strategize, and it’s okay to just take it one step at a time, and see what happens.

“One step at a time, huh?”

            I still go to Duolingo every day to work on my languages, and I haven’t fallen into a deep hole wherein all I do all day long is sort colored water instead of writing or getting chores done, yet, but each time I take time out to play the game, I feel like my brain waves are untangling and relaxing back into place, or finding new and better configurations that can help me work through the knots in my actual life with a little more patience.

“I hate patience.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

I hate games, so of course my students love them!

 

Even back in kindergarten, I hated playing Duck Duck Goose and Musical Chairs and Mother May I, and Red Light Green Light. I hated the competition, and I hated the humiliation when I couldn’t remember the rules, and the hierarchies that decided who would be a winner and who would, forever, be a loser.

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“I’m not a loser like you, Mommy. I’m a winner.”

A million years later, though, it turns out that games are a favorite at synagogue school, and the kids beg to play them over and over, spewing long lists of rules that I’ll have to learn in order to do it just right. They walk into the classroom, ignoring the worksheets and pencils on their desks (I love worksheets!) and they beg to play Jewish Jeopardy or Bingo or Tic Tac Toe before class even starts. They loved the day when we had an active shooter drill, because it meant competing with each other for who could hide best, and for who could make another kid laugh before laughing themselves.

When school first started in September, my idea of a perfect class session was: a handout to start things off; some practice with Hebrew letters; a sing along to learn one of the Hebrew prayers; and then a discussion about what the prayer meant to them; and then maybe a vocabulary list. I wrote one lesson plan after another along those lines, even after I discovered how hard it was to get the kids to sit in their seats for even two minutes at a time.

I figured I’d just need to come up with better ideas for how to reward them for cooperating. One of my first ideas was to give them a dance break, so they could work off their extra energy. I even bought a little speaker to attach to my iPhone, so they could hear the music over their own (very loud) voices. But they weren’t excited by the Nefesh Mountain songs I chose for them (Jewgrass music!!!), and then the new little speaker stopped working halfway through the song, and meanwhile the boys had decided to create a maze on the floor and crawl through the desks until the desks started to fall like dominoes.

Then I brought in sugar free candies and whole wheat pretzels for rewards, which seemed to get their attention, but it also distracted them and led to attempts to steal the snacks from the top of the cabinet (they are much taller than they look, somehow). And then I ran out of candy too soon (who knew sugar free peppermints were so popular?), and they started to complain about who got more pretzels than who, and how unfair the world is, and, by the way, teachers are always nicer to the girls! I’m still working with the snacks, because they are a good motivator, but I’m trying to be more consistent in who gets them and when.

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“I like treats too, Mommy!”

I’ve had a lot of other ideas along the way for how to encourage the kids to finish at least a little bit of my lesson plan before half the class makes airplanes out of the worksheets (hint: half the class are boys). I thought of bringing in stress balls early on, when I noticed that a few pencils had been shattered, and the others were scattered across the floor, but I realized quickly that with the amount of energy and aggression in the room the stress balls would literally be bouncing off the walls, and the children’s heads.

I even thought about bringing Cricket in once, to keep some discipline, but her barking would have prevented even the small amount of work I was getting done. And I knew I couldn’t bring Ellie, because she would have peed on the floor, or cowered under my desk, with so many noisy little people around her.

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“I could play with the children, Mommy. I just need to bring my friends.”

Some of my ideas actually worked out, though, like having the kids do Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes, in Hebrew, and making the shapes of the Hebrew letters with their bodies. But they get bored very easily, especially when they suddenly realize they’ve been tricked into learning something.

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“You can’t trick me.”

I finally gave in to the pressure to play a game with the kids a few weeks ago, and they gave me a big list of rules I can’t remember, except that there were two teams, and when one team missed an answer the other team got the “rebound”. I used the game as a way to get through a word list I’d brought in for them, and for the first time they were actually able to get through a whole list, in both classes. To me, it felt tedious and mean and competitive, but to them it was awesome!

I don’t understand the draw, nor am I especially skilled at running games, and I have no creative ideas of my own for new games to play. So the following week I had the kids do student teaching (so they could teach me), and of course, after teaching alien languages and candy eating tricks, they focused on running games. There were clapping games and hiding games and games where we had to sit on the floor and games where we all had to leave the classroom. There were no games, unfortunately, that incorporated learning Hebrew. I’m sure you’re surprised.

But somewhere along the way I realized that if I give a little, they give a little back. I even had one kid ask for a harder worksheet. He decided that if he was going to have to get work done anyway, in order to earn the game he wanted to play, the worksheet should at least be challenging. So, they are teaching me, and they are very generous with their lessons, and eager to tell me when I get things wrong, which seems to happen often.

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“I’ve got a long list. Start typing.”

I’m still going to try out all of my own ideas on them, trying to make the learning itself more fun, and productive, at the same time. And you never know, maybe some time during the year they will become less concerned about who’s winning and who’s losing, but I’m not holding my breath. They’d win that competition easily.

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“Mmmffmmhhm.”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

Scrabble Trauma

 

I am terrible at Scrabble. I had a traumatic experience playing Scrabble once when I was a teenager, with the nanny of the kids I used to babysit for. English was her second or third language, so when the mom came home and looked at the Scrabble board and laughed at her nanny’s terrible spelling, I had to tell her, no, that word was mine. It was humiliating, but, really, it’s not my fault Scrabble doesn’t come with spell check.

People assume that writers are all great spellers, and grammar geeks, and can recite Shakespeare from memory, and none of those descriptions fit me. I never won a spelling bee in my life, I rely on spell check for everything, and I only lasted two semesters as an English major before my head felt like it was going to explode from boredom. I only like using big words when they capture something I couldn’t express in any other way, otherwise I prefer basic vocabulary. I am unlikely to wax rhapsodic about a vermillion sunset, for example.

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“Me neither.”

The idea of playing Scrabble, even now, makes me nauseous and sweaty. One of my best friends in high school was a demon at diagramming sentences. She loved the math of it. She also did well at spelling bees and vocabulary tests, but she hated writing essays. I could write essays and stories and poems ad infinitum, but my spelling was atrocious and the parts of speech still elude me.

My Mom plays Words with Friends on her computer. She has an ongoing game with my brother, and another with a good friend of hers, and she can stare at the screen for hours trying to come up with the perfect words, enjoying every minute. I would punch the computer screen within two minutes if I tried to play, so I don’t.

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“Grandma has been stolen by the computer.”

I had to look up the rules of Scrabble for this post, because I can never remember them. They seem random to me, even though the point value of each letter is supposedly determined by rigorous statistical determinations of letter usage in Standard English. Vowels get one point and less common letters, like Q and Z, get ten points each, which leads to some very silly word choices, in my opinion. Scrabble takes words, which I normally view as a cornucopia of opportunities for self-expression, and turns them into nonsense.

One thing I did like, in my research, was finding the dictionary definition of the word Scrabble: to scratch frantically. This describes exactly what happens inside of my brain when I try to play the game; it captures my anxiety and panic perfectly. But is that how other people feel when they play the game? Are there people who enjoy frantically scratching at the sides of their brains?

I think Cricket and I are on the same page when it comes to Scrabble, or Words with Friends. Though Cricket’s anger has more to do with the fact that Grandma is staring at her computer instead of doing what she is supposed to do: scratching Cricket, frantically or otherwise.

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“Much better.”