Tag Archives: teaching

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.

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–
always wonder,
how are you?
How is this life
I tried to help shape
for the better
(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:

When you leave,
I will still be here.

“F” standardization (profanity restricted until I no longer teach)

Raise your hand if you agree with this sentence:
“Everyone’s experience should be the same.”

I suspect you balk at it, much like I do. The most amazing thing about being human is that we are individuals. We can read the same poem, listen to the same song, eat the same meal…and have different experiences. I do not smell, taste, hear, see, or touch the same way that you do. And that difference is beautiful. If you rub my back, I’ll be yours forever. If you touch my stomach, I’ll injure you. But how many people feel the reverse? (I know my dogs would vote stomach every time, but I’m focusing on people.)

I read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and fell in love with Hazel and Augustus, and cried at the end. Jordan said, “Meh.”
Who’s right?
We both are.

I walk in the woods and notice the small. My husband notices the big.
Who’s paying better attention?
We both are.

Wendell Berry said, “The world is wide and wonderful, and we do not know what we will need to know.”

But if we all know the same things, then what is lost?

The drive in this country to standardize everything (kids, food, stores, the environment) is the most misguided, frightening, Big-Brother-Control-Freak behavior that it is possible has ever existed. And who does it benefit? (Hint: Not kids, food, stores, or the environment)

It benefits those who stand to make the most money from this standardization, which is not the largest percentage of the population. We keep hearing that as a nation, we’re falling behind, and standardized tests are the answer.

We’ve been hearing that for about twenty years now, since right after I began teaching. And you know what? Since those standardized tests began, things have gotten worse. Just listen to the news, and the government officials pushing those tests. If we “build a better test, they will learn it.” If that’s true, why hasn’t it worked yet? We’ve had twenty years to tweak and adjust. Is it possible it isn’t true?

Standardized testing will not improve the United States’ standing in the world, because it stifles the very creativity and originality that is necessary for continued forward movement. If every child is having the same experience in every classroom, then where do we leave room for Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking and Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau? Some of our most lauded, celebrated, and loved intellectuals were (are) as non-standard as they come.

I know we need base-line standards that students can meet. I’m not an idiot. They have to read. They have to write. They have to think. But this obsession with more and more testing, and shiny new standards, and insisting that every teacher does the same thing so that every student has the same experience, is out of control.

And, I’d like to smugly point out, impossible. I don’t care if teachers read from scripts, students still don’t have the same experiences.

Because we are individuals, and do not see the world the same way.

And that is beautiful.

No, we’re not watching a movie

Forgive me.

I saw your face fall
after my flip answer of,
“Have you met me?”

But, you see,
there is so little time left.

I have so little time left
with you,
and there is still so much
I wish to teach you.
So much I want
to prepare you for,
to share with you.

It is easy to forget
you are fourteen.
You meet every challenge,
you push, and push
because you want
to do well.

It is easy to forget
you are fourteen.
Forgive me.

Time is running
like water on windows.
It fractures and divides,
but there is never more.

I lose you
in thirty-two and a half days.
And there is still so much
I want to tell you.

But this wise woman I know said,
“I hope they’ll remember that
while there are things we must do,
there also must always be room for play.”

We still aren’t watching a movie.
Forgive me.
But we can play,
and breathe,
and fall into words
and take a break.

In the time remaining

If I had more time,
I would find for you
the perfect book.
The one you swim
into, so deep
the only light you see
comes from the illumination
of the words.

If I had more time,
I would find for you
the perfect poem.
The one you commit
to memory,
hold onto so tightly,
recite so quietly
when you need its strength.

If I had more time,
I would find for you
the perfect pencil.
The one you use
to write your story,
crossing the boundaries
of margins,
overflowing with your becoming.

If I had more time.

Instead, in the time remaining,
I will bring you books, poems, pencils.
I will help you see that you
must be your own searcher.
That illumination, strength, and becoming
are paths I can start you on
while I wave, smiling, cheering you on,
into your past.

Needful Pain

Today, the real became the official.
It surprised no one
     and yet
     the pain took my breath away.

A simple pass from one hand
to the other.
A simple manila envelope.
A sad smile from the recipient.

And just like that
     twenty-one years of teaching
     are officially ending.

I handed in my official letter today, informing my principal that I intend to leave teaching at the end of the year,
and will not be coming back. The letter didn’t actually say that, because wiser and cooler heads than mine have prevailed, and talked me into taking a year’s leave of absence. But I, and my principal, both know that I am not
coming back.

The tears were not entirely unexpected, but the simultaneous forming of a hollow hole in my stomach and the welling up of sadness around the hole knocked me back. It is so very strange to need something so painful. I need to leave teaching. If I stay, it will kill me a little every day. I cannot give another standardized test. I cannot do what I am being asked to do to students. It is even worse now that our state has adopted the Common Core, and developed a new test to measure student attainment of the standards.

I cannot participate in the cookie-cutting of my students.

But at the same time, leaving teaching is going to kill me.

If my life were a book, it might play out something like this:
Chapters 1-9: happy childhood
Chapters 9-10: parents divorce, slightly less happy childhood
Chapters 11-20: self-loathing, convinced of lack of self-worth
Chapters 21-42: teaching teaches me my power, and my self-worth, and that I am beautiful and smart and worthy

Teaching literally showed me who I am. I have never been so good at something as I am at teaching.

Holy shit, how do I walk away from this and stay whole?

I don’t. I don’t get to have it both ways.

But I can’t stay. Because it will kill me faster.