Call them by their name – or whatever

Yesterday a new student joined my class. He showed me his timetable to confirm that he belonged in this room, and I asked him his name. He replied with the name written on the paper, then followed up with, “but call me xxx”. So I did.

I know there’s a lot of fuss right now about teachers using the name students ask to be called. (Brief background: in the US, some people are demanding that teachers inform parents when children ask to change names or pronouns; some people are demanding that teachers not do this, in part to protect vulnerable students;  Canada’s laws are different, but the same issue is cropping up.) Just before school started this year, a colleague in my school board posted a thread on Twitter about why we should use students’ preferred names, and spiteful commenters piled on, calling the teacher a “groomer” and worse. I was astonished by their ignorance. Well, maybe not astonished – I’m too old to pretend that I’m not a little cynical about the outrage; but I found it, at a minimum, fatiguing.

Here’s what they don’t know: teachers have long used students’ preferred names. I’ve been calling students what they want to be called pretty much forever, and I have never – not once – phoned a parent to let them know about it. My first memory of this is from years ago when a student asked to be called Kronos. Kronos! My instinct was to say no, mostly because this 8th grader was decidedly neither the king of the Titans nor a god of Time, but before I could say a word, the teacher standing next to me said, “Ok.” So we called the child Kronos. We didn’t phone home or worry about report cards. We just called him Kronos until he asked us to stop.

In that same school I had a student who went by Sarah while her family called her Sally. I’ve had students ask me to call them by their nicknames, middle names or last names (there are a lot of Emmas and Mohammeds out there; sometimes these name changes are a godsend). Before parent-teacher conferences, I often ask students what their parents call them, so that I can communicate effectively. 

For a lot of young people, names are a good place for a bit of experimentation. When we were little, my sister wanted to be called Christy instead of Kim. I have no idea why. I grew up in the South, so I knew plenty of kids whose first names were someone else’s last name – Madison, Perrin, Riley come to mind. When I was in my early teens, I longed for a name that could be mistaken for a boy’s. I blame Little Women for my dreams of being called “Jo” or “Alex” while behaving in unladylike ways. Later, I was awed when Shannon Faulkner took advantage of her gender-neutral name to become the first woman to enroll in the then all-male Citadel. Meanwhile, my aunt and uncle named my cousin Andrew, insisting that he not be called Andy; this worked fine until someone started calling him Drew. These days, he answers to either.

In the classroom, I’ve had students use a gender-neutral version of their own name, use a name frequently associated with the opposite gender, and use a name that, frankly, no parent in their right mind would choose. (I think most of us would try to talk our kid out of “Kronos.”) Sometimes their parents know; sometimes they don’t. It’s never really been an issue.

Look, I’m not naive: I know that people are using the name issue as a proxy for homophobia and transphobia. They say “name” and mean something else altogether. They’ve worked themselves into hysterics over this and decided that when teachers respect a child’s request to be called by a certain name or pronoun, something terrible will happen. In all my years of teaching, calling a child what they want to be called has never – not once – made a child feel less welcome; it’s never interfered with their learning; it’s never made them unhappy. I have 26 years worth of experience suggesting that using a child’s preferred name or pronouns won’t change who they are – but it might make them feel a little more like themselves.

So, when a child asks me to call them a particular name, I say “yes”. Why wouldn’t I?

What we discussed

My friend’s tweet caught my attention this morning as I stared down another school day: pictures of her students thinking and writing about the juxtaposition of the Queen’s funeral and Powley Day. She and her colleagues had worked together to devise a wonderfully thoughtful series of prompts about this, prompts designed to help them think about equity and Indigeneity and the importance of historical thinking. Their lesson went well; the students did some powerful learning. Even as I admired the elegance of the work, I felt a quick stab of jealousy, then a sense of deflation: I had failed to talk about either topic with my classes. Not only that, teachers had been explicitly told that we had to address both of them. One direction came from the Ministry of Education, requiring a moment of silence; the other from our school board, requiring sharing information about Powley Day.

I exhaled, warm breath across my hot tea, and wondered how I had missed this. Then I remembered. We hadn’t discussed any of this because my Monday morning class opened with a discussion of murder. There had been a fight – maybe gangs? – and a knife. Two people were badly injured; one person died. I say “people”, but my students said “kids” or “guys”. No one involved attended our school, but somehow many of the students in the classroom knew or knew of several of the young people involved in the fight. There was a video. They had seen it. The fight had taken place near-ish to the school. Some students had been near the fight. Someone’s family was close to the family of one of the kids involved. 

The details are all still  pretty confusing for me – after all, I learned about this at 9:30 on a Monday morning, and all of my information was coming from 14 year olds. Or, as one student piped up, “I’m still 13, Miss!” The conversation swerved through the classroom, pausing at stops I could have predicted – should we watch videos of someone’s death? – to stops that took my breath away – “If you’re in that sort of situation, don’t call the cops. They could say you were involved. Just get away.” Over and over I reminded students that we had time to talk, that we wouldn’t rush this, that they needed to listen to each other, slow down, take turns. One boy – Mr. 13 – said, “Wait! This is just like that book some of us are reading. ‘No snitching. Always get revenge.’” Heads nodded seriously: they didn’t need to have read the book; they know the rules. I made a mental note to get out more copies of Long Way Down (and sent another blessing in Jason Reynolds’ direction – that book. Just… wow.). Someone wondered how a kid not much older than them might end up killing someone. I brought up Romeo and Juliet – Tybalt, Mercutio, Romeo. Young men, hot tempers, knives… Someone had read that last year – yes, they said, yes, this has been happening for so long.

Slowly, slowly the conversation settled. Someone asked, almost plaintively, “but what are we supposed to do?” Someone else replied, “Make sure this doesn’t happen again.” Someone snorted, “Of course it will happen again.” Someone said softly, “Make sure it doesn’t happen to us.” Quiet descended. They looked at me.

And what could I say? Only the truth: “I don’t know what to do next.” I offered options. I suggested playing the same quiet reading music I play every day and, well, getting lost in another world. That’s what they chose. Books came out. No one fussed. One student, then another, called me over to say, “Miss, I have seen worse: or “Miss, in my country…” I heard stories that I will not share. They were reassuring themselves that things would be ok. Ten minutes passed and we all kept reading. Eventually I noticed people starting to shift their weight, and we went on with class. 

All day, each class wondered and worried about the fight, the boys involved, the police. All day, we created the calm we could. As the last bell rang, I knew I had done enough; we had found our way through. Monday was over. Tuesday would come.

So, no, we didn’t talk about the Queen or Powley Day – heck, my first period barely touched on any lesson I had planned. And I know that’s ok. And yet, I need to remind myself that social media – even that of people we admire wholeheartedly – can be insidious. I know this; we all know it. Next step: remember this lesson first thing on a Tuesday morning when Monday has been so hard.

First Impressions

What he likes best, my 12 year old, is comfortable clothes. What he likes are sweatpants and t-shirts, sneakers and worn socks. He likes things that are broken in, soft, slouchy. 

Because of this, he spent the summer showing more and more of his ankles as his legs grew and his pants didn’t. He spent the summer with gaping holes at his knees and growing holes in his t-shirts. He spent the summer in stained, ratty clothes – familiar and freeing.

But September loomed and the week before school started, his dad insisted on clothing culling. Both boys dragged clothes from various drawers and dark corners and piled them up in giant heaps in the middle of the floor. Sizes were checked. Those things that were barely holding together were consigned to the rag pile. Items that were still in good shape but nonetheless did not meet individual style standards – such as they are – were gifted to the neighbors’ kids. Everyone agreed that having pants with intact knees and shirts without stains was a desirable goal.

Or so we thought.

On the first day of school, Mr. 12 appeared in the kitchen wearing perfectly respectable sweatpants (if there is such a thing) and a beloved but besmirched t-shirt. I pointed out the stain and asked if he would change it, just to humour me. He agreed. Moments later he returned… wearing a shirt dotted with several small holes. I maintained my composure but suggested that this shirt, too, should be changed. Mr. 12 was less enthusiastic about my second request.

At this point, his dad, somewhat chagrined, I think, by the reappearance of these shirts that he had assured me were gone, chimed in. “Have you ever heard the saying ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression’?” Mr. 12 had not, and he agreed to change one more time.

And that was the end of that. 

Just kidding.

The next day, I only got a passing glance at my child as I scrambled out the door on my own way to work. His dad didn’t look too carefully either. This explains why we only noticed his less-than-new shirt (ok, it had holes. again) after the school day was firmly over. I shook my head and started to explain our “your shirts shouldn’t have stains or holes” theory – the simple idea that seems to be anathema to him. He listened patiently, then shook his head with mock sadness. “It’s ok,” he reassured us. “After all, I can’t make a first impression twice.” He skipped away, laughing.

Since then I’ve gone back to letting him dress however he likes.

Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org who have created this community where teachers practice and share their writing. What a gift!

Watching and worrying

“Hey,” I say, all faux-casual-like, leaning against the doorframe that leads into the tv room. Two lanky fourteen-year-old boys look up from the couch where they loll contentedly. Across the room, the twelve-year-old glances away from his computer to see what’s happening. “So, um,” I realize that my casual act is not fooling anyone, but I press on, “have you heard of Andrew Tate?”

I can practically hear their eyes roll. And though I would not have said it was possible, they relax further back into the couch, bodies stretching. They are already done with this conversation I have just started. My oldest glances up languidly, “Yeah. Why?”

“Well, um…” I don’t know what to say. Maybe I thought they weren’t watching Andrew Tate? Or that somehow they wouldn’t know who he was. I hesitate. I want to say, please tell me you are not watching videos made by a misogynistic racist jerk, but that seems like overkill.

My fourteen year old gives me a withering look and says, “Mom, if you use the internet, you know who Andrew Tate is.” I do not tell him that I did not, in fact, know who Andrew Tate was until relatively recently.

“Do you watch him?” I ask. By now the 14 year old friend is joining the conversation. He smirks while my son sighs.

“MOM! It’s like, you can’t not watch him. If you watch videos his videos are there. He doesn’t even post them himself. He gets other guys to post them. They’re just there.”

The friend concurs, “Yeah, they’re kind of everywhere. You can’t avoid them.”

I take this in. So, yes, they watch Andrew Tate. Now what? “So, um, what do you think of him?”

The boys have had enough of my beating around the bush. They tell me that he’s obviously a racist and a jerk. They can’t quite come up with the word misogynist, but they know that what he says about women is not good. They watch his videos anyway and insist that they are not actually influenced. “We know what he’s doing,” they assure me.

I am not comforted, at least not right away. I don’t like this, my boys out in the wilds of the internet listening to jerks who say hateful things to preteen and early teenage boys.

I try to broach the topic again later, but my kids shut me down. “MOM! Just… stop worrying about this.” I tell them that what we consume affects what we think. They are stoic. I suggest that their brains are wasting energy on not believing this. They disagree. Finally, I let it drop.

The next day at dinner, my older son tells us that Andrew Tate has been banned from several social media platforms. We talk about whether or not other platforms should ban him. Mr. 14 says no. “If he hasn’t violated their terms, they should leave him up there. If they don’t want him there, they should change the rules.” My husband tries to push his thinking, to encourage him to consider when something should be banned. Mr. 14 is nonplussed. “You can ban what you want, but it’s not like it goes away.”

Dang. We continue the conversation, but he doesn’t budge.

For a week, they tease me with information about Andrew Tate. They tell me about his money and his cars. I respond by sharing the idea of the Bechdel test, by pointing out places where we encounter systemic inequities in our daily lives – should the prime minister of Finland be censured for partying? (Mr. 14’s take: “Probably most people who run countries shouldn’t really party.”) Should a female news anchor be fired when she lets her hair go gray? (He says, “I don’t think TV is a good choice of careers if you think they don’t care when you get old. They do.”) For a week, I worry that I should do *something*, although short of banning the internet, I’m not sure exactly what.

Several days into this, one of the boys yells, “Hey Mom, come quick! It’s another Andrew Tate video.” He bursts into hysterical laughter. And I start to get it. To them, Andrew Tate is a joke – he’s a show, and a stupid one at that. My kids are internet skeptics, completely unphased by the idiotic behaviour that shows up on their screens. They don’t believe that Tate has all those cars or even all those fans. They see him for what he is – a flash in the pan who behaves badly to get attention. They watch him when he shows up in their feeds, but largely to mock him with their friends.

So maybe what I was worried about is not quite the right thing. I can’t prevent my children from seeing things on the internet; there aren’t enough parental controls to stop the world from coming in. My boys aren’t any less at risk than other kids, but their generation has a different relationship with the internet than mine does. We’re going to have to negotiate this together, and in the meantime, I think the kids are alright.

Many thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org for hosting the Slice of Life

Presenting

I have been futzing with the same slide show for hours. Hours and hours and hours. I’ve added some icons, resized them, resized them again. I changed fill colours and checked fonts. Oh, and I re-jigged one slide from three columns to four. That took at least 30 minutes and somehow seemed very very important.

I could be doing other things, of course. I could be helping with dinner or practicing on Duolingo. I could be heading to Knit Night or reading a book. I could be relaxing or chatting with my sister. But the slide show keeps calling me.

Tomorrow I will be doing my first-ever presentation at a conference. I am a little nervous. I have been reassuring myself that a teacher being nervous about a presentation is, honestly, silly. After all, I present all the time in the classroom, right? (Ok, well, not so much lately since I’ve tried to make my classroom much more student-driven, but I definitely presented for years.) And I’ve co-hosted an online book club for colleagues – complete with slide shows! – with no problem. And I’ve spoken on podcasts! How different can this be? (Different. It can be different.)

And it’s not like I’m doing this alone. My friend, mentor & colleague, Melanie White, is presenting the session with me. She is, frankly, inspirational: a powerhouse of thinking fueled by an almost unimaginable volume of reading and listening. In fact, I’m pretty sure that *she* is the reason people will attend. After all, *I* would attend her session in a heartbeat. (And yes, Melanie, I see you reading this and shaking your head. Let me have my nervous moment over here.)

Even as I write this, I am starting to laugh at myself a little. Sure, I am nervous – but writing about it down makes me realize that perhaps this is not as big a deal as I think. After all, Sarah Zerwin (of the book Point-less) was the keynote speaker today, and she presented for 2.5 hours. Now *that* would be nerve-wracking. She nailed it: my brain was spinning with ideas and questions right up to the last moments. And she told us that it was her first time presenting for that length of time – and that she over prepped. Sigh… such a teacher move.

Which brings me back to that slide show for tomorrow. I’m pretty sure that I need to just double-check a few more of the slides. And maybe tweak the script a little. I swear I won’t add any more columns, but one more icon might make all the difference…

(Wish us luck! Here’s hoping we share things others find useful.)

Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting this space for teacher-writers.

Uprooting

After three weeks away and an 18-hour drive home, the kids and I pulled into the driveway. I unlocked the doors and opened the back hatch, handing bundles to the boys as they made their way inside. There, in the waning light, I saw several dandelion plants nearly as tall as the 11 year old dragging a suitcase up the front steps. Long green blades of grass – not grass I had planted – poked up between the paving stones and around the azaleas, visibly proud of how quickly and well it had grown. And even the enthusiastic grass had nothing on the tomatoes: they had grown exuberantly, abundantly, outrageously, and then, exhausted, had laid their heavy branches down on the sidewalk, creating a thick verdant obstacle course for passersby. The plants were out of control.

I paused, arms laden with the miscellaneous car detritus that appears at the end of a long road trip, and shook my head slowly – as if I could somehow reconcile this sight with Andre’s text from last night: “I did some trimming of the garden so you wouldn’t be totally horrified, but you will still want to get out there to rip stuff up.”

I was, in fact, totally horrified.

As I stood, rooted to the spot, our neighbor Mike came over to welcome us home. I sputtered something about giant dandelions and he laughed, “Yeah, Andre didn’t get a lot of gardening done while he was home*.” Mike had watered the plants while we were away, and he’d kept at it even once Andre came home because Andre had to work. Now, together, we stared at the wild tangle that occupied the space previously known as the front yard.

“Girl,” said Mike, “get in there and get some sleep. We can deal with this tomorrow. I’ll help with the tomatoes.”

Saturday arrived, hot and humid. I rummaged through the shed and found stakes, twine, a small garden fork and a large yard waste bag. The morning was for pulling things. Out came the dandelions (really sow thistle), carefully culled so that their fluff didn’t spread seeds everywhere. Up came the grass – and more grass and more grass and many little bulbs. What was this stuff? I wiped the sweat from my forehead and checked my phone: nutgrass? nutsedge? Who cares? I ripped it out ruthlessly. 

I paused for a long walk and a short lunch. The afternoon heat was more than I could handle, even with water, but after dinner Mike showed up, as promised. We staked one tomato plant after another, slowly clearing the sidewalk as we discovered dozens of green orbs hidden in the leaves. For a while he tied and I weeded. Then he weeded a little, too. Then I weeded some more. By the time the sun was setting, we had overfilled the yard waste bag and were both happily dripping with sweat. I wiped a dirty hand across my face, stood up and stretched, high and long. 

“It looks good,” I declared. 
“That it does,” he agreed.
“I’ve got more to do tomorrow.”
“Yes, you do. It’s a good job done for today, though.”

We surveyed the yard – tomatoes upright, paving stones visible, azaleas able to breathe – and said goodnight. I went inside and washed off the dirt, then fell asleep knowing that all that uprooting really meant coming home.

*To be clear, the house was immaculate and he’d left cold beer in the fridge and lovely treats for us to discover, so I’m not complaining. Not everyone is a gardener.

At the cafe

I only planned one museum visit for this trip because I knew that Eric would not likely be a big fan. Still, I love the Musee d’Orsay, and I haven’t been to Paris in 15 years – 15! – so I couldn’t resist. We had tickets for the earliest admission time and, after an extremely quick walk through the temporary Gaudi exhibit, we headed directly for the Impressionists to take advantage of our morning energy and the relatively smaller morning crowds.

Eric didn’t last long, Monet be damned. In fact, he quickly determined that he preferred the benches to anything else. (Granted, the benches are art in their own right – “Water Block” by Tokujin Yoshioka – but I’m pretty sure that’s not what attracted Eric.) He looked at the paintings for a room or two, then raced ahead to the end of the exhibit. There, he waited a few minutes, then returned to complain politely, then went ahead again. This cycle repeated several times. Each time, I showed him one piece or offered one idea; he listened & then left.

Portrait of an 11 year old at the Musee d’Orsay

On his third return trip, Eric told me that a) he needed something to drink and b) there was a cafe at the end of the exhibit and c) it opened at 11. I agreed that we could go, suggested that my mom catch up to us after she looked at some more art, and wandered towards what I assumed would be an overpriced bottle of water and a Fanta at a museum kiosk thing.

A casual glance upended my expectations: sunlight spilled into a large, open room through the giant clock that dominated the far wall – a reminder that the museum was originally a train station. The yellow walls seemed luminous and everywhere bell-shaped pendant lights covered in golden squares glowed. As Eric dragged me into line – of course there was a line – I worried briefly about what I had just agreed to.

The photo from TripAdvisor is better than what I took

Minutes later the cafe opened, and we were shown to a table. Since we were among the first to order, we snagged some of the croissants and pain au chocolat to accompany our drinks. Our server poured our drinks with a flourish, teasing Eric, and we felt well looked-after. As I finished my tea (Eric’s Orangina was gone in a flash), an older man at the next table asked my mother, in French, if Eric was her grandson. I translated, she said yes, and the man told her that he was beautiful – he repeated it carefully in English, to make sure she understood. He struck up a conversation – much to his young nephew’s chagrin – and, although he was from Brazil, insisted on speaking French to Eric. Eventually, we called for our bill, and as we left, the gentleman told Eric that he must see Manet’s The Fifer before he left.

Was it the croissant? the cafe? the man who took the time to notice Eric and talk to him? I don’t know, but we managed to enjoy another hour of the museum – statues, models, and paintings, including, yes, The Fifer – before it was time to move on. My guess is that Eric will remember the setting and the conversation for at least as long as he remembers the artwork. I suspect I might, too.

The setting, the kid & the croissant
Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting this weekly space for teachers to write and share.

Family Reunion

What I want to say is that it is a terrible idea to start a 17-hour drive the day after the school year ends. And that this is the reason we somehow forgot my suitcase. And that I had packed all the toothpaste, among other things. And that I had to replace everything which is part of the reason I was fussy until about four hours ago.

What I want to say is that 18 people in one house is, more or less, 12 too many, even if one of them is my adorable 13 month old niece who, for reasons none of us can quite fathom, is basically happy all of the time.

What I want to say is that South Carolina is hot, even at the beach, and that most of us are ridiculously sunburned even though we’ve only been here three days. And we were too far away to really appreciate yesterday’s fireworks, and what were we celebrating, really, since each day the beach appears to be full of straight white couples and Roe has been overturned and there were 21 mass shootings in the US between July 1st and 4th and as we drove down here we passed within spitting distance of at least two of them.

But then I meet my sister’s partner, a woman who makes her very happy and who, as it turns out, makes a delicious daiquiri. And my Cuban sister-in-law is tucked away in the shade, reading and cooing at the baby. And my brothers are on the beach, kicking a soccer ball with my son while my partner plays in the ocean with my nephews. And I marvel that my family has dealt with addiction and divorce and depression and suicide attempts and miscarriage and abortion and money troubles and the list goes on and on. Some of us own guns; some of us abhor guns. Some of us are vegan; some of us are enthusiastic meat-eaters. Some of us have MDs; some of us never finished college.

By all rights, we should not get along at all, and sometimes we don’t, but for the week of the family reunion, day after day we laugh and love and find the things we have in common. The grill sets off the fire alarm – again – and the kids try to fill the pool with water balloons and then, after dinner, we have a birthday cake to celebrate birthdays we’ve missed. Tonight, we are all in the main room with the baseball game on mute while Jamie and Donna serenade us with old time bluegrass music and about half the family sings the chorus.

This family reunion – so many of us joined in such unexpected ways – doesn’t fix everything, of course, but it’s not nothing. Some nights, once I’ve recovered from the long drive and the end of the school year and all its attendant fatigue, I think it might be (almost) everything.

Many thanks to Two Writing Teachers, whose weekly Slice of Life keeps me writing and thinking.

Almost the end

Knit Night starts in 6 minutes and I do not have a project on the go. I always have something half-finished or nearly-dreamed, but tonight, despite oodles of patterns and skeins of yarn, I am at loose ends.

I could cry “end of the school year!” and “I’m so busy!” and skip Knit Night to mark student work, but I’ve marked everything they’ve turned in. I should be pleased about this, but I know the deluge awaits: missing assignments will magically appear by Friday and my weekend will be full.

Tonight is Tuesday, and I have not yet written a “Slice of Life,” though I meant to write last night and again this morning. I have a million half-started ideas and drafts stashed away in journals and various corners of the internet, but tonight none of them seem willing to fledge themselves into fully formed posts.

I’m even between books, and though I have half a dozen on my nightstand, none of them feel quite right. I suppose I’ll have to start *something* tonight, I can’t sleep if I don’t read, but I don’t know what it will be.

Clearly, I am almost-the-end-of-the-school-year tired. I am the tired that comes the week before the week before. Next week is the flurry – grad breakfasts and rehearsals and commencement and last days. Next week we will buzz with energy and fill the school with excitement. My evenings will be full of the well-earned exhaustion of a job (nearly) done.

Tonight I’m the tired that arrives two weeks before school ends – full of regret and longing. How much more I wish we had done! Oh, how much more we could do together! But we have finished the projects – well, nearly – and no new ones are on the horizon. Instead, what lies ahead is goodbye. We will celebrate the journey and look to the future and it will be good.

But now I’m 6 minutes late for Knit Night, and I don’t have a project on the go, but I know they’ll be happy to have me anyway. And I’ll probably come up with a new project. I always do.