We lay on the back deck, soaking in the sunshine. Never mind that it is mid-February and that there is snow at the other end of the deck, today is sunny and the deck, sheltered from the wind, is briefly warm. When Andre invited me to do this, I thought he was crazy, but it turns out, he was right.

February is not always my best month. I often find it too cold, too snowy, too gray. I miss the way summer days are easy: how I can go out without searching for my jacket and boots, hop in the car without clearing the windshield, or walk on the sidewalk without looking for ice. But this February, I adopted the word “deliberate” and I like to think that it has made a little bit of a difference.

To deliberate is to think about or discuss issues and decisions carefully; to be deliberate is to be slow, unhurried, and steady as though allowing time for decision on each individual action involved. Something deliberate is characterized by careful and thorough consideration. This February I’ve focused on discussing issues carefully with colleagues – which books should we be teaching? whose voices do our students need to hear? – and I’ve tried to slow down, especially in my teaching. With only four-ish weeks to teach a course and only around 10 days face-to-face with the students, I can find myself in a bit of a rush. We started our third quadmester on February first, and I already felt the urge to rush: there is so much I want them to know, so much they would love to learn. Instead, I’ve been focused on staying unhurried, not adding to the stress that piles up around us like February’s snow. I’ve been trying to be deliberate.

I’m also reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass, sometimes listening to the audiobook where her gentle voice soothes me, sometimes reading the paper version of the book where I marvel at her sentences. If you haven’t read it, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Here is a vision of a deliberate life; not a life of no action, but rather one of thoughtful steps through the world we inhabit. Each essay calls me to think and rethink my own journey. This morning, I startled when I realized that she had spent twelve years cleaning up a pond on her property. Twelve years! I went back to listen to that part again. I, too, can work slowly and deliberately towards my goals.

Now February – so much shorter than any other month – is moving towards a close. Next month’s word will be publish as I move into Two Writing Teachers March Slice of Life challenge; I know there will be days when I will rush forward without time to think. Before that, however, I have five more days of deliberate and, if I’m lucky, maybe one more day remembering how, at its best, February brings blue skies that hang impossibly high and deep above me as I lay next to my loved one on boards warmed by a sun whose strength is in its consistency.

The little plow

About halfway through my drive to work, I caught myself letting my car drift gently from one lane into the other without signalling. Bad habit, I thought. The windshield wipers swished across the glass in front of me, temporarily clearing the melted snow. I signalled belatedly.

As I approached each stoplight, I pumped the brakes, aware of how long it might take me to slow down. I turned the corners with care. I noticed how much easier it was to drive in someone else’s tracks, and how I felt briefly out of control when I tried to drive in a different lane.

I’m an English teacher and a writer: I was already developing a somewhat ham-handed metaphor as I drove – carefully – through the snow. Snow driving and this school year – snow driving and hybrid learning – snow driving and equity work… I shaped the metaphor in one part of my brain even though most of my brain was occupied with getting me to school safely.

Then I saw the truck. A semi, big for the downtown streets, was paused at the corner ahead of me. Wait. Not paused; it was stuck. Or… not quite stuck, but not far from it. I was driving slowly, and now I slowed even more. As I came to a stop a good ways back, a little orange sidewalk plow skittered off the sidewalk and across the street. The driver waved and placed his little plow between two lanes of traffic and the truck, creating a nice gap to let the big rig maneuver. The semi backed up and tried again to move forward. Nothing. The plow driver waved to us again, then turned his bright orange machine so the plow was forward, ran up behind the truck and pushed. I almost laughed at the earnest effort of the little plow coming to the aid of the giant truck. We were rooting for them – and not only because we’d now missed two light cycles. Still, no luck.

Now the little plow backed up, hesitated, then scooted up alongside the truck’s cab. The plow driver gestured, and the truck’s reverse lights lit up again. I’d almost swear that little plow did a joyful little skip as it wiggled in front of the truck and started clearing the offending corner.

Safe now, I drove slowly forward, a line of cars following behind me in a gentle curve around the area – just enough to make sure the truck and its plow had lots of space – and towards the signal twenty feet in front of us. The light turned green right when I got there, but a glance in my rearview mirror showed that little orange plow up on the sidewalk again, spinning around, as the now-freed truck pulled onto the main street.

Who needs a heavy-handed metaphor when a little orange sidewalk plow comes to rescue a truck?

Image result for ottawa sidewalk snow removal
This isn’t the plow, but it could have been.
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I threw them out

Our school board moved from fully online teaching to hybrid in-person when February began. No transition day, no time to clear out the classrooms we had been teaching in when Winter Break began and online learning was abruptly declared. No time to move textbooks, supplies or decorations into our new classrooms. Friday we were at home teaching one set of classes; Monday we were teaching new classes in a new semester and often in new rooms. Less than ideal.

I have a prep period right now, so I’m trying to help clear out some of the classrooms that aren’t occupied this week. This gets a little complicated because teachers can’t go into classrooms with students who aren’t theirs, but there’s still plenty that can be done. For example, today I went into my old old classroom (from two terms ago) and found that my now sad-looking displays of student work were wilting off the bulletin boards. As I started to pull them down, one pushpin at a time, I spied a stack of shiny objects tucked into the corner of a shelf. Books! From a distance, I couldn’t tell which ones.

Ever willing to be distracted from a dull task, I cupped the sharp tacks in my hand and ambled over to see what people had been reading, but my heart was already sinking: these books were not appealing to readers. At some point in their lives, these poor novels had been denuded of their original covers and reclothed with paper, laminated, folded and glued on after someone used a thick marker to scrawl the title – but not the author’s name – across the front. Now the cheap covers clung somewhat desperately to the books’ spines creaking open to reveal torn, yellowed pages full of tiny print. I flipped sadly through one of the books and realized that a teacher had handed these out as a class novel last quadmester.

I’ve written several pages of unpublishable material about the infuriating task of trying to update a book room with no budget, but despite my frustration, our school is in no way left with only books whose very appearance actively repels readers. Teachers are not required to choose novels whose presentation tells students that their reading lives are not valued. We have better books than this. My initial curiosity about the books in the corner was rapidly shifting.

We have better books than this. What we don’t have right now are better books that require little prep by teachers because they have been taught off and on for 50+ years. No, wait. Even that is not true: Our bookroom houses many old “classics” that are in much better shape than this. We are trying to update our reading lists to better reflect our diverse student population, but we are far from throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We have plenty of books that would have honoured our young readers by showing them that they deserve books that still feel alive.

I stood there for a minute, laminated book slick in one hand, sharp tacks gently pricking the other. I loved this novel when I was in high school, but I am nearly 50 and so, I suspect, are these books. The world has changed beyond what the author would have recognized; it may have changed into what he feared. Still, few readers are hooked by books so old they are barely hanging together. Will we have enough money to replace these books? Will we choose to replace this title if we do have money? I didn’t know. I don’t know. I can’t know.

But I do know that we have to show our students that their intellectual life matters to us. These books didn’t do that. I threw them out.

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