Category Archives: Teaching

The more things change…

I just finished reading Vanity Fair by William Thackeray for the first time. I waver between feeling like I enjoyed it and feeling like I’ll never get those hours back. It’s rare that I read a book and find nothing to like about any of the characters, but this one succeeds in that dubious distinction. The thing is, given that its a satire of the behaviors and psychology of people during the Regency period in England, and that the subtitle is “a novel without a hero,” I don’t think I was supposed to particularly like any of the characters. While a good plot is probably the most important thing for my enjoyment of a novel, liking even one character is also pretty important. (I’m also a sucker for “good writing,” which certainly existed in this novel, even though his sentences were sometimes tortuously long and winding…and then kind of irrelevant to the main plot.) The plot of Vanity Fair is well-woven and held my interest, but the characters fought against that and sometimes made picking up the book feel more like a duty.

I couldn’t help making comparisons of the world Thackeray is satirizing with modern times in America, and I was rather amazed that the follies and faults of his characters didn’t feel dated at all. Greed, a longing for power, a shallow fascination with being entertained above other matters, hypocritical piety, adultery…it sounds like a selection of articles in the Sunday paper. It seems to support the idea that human psychology is pretty strongly wired in certain ways (which I think is probably the case for the good in humanity, as well, but that doesn’t really show up in the novel, so…).

Oddly enough, as these things so often work, in the final episode of “Downton Abbey” on Sunday night, Mary alludes to Becky Sharp, the female antagonist of Vanity Fair. If I hadn’t been reading it, I would have missed the allusion entirely. It wouldn’t have made my enjoyment of the show any less, I think, to have missed it; however, knowing the reference did add a layer of understanding of the scene that would have been lacking. It’s this, I think, that leads so many educators to call for a canon of works that students read in school, and it helps me sympathize somewhat with their cause. When we read many of the same books, we have a common language that helps add layers of understanding to our communications through our allusions, connections, and references.

What should be in that canon, however, is not something easily agreed upon, and I don’t think I’m going there in this post.

Daily play

I catered a dinner party last night, and it turned out that many on the guest list were teachers. It was the first time I had been in a roomful of teachers since I left a year and a half ago, and it was an odd feeling. Kind of like being stuck between two ex-boyfriends, one of whom you’re still friends with, and the other of whom you had hoped to never see again. In between plucking pin bones from nine pounds of salmon (motherflowersonofabiscuitwhatapainintheass) and cutting vegetables for stir-fry, I caught snippets of conversations that both reminded me why I left and reinforced why I still miss the classroom so much.

There was the usual griping about paper-grading, parents, and testing. There were the usual “funny things kids say and do” stories. I overheard conversations about school sports, math assignments, and not having enough time to go to the bathroom between classes. It was nice to hear what seemed to be a genuine camaraderie between all of these teachers, regardless of the grades or subjects taught. A few times, I had to resist the urge to chime in, but with all those pin bones to take care of, chatting wasn’t really an option, anyway. (Note to self: only do salmon for small groups.)

I do miss “talking teaching” with people who are passionate about the classroom, and I miss talking books and writing with students. I get a little bit of a fix during the book group I work with every other week, but that daily play of talking about the importance of words is definitely missing.

And I’m pretty sure this means I should be committed, but I miss working with teenagers. The kids were always the best part of the job, and as insane as they made me, they also brought a lot of joy into my life. Meeting new people at dinner parties does that a bit, but I find salmon to be lacking in the conversation department.

None of this is new, of course. I knew when I left that it would be like this, and often there are days (usually when the dogs let me sleep past the time I would have gotten up for work) that I think, “Ahhh, this isn’t so bad.” But to continue with the sleeping theme, we have to lie in the beds we make, and sometimes, the sleep is not as awesome as other times.

Writing Hides

Writing hides in the fluffed tail of the fox
and the crushed grass under the spruce
where the fox rested for an hour.

It hides in the earthy smell of the dirt
and the miniscule celeriac seeds in the packet
that I cradle in the seed trays.

Writing hides in the browned patches of grass
and the broken lily stems in the rock garden
where the snow is slowly receding.

It hides in the earlier rise of the sun
and the lavender light on the mountain
as Spring makes its way north.

This morning’s thinking-about-writing with Georgia Heard’s book asks, “Where does writing hide?” The chapter starts with Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” which I have loved since the first time it was read to me. It was my Valentine’s Day poem for my students every year, and then we wrote our own versions. Today’s is my most recent incarnation–some ideas never get too old to explore. I love that this is different every time I write it. This was an especially comforting writing today, since it’s snowing again.

Pockets of home

I’m re-reading Georgia Heard’s book Writing Toward Home: Tales and Lessons to Find Your Way, to try and jump-start my writing each morning. Her first chapter is about querencia, which is the Spanish idea of “a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home.” It took some thought to land where I did, drifting first over the places where I’ve lived with my parents and other family, through bookstores, and around the house in New York, but none of them felt quite right.

I realized that’s because I feel most at home in the kitchen and the garden and the classroom. I am in control—though I know that to some extent, that control is an illusion—in those spaces. A cutting board of ingredients, a tangle of weeds , a group of young faces—I know what to do with all of these. I relish the challenge and the familiarity they simultaneously provide. My sense of querencia is directly affected by how capable I feel in these spaces. Any kitchen, any garden, any classroom can make me feel like I am in my safe space.

While I love trying new recipes, and my wall of cookbooks can attest to that, my favorite cooking is intuitive. What do I have in the refrigerator? A small cabbage, parmesan cheese, some corn, a pound of ground beef? In the pantry I have canned tomatoes, garlic, onions, and elbow pasta. I pile them all on the counter in front of me and begin the chopping: halve the cabbage through its core, insert the knife point into the top of the cabbage’s core and cut down to the base, enjoying the cool slice-and-crunch sound it makes. Repeat on the other side of the core, and then repeat with the other half of the cabbage. Pop out the core and begin the rhythmic slicing into thin ribbons, the clack of the knife on the cutting board making a soothing pattern of sound.

By the time I have made the ingredients their appropriate sizes, I know I’m going to make a soup. There’s no broth, but that doesn’t matter. Water will pull the flavor it needs from the vegetables, and dried herbs– bay, thyme, peppercorns—will help tie things together.

In the garden, the smell of the soil under my hands is a subtle scent on a dry day and more pungent after a rain. I set out with a list of chores, but once I run my hands over the sage and dust my shirt with yellow pollen as I walk through the tomatoes that list becomes a vague sense of, “I should…”. The smells of the garden addle my brain. I stop where I am and attend to what needs doing right there and then. This tomato needs tying up, that section needs weeding, those beans need picking. Hours later, I mentally surface and find that I’ve completed most of the things I planned to do and have forgotten some. I have also forgotten to stop for lunch. I achieve total focus—in a strangely unfocused way–in a garden in a way I seem unable to find in other places.

The classroom is a different kind of home, though there is some overlap. I always had a list of things to do, but when dealing with adolescent humans that list could be side-tracked easily. Sometimes, we had to deal with misconceptions that arose, and other times, we had to follow where a student’s connecting idea led. Sometimes, we stuck to the list. Regardless of what happened, the interplay of words and laughter and furrowed brows as we all puzzled through and thought about new things gave me a sense of contentment. Watching the unfolding of learning on student faces—it could show up in a face that went suddenly, completely still with wonder; in the quirk of an eyebrow; in an actual shout of, “Oh my god, I get it!”—was the reason I knew no other job on the planet could be as important.

Leaving that last home has been hard, and perhaps its absence is why there have been many days since last June that I felt adrift. There have been many spaces in my new life where I haven’t felt skilled, and at 43, feeling unskilled leaves me less comfortable than it did at 23 or 33. It has been more challenging since winter began, which means the garden ended. To an extent, we carry home within us, but when we are disconnected from the actual place of home, calling it up inside of us is sometimes a poor substitute. I am learning that I have to make new pockets of home, teach myself new capabilities, so that on the unsettled days I can reach a hand into a pocket and wrap my fingers around its comforts, like a smooth, rounded stone that fits just so in the palm.

Carrots! And teen pregnancy and Sarah McLachlan.

Grow:
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After a strong spring-planting showing, life got a little crazy around here, and I didn’t plant a lot of other things until late(r) in the season. Carrots, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, winter squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes…they all got a later-than-I would-have-liked start. But the hot weather is here, and the plants are psyched. The winter squash are starting to run, the summer squash are producing a million little baby squash, the tomatoes are taking over their area, and the eggplant has doubled in height and width the last week and a half. It’s a beautiful thing.

I’m pulling carrots for the first time this week, and they’re uh-maze-ing. I’ve never grown them before, so this is very exciting for me! The only carrots I’d eaten for the last seven years were from our CSA shares, and when I had to buy grocery store carrots to bridge the gap between our last CSA stragglers in the veggie bin and the ones from the garden, I was very sad. If you have only ever had a grocery store carrot, even an organic one from Whole Foods, I beg you, PLEASE find your nearest farmer’s market and buy some of their carrots. You will be astonished. And if they’re pretty freshly pulled, all you have to do is scrub them really well; no peeling required.

Cook:
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The spring lettuces are bolting in the recent heat spike, so I pulled a head of Romaine yesterday, along with radishes, some four to six inch zucchini, green onions, basil, mint, and parsley. I–well, my niece, Maddie, who is staying with me right now and a huge help in the kitchen–diced the zucchini and the radishes, slivered up the herbs and green onions, and then we tossed them with a can of drained tuna, some olive oil, cannellini beans, salt and pepper. Maddie pronounced, “More pepper,” so we made it happen and then served it over a bed of Romaine. It was the perfect light lunch for a hot day. (Today, we had ice cream.)

Read:
I read two books last week: One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva and Living with Jackie Chan by Jo Knowles. I picked up One Man Guy because I so, so, so loved Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sanchez. Lately, I’ve enjoyed reading about romance written from the guy’s perspective, by guys. One Man Guy was funny, and Alek’s best friend Becky was an hilarious character. All of the characters were enjoyable, actually, even when they were doing things you didn’t want them to do. It isn’t as beautifully written as Sanchez’s book, but it isn’t by Sanchez, so…

Living with Jackie Chan is a sequel to Jumping Off Swings, though I’d say you don’t have to read the first one to enjoy the second. It’s another one from the guy’s perspective, and is about Josh, who has moved to a new school district for his Senior year of high school, to get away from the daily reminder that he casually impregnated a girl in a one-night stand. Josh is having a hard time dealing with what happened, and the book is a look at his story the year after the baby is born and given up for adoption. I enjoyed it, and think both genders probably would. If students were doing a genre study, they could use this with Hanging onto Max by Bechard, and The First Part Last by Johnson to look at the male perspective of teen pregnancy.

Write:
Larry and I saw Sarah McLachlan in concert this past weekend! She was amazing! I never wanted the show to end!

I experienced a first at the concert. This past year, I and the students chose song lyrics that were meaningful to us, and we annotated them with an explanation of why. I chose “Fear” by McLachlan. Though it’s primarily about a relationship, the chorus of, “And I fear, I have nothing to give, I have so much to lose here in this lonely place…” hit me hard each time I heard it. Leaving teaching had me wondering all year, “What else do I have to give?” She performed the song on Saturday, and in the middle of it I just started sobbing. I still don’t know the answer, and it is frustrating. I’m trying to be patient with myself, but…well…not always my strong suit!

I still don’t know the answer, but McLachlan’s music is again helping me think. Her latest album, “Shine On,” has a number of songs about being strong(er) and positive, and the song, “In Your Shoes,” is where I want to be right now. Here’s a link: http://www.sarahmclachlan.com/lyric-lounge/in-your-shoes/

Meanwhile, the weeds grew as fast (faster?) than the eggplant, there’s kale, spinach, and other greens and root veggies to be sown, and there’s a lot of summer left to enjoy. Tomorrow: more ice cream. And some carrots.
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When You Leave

for the Charles S. Pierce Middle School Aquarius Class of 2014

When you leave these halls
that have echoed with your laughter,
your shouts, your whispered conversations,
you will take a piece of me with you.
You will always be a part of me.
It has always been so.

The piece of me you take
will differ for each of you,
much as you are different,
one from the other.
I hope that piece contains
what is best of me, though,
I know the other is there.
This, too, has always been so.

I have lost my patience,
lost my temper,
wrung my hands in despair
as I watched you make the mistakes
that you must make
in order to own your own future.

But the lost temper and wringing hands
helped tell the whole story:
that I cared about you,
worried about you,
loved you.

The lot of a teacher
includes loss.
We know you will leave.
It is our main goal:
to prepare you to go.

But we–
I–
always wonder,
how are you?
How is this life
I tried to help shape
for the better
going?
(Are you reading?)

When you leave,
you will take a piece of me.
But equally important:
you will always be a part of me.
A story you told,
a book you lost yourself in
will bubble to the surface
with the sound of your voice,
the shape of your face,
and I will smile to remember.

Though you leave,
I am never gone.
When you can’t
tell your parents,
when your teachers
will not understand,
when your friends
are no consolation,
I am here.

I will listen to you
as you talk.
I will bring you back
to the beauty
that is you.
(You are beautiful.)

I will ask you
what you are reading.

I will recommend
a good book.

I will remind you:
you
are
beautiful.

When you leave,
I will still be here.

Endings and Beginnings

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“Placing a book on the shelf
is the end of a new beginning.
Picking up a book
is a start to a new end.”
       –Cate D.

Endings and beginnings are on my mind these days. And while leaving my students has made this ending hard, their words and encouragement and belief in me have eased the way.

Tomorrow is officially the last day of school. It is a half day, so not much gets done beyond the hugs and photos and yearbook signing. Today is the “real” end, especially for our eighth graders. The high-honors awards are in the morning, and then students divide by teams to receive content-area and other academic awards, along with their certificates of completion. I will never forget C’s joyous, jubilant reaction to the news that he was, indeed, going to high school. (He was pretty worried.)

At the end of the day, we return to the auditorium for the poetry jam. I am continually astonished by the words these thoughtful teenagers share. I know teenager-bashing is the norm these days (really, when hasn’t it been?) but if you could meet my kids, you’d know that the world is going to be just fine.

As a going-away present, the students collected money for me to buy a tree for the farm. I have been instructed to buy something beautiful, and indeed I will. Along with it, I will make something–some kind of sign–to indicate that my students were the contributors. A bench, to sit on while reading, seems appropriate.

Above that, though, they made me a book of their poems. They gifted me with their words–some chose a poem they wrote earlier in the year, others wrote new poems, just for me. I have already read through it twice. At the end of the day, the students I love recognized me in the currency I love: words. There could have been no greater gift.