Ask

It’s January, so lots of people – or at least lots of teachers – or at least lots of teachers I know – are considering their One Little Word for the year. The idea here is that we choose one word as a focus for the year – kind of like a New Year’s Resolution.

For the past two years, my word has been listen. I’ve been having a hard time letting it go because I’m not convinced I’m very good at it yet. Every time I think I’ve got listening down, I realize that my brain is talking over other people again and I have to try again. Also, listening seems wildly important to teaching (and, of course, to life). Pretty much every step I’ve taken in teaching has come from listening. I like listen. It’s a good little word. I considered making the whole thing moot by “not choosing” a word and secretly holding on to listen. We won’t discuss the fact that pretty much no one besides me knows or cares about my word and I can’t exactly hide my perfidy from myself. Sigh.

Then, over at The Librarian’s Journey, Beth Lyons suggested we could try one word x 12 – a word a month for a year. Clearly I was addled by the thought of converting my entire class plans to online teaching because I thought this was the perfect solution. Had I paused (hmmm… there’s a word) I would have realized that this means having to choose a focus word TWELVE times. I did not pause. I told Beth & a few others I was in. Impulsive. There’s another word. Still, I like the idea of setting an intention each month. Over the course of a year, I sometimes get distracted – which may be why I still need to work on listening.

Beth took things down a notch by admitting that last year she often found herself choosing her little word somewhere in the middle of the month. This practice is both calming and intriguing: it allows me to choose a word that is aspirational – I’d like to focus on this for a while – and definitional – this is what this month is shaping up to be. It also recognizes that I am both a procrastinator (I’m writing this waaaay too late at night) and an observer. I decided to give myself a few days to consider what word might fit for January.

Last night I was up late trying to prepare myself for a week of teaching from home while both of my children have online classes and my partner works from home. I was feeling frantic and a little hopeless. I know that one way to quell this emotion is gratitude so, on the spur of the moment, I decided to write to several of the authors of the books my students are reading. Many of them might be surprised to find out that their novel is being studied in a high school book club and, for the most part, my students are loving their choices. I wanted to tell the authors that their work was making this moment a little more bearable. I wanted them to know that their work matters.

So I wrote. I put in a little effort, aiming for a tone that was light but sincere and adding some specific details for each author. I wrote about moving to online instruction – how hard it is, how my students are a little down and, almost as an afterthought, really as part of my attempt to find some upsides to where we are, I invited each author to come to our class for a few minutes if they wanted. I may have said “pop in.” I even decided to throw caution to the wind and write to some of the bigger names – doesn’t everyone benefit from a compliment? My students really do like their books. And then, one by one, I hit send. I felt a little silly afterwards, but whatever; it was done.

Y’all – one of the most well-known award-winning authors wrote back 20 minutes later and said, basically, “Thanks for the great email. I don’t usually do this, but I’d be happy to stop in.” There are some caveats – this is just for my class & will be entirely student-led – and I’m not going to share who it is because I think this kind of a private little thing, but the author is going to join our Google Meet next week – for an hour! I’m nearly giddy with excitement, as are the students who have read the novel. The rest of them are preparing by reading articles and essays. I honestly think we’re going to have a great time.

This morning, I realized that I’d found January’s word: ask. I like it. When I was growing up, my mother often said “it can’t hurt to ask” and “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” but I can’t say that I always followed her advice. So this will remind me to ask for what I want rather than assuming that I already know the answer. In the virtual classroom, I know that intentionally asking the students how things are going, what they need, what they are learning is part of what makes online learning work, so ask is a good word there. And, I have to admit, ask is pretty closely related to listen – after all, asking ideally implies that you will listen to the response – so I get to ease myself into my new little word.

I can’t wait to see how ask will show up this month.

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Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life blog challenge every Tuesday.

Pivot

Educators in Ontario are starting 2021 by pivoting. Again. 2020 saw us pivot from what we quaintly referred to as “school” to “emergency remote learning” from April to the end of June. Then, in my school board, high school teachers started September in “quadmesters” organized into what is possibly the weirdest teaching I can imagine (and one which I still cannot describe succinctly): we teach one course for approximately four hours a day every other week. During that week, half of the class is in person one day and the other half is at home; the next day, they switch. Teaching is hybrid because the at-home cohort requires “some” synchronous connection with the in-class cohort during the day. Once both cohorts are home and have had a lunch break, they are supposed to do asynchronous learning for another hour. I’m pretty sure we used to call that homework, but whatever. The next week, we switch to a different course. Apparently, this is a mere pivot from our previous practice.

Now, as 2021 starts, we are “pivoting” again because Ontario is back in lockdown – or at least partial lockdown. First, we’re teaching fully online for three weeks. Because that doesn’t feel quite challenging enough, we are going to teach two classes a day for 112 minutes each (the two classes which we previously taught on alternating weeks for 225 minutes). The instruction must be synchronous for some amount of time that I can no longer remember, and there will still be an asynchronous component at the end of the day for those whose heads aren’t already spinning.

Also, while no one knows exactly what will happen, we’ll probably pivot back (re-pivot? un-pivot?) for the last week of January when we may or may not return to the original 2020 quadmester plan, except that this would give one course a full week of instruction and the other course none – so I may or may not be seeing the students who may or may not need something to learn. I mean, it’s not a problem because when we get there, we’ll just pivot.

But the current pivot means that all I need to do during winter break is cut my pre-planned two weeks of hybrid daily instruction plans in half, spread them over three weeks and – maybe? – two days, download and practice using a few apps (hello, colleagues who have time to practice with me) so that fully virtual learning can go smoothly, convert any planned in-person instruction to a different delivery mode, and get ready to handle any residual upset the students might be experiencing from the last time this happened – when we told them we were extending March Break & then separated them from all their friends & didn’t allow them back in the school for 5 months.

You know, pivot.

As 2020 ends and people suggest various phrases that define the year – “You’re on mute” is a fave – I vote for “pivot.” Oh, how I have come to loathe that word. To me, it implies an easy twist to a new position. Just turn a little and keep doing what you were doing. No biggie. No need to reconsider your pedagogy to take into consideration the trauma adolescents might be experiencing as the world around them goes haywire. No need to think about how that affects their ability to learn. No need to recognize that in-person, hybrid, and online education are, in many ways, entirely different beasts. No need to examine which educational practices are foundational and which are, perhaps, merely habitual. Just pivot.

So I looked it up. Because I’m a word nerd like that. And, while I regularly tell my students NOT to start essays with definitions (Dear Heaven, but they don’t need another way to avoid saying actual things), I’m going to share two of the definitions I found at dictionary.com.

Pivot
– to modify (a policy, opinion, product, etc.) while retaining some continuity with its previous version
– Basketball. to keep one foot in place while holding the ball and moving the other foot one step in any direction.

Suddenly I am back in high school, playing basketball with my athletic younger sister at the top of our driveway. She is on the Varsity basketball team. I am terrible at basketball, and my inexpert play is not helping her improve her game. Frustrated by my inability to block effectively, she sighs, “Just… set a pick,” and she places me between her and the basket. “Spread your feet, bend your knees a little, and stand still.”

I do, and she dribbles around me again and again, her brown hair flying as she finds different ways to create space for her shots. Sometimes – often – she pivots, confusing the imaginary defense before she spins around me and shoots.

Pivot, huh? Keep one foot in place and move the other foot in any direction. Retain some continuity. It sounds easy when the government or our school board assures people that we will simply pivot to online teaching, but I know better. Pivoting isn’t an effortless turn, a round peg gliding smoothly in a round hole. I think of my sister, relentlessly seeking improvement, earning her starting position one afternoon at a time, bouncing and bouncing, turning and turning, intentionally putting obstacles between herself and the basket. She was working.

Thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting this weekly space where teachers can hone their writing skills – and have fun doing it!

Still, even if we had to work at it, we had fun on those afternoons, and we got better – or she did, anyway. I didn’t, but I was mostly just standing still. It wasn’t easy, but, well… I think I need to go try out a couple of new apps. I’ll try to remember to keep one foot in place, but I’m constantly stepping with the other because on Monday, we pivot.

Writing in front of them

When I teach memoir, I like to model my process for my students. For me – and often for them – one of the trickiest part of writing a personal narrative is coming up with the right story, so we often begin with a list of prompts from the New York Times Learning Network . The students and I all respond to these as quickly as we can, skipping anything that doesn’t call up a memory. My students do this in their notebooks; I do it on the board (or screen):

A time I took a risk:
A time I learned something about myself:
A memory from childhood I think about often:
Something that happened to me that still makes me laugh:
Something very few people know about me:
Something I regret:
A time when I felt rejected:
Something I am really proud of:
Something that changed the way I think or look at the world:
How I am different from most people I know:
Some of my fears:
A time I felt truly satisfied:
A time I failed at something:
An object I own that tells a lot about me:

Because I want to model the process from the beginning, I like to come in without preconceived ideas for my list. I’ve been teaching for long enough that I can typically self-censor my stories on a dime – and I tell my students that I’m doing this because I assume they may also have things they wish to keep private. Still, sometimes I surprise myself. Like Wednesday, when, without warning, I wrote “not kissing Torin” next to “something I regret.”

I almost erased it, but some of the students were watching and I didn’t want to draw attention to it. I looked at it again, added the world “don’t” in front of “regret” and brainstormed a few more ideas. No teacher in the universe will be surprised to learn that, when I asked which prompt I should flesh into an essay, the students chose the one about kissing.

So there I was, writing in front of my students about not kissing someone in a bar in Prague almost 30 years ago – which, I suppose, is slightly better than writing about kissing someone in a bar in Prague almost 30 years ago.

I started off a little embarrassed, and I rapidly became very embarrassed. Should I tell them that my friends and I went to an apartment with a man who was standing on the quai as we pulled into the station? Our guidebook said that was a great way to get a deal. Do I tell them about the Russian champagne? Maybe leave that out. I felt obligated to say that my friends were also at the pub that night, dancing and… maybe I shouldn’t mention that Torin was Swedish & very handsome? Dear Heaven *how* did I end up writing about this in front of my students? Why didn’t they choose the nice necklace story from Ireland? or even the time I wrongly accused a student of cheating?

Flustered, I stopped. I was red enough that I probably didn’t need to acknowledge my awkward situation, but I did. “This is not what I expected to be writing about. I’m feeling a little uncomfortable.” I hesitated, “I guess the real question is: why, nearly 30 years later, does this memory stick? What is the point of writing this in an essay?”

That’s when the real work began. “It was my junior year abroad,” I told them. They nodded – as if they know! – and I fumbled forward, “I had a boyfriend in France.” Some eyebrows raised; I was not making this any less awkward and awful. “Maybe I remember this moment because I consciously decided to be loyal?” I wrote that on the board. The 17-year-olds looked unconvinced. They weren’t wrong. “I mean, no one would have known,” I added lamely. No response from my audience. Remind me again why I’m doing this in public?

I stumbled along, writing and thinking aloud, searching for the reason that this particular night stands out for me. My students watched, interested. Finally I hit upon something that felt true, “It was like summer camp inside of summer camp – Spring Break during my junior year abroad – and if I had done this, if I had kissed him, no one would have known or cared – except me. I would have known, and I would have cared. I think maybe that was a moment where I realized how much we are responsible for our own lives, our own values.” I started to scribble – arrows here & there, numbers. This is how I might organize this essay; this is how the details might fall into place.

Moments later my students were hard at work. Despite the fact that school right now is less than ideal, I saw them thinking, writing, sharing with each other. Relieved, my face slowly settling back to its normal colour, I sat down at my computer and considered whether or not this essay was worth actually figuring out. Maybe later, I decided, my embarrassment still too fresh to allow for real focus.

And maybe I’m imagining things, but the essays that particular cohort handed in at the end of the week seemed especially honest. Several of them pulled at my heart. None of them were about kissing or not kissing strangers in bars. Thank heaven.

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

Is this graded?

“So, um, Miss? I’m just having a little trouble understanding what we’re supposed to do. Is this graded?”

My jaw muscles tense, and I immediately loosen my posture in an attempt to disguise my frustration. I’m about to launch into my “it’s all graded” monologue, when I take a breath. Pause, I tell myself, Listen. We’re only on Day 3 of 22. We barely know each other. 

I’m standing in front of some students; others are watching me online. What are they really asking? They are confused. They want to do well. They want to manage their time and their workload. This question – this common, annoying, awful question – is not a sign that things aren’t going well. It’s just a question. It’s communication.

I launch into my monologue anyway. After all these years, the response track in my mind appears to be stuck in a rut. I try not to go on.

Afterwards, when the kids at home have signed off and the ones at school have gone home, I close my laptop and allow myself to slump in my chair. “Is this graded?”

I can’t even remember all of their names. I probably won’t recognize them on the street next year if – when – we are done with masks. Semesters have become quadmesters, and every day of class feels fleeting and precious. Though we are supposed to deliver only the basics of the curriculum, there is still so much I want for these students. 

I want them to find joy in reading and writing, to remember what it feels like to create, to know that they can affect the world around them, that they *must* affect the world around them. I want them to take risks and to speak loudly. I want them to ask questions and reject the answers. I want them to be curious and to love learning. I want them to know that they are important. I have 18 days left.

Is this graded? Yes. No. I don’t know how to answer. It’s not graded, but it still counts. It’s all graded, but the grades don’t matter. They really don’t. 

I whisper into the classroom, “What matters is you” and I hope that the echoes of that answer will linger until the students return tomorrow.

Back to class

The night before, I chose my clothes, portioned out my lunch and packed my bags. As I left the house, I double checked everything. I headed out early, earlier than almost any other day this school year. My children, knowing how I felt, wished me good luck as I left.

At school, I pulled books out of the book room and speakers out of drawers; everything went into the classroom. I gathered blackout poems and other decorations from last semester’s classroom and brought them into this quadmester’s room. I washed the blackboard and found my coloured chalk. I waited. Nervous? Excited? Yes.

The bell. And then the students. Slowly, masked and distanced, they arrived. Well, half of them. The other half were at home – but no matter! After months of teaching from home, after a quadmester of teaching Spec Ed (which has its own pleasures, but which is very different from classroom teaching), I was in a room with students, and we were about to start an English class.

We wrote. We read a poem. We talked about it and about ourselves. And, like every single year, like every single class, they blew me away with what they saw, what they said, who they are. Sure, I made mistakes – I talked too much (such a weakness), some students couldn’t find the meet link, my written instructions were too long – and for sure the hybrid portion of the day felt odd. “Can you hear me?” I asked the screen of avatars. The screen said yes.

I know it’s a pandemic & I know this will be exhausting & I know things will probably go sideways (and backwards & upside down) But for now, I’m back in the classroom – the chaotically hybrid pandemic classroom, but the classroom nevertheless – and I am happy.

Studying

My older child is walking around and around the kitchen island, muttering under his breath in French. I am sitting at the island, trying to write. Without missing a stride, he switches to English, “I think I remember better when I walk while I say it out loud.” Then he’s right back to “carnivore: qui se nourrit de chair…”

He has a test tomorrow. If you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s been studying for DAYS. If you ask me, he’s put in a few good sets of maybe ten minutes here and there. If you ask him, there is SO MUCH to remember that it is nearly IMPOSSIBLE. If you ask me, he would find it a lot easier to learn about ecosystems if he made some attempt to see them as, well, systems rather than a series of definitions to memorize.

I have pointed out that I know quite a bit about study strategies. I’ve offered some direction based on research in cognitive psychology. (FYI: The Learning Scientists have excellent resources for this.) I’ve talked about how we remember things better in context. I’ve suggested that drawing the cycles might make them more memorable. I’ve even remarked in passing that I am quite literally a Special Education teacher who helps students learn better.

I am, nevertheless, still his mom, and moms of 7th graders don’t know much. He is determined to memorize every last word on every sheet of paper.

At last he agrees that I can quiz him. I’ve explained how our brains need practice retrieving the information, not just putting it in there, and that, at least, he understands. “It’s like smoothing down a path for the ideas to get back out,” I said. I think he liked the metaphor. And when he runs into trouble remembering “Les 5 Besoins Fondamentaux” (the 5 Fundamental Needs), I tell him a little story about the racoon who lives in the tree in our backyard. At the end he says, “yeah, that makes sense. That makes it easier to remember,” then he gives me a sly look before he says, “you’re actually a pretty good teacher.”

I ruffle his hair and smile, “I’m glad it helped.” I don’t tell him that the name of that strategy is “concrete examples.” And I bite my tongue as he goes back to muttering under his breath. “décomposeur: défait des plantes et les animaux morts.”

Maybe next year.

A nighttime visitor

I was reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It isn’t a properly scary book – not like scary movies, anyway – though I suppose I wouldn’t know since I don’t watch scary movies – but it is vaguely terrifying. It’s about being a child and, well, let’s call it “menacing”: no jump scares; lots of tense terror. Whatever it was, I could not put it down because I was too afraid to stop reading.

Sometime after midnight, I gave myself a stern talking to – I was a grown woman with children for heaven’s sake. I gave myself a little leeway since my husband was away on a trip, leaving me alone in our bed, but my visiting in-laws were asleep in the guest room right next to my room. They would expect me to wake up tomorrow at a normal hour, and I needed to get some sleep.

I turned another page. And another. I could not look away from the darkness that wormed its way out of the book and into my mind. Eventually, my eyes drooped closed. I had just enough consciousness left to reach up and turn off the reading light.

As my mind slipped fretfully towards slumber, the pocket door that led into our bedroom scraped open. My eyes flew open and the rest of my body shut down: I could no more move than scream. A tall, pale figure came slowly into view, almost stumbled – just there! – hovered for a moment, then turned and glided away, scraping the door closed as it left.

My lips had gone numb; so had my fingertips. I remained paralyzed in the bed, listening for some indication that what I had just seen was real, afraid that what I’d just seen was real. After seconds, minutes, hours had passed, I raised a trembling hand to the chain above my head and pulled. The light came on, though it now seemed nearly powerless against the dark. My hand groped towards the bedside table. I found the book and opened it again.

I read all the way to the end. I cannot remember when I was finally able to sleep, when the characters were as safe as they were going to be, when pure exhaustion overtook my fear.

I stumbled down to the kitchen the next morning. Everyone was chipper, everything was bright: Grandpa Jim’s beard practically glowed white; Grandma Shirley hummed and sang while she made breakfast. Hollow-eyed, I watched, wondering if I should say anything about last night’s visitation. Would they believe me? Had I imagined it?

As we settled in to eat, Grandpa Jim started to talk, “A funny thing happened to me last night.” My head snapped up; my sense were wildly alert. Had he seen it, too? “I got up to go to the bathroom, got turned around and walked right into your bedroom before I realized it. I’m just glad I didn’t wake you up.” He returned to his granola and I stared at him for a full minute before I burst into hysterical laughter.

Not a ghost; just a grandpa.

I’ve never forgotten the book. You could do worse than to read The Ocean at the End of Lane as Halloween approaches – or anytime, really.

Many thanks to TwoWritingTeachers.org for hosting this weekly gathering of writers.

Tritina: Fall

The more I become a teacher who writes, the more I realize how important writing is to my teaching. When I started this blog, writing expanded my ability to reflect on my teaching practice. When I wrote, I saw details more clearly. What had once been fuzzy, partly-formed thoughts or observations became more firmly fixed. I still held my ideas gently because I wanted room to grow and change, but they became more clear – kind of like dew on a spider web.

Next, writing (and especially publishing) forced me to confront the complexity of what I was asking my students to do. For the first while after I started sharing my writing, I continued to assign mostly analytical essays, but the more I wrote, the more I realized the importance of practice, of revision, and of voice. Obviously I *knew* all of those things, but I hadn’t lived them for a while. The more I wrote, the more I realized how much more space I needed to offer my students in their own writing lives. These days we write all kinds of things and I strive to offer assignments rooted in purpose and audience.

Recently, I’ve been trying my hand at poetry. For me, this feels like the ultimate writing challenge. I mean, sure, I can write a good email and tell a good story, but POETRY? That’s for *real* writers. Like any good English teacher, I have poems I love, but secretly I’ll tell you that I find some completely confounding. And yet… I teach poetry, and I *want* to teach poetry. My blogging buddy Glenda Funke said once (in a comment? a message? I can’t find it, but I remember it) that writing poetry really helped her understand it and teach it. I believed her, but I wasn’t ready to do it. And then… well, I’ve been messing around with it during the pandemic, using poetry to let myself play, let myself write badly, let myself get frustrated and work it out. I start things and abandon them, then come creeping back. I hack away at it, and I have to admit that it’s kind of fun. So, in honour of my students, who regularly share with me work that they hate, that’s half-finished, that’s outside of their comfort zone, who turn in word after word, line after line, paragraph after paragraph , I’m going to write and share poems. (Not every week – don’t get excited.)

Today, inspired (as I often am) by Ethical ELA’s monthly Open Write, I have tried a Tritina.

Fall

Mid-October and still no killing frost.
The tomatoes still strive towards red,
heedless of the Fall.

Around the vine, leaves fall
As the trees, preparing for the inevitable frost
shed yellow, orange, gold, red.

Earlier and earlier every evening the red
sun descends toward the horizon, its fall
portending what is to come: frost.

Nightly, I beg the frost to allow one more shimmer of red before white death falls.

Thank you to https://twowritingteachers.org/ for hosting this weekly blog share

In the closet

When I had my second child, I was teaching at a relatively rural high school. Sure, some of the kids lived in the town, and more lived on large properties, but a fair number lived on farms, too. There were stories of kids coming to school on snowmobiles in the winter or sneaking off to go fishing or hunting when the season opened. I am pretty firmly a city girl, so a lot of this was new to me.

This was also the school where I started working in a program euphemistically called “Student Success.” The students in my room had not, in fact, met with success. The class was small, but every student was there to catch up on at least one and usually two or more subjects which they previously had failed.

I loved every minute of it. The room was full of all kinds of kids who were there for all kinds of reasons. The small number of students meant that I could get to know them and that they could get to know one another. The fact that they had already failed a course meant that any movement forward was a success. We shared a lot, laughed a lot, and celebrated a lot.

For those same reasons, I used myriad strategies to help students stay focused, persist through difficult moments, and generally learn how to learn. One of those strategies involved using the small office/closet/storage space next to our classroom so that a student could have some quiet. This was *never* a punishment, the door was always open, and we didn’t use it often, but sometimes it was just what we needed when someone was looking for focus.

I was particularly grateful for that little space when I returned from parental leave. I was still nursing, so having a private place to pump was fantastic – no more hiding in the corner of the classroom away from the door or hoping no one looked over at me in the staff room. Ah, the luxury of my own small room. It was heaven.

Of course, I still used it with students sometimes, so I carefully packed away the various plastic bits and bobs and zipped everything back into place every time. Or almost every time. Except, apparently, for the time when K went in there to finish up a test in peace. He was a particularly exuberant kid, not known for his ability to sit still or focus for any length of time. He worked on his family farm and regularly regaled us with tales from his daily life. He loved to talk. So I wasn’t at all surprised to see K’s face at the door mere moments after he had left for the quiet room. But I was surprised that he was, momentarily, speechless. His face was red and he was hopping from foot to foot, sputtering.

Alarmed, I jumped up. “K! What is it?”

He stared at me, eyes wide with horror, “You put me in the MILKING ROOM? THE MILKING ROOM! Miss, I CAN’T WORK IN THERE!!”

I nearly fell off of my chair laughing – so did everyone else. K took a while to settle down again. Needless to say, no tests were written for the rest of that class period and that particular room was no longer in use for the rest of the school year.

The milking room. Still makes me laugh.

Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting the Slice of Life every week. And special thanks this week to my teachers knitting group whose storytelling led me to remember this one.

The man in the bushes

I had just turned the corner off of my street when I heard the cries. I was listening to an audiobook, so it took me a moment to get oriented: What, exactly, was I hearing? Where were the cries coming from? I looked around, confused, and only then thought to take out my earbuds. 

I could still hear the cries – they weren’t from my book – but as near as I could tell, I was alone on the street. The cries again, now with yelling. Words like “hospital” and “neck.” My heart raced; I pulled out my phone as I looked around. There! There – in the bushes, well-concealed in the branches and fallen leaves – a man. He lay on the ground, moaning, crying, screaming.

I walked towards him, “Are you ok?” He was obviously not ok. He was dirty and I could smell him even from a distance. He was thrashing and moaning and the words I could make out were words of fear and pain. “Are you ok?” I called again, but I was already dialing 911. “Don’t rob me!” he screamed.

“Police, fire or emergency?” The voice on the other end of the line was all efficiency. I hesitated, stumbled over my words, “Um… I’m not sure. There’s a man. He’s on the ground. He’s in the bushes. He’s not okay. He needs help. He’s screaming and talking about his neck and a hospital.”

The operator took my location, a description, my name. He informed me that “someone” was on their way. He told me I did not have to remain at the scene and that I should not go near the person. 

I assured him that I had no intention of going near the man on the ground. The man in the bushes. The dirty, smelly, hurting, crying person. I looked around – it would be easy to miss this man, hidden as he was; it would be easy to drive by, not see him and keep going – I told the operator that I would stay where I was until someone arrived. “He needs help,” I repeated, and we hung up.

When I was 16, my great-grandmother fell down the stairs and my father called 911. We  waited and waited for the ambulance to arrive at our suburban home. Years later, I called 911 when my sister cut herself badly and then fainted. Again, the interminable wait for the EMT. Now, I waited again, pacing the sidewalk near a stranger. 

The man in the bushes settled down. He moaned occasionally, but he was no longer screaming or crying out. By now I realized that he likely did not have a home and that he probably wasn’t sober. By now I knew that it was simple chance that I had heard him over my story. By now I knew that no one else was going to stop for him. 

When I was pregnant with my first child, I got a call at my work: my brother-in-law was in the hospital. Someone had found him on the sidewalk the night before, his head bloody, his mind confused. It was late winter and he, ever hot-blooded, wasn’t dressed warmly. The person who found him might well have walked by – just another drunk kid who’d partied too much – but they didn’t. It turned out that a new medication had caused him to black out; he couldn’t even remember why he’d left the house. When he fell, he cut his head, but the passerby had no way of knowing that. By morning D’Arcy was coherent, remembered where I worked, remembered that I was pregnant, warned the nurse to start by telling me that he was fine so that I wouldn’t be upset.

Now,I paced the sidewalk, occasionally glancing through the brush, checking that the man was calm-ish. After ten minutes, I stopped pacing and sat down on the curb. I texted my friends to tell them what was happening. “I just feel like no one should be left alone like this.” They offered to come wait with me.

Time dragged by. Ah! There was a police car! But surely I should be looking for an ambulance? The car turned down the street, driving away from me, from us. I guessed that maybe it was in the neighbourhood for something else. Moments later, another police car passed right by me, even as I stood up and waved. I started to get frustrated. A minute later both cars came back around the block and this time I waved them down. Sure enough, they were responding to my call. 

As the two officers got out of their cars, I tried to explain quickly. “He’s over here. He’s calmer now, but he was quite agitated.” I imagine that they looked like the veteran teacher who knows what to expect from a student almost instantaneously, even as she tries to give the child the benefit of the doubt. In my mind, they looked like people with a job to do, people who would be as thorough and compassionate as they could. I realize that they looked the way I expected them to.

My eyes moved between the man lying in the bushes and the two men in front of me. I wondered why the dispatcher had sent police instead of an ambulance. I wondered what I would have done if the man in the bushes were Black or Indigenous. I realized that I would stay. I wondered if I should stay, given that the man was White. I wondered what it would mean to the officers if I stayed to watch, if I pulled out my phone to film. I wondered what had happened that a man was lying in the bushes, moaning and crying, that the response was the police.

I looked directly at one of the men in front of me and said, ‘I’m sure you see this all the time, but he deserves help, too.” He met my eye and nodded. I would like to believe I held his gaze long enough that my plea became a moral imperative. Then I left, though I no longer knew which of my choices had been the right ones. 

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