Ask for help

Since day 1 she’s been glaring at me. By day 5 I work up the confidence to ask if something is wrong. “No,” she says casually, “I just have resting bitch face.” She’s 16. I laugh with her, but seconds later wish I had pushed back. I wish I had said, “No, not bitchy. You look sad, scared, wary and maybe just a little doubtful. You look like you and you are not a bitch.” But I didn’t.

Every day I say, “I need you to put your phone away.”
I say, “I know this is hard, but the phone is keeping you from doing your best thinking.”
I say, “Maybe you could create a 20 minute reading playlist so that you can read without touching your phone.”
She puts her phone away politely, but it always comes back out.

She has already failed English once. She does not like to read. She does not write. Still, when she wrote her goals in her notebook on Friday, the first one was “Read every day for the assigned time with no phone distraction.” She doesn’t say a thing about it, just hands me her notebook at the end of class, like she does every day.

We’ve read memoirs almost every day since school started. We’ve read poems and essays and picture books. We’ve looked at craft moves and done our own mini-writes. She doesn’t do much. “Resting bitch face” I remind myself when I look at her. I want so badly for her face to tell a different story.

Today we start 100-word memoirs. She checks her phone several times. She goes to the bathroom. Then she starts to write and does not stop until time is up. She shares a line with the class. As class ends, I ask students to write down one or two things they want to work on in their memoir tomorrow. She calls me over.

“I think it’s good the way it is,” she says. I feel my protest rising, then squash my first reaction. “Ok,” I say. We pause.

“Will you read it?” her eyes go down, her face turns away from me.

Her memoir is beautiful and powerful. She will edit it – we will edit it together – but her words, her story… it blows me away. I tell her so.

She says, “I want to enter that contest, the one about ‘One Strong Woman.'”
“Yes,” I say, “I think you should.”

In her notebook, her other goal is “actually ask for help.”

“I’ll help,” I say.

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Words to describe the love

This summer, my father-in-law had a heart attack as he walked home from picking up a newspaper at a corner store. He and my mother-in-law were visiting family in Massachusetts, thousands of miles from their home in Arizona. By rights, Jim should have died. He literally collapsed on a neighborhood street.

But he didn’t die. Angels intervened. Neighbours sitting on a porch, enjoying the morning, saw him fall. An off-duty EMT was home and began effective CPR almost immediately. The ambulance that came for him was from a major trauma center.

For a few days, things were chaotic and unclear. Family drove in, flew in, called in and stayed close in every way that they could. And then, miraculously, Jim was ok. There were some cuts from the fall, some broken bones from the CPR and a defibrillator implanted for his heart, but in large part, he’s just fine. By the end of the summer, he was walking around, wondering when he’d be able to get back to his long hikes in the desert canyons of Arizona.

There are no words for this sort of miracle. I couldn’t write about this when it happened in July, and I can barely gather all the threads now: the wrenching loss; the nearly unbelievable salvation; the incredible rebirth; the emotions and experiences of so many people.

Today I received a beautiful letter from my mother-in-law, thanking her family for our support. My father-in-law wrote about his experience almost right afterwards,and I found his account equally moving. Each letter is haunting, so I’ve turned them into found poems. It’s the only way I can capture those few weeks in July.

My Strange Disappearance
I didn’t return in a reasonable time.
I have no memories
so I’m
reconstructing
from what people have told me.
I presumably stopped breathing,
my heart presumably stopped pumping.

Some force was certainly at work
to bring two strangers to my side
to bring me back from sudden death.

Unless I imagined this
family mysteriously appeared.

Do I believe in angels?
I sure believe in something.
I like the word angels.

-found in a letter from Jim Perry

Words to describe the love
I’ve been looking for words
But each time I thought or spoke
I felt raw and open.

I wake in the middle
of the night or
on my early morning walks.
I am swept away.
The heart-distance is non-existence.

How tender and fragile life is.

Please know that
if you need me,
I will come.

-found in a letter by Shirley Dunn Perry

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Ready, again

Monday evening, 8:30pm

School starts tomorrow. Again.

Heaven knows I am not a new teacher. I’ve done this before. In fact, I’ve done this more than 20 times. Before that, I think I count at least 18 starts as a student. And I can add in the years my own children have started school.

I’m still nervous.

Today, I took a long walk with my husband, took another walk with my oldest child, chatted with a friend, read with my youngest, tidied the house. I went online to look up one little thing and ended up reading more than one article about the structure of The Scarlet Letter. I cannot explain how this happened. I don’t even teach The Scarlet Letter anymore.

But since I was online, I took the tiniest of peeks at my class lists. Again.

That done, I tried to read my book. No dice: I was way too distracted. So, I sewed. Doesn’t everyone make pencil cases the day before school starts? And since I was at it, I made *lined* pencil cases. Which I think we can all agree is a little on the ridiculous side. At least my children are happy.

Now, I’m on the computer. Again. Should I change my lesson plans? Nope. Have I missed something? Maybe. I think I should look up one more possible mentor text. But I won’t. I’m going to take a bath and try – again – to read that book.

I’ve chosen my outfit; my husband has packed my lunch. My bookbag waits by the door. The breakfast table is already set, just in case. The children are similarly prepared. I’m ready for another first day. I’m ready to meet the students. I’m ready to be in the classroom. I’m ready to talk about books, to write, to struggle through the hard parts and celebrate the successes.

I’m ready to fall head over heels for a group of young people I don’t even know yet. Again.

 

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Hera

Hera has trapped a black hairband and is yowling insistently. “Come!” she bawls. “I, the intrepid hunter, have rescued you from your carelessness! I have caught another of your discarded objects! I must be admired!”

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Oh, I have slain the fearful hairband!

Between her squawks, meditation music trickles serenely through the floorboards. Our upstairs’ neighbor’s dog has anxiety and will bark all day without the music to keep him calm. Hera is nonplussed by this feeble attempt to lull her into complacency. She yowls again and trots toward me, hairband firmly in her jaws.

As I open the door to let her take her treasure to the porch, a black squirrel chitters indignantly, its paws scrabbling over the wood railing to the safety of the next porch . Hera eyes it disdainfully: she will not lower herself to chase such a creature, not when she has already vanquished this fearful foe. She turns back to me and drops the band. I know what is coming: she must be adored.

She leaps to the back of the couch, inches from the desk where I’m trying to write. I know better than to ignore her, but I don’t demonstrate my fealty quickly enough, and Hera is in my lap, prodding my typing hands, stepping on the keyboard, purring loudly, insistently. ADORE ME NOW!

And honestly, how could I not?

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Join the Slice of Life Community on Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers  to read other slices of life and post your own.

Summary of Debate

I am close to finishing my summer writing courses. So, so close, and yet… so far. One long piece of creative non-fiction, one 1500-word research essay (with a proposal – how is that long enough for any real research? Whatever. I’ll take it.) and one 500-word close reading. I can get this done. 

In the meantime, I am amusing myself and, hopefully, the poor “tutors” who have to read these assignments day in and day out. It was with them in mind that I wrote the following slice of life. The assignment calls for a one-paragraph summary of both sides of “a specific, local debate” in under 250 words. I had to present the two sides in an objective, neutral manner. I decided to go extremely specific and local…

Debate: What Is That in the Sky?

The debate in our car is heated: is the giant glowing white orb that we see in the sky above us the moon or is it something else? The person taking the affirmative position states that it is the moon and develops her argument relying almost exclusively on logos. She begins with a concession, acknowledging that the glowing orb does, in fact, look larger than usual, which is part of what attracted the attention of the passengers in the car. She continues to support the affirmative position by pointing out that, despite its size, the orb is in the place where the moon is usually seen, looks like the moon, and appears to be moving along the moon’s expected trajectory. Finally, the person in the affirmative attempts to use ethos, pointing out that years of experience in observing the moon makes her a credible source for determining if the orb is, in fact, the moon. For these reasons, the affirmative asserts that this is the moon. The person defending the negative position contends that what they are seeing is not the moon. This argument, too, relies largely on logos. For one, he argues, what they see in the sky right now is clearly much larger than the moon. The person assuming the negative position points out that he has never seen a moon this large. He then refers to authority, maintaining that “someone” recently read him a book about planets and that planets are, in fact, very large. He concludes his point by reminding his opponent that he, too, has seen the moon many times, which gives him vast experiential knowledge, if not quite as much as the other side. He closes with a clear statement of position: “I know a lot about moons, and that is not the moon.” In summary, the affirmative position is that the large, white, glowing orb in the sky is the moon; the negative position is that it is not the moon but, more likely, a planet.

In case you are wondering, it was the moon.

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Writing and writing

I have been writing A LOT for the past two weeks. For reasons that are both complicated and idiotic, I have to take three English courses in order to be allowed to take two courses which will officially make me “fully qualified” for the job I’ve been doing for seven years. Short explanation: don’t move countries mid-career.

At any rate, with some (ok, a lot of) cajoling and support from my (wonderful) colleagues and husband, I finally decided to get this credential issue out of the way this summer. I had it all planned out, but… someone made an honest (and costly to me) mistake, and I ended up registered for three on-line undergraduate composition courses in August. (Side note: The reason Comp 101 is not on my transcript is because I effectively tested out of it – when I was 17.)

I’m not going to lie, I spent more time than was healthy feeling sorry for myself. Then I spent a fair amount of time doing the whole 1990s “rage against the machine” thing – just another version of feeling sorry for myself, really. My friends and family practically achieved sainthood merely by listening to me explain how dumb this all is. Finally – finally – I got down to work. I’ve been writing A LOT.

It’s been fascinating.

Not unexpectedly, first year university composition classes have little to do with five paragraph essays. I love that I’ll be able to go back to teaching high school with this knowledge firmly in hand. I’ve written descriptive paragraphs, a summary of debate, a personal essay with research and an argumentative essay. Next up? A rhetorical analysis (which I’ve been putting off). Second year comp includes an expository essay, an argumentative essay, a persuasive essay, and a research essay. Creative non-fiction is making me write about place and culture.

I resent some of the assignments. I don’t want to write a rhetorical analysis of Frank McCourt. I have no desire to write a persuasive essay about heroes. “Who cares about this?” I grumble. Still, I mold and shape the topics, find the ideas, search for the words. I write.

It has been a long time since I wrote essays. Suddenly, I am in my students’ shoes – and not just in my memory or via my (sometimes dwindling) empathy. Writing essays day after day reminds me what a complex a task this really is. I read models, try to discern the teacher’s expectation, choose a topic from among those offered, and then I almost always pause. Sometimes I need research; always I need to brainstorm. Some days I walk around the house or the neighborhood to get my ideas in order. Good essays require good thinking.

When I started, one of my colleagues said, “They’re a bunch of 1000-word essays. You can write that in an hour or two.” But I can’t. I have to pare my thoughts down, write my “shitty first draft” (oh, how Anne Lamott’s words comfort and guide me). I have to observe and consider. I have to rewrite and then reread and rewrite again. I have to be a writer.

I’ve written eight essays so far. I have seven to go. I have drafts for four. I have ideas for all of them. I have three weeks until school starts, and one week with the kids off of camp. Can I get it all done? I don’t know. But I am going to be a much better writer for trying. That’s not an outcome I expected from this exercise.

Wish me luck. That rhetorical analysis awaits.

 

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On scars and being a woman

I was on a new-to-me big kids’ bike with skinny wheels, a slender blue frame and even gears. I wobbled a little every time I started, but no matter: the bike was mine.

That day, riding home from Saundra’s, a hot breeze blew my unkempt hair across my sun-browned face. I knew I should have combed it that morning, and could almost hear my mother scolding, “Mandy, if you’re going to have long hair you need to brush it and tie it back.” But who had time for combs when Saundra swore there was a real live black widow spider right in her bathroom and I needed to come over now before it got away?

The bike veered sideways as my dirty hand pawed my hair from my eyes. My legs splayed out and I nearly crashed, but – miracle! – caught myself just in time. As I  stuttered to a stop, I felt a stinging pain and looked down to see a furrow carved into my left shin. I watched the blood well up and drip down my leg, eventually pooling at the edge of my bobby sock. Then I started to cry.

It was only another few minutes to my house, and I biked the whole way: teary, bloody, determined. By the time I got there, my shin was splattered dark red and my face was shiny wet. In the kitchen, my father cleaned my leg with a damp paper towel while I dried my eyes on his shirt. Now that we could see it, the cut wasn’t much, really: a narrow inch and a half of pain. Daddy got the Band-aids and some Neosporin and set about doctoring me up.

When he finished, he patted my hair and said, “Well, that’ll leave a scar. There goes your shot at Miss America.” He grinned conspiratorially and walked away. But I was eight, and I didn’t get the joke. Was I supposed to be Miss America? Was I supposed to want to be? My father had already returned to his gardening, but I sat in the kitchen staring at the dark stain I could just make out through the pink of the bandage and thought of the beautiful women on TV. Where were their scars? Did they ride bikes? Maybe they were better at biking.

I don’t know when I realized that my father had never wanted me to be Miss America. I don’t know when I understood the jest he had offered to his scruffy, sturdy eight-year-old daughter. But that was the summer I recognized that, someday, I was going to have to deal with hair and dirt and scars and beauty. By the time 4th grade started, I played mostly with girls, combed my hair more regularly, and faked disgust at spiders.

It’s almost invisible now, the scar that introduced me to womanhood, but if I look hard, I can still see it.

 

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This post is part of the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, a weekly invitation to share a snapshot of life through writing. To read more or participate, click here.