Tag Archives: Boarding and Day

As Best We Can

I still have vivid memories of the first SBS Vespers ceremony I ever attended, 26 years ago. A graduate of a public high school, I was wholly unprepared for the depth of emotion, the sheer, inconsolable sadness some of these kids were feeling. When I graduated, we were all going off to parties afterwards and were still looking forward to a whole summer of fun together before heading off to our various colleges and life destinies. I knew our true separation was inevitable, but it still felt like a long ways off and was easy to put out of my mind. These kids, on the other hand, were about 14 hours away from saying goodbye to people who had truly become family to them, people with whom they had lived 24/7, sharing the ups and downs of their lives and relying on each other for the kind of deep down solid support you always seek but don’t always find in life. And now the Class of 1986 was saying goodbye with a virtual guarantee that they would never again be all together in the same place, and some of them would really and truly never see each other again. The closest friendships, of course, would survive, and others would be renewed at reunions. But caught up in separation anxiety, it was hard for them – and for that matter, for me – to keep that in mind.

I am writing this blog on Sunday night, May 27, in the town of Andover, MA. My car is crammed with stuff my son and I loaded out of his dorm room (not the first such trip this spring) in anticipation of moving everything else out when he graduates a week from today. As he was counting shorts and shirts to make sure he’d have enough clothing for the last week, I thought I detected a glimmer of disbelief. I know for sure that as he contemplated the very last academic task he would ever complete at Andover, especially given the incredibly intense pace he has been setting for the past few weeks, he shook his head slightly with wonderment.

Though it seems like a natural progression and just the right time for him to be graduating, I still share many of his feelings. Last night, after his final track meet, I drove in to “My Brother’s Pizza Place” where the owner, after greeting me, asked the ritual question, “Hot Veggie?” On my way out, the owner called, “Was everything fine?” and I responded, as always, “Excellent.” Tonight, I went to the Starbucks, the frozen yogurt place, and then to McDonalds. It seems I’m putting off going home, and I suppose I am. It’s reminiscent of two years ago when I dropped my son off after Thanksgiving break and made stop after stop until I had no more excuses to keep from going the rest of the way home. I wrote a blog about the evening, looking back on the day we first dropped my son off and moved him into the dorm for his first term as a boarder, and I read through it tonight. The big difference – then, I didn’t want to return to a house full of emptiness. Tonight, I don’t want to leave a town I’ve grown to love as a second home.

We focus hard on students as graduation approaches, and rightfully so. It is their day, celebrating their accomplishments, marking in many ways a passage from childhood to adulthood. Yet graduation is also a rite of passage for those of us caught up in the lives of these alumni/ae-to-be. For six years, as I’ve rounded the corner by the meeting room on my way back up to Jesser with coffee and a plate of food, I’ve met the smiling faces of the Class of 2012 on their way to lunch, and a lump forms in my throat as I envision the school without them. And if Andover is first and foremost my son’s home and a place to which he is likely return throughout his life, he is not the only one about to leave it behind.

But he will, just as the Seniors of Stoneleigh-Burnham will drive or be driven off campus on the afternoon of June 8. Over the summer, they will all visit each other, text each other, Facebook each other, send off pictures of what they are doing. The potential permanence of the threads that connect them will become more apparent. And as they head off in the fall to their first days at their new schools, the whole ritual will start all over again – for them as well as for us.

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Filed under Alumnae, Graduation, On Education, On Parenting, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized

What’s Simple Is True

The middle school recently celebrated Founders’ Day, a tradition initiated (logically enough) by the 10 founding students. Seven years ago this month, they asked if future middle school students could have a special day off just for the middle school, to have fun and feel special and to remember the Founders. Since then, traditions have built up and although MOCA (middle school student government) technically plans the day from scratch each year, the schedule generally comes down to breakfast and a movie, tie-dying t-shirts, a barbeque and an afternoon of fun and games. Each year puts their own stamp on those traditions, but the general outline stays pretty much the same.

Six year seniors.

This year, the students asked if they could invite the Seniors who were former middle school students to join them for Founders’ Day. We agreed to ask them to join us for lunch, and they joyfully accepted. So it was that I left the Garden Cinema early to zip back to school and ensure the barbeque was lit and food was ready to go. The six-year Seniors arrived at Bonnie’s House about the same time as I did with these huge smiles on their faces, and shortly later they were enthusiastically playing softball down on the diamond despite having neither bat nor ball.

Before too long, the first wave of middle schoolers also arrived, with Hank helping out at the grill while Andrea returned with the WAV to bring back another couple of groups of students as Ellen, Karen, and Tony helped keep track of everyone. It takes a while to feed four dozen students and their teachers, and as some students patiently waited for burgers (beef or veggie) to come off the grill, others who had already finished formed an impromptu band in Bonnie’s House, ran around on the field, posed for pictures with six-year Senior Big Sisters, and generally found ways to make their own fun.

Founders’ Day this year followed close on the heels of another day off, the all-school celebration of spring and the Earth that has come to be called Spearth Day. As that is the day when yearbooks get passed out, the realization that the end is coming all too fast settles in uncomfortably. For all we say time flies, the fact is there is a kind of timelessness to a school year and it seems, for better and for worse depending on the day (mostly for better), as though it will last forever. But of course it doesn’t, and signatures captured in yearbooks – and drawn in Sharpie on Founders’ Day t-shirts – are in a way an attempt to capture and freeze time itself.

Stoneleigh-Burnham School 7th and 8th grade students.

This year, the middle schoolers are somewhat more jittery than usual about the approaching summer vacation. All of the kids – this year’s 7th graders, the returning 8th graders, and new 8th graders have forged deep and lasting friendships, and the idea of giving up 24/7 contact can be really scary. One current 8th grader periodically looks at me with achingly haunted eyes and says she does. not. want. vacation. to. start.

I’m no different, really. As I was exercising this evening, I suddenly stopped in the middle of a jumping jack and ran upstairs to pull out a ten-year-old CD, recorded by the upper school rock band then known as PW Rock. I alternated between prepping and listening as the voices of Mary Dooley, Nancy Ko, and Katie McClary filled my living room. And then my eyes filled as they reached the chorus of Jewel Kilcher’s beautiful song, “What’s Simple Is True“:

The more I live
The more I know
What’s simple is true
I love you

Of course, these kids do love each other, and we love them as well. Rituals between now and the end of the year will help give expression to that love as well as providing plenty of opportunities to kick back and have fun. And of course, students are still actively involved in learning, with greater insight and sophistication than in the fall but no less energy and passion. Still, 4:00 p.m. on the afternoon of June 8 will inevitably come. The campus will fall silent. And as I pick up the last few programs from the 8th Grade Moving Up Ceremony, I will start the process of moving forward, reviewing the year with the team and examining what we can learn from it, planning for next year and getting summer mailings ready to go. But first, I will read every name on the program one more time. I will look over to the corner where my Humanities 7 students started every class. I will pause and blow my nose and stare out into space. Then, and only then, I will turn and walk down the stairs and out the building.

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Filed under Alumnae, Graduation, In the Classroom, On Education, School Happenings, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective

Appreciate This

Back when my son was two or three years old, we used to spend a lot of time over at Ferdon visiting his best friend who was the son of Kim Shillieto, the Dean of Students, and his wife Pam, the Director of Student Activities. The two kids played wonderfully together, giving Pam and I (most often the two parents in charge) lots of time to talk. One day, she was complimenting me on my way with the kids, and commented that if I ever wanted to open a day care center, she thought I would be really good at the job. I thanked her, and added, “But it would never work.” “Why not?” she asked, and I responded, “Imagine you’re looking for a day care center for your child. You look down the list of providers. Jennifer, Diane, Sue, Liz, Bill… What are the chances Bill is going to get the first call?” Looking sad, she acknowledged my point.

That sexism is one major reason why, for years, the proportion of men in early education has been abysmally low and even in high school is lower than 50%. Furthermore, the recession has taken a toll on those numbers. From 2007-2011, the proportion of men teaching pre-school and kindergarten fell from 2.7% to 2.3%, at the middle school level from 19.1% to 18.3%, and at the high school level from 43.1% to 42%. In an article at edweek.org, Chanté Chambers of Teach for America cited the perceived low status of teaching as one major factor, stating, “They’re coming from communities that are not necessarily affluent, so it adds to the pressure to be that breadwinner, to have financial stability, … to make six figures so they can give back to their community in a meaningful way.”

The article continues to point out that one doesn’t want to stereotype teaching as “women’s work” nor stereotype male and female teaching styles. It is clearly well-meaning and tries to incorporate a variety of perspectives in seeking a solution to the problem. But it reinforces gender stereotypes right and left, starting with the above assertion that earning money is how men “give back to their community.” Schools are encouraged to make sure their faculty lounges have not just Cosmo but also Sports Illustrated. Yet Jeffery Daitsman, a pre-school teacher, states men often go into teaching precisely in search of “the ability to break some of these stereotypes, to show kids that they can be caring, that they can be nurturing, that they can wear pink.”

We work hard to expand opportunities for girls but don’t reach out to boys in the same way. “Researchers argued that though girls are increasingly encouraged throughout school to enter male-dominated fields such as engineering and mathematics, boys are given less incentive or opportunity to explore working with young children.” I’ve argued before, and no doubt will again, that the implicit message is that what is considered masculine is also considered superior to that which is considered feminine.

Still, schools can certainly work to mitigate this effect. In another article at edweek.org, a series of experiments was described in which children were randomly given red and blue t-shirts to wear. In some classrooms, the t-shirts were ignored. In others, they were used for practices such as lining up to come in from recess or determining who would go fetch books for the class to use. The study’s author, Rebecca Bigler, observed that “what we find is when teachers use groups to label children in their classrooms, you get the formation of stereotyping and prejudice, and when teachers ignore the presence of those groups in their classrooms, you do not find stereotyping and prejudice.” Later, she commented further, “If you compare it to race, if you said to your 1st grade classrooms, ‘Good morning, whites and Latinos; let’s have the Latinos get your pencils,’ what would happen is you would go to federal prison. Labeling children routinely by race in your classroom is a violation of federal law, and, of course, you can do this routinely with gender.”

Of course, girls schools are helping to lead the fight against routinely labelling children by gender – or at least, we are helping to lead the fight against pre-determining what a gender label has to mean. For just one example, we certainly have to make girls aware of the Curse of the Good Girl and provide them means of resisting it, but we also have to be aware that not all girls are Cursed in the first place.

These articles, both pointed out in the May 9 ASCD SmartBrief, formed a sort of counterpoint whose timing coincided with National Teacher Appreciation Week. In that sense, it is cruelly ironic that another stated factor in the diminishing numbers of men going into teaching is “the diminishing status of teachers generally. (…) Researchers said federal and state accountability measures have effectively lowered the prestige of teaching.”

So if we want to attract a more representative balance of genders into the profession, if we want to improve education for all children, if we want to get past gender stereotypes in general, one absolute imperative is that we reverse the current trends to bash teachers and to elevate those forms of accountability that can be easily quantified. I am lucky – my accountability is directly to my students and indirectly to their parents, and does not rely in the slightest on a commercial test designed to see what my students may have memorized. I do feel supported and appreciated by the families with whom I work (as just one example, the Parent Association’s annual “Make a Muffin Day,” always a treat, is just around the corner!). However, my case should not be exceptional. All teachers, of all genders, deserve to be treated as professionals – and until we all are, there will be a bittersweet quality to National Teacher Appreciation Week.

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Small School, Big World – One Mission

Family Weekend this year was inspiring in many ways. Developing student voice is a fundamentally important aspect of the core mission of our school, and there was evidence of that everywhere you looked. My Humanities 7 students took turns standing up and reading their poetry to probably the largest assembled group of parents and family members seen in any classroom over the weekend, perhaps a little softly on the first poem, but always more loudly and clearly on all the rest once the warm supportive applause of their peers and families washed over them. Each poem was absolutely unique to that student and yet, taken as a whole, they revealed truths about who the class is as a whole and for that matter what it is like to be a 7th grader in today’s world.

My French 2 class had asked to do “something fun” and so they played a game of Family Feud to practice the vocabulary in their newest unit. My Life Skills class had asked if they could cook for their families, and so they made crêpes. My Rock Band classes, well, rocked at the performing arts presentation. And my advisees…my advisees! We do student-led conferences in the middle school, and each conference was unique to that child. I saw courage, I saw honesty, I saw incredible self-awareness, I saw complex and insightful thinking, I saw a willingness to acknowledge and face sometimes painful challenges and I saw pride. And of course, I also saw the love parents feel for their children as they search for, find, and develop who they are. Knowing when to let go and when to support our children as they grow up is one of the toughest jobs in parenting, and for better or for worse, student-led conferences provide many opportunities to practice balancing those twin methods of expressing parental love.

My son, now a high school senior, was recently invited to a formal dance at my wife’s school. As it happened, this was for a weekend when she had to be off campus, which meant he would be down there on his own. With a brand new driver’s license. It was one of those crucible moments that tests your faith in your child’s judgment. We decided – and it was actually an easy decision – to trust him, and he had such an enjoyable evening with his date and other friends he made down through the years that he decided to attend his own school’s prom after all. We still share an iTunes account; yesterday, iCloud delivered three apps for buying flowers to my phone.

My own prom experience fit virtually every stereotype of more innocent times (three friends and I piled into an old VW Beetle, the girls wearing dresses they had sewn on their own, and I danced the night away in my date’s arms before dropping her off by midnight), and my son’s experiences, while different than mine of course, also seem to belong to a bygone era. For many, however, proms have become an elaborate evening of excess, sometimes costing over $2,000 per couple.

Nancy Flanagan recently wrote, in “Prom Queens and Ed Reform,” about how the changing nature of proms through the years reflects changing values of our society. Historically, she notes, education has been about building democratic equality, training for economic utility, and enabling social mobility. The first two goals serve the public good, while the third is more of a private good. Social mobility and credentialing, she argues, have become prioritized in order to preserve advantage for those who already have it. Prom, with its excessive costs – and its occasional and despicable exclusion of people of specific races, sexualities, and/or gender – reflects this preservation of privilege.

In our middle school parent meeting, one father pointed out that our mission statement includes the phrase “… confident that their voices will be heard.” He felt that society is not currently open to hearing girls’ and women’s voices, and wondered how we could work to meet that aspect of our mission. I spoke about the need to honor student voices even and especially when they are expressing uncomfortable truths, to build up a sense of expectation that they deserve to and will be taken seriously. If a girls school doesn’t honor girls’ voices, who will? I also talked about how I had spent two years coming to terms with the word “will” given the realities of today’s society and had decided the only way to truly honor the mission of our school as written was not just to work within the school in support of our students but also to work out in the world to fight gender-based prejudice and build a society that will genuinely honor all voices – in essence, to work for democratic equality. The room was quiet, but all around, heads were quietly and slowly nodding.

Working for social justice, I sometimes feel like I’m on “The Road Not Taken.” And then there are moments like this and I renew my hope. Family Weekend this year was inspiring indeed.

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The Art of Silence

On the day our school was observing the Day of Silence in support of LBGT people, I happened to be away at a conference. I had thought of the perfect lesson plan for Humanities – the kids would listen to 4’33” by John Cage. For those who may not know it, this is the composition wherein the performer makes absolutely no sound with her or his instrument. Silence, as it were – only not exactly, because listeners still experience whatever sounds may happen to exist in the performance space. The name comes from the total length of the piece.

I found a Death Metal performance of the piece that I really wanted to use, especially because of the humorous introduction the drummer gave, but unfortunately he took it a little fast and the piece only took 2’40”. So I settled on a ukulele performance. Tod (our IT person) had agreed to cover the class, so I emailed him and the kids the link, and asked each student to email me a poem in reaction once the piece had concluded.

The final general session of the conference (which was, overall, excellent) was on Workman’s Comp and oriented only to Business Managers, so I skipped out, found a couch, and checked in with my students. Most of their poems echoed this theme:

4 minutes.
37 seconds.
All wasted.
No movement.
No sound
What is the point? (…)

One student was definitely on to something:

(…) But this might be more than lack of music
It might be silence
You do not see his face
You do not hear him play
You do not know why it was like that
You might not even care
But to him it could have meant something to him (…)

And these students caused me to gasp out loud:

THE UKULELE MAN
he plays
his favorite melody
his fingers know
every inch of the string and the songs
after years of practice
he is a master
and brave enough to show it
to the world
we listen
but we hear nothing
there is no sweet tune that fills our ears
so we shrug
“oh well, it isn’t important”
but to him,
to the ukulele man,
it is the most important thing
and he hears the music

Waiting
The power of silence
More than just any noise
Overpowering
Blanketing everything until it sounds like a
crisp sheet of paper
Never written on
Never erased
Silence
Only on the perfect moments
Peeking from behind the banging and clanging
of whatever is called music
Silence
Strong, hard
Quiet
Silence

I suspect there is enough there that, had I been present to help facilitate a discussion (and had it not been the Day of Silence!), they would have come to some really interesting conclusions in putting their ideas together and building on them. However, given that I couldn’t be there, the next best thing was to email them as soon as possible. I told them that if they were curious, they should look up the composer John Cage. I noted that 4’33” is actually one of Cage’s most famous compositions, and let them know that he once did a workshop at Middlebury with music majors during my sophomore year and the next day I would tell them all about it and what I learned. And I wrote a poem back to them:

Lost Opportunity. Or not.
Sound surrounds us
Always
And there is music around us always
If
You listen
Deeply.
Focus on one voice
And you miss the chorus.
Silence is not for everyone
But
For some
Silence never is.

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Breaking the Silence

Tires screech as a car full of teenage boys swings around to get a closer look, barely decipherable bellowed comments ringing across the parking lot. I clutch my small bag of groceries a little more tightly, willing myself to maintain a blank face and an even pace, wishing for the first time in a number of years that I didn’t enjoy parking far away from the store entrance so I could get in a bit of a walk. My stomach clenches with the familiar tension, and I wait for the usual relaxation. It doesn’t come. And suddenly I know why.

It had been many years since I had been mistaken for a woman and subjected to random drive-by harassment. The last time it happened, I had been reasonably confident that once they realized I wasn’t female, they would drive off, perhaps getting in one last parting shot, and leave me alone to think on the notion that actual women don’t have that comforting expectation. This time, however, I had a new awareness of both the numbers of transgender people and the constant danger they are in. If these kids were to decide that their having mistaken me for a woman meant I had crossed some gender line and deserved to be beaten up or worse, there wasn’t going to be much I could do about it.

The whole incident didn’t last more than half a minute but has stuck with me. No group of people is at more risk for being subjected to hate crimes and violence than transgender people, as the litany of a spreadsheet on the Transgender Day of Remembrance website attests: Strangled. Shot and dragged. Stoned, beaten and burned. Stabbed. Shot to death by her brother. Shot. Shot. Shot… For many years, I have had something of a sense of what it’s like to be a woman and subjected to drive-by harassment. Now I have also something of a sense of what it’s like to be transgender and live with the awareness that at any moment, without warning, life as you know it could end.

The other day, one of my Humanities 7 students did a brilliant presentation on the blink effect. In the time it takes to blink, she told us, you form your first impression of people and make your first judgment. Very often, students and classes wrestling with this concept will use the information to affirm the need to be aware of the blink effect and work hard to get past that moment and genuinely get to know people as they really are. This student took it one level deeper. She had found a plastic surgeon’s site that attempted to convince people that the best way to combat the blink effect was to do everything possible to ensure that your own personal body and face led to positive judgments the split second people meet you. She was, quite properly, outraged. The best way to combat the blink effect, she stated, was to stop caring what other people think of how you look and just feel good the way you are. The class was completely in agreement.

How much better our world would be if more people would work not only to overcome their own tendency to make quick judgments but also to strengthen themselves against the quick judgments of others.

Yet, as I make that statement, and even though I believe deeply in its truth, I have the uncomfortable sense that it’s still not enough. Far too many voices have been permanently silenced simply because of who those people are and the snap judgments people have made about them – and not just transgender people, of course. Far too many additional voices are effectively silenced as people hide their true selves. And we are living in times when legislation has actually been proposed permitting harassing, hateful speech as long as the speaker can claim a religious basis to their statements. I know there are people whose religious beliefs are that LGBT people will not go to heaven, and of course I accept and even support their right to those beliefs. But I cannot support that (fortunately much smaller) subset of people who use religion as an excuse to deny people their fundamental human right to respect.

All that being said, we are also living in times when gay marriage has become acceptable to the majority of Americans, where the visibility of transgender people is on the rise, where gay people (if not yet transgender people) can both serve their country and be open about who they are. And we are living in times when young people are growing up more aware than ever of the rich diversity of people around them, more inclined to respect that diversity, and more inclined to affirm themselves in the face of those who are less respectful. So on this year’s Day of Silence, I give thanks for progress being made and for my students’ part in that progress, and I recommit to working toward a day when the Day of Silence is no longer needed and only exists in history books.

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Hungering for a Better World

For those unfamiliar with it, The Hunger Games is a book by Suzanne Collins that describes a dystopian future wherein children representing their geographical district, known as Tributes, fight to the death for the (sarcasm on) entertainment (sarcasm off) value. There are three books to the series, and of course the eagerly anticipated movie “The Hunger Games” was just released. As a middle school teacher who follows members of the #nerdybookclub on Twitter, I couldn’t have missed the release date if I tried as many of my friends were braving the masses at midnight showings as crowded as they were festive.

But as the release date drew near, an unexpected and disturbing dynamic arose. “I was pumped about the Hunger Games. Until I learned a black girl was playing Rue.” “And for the record im still pissed that rue is black…” “EWW Rue is black? I’m not watching.” (tweets quoted in “Racist Morons React to The Hunger Games: Rue is Black“)

Yes, Rue is Black. The 12-year-old Tribute is so described in The Hunger Games on page 45: “She has dark brown skin and eyes…” (Collins) That so many people missed that altogether might be perceived as a hopeful sign we are nearing a truly post-racial era were some of their subsequent reactions a little less, well, racist. But even in a positive context, it would seem to suggest that assuming white skin as a default is such a strong instinct for some people that even when evidence to the contrary is presented, they still miss it. That in itself reveals a certain systemic racism and privilege even among some of those people of good will who are sincerely committed to being anti-racist.

And so, on discussion boards, blogs, Tumblrs and other sites, the Internet has become populated with comments left by people who were infuriated by the racism… of people pointing out instances of racism. “there are more blacks that are racist than white because they have the feeling everyone owes them something.” wrote Kay in commenting on a blog José Vilson wrote for CNN, “My View: Are we doing enough to make sure our kids aren’t racist?” Later on, WCT wrote “People who complain about racism are the ones who are only going to perpetuate it. As long as somebody is going to continue to complain about racism it is going to continue to exist. If you want racism to stop just shut up about it…”

Right. Because historically, ignoring prejudice has worked so well.

In point of fact, I would argue, the most positive changes have been made by people willing (and/or forced) to face up to reality. It is easy to decide you are or want to be anti-racist. It is much harder work to act in a truly anti-racist fashion. You have to acknowledge that you see race, examine the assumptions you make so quickly you might not even notice them if you weren’t looking, and then work both to excise those assumptions from your thinking and to, very deliberately, avoid acting on them. One of the most moving comments on Mr. Vilson’s blog came from a 15-year-old named John, who wrote: “i am a 15 year old boy and i have struggled with racism for a while. im white and was grownup with a fine family. but my dad being racist rubbed off on me. same with his brother my uncle who is around. it has taken me nearly a year now to fix my racism problem… now that im way less racist i hate people who are open about it. i hate my old self…” As much courage as it took to write that, it was probably less than it took for him to face up to the problem in the first place.

Therein lies my hope that one day we can, as Mr. Vilson put it in a companion blog to his CNN piece, “The Dreamer, The Believer [The Race-Man Cometh],” “create new [realities] where we can simultaneously love one another and recognize that we’re the same and different at once.” My hope grows as I see my Humanities 7 class sharing knowledge about and a deep sense of sadness tinged with anger at the death of Trayvon Martin, as MOCA agrees to propose dedicating a day in support of Trayvon Martin, and for that matter as MOCA discusses the upcoming Day of Silence in support of LGBT people.

Those new realities of which Mr. Vilson and I and most, if not all, of our students dream won’t just happen by themselves, though. You have to build them slowly, moment by moment.

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