Be. Here.

It’s New Year’s Eve and we are in a plane again. This time we’ve left Grandma’s and are heading home. All around me, people are looking backward – it’s the end of the decade! – and forward – let’s make some resolutions! Me? I had a big plan to write a “Slice of Life” that wasn’t, strictly speaking, a slice of life at all, but was going to be very reflective and profound AND look forward to what comes next. I was going to include my “One Little Word” and even reference a book I just finished.

It was a good plan.

The thing is, of course, that we were on vacation. And the Santa Catalinas were right outside the window. And it rained – in the desert – so I had to get outside. And then we needed to paint and talk and read and snuggle and laugh and watch TV and hike and so much more. On one hike, our youngest insisted – spur of the moment – that we veer off our planned trail and head straight up another to the top of a mountain. We would have made it, too, if sunset hadn’t chased us back down. Our oldest remembered the neighbor who’s an astronomer/ professor/adventurer and an animated story-teller. He convinced him to take us stargazing in Sabino Canyon. And my mother-in-law cooked for us and cared for us and allowed us to settle in to just being for a while.

So I didn’t write that blog post. I’m not worried – I’ll get to it. All those ideas are still there, percolating away in the back of my head. And I didn’t get around to looking back over the past decade – or the past year – or even the past month – which was kind of my plan, what with a “last week of the decade/year/month” vacation. I didn’t get around to planning for next year – or month – or even week – either. I just texted a friend this morning to ask if I could let her know more about plans for Jan 2, well, tomorrow. Which, you might note, is Jan 1st. Ah well.

Instead, I have been busy being here. That’s my mantra during savasana at the end of yoga and what I repeat when I try to meditate. Breathe in – be; breathe out – here. I don’t know if it’s what I’m supposed to be doing at those times, but it’s what I started thinking years ago & it has stuck. And it’s what I’m doing now, at the end of this year, the end of this decade. I’m being here, on this airplane with my family on our way home,. Breathe in. Breathe out. Be. Here.

Happy New Year!

 

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Giggling grandmas

As I settle into my seat, I hear one of them say, “…a surprise visit to my grands and great-grands. I have 13 great-grandchildren and 9 grandchildren!”

“Oh my!” exclaims her seat partner, “I’ve got 13 grandchildren and…” her voice is muffled by an overhead announcement and I can’t quite hear the rest. No great-grands, yet, I think.

I turn to my children who have already buckled in and opened their ipads in the row behind me. One holds my tea while the other gazes out the window. Once I’m secured, too, I retrieve my tea and try to listen in again.

“I won’t see them until tomorrow morning. They will be so surprised. I can’t wait to see their faces!”

Her companion nods her head in delighted agreement. The flight attendant’s voice breaks in. My older boy coughs loudly. “Oh my! That was really sweet of your children… that they are in a position to do that… lucky…”

And now a family of three arrives, their seats separate. I trade with the father who trades with the mother so that we end up with two sets of boys and moms. Everyone is content.

The plane takes off and I read for a while, then knit and listen to a podcast until laughter rings through the cabin. I look up and the two grandmas have their heads together. They are, frankly, cackling or maybe giggling like grandmas. “Oooh hoo hoo hoo!” “Ah-hahaha!” Their phones are out and they are scrolling. They snort and whoop. “So cute!” one exclaims. “Would you look at that!” crows the other

Brown head leans towards blonde, then away. My own seat companion has said not a word – first immersed in his game, now asleep. Across the aisle, my boys play a game together. In front of them, the mother and son watch a movie together. And in front of me a middle-aged man snores loudly. Over and around it all, the grandmas talk and laugh. They just met today, and they may never see each other again, but they are spending this hour and a half in joyous companionship.

May we all laugh so loudly and talk so happily this holiday season. May all our travels be as fun as theirs. Happy Holidays!

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Wood, with a gift for burning

Monday night and again I am sleepless. I have sung the songs, done the dishes, folded the laundry. I have chatted and texted and messaged. I have prepped and stretched and even – just for tonight – taken the pill, so that I can get the sleep I need.

Instead, my brain is awash with Adrienne Rich. She has come out of nowhere, her words interrupting my reading, her lines repeating ceaselessly in my head. She will not be ignored.

You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
O.K., then, yes I’m lonely

I am not lonely, I think back to her – or at least to her poem. What are you doing here?

Another stanza arises, unbidden. This is what comes of memorising verse, I grumble in my head.

If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning

My God, how I love this image. If I remember the words it is because the image is burned into my brain. If I could paint, I would paint this. I would take a photograph that would be this stanza. I would write it again as a book, as a hymn, as a prayer. 

No, I would leave it exactly as it is.

When she died, The New York Times called Adrienne Rich “one of the great poets of rage.” I was astonished. Rage? Really? Then again, I only know a few of her poems, and only one stanza of one poem has burned its way into my brain. So really, I know nothing. Tonight, with her words haunting me, I check the article again – I’ve only just remembered this characterization, and I feel a sudden intense need to understand because this poem, this is not anger. I see this: 

Ms. Rich is one of the great poets of rage, which in her hands becomes a complex, fluctuating power that encompasses the roots of the word “anger” in the Old Norse term for “anguish.”

Anguish. Of course. Not anger – so hard for me to understand, to express, to feel – but anguish… I can understand anguish. I imagine what it means to be the poet of anguish, the goddess of anguish, the writer of anguish.

I don’t feel anguish or anger tonight; instead I am starting to feel sleepy. Rich’s image persists as my eyes close. Am I ice-fast this cold December night? Perhaps the words arose because of the last red light of the year? No, I know the truth. Oh, Adrienne. Tonight your rowboat rocks me to sleep; tonight I will dream knowing that I, too, am wood, with a gift for burning

(Read the whole poem – Song by Adrienne Rich – here.)

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Watching the Game

Image result for basketballThe last time I was in a gym watching a high school basketball game, I didn’t even own a cell phone. I’ve nearly forgotten how much I love high school basketball: the excitement, the daring three-pointers, the hard-won rebounds, the turnovers, the exhaustion. Walking towards this afternoon’s game, I wonder why it’s been so long since I’ve done this. (I know the answers: work, children, chores, appointments, commute, fatigue.) Today, I arrive partway through the second quarter. I can hear the noise of the game long before I open the door: the squeal of shoes skidding to sudden stops; the pounding of feet in counterpoint to the relentless beating of the ball against the floor; the staccato whistle punctuating the game.

As I enter the gym, I’m overwhelmed by the powerful sweaty musk of teenage boys’ concentrated effort. The bright lights and echoing space make me feel simultaneously terribly visible and ridiculously small. This is their place, not mine, I realize. I perch uncomfortably on the bleachers and am immediately engrossed by the game. 

I want to tell you about the players, many of them young men who have shared and currently share my classroom. I want to tell you about their intensity, their focus, their grace. I want you to hear their voices raised loudly, unselfconsciously, in unison as they chant: “De-fense! De-fense!” I want you to see how easily they communicate, how confidently they move, how intensely they focus. But I don’t really need to. I know that what is particular to my experience of these boys in this game at this moment is also universal: if you have ever seen a high school game, if you have ever cared for a child playing in that game, then you know what I am seeing as I sit in this bright, echoing gym.

Still, it has been years since I’ve actually watched a game. Five minutes ago, I could have told you that many of my students are at their best when they are playing their sport, but here, now, I am experiencing this truth all over again. The basketball court is 200 steps and 2 million miles from the English classroom down the hall. I need to come here more often, but now I need to go home. Children, chores, appointments, commute, fatigue… I miss the end of the game as I drive home in the rain.
______

I kept thinking about the boys after the game, and as I rearranged the voice notes I’d created as I’d watched, I realized how engaged my senses had been. So, I started a poem about the game. Here it is – unfinished, but you’ll get the idea.

Their restless feet fly across the floor
pause
then propel their bodies upwards.
Released from their desks, their bodies
unfurl
stretching towards the orange circle above them.
Uncurled now
from the orange prisms of their pencils,
their fingers flex around the sphere
that is their body’s
focus.

Only as I wrote the poem did the parallels between my experience in their space and their experience in “my” space (though I do try to make the classroom “ours”) come into focus for me – unfamiliar smells, uncomfortable seating, unappealing lighting,  watching apparent experts do something I can’t do and which I have no urgent desire to practice or perfect. This realization, this deepening of my thinking about a situation, is why I write – and maybe why they play. For me, writing takes a tangle of  my thoughts and straightens them out. Basketball, though I enjoy it, provides me no solace, no direction. I suspect many of my students might feel that something close to the opposite is true for them. Maybe this is why I need to make sure to see more games. 

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll share this and see what they say. Maybe we’ll all write a slice of life; maybe they won’t all be written.

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Night shift

When I finally give in and open my eyes, the red numbers staring at me say 2:34. “Cool,” I think and immediately realize that I am irreversibly awake. 

I close my eyes again anyway, willing sleep to return, vainly hoping that my mental state and my physical state will align. They do not. Behind my closed eyes, I begin to mentally re-arrange our English continuum. I imagine a large chart on a chalkboard: one axis shows grades 9-12; the other our four strands: Oral, Reading & Literature, Writing, and Media. I populate each cell with skills we want our students to learn, arranging and rearranging information in the grid in my brain. I can envision the smooth continuum of oral skills: asking good questions, then speaking in groups, followed by recognizing and using rhetorical speech, ending with speaking persuasively with evidence. Satisfied, I start to create this again for other strands.

I know this chart well; I am familiar with the gaps and jumps, the places where we hiccup. The grid dances, taunting, behind my closed eyes as I try to mentally fill the holes, try to create a flow of uninterrupted growth across all the various facets, as if somehow at… I check again, 2:47… I can find the answer that will mean authenticity and growth for each individual student, some magic formula that each teacher can apply and…

I try not to sigh loudly when I realize that I need to get up. Andre is deep asleep next to me. He had a long day and needs this rest. My nocturnal concerns need not wake him. I grab a blanket, wrap it around me, and head to the living room. There, I find my journal and start to write.

One of my colleagues often consoles us when we report middle-of-the-night restlessness. “Normal,” she reassures. “Used to be that everyone woke up in the middle of the night.” She’s right. Psychology Today says, “The historical evidence indicates that people in the Middle Ages were up for an hour or more in the middle of the night and thought of sleep as occurring in two segments: first sleep and second sleep. In many ways, this makes sense because being awake during the night has certain advantages. At that time, one could stoke the fire, check the defenses, have sex, and tell tall tales.” I’ve reminded myself of this more than once.

That “sex” is the only hyper-linked word in that paragraph makes me laugh – I remember it even without the computer. No link to fire? Defenses? TALL TALES? Because stories tell us who we are, don’t they? Surely that is what links us. My mind calls up people gathered around a fire in their small home, warming themselves as someone tells a story in the middle of the night. I can almost see the shadows dance against the orange light while the children snuggle in, drowsy but awake. No one is worried about their 3am wakefulness; sleep will return soon enough, now is the time for parents to weave tonight’s tale out of yesterday’s happenings. The room warms.

What story would I tell, here, wrapped cozily in the folds of my blanket, were my own family to gather round? What if my children were to wander sleepily out? Would I dream up a story like Matthew and the Midnight Turkeys ? Would we giggle? Maybe I would tell something more fantastical, more magical? Oh, the mid-night stories we could tell.

And now, as I slip into storytelling, my own eyes begin to close. My pen slows. Tonight’s second sleep is calling. The curriculum will wait: stories don’t need a continuum to work their magic.

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(For all you non-Canadians out there, Allen Morgan’s Matthew and the Midnight Turkeys  is a riot for small kids (and me). You are also missing out on Phoebe Gilman’s Jillian Jiggs.)

 

 

Present

He’s late to class again, but he comes in with his usual smile and a late slip. He’s got the rules down: late to first period? Swing by the office before you go to class. He never complains; he just does it.

He tries to come in quietly – he always does – but I’d guess he’s 6 feet tall, and he’s two years older than his classmates, so his “quiet” still attracts attention. He puts his finger to his lips and hunches over a little.

Today he has a beautiful bright blue gift bag in his hand. He half crouches as he walks across the room and puts it on my desk. “Happy Birthday” he mouths, then takes two giant steps backward and folds his too-tall body into the too-small desk. My cheeks get red.

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The other students have noticed – how could they not? – and I stammer something about it being my birthday. To explain how he knew when I hadn’t told the class, I babble that his birthday is nearly the same day as mine. The other kids smile, say “Happy Birthday, Miss!” and we get back to the lesson.

I do not tell them that we found out about our nearly-shared birthday only recently when he stayed after class to ask how to deal with his much younger brother. “Miss?” he had said quietly, “You know a little bit about kids, right? I need some advice.” I do not tell them that he is the primary contact for his brother’s school because his parents need to be at their jobs. I do not tell them that he is working, I think, to help his family out. I do not tell them that, despite his near-native accent, he only arrived here a few years ago and that he is the primary translator for his family. I do not tell them that the book he has been reading since September is, likely, the first English book he will finish. I do not tell them how hard he is working.

I do not tell them because he lives by his reputation at school. He’s a kid whose cell phone is always on hand and whose absences are rarely excused. Another teacher recently called his friends “the bad kids.” He blends into this group with his brown skin, his slick black hair, his “don’t care” demeanour. He “needs to improve his focus” say his report card comments, his “frequent absences are hindering progress.” This is both true and not true.

Today, he is a very big little boy who has given me a gift. I glance in the bag as class ends; he leaves quickly before I open it. Back in my office, I find a mug wrapped in pink tissue paper and a beautiful birthday card. I briefly hope he did not spend too much. I open the card.

For one second my eyes close as I hover between a smile and tears. My heart contracts for this sweet boy who has come so far and learned so much, for this observant child who is trying so hard. He has figured out all the trappings, but he didn’t sign the card. 

I suspect that he would follow this rule, too, if only he had a card to see how it’s done here – what words do we use? how do we say thank you? What do you write to someone who sees you, even if only in stolen glimpses? 

Conveniently,  I happen to know that his birthday is nearly the same as mine. I think I might need to give him a card.

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Amanda and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad November Monday

Amanda and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad November Monday
(With apologies to Judith Viorst)

I left my office without my binder and then I had to run up to get it. And when I got to Grade 9 English class, no one was in their seat and, to make matters worse, the EA was running late. I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad November Monday.

During sit and read time, students stood and talked. And during stand and talk time, they were too tired to get out of their seats. They went to the bathroom and played on their phones and needed to see me in the hall – urgently. Someone threw a spitball. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad November Monday.

During writing time they couldn’t find their notebooks or their pencils… even when I gave them notebooks and pencils. They couldn’t read the sentence starter on the board and couldn’t think of what to write on the paper… even though we’d just discussed the entire topic. It was definitely a a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad November Monday.

I asked them to sit down. I asked them to put their phones away. I asked them to at least talk quietly. No one even listened. I wished it were a sunny Thursday in May.

I’ve tried teaching Spiderman, but they wanted a different version. I’ve tried graphic novels, but they only want to read them on their own. I’ve even tried letter writing. They don’t write letters. I could tell we’d reached a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad November Monday.

I could tell because I’ve begun doubting my teaching. I’m not planning enough, and I’m moving too fast, or maybe too slowly. I’m only a third-rate teacher and I need to improve my classroom management. “I need you to stop acting like 5-year-olds” I said to the class. “I need you to actually do your work before some Thursday in May!”

In our office, one colleague has finished her report cards, and another has finished her marking. One has evening plans with her family. Guess who has to finish report cards and drive her own children to parkour in the snow? No doubt about it: it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad November Monday.

There were late essays to mark, and I hate marking. There were comments to write, and I hate comments. My children were loud and my tea got cold and I had to drive home in the snow. I hate driving in the snow.

It was definitely a a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad November Monday. But I know some days are like that, even some Thursdays in May.

 

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