I’ve got his back

To be honest, no one is exactly sure the last time he had a bath. We’re about to start renovations on our house, so we moved into an apartment on Tuesday (yes, during the last week of the school year). He has not bathed in our new tub, so it’s definitely been at least a week.

He used to shower on Sunday after swim team, but we gave up swim team a few weeks ago because life was too busy, so he didn’t shower on Sunday. I try to work backwards and realize that it is entirely possible that no soap has touched his body in two weeks… or more.

Still, he doesn’t stink and there’s no visible dirt, so that’s something. And tonight he slides happily into Grandma’s deep bathtub, filling it until the water covers his shoulders, glorying in the warmth cascading over his head. He rolls and twists, slippery and happy, creating his own watery universe, filling the bathroom with stories.

Eventually, he calls to me, “Mama! Can you soap my back? It’s so hard to reach!”

When I come into the bathroom, he is on his knees, a sliver of soap in his hand. His chest is white with lather. He is perfectly unselfconscious as he twists to deposit the soap in my hand. I feel his back under my fingers, the hard muscle that is beginning to displace the last layer of baby fat. Already he is taller and slimmer than he was just months ago. This will be one of the last times I get to wash him.

I linger over his tawny body for a minute, then I hand him back the soap. “Nearly done?” I ask.

He nods, slips back into the water and thrashes around like a fish to get clean. “Almost, Mama.”

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Enough

Today is the last day of classes. In 20 minutes the bell will ring, some wild song will play over the PA system, and students will flood the hallway. Right now I’m sitting in the Spec Ed room – nearly empty except for two students who are working right up to the end – and I’m feeling… conflicted.

I’m thinking about the weeks before I left for college – so long ago, now – when my mother and I fought and fought. In the middle of one particularly loud fight, she screamed, “There’s so much more I need to teach you!” and I screamed back, “You’ve had enough time! I’m ready to go already! I know enough!” With the truth suddenly naked in the middle of our argument, we stopped fighting and cried. We didn’t fight again before I left.

We were both right, of course: I had so much more to learn, and I was ready to go.

The end of the school year often feels like that to me. I want to hold on to my students; I have so much more to teach them. There’s more writing, more reading, more that they need. I’ve only just figured out how they fit together. I can imagine one more unit that they might love. And I worry, too: What if they’re not ready for their next teacher or for university? What if it’s not enough?

But it is enough. It has to be. They’re already ready to go. They know what they know and it’s time to move forward.

The bell rings, the music plays and out they stream into the hallway. A few pop into the room. One more hug. One more high five. One more head pokes through the doorway, “Goodbye, Miss! See you in September!”

Exams start tomorrow. Now it’s all on them. They are confident that they are ready for whatever comes their way.

I sit for a few heartbeats more – emptied out by another semester, reminding myself that this is enough.

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Kale and other conversations

If you’ve seen the movie Bull Durham, you probably remember the scene on the pitcher’s mound where catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) goes out to talk to pitcher Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins) on the mound. Eventually most of the team is there and it turns out that there’s a lot going on… just not much about baseball. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

Bull Durham, Tim Robbins, Kevin Costner, Robert Wuhl

On Friday, my little grade 10 English class felt a lot like that pitcher’s mound. As I walked in, one student came over and asked for a hug. (I know, I know… some of you will worry; but trust me on this one. This child needs hugs.) Their guardian’s partner had gone into the ICU for multiple organ failure. The student had independently made their way into school but was understandably anxious. They asked if I would make them a cup of tea, and I readily agreed.

While I was turning on the water, another student stepped out of the classroom. “Relationship problems,” whispered my peer tutor when I returned, “you know.” I don’t know, actually, because I wasn’t aware that this child was in a relationship, but I can imagine. She made her way back a few minutes later, eyes a little red.

I tried to start class, but a third student just couldn’t get her head off the table. She was so tired. “There’s a demon in my bedroom.” Say what? I started to chuckle, but she glared at me so hard that I choked it off. “For real,” she mumbled. “It’s been there for two days. I can’t sleep.” Culturally possible, I realized as she put her head back down. I decided not to push.

I tasked the peer tutor with tea-making, took a deep breath and started the class: vocabulary review – after all, exams start in three school days. When everyone is tense, I love using something concrete as a review; all too often my students throw in the towel as they approach an English exam. “You can’t study for English!” they moan. “You can,” I insist. As their nerves fray, there’s nothing like a good game with vocabulary to remind them that they do, in fact, know more than they think they do – and much more than they did when the semester began. Usually this perks everyone right up.

Yesterday, however, the vocabulary game swerved into a discussion of kale. These things happen. Most of my students have never tried kale, as it turns out. Or brussel sprouts.  Just last week our class had bagels a) because several of the newcomers thought that bagels were “just bread with a hole in it” and b) because we were celebrating Eid and four upcoming birthdays. Are kale and brussel sprouts cultural? They will probably be less of a hit, but I am seriously contemplating bringing tastes of both on Monday.

Somehow the kale conversation ended and suddenly one of the boys said, “Miss, I have some advice for you. Don’t ever check your kids’ browser history.” Hmmm. I told him that I probably would not follow his advice. “It will just make you unhappy,” he countered. Do tell. He did and suddenly we were talking about pornography.

At this point we were supposed to be starting our 20 minutes of reading, but there was the ICU and the relationship and the demon. And one student was just generally unhappy because of stress. And maybe because she forgot part of her dance piece during her performance yesterday? Unclear. And I’d already hugged someone and made tea and tried to describe kale. Somehow talking about pornography in English class three days before exams didn’t seem that odd. I gave them 5 minutes and told them *I* was in charge of the discussion. It was far tamer than you’re imagining. They are really good kids.

And then, the bell rang. Two of them took their tea with them, promising to return the mugs at lunch; the rest left them behind. I waited in our room for the moment of silence that comes once they are all gone and then let out the breath I’d been holding throughout the class. It wasn’t what I expected, this final Friday, but it was a gift. One of these students left the classroom in angry tears a few months ago. One was barely speaking to me at one point. Two of them, unbeknownst to me, had been harbouring a long-standing grudge against one another until last week. One was suspended for three days just two weeks ago. And yet on Friday, three days before the end, we were safe in our little room. Safe to talk about guardians and relationships and demons and kale and pornography. Safe to drink tea and study. Safe to tie vocabulary to personal stories. Safe to be who we are.

It took us all semester to get here and, oh boy, I’m going to miss this group.

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Lost and found

I saw it fall. It slipped out of my fingers and my eye caught a quick glint of silver as it arced away from my hand and down to the carpet. Then a nearly inaudible thump as it landed on the carpet and bounced. My eyes tried to follow its pathway; my ears strained for the next sound. Nothing. The earring was gone.

I got down on my hands and knees. Obviously it was right there. There’s maybe two feet of cream carpet – low pile – between the bed frame and the dresser. I had seen it bounce. It couldn’t be far.

My eyes scanned for a gleam of metal or a shot of green. Nothing. I moved a wayward child’s sock which had inexplicably taken up residence next to the bed frame. Not there. I ran my fingers along the bottom edge of the dresser, certain I would quickly encounter the small hard shape of the earring. Nope.

I sat back on my knees and took a deep breath. It had to be here. I had seen it fall. I adjusted the lights. Still no metallic shine from the floor. I changed position and again ran my fingers along the line where the dresser meets the floor. I found a dime but no earring.

Now I began to get desperate. I had seen it. I had heard it. I checked on my dresser. Yes, there sat its companion, waiting. One earring. The other, vanished. This simple fact upended my understanding of the physical universe.

I proceeded to check on top of the bed which is, what? Two feet high? Then I looked on top of my nightstand, at least two feet away from me and, again, about two feet high. Under my pillows? Over near my closet door? As if my earring had developed supernatural powers, I checked the most unlikely of places. No earring. It had completely vanished.

After one last desperate search right where I’d seen it fall, I gave up, defeated. Perhaps it went for a short visit with some of our mysteriously missing socks. Maybe it is waiting for the right moment to pop out and taunt a cat. Could be that it’s just out there in the universe, laughing at me for believing that all lost things can be found.

Afterword: Before I published this, I decided I simply had to go check for the earring one more time. I repeated essentially the same steps as last night, beginning with the sane, careful search then tipping dangerously towards that place where the laws of physics no longer apply. This time, in my final fit of pique, I opened the bottom dresser drawer and started to rifle through it in search of that dang earring. And wouldn’t you know it? There it was, under a shirt in the closed drawer. I am still shaking my head.

Fairies. I just know it.

 

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Hearing voices

Today, I asked my students “How do you identify yourself and why is that important to you?” and they said…

“When I was younger, there was a time when people thought I had no future. Now, one of the things I’m passionate about is how different people on the spectrum are. We are not all alike.”

“I like how our generation is different, how being LGBTQ is normal.”

“I hear what you’re saying.”

“If you’re in love with someone, you’re in love with someone.”

“I believe there is a God but not in any particular religion.”

“To be honest, I don’t really know.”

“When I meet someone, I’m not like, ‘I’m gay.’ I never really use the word lesbian to describe myself. There’s still a lot of time for me to figure things out. It’s complicated.”

“I have a friend whose mom remembers her past life, but I’m not sure if it’s true or not.”

“We need to let H talk.”

“I’m a straight Arab dude…It takes too much effort to hate.”

“There’s a million things better you can do than be racist or homophobic.”

“I’m sorry I interrupted you.”

“You don’t need to be a person of colour to do something about Black History Month.”

“The whole point of a racist slur – any slur – is to offend someone, so if you shake it off, you undo that.”

“We are all different no matter what label you use.”

It’s taken us all semester to get here. Discussion is hard. We’ve used sentence starters and done four corner activities. We’ve talked about social media and parents. We’ve analysed our discussions (not a favourite activity) and listed successes & areas for improvement. We’ve used pennies to limit our contributions (put in your two cents worth) and mapped our discussions with twine and tape. We’ve had guest speakers and informal debates. We’ve practiced.

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Discussion mapping: I’m the one with only one piece of tape – Hooray for learning how to bite my tongue!

The result? They can lift up their powerful voices and tell the world that they are ready to make some changes.

And tomorrow we’ll talk again.

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Bedtime by the numbers

“Wait,” he says, pulling my face close to his “are you older than other moms?”

I equivocate: “older than some; younger than others.”

“Why aren’t you younger?”

Oh, the stories. I tell one. Or two.

He’s stalling, wanting bedtime to last just a few more minutes. “Maybe three more minutes,” he suggests.

“Maybe now,” I brush my nose against his.

“Did you sing all three songs?” He’s hopeful.

“Yes.”

“Maybe you should do four.”

“Your bedtime was five minutes ago.”

He snuggles closer. “How old will you be when I am ten?”

We do the math.

“So when I’m 20…” He does the math.

“Will you have a baby when you are young so I can play with my grandchildren?” I tease.

He is serious, “I don’t know about that yet.”

We do the math. If he has a baby when he is 25, I will be the same age as his grandmother is now when his baby is eight, like him. It’s a lot of numbers.

He frets, “I just don’t know.”

Then he brightens, “If you want to be the best, just change the scale.”

“What?”

“Just say, ‘what am I out of two?’ then if you are a one that’s still second from the top. So that’s good. Nearly the best.”

I’m still catching up, but now he’s drifting off.

“Or you could say ‘what am I out of 0?’ and then you would always be the best. Because there’s only one number.” He’s nearly asleep, murmuring over the numbers, measuring something his old mother can’t count.

“You’re the best out of all the numbers. The right boy for me.”

And my number boy has fallen asleep.

 

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A rose, by any other name

This semester I decided to take on Romeo and Juliet with my Grade 10 class. I’ve described the students before: a mixed group of  kids, some of whom read well, some who really don’t read, a newcomer to Canada whose English is limited, several students with autism, regular attenders, non-attenders, at least one LGBTQ student, backgrounds from around the world – you know, a pretty standard group of kids.

Romeo and Juliet is a traditional choice, of course, but not for this class. Still, six weeks into the semester, we did a brainstorming activity about what we wanted to learn next and how we wanted to learn it, and when I stood back to look at their requests – more motion, group work, talking, a challenge, something about teenagers, something fun – well, Romeo and Juliet fit the bill.

The students were not convinced. Most of them have never read Shakespeare, and they were pretty clear that this was “not going to work,” but they agreed to try it for a week. I promised it was *not* a love story, and we started with a quick participatory summary before we plunged in to Act 1, scene 1. The EA and I brought all the old swords we could find in our houses (ok, we had 6 light sabres, a pirate sword, a dagger and a paper towel tube), and by the end of class, all the students were on their feet, brawling in the street at 8:30 in the morning.

They could get behind that.

I use a lot of lessons from the Folger series Shakespeare Set Free. We also watch film clips and bits and pieces of stage plays. We talk a lot and skip some and summarize other bits. Everyone reads. We mispronounce things without fear and ask questions about everything. We play and laugh and generally have a good time. Twice during the unit, I stopped to ask if we needed to move on more quickly: once after the first week (as promised) – “NO!” they chorused – and once three weeks in, when I was afraid things were dragging. Again, no.

I was delighted by my students’ reactions and regularly shared the high points with colleagues in our office. During one conversation, another person came in. After listening, he chuckled and said something about my “rose-coloured glasses.” Then he left.

Wait. What?

The comment was made in passing, so quickly that I barely noticed it. My response was automatic – what I always say to the doubters: come visit my class. Only after he left did I get really mad. This is how we police teachers, isn’t it? When someone does well, when a class is engaged, when students are learning deeply – even with traditional material – we pull the teacher down. It’s not that the teacher (me) has taken her years of experience and deep knowledge of her subject to put together a learning experience that responds to the needs of the students in front of her. No, it’s that she is overestimating her students’ engagement. It couldn’t be that the kids we’ve relegated to the lower track are actually able to engage with complex language and thoughts. No, it’s that the teacher is exaggerating what the students are doing.

The accusation comes in other ways. The teacher is “easy” or “too nice” or “overly friendly” with their class. And sure, sometimes teachers are all of those things. But sometimes we’re not.

On Friday, my students – my non-readers, my students with autism, my English language learner, my disengaged, darling, wonderful class – performed scenes from Romeo and Juliet. For two days, they rummaged for costumes, rehearsed their lines, and practiced their staging. They wrote about their characters’ motivation and obstacles. They wrestled with original language and cut lines when necessary. In short, they were excellent. One pair played the Nurse and Juliet so well that we were all laughing and everyone stayed the extra minute past the bell when the scene ran over. Everyone. Even the two least engaged students.

I thought I’d blown off the comment, but I haven’t. I suspect my colleague’s throw-away line shows what he thinks is really happening in my class. And I suspect others also underestimate my students. But I’ll tell you what, if this is rose-coloured glasses, I’ll take it. Because together we rocked Romeo and Juliet.

 

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