It’s really easy to get negative at the end of a teaching year. All the things you thought you were going to fix or conquer over the course of nine months? You’re luck if you cleared 50%. Those people, students or staff, who got on your nerves all year with their super loud nose blowing or myriad excuses for late work, missing forms, uncharged laptops? It all seems to reach its zenith about two weeks before school ends. At which point the energy around school makes it a borderline unstable place to be every day for 8 hours. I could probably write a whole post about coping strategies for the end of the school year but most of it boils down to letting go. This is the time of year when I like to contemplate my successes, reflect on challenges or setbacks, but most of all let go.
A couple of months ago I had a student after school for a required forty-five minutes of work. This student never did any work at home and was required to stay after in order to participate in sports. After about thirty five minutes he finished the task I had given him and got up to leave for lacrosse practice. When I informed him that he had ten more minutes during which time he could sit and read, he got pissy with me and threw his book down before sulking in the corner and pointedly watching the clock for ten minutes. At 3:00 he got up and left without a word.
The next morning he came in the room, came straight up to my desk and said, “I’m sorry about how I acted yesterday.” I thanked him, told him how much it meant to me that he apologized and promptly welled up with tears.
When I worked at the Ferry Beach Ecology School teaching environmental education I always told our staff that at the end of the day if the kids walked away from FBES thinking that being outdoors was cool or fun, then we had done a good job. That was enough. At the end of the year I may not have finished the unit on the Respiratory system or covered every structural possibility for a compare/contrast essay but if I have shown up and been a consistent and positive adult presence in the lives of my students then I believe that is enough.
Do I strive to do more? Absolutely. Every day I work hard to make English and science interesting and engaging, the skills clear and attainable. But for many students learning is a challenge because they are lacking a consistent adult who tells them it is important, and valuable, and worthwhile. Some of them are lacking an adult they can trust. To be that person, as a teacher and not a replacement parent, on any day is damn good enough. I think it is the greatest part of what so many teachers do.
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My book has a new and permanent title!!!! It was quite a process and I’m happy to report I had a lot of input in what was a truly collaborative process with my editor, the amazing Andrew Karre, and my agent the fan-tabulous Lauren MacLeod.
Without further ado the new title is…..The Other Way Around…coming to a bookstore near you next Spring! This title is evocative of the journey Andrew, my main character takes, both physically and emotionally. Andrew embarks on a literal journey; jumping in with a group of itinerant dumpster diving anarchist street performers. But his emotional journey is about learning to appreciate what’s good in his life instead of lamenting about what he’s missing, learning to be an actor in his own life instead of an observer and a passive participator.
Even more exciting, I’ve had a chance to give ideas and feedback on potential cover ideas! I’m not at liberty to share yet but I can tell you this; there might be a trapeze on the cover, or a frayed rope, a kid in the rear view mirror, or a starry night and an open road. Once again I feel really lucky and grateful to be working with the incredible collaborative and creative team at Carolrhoda Lab and Lerner Books. I can’t wait to share more!
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“What’s the Holocaust?” a student asked me the day before we were scheduled to hear a Holocaust survivor guest speaker. After I gave him my best Holocaust 101 spiel he looked at me with disbelief. “But why?” he asked, certain that I was leaving something out. Certain that this couldn’t be true in the world he knows. “What was their motivation?”
“Hate,” I said. “Hate and ignorance.”
I love that he asked why. I am glad that to him this seemed an impossible nightmarish tale. And I am happier still that he had the opportunity to hear the whole story from someone who lived it.
For those people who think the power of a story is nil, or who believe adolescents have the attention spans of the average gnat, I would challenge you with what I saw today. I saw 3oo 8th graders sit in rapt attention while one tiny 87 year old German lady spoke to them for 55 minutes. She stood there and she spoke. At times she was hard to hear, occasionally hard to understand. But they sat and they listened and they learned. Her story was one of impossible hardship and unbelievable miracles. The day that she and her mother finally stood in the gas chamber, after three years of starvation and forced labor, on that day it malfunctioned and she walked out.
When she told of the lemon her father carried in his pocket the day they were transported to the camps, I believe every student in that room could taste its tartness. When she held up the striped shirt her mother wore in the camps I think we all shivered at the thought of wearing so little through three harsh winters. We were transported by her story.
After she spoke I debriefed with my students in English class. I remembered when I was their age and had been lucky enough to hear another survivor speak. It will not be this way for their children. By the time any children of theirs are thirteen; old enough to learn about horror, the survivors will be gone.
I told them that what they heard today makes them witnesses. They heard it firsthand and with the hearing comes the responsibility to pass on and share the story. After today I think they will.
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I have a good friend who likes me to update her on what the middle schoolers are wearing -mostly so she can update her closet with the latest choice items from Forever 21. But I do feel a certain general responsibility to update all of you who live in 24-7 adult world on the latest happenings in teen and pre-teen nation. Otherwise most of my friends get their ideas about young people from Mean Girls or Scared Straight.
Speaking of straight I was recently told by a student that our middle school was a pretty homophobic place. What I was most surprised by was my own reaction. Aren’t they all? Was what I thought to myself. After a certain amount of reflection I realized how sad it was that I would accept this as the status quo. Me. Liberal banner waver, daughter of guitar playing kumbaya singing parents, former Oberlin women’s rugby playing drag ball attendee. If I accept homophobia where I work than everyone will. I realized it’s not enough to be the teacher who barks at the kids when they say something is “so gay!” I need to do something pro-active so that all my students have a safe, comfortable place to go to school.
Alas, I don’t think I can wave my rainbow wand and make my school the beacon of tolerance I would like it to be, but there are things I can do if I care to. And I do care to. Generally speaking middle schools are more conservative places than high schools. I long for the day when talking openly about sexuality will be as accepted as discussing different religions. Until then I proceed cautiously. When I mentioned my frustrations to another good friend she gave me the idea of putting a little sign up; a rainbow or pink triangle as a kind of a friendly flag to students. She said that, though she would not have been comfortable approaching a teacher to talk at that age, it would have been reassuring to know there was an ally nearby.
So my first step has been to place a few small signs around the room. I downloaded these safe space stickers here. And I’m working with our school guidance counselor to create a Tolerance Team, kind of a middle school version of a GSA. We’ll see how that goes.
In the midst of all this I found myself up at our high school for an assembly. I ran into a former student who gave her girlfriend a big ole smooch right there in the halls as I stood by talking to another teacher. I’ve never been more pleased to see someone break the high school rules on PDA. I was happy that she felt so happy to be openly and proudly herself. So happy that I ran out and took a picture of myself with the nearest poncho-wearing lesbian I could find. Not really -this is from Portland Pride a few years ago but I’ve always wanted an excuse to use it in a blog post. Dream realized.
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As you might imagine I’ve been waiting for a while to title a post this way. In Westbrook Maine there was a business establishment called Lady Ball’s Tea Room, as Dave Barry might say and the residents of Westbrook can attest to, I’m not making this up. The full name was actually Lady Ball’s Victorian Boutique and Tea Room and for years I drove by thinking that I should really take a picture of the sign which can be partially viewed here. Alas one day it was gone, replaced by the Emerald Management company which is probably a perfectly reputable business with a much less interesting name and sign.
The point is simple, and frankly obvious. A.S. King who is one of my YA literary heroes wrote a great post about why you should write what you want. It’s part of a longer series, which I also recommend, called Writer’s middle finger and can be found here. So write what you want and try and live the way you want, because life is too short to miss out on your chance to grab it by the Lady Ball’s. (I promise with only one or two crossed fingers behind my back to never say Lady Balls in a post again. That was the last time, I swear.)
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What are you not is kind of a fun game I invented this weekend with the help of my not light, never inconsiderate friend Tara. The point of the game is to come up with words that someone would never use to describe you. The idea is to alternate your word choice to praise and slightly deprecate yourself.
Here are a few examples. No one would ever describe me as obsessively hygienic, but that’s really a two word phrase. So I’ll use another example my husband came up with as I knocked over all his hockey sticks while trying to free my ski poles from the morass of sports equipment in the garage. “You are not stealthy!” he crowed, embracing the new game. “Or quiet!” he added gleefully. Now I objected to this last one a little bit, since I can be quiet on occasion, but truly it’s not a word used often to describe me.
Neither is shy.
But enough about me. What are you not?
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Yesterday morning I woke up and the place where my arms attach to my body was extremely sore. Naturally I panicked and immediately assumed I had contracted a rare form of acute pectoral arm cancer. I’m not a hypochondriac by nature but I am a bit of an alarmist. Woody Allen does a nice job at explaining the difference here.
Just as I was envisioning my demise, I remembered that the day before at school I’d been feeling rather punchy and attempted to demonstrate my meager athletic abilities by doing a push up. Just one. What I succeeded in doing was a face plant into industrial carpet –which I followed with three girly half-push ups for good measure. It followed that the likely cause of my arm pain was not a rare acute disease but rather 3 and a half failed push ups. It’s not my fault that I have the upper body strength of an ostrich, the arms and shoulders of a malnourished chicken. It’s genetics. Not that I’ve done anything about it. I learned very early on that there are those people who are rope climbers (think elementary school gym class) and those of us who are rope danglers –spending entire gym periods with our feet just inches above the blue mats waiting for the bell to ring.
I think about this sometimes when people ask how/when I find time to write. There isn’t time. Any more than there’s time for me to build up some killer biceps and conquer that damn rope once and for all. I guess as life gets busier you have to prioritize the things you really care about. So for the time being I’ll have to get used to the taste of industrial carpet.
Posted in Random musings, Whining, Writing | 1 Comment »