Cross words

My 9 year old and I are snuggled tightly together in a small armchair designed for one. His bare back warms me as he unconsciously presses his body into mine. Toes, knees, legs, back, shoulders tangle around me. Only his hands are his own, and they are holding my phone. His stormy face bends towards it, and his dark eyebrows draw together in concentration: he is helping me with the New York Times crossword puzzle.

Armchair decidedly for one

We should be outside. We’ve rented a cottage for a week with friends, and everyone else is taking advantage of a beautiful day at a quiet lake. But my boy got angry earlier, and his anger is a monster that swallows his words and hardens his body. When he is angry, he often will not speak and sometimes will not even move. He curls up, hides under a soft dark blanket and refuses to engage with the world or any of the people in it. Today, this meant that he could neither explain his anger nor participate and tidying the cottage after lunch. Tidying is not negotiable, so today he got in trouble, then he screamed, and then he cried.

He stomped off to settle himself down a little bit outside, and then he returned for the sure fix: a snuggle. “Crossword?” He pleaded, oral language still almost too much for him. We have declared this week device free, but three days ago, after another frustration, he sat with me while I worked the crossword. To everyone’s shock, he loved it. Today the only crossword in this cottage is on my phone, and I relent. We snuggle together, reading the clues and guessing. “Christmas ____” is easy, and he loves the clue “suds maker.” Slowly the grid fills.

I would never have guessed that these horizontal and vertical lines, these interlinked squares with so many possibilities and so few right answers, would calm him. His breathing slows; his face lights up when he gets an answer; his body relaxes. With each completed box he puts words in their place. Slowly his world becomes more orderly. We finish the whole puzzle in less than 30 minutes.

Now he can tell me what made him upset. It was nothing, really – a typical sibling spat, easily solved. But cross words and compromises are tough for my boy. I know this, though I can’t fix it. We agree on a non-verbal cue he can use next time to ask for extra time before we try to talk to be honest, I don’t think it will work, but it’s worth a try. And I think I’ll invest in a book of crosswords.

Overheated

T has his first real babysitting gig this summer. He’s watching our friend’s six year old and seven year old three mornings a week so that their mom can work. Yesterday he biked home, plopped down on the back deck and said, “that was worth WAY more than $30.” He proceeded to regale me with tales of fishing (“…and then the hook got caught in a frog and that was the end of fishing”), finding outdoor activities to entertain the kids (“she said the only thing to do outside was eat grass. That doesn’t even make sense”), feeding them (“…so I said, ‘what do you mean you don’t like it? You haven’t even tried it’ and I made them take another bite since they didn’t even give it a chance) and generally dealing with kids. I nearly bit my tongue off trying not to laugh.

He was still red-faced and sweaty – “I got over 10,000 steps and that doesn’t even count the bike ride there and back – and it’s not even 1:00!” – as I sent him inside for water and food. “I’m so hot I can barely eat,” he yelled through the still-open door. “Drink some water!” I yelled back, “and close the door!”

I grew up in South Carolina, so I made some remark about my wimpy Canadian kids (conveniently forgetting my response to winter) and casually ignored him. Wuss.

This morning, I took a long walk before it got too hot, then headed over to a friend’s house. My pre-teen slept in his attic room until moments before his buddy showed up at 11. His dad roused him & sent him off, tousled and unfed, to the local park. T didn’t have time to complain about how hot his room had been last night before they were out the door. The boys scooted around for over an hour, then took their pocket money and headed to Subway for lunch. Each of them put on a mask before heading inside.

And then: disaster. Apparently T knew that he was feeling nauseated and a little dizzy, apparently they tried to tell the guy behind the counter that T felt sick, but they’re 12 and wearing masks and… he didn’t hear them or didn’t listen until my Canadian boy sat down and threw up.

Horrified, the boys shoved their subs and sodas into a backpack and left. Then the reality set in: what if it’s covid? T’s buddy was stoic. He accompanied him home, mask on, two metres apart, making sure T was ok. When they got to our house, he came up the driveway and found me on the back deck (just getting ready to write, in fact), and blurted out what had happened. Meanwhile, T came through the house, briefly spoke with his dad, and arrived on the back deck similarly upset. “What if I have covid? I have to get tested!

The boys were doing an elaborate dance to maintain their distance, and T’s friend still had his mask on. Both of them were sweating. T was upset that he might have gotten people sick. “I have the symptoms!” he moaned, “I’m really tired!” I was trying to get T to sit down. His friend was trying to call his parents but his cell phone only works on wifi and he didn’t have our password. After a chaotic minute or two passed, I managed to get my hand onto my child’s forehead. As I suspected: cool & clammy. “Heat exhaustion,” I proclaimed, and both boys looked at me doubtfully. Still, I held my ground, and moments later one boy was outside with a telephone and the other inside with a glass of water.

Parents came to pick up T’s buddy, arrangements were made for the left-behind bike, mid-day movies were approved, and everyone was fine. Within the hour, T declared heat exhaustion a pretty good deal: he got to stay in during the day, be on a screen, drink lemonade and eat ice cream. He even dangled the idea that maybe he shouldn’t babysit tomorrow because it’s still going to be really hot, and he might get overheated again. “The problem is,” he said, “I’m so hot that sometimes I just have to play it cool.” I groaned and told him that he’s still babysitting.

As I sat down to write again, I found myself reflecting: T’s friend thought this was the moment that he had been exposed to the very disease we’ve upended society to avoid, but he didn’t leave and he didn’t panic. He brought T home and made sure he was ok. He kept himself as safe as he could and took care of his friend. He even made sure T had his lunch before heading home with his dad.

That is a friend indeed. We’ll keep that kid around.

Who gets the credit?

One week before the end of school, four school days before marks were due, she still hadn’t handed in any work. Not. one. thing. I’d known we might end up here because I’d taught her before. Now, the impending deadline made the reality undeniable: she wasn’t going to pass.

This was her second semester in my class because, after turning in next-to-nothing the previous semester, she had failed. Then her failure had slipped through the cracks, and she’d started the next English class, only to be “discovered” three weeks into the semester and forced to come back to my class. Separated from her friends, publicly humiliated, she had spent the week before the Covid 19 closure showing up late, refusing to work, and taking extraordinarily long bathroom breaks. I’d let her.

Why? Because I know her. She has no reason to trust adults and often barely earns her credits. When she was in grade 9, we’d connected a little after I kept finding her in the hallways. I couldn’t get her through the class she was skipping, but I could sit with her and listen, so I did. Last year, she and another friend, both Inuit, sometimes came to the Spec Ed room to work. She doesn’t have an IEP, but that didn’t matter. Together, we muddled our way through a History class she hated. As I worked with her, I realized that she had very few academic problem-solving skills and little willingness to play the game of school. So when I’d seen her name on my roster first semester, I’d known she would be a challenge, but I’d thought we would get through it. We didn’t. Well, she didn’t. 

She had spent the semester being, frankly, difficult. She brought food and ate noisily, then left the wrappers everywhere. I don’t mind students eating in class, but there was something aggressive about this. Aggressive eating? I swear it’s true. I reminded myself that many students need to eat in class, and I politely cleaned her trash when she had finished. Then, she refused to comply with my seating plan. I don’t love seating plans, but the class was divided and I wanted them to work together, so I used often-changing seats for group work. When she wouldn’t move, I planned around her preferred seat. And, during our twenty minutes of daily reading, she talked incessantly. I found myself increasingly angry, so we did a problem-solving session which ended with a plan that allowed her and her friend several days a week to talk in the hallway during reading time. Anathema to my goals, but she swore that she read “all the time” at home and begged me not to call her parents to confirm. I didn’t love it, but I acceded; it was better than nothing.

I felt like I had compromised everywhere, and still she had produced no work. It was maddening. One of the only things she did last semester was write a thank-you note to a speaker, an Inuit man who came to share his culture – her culture – with our class. He was fascinating, and she listened intently. Her thank you was heartfelt and honest. She earned an A.

And now here we were, the end of the craziest semester I’ve ever seen and our second semester together. She had attended no synchronous meetings and done no asynchronous assignments. I had called her regularly, and we’d had some nice chats, but she never followed up with actual work. Still, we’d talked about the books she was reading – she loves Rick Riordan – and, eventually, about the fan fiction novel she was writing. No, she was not interested in sharing it with me: it wasn’t ready. Sometimes, she called me back after I left a message. (I’d unmasked my phone number early on because I suspected no one would answer if I didn’t.) She hated being stuck at home, longed for fresh air, felt stifled by her family, her situation, her “crappy” internet. She read all the time because there wasn’t much else to do. She missed her friends. She missed school. I laughed, “but you don’t do school!” 

“That’s not true,” she said, “I just don’t do school work. It’s different.”

I spoke to my friend and colleague, Melanie White, who is my accountability partner in anti-racist work. “I feel like I’m failing her,” I said. “I feel like if we were at school, she might be passing. This whole system is stacked against her, and I’m just another person letting her down.”

Melanie was quiet for a minute. “Then pass her.”

Round and round we talked. If I pass her, am I telling her that she deserves pity? Or that she can’t do it? Will she think I have so little faith in her abilities that I will pass her with no evidence? If I don’t pass her, will she learn anything by repeating the course for a third time? Will she even bother? So many of these questions are, at their core, about me not her.

I left the conversation uneasy and undecided. I checked the curriculum document: in Ontario, credits are awarded when a student demonstrates the knowledge and skills mandated by the curriculum. Awarded. Mandated. So many words of coercion. In my heart, I knew that this child’s skills were at least as strong as many of her classmates’, sometimes stronger. The biggest difference was her lack of compliance. True, in class she only rarely talked about books or shared her writing, and true, she had only once done the classwork I assigned, but… Then, a niggle: no, the biggest difference was that she wouldn’t do the work. And then my brain circled back: isn’t that just compliance?

I sat with my discomfort. I thought a lot about Inuit ways of knowing, about systemic and institutional racism, about what it means to honour someone for who they are.

Finally on Friday, one week before the end of school and four school days before marks were due, I called her and left a message. On Monday morning, she called me back. We chatted about her latest read – a Riordan I’m not familiar with – and why she had decided to go back to the drawing board for her novel. Then I launched into it: “I needed to talk to you because I’ve been sitting with the question of how to figure out your mark for a while now. I feel like there’s a gap between what I know with my soul and what I have evidence for – school evidence. In my heart, I know that you can do all the English things – reading and writing, speaking and listening – more than well enough to pass this class. But my teacher brain knows that you haven’t really done any school work.” She laughed ruefully. “I’ve observed you enough to know that you can do this work. I want you to get this credit, but you need to believe that you have passed, that you are good enough, that this is what you have earned, not what you have been given. This can’t be a pity pass because I don’t pity you. This has to be about what you can do, not what you haven’t done.” I paused.

Silence.

Chewing.

“Yeah,” she said, “I can see that. Like, I didn’t turn much in, but you know I like to read and write. Like you trust that I can do the work when I’m ready.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “I trust that you can do it. And you will have to do it because I won’t be your teacher next year. You’ll have to show someone else what you can do.”

We talked a little more about what mark she had earned and where she saw herself in terms of the curriculum and her own skills. We talked about the summer and how much she longs to see her friends, though her parents won’t let her right now, even with a mask.

After we hung up, I sat in the sun on my porch for a few minutes. I felt lighter – I’d made the decision – but I was still conflicted. Was my choice racist? I definitely allowed this child to pass with scanty evidence; I did not hold her to the highest standards. Perhaps I had sold her short. Anti-racist? I definitely thought about this child as a person harmed by a system designed to oppress Inuit and Indigenous people. I think I did the right thing, but I don’t know. I just don’t know.

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Who’s anti-racist?

I’d been sitting at my “desk” – aka a table that we quickly repurposed into a desk for the now months-long COVID19 work-from-home set-up – for way too long. It’s not quite high enough to be a work space, and when I really settle in, I end up aching more or less everywhere. A quick stretch didn’t do nearly enough to help, so I decided to go for a long walk. After all, those student projects weren’t going anywhere, the day was beautiful, and I had an errand to run: I was picking up the book Unsettling Canada from a local independent bookstore. Colinda Clyne is leading a book group about it on her podcast “Anti-Racist Educator Reads” (listen live Wednesdays at 7:30pm ET), and I was eager to get reading.

I tucked my headphones into my ears and queued up my podcasts. I was finishing up Episode 147,  “Why White Students Need Multicultural and Social Justice Education” where Jennifer Gonzalez interviews Dr. Sheldon Eakins Cult of Pedagogy podcast. I love her podcast in general, and this episode had already given me some food for thought. When this one finished, I already had Brene Brown’s interview with Austin Channing Brown from her podcast Unlocking Us

The day was warm and sunny, and I relished taking a break when I needed one rather than living by the dictates of the school bell. I meandered out of my (rich, largely white) neighbourhood and into the next (richer and possibly whiter), pausing to take pictures of flowers and giving friendly nods to many people. I noticed some Black Lives Matter signs stuck to various poles and a few chalked sidewalks reading, End White Silence and other slogans. “Wow!” I thought,  impressed to see these in this neighbourhood. That’s great! If someone had stopped me on the street, shoved a microphone in my face and said, “Tell us, how are you feeling right now?” I probably would have said “content.”

I probably would not have said “self-congratulatory” or “complacent” but… the virtue signaling is everywhere: “local independent bookstore,” the book title, the podcast, the book title, the other podcast, and the other one. No one reading this doesn’t know exactly what kind of white woman I am.

As I neared the bookstore, I noticed a gray-haired white woman putting a sign up on a telephone pole. Her body was pressed against the pole, as she held a sign in one hand and tried to unfurl the wrapping tape with the other. It wasn’t working. She moved her hand and I saw the words: Black Lives Matter. Pleased to be part of this, I crossed the street and offered to help. “Thanks,” she muttered, not looking at me, “It’s hard to get this tape to stick to the wood.”

At that moment, I recognized her. We had been friendly when our children were babies, spent some time together in a moms’ group and shared a few playdates. When I went back to work, she stayed home and eventually we lost touch. Actually, that’s not quite truthful. As I followed her on social media, I was overwhelmed by her activism on *everything.* I found her exhausting, even shrill, and I suspect she found me ridiculously naive. Her partner wrote angry opinion pieces in the local paper; she wrote screeds on Facebook. I finally unfollowed her when I realized that just seeing her name was making me anxious. She seemed angry at every injustice, and I couldn’t handle it.

She didn’t look at me as I held the paper – she was still fighting with the tape and had colored chalk under her arm – and I quickly turned my face away: I didn’t want her to recognize me. I couldn’t bear the thought of the conversation we might have. She got the tape to stick, I made some comment like “Good luck”  and walked away. Suddenly the Black Lives Matter signs all over the neighbourhood didn’t look so appealing. I found myself thinking, “It’s not even her neighbourhood,” though the truth is that I no longer know where she lives. 

I realized how sweaty I was. It was actually quite hot and the sun was really bright. Why did I decide to go out at midday? I wondered. I noticed more chalked sidewalks, more signs. My stomach clenched. I am NOT like her, I thought. I do not want to be like her. I kept walking towards the store as my mind churned.

What does it mean to be anti-racist? I am reading and listening and talking. I’ve read a lot already but I feel like my reading list gets longer daily. I am learning and learning and learning, but what am I doing? Should I, too, be putting up signs and chalking up sidewalks? Should I be shouting this from the rooftops? Should I be angry? 

One of my black students recently told me that her mom keeps her home when she’s really angry so that she doesn’t get into trouble. Angry black women get in trouble, get arrested, get mocked, get turned into memes. An angry black woman putting up Black Lives Matter signs in that neighbourhood, well… I actually don’t know what would happen because I can’t even imagine it. Maybe I should be using my white privilege to be more vocal, to put up signs and scream about this issue. Maybe when my old acquaintance wrote End White Silence she meant me. In fact, she probably did.

But that doesn’t feel right either. If I am to accuse myself of anything, I suspect that I am far more apt to be complaisant than complacent. I know I need to raise my voice, to be less fearful of others’ displeasure, but surely that doesn’t undo my efforts toward anti-racism. My thoughts are going in circles, and I find myself wanting to enumerate the “things I’m doing” as if to prove my anti-racism to… to whom? To myself? To her? No. That won’t do. My mind, relieved, jumps to vilify her: she *is* shrill; she *is*… what? Wrong? My thoughts circle again.

Then Ibram X. Kendi’s voice fills my ears – I had realized I wasn’t concentrating and switched to a podcast episode I’d already heard: “the heartbeat of anti-racism is confession, is admission, is acknowledgment, is the willingness to be vulnerable.” This. This I can do. This is the heart of what I am trying to do with my students, how I try to de-center myself, to listen, to believe them. And when my students tell me about the racism they experience… ah, there’s my anger. I feel it now. The urgency I feel comes from their lives, their truths.

I am still walking. I can make myself vulnerable in my relationships with my colleagues, my friends and others, too. I can admit my mistakes and learn from them. I can be relentless. I can share what I learn, act on my beliefs. I can keep learning. My paradigm has shifted, and I can share that shift. There is space enough in anti-racism for her way and mine – there has to be – because in the end, we all need to be anti-racist.

Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org for the space they create for so many voices.

I heard a Fly buzz

Emily Dickinson’s poem “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died -” is one of the mentor texts in Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell’s anthology Sleeping on the Wing. I love the anthology and often use it to pique my students’ interest in reading and writing poetry. It’s a new way of looking at poetry for many students. The poems are interesting, the prompts intriguing; I often write from them myself as I teach.

Normally, I would pause here to quote the prompt that I’m thinking of, but today I can’t because my book is in the school, and the school is closed because of the Covid19 pandemic. I’m at home, teaching without most of my books. We’re making do.

Dickinson’s poem begins like this:

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –


And the prompt says something like “write a poem where you intentionally set a very big thing next to a very small thing” and it says something like “consider capitalizing some words and using short phrases and dashes.”

I can’t stop thinking about this – the giant thing: death – and the small, everyday thing: the fly. I can’t stop thinking about how often even the most important moments get all wrapped up with the mundane, even the annoying. I feel this intensely as I continue to live a pandemic-normal existence in Canada, watching from a distance as my country, my home, seems to be ripping itself apart. To use another literary reference, I am, like Nick in The Great Gatsby (one of the texts my students have chosen to read) “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

I am repelled by the way President Trump is behaving, how he is inciting increased violence and calling for violence against Americans. I should no longer be shocked by his abhorrent behaviour, but I am. I am repelled by the actions of some police officers, by extremists who take advantage of protests to foment increased discord.

I am even more repelled by the history that has brought us to this moment – though my revulsion itself is a privilege because it implies that I see this racism, this horrible foundation, as something outside myself. I can be repelled because I do not experience racism against me. I can look at this from the outside in not only because I’m in Canada, but also because I am white.

I *am* white and I am in Canada, so despite the pit in my stomach, I am dealing with every day things: the cats want to their food, the children have school work, the bills must be paid. The persistent buzz of every day of life interposes between me and this larger moment. And I can’t ignore it. Thus it is, with rueful gratitude to Dickinson, who understood that the sublime and the mundane are never entirely separate, I offer this:

I mark Essays – as they Protest
As their Voices plead for Air –
Their Silence – it surrounds me –
As I comb – my youngest’s hair

Police have turned on protesters –
Though Some strive to protect –
We all breathe in the tear gas
Of a President – unchecked

Our racism goes back – Centuries
Though now – the White man cries –
“Not me! I’m anti-racist!”
Without Action – it’s a lie.

And here I sit – in Canada –
My White skin – lets me choose –
How much I want to be involved
I sit – and watch the News.

Here’s Dickinson’s whole poem:

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

Emily Dickinson

A little extra understanding

The email caught me by surprise. Maybe if I’d woken up earlier, or if I hadn’t already had to help one of my kids with math – before breakfast! – or even if I’d felt more on top of things, maybe then I would have been more prepared, but I wasn’t. Maybe if I wasn’t cooking breakfast and checking work email, navigating my children’s schooling, my partner’s morning meeting for work, and my own job – maybe if I’d been in the school building, I would have remembered to check the timestamp before reading, remembered my personal rule of thumb that middle-of-the-night messages tend to be more emotional and less filtered and are therefore to be taken with a grain of salt. But I was at home, managing all the crazy, and the email was unexpected.

I know the student who wrote, know that the parents are often more worried than the student, know that the student is doing fine – even well! – during this time of remote learning. I can imagine the student’s frustration at being stuck at home with parents and the parents’ frustration at being stuck at home with children. I could hear all of this in the words on the screen. I could guess that the parents, not the student, had laid out the phrases that I was reading.

But it still hurt to read a even a short diatribe about how I’m not doing my job properly. Welcome to Monday morning, the beginning of week 10 of emergency online instruction.

SIGH

To be honest, I’m behind on basically everything, constantly scrambling just to stay near the crest of the growing wave of “things to do.” I’m behind on marking, on providing feedback, on creating new assignments for this new reality, on playing the video game I assigned as text. (Walden, A Game – it. is. awesome. for right now. The grade 12s who chose it are really enthusiastic about it.) I’m behind on navigating the apps and programs I suddenly need to do my job. (Look, I *know* that Screencastify is easy, but I haven’t had time to use it yet.) I’m so far behind on email that sometimes I just scratch the old ones off the list because they’re no longer relevant. At home, I’m behind on blogging, on commenting, on laundry – actually, we *just* caught up on laundry.

Still, I know that I’m doing the best that I can, and that my best is good. I’ve read a BUNCH about online learning and teaching; I’ve been focussing on building and maintaining relationships with students where I can, calling “missing” kids at least once a week; I’ve started a weekly lunch hangout with the English Department, just to chat. I’ve been attending webinars on best practices for online teaching and anti-racist education. I’ve even created a website for Grade 12, just to have a central space for information. I’m really proud of it – even if, to be honest, the students are working in three interest-based streams, and I’m having trouble keeping all the streams up-to-date. Sigh. I know that I’m focusing hard on creating and co-creating work that the students find both interesting and important. And I’m letting my home life fill me up (well, except when I’m negotiating the endless fights about screen time), remembering the importance of time away from work

So after I read the email, I stepped away from the screen. I went for a walk, talked to my children, tried to work. I allowed myself to imagine some *perfect* responses that were cathartic if not especially kind; sadly, neither sarcasm nor lecture are effective responses if learning is the goal. I wrote a nice email to one of my children’s teachers. (They have so many from me at this point that they probably don’t read them anymore.) In the afternoon, when I recognized that the negative words were still a heavy pit in my stomach, I called a colleague. I read her the email, and we laughed and talked. We chatted about this & that, swinging from work to everything else and back again. I was able to focus on some of the more enthusiastic responses I’ve received from students. I loosened up, then used my newly-restored good mood to write a supportive response to the student.

After all, change is overwhelming, and we each deserve a little extra understanding right now. Maybe my response will help my student remember that; it definitely helped me.

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The Way I Felt

Sometime earlier this year, Glenda Funke (over at Evolving English Teacher) told me about Ethical ELA‘s monthly Open Write. As I recall, she shared this after I admitted to feeling very nervous about poetry – mostly about writing it (I pretty much hate every poem I write) and sometimes about teaching it. May’s 5-day open write started on Monday, and I’ve been tentatively following and occasionally joining. Yesterday’s prompt was called “The Way I Felt” and was based on a poem from Jason Reynolds’ novel-in-verse Long Way Down. I knew right away what I would write about – my husband and I had just come in from a glorious bike ride – but then I didn’t write at all. Poetry does that to me sometimes. Well, poetry and parenting.

Then today, Doug Ford, the Premier of Ontario, announced that we will not be returning to school before the end of the school year. The announcement wasn’t shocking, but it still sucked the air out of the room when I heard it. I didn’t have lots of time to contemplate what he’d said because I had too much school to work on, but the emotions swirled around me for the rest of the day. And then, yesterday’s prompt came to me, and I wrote.  (And yes, I hate the poem I wrote- I pretty much always do. But I won’t get better if I don’t write and get feedback, and writing it made me pin down a few things – and that’s what writing does.)

The Way I Felt

when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was relieved.

No more waiting
for people who don’t know me
to make a decision about
my life
my family’s life
my students’ lives
my community’s lives.

No more hoping for teaching and learning
that feels familiar
that resembles what we had started
that would be better if we were together.

No need to
send my own children to a place I don’t think is safe
make decisions about my own safety
wonder what will come next.

I sat at my work space in the kitchen
listening to the Premier speak
and my shoulders settled
my eyes fluttered closed
my breath finally filled my lungs
with a calm I had been missing.

The way I felt
when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was heartbroken.

Tears welled up behind my closed eyelids
I drew my breath quickly through my nose
and I pressed my lips together.

My children will not run on the playground at recess
or surreptitiously swap snacks with classmates
or stand in front of their peers to present.
My son will not say goodbye to the school he’s attended
since he was four.

I will not see my students again.

We will not laugh or read or write or share
together in a space that is ours.

I will not see some students again at all
they are not in my class this semester
they will not join an online chat
they will graduate and move on.

Their unknown futures will be far more unknowable than we expected,
and I will not get to wish them well on their journey.

The way I felt
when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was desperate

to remind them – my students, my children, your students, your children –
that though this is different
so different
from what we expected
they can still learn
and grow
and become.
The world is still full of possibility.

The way I felt
when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was.

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Teeter Totter

Last night I was rubbing one child’s back while I read The Mysterious Benedict Society aloud to both kids. His muscles were tighter than I expected in a 9-year-old, and my thumb jittered off one particularly knotty spot and settled with a shudder into a softer space. “Sorry,” I interrupted my reading, “that must have felt weird.”

He considered. “I kind of liked it. Can you do it again?”

I could not recreate the exact sensation for him, so I went back to reading and continued to rub his back.

After that moment, though, I wasn’t concentrating on the read-aloud as much as I should have been. Instead, I found myself reliving summer moments on the teeter totter in my neighbor’s backyard. We were far too old for teeter totters: I didn’t even move to South Carolina until the summer before 5th grade, and I’m fairly certain the teeter totter didn’t arrive until sometime after that summer. What sort of self-respecting 6th grader plays on a teeter totter? And why on earth did the neighbors have one in their backyard when the oldest of their three children was also at least 11? I can no longer answer these questions, but I know for sure that for at least part of one sticky hot Southern summer, the neighborhood kids ate watermelon and rode on a teeter totter in the Pinckney’s back yard.

I really was far too old for this and, as the oldest in the group, too big, too heavy, too cool. And yet, I couldn’t resist. Rion was big enough to balance against me – or we could put together some combination of the littler kids with the bigger ones to balance things out. Up and down we rode, day after day, laughing, dripping watermelon juice and gleefully spitting out the seeds.

If I close my eyes, I can still remember being the one down on the ground, looking at Rion on the other end of the board, trapped in the air… waiting… waiting… and then – now! – I push off hard and whoosh up to the top where I stop with a hard bounce against the board. Now I am suspended, looking down at Rion, knowing she will push soon…but when? waiting… waiting… and then, whoosh back to the ground where the seat hits with a hard juddering thump. Sometimes we hold each other suspended for breathless seconds between each motion; sometimes we find a rhythm and go up and down up and down with unthinking regularity. One way or another, the fun of it is in the motion, the unpredictability, the sense that where we are is not where we will be, and that we will have to cooperate to keep it going.

Sometimes, in a tiff, one child would hold another high high high in the sky and then, all anger and meanness, hop off the bottom altogether so that the other person would come down fast with a jolting, horrible whomp. Fights ensued. Teeter totter might be soothing in its regularity or wonderfully unpredictable, but abandoning someone to fall on their own was the unforgivable end of the game.

“That HURT!” we raged, eyes nearly streaming with tears because it did, in fact hurt, or it could have hurt or it might hurt next time, or maybe just because the game was over for at least a few minutes and everyone had to content themselves with the dullness of predictable gravity.

My memories were interrupted when the chapter I was reading ended; it was time for bed. Up and down, up and down. We had had a good day, I knew, though some parts were noticeably less good. This whole time has been like that, really.  Up and down: now I can make a list of the good bits – waking later in the mornings, snuggling longer with my children, working out most days – and the bad ones – missing my friends, not seeing my students regularly, feeling like a failure for some part of most days. I give my son’s back one more rub, wondering if I can rediscover the teeter totter, remember the joy in  the waiting, the whoosh and the whomp that are all part of the ride. Use my memories to make my present more bearable. Maybe. Maybe. But not tonight. Tonight it’s time for sleep. I shoo the boys off the bed and head towards their rooms to tuck them in and sing some songs.

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Relax

Kindergarten naptime followed a routine so clear that I can remember it more than 40 years later. First, all of the children went to the box and got out one of the colorful sleeping mats. Then, we put them in a circle on the taped lines. Something calming and comforting came next – did Mrs. Kay read to us? sing? I can’t quite remember, probably because I was getting sleepy. What I remember very clearly, however, is the final step: relaxation check.

We lay very still on our mats and relaxed. Mrs. Kay, whom I adored, walked quietly around the circle, gently picking up the hand of one kindergartner after another. If we were relaxed, our arm would fall easily back to the ground. By the time she was finished, most of us were asleep.

Except for me. Oh, I was plenty tired – I’d started kindergarten “early” and was the youngest in the class, so I needed my rest – but the relaxation check drove me to distraction. I simply could not remember if I was supposed to keep my arm up or let it fall down when Mrs. Kay lifted it. I would settle onto the mat, and my senses would go on high alert. I listened for my beloved teacher’s soft step and strained to hear if the other children were letting their arms drop or keeping them up. As Mrs. Kay approached, my body tensed. I held my breath. Would I get it right? Up or down? Up or down?

I must have figured this out over time. I know I napped because I remember waking up. It’s possible, even likely, that these anxious moments only occurred for a week or two near the beginning of the year, but emotion makes memory and I remember the desperation of wanting to relax in the right way more than I remember relaxing.

This memory surfaced as I read aloud to the kids tonight and my older son postured and played and then stuck his arm straight up in the air. “Settle your body,” I said and he giggled, then relaxed into the story.

After the kids were in bed, I immediately started thinking about just a few more things that I needed to get done. “Settle,” I told myself sternly, “relax.” But somehow I’m forever back in kindergarten, wanting to please, wanting to sleep, trying to remember whether my arm should be up or down. Up or down? Up or down?

If only Mrs. Kay were here to shake my arm gently, lean down to me and whisper in my ear, “It’s ok, Mandy. Let go. You can sleep now. ”

 

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Dutch Baby

My younger son trudges sleepily into the kitchen, still snuggled in a brown minky blanket. “‘Morning, Mama,” he says, as he shuffles over to give me a hug. Up close, he contemplates me for a moment, then apparently decides to go for it, “Can you make us a Dutch baby this morning?”

It’s Tuesday, but COVID19 and closed schools mean there’s no particular rush to get out the door, so it’s easy for me to say yes, even though I made this yesterday. I stretch away from the kitchen island where I was trying to sneak in a little work before the kids woke. Then, I begin a series of actions so familiar that I do them without thinking.

I wash my hands and turn to the oven: preheat to 425. Open the drawer by the stove and pull out the middle-sized bowl. Scoop half a cup of flour – no need to be too precise – and use the same measure for half a cup of milk. Find a fork. Mix – or not. Crack in four eggs and mix again.

Shoot! I forgot – again – to put the pan in the oven. Ah well, there’s still time. My son picks his head up from the counter as he sees me rummaging for a pan. “Can you use the small one?” I produce our smaller cast iron skillet, “Sure.” Lately, he’s liked a denser pancake; for a while we used the bigger skillet to get really airy ones.

Now, butter in the skillet – 1 Tbsp? 2? I don’t know or care: I just eyeball it – and skillet in the oven to preheat while the butter melts.

A few minutes later, I pull the pan out, swirl the melted butter to coat the bottom and sides, and scrape in the eggy mixture. Everything goes into the oven, and I head back to my seat to finish a few final minutes of my own work before the parenting work takes over for the day.

My mind wanders briefly to my high school friend, Julia, whose blog post nearly a decade ago brought this recipe into our house. I regularly think of her while I cook this. It’s funny, I muse, the people who change our lives. So often, I think about the big picture: “Who was your biggest influence? Who is your hero? Which person changed your life?” When I answer, I rarely think of my daily routine, the small things that make up the bulk of my life. But how many times have I made Dutch babies in the last decade? Easily a hundred; probably many more. I bet my boys will grow up to make these for their families. Our lives are better because of Julia. I doubt she even knows. Later today I will make tagine and think of my friend Erin, remember a moment in her mother’s kitchen when she showed me how accessible couscous recipes really are; then, as I add salt, I will think of an ex-boyfriend’s mother who told me once that when she’s cooking soups or stews she usually adds as much salt as she thinks she’ll need and then just a little more. Works like a charm.

My older son straggles into the kitchen, bed-headed and groggy. “Dutch baby? Sweet!” he  plunks himself down in a seat at the table.

The 9-year-old has set up vigil in front of the oven. He loves to watch this simple pancake puff to enormous proportions. Somehow, the flour, milk & egg transform themselves into a glorious airy breakfast concoction in a mere 12 minutes. Soon enough, perfection:

 

Perfection in the form of a puff pancake. What a gift! And who knows? Maybe you will read this post, make a Dutch baby for breakfast someday soon, and find that your life has changed just a little bit, too.

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